Sir Edwin Arnold’s poetic biography of Buddha, Light of Asia (pdf)

The Buddha

Buddhology and the Trikaya Doctrine

Written for the AQA syllabus by Robert Ellis, formerly a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order and a former Head of RS in a 6th-form college.

The term ‘Buddhology’ has been constructed by some scholars of Buddhism by analogy with the Christian term ‘Christology’. Christology is the study of the nature and attributes of Christ, and likewise ‘Buddhology’ refers to the study of the nature and attributes of the Buddha. Theories about the nature of the Buddha developed increasing philosophical sophistication in the Mahayana, culminating in the Trikaya or ‘Three Bodies’ doctrine of the Yogacara School. Before we look at this, though, we will have to put the whole question of the nature of the Buddha into context.

The Buddha in Early Buddhism and Theravada

As you may already know, the Buddha can be seen either historically or symbolically. Historically, the Buddha was an individual who lived in a certain time and place, who is revered by Buddhists because he showed how it is possible to achieve enlightenment. Symbolically, though, the Buddha represents the potentiality in all of us to achieve enlightenment. The symbolic Buddha is a timeless figure who could still represent that potential even if it turned out not to be true that Siddhartha Gautama had achieved enlightenment historically.

After the death of the historical Buddha, the figure of the Buddha rapidly gained both these kinds of significance. The Buddha-figure of the Theravada still has both of these kinds of significance: however, the Theravada figure is still rooted in the idea of the historical Buddha, and the symbolic Buddha could be said to be subsidiary to it. It is possible for us to gain enlightenment because the Buddha showed the way to do so historically at a certain time and place.

This view of the Buddha is emphasised by the Theravada attitude to scriptures. The Pali Canon is believed to contain documents which record the Buddhavacana, the Word of the Buddha which shows the way to enlightenment.

The Pali Canon only gains its authority and legitimacy from this origin, and the belief that it has been transmitted uncorrupted (or at least largely so) from the time of the Buddha to the present. In reading the Buddha’s words in the Pali Canon, for the Theravadins we have a hotline to enlightenment. Any other useful texts in the Buddhist tradition gain their authority from the extent to which they reflect the truths uttered by the historical Buddha.

The Buddha in the Mahayana

However, as we have already seen, in the Mahayana the idea developed that all Buddhists should aim to become Buddhas. This means that in theory, any one of us could become a historical Buddha amongst a throng of such radiant beings. The significance of Siddhartha Gautama then changes profoundly: instead of being the single source of knowledge of enlightenment, and the single model of a fully enlightened being, Siddhartha now becomes merely one instance of many possible ones. It is now no longer the historical Buddha that decides the nature of the symbolic Buddha, but the symbolic Buddha, representing the potential of all beings to gain enlightenment, which provides the model for the historical Buddha.

This should not give the impression that the Mahayanists have ceased to revere the historical Buddha. Shakyamuni Buddha (the sage of the Shakya Clan), as he is known in the Mahayana, is still an important figure who is widely depicted in art, discussed and visualised. The story of the life of the Buddha is also still widely used in the Mahayana. However, it would also be fair to say that he is now one Buddha among many. The five symbolic Buddhas of the Five-Buddha Mandala: Akshobhya, Ratnasambhava, Amitabha, Amoghasiddhi and Vairocana are equally widely represented in the Mahayana to show enlightened qualities, each associated with a particular colour and direction and a host of other symbolic associations. Above the Buddha Mandala there is also Vajrasattva (illustrated here), the white Buddha representing the absolute purity of enlightenment. Tibetan Buddhists make widespread use of visualisation practices, but they are much more likely to visualise one of these symbolic Buddhas, or a Bodhisattva, or a Tara, or some other symbolic deity, than Shakyamuni.

This attitude to the Buddha figure is also reflected in the Mahayana attitude to scriptures. Although Mahayanists sometimes pay lip-service to the idea that their Sutras have come from the historical Buddha, and each one begins with a reference to a historical setting resembling those in the Pali Canon, this is not really a very credible claim, given the Mahayana Sutras were composed at least 500 years after the death of the Buddha, and neither is it the basis of their authority. Buddhavacana to a Mahayanist means whatever is helpful in leading beings towards enlightenment, and the Mahayana Sutras and other Mahayana scriptures ultimately base their authority on this usefulness (though tradition also plays a large role in deciding this practical value). Although translations of the same material as is found in the Pali Canon are also found in the Mahayana canons, the criterion for their inclusion is the same one of usefulness as that applied to the later Mahayana scriptures.

Not all the Mahayana Sutras even feature Shakyamuni, but where they do (for example, the Lotus Sutra), he is soon found to be in a fantastic, mythic and symbolic setting where anything can happen. Lotuses and jewels rain down from the sky, stupas erupt from the earth, and millions of Buddhas and bodhisattvas from across the universe appear and disappear. Historical realism is obviously not the basis of judgement here, but rather whether a true point is being made and whether it is also made in a way that inspires the imagination.

However, the development of this timeless symbolic Buddha raised questions in the Mahayana which the philosophers needed to settle. Which was the real Buddha, the historical one or the symbolic one? If the historical one was unreal, did this mean Siddhartha Gautama was now false, or at best completely irrelevant? And what exactly did this symbolic Buddha represent? How could he be outside time and space but still represented as sitting in a fantastic setting making it rain jewels: surely this was just a different kind of time and space?

Question for discussion
Given the Mahayana view that the historical Buddha depends on the symbolic one, do you think this makes the historical Buddha irrelevant? Should the Mahayana simply have forgotten about the historical Buddha?

First Answer: Two bodies

The first answer to these kinds of questions was found in Early Buddhism even before the Mahayana, and was based on a distinction between two different ‘bodies’ or ‘persons’ (kaya) of the Buddha. These two ‘bodies’ were really completely different ways of thinking about the Buddha’s existence: the Rupakaya or Form-body and the Dharmakaya or Truth-body. On the one hand, the Buddha had a particular form and personality, limited in time and space, but on the other, he could be thought of simply as the ultimate truth of the potentiality for enlightenment, existing beyond time and space and therefore having no form of any kind. According to the anatta doctrine, form does not really exist, at least in the way we tend to think about it, so from the enlightened point of view of ultimate truth the Buddha is simply timeless, abstract truth.

On this account, the Rupakaya does not ultimately exist, but then nor does any other form. It is the Dharmakaya that is ultimately real. However, this simple model of different ways of seeing the Buddha did not suit the Mahayana, as it offered no distinction between the symbolic and historical Buddhas, both of which were as ultimately unreal as each other. So it was that the Mahayana evolved a teaching which actually distinguished between three bodies of the Buddha.

Further answer: three bodies

The Mahayana answer was to split the Rupakaya into two bodies: the Nirmanakaya (‘Transformation body’) and the Sambhogakaya (‘Enjoyment Body’). The Buddha can exist not only as a historical individual limited in time and space (the Nirmanakaya), and as a pure ultimate existence-but-not-as-we-know-it (Dharmakaya), but also as a symbolic form of enlightenment, beyond any particular time and place but still taking particular forms in the imagination. The Sambhogakaya was the Buddha as he is encountered in the Mahayana Sutras: in a particular imaginative form where he preaches the Dharma to an imagined assembly of arhats and bodhisattvas, but absolutely universal rather than situated in India in the 6th Century BCE.

Each of these bodies of the Buddha emanates from the one above it. The Nirmanakaya emanates from the Sambhogakaya, and the Sambhogakaya in turn emanates from the Dharmakaya. Particular existence depends on universal existence, and universal existence depends on ultimate existence (or non-existence).

The teaching of the three bodies, or Trikaya, is particularly associated with the Yogacara (‘Practice of Meditation’) School of the Mahayana. The Yogacara School was a philosophical school which took an idealist view that reality was mind-only. In other words, when we have overcome illusion and reached enlightenment, what we will discover behind it all is simply mind: not our mind specifically, but mind in general. The material universe beyond our minds is thus part of the illusion from a Yogacara perspective. It needs to be stressed that this is not the only possible interpretation of Buddhism, but it is an influential one.

From this standpoint the Yogacara thinkers (of whom the greatest were Asanga and Vasubandhu) considered the nature of the Buddha. It seemed clear to them that ultimately, only the Dharmakaya exists. However, within the imagined realm of samsara there are different degrees of illusion. If we can be aware of the fact that we are creating images of things, we are at least taking the first step towards the removal of illusion. For example, if I can see a mirage and be aware that it is a mirage, this is much better than being deceived by it, even though I am still seeing it. The same thought applies to the Buddha: if we can be aware of the fact that the historical Buddha is just a representation of the universal potentiality for enlightenment, and not fall into the trap of thinking that the historical Buddha is the Buddha, then we will be able to overcome the illusions we might otherwise fall into about the Buddha.

Explained in relation to a similar position in Christian Christology, this doctrine has been explained by some scholars as docetism: that is, the view that the historical Buddha does not really exist, but is a mere appearance created for the purpose of teaching. However, this is misleading if it gives you the idea of the Buddha’s disciples somehow being taken in by a hologram. The whole of the rest of samsara is just as much mere appearance from the standpoint of the Yogacara, and the Buddha is no more and no less so than everything else around him.

However, if we are able to step back from this illusion, understanding the Buddha as the Sambhogakaya is preferable. In a visualisation practice, for example, the meditator will start with a blue sky, then in that blue sky create an image of the Buddha for himself. He or she does this whilst reflecting on the fact that the image of the Buddha is his own creation, a product of the imagination which subsequently dissolves back into that blue sky. In this way the Yogacara doctrine of the three bodies gives philosophical justification to the Mahayana practice of depicting the Buddha as the Sambhogakaya, both in its scriptures and its art, in the very many and varied forms in which imagination may present the universal Buddha principle.

Read and take notes on Sangharakshita’s account of the Five Buddha Mandala and its significance in A Guide to the Buddhist Path p.51-59. You don’t need to cover the consorts and wrathful forms on p.59-65 unless you are particularly interested in doing so. Sangharakshita is basically describing the development of ideas of the Sambhogakaya here.

Discussion questions
1. Edward Conze on the Trikaya Doctrine: ‘The Buddha’s humanity, always more or less unimportant, has become a mere figment or phantom.’ Do you agree?
2. What criticisms do you think a Theravadin would make of the Trikaya doctrine? Would they be justified?

Further Reading
Cush p.113-4
Williams Buddhist Thought p.167-191
Williams Mahayana Buddhism ch.8

Past questions
Examine Mahayana teachings about Tri-kaya, and assess the claim that Mahayana Buddhism completes the teaching of the historical Buddha.

Who is the Buddha?

By now we know a good deal about the Buddha. We know that he was born in the Lumbini garden, we know how he was educated, we know how he left home, how he gained Enlightenment at the age of thirty-five, how he communicated his teaching, how he founded his Sangha, and how, finally, he passed away. And there is a good deal more we could find out. The traditional biographies give us all the facts. We could find out the names of the Buddha’s half-brothers and cousins, the name of the town where he was brought up, the name of the astrologer who came to see him as a baby. But although his life is fully documented, although we’ve got the whole story, does his biography really tell us who the Buddha was? Do we know the Buddha from a description of the life of Gautama the Buddha?

What do we mean by ‘knowing’ the Buddha anyway? In what sense, really, do we know anybody? Suppose you are told all about someone: where they live, what they do – the sort of things people always want to know about a person – how old they are, and so on. In some sense you have an answer to the question, ‘Who is this person?’ You know their social identity, their position in society. Gradually you can fill in any number of details – how tall they are, their accent, their background, their taste in food and music, their political affiliations and their religious beliefs. You can then say you know about this person. But however much you know about someone, you would not claim to know them until you’d met them, until you’d met them a few times, probably. You’d then know them personally. This deeper knowledge would, in fact, be based on a relationship, on communication: you know someone, properly speaking, when they also know you. Eventually you may claim to know this person very well.

But is it really so? Do you really know them? After all, it sometimes happens that we have to correct our evaluation of someone. Sometimes we are taken completely by surprise. They do something quite unexpected, quite ‘out of character’, and we say to ourselves, rather surprised and sometimes a little hurt, ‘Well, I never would have expected them to do that. They’re the last person I’d have thought would do that.’ But they did it, and this shows how little we really know other people. We are not truly able to fathom the deepest springs of their action, their fundamental motivation. This happens even with those who are supposedly nearest and dearest to us. It’s a wise child that knows its own father, as the saying goes – and it’s a wise father or mother that knows his or her own child.

Particularly, perhaps, it is a wise husband that knows his own wife, and a wise wife that knows her own husband. Sometimes I’ve had the experience of meeting – separately – a husband and wife, each having come to talk to me about the other. And usually what happens is that each gives a picture of the other that I would never have recognized. The impression I’ve had is that neither really knows the other. It’s as though the so-called closeness gets in the way, and what we know is not the other person to whom we are supposed to be so close, but only our own projected mental state, our own quite subjective reaction to that person. In other words, our ego gets in the way.

In order really to know another person we have to go much deeper than the ordinary level of communication – which means, in effect, that ordinary communication is not real communication at all. It’s just the same when it comes to knowing the Buddha. We may know all the biographical facts about his life, but are we thereby any nearer really knowing the Buddha? Well, no. The question continues to arise: Who was the Buddha? This question has been asked since the very dawn of Buddhism. In fact, the first question that was put to the Buddha after his Enlightenment was, ‘Who are you?’

Walking along the road one day, the Buddha met a brahmin called Dona. As he saw the Buddha in the distance, coming towards him, there was something about the approaching figure that stopped Dona dead in his tracks. There were plenty of singular-looking individuals walking about India at that time – Dona himself was one of them – but Dona could see that this individual coming towards him was somehow utterly different from anyone he had ever seen. The Buddha, after all, was just fresh from his Enlightenment. He was happy, serene, and joyful; there was a radiance about his whole being, as though a light were shining from his face.

As the Buddha drew near, Dona asked him, ‘Who are you?’ Not ‘Lovely weather we’re having,’ or ‘Where are you from?’ but ‘Who are you?’ If you were standing at the bus stop waiting for the bus into town and someone came up and said, ‘Who are you?’ you’d probably think they were being rather impertinent, but in India, of course, it’s different, and Dona could put this question without fear of giving offence. The point is that Dona was not asking who the Buddha was in social terms; he was not asking what sort of a human being the Buddha was. Dona was, in fact, wondering if this was really a human being at all that he was seeing.

The ancient Indians believed that the universe was stratified into various levels of existence. There were not just human beings and animals, as we tend to think. There were also gods and ghosts and yakshas and gandharvas – all sorts of mythological beings – inhabiting a sort of multi-storey universe. The human plane was just one out of scores of planes of existence. Dona’s first thought, therefore, impressed as he was by the appearance of the Buddha, was, ‘This isn’t a human being. He must be from – or on his way to – some other realm. Perhaps he’s a sort of spirit.’ So he asked the Buddha, ‘Who are you? Would you be a deva?’ – a deva being a god, a divine being, a sort of archangel. The Buddha simply said, ‘No.’ So Dona tried again. ‘Are you a gandharva?’ This creature is like a kind of celestial musician, a beautiful, singing, angelic figure. The Buddha again said, ‘No.’ ‘Well,’ said Dona, ‘Are you a yaksha?’ A yaksha is a sort of sublime spirit, rather a terrifying one, who lives in the jungle. But the Buddha rejected this designation as well. Then Dona thought, ‘He must be a human being after all. That’s strange.’ So he asked, ‘Are you a human being?’ (the kind of question you could only ask in ancient India) and once again the Buddha said, ‘No.’ ‘Well, that is odd,’ Dona thought. ‘If he isn’t a deva, or a gandharva, or a yaksha, or a human being, what on earth is he?’ ‘Who are you?’ he asked, now even more wonderingly. ‘If you are none of these things, who are you? What are you?’

The Buddha said, ‘Those conditions (or, perhaps better, those psychological conditionings) on account of which I might have been described as a deva or a gandharva or a yaksha or a human being have been destroyed. Therefore am I a Buddha.’ It is, as we have seen, these conditioned mental attitudes, volitions, or karma formations as they are sometimes called, which according to Buddhism (and Indian belief in general) determine our rebirth, as well as our human condition here and now. The Buddha was free from all this, free from all conditioning, so there was nothing to cause him to be reborn as a god or a gandharva, or even a human being. Even as he stood before this Brahmin, therefore, he was not any of these things. His body might appear to be that of a man, but his mind, his consciousness, was unconditioned, and therefore he was a Buddha. As a Buddha he was a personification, so to speak – even, if you like, an incarnation – of the Unconditioned mind.

What Dona tried to do is what we all try to do when we meet something new. The human mind proceeds slowly, by degrees, from the known to the unknown, and we try to describe the unknown in terms of the known; which is fair enough so long as one is aware of the limitations of this procedure. And we may say that the limitations of this procedure are most pronounced when it comes to trying to know other human beings.

There always seems to be a basic tendency to want to put people in categories and think that we have thereby got them neatly pigeon-holed. In India I have often been stopped in the road by someone just passing, who has said, ‘What is your caste?’ – without any sort of preamble. If they can’t classify you according to caste, they don’t know what to do with you. They don’t know how to treat you. They don’t know whether they can take water from your hand or not, whether they can get to know you or not, whether you might marry their daughter or not. All these things are very important, especially in southern India. In Britain people are much more indirect in their approach, but they try to worm out of you the same sort of information. They want to know what sort of job you’ve got (and perhaps from that they try to work out your income), they want to know where you were born, where you were educated, where you live now, and by taking these various sociological readings, they gradually narrow down the field, and think they’ve got you nicely pinned down.

So likewise, when Dona saw this majestic, radiant figure, and wanted to know who – or what – it was, he had at his disposal various labels – gandharvayakshadeva, human being – and he tried to stick these labels on what he saw. But the Buddha wouldn’t have it. His reply said, in effect, ‘None of these labels fit. None of them apply. I’m a Buddha. I transcend all conditionings. I am above and beyond all this.’

Dona may have been one of the first to puzzle over the Buddha’s nature, but he was certainly not the last. We have already come across four of the Fourteen Inexpressibles: whether the Buddha would exist after death, or not, or both, or neither. Although the Buddha was constantly being asked about this – the ancient Indians had a real thing about it – he would always say that it was inappropriate to apply any of those four statements to a Buddha. And he would go on to say, ‘Even during his lifetime, even when he sits there in a physical body, the Buddha is beyond all your classifications. You can’t say anything about him.'(footnote 29)

This point is easily made, of course, but actually very difficult to accept, and it evidently needed to be constantly hammered home. The most suggestive and evocative repudiation of any attempt to grasp the nature of the Buddha is found in the Dhammapada: ‘Whose conquest is not to be undone, whom not even a bit of those conquered passions follows, that Enlightened One whose sphere is endless, by what path will you trace him, the pathless one?'(footnote 30) According to this well-known verse, therefore, there is absolutely nothing by which a Buddha can be identified or tracked down or classified or categorized. You cannot trace the path of a bird’s flight by looking for signs of its passage in the sky – and you cannot track a Buddha either.

If this is clear, however, it has not really been understood. It is somehow the nature of the human mind to keep on trying, and to imagine that, having understood what is being said, it understands what it is that is being spoken of. So if we turn to the Sutta Nipata, we find the Buddha saying:

There is no measuring of man,
Won to the goal, whereby they’d say
His measure’s so: that’s not for him.
When all conditions are removed,
All ways of telling are removed.(footnote 31)

When all psychological conditions are removed in a person, you have no way of accounting for that person. You can’t say anything about the Buddha because he doesn’t have anything. In a sense, he isn’t anything. In fact, we are introduced in this sutta to an epithet for an Enlightened being which says just this. Akincana, usually translated as ‘man of nought’, is one who has nothing because he is nothing. And of nothing, nothing can be said.

Although many of the Buddha’s disciples gained Enlightenment, and themselves went through the world leaving no trace, as it were, they still worshipped the Buddha. They still felt there was something about him, about the man who discovered the Way for himself with no one to guide him, that was mysteriously beyond them and unfathomable. Even his chief disciple, Sariputra, floundered when it came to estimating the Buddha’s stature. He was once in the presence of the Buddha when, out of an excess of faith and devotion, he exclaimed, ‘Lord, I think you are the greatest of all the Enlightened Ones who have ever existed, or will exist, or exist now. I think you are the greatest of them all.’ The Buddha was neither pleased nor displeased by this. He didn’t say, ‘What a marvellous disciple you are, and how wonderfully well you understand me!’ He just asked a question: ‘Sariputra, have you known all the Buddhas of the past?’ Sariputra said, ‘No, Lord.’ Then he said, ‘Have you known all the Buddhas of the future?’ ‘No, Lord.’ ‘Do you know all the Buddhas that now are?’ ‘No, Lord.’ Finally, the Buddha asked ‘Do you even know me?’ And Sariputra said, ‘No, Lord.’ Then the Buddha said, ‘That being the case, Sariputra, how is it that your words are so bold and so grand?'(footnote 32)

So even the closest of his disciples didn’t really know who the Buddha was. To try to make sense of this attitude, they put together, after his death, a list of ten powers and eighteen special qualities which they attributed to the Buddha just to distinguish him from his Enlightened disciples. But in a way this was just an expression of the fact that they simply could not understand who or what he was at all.

This fact that the Enlightened disciples of the Buddha, enjoying personal contact with him, did not understand who he really was does not say much for our own chances in the matter. However, at a certain level, we can build up a collection of hints and clues, and the episode with Dona offers an important lead. What it is suggesting is that we have to step back and bring in a whole new dimension to our search for the Buddha. He is untraceable because he belongs to a different dimension, the transcendental dimension, the dimension of eternity.

So far we have seen him very much in terms of time – his birth, his Enlightenment, his death – his historical existence. We have, in fact, been looking at him according to the evolutionary model we introduced in the first chapter, which model is, of course, one of progress through space and time. This, however, is only one way of looking at things. As well as looking at the Buddha from the standpoint of time, we can also look at him from the standpoint of eternity.

The problem with any biographical account of the Buddha is that in a sense it deals with two quite different people: Siddhartha and the Buddha – divided by the central event of the Enlightenment. But one tends to come away from the biographical facts with the view that his early life simply built up to this point, and that after it he was more or less the same as he was before – apart from being Enlightened, of course. If we had been around at the time we should probably have been none the wiser. If we had known the Buddha a few months before he was Enlightened and a few months after, we should almost certainly not have been able to perceive any difference in him at all. We would have seen the same physical body, probably the same clothes. He spoke the same language and had the same general characteristics. This being so, we tend to regard the Buddha’s Enlightenment as a finishing touch to a process which had been going on for a long time, the feather that turned the scale, the final piece of the jigsaw, that little difference that made all the difference. But really it isn’t like that at all – not in the least like that.

Enlightenment – the Buddha’s or anybody else’s – represents ‘the intersection of the timeless moment.’ We need to modify T.S. Eliot’s analogy a little, because strictly speaking only a line can intersect another line, and although we can represent time as a line, the whole point of the timeless – eternity – is that it isn’t a line. Perhaps we should think rather in terms of time as a line which at a given point just stops, just disappears into another dimension. It’s rather like – to use a hackneyed but (if we don’t take it too literally) rather useful simile – the flowing of a river into the ocean, where the river is time and the ocean is eternity. Perhaps, indeed, we can improve on the simile to some extent. Suppose we imagine that the ocean into which our river is flowing is just over the horizon. From where we are, we can see the river flowing to the horizon, but we can’t see the ocean into which the river is flowing, so it seems as though the river is flowing into nothingness, flowing into a void. It just stops at the horizon because that is the point at which it enters the new dimension which we cannot see.

The point of intersection is what we call Enlightenment. Time just stops at eternity; time is succeeded, so to speak, by eternity. Siddhartha disappears, like the river disappearing at the horizon, and the Buddha takes his place. This is, of course, from the standpoint of eternity. Whereas from the standpoint of time Siddhartha becomes, evolves into, the Buddha, from the standpoint of eternity Siddhartha just ceases to exist, and there is the Buddha, who has been there all the time.

This difference of approach – in terms of time and in terms of eternity – is at the bottom of the whole controversy between the two schools of Zen, the gradual school and the abrupt school. In the early days of Zen (or rather Ch’an) in China, there were two apparently opposing viewpoints: there were those who believed that Enlightenment was attained in a sudden flash of illumination; and there were those who believed that it was attained gradually, step by step, by patient effort and practice. In the Platform Sutra Hui Neng tries to clear up the whole controversy: he says it isn’t that there are two paths, a gradual one and a sudden one; it is merely that some people gain Enlightenment more quickly than others, presumably because they make a greater effort.

This is true, but you can go deeper than this. The abrupt attainment of Enlightenment, you may say, has nothing to do with speed within time. It doesn’t mean that you begin the usual process of attaining Enlightenment and get through it more quickly. It doesn’t mean that whereas you might normally spend fifteen or fifty years on the gradual path, you are somehow able to speed it up and compress it into a year, or even a month, or a week, or a weekend. The abrupt path is outside time altogether. Sudden Enlightenment is simply the point at which this new dimension of eternity outside time is entered. You can never get closer to eternity by speeding up your approach to it within time. Within time you just have to stop. At the same time, of course, you can’t stop without first having speeded up. So Enlightenment can be looked at from two points of view, both of which are valid. It can be regarded as the culmination of the evolutionary process, a culmination which is reached through personal effort. But Enlightenment can also be regarded as being a sort of breakthrough into a new dimension beyond time and space.

There is a rather picturesque story which vividly illustrates the paradoxical meeting of these two dimensions. It concerns a famous bandit, called Angulimala, who lived in a great forest somewhere in northern India. Angulimala’s speciality was to ambush travellers on their way through the forest, murder them, and chop off one of their fingers as a trophy. These fingers he strung into a garland which he wore round his neck; hence his name, Angulimala, meaning ‘garland of fingers’. It was his ambition to have one hundred fingers on his garland, and he had got to ninety-eight when the Buddha happened to pass through that forest. The village folk had tried to dissuade him from entering it, warning him that he was in danger of losing a finger – and his life – to the notorious Angulimala, but the Buddha had carried on regardless. The sight of him just about made Angulimala’s day, because he had been getting a bit desperate to find the last two fingers for his garland. His mother, a devoted old soul, was living with him in the forest and cooking for him, and he had got so fed up with waiting he had finally decided there was nothing for it but to add one of her fingers to his collection (maybe she used to nag him a bit). That would make ninety-nine, so he would just need one more. He had been on his way to find his poor old mother when he saw the Buddha coming through the forest. He thought, ‘Well, I can always deal with mother later. But first, ‘Finger number ninety-nine coming up!’

It was a beautiful afternoon, a gentle breeze stirring the tree-tops and the birds singing, when the Buddha came walking along the little trail that wound through the forest. He walked meditatively, slowly, thinking to himself or, perhaps, not thinking at all. Angulimala emerged from the forest, and stealthily began to tail the Buddha, creeping up on him from behind. He had his sword drawn ready, so he could make very quick work of his prey when he got close to him. He loped along smoothly and rapidly to cut down the distance between them before he was seen. The last thing he wanted was a long messy struggle.

After he had followed the Buddha for a while, however, he noticed that something rather odd was happening. Although he seemed to be moving much more quickly than the Buddha, he didn’t seem to be getting any closer to him. There was the Buddha way in front, pacing slowly, and there was Angulimala shadowing him and trying to catch up, but not getting any nearer. Angulimala quickened his pace, and then he was running, but he still got no nearer to the Buddha. When Angulimala realised what was happening, he apparently broke into a cold sweat of terror and astonishment and bewilderment. But he was not a man to give up easily – or to stop and think about things either. He just lengthened his stride till he was sprinting along in the wake of the Buddha. The Buddha, however, stayed just the same distance ahead, and if anything he seemed to be going even more slowly. It was like a bad dream.

In desperation, Angulimala called out to the Buddha: ‘Stand still!’ The Buddha turned round and said, ‘I am standing still. It is you who are moving.’ So Angulimala, who had considerable presence of mind despite his fear – for he was a bold fellow – said, ‘You are supposed to be a shramana, a holy man. How can you tell such a lie? Here am I running like mad, and I can’t catch up with you. What do you mean, you are standing still?’ The Buddha said, ‘I am standing still because I am standing in nirvana. I have come to rest. You are moving because you are going round and round in samsara.’

Of course, Angulimala becomes the Buddha’s disciple, but that, and what happens afterwards, is another story. What this particular adventure illustrates is that Angulimala could not catch up with the Buddha because the Buddha was moving – or standing still, it is the same thing here – in another dimension. Angulimala, representing time, couldn’t catch up with the Buddha, representing eternity. However long time goes on, it never comes to a point where it catches up with eternity. Time doesn’t find eternity within the temporal process. Angulimala couldn’t have caught up with the Buddha even if the Buddha had come to a dead halt. He could still be running now, after 2,500 years, but he still wouldn’t have caught up with the Buddha.

When the Buddha attained Enlightenment, he entered a new dimension of being. There was no continuity, essentially, from the person who was there before. He was not just the old Siddhartha slightly improved, or even considerably improved, but a new person. This is actually a very difficult thing to grasp, it needs reflecting on, because we naturally think of the Buddha’s Enlightenment in terms of our own experience of life. In the course of our lives we may add to our knowledge, learn different things, do different things, go to different places, meet different people, life teaches us things – but underneath we remain fundamentally and recognizably the same person. Whatever changes take place don’t go that deep. ‘The child is father to the man’ – that is, what one is now is determined to a remarkable degree by what one was as a child. One remains much the same person as one was then. The conditions for one’s fundamental attitude to life were set up a long time ago, and any change that takes place subsequently is comparatively superficial. This even applies to our commitment to a spiritual path. We may take to Buddhism, we may ‘go for Refuge’ to the Buddha, but the change isn’t usually very deep.

But the Buddha’s experience of Enlightenment wasn’t like that. In reality it wasn’t an experience at all, because the person to have the experience wasn’t there any more. The ‘experience’ of Enlightenment is therefore more like death. It is more like the change that takes place between two lives, when you die to one life and are reborn in another. In some Buddhist traditions Enlightenment is called ‘the great death’, because everything of the past dies, everything, in a way, is annihilated, and you are completely reborn. In the case of the Buddha, it is not that he was a smartened up version of Siddhartha, Siddhartha tinkered about with a bit, Siddhartha reissued in a new edition. Siddhartha was finished. At the foot of the bodhi tree Siddhartha died and the Buddha was born – or we should say, rather, that he ‘appeared’. At that moment, when Siddhartha dies, the Buddha is seen as having been alive all the time – by which we really mean above and beyond time, out of time altogether.

Even to talk in this way is again misleading, because it is not as if, being outside time, you are really outside anything. Time and space are not things in themselves. We usually think of space as a sort of box within which things move about, and time as a sort of tunnel along which things move – but they are not really like that. Space and time are really forms of our perception. We see things through the spectacles, as it were, of space and time. And we speak of these things that we see as phenomena – which are, of course, what make up the world of relative, conditioned existence, or samsara. So what we call phenomena are only realities as seen under the forms of space and time. But when we enter the dimension of eternity, we go beyond space and time, and therefore we go beyond the world, we go beyond samsara, and, in the Buddhist idiom, we enter nirvana.

Enlightenment is often described as awakening to the truth of things, seeing things as they really are, not as they appear to be. The Enlightened person sees things free from any veils or obscurations, sees them without being influenced or affected by any assumptions or psychological conditionings, sees them with perfect objectivity – not only sees them, but becomes one with them, one with the reality of things. So the Buddha, the one who has awoken to the Truth, the one who exists out of time in the dimension of eternity, may be regarded as Reality itself in human form. This is what is meant by saying that the Buddha is an Enlightened human being: the form is human, but in the place, so to speak, of the conditioned human mind, with all its prejudices and preconceptions and limitations, there is Reality itself, there is an experience or awareness which is not separate from Reality.

In the Buddhist tradition this crystallized eventually into a very important distinction which came to be established with regard to the Buddha. On the one hand there was his rupakaya (literally ‘form body’), his physical phenomenal appearance; on the other, there was, or rather is, his dharmakaya (literally ‘body of Truth’ or ‘body of Reality’), his true, his essential, form. The rupakaya is the Buddha as existing in time, but the dharmakaya is the Buddha as existing out of time in the dimension of eternity. Wherein lies the true nature of the Buddha, in his rupakaya or his dharmakaya, is declared definitively in a chapter from one of the great Perfection of Wisdom texts, the Diamond Sutra. In it the Buddha says to his disciple, Subhuti:

Those who followed me by voice,
Wrong the effort they engaged in.
Me those people will not see.
From the Dharma should one see the Buddhas,
From the Dharma-bodies comes their guidance.
Yet Dharma’s true nature cannot be discerned,
And no one can be conscious of it as an object.

The Buddha is found to be equally emphatic on this point in the Pali canon. Apparently there was a monk called Vakkali who was very devoted to the Buddha, but his devotion had got stuck at a superficial level. He was so fascinated by the appearance and the personality of the Buddha that he used to spend all his time sitting and looking at him, or following him around. He didn’t want any teaching. He didn’t have any questions to ask. He just wanted to look at the Buddha. So one day the Buddha called him and said, ‘Vakkali, this physical body is not me. If you want to see me, you must see the Dharma, you must see the dharmakaya, my true form.’ So Vakkali meditated on this, and he gained liberation by meditating in this way very shortly before he died.

Vakkali’s problem is actually one that most of us have. It’s not that we should ignore the physical body, but we should take it as a symbol of the dharmakaya, the Buddha as he is in his ultimate essence. That said, it must be admitted that the word Buddha is ambiguous. When, for instance, we say, ‘The Buddha spoke the language of Magadha,’ we are obviously referring to Gautama the Buddha, the historical figure. On other occasions, however, ‘Buddha’ means the transcendental Reality, as when we say, ‘Look for the Buddha within yourself.’ Here we don’t mean Gautama the Buddha; we mean the eternal, time-transcending Buddha-nature within ourselves. Broadly speaking, the Theravada School today uses the word Buddha more in the historical sense, whereas the Mahayana, especially Zen, tends to use it more in the spiritual, trans-historical sense.

The shifting usage of this word only adds to the confusion Westerners are liable to feel when it comes to identifying the Buddha. Like Dona, we want to know who the Buddha is, we want to slap a label on him. But with our Western, dualistic, Christian background we have only two labels available to us: God and Man. Some people tend to say that the Buddha was just a man – a very good man, a very holy man, very decent, but just a man, no more than that. He’s someone rather like Socrates. This is the view taken, for instance, by Catholic writers about Buddhism. It’s a rather subtle, insidious approach. They praise the Buddha for his wonderful piety, wonderful charity, great love, compassion, wisdom – yes, he’s a very great man. Then, on the last page of their book about Buddhism, they carefully add that of course the Buddha was just a man, and not to be compared with Christ, who was, or is, the son of God. This is one way in which the Buddha gets misplaced. The other way people fail to see him is by saying, ‘No, the Buddha is a sort of god for the Buddhists. Of course, he was originally a man, but then, hundreds of years after his death, those misguided Buddhists went and made him into a god, because they wanted to have something to worship.’

Both these views are wrong, and the source of this misconception probably lies in a general misunderstanding of what religion is necessarily about. People for whom the idea of a non-theistic religion is a contradiction in terms will always want to resolve the question of how the Buddha stands in relation to God. Christ is said by his followers to be the son of God. Muhammad is supposed to be the messenger of God. The Jewish prophets claim to be inspired by God. And Krishna and Rama are claimed to be incarnations of God. Indeed, many Hindus think of the Buddha as one as well. They look upon him as the ninth incarnation, the ninth avatar, of the god Vishnu. This is how they see him because the category of avatar is a familiar one to them. But neither the Buddha nor his followers make any such claim, because Buddhism is a non-theistic religion. Like some other religions – Taoism, Jainism, and certain forms of philosophical Hinduism – in Buddhism there is no place for God at all. There is no supreme being, no creator of the universe, and there never has been. So Buddhists can worship as much as they like, but they will never be worshipping their creator or any conception of a personal God.

The Buddha is neither man nor God, nor even a god. He was a human being in the sense that he started off as every other human being starts off, but he didn’t remain an ordinary human being. He became an Enlightened human being, and according to Buddhism that makes a great deal of difference – in fact, all the difference. He was an Unconditioned mind in a conditioned body. According to the Buddhist tradition, a Buddha is the highest being in all the universe, higher even than the so-called gods (whom in Western terms we would call angels, archangels, and so on). Traditionally the Buddha is called the teacher of gods and men, and in Buddhist art the gods are represented in a very humble position, saluting the Buddha and listening to his teaching. Therefore there is no possibility, whether on a philosophical or a popular level, of confusing the Buddha with any kind of god.

For those of us brought up to imagine that if anyone is the highest being in the universe that person is God, it is not so easy to really discern the Buddha in that position. Even if we don’t believe in God, we see a God-shaped empty space, and the Buddha simply does not measure up to it. After all, he has not created the universe. We see the Buddha in this way because there’s a category missing, we may say, from Western thought. If, therefore, we are to perceive who the Buddha is we have to dispel the ghost of God, the creator of the universe that looms over him, by substituting for God something completely different.

After all this, are we any nearer to answering the question, ‘Who is the Buddha?’ We’ve seen that Buddha means Unconditioned mind, Enlightened mind. Knowing the Buddha therefore means knowing the mind in its Unconditioned state. So the answer to the question ‘Who is the Buddha?’ is really that we ourselves are the Buddha – potentially. We really, truly come to know the Buddha only in the course of our spiritual life, in the course of our meditation, in the course of actualizing our own potential Buddhahood. It is only then that we can really say, from knowledge and experience, who the Buddha is.

We can’t do this all at once. It certainly can’t be done in a day. First of all we have to establish a living contact with the Buddha. We have to arrive at something intermediate between mere factual knowledge about Gautama the Buddha – the details of his career – and on the other hand, the experience of Unconditioned mind. This intermediate stage is what we call Going for Refuge to the Buddha. And it means not just reciting ‘Buddham saranam gacchami’ (‘to the Buddha for Refuge I go’), though it doesn’t exclude that. It means committing ourselves to the goal of Enlightenment as a living ideal, as our ultimate objective, and striving to realise it. It is only by Going for Refuge to the Buddha, with all that this implies, with all that this means, that we can answer from the heart and the mind and the whole of our spiritual life the question: ‘Who is the Buddha?’

The Evolution of a Buddha

from Who is the Buddha? by Sangharakshita

‘Who is the Buddha?’ This question has always been crucial to the Buddhist quest. Through it, Buddhists determine their ideal, their goal in life, and their whole spiritual path. It is as an essentially practical question in this sense that it appears as the title of this book. We shall be examining, through the following chapters, some of the significant events in the Buddha’s life, as it occurred 2,500 years ago. However, the question ‘Who is the Buddha?’ is not answered by a simple biography – at least not in a very helpful sense. Besides, matters of historical fact are not fundamental issues to Buddhists. Scholars continue to dispute over whether certain details in the various traditional records may or may not be regarded as true statements of what actually happened. But for those who follow in the Buddha’s footsteps the facts of his life, such as they are, are secondary to their significance as a guide to the spiritual path. Many biographies of the Buddha, both popular and scholarly, have appeared before now, and some of these are both informative and inspiring. But our approach here is different. Our aim is the specific one of reflecting on the Buddhist conception of who the Buddha is.

We are therefore taking each of the major elements in the Buddha’s career as the starting point for a consideration of the ideal and goal of Buddhism as he exemplifies it, and as we also can strive after it. To begin with, however, it will be useful to get an idea of the spiritual context within which the man, Siddhartha Gautama, became the Buddha. That is, the Buddha cannot be recognized for what he is except from within the context of Buddhism itself. From the Buddhist point of view the Buddha did not arise from nowhere. It is true that Buddhism as we know it starts with the Buddha. But he did not invent or create the Dharma, the truth around which Buddhism developed. He discovered it – or rather he rediscovered it. The Buddha takes his place at the centre – or at the culmination – of a vast pattern or system of spiritual hierarchies. To know who he is we also have to know, in a manner of speaking, where he is. If we cannot get some measure of the scale of the Buddha’s achievement against our own human experience, the question ‘Who is the Buddha?’ cannot realistically be addressed at all. Therefore, not only do we need to take in as comprehensive a view as we can of the Buddhist ‘scheme of things’, but we should also try to see Buddhism itself in the most far-reaching perspective. ‘Who is the Buddha?’ is another way of saying ‘Where does Buddhism propose to lead us?’ To answer it we need to have some idea of where we are now – and even of how we came to be here. Before we look at where the human quest ends, we should also, perhaps, look back at its origins, where it begins.

In the beginning, we may say, life was a mystery. That, at least, was how it seemed to primitive humanity. Without formulating it as such, people felt, as though in the blood, that life was strange, incomprehensible: a mystery. Then later on, though still during humankind’s unrecorded past, people began consciously, explicitly, to think about life. Our ancestors apprehended that they were – without knowing how or why – in the midst of what seemed to be a strange and even hostile world, surrounded by all sorts of things which they could not understand or control. In the morning they saw the sun rise, and in the evening they saw it set. But why the sun rose and why it set, and what happened to it when darkness fell, they just did not know. Sometimes there were great storms – the world grew dark, rain fell, thunder seemed to crack open the earth and the sky would be lit up by an intermittent and terrible glare. But what caused these disturbances no one could tell. The days might be long and warm, or they might be short and freezing, but why they should be so was, again, a mystery. Eventually, they discovered that they could strike two stones together to make fire – and here was another mystery.

Sometimes people felt acutely miserable, and their bodies were racked with terrible pains. Why? They didn’t know. And sometimes something even stranger happened. Someone would be found lying on the ground, quite still. Usually it would be an old person, but not always; and sometimes it would be a child. When you called them they did not answer. You saw that their eyes were fixed and staring, but they did not recognize you. When you drew near, when you placed your fingers near their nostrils, you discovered that they no longer breathed. When you touched them you found that their flesh was cold and hard. If you left them where they were then sooner or later you noticed a dreadful smell coming from them. And this was the greatest mystery of all.

Almost as soon as these mysteries arose, it seems, they would have been named and given a place in a larger pattern of meaning whereby people could make some sense of their lives. And this world view – the particular view of the world held in any one society or social group – would satisfy people for perhaps a very long time indeed. But eventually some inconsistencies would appear, some aspects of the world or of themselves would be discovered that could not be explained within that system, that would not fit into it. Some people would then simply choose to muddle along with the old system, making a few adjustments here and there, while others would dismantle the whole apparatus and start again from a completely different governing principle.

What has changed today is that people have now, in most places in the world, a very considerable range of world views – of beliefs, myths, and philosophies – to choose from and learn from. This can only be a good thing. As Kipling shrewdly demanded of an earlier, nationalistic age, ‘What should they know of England who only England know?'(‘The English Flag’) You can hardly be said to know your own culture if you have nothing to compare it with, and the same goes for anything else one wants to know: knowledge is essentially comparison. You cannot really understand even your own religion except in relation to other religions. Of course, one hasn’t always had the information one needed to make these comparisons. Fifty years ago you hardly ever heard another religion apart from Christianity even mentioned – you were not given to understand such religions existed at all. But today all this has changed. Kipling’s apercu now seems almost a truism, and one finds one can learn a great deal about one’s own faith from studying other systems of belief. Things we would have taken for granted in the past we can now see for what they are by comparison with different things of the same nature. And one appreciates and understands them all the better for it.

Side by side with this development, however, and linked with it, we have seen a break-up of the old unified culture in which there was a commonly accepted overall view of things. We live in an era of the specialist, of the person who knows more and more about less and less. Although we have developed areas of densely cultivated knowledge, they just don’t link up into any kind of network of ideas. The central split is of course between science and the humanities, but the fissures extend and proliferate within these ‘two cultures’ to produce a seriously fragmented system of knowledge. This very modern problem of isolated specialization presents us with the acute difficulty of having to try to make sense of our knowledge piecemeal. It’s as though we have just four or five pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and we can’t make out what the whole picture is supposed to be.

There is, therefore, for anyone who is at all reflective, a pressing need – as much as there was for our primitive ancestors – to find the other bits of the jigsaw. There are, of course, many people willing to supply the missing pieces. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, is an ancient and venerable institution, and in the course of 2,000 years it has worked out all the answers. You only have to buy a copy of the latest catechism to find all the questions and all the answers neatly set out. Should any fresh questions arise, these will be swiftly answered by an encyclical from the Vatican. Many people find that this system deals with the mystery of life very satisfactorily. The same goes for Islam, which also lays down a conclusive and thoroughgoing context of meaning for human life. Marxism too, in its various forms, provided – at least until recently – a comparatively all-embracing world view that explained everything in terms of economic evolution leading to a political and social utopia.

Those whom the more established systems of thought fail to satisfy can turn to any number of ‘cults’ or fringe religious groups, even psychological and political movements, for something that will validate their aspirations and make them feel positive and progressive. And it is possible to go from one to another, to change your direction, as often as you like. I knew an Englishwoman in India who claimed to have changed her religion seventeen times. She had started off as a Roman Catholic and had worked her way through the Vedanta and the Swedenborgian Church and the Ramakrishna Mission and many others. By the time I knew her, when she was middle-aged, she was a Seventh Day Adventist, and even then thinking of moving on to something else, because this religion prohibited the consumption of tea. I remember visiting her once (this was in Kalimpong), and while we were having a nice cup of tea together there was a knock on the door and she turned pale. ‘My God,’ she whispered, ‘That’s the minister’, and quickly hid the teapot. I believe she went on to Australia, but whether or not she found something that suited her better I don’t know. One may laugh or one may cry at the sort of predicament she was in – but she was at least searching for the truth in her own way.

The fact is that, whether one is making a point of searching for the truth or not, it is simply not possible to avoid the practice of philosophy altogether. Everybody has a philosophy of some kind. It is just that some people are good at philosophizing and others are not. You can meet all sorts of people who have developed, without any academic training of any kind, an articulated philosophy of their own that is consistent and integrated. But whereas these individuals may have worked out a clear conceptualized version of their own attitude towards life as a whole, others may have only a very rudimentary or embryonic idea of what they take to be the central reality and purpose of life. Like it or not, we all begin as our remote ancestors did in a state of confusion and bewilderment, but it is up to us where we go from there.

It is as if you woke up one day to find yourself in a strange bed in some kind of inn. You don’t know how you got there and you don’t know where you are – except that it’s somehow a temporary place to stay, with people coming and people going. All you know is that it’s not your own place and you don’t recognize the road it’s on. You’ve just woken up and you’re bewildered and confused and wondering what’s going on. This is surely more or less how we feel about finding ourselves in the world at all. Here we are with a body, two eyes, two ears, a mouth, a nose, thoughts … dropped off in the middle of England or wherever, dumped down in the tail-end of the twentieth century. What brought us here, we just don’t know. We just wake up and here we are.

So when you wake up in this imaginary inn all you want to know is where you go from here. You need someone to give you a map showing the surrounding country, so that you can see the route you have come by so far and the direction you need to take to reach your destination. And this, as one might expect by now, is where Buddhism comes in. It is when the human condition is looked at in these quite elementary, even existential, terms that the teaching of the Buddha seems to come into its own.

Encountering Buddhism, what we discover, essentially, is a very comprehensive system of thought. (The word ‘thought’ is not ideal, but it must do for the time being.) This is not to say that the different forms of Buddhism that have arisen over more than 2,000 years all necessarily hang together neatly. But as well as being used as a blanket term covering the whole range of different approaches to the teaching, ‘Buddhism’ needs also to be appreciated in essential terms as representing a consistent and complete philosophical scheme.

Encountering Buddhism concretely, however, coming into contact with actual Buddhist groups, meeting flesh-and-blood Buddhist individuals, we find only too often the same sort of piecemeal approach that characterises modern knowledge as a whole. There are a lot of schools in Buddhism (and they are ‘schools’ rather than ‘sects’) – Theravada, Zen, Pure Land, T’ien-t’ai, Gelug, Kagyu, Nyingma, and so on. But it is rare to find followers of one school of Buddhism knowing anything much about the teachings of any other school. I have had a good deal of contact with Theravada Buddhists, for example (admittedly, in most cases, a very long time ago), and my experience was that – whether they came from Sri Lanka, Burma, or Thailand – they knew absolutely nothing about Zen. In the vast majority of cases they had not even heard of it. Conversely, one can meet Zen monks – even Zen masters – who haven’t a clue about what the Theravada might be. As the world becomes a smaller place this is gradually changing, but one has to be careful when picking up a book on Buddhism, or listening to someone talk about Buddhism, that one isn’t just getting the version of Buddhism put forward by one particular school.

Within Buddhism there is also a tendency to present a partial and unbalanced account of the teaching. A particular set of doctrines may be set out very clearly, but they are not related to other doctrines that perhaps look at the same issue from a different angle. For instance, there is the teaching of duhkha, that human existence is inherently unsatisfactory, that it can never be quite as we would like, that, indeed, even if we got everything we wanted, life would still be unsatisfactory. It is a fundamental doctrine, without which the whole of Buddhism rather loses its point. However, if it is not always firmly located within the context of the Four Noble Truths which go on to summarize the way to transcend it, the teaching of duhkha will seem just a rather sour fact of life.

Take another doctrine, that of the tathagata-garbha – literally the ‘womb of Enlightenment’ – according to which all sentient existence carries within it the ‘seed’ of Buddhahood, of supreme and perfect Enlightenment. If this doctrine of universal potential Buddhahood is not related to the Noble Eightfold Path which adumbrates the necessary steps to be taken in order to realize Enlightenment, we can come away with the notion that we actually have Buddhahood in the palm of our hand, as it were, and that all we have to do is wake up to the fact. Such teachings, if not put in their proper context and related to an overall framework, can be quite misleading.

This goes for meditation too. We can no doubt very usefully take up meditation as a purely psychological exercise. But as soon as we begin to see it as more than just a ‘profane’ training, as soon as we begin to acknowledge that it is some sort of ‘sacred’ or spiritual practice, we need to acquire some understanding of the general spiritual framework or context within which its practical spiritual purpose is defined. In the East it doesn’t matter so much, because there the whole culture, the whole society, provides that framework, and if one has close personal contact with a good teacher then one doesn’t need to know very much about the doctrine intellectually. But that situation does not obtain in the West, and if we are to take up Buddhist meditation we must have some knowledge of the general principles of Buddhism.

Buddhism is a vast subject. Therefore, putting it in a context which is familiar to the modern Western mind is not to be taken too literally – it is not like finding a big box into which we can fit a smaller box. It is a matter rather of laying out the Buddhist system of thought as a whole in terms that should be sufficiently familiar to all of us – as a way of looking at the world – not to require much explanation. And the idea that functions most comprehensively in this way is the principle of evolution, derived from the biological sciences. The fact that the Christian faith in particular has become reconciled to this principle only with the greatest difficulty makes it also a useful tool in highlighting some of the more distinctive features of the Buddhist vision. Nothing like the kind of tour de force we meet with in the works of the Catholic thinker Teilhard de Chardin is required to bring Buddhism and modern evolutionary ideas together.

We now know that the theory of evolution was anticipated by a number of thinkers, by Kant, Hegel, and others – and even, according to some, by Aristotle himself. But Darwin was the first to trace the operation of evolution in detail within the field of biology. To attempt to refute the principle of evolution in that field today would be like saying the earth is flat. It is the given basis for all the biological sciences. If anything, the idea has invaded all sorts of other disciplines, from politics to astronomy, so that one could fairly say that just as the Elizabethan age was dominated by the concepts of order and hierarchy, so the modern world is dominated by the concept of evolution.

In taking up an idea that is generally understood in scientific or at least academic applications and applying it in a spiritual context, we have, of course, to draw some precise boundaries. Scientific knowledge depends on the evidence of the senses – but, just because Buddhism has never tried to resist the evidence of the senses, that does not make it a ‘scientific religion’. It is certainly true that Buddhism’s appeal in the West owes much to the spirit of empirical, open-minded inquiry which the Buddha laid down as axiomatic to the spiritual quest – and this lack of dogmatism does align Buddhism in some important respects with the Greek scientific spirit rather than with the dominant religious traditions in the modern West. Equally axiomatic to the Buddhist notion of the spiritual quest, however, is the recognition of a transcendental Reality – which is not, of course, a provable scientific hypothesis. As a practising Buddhist one starts from the evidence of one’s own experience, which will tend to support more and more the idea of a spiritual order of evolution, and it is on the basis of this evidence that biological evolution carries conviction – not the other way round. Therefore, if we look at ourselves as in any way constituting some kind of key to the universe, then on the basis of our own experience of progression we may fairly conclude that progression is in some way inherent in the universe.

In this respect, at least, Buddhism inclines more towards a traditional, pre-scientific viewpoint. If we look at a traditional civilization, we find that everything, every activity, every piece of knowledge, is linked in with ideas of a metaphysical order. Ordinary things, ordinary events, accepted ideas, are not just of practical use. They have a symbolic value, they point beyond themselves, they have meaning. Amidst our own fragmented, ‘specialist’, economically defined culture we may find it difficult to appreciate this attitude, but it is the basis for the Tantra, and it was the world view of our own society until comparatively recently. According to this view everything is interconnected and nothing can ever really be ordinary – in the sense of being without a deeper meaning – at all. Rather than look for scientific proof of spiritual realities, we may say, paraphrasing G.K. Chesterton, that it is because we no longer believe in the gods that we no longer believe in ourselves. Our project as Buddhists must be to replace a mechanistic universe with one that has meaning, that carries throughout its fabric intimations of spiritual values.

Buddhism therefore looks at the rational knowledge derived from the senses in the light of a knowledge that is derived not from the senses and reason alone, but from a fusion of reason with emotion in a higher faculty of archetypal knowledge which we may call ‘vision’, ‘insight’, or ‘imagination’. It is not a question of justifying Buddhism in scientific terms, but rather of understanding sense-derived knowledge by means of knowledge that is not sense-based. In other words, the knowledge that is derived from the senses fits into a much larger pattern of knowledge that is not derived from the senses. From a Buddhist point of view, there is a hierarchy of levels of being and consciousness, a hierarchy of degrees of spiritual attainment, which seems to be reflected in, or as it were anticipated by, the whole process of biological evolution. It seems to make sense, therefore, to regard both biological evolution and the hierarchies of spiritual development as being – from the Buddhist point of view – in their separate spheres, exemplifications of a single law or principle.

It is clear that according to the principle of evolution life is not just existence. It is a process – a process of becoming – and humankind is not something apart from the rest of nature, as the theistic religions usually teach. Humankind itself also comes under the operation of this great process of becoming. It too is evolving and developing, not just towards new forms of existence and organization, but towards new and higher levels of being.

There are two different ways of looking at any evolving phenomenon: in terms of its past or in terms of its future; in terms of what it was or in terms of what it may come to be. The first of these ways of looking at phenomena – in terms of its origins – is traditionally called the genetic approach; the second – in terms of its destination or purpose – is the teleological method. So if we take an example of humankind at its best – someone who is intelligent, self-aware, morally responsible, sensitive to others and to the world around them – we should be able to look at them from each of these two perspectives. From a genetic perspective, we can look back at the complex evolutionary process described by Darwin, including that critical point at which self-consciousness – or more precisely, reflexive consciousness, which is roughly identifiable with specifically human consciousness – emerges from simple animal sense-consciousness. This whole process we can characterize, from the Buddhist point of view, as the ‘lower evolution’. But there is also the teleological perspective: we can also look at what an aware human being may develop into, what they are in process of developing into, and this development we may distinguish as the ‘higher evolution’. We have got so far in evolutionary terms propelled by the unconscious urge to grow and develop which fuels the origin of species, but to enter into the higher evolution takes conscious effort, or what we call spiritual practice. The lower evolution is the province of the biological sciences, leaving the higher evolution to be mapped out by the religions of the world, especially, of course, by Buddhism.

This sort of model of Buddhism is crucial to an understanding of who the Buddha is and what our own relationship to him might be. By means of it we can locate our own situation, which is probably a little short of our central figure of the fully integrated human being, and thus somewhere in the upper reaches of the lower evolution. We can also see the evolutionary process stretching ahead of us as far as Buddhahood – and beyond, inasmuch as Buddhahood is not a terminal point, but is by its very ‘nature’ limitless. And somewhere in the midst of this continuum we can envisage another critical point, where Insight into the nature of Reality – Insight with a capital I – replaces our faint, confused, and intermittent apprehensions of something that transcends our common perception of things. In this way, we know where we stand, we know the direction we must take, and we have something to aim for.

Before focusing on those stages in the evolutionary process that concern us as individual human beings we can restate what has been said so far in traditional Buddhist terminology. According to Buddhism the nature of existence consists in change or ‘becoming’. It is not simply some ‘thing’ that is subject to change – existence itself is change. And the specific manner of that change was expressed by the Buddha in a formula known in Sanskrit as pratitya-samutpada and translated as ‘conditioned co-production’ or ‘dependent origination’. This formula or law goes as follows: ‘This being, that becomes; from the arising of this, that arises. This not being, that does not become; from the ceasing of this, that ceases.’ So if existence is change, change is conditionality. Existence is seen as an infinitely complex and shifting pattern of physical and mental phenomena, all coming into being in dependence on certain conditions, and disappearing when those conditions disappear.

Pratitya-samutpada is not traditionally invoked as a cosmological principle, but there is no reason why it should not be. In the Digha Nikaya of the Pali canon there is a very long discourse delivered by the Buddha, the Agganna Sutta, which deals with the evolution of the universe and the origin of humankind. But for our present purposes we may say simply that in dependence upon the lower evolution arises the higher evolution.

What this does not mean is that the higher evolution is entirely the product of the lower evolution. Pratitya-samutpadaexpresses the middle way between seeing the lower evolution as essentially the same process as the higher evolution and seeing them as completely different processes. The basic Buddhist approach is in this sense scientific – it describes what happens without necessarily committing itself to an interpretation of those facts.

Within this universal framework of conditionality, however, there are two types of conditionality. On the one hand there is a ‘cyclic’ mode of conditionality, a process of reaction between opposite factors: death arising in dependence on birth, good in dependence on evil, happiness in dependence on suffering – and vice versa. It is a characteristic of human experience that is all too familiar – as Keats puts it: ‘Ay, in the very temple of delight / Veil’d melancholy has her sovran shrine’.(‘Ode to Melancholy’) This is samsara or the round of existence, as depicted in the Tibetan version of the Wheel of Life.

On the other hand there is a cumulative development of positive factors progressively augmenting each other, and this ‘spiral’ mode of conditionality provides the basis for the spiritual life. Thus in dependence on the arising of faith, joy arises, and so on in an ascending series of mental states all the way up to Enlightenment itself. The essential characteristic of a positive mental state is that it does not produce a negative reaction but instead produces a further positive factor. An act of true generosity, for example, is not succeeded by a niggling resentment when your gift does not seem to be appreciated. You simply derive joy from giving. It hardly needs saying that the cyclical principle governs the lower evolution, while the spiral mode of conditionality comprises the higher evolution.

The Buddha’s working out, in his first discourse after his Enlightenment, of the principle of pratitya-samutpada as the Four Noble Truths can be correlated with the evolution model equally simply. The first and second Noble Truths, which are that pain is inherent in sentient existence and that this pain arises in dependence – ultimately – upon craving, are concerned with the lower evolution. The third and fourth Noble Truths, which are, respectively, that this pain ceases with the ceasing of craving, and that the way to bring about an end to craving is by undertaking the Noble Eightfold Path, take us into the higher evolution.

By taking an evolutionary perspective we can discern some absolutely fundamental practical principles of the spiritual life. Within the lower evolution forms of life develop as a group – evolution works as a collective process – whereas the higher evolution is necessarily individual, which means that one individual can outstrip the rest. It is for this reason that self-awareness, mindfulness, is the starting point – the growing point – of the higher evolution. It is as though self-awareness generates a degree of energy sufficient to carry you through the whole process of the higher evolution in a single lifetime. Buddhist practice is concerned solely and exclusively with the development of the individual, that is, with the higher evolution. Once this is clear we can bring the whole range of Buddhist teachings into focus.

The Buddha lays down a path of practice leading to Enlightenment, but then he says very emphatically, ‘You must walk the path yourselves. I’ve walked it for myself, but I can’t walk it for you. No one can save another. No one can purify another. It’s up to you to do it for yourselves.’ In this sense Buddhism is a do-it-yourself religion. The corollary of this is that anyone who makes the effort can obtain the same results. There aren’t some chosen few who can do it and others who can’t. If no one is going to do it for you, this also means that if you make the effort, you can attain. You don’t even have to call yourself a Buddhist. If you accept the principles and follow the path, you will infallibly get the right results.

This is one reason why Buddhism is, by its very nature, a tolerant religion. Buddhists are not tolerant out of sheer indifference or apathy. They are tolerant because everybody has to find out the Truth for themselves. This is the nature of the Buddhist path. You have to allow others the same freedom that you claim for yourself – freedom to grow, to develop spiritually, in their own way. Therefore there is no conception of religious war or religious persecution in Buddhism. You find, for example, that the king of Thailand, who is the Buddhist king of a largely but not wholly Buddhist country, has as one of his titles ‘Protector of all Religions’.

So there is no compulsion. The Buddha’s teaching, the Dharma, is called, in Pali – the ancient language in which much of it was first written down – ehipassiko dhamma, that is, ‘the teaching (dhamma) of come (ehi) and see (passiko)’. It is the teaching that says come and see for yourself. Don’t accept just on trust. Believe because you understand, experience and verify for yourself. Don’t believe just because the Buddha tells you. This is what the Buddha himself said: ‘Monks, don’t accept what I say just out of respect for me. Just as gold is tested in the fire, so test my words in the fire of spiritual experience.’

When the Buddha’s aunt and foster-mother, Mahaprajapati Gautami, confused by the conflicting versions of his teaching given even in his own lifetime by his disciples, asked him straight, ‘What do you really teach?’ the Buddha replied that she could work it out for herself: ‘Whatever teachings you can be sure conduce to tranquillity and not to greed and hatred; to freedom and not to enslavement; to decrease of worldly ties and not to increase of them; to contentment and not to covetousness; to solitude and not to social distractions; to energy and not to sluggishness; to delight in good and not to delight in evil; of these teachings you can be sure that they constitute my Dharma.'(Shakespeare ‘The Tempest’ act I, sceneii)

One of the most prevalent ways in which some Buddhists take a one-sided view of the Dharma is in thinking of it in an exclusively negative manner, as just a matter of rooting out the whole of the lower evolution and leaving it at that. But it is evident from passages like those quoted above that the Buddha’s own conception of it was one of positive growth, of a conscious effort to evolve and progress as an individual. As well as leaving the lower evolution behind, we need also to take some positive steps in the direction of the higher evolution. As well as giving up meanness we want to cultivate generosity. As well as avoiding being harsh and callous we want to develop kindness. And there is a set of four meditation practices which are specifically concerned with developing the whole range of positive emotion. These meditations are called the four brahma viharas, ‘the abodes of the gods’. The first consists in the development of metta or love towards all living beings – a desire for the well-being of others, a wish that they may grow and develop. The second brahma vihara is karuna or compassion for those who are stuck, whose growth is stunted. Thirdly there is mudita or ‘sympathetic joy’ in the happiness of others – which is like when you go out into the garden in early summer and see the flowers all springing up and blooming. And the fourth is upeksha, equanimity or peace, an experience not of sitting back and putting your feet up, but of a vibrant spiritual equilibrium.

The four brahma viharas do not come naturally; they are not endowments of the lower evolution. They have to be consciously developed, for, as we have seen, spiritual development is the development of consciousness. Whereas the lower evolution is an unconscious development on the material level, the higher evolution is a conscious development on the mental level. At the same time the whole of evolution, lower and higher, is a continuous process. Of the two general scientific theories of evolution, that it is a mechanistic, random process, and the opposite view, that it could not have taken place without some kind of purpose or direction, the Buddhist approach would go with the second view. It is very broadly ‘vitalist’ in that it recognizes a will to Enlightenment somehow present in all forms of life and manifesting in any gesture of consideration or act of intelligent good will. With the beginning of the evolutionary process you get the impression of a sort of fumbling, with a lot of false starts – it seems a bit hit-or-miss. But then as you follow it further, whatever it is that stands behind the evolutionary process seems to become surer of itself, as it were, and to define itself more clearly as time goes by. And with the emergence of the aware individual human being undertaking the spiritual path it becomes fully conscious of itself, thereby speeding up the whole process.

The Buddhist has to tread very lightly in this area to avoid misunderstanding. Evolution is just a metaphor or model for Buddhism, a temporal model. In speaking of some ‘thing’, some reality behind the evolutionary process, we are simply using a different model, a spatial model. If we speak in terms of developing from one stage to another, that is to look at reality in temporal terms. But if we speak of what is there all the time, the absolute reality which is always here and now, that is to speak in spatial terms. So this is the function of the ‘Will to Enlightenment’ or bodhicitta, in this context – to transcend these spatio-temporal models. It is not a sort of cosmic life principle – not the life-force of the universe, or any kind of causative first principle – but rather a liberation principle, a will to transcend the universe or samsara.

We may say, in fact, that transcendence, self-transcendence, is what the whole of evolution, from the amoeba upwards, is about. We can say further that this evolutionary principle of self-transcendence is expressed in its highest and most fully self-conscious form in the figure of the Bodhisattva, the one who, according to Mahayana Buddhism, dedicates himself or herself to the cause of helping all sentient existence to Enlightenment. The Will to Enlightenment of a Bodhisattva is a fully committed volition to perpetual self-transcendence. And from the Bodhisattva to the Buddha there is only, as it were, a step.

It is from this perspective, seeing spiritual development in terms of perpetual self-transcendence, that we can best appreciate the often half-understood Buddhist concept of anatman, or ‘no-self’. This is sometimes interpreted as meaning that we don’t really exist, that there’s a sort of hole where one imagines one’s self to be. In fact, the point of this teaching is that we have no substantial unchanging self, no soul. Indeed, putting it more dynamically and experientially, we can say that for radical change, radical development, to take place – for a fully conscious self-transcendence to be possible – there can be no unchanging self.

We may look at Buddhism from a purely academic perspective as just an activity or philosophical position of a number of individuals calling themselves Buddhists. On the other hand, we can take the vast and awe-inspiring perspective of the Buddha’s teaching itself. From this latter perspective, we are all frail, impermanent beings, born into the world and passing out of it with apparently little to show for our trouble – but at the same time we embody the universal possibility of Enlightenment. Just as the scientific concept of evolution involves a progression towards new biological organisms through periods of time that are practically unimaginable, so, according to Buddhism, our own lives take their place in a context of literally unimaginable temporal duration, in which, however, they are of literally cosmic importance. For among all the life-forms in the universe, from the amoeba to the highest realms of the gods, it is only the kind of sentient life to which human beings conform that can be, in the words of Lama Govinda, ‘the vehicle for the rediscovery of the transcendental and inconceivable nature of mind or consciousness’ – that can become, in short, a Buddha.

The Nature of Reality

Samsara and conditionality

Samsara, Paticcasamuppada (Dependent Origination) and the Wheel of Life

Written for the AQA syllabus by Robert Ellis, formerly a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order and a former Head of RS in a 6th-form college.

Whilst the three laksanas provide the basic Buddhist thought behind the First Noble Truth, the teaching behind the Second can be explained through the teaching of Paticcasamuppada (variously translated as ‘Dependent Origination’, ‘Conditioned Genesis’ and ‘Conditioned Co-production’ – Paticcasamuppada is the Pali term (stress on the second syllable), Sanskrit is Pratityasamutpada). This teaching provides an explanation for how the three laksanas come into being, and how samsara (unenlightened existence) is continually re-created.

Some of the basic principles of Paticcasamuppada and views around it are as follows:

  • Paticcasamuppada is most basically a principle of conditionality in the universe, stating that all unenlightened things are conditioned by previous events.
  • The twelve nidanas (twelve links around the outside of the Wheel of Life) are a specific application of this broad principle of conditionality.
  • Traditionally, the twelve nidanas are seen as an inevitable process which follows from the choice made at only one possible point in the cycle, the junction between feeling and craving.
  • Ñanavira Thera, an English Theravada monk, has disputed this and claimed that choice is possible at any point during the cycle.
  • Joanna Macy, a modern American Buddhist writer, suggests that paticcasamuppada should be understood as mutual causality between all the systems in the universe. All systems are mutually interdependent and mutually conditioning.

Look in more detail at each of the twelve links and look at the debate about the relationship between paticcasamuppada and karma.

The twelve nidanas

Look again at the Wheel of Life, especially at the twelve links which make up the outer circle. Going clockwise from the top, you should be able to identify the following twelve pictures:

  1. Blind man
  2. Potter making pots
  3. Monkey
  4. Boat containing four people
  5. House with five windows and one door
  6. Embracing couple
  7. Man with arrow in his eye
  8. Woman offering man a drink
  9. Woman picking fruit
  10. Pregnant woman
  11. Woman giving birth
  12. Corpse

Each of these pictures symbolises a stage in the process of conditioning whereby craving gives rise to karmic effects, which in turn set up the conditions for craving again. These twelve links are not the only possible way of representing the process (there are also alternative sets of nine and ten links in the Pali Canon), however, they have become established by tradition in both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism as the accepted way of explaining the process of samsara.

Each symbol represents a stage in three successive cycles of conditioning (which the twelve links are divided up into). These three cycles are usually understood as ‘Past Life’, ‘Current Life’ and ‘Future Life’. Generally the twelve links are divided up and interpreted as shown below this image.

Past Life: the first five pictures represent the way in which past ignorance has led to the current situation

Blind man :
Ignorance. The blind man doesn’t see ahead just as people in samsara don’t.
After death (previous picture) we are reborn without understanding of our situation.

Potter making pots:
Karmic formations. We make our karma just as a potter makes pots.
Due to our ignorance we make continuing choices based on greed and hatred, building up future effects that keep us in samsara.

Monkey :
Sentience or consciousness. The monkey moves restlessly from tree to tree just as our mind moves between objects.
In dependence on our karmic formations or choices we build up a habitual awareness moving from object to object.

Four people in a boat :
The five skandhas.The boat here represents the body and the passengers sensations, perceptions, karmic formations and consciousness:
In dependence on our karmic formations and consciousness we seek out a new body with further sensations and perceptions

House with five windows and one door:
The six senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell and mind. Each window or door represents a sense.
In dependence on the five skandhas arise the six senses, which all interact with each other.

Present life: once the conditions for new craving have been set up by past actions, the next four pictures show how this results in karmic formations

Couple embracing :
Sensation. The couple are having particularly strong sensations in their embrace!
Having five senses sets up the conditions for sensations of new things.

Man with arrow in his eye :
Feeling. This man is having a particularly strong (and painful) feeling!
Sensations set up the conditions for pleasant, painful or neutral feelings.

Woman offering man a drink :
Craving (tanha). The man craves the drink, and perhaps the woman as well. Tanha literally means ‘thirst’.
This is the point of control and responsibility, where we respond to a pleasant feeling with craving or a painful one with hatred.

Woman picking fruit :
Grasping (upadana): the woman reaches out to grasp the tempting fruit and collect it.
Once we have given way to craving, this is likely to lead to the physical action of taking or using the thing we crave.

Future life: the final three pictures show the effects of karmic activity in the form of death and rebirth

Pregnant woman :
Becoming: in traditional Buddhist belief rebirth begins at fertilisation following entry of the karmic formations.
Grasping leads to rebirth as we continue the habit of relating to the things we want. We grasp at a new rebirth after death.

Woman giving birth :
Birth :Re-becoming (rebirth into one’s mother’s womb) leads inevitably to birth into the world again.

Corpse :
Birth leads inevitably to the further suffering associated with death, and thus back to ignorance.

As you will see, each of the three ‘lives’ is a complete craving-karma cycle in itself, so each could be taken by itself as a complete representation of samsara. However, the twelve links together show the relationship between different ways of seeing the same basic cycle:

  • Firstly as maintaining the interrelationship between the different parts of our assumed selves (past life)
  • Secondly in close focus, as the cycle of sensation-feeling-craving-grasping which could happen every few seconds (present life)
  • Thirdly panning out into the biggest perspective, as a cycle of births and deaths (future life).

There are various different ways of explaining the twelve links used by different Buddhist teachers, but one way might be to see them as different TV monitors linked to cameras trained on the same thing from different angles.

Paticcasamuppada and karma

The twelve nidanas give the impression that the whole of our experience is formed by karma. For example in the ‘past life’ phase, consciousness, the six senses and the five skandhas all arise in dependence on karmic formations (the potter). The belief that karma creates all our experience is widely accepted in traditional Buddhism, including most Theravada and Tibetan Buddhism. In Western philosophical terms this would make Buddhism a type of idealism, in which the world is constructed by the activity of our minds and there is nothing real beyond the mind and independent of its karma.

However, this interpretation is a matter of dispute within Buddhism, for it raises many difficulties by implying that we must in some way deserve everything that happens to us. If you get run over by a dangerous drunk driver, is this really your fault? If you get killed by an earthquake, is it anybody’s fault? Another problem is that of how we make progress towards enlightenment. How do we ever wriggle free of karma if all our experience is constantly formed by karma?

The alternative is to see the effects of our actions as contributing to our subsequent experience, but not being entirely responsible for it. On this alternative interpretation we could account for the way we contribute to our future lives through our actions, but also explain how things happen to us which we did not bring about ourselves. One strand of Buddhist tradition allows for this possibility by identifying four other forms of conditionality apart from karma. This analysis of different forms of conditionality is found in a commentary by Buddhaghosha, the great second-century monk-scholar who lived in Sri Lanka.

Buddhaghosha identifies five niyamas, or forms of conditionality:

  • Inorganic, where non-living things affect one another and affect living things.
  • Biological, where living organisms affect each other and non-living things.
  • Psychological, where areas of the mind not subject to choice create effects.
  • Karmic, where our ignorant choices motivated by greed and hatred create effects.
  • Dharmic, where our choices free of greed and hatred help to move us and others towards enlightenment.

The use of Buddhaghosha’s scheme allows us to account for movement towards enlightenment as well as undeserved experiences (whether these are pleasant or unpleasant). For example, a sudden generous impulse may be due to the dharmic order of conditionality, and an earthquake which destroys your house may simply be due to an inorganic level of conditionality, not to your previoius actions at all (unless you built it badly).

Supposing you have a headache. There are many possible causes for this at the different levels of conditionality using Buddhaghosha’s account. See if you can find an explanation at each level.

  • Inorganic
  • Biological
  • Psychological
  • Karmic
  • Dharmic

Only a minority of Buddhists use Buddhaghosha’s account: one reason for this may be that it is not found in a canonical scripture. Another difficulty it raises is that of how it can be reconciled with rebirth: for if rebirth occurs then the whole life you are reborn into is karmically selected for karmic reasons. You do deserve the life you are born into, whatever other kinds of conditionality may be working in it. It’s like the question of whether you are responsible for the climate at your holiday destination: you didn’t choose the climate or make it occur, but you did choose the holiday, making the whole experience in some ways your responsibility.

Do you think Buddhaghosha’s view or the mainstream Buddhist view makes more sense?

The positive nidanas

If the idea of a dharmic order of conditionality gives one hint of how we can get out of the cycle of karmic conditionality, another is provided by the idea of an alternative, positive set of twelve nidanas which show the way in which progress towards enlightenment can gradually build up through a series of dependencies. Unlike the twelve nidanas of the Wheel of Life, the positive nidanas are not cyclic, but rather work up gradually towards enlightenment in a spiral.

The positive nidanas are found at several points in the Pali Canon, but are not emphasised much in the Theravada or Mahayana. In modern times their use has been revived by Sangharakshita, who is responsible for the idea of representing them in a Spiral. The twelve positive links are as follows:

  1. Dukkha: we have to realise imperfection to begin progress on the path. Without realising there is anything wrong, we have no motivation to improve.
  2. Faith: realising imperfection can give rise to faith that there is a positive alternative. This doesn’t always happen, for often when people feel discontented they do not see any possibility of improvement. However, when they see the possibility of improvement they are more firmly on the Path.
  3. Delight: practising with confidence allows a sense of well-being and happiness to arise.
  4. Ecstasy: this happiness becomes more acute and exciting as we make further progress.
  5. Peace: this is the deeper contentment which is found by progressing beyond the initial excitement.
  6. Bliss: this peace allows a still deeper contentment to arise, creating a supremely calm and happy experience.
  7. Absorption: all this positive emotion creates a supreme level of concentration. One is now ready for a breakthrough in wisdom.
  8. Knowledge and vision of things as they really are: overcoming illusion one has attained the stage known as stream-entry, where progress towards nirvana has become irreversible.
  9. Disentanglement: because of this new wisdom, attachments to things in samsara simply fall away.
  10. Dispassion: one then gains an equal love for all things.
  11. Liberation: all the most subtle remnants of greed, hatred, and ignorance are now lost.
  12. Recognition of destruction of the poisons: finally, the basic craving for sense-experience and for existence dries up, with the last vestiges of ignorance. One is now fully enlightened and aware of this fact.

Like the Noble Eightfold Path, these twelve positive nidanas are often presented as sequential, but are only roughly so. Although the Path always starts with recognition of dukkha and arising of faith, and ends with the destruction of the poisons, in between, one naturally does not follow the steps given quite as neatly as this. Morality, meditation, and wisdom are developed alongside each other, even if stages 3-7 concentrate on meditation and 8-12 on wisdom.

Progress on the Path up to stage 8 is also not at all inevitable, at any point up to that one may fall back. This means that the positive emotional states described in stages 3-6 may arise in meditation, or temporarily in other circumstances, but will quickly disappear again when the conditions which allowed them to appear are gone. Only wisdom can make these changes permanent and help one stay in these positive states continually.

So, the karmic order of conditionality continues to exert its influence until stage 8, when one finally pulls free. Sangharakshita compares this to a journey from the earth to the sun. There will come a point when one gets beyond the gravitational pull of the earth and ceases to need to make a continual effort to pull away from it. One can then coast in towards nirvana, the sun, increasingly attracted by its gravity.

Draw a spiral illustrating these twelve positive nidanas, and including the point of no return in the middle.

Past exam questions
Explain Buddhist teachings about samsara and paticcasamuppada

Further Reading
Cush p.29-31
Kulananda The Wheel of Life chs. 11 & 12
Williams Buddhist Thought p.62-72

The Three Marks of Conditioned Existence

painting of the BuddhaWritten for the AQA syllabus by Robert Ellis, formerly a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order and a former Head of RS in a 6th-form college.

The teaching of the three characteristics of conditioned existence (the three lakshanas or ‘marks’) is a teaching of early Buddhism which is accepted by all Buddhist schools. It is an analysis of the First Noble Truth, the doctrine of dukkha. The three characteristics simply provide a more detailed explanation of what is meant by dukkha, and in what sense our unenlightened experience of the world is one of suffering, frustration, or unsatisfactoriness.

The three characteristics are as follows:

  • Impermanence (anicca)
  • Insubstantiality or “not-self” (anatta)
  • Frustration or suffering (dukkha)

They are all interlinked and interdependent. Samsaric existence is frustrating because we experience not only suffering, but pleasures which are impermanent and insubstantial. We, the experiencers of the pleasures, are also ourselves impermanent and insubstantial. It is our continual failure to take this into account which makes us unenlightened.

Recognition of the three characteristics, like awareness of the rest of the Four Noble Truths, is part of wisdom. To gain wisdom we have to fully realise the reality of these characteristics in the whole of our experience, not just abstractly or intellectually accept them.

As an introduction, watch the Clear Vision DVD Buddhism Today sections on the Three Marks.

a) Impermanence (anicca)

Impermanence is simply the fact that everything that is conditioned changes. Everything is conditioned (except nirvana itself), because it is dependent on other things for its continued existence in a given form, and conditions keep changing. Hence everything is constantly changing form, and is made up of smaller parts which are constantly changing in relation to each other. Although we like to think of objects as stably existent things, when we look a little closer we find that they are not so stable.

Impermanent things
This is easy to comprehend first in relation to material things. Some things, like waves in the sea, are constantly changing before us. A sandwich, say, left in the open air for a week in warm conditions, will become a mass of mould. Even something we think is relatively safe like a house, will start to deteriorate if left un-maintained for ten years, and in a few hundred years (if not destroyed, rebuilt or renovated) will probably be a pile of ruins. Even the least changeable object in the world, a diamond, can be cut by a skilled person, and will eventually wear away, even if it takes millions of years.

Then if we think of our own bodies, change is constant. Nearly every cell in our body dies out and is replaced every few years. We are also constantly changing physically in dependence on things like what we have eaten, how well we have slept, and how healthy we are. This is even more obvious in relation to our minds, as mental states keep changing from minute to minute. One moment we are happy, another sad; one moment concentrated, another distracted and forgetful: all in accordance with conditions. The Buddha claimed that it was even more of a mistake to think of the mind as unchanging than the body, since at least the body has a certain degree of consistency and stability over time, but more than that of the mind.

Acceptance of impermanence
It is relatively easy to accept this impermanence abstractly and in general, but much harder to really bear in mind that things are impermanent when we make decisions in our lives. For example, people who buy the latest piece of hardware or software for their computer rarely reflect on how quickly it will become obsolete, and people starting love affairs rarely think about how the other person is bound to change from the one they fell in love with. Being aware of impermanence in these situations doesn’t necessarily mean not buying software or not falling in love (though it might), but it will at least add a tinge of realism to our decisions in these situations, and help to put things in their real perspective. The effect of this should be to make everyone happier in the long run.

We not only need to be aware of impermanence to gain wisdom in the Buddhist understanding, but to accept it. For example, parents may be acutely aware of the fact that their children are growing up, but it is still often difficult for them to adjust to this fact emotionally by giving up their attachment to having control over their children’s lives. Bereavement is another effect of impermanence which it is very difficult for many people to adjust to, but accepting that a death has in fact occurred and that the world is no longer the same seems to be the key to it.

Impermanence forms an important component of dukkha, either because things changing is directly painful to us (dukkha-dukkha), or because things we enjoy come to an end (viparinama-dukkha). Impermanence may also contribute to a sense that life is meaningless or to existential suffering (sankhara-dukkha), if we think that the only things that can give life meaning must be permanent. Ultimately, then, the only solution to impermanence is to find meaning and purpose in what is permanent, that is nirvana. This is expressed in a famous (though philosophically rather controversial) passage in the Udana in the Pali Canon:

There is an unborn, not become, not made, uncompounded, and were it not for this unborn, not become, not made, uncompounded, there could be shown here no escape for what is born, has become, is made, and is compounded.

Udana ch. 8

(The controversy is over whether the Buddha is talking metaphysically: i.e. talking about ‘something’ that really exists, or to think of nirvana as permanent in the same way that we think of other things as permanent is a misunderstanding.)

The basic mistake we make as regards impermanence, then, is not simply to put our faith in things that are impermanent, but to put our faith in impermanent things even when there is a permanent alternative. This ‘permanence’ may just consist in a different attitude to what is impermanent, though exactly how it should be interpreted is a matter of debate.

Criticisms of the doctrine of impermanence from non-Buddhists tend to come from two directions. On the one hand there are those who deny that all things except nirvana are impermanent. On the other are those who accept this point but deny that the recognition of impermanence is a positive move.

Those who would disagree that all things are impermanent would include most theists. They would claim that God is permanent and that there may also be other spiritual things that are permanent, such as the soul.

Those with a materialist view are more likely to accept that all material things constantly change, but they may see the point of life as consisting in struggling against this rather than accepting it. For example, human ingenuity may be able to design more durable objects or even cheat human death. Too much acceptance of death may be seen as passive or morbid. This point of view may be expressed by the poet Dylan Thomas:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
But rage, rage against the dying of the light!

DiscussionDoes there seem to be anything at all that is permanent?
Do you agree with the Buddhist teaching that it is positive to understand and accept impermanence?

b) Insubstantiality or No-self (anatta)

Denial of the atman

Anatta is the denial of the teaching that there is an atta (Pali) or atman (Sanskrit), which roughly translated means a soul. Atman is the word given in Hinduism to the true self which continues to exist eternally, and which travels from one body to another in the process of reincarnation (as opposed to rebirth in Buddhism). One of the ways in which the Buddha challenged the teaching of the Brahmins of his day was by challenging this orthodox Hindu belief in the self. For this reason anatta is often translated as ‘no self’.

However, the Buddha does not claim that there is definitely not a self, only that the self we tend to identify with is not fixed. Instead, we consist in a process. The teaching of impermanence which we have already examined points out that we are always changing, and this also implies that there is no fixed part of ourselves which remains unchanged. If nothing remains unchanged, there is nothing which can contain a fixed or final identity.

There are various aspects of our bodies and minds which we may identify with and believe to be our true selves, but the Buddhist teaching is that we should avoid attachment to the idea of any of these as really ourselves. It is this which has led to the teaching of the five skandhas, which provides an analysis of what we might suppose to be ourselves in order to show that it is all merely process.

The Five Skandhas

The five skandhas are the five aspects of being which make up (which are) dukkha in its most basic form (sankhara dukkha). The word ‘skandha’ is sometimes translated as ‘aggregate’ or ‘heap’, but as these translations do not really help us in understanding what the term means, it is probably best to leave it untranslated.

‘Aspects of being’ may be the best short explanation: they are the five things which, put together, give us the impression of ‘I’: of a being. According to Buddhism, there is no self or soul I can point to when I want to show what ‘I’ means, because it is the result of all five skandhas together. Remove one of the skandhas and I would not have any sense of being a self or an individual. Not only are the skandhas interdependent, but they are impermanent and constantly changing. But we constantly try to make a fixed identity out of this shifting flux. This is why we are fundamentally deluded – because we are constantly trying to make something permanent out of what is impermanent. The mismatch between our identity and reality is the cause of sankhara dukkha.

These are the Five Skandhas:

1. Matter (Rupa)
Matter means all the physical material in the universe, including all the elements, our bodies, our sense-organs (eye, ear, nose, etc.) and the objects which they sense. Everything, in short, which seems to be beyond ourselves or which we can see, hear, feel, touch or taste. Ancient Buddhists described this objective world as the sphere of the dharmas, that is, of the many different types of impersonal event or experience.

The anatta teaching will address our assumption that we are our bodies by pointing out the impermanence and insubstantiality of our bodies. It is therefore a mistake to identify too much with the body, which is simply a useful tool for life.

2. Sensations (Vedana)
Sensations are what arises from the contact of our sense-organs with the material world. In traditional Buddhism there are 6 senses: sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste and thought. Hence thoughts and ideas are as much objects of sense as things that can be seen or touched: they did not draw the same line that Western thought tends to draw between internal and external experiences. Sensations are the raw data given to us by the eye, ear, mind etc., which have not yet been sorted or identified.

Buddhist teaching will point out that our sensations are constantly changing as the things around us change, and as our sense-organs change. We cannot claim to be our sensations.

3. Perceptions (Sañña)
Perception is the recognition of forms provided by the six senses. We compare our sensations with our previous experience and by doing so give them some order. Sensation does not have any meaning without this additional step of perception. Someone who is said to be ‘observant’ has a good faculty of perception – it may not necessarily be that he/she can actually see better than others.

Our perceptions, like our sensations, are changing. We can also only identify things by comparing them with other things, and never penetrate to what a thing is in itself. We identify things because of their usefulness to us rather than because of what they ‘really’ are, or because of what we ‘really’ are.

4. Mental Formations (Sankhara)
This is the crucial stage where we produce some kind of response to our perception. Our will becomes involved so that mental formations are said to include volition. There are 50 different types of mental formation, but they all involve some kind of deliberate response to the results of our perceptions.

It is these mental formations which give rise to karma (the mechanism which leads from our action to some kind of moral effect which rebounds back on us). We are responsible for our mental formations, so if we react in the best way (“skilfully”) to what we perceive, good moral effects will follow, which will move us towards enlightenment. If we react ‘unskilfully’, bad moral effects will follow, which will keep us bound to the cycle of samsara.

Our mental formations are what are believed to create the causal connection between one birth and another in Buddhist rebirth. However, since they are always changing, created by new actions or ‘expended’ by new effects, they can’t possibly be the basis of a fixed self.

5. Consciousness (Viññana)
This is the state of mind brought about by our successive mental formations, providing us with a tendency to react in certain ways. Consciousness is dependent on the other skandhas in the same way as a fire is dependent on its fuel, but the other skandhas are also dependent on it: without the awareness which consciousness provides there can be no perception or mental formations. Consciousness is not thought of as the seat of a soul (unlike in other religions), and it is just as impermanent and fluctuating as all the other skandhas. Not only the objects of consciousness, but the level of our consciousness, fluctuates continually in response to changing conditions.

Work out an example of each of the three laksanas (characteristics of existence) found in each of the five skandhas. You could put these in the form of a table. eg. For anicca in the skandha of sensations, you could put ‘The sensations of eating nice food end when the meal does.’

Insubstantiality of all objects

Although anatta is often thought of primarily in relation to the absence of a soul in our experience, it can also be applied to any other object. We tend to think about things as having fixed identities, but these identities have been constructed out of what we perceive according to our needs.

Impermanence provides one reason for insubstantiality. Things are not what we usually take them to be, because they are constantly changing and we don’t usually take this into account. For example, if we fall in love with someone else, we rarely have a realistic idea of the way they are liable to change, but rather tend to see them as fixed as they are now.

However, there is more to insubstantiality than impermanence. Another thing we tend not to take into account is the fact that each thing we identify could be described in many other ways than the way we choose to describe them. A ‘car’ for example, we take to be a distinct object, but it could be described as a collection of metal and other parts, as a collection of atoms, as part of a traffic system, or as part of the earth. When we drive a car we also tend to see ourselves as something separate from the car although we are inside it: but an alien landing on earth for the first time might well see things quite differently, seeing the car as the basic ‘thing’ and us as a part of it. In The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, an alien guide-book researcher, Ford Prefect, makes precisely this mistake, thinking that cars are the dominant life-form on earth and almost getting run over for his pains!

There is also the problem of what is the essential part of an object and what is not. You could remove all the parts of a car bit by bit and it would not be very clear exactly when you ceased to have a car there. For example, would it be a car if it had no engine, or no wheels? Whoever you asked would probably disagree about what the essential features of a car are. From a Buddhist point of view, this all goes to show that there are no essential features, and the labels we give to things are just a matter of convention.

Read the analogy of the chariot from the Questions of King Milinda (Penguin ‘Buddhist Scriptures’ p.147-149) and make notes. Would you agree with Nagasena’s claims here?

The ship of Theseus (an old philosophical riddle)
Theseus has a ship which he puts in dry dock. He gets his men to remove the parts of the ship one by one, and with those parts they gradually reconstruct the ship in a different dry dock nearby. However, as the parts are removed, they are replaced, so that when all the old parts have been removed there is still a ship in the original dry dock too. There are now two ships, one constructed out of the parts of the original one, but the other continuous with the original ship in the same place. Which of them is Theseus’ original ship?
What would be a Buddhist solution to this riddle?

Anatta and rebirth

There is a traditional problem in reconciling no-self with rebirth. If there is no self, how can you be reborn in a different body? This is a problem if you think of rebirth along the lines of reincarnation, or if you identify with your ‘self’ in a future life or in a past life. Some Buddhist scriptures appear to do this and thus be contradictory. However, the traditional answer is that rebirth is not the rebirth of a soul or any kind of fixed thing, but merely the continuation of a process whereby karmic formations cause future effects. The reborn self is ‘you’ in the same sense that a mango tree is the same as the mango it came from, but in no stronger sense.

Read the passage from The Questions of King Milinda on this (Buddhist Scriptures p.149-151). Are you convinced by Nagasena’s explanation of this problem?

c) Dukkha

You will have already studied dukkha as the First Noble Truth, so little needs to be added here. However, greater depth can be added to your understanding of dukkha by considering the implications of impermanence and no-self. Dukkha can be analysed into three types according to their relationship with dukkha alone, anicca or anatta.

Dukkha-dukkha is suffering in its straightforward form. It consists of pain and directly unpleasant experience generally. We do not need to appeal to impermanence or insubstantiality to appreciate the presence of dukkha-dukkha, but it does not usually account for our whole experience because we also experience happiness and pleasure.

Viparinama-dukkha is the frustration which arises due to the fact that pleasant experiences are impermanent. When the pleasant experiences end, we continue to want more of them, and thus experience disappointment and mortification. This type of dukkha has a necessary condition in tanha or craving, which continues to operate even when the source of the pleasure does not.

Sankhara-dukkha is the unsatisfactoriness that we experience due to insubstantiality. Even apart from the fact that they are impermanent, things in samsara are not quite satisfying because they don’t fulfil our expectations completely. A new computer doesn’t work as we expect, a holiday isn’t quite as blissful as the brochure led us to expect, and a person has vices that we didn’t take into account at first. This term can also be applied to a sense of dissatisfaction about our whole lives, sometimes called ‘existential dukkha’, when life as a whole seems meaningless.

Questions for discussion
1. How do you think the three laksanas and the three types of dukkha relate to the three poisons (greed, hatred and ignorance)?
2. Some early Western commentators on Buddhism (such as Mrs Rhys-Davids ) rejected the anatta doctrine and claimed that the Buddha could not possibly have taught it because it was so contrary to common sense. There was also an early Buddhist school, the Pudgalavadins (‘Personalists’) who rejected the doctrine . Why do you think the doctrine caused so much trouble, and do you think the rejection was justified?
3. Non-Buddhist critics tend to argue that the three laksanas make Buddhist doctrine pessimistic. Buddhists would claim it is simply realistic. Which side would you most agree with and why?

Further Reading
Cush p.28-9, 35-8 & 65-8
Sangharakshita Guide to the Buddhist Path p.191-196
Williams Buddhist Thought p.56-62

Past questions from AQA syllabus
1. Outline Buddhist teachings about the three characteristics of existence
2. Explain Buddhist teachings about anatta.

The Texture of Reality

Reality is a very big word, but it is not really a Buddhist word. We have shunyata or emptiness, we have tathata or suchness, and we have dharmakaya, the ‘truth-body’, but there is no true semantic equivalent in traditional Buddhist terminology of the word ‘reality’.

Reality is not only a big word; it is also an abstract word (which often means a vague word) and on the whole Buddhists have never been fond of abstract terminology. Tibetan Buddhism, for example, takes a very concrete, and even – if one wanted to be paradoxical – materialistic approach to the spiritual life. And Zen Buddhism goes even further: any indulgence in abstractions or vague generalities is met with a piercing shriek or thirty blows or some other such discommendation.

So when we use this word ‘reality’ in speaking about Buddhism, we use it in a makeshift and provisional sort of way. It isn’t to be taken too literally. Certainly, the connotations that attach to it in general Western philosophical and religious usage cannot be said to apply in a Buddhist context.

It is for these reasons that – while the word ‘reality’ may be almost unavoidable for an English-speaking Buddhist – I am introducing the idea of its texture. This word is almost palpably concrete. Texture is felt, it is handled, it is experienced directly, by touch. Because we have so many nerve-endings in the tips of our fingers, we are able to make very subtle distinctions amongst an enormous range of different textures. We can distinguish between cotton, silk, and wool, or between granite, slate, and marble. And it is possible to discern far more subtle gradations of texture. Chinese experts on jade used to be able to distinguish between hundreds of kinds and qualities of jade – white, black, red, or green jade, ‘mutton-fat jade’ or ‘dragon’s-blood jade’, or whatever it was – with their eyes closed, simply by feeling their texture under water.

Reality too, in Buddhism, is something to be felt, touched, even handled – because Buddhism is above all else practical. So, continuing to use the word in a provisional sense, we may say that reality in Buddhism is broadly speaking of two kinds: there is conditioned reality and Unconditioned reality – or more simply, there is the conditioned and the Unconditioned.

The Two Realities

‘The Unconditioned’ is the usual translation of the Sanskrit asamskritaSam means ‘together’, krita is ‘made’ or ‘put’, and a-is a negative prefix, so asamskrita literally means ‘ not put together’ or ‘uncompounded’. ‘The conditioned’ is therefore samskrita, which is a word of particular interest in Sanskrit as it is the name of the language itself – ‘Sanskrit’ being an Anglicized version of it. According to the Brahmin pundits it is so called because it is the language which has been properly put together, beautifully put together, perfected. It is so designated to set it in contradistinction to the rough, crude, and unpolished ‘Prakrit’ – including Pali – spoken by the common people (i.e. especially by the non-Brahmins). In modern Indian languages like Hindi, Bengali, and Marathi, samskriti means ‘culture’. In this way the idea has developed that samskrita, the conditioned, is also the artificial, whereas asamskrita, the Unconditioned, is the natural, the simple, that which has not been artificially put together.

This connotation to the term ‘Unconditioned’ receives explicit recognition in Tantric Buddhism. The Tantrics have an interesting word for reality: sahajaSaha is ‘together’, and ja is ‘born’ (as in jati, ‘birth’); so the literal meaning of sahaja is ‘born with’ or ‘co-nascent’. And so reality is said to be that with which one is born, that which is innate, that which does not have to be acquired.

The distinction between the conditioned and the Unconditioned, between the artificial and the natural, is fundamental to Buddhist thought, even though, as we shall see, there is some disagreement amongst various Buddhist schools as to whether it is an absolute distinction or not. And it would appear to go back a long way, even to predate the Buddha’s own Enlightenment.

In the Majjhima-Nikaya, the medium-length discourses of the Pali Canon, there is one discourse that is of rather special interest on account of its autobiographical content. This is the Ariyapariyesana Sutta, in which the Buddha describes how he left home, how he became a wandering monk, how he strove for Enlightenment, and, as we have seen, how he deliberated about whether or not to try to teach the Dharma.

What surprises some readers of this sutta is that there is no mention in it of the famous ‘four sights’, of how Siddhartha Gautama, the future Buddha, sallied forth one fine morning in his chariot with his charioteer, and saw a sick man, and then – on successive occasions – an old man, a corpse, and finally a wandering ascetic; and thus came alive to the existence of sickness, old age, and death, and the possibility of becoming a truth-seeking wanderer.

Instead, this particular account gives a comparatively naturalistic, even humanistic, description of how Siddhartha came to the decision to give up the household life. It is, so far as this account is concerned, a purely internal process, not connected with anything in particular that he saw or heard. Here he is represented – in his own words – as simply reflecting.

The Buddha relates how one day he was sitting at home in the palace, reflecting alone. We should imagine him perhaps under a tree in the compound; it is probably the early evening, when a cool, calm quiet descends over the Indian scene. He is there simply reflecting, ‘What am I? What am I doing with my life? I am mortal, subject to old age, sickness, and death. And yet, being such, what do I do? Being myself subject to birth, I pursue that which is also subject to birth. Being myself subject to old age I pursue that which likewise will grow old. Being myself subject to sickness, to decay, I pursue that which is subject to the same decay. And being myself subject to death, I pursue that which also must die.'(footnote 38)

Then – as the Buddha goes on to relate to his interlocutor in this sutta, who is a Jain ascetic – there arose in his mind a different, almost a contrary train of reflection. It occurred to him: ‘Suppose now I were to do otherwise? Suppose now, being myself subject to birth, I were to go in search of that which is not subject to birth, which has no origin, which is timeless? Suppose, being myself subject to old age, I were to go in search of that which is immutable? Suppose, being myself subject to sickness, to decay, I were to go in search of that in whose perfection there is no diminution? Or suppose, finally, being myself subject to death, I were to go in search of the deathless, the everlasting, the eternal?’

As a result of these reflections, shortly afterwards he left home. There is no great drama in this sutta, no stealing out of the palace by moonlight on muffled hooves. It simply says that although his father and his foster-mother wept and wailed, he put on the yellow robe, shaved his head, cut off his beard, and went forth from home into the homeless life.

This is the story, in brief, of the Buddha’s conversion – conversion in the literal sense of a ‘turning round’, though in Siddhartha’s case it was not an external turning round, from one religion to another, but an internal one, from the conditioned to the Unconditioned. Siddhartha realized that he was a conditioned being, and that he was spending all his time and energy in pursuit of conditioned things – that is, in the anariyapariyesana or ‘ignoble quest’. He realized, in other words, that he was binding himself to the endless round of existence, the wheel of life on which we all turn, passing from one life to the next indefinitely.

So he decided simply to turn round completely and go in search of the Unconditioned instead, to take up the ariyapariyesana, the ‘noble quest’. In time, he would realize this quest as the spiral path leading from the endless round to the goal of Enlightenment or nirvana. But at this point he identified the course before him with this simple but strong, pre-Buddhistic expression, found in the oldest Upanishads: esana, urge, desire, will, search, aspiration, quest, pursuit. He could continue with the ‘ignoble quest’, or he could undertake the ‘noble quest’ instead.

The Buddha’s conversion was not easy, we can be sure of that, because here and there, in other places in the scriptures, we get indications that a terrible struggle went on in his mind before he made his final decision. But stripped of all the legends and myths that have accumulated around it over the centuries, it was as simple – almost classically simple – as this. And it is in this most simple description of the first great insight of the Buddha-to-be that the essence of the spiritual life is to be found. Here we put our finger on the spring that works the whole mechanism.

This spring is the conditioned in pursuit of the Unconditioned, the mortal seeking the immortal: seeking, that is, not immortality of the self, but a self-transcending immortality. What Siddhartha was looking for was basically the answer to a question, one that we find asked (in the Majjhima-Nikaya) by a young monk, Govinda, who spends a rainy season retreat – i.e. of about three months – meditating on metta or universal loving kindness, and as a result has a vision of the ‘eternal youth’ Brahma Sanatkumara. The question Govinda asks Sanatkumara in this sutta is ‘How may the mortal obtain the immortal Brahma world?'(footnote 39)

This is the essential religious question. How may the conditioned become the Unconditioned; how may the mortal become immortal? How may I conquer death? Now of course it all sounds very fine put like that, but if one is going to take seriously the question of how to leave the conditioned and go in search of the Unconditioned, one will want a further question answered. What exactly does one mean by the conditioned? How do we identify the conditioned?

According to Buddhist tradition, that which is conditioned invariably bears three characteristics, or lakshanas, by which it may be recognized as such. These three characteristics are sometimes called the ‘three signs of being’, but more properly this should be the ‘three signs of becoming’, as the nature of the conditioned is nothing as static as a ‘state of being’.

The three lakshanas, the three inseparable characteristics of all conditioned existence, are: duhkha, the unsatisfactory, or painful; anitya, the impermanent; and anatman, the emptiness of self, of essential being.(footnote 40) All conditioned ‘things’ or ‘beings’ whatsoever in this universe possess all these three characteristics. They are all unsatisfactory, all impermanent, all devoid of self. Of these three lakshanas the first is in some ways the most difficult for most people to come to terms with, emotionally, so we shall look at it in rather more depth and detail than at the other two.


The Sanskrit word here is duhkha, and the usual translation is ‘suffering’, but a better one – if a bit cumbersome – is ‘unsatisfactoriness’. Best of all, perhaps, is to attend to its etymology: though the traditional account of the origin of the word duhkha is no longer universally accepted, it still leaves us with a true and precise image.

Duh- as a prefix means anything that is not good – bad, ill, wrong, or out of place; and kha, the main part of the word, is supposed to be connected with the Sanskrit chakra, meaning ‘wheel’. So duhkha is said to have meant originally the ill-fitting wheel of a chariot, thus suggesting a bumpy, jarring ride, a journey on which one could never be comfortable, never at one’s ease.

So much for a general picture of duhkha. As we look closer, though, we see that unease or suffering comes in many different forms – and the Buddha usually speaks of seven.(footnote 41) First, he says, birth is suffering: human life starts with suffering. In the more poetical words of Oscar Wilde, ‘At the birth of a child or a star there is pain.’ In whatever way it is expressed, this is a great spiritual truth; it is significant that our life begins with suffering.

Birth is certainly physically painful for the mother, and consequently it is often emotionally painful for the father, while for the infant it is, we are told, a traumatic experience. It is very unpleasant to be suddenly thrust forth from a world of total harmony in the womb out into a cold, strange world, to which one is very likely to be welcomed with a slap on the bottom.

Secondly, the Buddha says, old age is suffering. One of the discomforts of old age is physical weakness: you cannot get about in the relaxed, agile way you used to. Then there is loss of memory: you can’t remember names, or where you put things; you are not as agile and flexible intellectually as you were. Where this degeneration becomes senility it is a tragic thing to observe, most especially in once eminent individuals. Perhaps most painful of all, when you are very old you are dependent upon others: you cannot do much for yourself, and you may even need constant looking after by a nurse or by your relations. Despite all modern comforts and amenities – and often as a result of modern advances in medicine – many of us will experience this suffering, especially if we survive to an extreme old age.

Thirdly, sickness is suffering. Whether it is a toothache or an incurable disease like cancer, no sickness is pleasant. It is not just the physical pain that is suffering: there is also the helplessness, the fear, and the frustration of it. Medical science may sometimes palliate the suffering of sickness, but there is no sign at all that we will ever banish it entirely. It seems that no sooner do we get rid of one disease than another comes along. As soon as one virus is defeated, a new, stronger strain of virus arises. And as soon as we feel physically quite healthy, we start to develop all sorts of mental ailments, more and more complex neuroses and mysterious syndromes, all of which involve suffering. Almost any sense of imperfection in our lives can develop into an illness of some sort: stress turns into heart attacks, fatigue turns into syndromes, habit turns into addictions. So it seems that sickness may change its appearance, but it doesn’t go away.

Fourthly, death is suffering. We suffer when those dear to us die; we suffer as we watch the life ebbing from a physical body that we have long associated with the life of a loved one. We suffer in the knowledge that our loved ones will die, and we suffer in the knowledge of our own dissolution. Much of our suffering with regard to death, of course, is simply fear. Most of us will put up with a great deal of suffering before we will choose to die, such is our terror of the inevitable conclusion to our own existence:

The weariest and most loathed worldly life,
That age, ache, penury, and imprisonment
Can lay on nature, is a paradise
To what we fear of death.(footnote 42)

People do not always feel ready to die. They are sorry to leave the scene of their labours and pleasures and achievements. Even if they do want to go, even if they are quite happy to pass on to a new life, or into they know not what, there is still the pain involved in the physical process of dissolution. And with this goes, sometimes, a great deal of mental suffering. Sometimes on their death-beds, people are stricken with remorse: they remember terrible wrongs they have done, dreadful harm and pain they have visited on certain individuals; and they may have, in consequence, fears and apprehensions for the future. All this makes death a horrifying experience for many people, and one which, before it comes, they do their best not to think about.

Fifthly, contact with what one dislikes is suffering. We all know this. It may be that even in our own family there are people with whom we just don’t get on. This is very tragic, especially when it is our own parents or children whom we dislike. Because the tie – even the attachment – of blood is there, well, we have to put up with a certain amount of contact, and this can be painful.

The work we do can also be a source of suffering, if we do it just because we need to earn a living and it is the only work we can get. Again, we may feel that we have to put up with what we dislike, and perhaps work with people we find uncongenial, for periods of time anyway, even though we would rather do something else.

There are, as well, all sorts of environmental conditions which are unpleasant: pollution, noise, weather. It is obviously not possible for everyone to go off and live in a Greek villa. So there seems to be no way of escape – certainly no way of escaping entirely. You just have to live with people, places, things, and conditions that you don’t altogether like.

Sixthly, separation from what one likes is suffering. This can be a very harrowing form of suffering indeed. There are people we would like to be with, to meet more often – relations, friends – but circumstances interpose and it becomes simply impossible. This happens often in time of war, when families are broken up – men conscripted and taken to far-off battlefields, children sent away to places of safety, and people simply disappearing as refugees.

I myself can remember how, when I was in India during the war as a signals operator, many of my friends used to get letters from home regularly every week or so; and then a day might come when the letters would stop. They wouldn’t know what had happened, but they would know that there were bombs falling in England, so after a while they would start suspecting the worst. Eventually, perhaps, they would get the news, either from another relation or officially, that their wife and children, or their parents, or their brothers and sisters, had been killed in an aerial bombardment. This is the most terrible suffering – permanent separation from those we love. Some people never get over such suffering, and brood over their loss for the rest of their lives.

Seventhly, not to get what one wants is suffering. There is little need to elaborate upon this. When you have set your heart on something (or someone) and you fail to achieve your goal, when the prize does not fall to you, then you feel disappointed and frustrated, even bitter. We have all known short-lived experiences of this kind, when we fail to get a job we particularly wanted, or fail to be selected for something, or find that someone else has got to something (or someone) before us.

Some people experience a lifetime of disappointment, frustration, and bitterness if they feel that life has short-changed them in some way – and of course the stronger the desire, the more the suffering. But even just in small ways, it is something with which we are acquainted almost every day, if not every hour – for example, when we find that all the cake has gone.

So these are the seven different aspects of duhkha identified by the Buddha. The Buddha once declared, ‘One thing only do I teach – suffering and the cessation of suffering'(footnote 43) – and emancipation from the bondage of suffering is indeed the keynote of his teaching. In the Pali scriptures he compares himself to a physician who attempts to relieve his patient of a tormenting disease – the disease of conditioned existence with which we are all afflicted.(footnote 44) Of course, we are not always willing patients, as the Buddha clearly found. But on the many occasions when he spoke about suffering, and tried to get people to see it in perspective, he would apparently sum up his discourse by saying that existence as a whole is painful, that the totality of conditioned sentient experience, comprising form, feeling, perceptions, volitions, and consciousness, is unsatisfactory.

Now most people would say that this is going a bit far, that it is a pessimistic, if not morbid view of life. They would say that human existence can by no means be said to be unsatisfactory and painful all the way through. They will admit to birth being painful, they will agree that sickness, old age, and yes, death, are indeed painful. But at the same time they are reluctant to accept the conclusion which follows from all this, which is that conditioned existence itself is suffering. It is as though they admit all the individual digits in the sum, but they won’t accept the total to which those digits add up. They say that yes, there is a certain amount of suffering in the world, but on the whole it’s not such a bad place. Why be so negative? There’s plenty to smile about. While there’s life, there’s hope.

And there is, of course. We have pleasant experiences as well as painful ones. But the Buddhist view is that even the pleasant experiences are at bottom painful. They are really only suffering concealed, glossed over, deferred – a whistling in the dark. And the extent to which we can see this, see the suffering behind the gilding of pleasure, ‘the skull beneath the skin’, depends on our spiritual maturity.

Edward Conze has identified four different aspects of concealed suffering.(footnote 45) Firstly, something that is pleasant for oneself may involve suffering for other people, for other beings. We don’t tend to consider this, of course. If we are all right, if we’re having a good time, we don’t worry too much or too often about others: ‘I’m all right, Jack’ more or less sums up this attitude. The most common example of this is the frank enjoyment with which people eat the flesh of slaughtered animals. They go on merrily plying knife and fork without consciously thinking about the suffering of the animals.

But the unconscious mind is not so easily fooled. You can shut out some unpleasant fact from the conscious mind, but unconsciously you notice everything and you forget nothing. You may never be consciously aware of that unpleasant fact, but it will exert an influence on your mental state that is all the more powerful for being unseen. In this way we develop an ‘irrational’ feeling of guilt, because in the depths of ourselves we know that our own pleasure has been bought at the expense of the suffering of other living beings. This guilt is the source of a great deal of uneasiness and anxiety.

Conze gives the example of wealthy people, who are nearly always afraid of becoming poor. This is, he says, because unconsciously they feel that they don’t deserve to have their money. Unconsciously they feel that it ought to be taken away from them, and consciously they worry that perhaps it will be taken away from them. By contrast, you notice that poor people who may not know where next week’s food is coming from are rarely racked with anxiety over it. They are generally much more relaxed and cheerful than the rich.

Wealthy people may suffer from unconscious guilt feelings because they know, however much they may deny it consciously, that their wealth is ‘tainted’: its acquisition has brought suffering to other people, directly or indirectly. Consequently, they feel a constant need to justify themselves. They say, ‘I earn my money, I contribute to the well-being of the community, I offer a service that people want, I provide employment….’ Or else they say, ‘Well, if I’m rich and other people are poor, it’s because I work harder, I take risks – at least I don’t ask to be spoon-fed….’

If the feeling of guilt gets too much then drastic measures are required to relieve it, and the most drastic measure of all is to give away some of that wealth – to the church, or to a hospital or whatever. Hospitals are a favourite option because you can compensate for the suffering you have caused in acquiring the wealth by giving some of it to alleviate suffering. It is called ‘conscience money’. If one has anything to do with religious organizations, one soon learns to recognize this sort of donation. Sometimes it is just put through the letter box in an envelope inscribed ‘from an anonymous donor’. Then you know that someone’s conscience is really biting.

Conze’s second kind of concealed suffering is a pleasant experience which has a flavour of anxiety to it because you are afraid of losing it. Political power is like this: it is a very sweet thing to exercise power over other people, but you always have to watch your back, not knowing if you can trust even your best friend, or the very guardsmen at your door. All the time you are afraid of losing that power, especially if you have seized it by force, and others are waiting for their own chance to get their hands on it. In such a position you do not sleep easily.

The traditional Buddhist illustration of this kind of experience is that of a hawk flying off with a piece of meat in its talons. What happens, of course, is that dozens of other hawks fly after it to try and seize that piece of meat for themselves, and the way they accomplish this is to tear and stab not at the meat itself but at the possessor of the meat, pecking at its body, its wings, its head, its eyes.(footnote 46) The highly competitive world of finance and business and entertainment is like this. Any pleasure that involves any element of power or status is contaminated by an element of anxiety, by the sense that others would like to be able to replace you at the top of your own particular dunghill.

The third concealed suffering indicated by Dr Conze is something which is pleasant but which binds us to something else that brings about suffering. The example he gives is the human body. Through it we experience all sorts of pleasurable sensations that make us very attached to it; but we experience all sorts of unpleasant sensations through it as well. So our attachment to that which provides us with pleasant sensations binds us also to that which provides us with unpleasant sensations. We can’t have the one without the other.

Lastly, Conze suggests that concealed suffering is to be found in the fact that pleasures derived from the experience of conditioned things cannot satisfy the deepest longings of the heart. In each one of us there is something that is Unconditioned, something that is not of this world, something transcendental, the Buddha-nature – call it what you like. Whatever you call it, you can recognize it by the fact that it cannot be satisfied by anything conditioned. It can be satisfied only by the Unconditioned.

So whatever conditioned things you may enjoy there is always a lack, a void, which only the Unconditioned can fill. Ultimately, it is for this reason that – to come back to the Buddha’s conclusion – all conditioned things, whether actually or potentially, are unsatisfactory, painful. It is in the light of the Unconditioned that suffering, duhkha, is clearly seen as characteristic of all forms of conditioned existence, and of sentient conditioned existence especially.


The second fundamental characteristic of conditioned existence, anitya, is quite easily translated. Nitya is ‘permanent’, ‘eternal’, so with the addition of the negative prefix you get ‘impermanent’, ‘non-eternal’. It is also quite easily understood – intellectually at least. It can hardly be denied that all conditioned things, all compounded things, are constantly changing. They are by definition made up of parts – that is, compounded. And that which is compounded, made up of parts, can also be uncompounded, can be reduced to its parts again – which is what happens, of course, all the time.

It should really be easier to understand this truth nowadays than it was in the Buddha’s day. We now have the authority of science to assure us that there’s no such thing as matter in the sense of actual lumps of hard solid matter scattered throughout space. We know that what we think of as matter is in reality only various forms of energy.

But the same great truth applies to the mind. There is nothing unchanging in our internal experience of ourselves, nothing permanent or immortal. There is only a constant succession of mental states, feelings, perceptions, volitions, acts of consciousness. In fact, the mind changes even more quickly than the physical body. We cannot usually see the physical body changing, but if we are observant we can see our mental states changing from moment to moment.

This is the reason for the Buddha’s (at first sight) rather strange assertion that it is a bigger mistake to identify yourself (as a stable entity) with the mind than with the body.(footnote 47) But this is the Buddhist position. Belief in the reality of the ‘self’ is a bigger spiritual mistake than belief in the reality of the body. This is because the body at least possesses a certain relative stability; but there is no stability to the mind at all. It is constantly, perceptibly changing.

Broadly speaking, the lakshana of anitya points to the fact that the whole universe from top to bottom, in all its grandeur, in all its immensity, is just one vast congeries of processes of different types, taking place at different levels – and all interrelated. Nothing ever stands still, not even for an instant, not even for a fraction of a second.

We do not see this, though. When we look up we see the everlasting hills, and in the night sky we descry the same stars as were mapped by our ancestors at the dawn of history. Houses stand from generation to generation, and the old oak furniture within them seems to become more solid with the passing of the years. Even our own bodies seem much the same from one year to the next. It is only when the increments of change add up to something notable, when a great house is burnt down, when we realize that the star we are looking at is already extinct, or when we ourselves take to our deathbed, that we realize the truth of impermanence or non-eternity, that all conditioned things – from the minutest particles to the most massive stars – begin, continue, and then cease.

Emptiness of Self

The third lakshana, anatman, encapsulates the truth that all conditioned things are devoid of a permanent, unchanging self. So what does this mean exactly? When the Buddha denied the reality of the idea of the atman, what was he actually denying? What was the belief or doctrine of atman held by the Buddha’s contemporaries, the Hindus of his day?

Actually, in the Upanishads alone there are many different conceptions of atman mentioned.(footnote 48) In some it is said that the atman, the self – or the soul, if you like – is the physical body. Elsewhere the view is propounded that the atman is just as big as the thumb, is material, and abides in the heart. But the most common view in the Buddha’s day, the one with which he appears to have been most concerned, asserted that the atman was individual – in the sense that I am I and you are you – incorporeal or immaterial, conscious, unchanging, blissful, and sovereign – in the sense of exercising complete control over its own destiny.

The Buddha maintained that there was no such entity – and he did so by appealing to experience. He said that if you look within, at yourself, at your own mental life, you can account for everything you observe under just five headings: form, feeling, perception, volitions, and acts of consciousness. Nothing discovered in these categories can be observed to be permanent. There is nothing sovereign or ultimately blissful amongst them. Everything in them arises in dependence on conditions, and is unsatisfactory in one way or another. These five categories or aggregates are anatman. They don’t constitute any such self as the Hindus of the Buddha’s day asserted. Such a self exists neither in them nor outside of them nor associated with them in any other way.

The Three Liberations

Seeing conditioned existence, seeing life, in this way, as invariably subject to suffering, to impermanence, to emptiness of self, is called vipashyana (Sanskrit) or vipassana (Pali), which translates into English as ‘insight’.

Insight is not just intellectual understanding. It can be developed only on the basis of a controlled, purified, elevated, concentrated, integrated mind – in other words, through meditative practice. Insight is a direct intuitive perception that takes place in the depths of meditation when the ordinary mental processes have fallen into abeyance. A preliminary intellectual understanding of these three characteristics is certainly helpful, but ultimately, insight is something that transcends the intellectual workings of the mind.

So in meditation, through insight, you see that without exception everything you experience through the five senses and through the mind – everything you can feel and touch and smell and taste and see and think about – is conditioned, is subject to suffering, is impermanent, is empty of self. When you see things in this way then you experience what is technically called revulsion or disgust, and you turn away from the conditioned. It is important to note that this is a spiritual experience, not just a psychological reaction; you turn away not because you are personally repelled by things as such, but because you see that the conditioned is not, on its own terms, worth having. When that turning away from the conditioned to the Unconditioned takes place decisively, it is said that you enter the ‘stream’ leading to nirvana.

At this point we have to guard against a misunderstanding. Some schools of Buddhism think of the conditioned and the Unconditioned as though they were two quite different entities, two ultimate principles in a kind of philosophical dualism. But it isn’t like that. It isn’t that on the one hand you have the conditioned and on the other you have the Unconditioned, with a sort of vast gap between them. They are more like two poles. Some Buddhist schools even say that the Unconditioned is the conditioned itself when the conditioned is seen in its ultimate depths, or in a new, higher dimension, as it were.(footnote 49) The Unconditioned is reached by knowing the conditioned deeply enough, by going right to the bottom of the conditioned and coming out the other side (so to speak). In other words, the conditioned and the Unconditioned are, in a way, the two sides of the same coin.

This perspective, which is a very important one to take in, is brought into focus by a teaching – common to all schools – called the three vimokshas, or ‘liberations’.(footnote 50) They are also sometimes called the three samadhis, or the three ‘doors’: the three doors through which we can approach Enlightenment.

The first of these liberations is apranihita, the ‘unaiming’ or ‘unbiased’. It is a mental state without any inclination in any direction, without likes or dislikes, perfectly still, perfectly poised. Thus it is an ‘approach’ to the Unconditioned, but it’s an approach which is by way of not going in any particular direction. You only want to go in a particular direction when you have a concept of that direction and a desire to go in it. If there’s no particular direction in which you want to go, then you just, as it were, stay at rest. This state can be compared to a perfectly round sphere on a perfectly flat plane. Because the plane is absolutely level, the perfect sphere doesn’t roll in any particular direction. The vimoksha of directionlessness is rather like this. It’s a state of absolute equanimity in which one has no egoistic motive for doing – or not doing, even – anything. So this is an avenue of approach to reality, to Enlightenment.

The second liberation, the second door to the Unconditioned, is animitta, the ‘signless’. Nimitta literally means a sign, but it can also mean a word or a concept; so the animitta is the approach to the Unconditioned by bypassing all words and all thoughts. This is a very distinctive experience. When you have it, you realize that all words, all concepts, are totally inadequate. Not that they’re not very adequate, but that actually they don’t mean anything at all. This is another door through which one approaches the absolute, the Unconditioned. The animitta is a state in which one prescinds all concepts of reality. In other words, one doesn’t think about reality. I don’t mean that one ‘doesn’t think about it’ in the ordinary way in which one doesn’t think about reality. After all, we could say that most of us, most of the time, don’t give much thought to reality at all. But on the attainment of this vimoksha one has, as it were, reached the level of reality but one doesn’t think about reality. One realizes that no words, no concepts, can possibly apply; indeed, one doesn’t even have the concept of non-applicability. This is the vimoksha or samadhi of signlessness or imagelessness.

And the third liberation is shunyata, the voidness or emptiness. In this state you see that everything is, as it were, completely transparent. Nothing has any own-being, nothing has any self-identity. In the language of the Perfection of Wisdom, the ‘Prajnaparamita’, things are what they are because they are not what they are – one can only express it paradoxically. This is the vimoksha of emptiness.

The three liberations represent different aspects of the Unconditioned; that is, they show the Unconditioned from different points of view, which are also different ways of realizing it. You can penetrate into the Unconditioned through the unbiased, through the signless, and through voidness. However, as we have already said, you attain the Unconditioned by knowing the conditioned in its depths. Thus we can also say that you penetrate to the three liberations through attention to the three lakshanas. That is, each of the three liberations can be reached through understanding deeply enough its corresponding lakshana. In this way the three lakshanas themselves can be seen as doors to liberation.

If you look deeply enough at the essentially unsatisfactory nature of conditioned existence, then you will realize the Unconditioned as being without bias. This is because when you see the suffering inherent in conditioned things, you lose interest in the goals and aims and purposes of conditioned existence. You are quite still and poised, without inclination towards this or that, without any desire or direction for yourself. Hence when you go into the conditioned through the aspect of suffering you go into the Unconditioned through the aspect of the unbiased.

Alternatively, when you concentrate on the conditioned as being impermanent, transitory, without fixed identity, then going to the bottom of that – and coming out the other side, so to speak – you realize the Unconditioned as the signless. Your realization is of the emptiness of all concepts, you transcend all thought; you realize, if you like, ‘the eternal’ – though not the eternal that continues through time, but the eternal which transcends time.

And thirdly, if you concentrate on the conditioned as devoid of self, devoid of individuality, devoid of I, devoid of you, devoid of me, devoid of mine, then you approach, you realize, the Unconditioned as shunyata, as the voidness. What ‘the voidness’ is, we shall be going on to consider.

As for the present chapter, however, our aim has been to throw some light on the subject of the three lakshanas, the three characteristics of conditioned existence. They are of central importance not just in Buddhist philosophy but in the Buddhist spiritual life. According to the Buddha, we don’t really see conditioned existence until we learn to see it in these terms. If we see anything else, that’s just an illusion, just a projection. And once we start seeing the conditioned as essentially unsatisfactory, impermanent, and empty of self, then little by little we begin to get a glimpse of the Unconditioned, a glimpse that is our essential guide on the Buddhist path.

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38: Nanamoli p.10 (Majjhima-Nikaya 26).
39: See Mahagovinda Sutta (Majjhima-Nikaya 19), verse 45.
40: The three lakshanas are enumerated in many places in the Pali Canon – see, for example, Samyutta-Nikaya xxxv.1; xxii.46; Udana iii.10; Anguttara-Nikaya iii.47. The locus classicus is Dhammapada 277-9.
41: See Nanamoli p.43 for a brief reference. Of the many canonical references, perhaps the reflections of the Buddha in section 18 of the Mahasatipatthana Sutta (Digha-Nikaya 22) are especially worth consulting.
42: Shakespeare, Measure for Measure, III.i.128-31.
43: Majjhima-Nikaya, i.135.
44: See, for example, Itivuttaka section 100.
45: See Edward Conze, Buddhism, Cassirer, Oxford 1957, pp.46-48.
46: See Vinaya Pitaka, Culavagga i.
47: Nanamoli p.230; Samyutta-Nikaya xii.61.
48: Of the many texts which bear the name Upanishad, there are thirteen principal ones. They originate from the period 8th to 4th century bce, and form the basis of the school of Hindu philosophy known as the Vedanta. The atman is one of their main themes.
49: The Tantra in particular sees things in this way, with its teaching of the sahaja or innate nature of reality; see page 54.
50: These three liberations are referred to in one of the texts of the Abhidhamma Pitaka of the Pali Canon, the Patisambhidhamagga ii.58. Buddhaghosa goes into them in some detail in his Visuddhimagga xxi.66-71.

What is Nirvana?

Buddha from Manchester Buddhist Centre

Nirvana (Nibbana in Pali)

Written for the AQA syllabus by Robert Ellis, formerly a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order and a former Head of RS in a 6th-form college.

Buddhists are often careful about saying too much about nirvana. It is discussed as the final goal, but also understood to be a state we cannot fully comprehend. So, it is important to keep it in mind as a source of inspiration, but at the same time to avoid reducing it to a mere ‘thing’, an object in samsara like our other, more immediate goals.

The primary way in which Buddhists relate to the ideal of nirvana is naturally through the Buddha. The Buddha personally embodies and symbolises nirvana. The Buddha reminds us that nirvana is not a place, but the state reached by a person. The qualities of ultimate wisdom and compassion possessed by the Buddha are also the ones we would expect to possess ourselves if we attained nirvana. The Buddha as a person also gives nirvana its mystery, since he attained that state during his lifetime but then, according to the traditional stories, passed on to a state known as parinirvana, where there is no rebirth. The Buddha refused to state whether he existed or did not exist in the state of parinirvana.

Descriptions of nirvana can be divided into four categories: the negative. the positive, the paradoxical and the symbolic.

Negative descriptions

Negative descriptions are likely to be the most accurate, since language is unable to decribe nirvana, and any positive descriptions are likely to give a partial or even misleading impression of it. Negative descriptions have a philosophical flavour.

An important negative description is attributed to the Buddha in the Udana:

There is, monks, that plane where there is neither extension, nor motion, nor the plane of infinite ether…. nor that of neither-perception-nor-non-perception, neither this world nor another, neither the moon nor the sun. here, monks, I say that there is no coming or going or remaining or deceasing or uprising, for this is itself without support, without continuance in samsara, without mental object – this is itself the end of suffering.
There is, monks, an unborn, not become, unmade, uncompounded, and were it not, monks, for this unborn, not become, not made, uncompounded, no escape could be shown here for what is born, has become, is made, is compounded. But because there is, monks, an unborn, not become, unmade, uncompounded, therefore an escape can be shown, for what is born, has become, is made, is compounded.

The Buddha here continually describes nirvana in terms of what it is not, simply on the grounds that this is the only way the unenlightened can relate to it with any accuracy. Nevertheless, he seems to be affirming its existence. Whether the Buddha here just stating what he believes from his own experience, or whether he also thinks that his followers must believe it, is more debatable: for it seems that anything that we may believe in about nirvana is likely to be misleading.

Positive Descriptions

Attempts to describe enlightenment in a positive way can be sub-divided according to the terms in which they describe it: as feeling or emotion, as knowledge, as will, as consciousness, and as a form (rupa).

As Feeling or Emotion nirvana is described as the supreme bliss or enjoyment, a peace which is beyond all earthly turmoil, as love (maitri/metta) or as compassion (Karuna). The description of enlightenment as an outward-flowing energy of love and compassion is particularly stressed in the Mahayana. But what is the difference between the love experienced by the enlightened and by the unenlightened? Whilst we only love beings whom we mistakenly think of as individuals, an enlightened being loves beings even whilst recognising that they are impermanent, without self, and ultimately empty of form.

As Knowledge (Vidya) nirvana is described as perfect wisdom or insight, as knowledge of things as they really are. This really becomes less a matter of knowing but of seeing, of being without illusions. This does not mean the Buddha is omniscient in the sense of knowing all facts, or that he can never make mistakes because of facts that he does not know. A famous story of a mistake by the Buddha is when he recommended meditation on death to a group of monks who subsequently committed suicide: he seems not to have realised that they were not positive enough to cope with that type of meditation.

As Will, nirvana is described as absolute freedom from all bonds and restrictions. Even things which we might perceive as done under a sense of duty and responsibility to others are done absolutely freely. The enlightened person is normally described as still subject to normal physical restrictions (such as gravity) and freed only in a mental sense: although the reports of miracles performed by the Buddha and of the siddhas (magical powers) attained by great meditators seem to contradict this.

As Consciousness. Enlightened beings are said to experience a pure, blissful, radiant and infinite state of consciousness, free of the defiling habits and tendencies produced by karma. One puzzle in relation to this is that the Buddha still meditated, so perhaps even in a state of enlightenment he needed to renew his mental energies from time to time.

As Form (Rupa) The ideal of enlightenment is expressed by Buddhists in many symbolic forms, including the stupa and the mandala. However the most common is the Buddha-figure or rupa. This makes it possible to relate to the incomprehensible ideas of enlightenment and to inspire oneself to seek it through devotion.

Paradoxical Descriptions

A paradox is an attempt to describe the indescribable by the use of contradictory ideas brought forcibly together. This throws the intellect off the scent, leaving the intuition with a better chance of understanding what is meant. This kind of description of Enlightenment is favoured by the Mahayana, especially the Prajñaparamita and Zen traditions: its aim is to make us more aware that there is in fact no satisfactory verbal description. Nirvana should be attained by means of non-attainment. One should abide in a state of non-abiding. Nirvana is in fact no different from samsara, and samsara the same as nirvana. There is no path and no goal.

Symbolical Descriptions

Symbolical descriptions of nirvana avoid the drawback of leading us into thinking that nirvana is only an abstract idea: they fill it with colour and allow it to speak to the unconscious as well as the conscious mind, though they may be a trap for those who take them too literally. At their simplest these are just metaphors: Nirvana is a Cool Cave, the Island in the Floods, the Farther Shore, the Holy City.

A more complex symbolical description of enlightenment is found in two Mahayana scriptures called the Greater and Lesser Sukhavati-Vyuha Sutras, these describe the ‘Happy Land’ or Sukhavati, which is said to be a land in which enlightenment can be easily achieved in one lifetime. For this reason, followers of the Pure Land Schools of Japanese and Chinese Buddhism think of their goal as being reborn in the Pure land rather than as attaining enlightenment directly. The descriptions of the Pure Land can be interpreted as an attempt to describe enlightenment in images which will inspire the unenlightened. Sangharakshita provides a summary of it:

Nirvana is expressed not abstractly but in terms of a harmonious disposition of images aglow with supernatural life and movement. Though music and perfumes are not absent, the impression is predominantly one of light and colour. Against a background of radiance millions of rays and beams spring up, intersect, and weave themselves into incredibly beautiful patterns. Rainbows appear and disappear. There is a shining forth as of silver and gold and everything flashes as though with strings and nets of multicoloured gems. Flowers fall like rain. At the centre of this blaze of splendour, its focal point and its crown, sits as Lord of the Happy land the Buddha of the Mahayana, the rays converging into a canopy above his head, the flowers at his feet, and his unnumbered auditors ranged in attitudes of expectancy and devotion on all sides.

Questions to Consider
1. What is unsatisfactory about each of the types of description? Make a list of the difficulties associated with each.
2. What are the advantages of each type of description? Are there any which appeal to you more than the others?

Problems relating to nirvana

In the Questions of King Milinda, a number of traditional difficulties associated with nirvana are explored, in response to questions from the sceptical Greek king. These include how we know nirvana to be good, how it can be caused when it is unconditioned, and whether the enlightened feel pleasure.

Read Buddhist Scriptures p.155-162, making notes on the problems and the solutions Nagasena provides. Also discuss whether or not you are convinced by the solutions he offers.

Further Reading
Cush p.29-33 & 68-9
Sangharakshita Guide p.202-210
Williams Buddhist Thought p.47-52

Past questions
Outline the understanding of nibbana found in Theravada Buddhism, and assess the claim that nibbana cannot be defined with any degree of accuracy.


Buddha statue face

Madhyamika Teachings and Sunyata

Written for the AQA syllabus by Robert Ellis, formerly a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order and a former Head of RS in a 6th-form college.

The teachings of the Madhyamika School developed from about the 2nd Century CE, and are chiefly associated with the great Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna. There are many legends about Nagarjuna, including one that he gained his profound philosophy from the nagas: a serpent-like intelligent race who live under the sea, after whom he is named. This can be taken as a metaphor for the profound depths of meditation he needed to reach in order to create his philosophy.

In some ways, though, the philosophy of Nagarjuna is a philosophical explanation of the Perfection of Wisdom (Prajñaparamita) tradition that was central to the development of the Mahayana. It will be helpful to get some idea of this first.

The Perfection of Wisdom

You will recall that amongst the Six (or Ten) Perfections of the Bodhisattva is the Perfection of Wisdom. It is in order to guide the aspiring bodhisattva in the Perfection of Wisdom that a number of ‘Perfection of Wisdom’ texts developed in the early Mahayana. These included The Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Verses, The Diamond Sutra, and the very short and concise Heart Sutra. All of these have one central message, which is that wisdom is found by no longer being attached to concepts and ceasing to believe that words map onto reality. A lot of the Perfection of Wisdom literature is sceptical in the best sense of the word, in that it is continually trying to make us aware of what we do not know and get us to question our most basic assumptions.

The Heart Sutra is so short it can be reproduced in full below. From it you can see many of the characteristics of a Mahayana Sutra, as well as the central paragraph of Perfection of Wisdom teaching. Notice how it is apparently set in a real place in India, although there are no further realistic details. In this case the teaching is summarised in a mantra (the Perfection of Wisdom Mantra) which summarises the teaching and helps Buddhists to remember and venerate it through frequent repetition.

Thus have I heard. Once the Blessed One was dwelling in Rajagriha at Vulture Peak mountain, together with a great gathering of the sangha of monks and a great gathering of the sangha of bodhisattvas.
At that time the Blessed One entered the samadhi that expresses the dharma called “profound illumination,” and at the same time noble Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva mahasattva, while practicing the profound prajnaparamita, saw in this way: he saw the five skandhas to be empty of nature.
Then, through the power of the Buddha, venerable Shariputra said to noble Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva mahasattva, “How should a son or daughter of noble family train, who wishes to practice the profound prajnaparamita?”Addressed in this way, noble Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva mahasattva, said to venerable Shariputra, “O Shariputra, a son or daughter of noble family who wishes to practice the profound prajnaparamita should see in this way: seeing the five skandhas to be empty of nature. Form is emptiness; emptiness also is form. Emptiness is no other than form; form is no other than emptiness. In the same way, feeling, perception, formation, and consciousness are emptiness. Thus, Shariputra, all dharmas are emptiness. There are no characteristics. There is no birth and no cessation. There is no impurity and no purity. There is no decrease and no increase. Therefore, Shariputra, in emptiness, there is no form, no feeling, no perception, no formation, no consciousness; no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind; no appearance, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, no dharmas, no eye dhatu up to no mind dhatu, no dhatu of dharmas, no mind consciousness dhatu; no ignorance, no end of ignorance up to no old age and death, no end of old age and death; no suffering, no origin of suffering, no cessation of suffering, no path, no wisdom, no attainment, and no non-attainment. Therefore, Shariputra, since the bodhisattvas have no attainment, they abide by means of prajnaparamita.Since there is no obscuration of mind, there is no fear. They transcend falsity and attain complete nirvana. All the buddhas of the three times, by means of prajnaparamita, fully awaken to unsurpassable, true, complete enlightenment. Therefore, the great mantra of prajnaparamita, the mantra of great insight, the unsurpassed mantra, the unequaled mantra, the mantra that calms all suffering, should be known as truth, since there is no deception. The prajnaparamita mantra is said in this way:
Thus, Shariputra, the bodhisattva mahasattva should train in the profound prajnaparamita.
Then the Blessed One arose from that samadhi and praised noble Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva mahasattva, saying, “Good, good, O son of noble family; thus it is, O son of noble family, thus it is. One should practice the profound prajnaparamita just as you have taught and all the tathagatas will rejoice.”When the Blessed One had said this, venerable Shariputra and noble Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva mahasattva, that whole assembly and the world with its gods, humans, asuras, and gandharvas rejoiced and praised the words of the Blessed One.

Samadhi – Highly concentrated and inspired state gained through meditation, including both jhana and insight
Mahasattva – Great being (a title)
Shariputra – one of the best known disciples of the Buddha
Dharmas – Phenomena or things as they appear to us. We will be discussing this term more shortly
Dhatu – realm or sphere
Gate – (Pronounced “gartay”) gone (from samsara)
Paragate – Gone beyond
Parasamgate – Utterly gone beyond
Asuras – Titans or jealous gods, as in the realm on the Wheel of Life
Gandharvas – Legendary spirit-beings

See if you can identify the core Buddhist teachings which are referred to in the long central paragraph.
What is being said about these teachings, and what is its significance?

What it is most important to remember when looking at Perfection of Wisdom literature is that it was all originally used in a context of positive practice. Thus, although it seems to just consist in a series of negative statements, these had a positive purpose in helping people to overcome attachments: even attachments to Buddhist teachings. Overcoming these attachments is obviously not a priority if you don’t have them in the first place, and Buddhists will first cultivate a reverence for the teachings before making use of this kind of critique of them, in order to reach a balanced and positive view in the end.

Madhyamika Philosophy

It is against this background that the Madhyamika philosophy developed, to give a more detailed conceptual understanding of the ideas that lie behind texts like the Heart Sutra. The term ‘Madhyamika’ just means ‘Middle Way’, and the teachings follow the Middle Way not just practically, but philosophically in accepting neither positive nor negative teachings in words of any sort as completely true. If we cannot put the truth in concepts, the alternative is the acceptance of Shunyata, a term usually translated as ‘Emptiness’ (though ‘Insubstantiality’ might be better).

The Madhyamika developed in the context of a philosophical debate about the status of dharmas, which is vital for understanding Madhyamika philosophy. Dharmas (not to be confused with Dharma, the Buddhist teaching or religious truth) are phenomena, the smallest possible building blocks of our experience. Examples of dharmas might be an experience of red, the experience of making a choice, or a feeling of sadness: both internal experiences (such as thoughts and feelings) and external ones from the senses (colours, sounds, smells etc) are included, but to be a dharma it an experience must be impossible to break down or analyse into anything simpler. The experience of seeing a delicious pastry, for example, can be broken down into the many different colours I perceive in the pastry, plus the internal dharma of my desire to eat it which affects my whole experience of it.

[Note to those who have studied Philosophy: the idea of a dharma here bears a close resemblance to the simple impressions of Hume, which could be either internal or external. However, the purpose and use of the concept is entirely different.]
Which of these experiences is a dharma, and which could be further analysed into dharmas?
1. A thought about what I might have for lunch
2. Hearing the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony
3. Seeing the yellowness of a banana
4. A feeling of dislike for someone
5. Pain in the knees after falling over
6. Hearing a dog bark
7. Feeling the hard metal of a coin as I pay for something in a shop

The Hinayana interpretation of the dharmas

The third and more technical basket of the Pali Canon, the Abhidhamma Pitaka, is concerned with the analysis of these dharmas. It offered an extremely detailed analysis of all the elements of human experience, in doing so creating the world’s first psychology. It did this with one main aim, to aid non-attachment to these dharmas. If we know about the ways in which experiences can be analysed, this can aid our mindfulness of them. This is particularly obvious in the case of a feeling of desire or hatred: if I think “Oh, that’s just an experience of hatred type 37b”, I am much less likely to get carried away by it.

In the Hinayana schools by the time of the rise of the Mahayana, however, there developed an interpretation of this analysis which the Mahayana objected to. This was the view that all dharmas have own-being (svabhava). This means that you can gain non-attachment simply through the process of analysing experiences into dharmas. Each of these dharmas then exists in its own right. The Hinayana schools believed that to go any further would be nihilistic, because if the dharmas did not exist then nothing could exist. The basis of the Buddha’s message for them (including the anatta teaching), is that all these complex experiences that we get attached to are just made up of dharmas, but of course the dharmas exist themselves. The Theravada still hold to this view.

Mahayana objections to this view

However, the Mahayana schools took a very different view of the dharmas. To them, to claim that the dharmas ultimately existed is in direct contradiction to the Buddha’s teaching of anatta, or insubstantiality. The Mahayana took this to mean that all phenomena are insubstantial, even the simplest possible ones. This general view was in turn interpreted in two different ways by the two main philosophical schools in the Mahayana. In the Yogacara, all dharmas are mind-only, but in the Madhyamika, all dharmas are Shunyata, empty or hollow.

To claim that all dharmas are Shunyata means that they neither exist, nor do they not exist. We simply cannot say anything about their existence because we have no way of knowing for sure whether they exist or not based on our own perceptions. We simply have to come to terms with our ignorance and dwell in the Middle Way of uncertainty. This position can also be described as non-dualism, i.e. accepting neither side of the duality of things existing or not existing.

For philosophers like Nagarjuna, this way of thinking about dharmas was the natural implication of Early Buddhist teachings on insubstantiality, the Middle Way, and dependent origination. One could also point to the Buddha’s refusal to give answers to any other metaphysical questions (questions that cannot be answered on the basis of experience) such as whether or not he continued to exist after Parinirvana, or whether the universe is infinite or not. From the Madhyamika perspective, either to affirm these things or to deny them leads into one kind of error or another. If we were to claim that all dharmas exist, this would be to get attached to the idea of their existence, whereas to deny that they exist might lead to a negative denial of the world.

Madhyamika Arguments

Nagarjuna supported his position by a number of arguments. Most of these attack the idea that dharmas could be independently existent, which an implication of having own-being:

  • Following the teaching of dependent origination, all phenomena are dependent on other phenomena, and do not exist independently. If all phenomena are dependent, they cannot ultimately exist separately.
  • The fact that we conventionally recognise things around as existing does not mean that they really do exist. We must make a distinction between conventional and absolute truth.
  • Following the Buddha’s teaching on impermanence, all dharmas are constantly changing. Yet if they were independently existent, they would never change. Independently existing dharmas would be eternal
  • If all dharmas existed independently, then they could not cause or condition each other. But experience tells us that causes and conditions are possible, so dharmas must be constantly interrelated and interdependent.

Are you convinced by these arguments? How do you think Hinayanists would reply?

The Shunyata Practice

The practical background to the teachings on Shunyata was a continuing practice of the Eightfold Path in its different elements. The teaching on Shunyata was particularly applied in meditation, so as to create a form of vipassana meditation systematically reflecting on it and overcoming successive layers of attachment. The same format can also be used for a set-piece debate, of a kind which is still used in the training of Tibetan monks. The meditation falls into several set stages:

  1. 1. The independent or inherent existence of dharmas is systematically refuted by going through set stages of reasoning. Terms are clarified and the value of the conventional is also recalled. For example:
    The inherent existence of the self is empty.
    If the self was inherently existent, it would be the same as the five skandhas or different
    Since the five skandhas are empty, if the self is the same as the five skandhas then it is empty.
    If it is different from the five skandhas, the inherent self is different from our experience of it. Since the self is an experience, this would be contradictory.
  2. 2. The meditator then gains concentration through samatha practice until jhana is gained, then returns to the reflection. Reflection is then alternated with samatha practice. Eventually the two fuse and insight is gained, because the emotional and physical resistance to the truth of Shunyata has been overcome.
  3. 3. All the remaining conceptual elements of this insight are then gradually removed. This will include attachment to the idea of Shunyata itself, which can be overcome by reflecting on the emptiness of emptiness. Direct, non-dual understanding of Shunyata is then achieved. ‘When he arises from his meditation, the meditator still sees inherent existence, but knows this is not how things are, and he is like a magician viewing his own creations.’ (Paul Williams)

Read and take notes from the article on ‘Dhamma and Non-Duality’ from the Buddhist Publication Society Newsletter. This is by a Theravadin, Bhikkhu Bodhi, who is pointing out the disadvantages of the Madhyamika Philosophy from his point of view. He uses the Threefold Path as his structure, and points out disadvantages in the Madhyamika view in the practice of all three elements of the Threefold Path: make sure you note these arguments down clearly. When you have done this, discuss whether you agree with his arguments against the Madhyamika view.

Further Reading
Especially recommended extension activity: take notes on one or both of these*:
*Cush p. 106-110
*Williams Buddhist Thought p.140-152
Harvey An introduction to Buddhism p.95-104
Williams Mahayana Buddhism ch.3

Past questions in AQA syllabus
1. Explain the main teachings on Sunyata as presented by Nagarjuna in the Madhyamaka school of Buddhism
2. Outline Nagarjuna’s teaching on samsara and nirvana, and assess the view that ‘Nagarjuna’s teachings are a radical departure from the traditional teachings of Gotama.’
3. Outline Madhyamika teachings on Sunyata (emptiness), and assess the claim that Nagarjuna taught nothing on Sunyata that the Buddha himself had not already taught.

Buddhist Teachings

What is a karma?

Some people say that the principle of Karma can be summed up in the phrase ‘actions have consequences’, but it says a lot more than this. As the teaching of the five niyamas illustrates, Karma is not a general law of causation. It is not even a general law of action. It is a practical teaching that underpins Buddhist ethics. It accounts for how our deliberate behaviour leads not only to the transformation of our moral character – for better or worse – but our relationships with other people, and even the world that we live in. So what exactly makes an act a karma?

The Importance of Intention

Remember that in Brahmanism, a karma was a ritual act – its effectiveness depended on the proper execution of a specified ritual. Karmas had prescribed values, which generated a certain quantity of merit (or demerit) irrespective of the individual actor’s state of mind. But the Buddha understood Karma in quite a different way. He saw that the intention (cetana) or volition that motivates an action is what is most important.(footnote 45) Any overt physical or verbal behaviour is secondary (though not insignificant).(This point is debated in the Upali Sutta in the Majjhima Nikaya)

So the karmic value of an action cannot be known by observing just its surface form; it requires an understanding of the motivation that gave rise to it. This motivation is not always obvious, since two actions may seem superficially similar but be inspired by contrary motives. For example, let’s say two people give me presents, even the same present. The first does so because he wants to suck up to me in order that he may later borrow my car whereas the second has noticed that I am a bit down and wants to cheer me up. The two actions will have different karmic values because they are driven by different intentions, so they will have different consequences (even if I am taken in by the bribery).

Intentions can broadly be classified into two kinds or modes: skilful (kusala) and unskilful (akusala). Skilful intentions are born from generosity, compassion, and understanding; unskilful intentions are rooted in craving, aversion, and spiritual ignorance, collectively known as the three unwholesome roots (lobha, dvesa, and moha). Skilful actions are said to lead to desirable consequences and unskilful actions to undesirable ones. Learning to discriminate between skilful and unskilful desires, and acting on the skilful, is the foundation of Buddhist ethics. In practice, though, our motives are usually mixed – some skilful, some unskilful – and this will have a bearing on the resulting consequences.

But what is an intention? It is a deliberately willed action carried out by a being capable of moral judgement. This means that only beings able to deliberate about their moral choices and consciously direct their behaviour can perform karmas. So Karma does not apply to animals, babies, or severely mentally impaired people (in so far as they are unable to make moral distinctions and reflective decisions). But willed action has to be understood here broadly.

There are many actions which we will, but of which we are not particularly conscious while they are happening. For instance, when we drive a car we are willing the gear changes, braking, acceleration, and so on, but our mind may be on ‘automatic’. Despite not always being conscious of our willing from moment to moment, we are still making a choice – to drive the car – so we must bear responsibility for the consequences of this. How our actions will modify our own future, the world around us, and the responses of others will be influenced by the degree to which there is ‘intentional weight’ behind our conduct. While our habitual, semi-conscious behaviour probably makes up the bulk of our karmic activity, some singular acts may be decisive in determining our karmic future.

Sometimes people are coerced into doing things that they would not normally do, things they even believe are wrong. And yet, through fear, they still do them. Are these intentional acts? Rather than pursue a legal definition of intention, let’s look at an example. As a result of the ‘Great Escape’ of Allied aircrew from Stalag Luft III in the Second World War, Hitler ordered the execution of fifty of the recaptured escapees. One German soldier was ordered to shoot two of these men, an act that went against his own conscience and the conventions of war, yet he went ahead and shot them anyway – perhaps out of fear of reprisals from the SS. After the event the soldier felt deep remorse for his action but was still arrested and hanged by the Allies.

Despite his moral misgivings, the soldier chose to obey a wicked order and so must bear responsibility for this. This is a tragic story and probably few of us are likely to face such difficult choices – perhaps we would all act in the same way in the same circumstances – but, importantly, where there is choice there is moral responsibility and so karma. The soldier felt remorse because he knew that he had had a choice; he had chosen to value his own life above that of the airmen. While we must surely sympathize with his situation, it is nevertheless choices of this kind that enable dictators to remain in power.

It is worth noticing that spiritual ignorance is classed as unskilful. This means that we could act from seemingly positive motives and still behave unskilfully. A well-known proverb declares that ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’ and this holds good in relation to karma. The fact that ‘I meant well’ will not absolve me from the consequences of my lack of forethought. It is our responsibility to think through the potential consequences of what we do. For Buddhism, ignorance is a disposition; lack of awareness is a bad habit rather than an inevitable – and therefore excusable – condition of our being. To perpetuate our state of ignorance rather than overcome it is volitional and therefore has karmic implications.

Crucially, in Buddhism ‘action’ includes acts not only of the body but also of speech and mind. So even the thoughts that we don’t act upon have karmic weight – not least because they play a significant role in the way that we colour our experience. More profoundly, we become what we think. Once we have learned to behave in a reasonably civilized way, thoughts, rather than overt actions, are likely to become our most influential karmas. Somewhat paradoxically, an overt action discharged on the basis of a fairly weak volition may, in some cases, be of less karmic significance than a constantly cherished thought that does not find physical expression. For instance, let’s say that I go to my housemate’s room and borrow some of his books, forgetting that he likes to be asked. This is called, in Buddhism, taking the not-given. But the karmic effect of this act may be less decisive than my daily practice of metta, or loving-kindness, through which I deliberately cultivate positive emotions towards him. For Buddhism, thoughts are acts and have their own consequences, not least because sooner or later they are likely to be expressed verbally or physically.

While a karma is fundamentally an intention or volition, overt behaviour is also very important. It is, for instance, quite different to think vaguely about taking my friend a bunch of flowers when I go to visit him than actually to do so. Both the fantasy and the overt action are no doubt skilful karmas, but the latter demands more commitment and determination and will have more significant consequences in all sorts of ways.

‘Action’ can also include ‘omission’, particularly when I have made a promise to act or have a duty to do so. All parents, for instance, have a duty to protect, feed, and clothe their children. If they do not fulfil their obligations and harm comes to their children, they must bear the moral responsibility (and may also be held legally accountable). But moral duties of this kind are not always clear-cut. How far does our duty to help the starving in the developing countries extend, for instance? If we didn’t contribute to a famine appeal, would we be implicated in the consequent deaths of those who received no food? Looked at from this point of view, our duty to assist others becomes an impossible burden, as there are so many beings in need. But let’s say that when we hear about the appeal on the news, we stifle our urge to give, at the very least we will be starving the impulse within us that seeks to reach out and respond to the suffering of others. This itself is a karmic consequence that will transform the kind of person we become. The more we ignore the positive ethical impulses that spark within us, the more we erode our moral sensibility.

Another way of talking about Karma is to say that it is about choice, but choice as understood in a broader sense than usual. Let me explain. A significant choice – and one that we were very much behind at the time – might lead us to embark on a series of actions. When we make the first choice we are, as it were, also choosing the possible consequences of that choice. Understanding this point is crucial in deepening our ethical sensitivity. If we reflect on it, our understanding of the gravity of the present moment may well intensify, because we will realize that what we are about to do may set in train a series of events that will have repurcussions far into the future. We usually think very little about the choices we make, but just a little imagination can enable us to realize how even quite casual decisions can significantly determine our destiny.

For example, some years ago, a young merchant banker called Nick Leeson, who worked for Barings Bank, decided to speculate on the stock market using bank funds. He thought he would make some money, replace the funds, and no one would be any the wiser. But he lost money. To win it back and cover up his deceit, he invested still more of Barings’ funds, but he lost more money. He then began cooking the books in order to cover up his mistakes, lost more money, and eventually brought about the collapse of the bank. He was later arrested and imprisoned. At first he had no thought about bringing down the bank, or even defrauding it, but his first gamble led him into a series of further gambles which resulted in consequences that he neither foresaw nor welcomed. This nightmarish scenario of life spiralling out of control could happen to anyone.

So we make choices at different levels. While in principle we are completely free, in practice we can only exercise our freedom by committing ourselves to a particular course of action. By definition, we cannot then follow others, so any choice involves a narrowing of subsequent choices and this can leave us with an undesirable choice – one we would rather not make, but we are obliged to. Any major life decision is likely to bind us to other decisions that we hadn’t foreseen and might not want to go along with. In making the first choice, we are choosing these too. Learning to imagine the consequences of our decisions can lead us to act in a more reflective, intelligent, and conscious way. This heightens our awareness of the gravity of the present moment; what we do will change the world, however imperceptibly. We will have to live with the consequences of our decisions.

Spiritually evolving individuals are not only more able to take responsibility for their choices but also, as they grow, recover more choice. How is this so? The relatively unaware person stumbles through life making decisions with huge implications, but often without recognizing that they have done so. Because they don’t recognize they have made choices, they cannot review or change them, so they experience life as though it is directed by forces outside their control. As a result, they may end up blaming other people – usually an authority such as the government – because they are in a situation that they don’t like and they feel unable to change it. But as soon as we discard the belief that we can determine our own lives, we disenfranchise ourselves, we become victims, and spiritual progress becomes a matter of accident rather than personal responsibility.

Choice in the karmic sense is not always obvious. Just because we fail to consider doing things differently, or are unaware that we could do so, doesn’t mean that we have no choice. Lack of awareness is itself a choice, a habit, that we perpetuate moment by moment as long as we do nothing about it. In the course of our daily activities we don’t consciously register many of our choices, which may partly explain why we sometimes feel resentful at some of their implications. The spiritual life involves becoming more and more aware of the choices we make, how we make those choices, moment by moment, and changing them in the light of our best values.

Not all the choices we make have the same karmic weight. Buddhist scholastic philosophy, for instance, identifies four grades of karma ranked according to their supposed order of priority. These are (1) weighty (garuka) karmas, (2) death-proximate (maranasanna) karmas, (3) habitual (acinna) karmas, and (4) residual (katatta) karmas.

A weighty karma is likely to have a decisive impact on the evolution of our being. Traditionally, unskilful weighty karmas comprise the five ‘heinous crimes’: killing one’s mother, killing one’s father, killing a saint (arhant), wounding a Buddha (apparently a Buddha cannot be killed), and causing schism in the spiritual community (sangha). Committing any of these acts leads to a rebirth in hell. (See, for example, the Parikuppa Sutta in the Anguttara Nikaya.) The only skilful weighty karma mentioned in the tradition is the entering of states of superconsciousness (dhyana) through meditation. But we needn’t stick rigidly to this schema. The general point is clear: if we do unskilful things, this will have a negative effect on our future lives, but acting skilfully will have a positive effect. Interpreting the notion of weighty karmas in a more contemporary way, we could say that a weighty karma is a decision or action that critically directs – or redirects – our lives. For instance, undergoing a religious conversion could be a weighty karma in this sense.

In the absence of a weighty karma, death-proximate karma comes into play. Most religions place importance on one’s dying wishes and Buddhism is no exception. The intentions and aspirations that one exhales with one’s last breath can have a powerful transforming effect, and – traditionally – improves one’s chances of a good rebirth. Even if we don’t believe in rebirth, what we dwell on at death is probably a reliable gauge as to the kind of life we have lived and the values we hold most dear.

The third grade of karma is ‘habitual’. This is ‘bread-and- butter karma’: what we are doing most of the time. The precise effects of a single habitual karma may not be easy to see, but each time we act out a habit the more likely we are to act it out again. Slowly, over months and years, we sculpt our character just as a potter gradually moulds the clay.

The final grade of karma is ‘residual’, which accounts for anything not covered by the other three categories. It would, for example, cover ordinary, everyday karmas that were neither weighty nor committed habitually. For instance, in a moment of recklessness we might go shop-lifting, but if we only do it once it does not become a habit. Clearly this will have some sort of effect on our life but it might not be easy to determine what exactly the effect is; it might simply be that we would feel some remorse the following day and want to make amends.

So karmas are not all of the same kind – some are more influential and decisive than others. A weighty karma may, for instance, override the influence of a habitual karma, while a habitual karma may ‘cancel out’ a residual karma.

Two Important Assumptions

Karma rests upon two important assumptions about human character. The first assumption is that human character is not fixed, and so it may be modified. The second is that willed actions are the means by which character is modified. Looking at these claims will help to clarify how Karma works.

1. Human Character is Malleable

The common-sense view of human personality is that it is fairly static. This view is often associated with a belief in an eternal, unchanging soul, such as that of Christian doctrine. Many people, not only Christians, believe there is an essence to the person – there is something about each individual that is substantial and permanent. This belief seems to be borne out by our experience: people have recognizable personalities, behave in habitual ways, and don’t usually change very much. But according to Buddhism this view is wrong: it arises from existential insecurity, a need to feel substantial, real, permanent. Without denying the obvious way in which people do have distinct personalities, Buddhism rejects the claim that there is anything fixed and unchanging in an absolute sense. If this were the case, the principle of dependent origination would be fatally flawed and spiritual evolution would be impossible. While recognizing the continuity of human personality, Buddhism says that this personality is malleable. There are no limits to the possibilities for individual transformation: a timid person may become confident, a Scrooge benevolent, an angry person tranquil, a clumsy person mindful. Like everything else, our personalities and character traits are dependent upon conditions and, should those conditions cease, they will change.

This malleability of character, and especially of one’s moral relations with others, is beautifully illustrated in George Eliot’s story, Silas Marner. Silas, a respected elder in a small religious sect, is falsely accused of theft. He is ‘convicted’ through the drawing of lots. Thus begins his first moral transformation. With his faith shattered, he leaves his home village to settle in Raveloe. Taking refuge in his work, and shunning fickle humanity, Silas starts to accumulate a horde of gold. Embittered by his unfair treatment, he ceases to care for anyone or anything except his growing wealth. Day by day, he becomes more miserly, and more misanthropic.

Some time later, Dunstan, a wayward son of the local squire, steals Silas Marner’s gold. Silas is again crushed by the way life has treated him, but the thief is not unmasked and Silas is plunged into poverty. Some months later, Silas finds a young girl who has wandered into his house. By following her tracks in the snow, he discovers her mother, who has tragically died. Silas interprets the girl, whom he names Eppie, as a blessing that has come to replace his gold. He learns to love her – and she him – and, in this way, his spirit is transformed; his hatred for humanity resolves. This is his second moral transformation.

Many years later, Silas and Eppie go to visit Silas’s old home, which has been torn down to make way for a factory. This experience frees him from his cursed past and enables him to return home in peace. The miracle of Eppie has caused him to trust in life and to overcome his resentment of the injustices he has suffered. This story, initially tragic but ultimately uplifting, shows how our character can not only deteriorate but also rejuvenate during the course of our lives.

2. Volitional Actions Modify Character

Karma not only says that human character is malleable but that our character is modified by the volitional actions we carry out. Looking at a traditional Buddhist analysis of the human being will help explain this. Buddhist teaching divides the human being into five aspects (skandhas, literally ‘heaps’): form, feeling, perception, volitional dispositions, and consciousness (rupa, vedana, samjna, samskaras & vijnana).Rather than give a full account of these aspects, we will concentrate on just one of them: volitional dispositions (samskaras). What makes each individual recognizable and unique is the sum total of his or her volitional dispositions. Our volitional dispositions are our tendencies to act, speak, and think in a particular way. They are what determine our habits and thus what make us distinctive. They constitute those aspects of our character which others are constantly praising or complaining about. Depending on our particular moral make-up, some of these habits will be skilful, others unskilful. Owing to their relative continuity, we tend to think that these habits are enduring and unchanging, but this is a mistake that prevents us reforming them and realizing our potential.

Our ‘essence’, to the extent that this term means anything, is that we are a constantly changing bundle of habits. Every time we undertake a volitional act, a particular tendency is re- inforced, and every time we resist the temptation of another course of action, we undermine the strength of the volition that would carry it out. In this way, we change from moment to moment. But in the short term that change is usually imperceptible; it becomes significant only after many years. Sudden, cataclysmic personal changes are rare, although not unknown. Understanding the dynamic of personal change can help us to take on board the slow, painstaking, even laborious nature of personal transformation. We can’t completely change ourselves overnight because our more deeply ingrained patterns of thinking, feeling, speaking, and behaving require consistent attention over a prolonged period if they are to be changed. There is no quick fix. At the same time, while progress may be slow and difficult, it is possible. It is because we have no fixed, unchanging self that we can become spiritually liberated.

The fruits of karma

A karma consists fundamentally in a choice, though this choice will not necessarily lead to overt action or speech. But if a choice is not acted out what kind of effect could it have? The consequences that arise from karmas are technically known as vipakas (effects) or phalas (fruits). So what kinds of effect do karmas bring about? What is the nature of karmic fruit? It is often said that we ‘reap what we sow’, as though a karma automatically led to a specific result. But just as a good harvest depends not only on sowing but also on many other factors (such as the weather), so karmas take effect in accordance with the general principle of conditionality.

We have already established that Karma is a principle of moral agency and not a general causal principle. It follows that only those consequences informed by the moral impetus behind an action are results of karma. Many of the consequences resulting from what we do are better explained by other factors. For instance, if I throw a ball from a window it falls to the ground not because I am good, bad, or indifferent; it falls because that is what bodies do. This particular fruit, or consequence, will not be significantly affected by my moral condition; whether I am good, bad, or indifferent the result will almost certainly be the same, because it is governed by the utu-niyama, the physical inorganic order, and not the karma-niyama.

According to Brahmanism, the fruits of karma ripen only from lifetime to lifetime and not within the current life. So in our next life we will reap the fruit of the karmic seeds we sow in this one and, at the same time, sow further karma for our subsequent life. This means we have no hope of changing the pattern of our present life, but must trust that we will experience the ‘rewards’ of our good karma in the life to come. There is a considerable leap of faith involved in adopting this point of view. Buddhism expanded the range of options as to when karmas could ripen to include four possibilities: (1) Karma that has consequences in this life, (2) Karma that has consequences in the next life, (3) Karma that has consequences in some future life, and (4) Karma that becomes exhausted before taking effect.

The Culakammavibhangga Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya) describes how the relationship between karma and its consequences was understood in early Buddhism. It examines seven different actions and their opposites, and charts the consequences that follow from each in one’s next life (see table below). It claims, for instance, that if we kill living beings, then, in our next life, we will be short-lived. It also claims that if we are of an angry disposition we will be reborn ugly. A direct correlation is made between karma and consequence in a ‘punishment-to-fit-the-crime’ sort of way. It is certainly all very neat. The kinds of consequences attributed to karma here are very diverse, embracing lifespan, physical health, appearance, social importance, economic situation, caste or class, and level of intelligence. Interestingly, apart from intelligence, none of the supposed consequences of one’s karma relate to one’s future character. To me this suggests a way in which Buddhist thinking about Karma was still deeply influenced by Brahmanical thinking. Not only is the psychological dimension of Karma not fully appreciated, but Karma is seen as the main (if not sole) explanation for the differences between people – why, for instance, some people suffer and others don’t. In looking at the five niyamas, we have already seen that this is not always the case.

There are many stories in the early Buddhist tradition that superficially teach a rather literal relationship between karma and vipaka. For instance, the Udana (‘Verses of Inspiration’) records the story of Suppabuddha, a leper, who stumbles upon the Buddha delivering a discourse while out begging for scraps of food (from Udana). He instantaneously gains transcendental insight, but is killed by a mad cow immediately afterwards. Later, the Buddha is approached by some of his followers who ask why it was that Suppabuddha became a leper. The Buddha’s reported answer is that in a previous life Suppabuddha had insulted a saint (arahant) by calling him a leper and spitting in his face. For this evil deed he suffered in hell for many hundreds of thousands of years and, as a residual result, was reborn as a leper.

While the ‘poetic justice’ suggested here may have a certain emotional, even aesthetic appeal, such a symmetrical understanding of the relationship between a particular karma and its experienced effect oversimplifies the complex and often messy nature of real events. We could see this model of Karma as a ‘folk model’ that worked in the sense that it discouraged people from acting unskilfully and spurred them to good deeds. Philosophically, though, it seems to ignore the different orders of conditionality. Such rather literal correlations between karmas and their effects may be better understood as illustrating the general truth that unskilful actions will have undesirable consequences and skilful actions will have desirable consequences, rather than being taken as exact descriptions of what actually happens.

Levels of Karmic Consequence

We have already noted that not all the consequences resulting from a morally informed action are vipakas. An action may have all sorts of consequences that have very little to do with the ethical condition of the agent who performed them. More than this, a karma can have a range of possible consequences that may or may not come about depending upon whether other conditions are also present. Following this reasoning, we can identify ‘direct’ results of karmas and more ‘indirect’ ones.

The most direct results of a karma are mental. In other words, through performing karmas (which are ultimately intentions), we change our minds and, bit by bit, reform our character. To understand this more fully, we need to return to the concept of samskaras or volitional tendencies. Because there is no fixed soul, no essential person, only a jumble of habits and tendencies, we identify our ‘self’ with those dominant habits and tendencies. If we have a tendency to become angry, we think of ourselves as an angry person; if we tend to be very quiet, we may think of ourselves as a timid person. In this way, we define ourselves in terms of the particular character traits and habits we experience most strongly. We could even say that what we are is no more than a habit.

Well, not quite. Since Karma is essentially about choice, we always have the option of not going along with our habits, and taking a different turning at the crossroads. The chances are that our karmic momentum will lead us to reinforce our present habits unless we consciously and deliberately work against them

This is why it can prove very difficult to change. The weight of our previous choices seems to push us in a particular direction and it might take a lot of effort to resist this. But this is the workplace of spiritual life: in recognizing our habitual tendencies, realizing it is possible to resist them, and in making new choices about who we want to be. If we make a new choice, the possibility of a new habit arises and, ultimately, the possibility of a new self. However enmeshed we are in a particular set of habits, however unskilful we have become, there is always the possibility of change. Thus Buddhism expresses a supremely optimistic vision of human nature; it never gives up on anyone, but recognizes that, even in the most evil of characters, there is always the potential for redemption.

Not only does our previous karma have implications for our character, it also has implications for the kind of world we live in, or at least the way we experience that world. For instance, someone who experiences a lot of fear sees the world as dangerous and threatening, whereas for someone who is very confident the world seems mild and compliant. Neither of these perspectives can be fully ‘objective’, but we tend to believe that our way of experiencing the world is the way the world really is. Fundamentally, we create our own world and don’t realize how much our own prejudices, desires, and habits distort our experience of it; we see the world in terms of our selves. Learning to disentangle what is the given in experience and what is our evaluation is a subtle and complex process requiring ever-increasing levels of awareness, honesty, and perceptiveness.

But our actions also have ramifications beyond ourselves. They may have all sorts of consequences for the physical world and for other people too. While these also arise partly in dependence upon the initial intention, their precise outcome is not determined by it. For instance, if Green murders Blue the most direct outcome is likely to be a fear of being caught, and perhaps a sense of isolation from society, even a sense of guilt. After all, Green is now a murderer. Given that our society has laws against murder, a further outcome might be that he is arrested, tried, and convicted. Depending on where he lives, he might even be executed. But this will not necessarily happen, and even if it does it is not simply the result of Green’s karma. It may be that the police lack expertise in following up clues, so they never discover the murderer. Perhaps the prosecution makes a mistake in its preparation and Green is acquitted. All sorts of conditions could come into play such that Green does not end up getting caught or convicted, but this is not necessarily because Green has performed good karmas in the past. The world is not as neat and tidy as that. Instead, there is a complex interaction of karmic streams and other non-karmic factors which collectively produce a unique scenario. The karmas of the police have an important bearing on the outcome, as do the karmas of the barristers and the jury. Someone might be falsely acquitted or even falsely convicted, and these eventualities might say nothing about their moral condition.

This process is shown in fig. 3.

We can see that the chain of consequences can stop at a number of points and what keeps the chain intact may have more to do with the actions of others than it does with the primary agent. At the same time, without the initial act no chain would be formed. So in contemplating a particular course of action, the ethically responsible person must not only examine their present moral state but also consider the potential consequences of their conduct. This act of imagination can bring greater moral weight to our deliberations, otherwise we may find that our past actions return to haunt us. This is the theme of Thomas Hardy’s tragic novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge. At the beginning of the story, Henchard, a poor journeyman labourer, sells his wife in order to make some money. This enables him to begin a new life and he eventually works his way up to become an important man – the mayor of Casterbridge. Everything seems to be going swimmingly until his wife re- appears and his dark secret is disclosed. This leads ultimately to his downfall.

While it is true that consequences that no one could have foreseen sometimes result from our actions, it is usually the case that a little thought could enable us to predict the likely outcome of our actions. Crucially, we need to take responsibility for our contribution to any state of affairs.

Do We Always Get What We Deserve?

According to the Dhammapada,”Not in the sky, nor in the midst of the sea, nor yet in the clefts of the mountains, nowhere in the world (in fact) is there any place to be found where, having entered, one can abide free from (the consequences of) one’s evil deeds.” (verse 240)

But it seems that many people commit evil deeds and don’t suffer as a result. How can Karma account for this? Another sutta, the Mahakammavibhanga (‘Greater Discourse on Karma’ from Majjhima Nikaya 136), goes some way towards providing an explanation. Here the Buddha identifies four kinds of person: (1) someone who acts evilly and is reborn in an unfavourable realm (even in hell), (2) someone who acts evilly and is reborn in a favourable realm (even in heaven), (3) someone who acts skilfully and is reborn in a favourable realm (even in heaven), and (4) someone who acts skilfully and is reborn in an unfavourable realm (even in hell).

We need not accept the principle of rebirth to understand the problem being tackled here. It could be rephrased along the following lines: (1) someone who acts evilly and seems to suffer later on, (2) someone who acts evilly who seems to have a good life later on, (3) someone who acts skilfully and who seems to have a good life later on, and (4) someone acts skilfully and who seems to suffer later on.

The question at issue here is how someone could act skilfully and yet suffer as a consequence (even being reborn in hell), and, conversely, how could someone act unskilfully and seem to benefit (even being reborn in heaven)? These outcomes seem to contradict the principle of Karma: the claim that actions give rise to commensurate consequences. Not so, says the Buddha. It would be a mistake to draw such a conclusion before looking further into the matter. The Buddha further points out that the evil-doer who goes to heaven must have acted skilfully in order to do so, but at some time in the future will reap the consequences of their evil conduct. Similarly, the person who acts skilfully but goes to hell must have acted evilly at some time in the past but will later reap the positive consequences of their good conduct.

This sutta is valuable because it demonstrates awareness of the apparent contradiction between what we sometimes see around us – and even experience – and the doctrine of Karma. People who act well sometimes suffer, whereas people who act badly sometimes don’t. The relationship between karma and vipaka is not a simple, linear one; we might not be able to trace the precise connection between a given karma and its vipaka, unless the karma is weighty. Our current experience is informed by our past actions, but precisely how each of those actions shapes the present might be indiscernible because the vipaka resulting from each distinct karma will often be quite subtle. It is more like baking a cake: we combine all sorts of ingredients and cook them, but when we taste the finished product we don’t experience the ingredients separately. In the same way, our life has a particular flavour determined by the ingredients (past karmas) we have put into it. For the purposes of exposition, we single out a particular action and its consequence, but we don’t normally experience life like this. Rather than imagining a one-to-one correspondence between a particular karma and its vipaka, we can think instead of experiencing an overall karmic momentum that has been set in motion by a large cluster of actions.

But the defence of Karma attributed to the Buddha in the Mahakammavibhanga Sutta only fully works if we accept rebirth. Let’s say someone acts badly throughout their life but does not seem to suffer as a consequence – they are not burned by a fire from heaven, they don’t lose their relatives, they don’t lose their wealth, nor are they persecuted in any way (Dhammapada verses 137-40). Without the prospect of rebirth in an undesirable realm (duggati), they seem to have ‘got away with it’. There is nothing more repugnant to the conventionally moral person than to see this happen, and it can be quite undermining. Let’s say I act morally all my life yet I experience all sorts of suffering, calamity, and difficulty while my evil neighbour seems to live an easy existence. There seems to be something inherently unjust about this. It seems unnatural. In such circumstances, why should I bother being ethical? If I can comfort myself with the prospect that he will roast in hell as a consequence of his conduct and that I will soon be in heaven, I can perhaps be persuaded to put up with the present injustice. But if we don’t accept rebirth – and many Westerners will not – does this sort of scenario undermine the rationale for living ethically?

It need not. The way of thinking just described is rather narrow in that it looks for specific rewards for good conduct and punishments for bad. This is to miss the point. It is a clich<@233> that ‘virtue is its own reward’ but it is nevertheless still true. We should not see our ethical conduct as a contract or an investment, but aim to forget ourselves, at least for a moment, in going beyond our own needs and desires in order to respond to somebody else. This self-forgetting can be a tremendous relief from self-preoccupation. It can be liberating.

Through our morally positive conduct, we can not only benefit other people but also transform ourselves. The moment-by- moment decisions that we make slowly mould our character. If we always act from our best motives we will develop a clear conscience, perhaps one of the greatest boons one could hope for. The sense of guilt, of wrongdoing, that hangs over many people’s lives crushes the spirit and can even lead to madness. Just as water corrodes iron, so our evil actions corrode our spirit and eventually destroy it (Dhammapada verse 240). Accordingly, simply because an evildoer is not punished in some tangible way does not mean that person does not suffer as a result of his or her actions.

But there do seem to be some contrary individuals who don’t appear to suffer – even psychologically – as a result of their evil conduct. Don’t they undermine the notion of Karma? Here I want to introduce an unusual way of seeing what suffering is. It may be true that such people don’t consciously experience suffering – they don’t feel remorse or guilt for what they have done and seem to lead an enjoyable life. However, someone who is insensitive to their own evil is, to that extent, inhuman. They are cut off from the world of ordinary human beings and from their spiritual potential. They are condemned to an impoverished existence in which they are no longer able to feel, because to feel deeply would also mean recognizing their own evil. This impoverishment is itself a form of suffering.

Let me use an analogy. In recent years, there has been a move within the Christian church to redefine Hell as the absence of God. Transposing this way of thinking, we could say that at least one form of suffering is being cut off from feeling deeply for other human beings and from one’s spiritual possibilities. In other words, limitation is itself a form of suffering even though it may not be consciously experienced as such.

We may be able to accept that others do not always reward virtue, we may even be able to accept that evil is not always punished, but what about when virtue seems to get punished? This would seem the last straw for the notion of Karma. It is a perverse fact that many ethical people, even saints, suffer terribly at the hands of others. Yet, if Karma is true, this should not be so. Of course, we can always speculate that they are only suffering as a consequence of their evil conduct in a previous life, but this presupposes a belief in rebirth which for many people is counter-intuitive. So is it possible to hold to a belief in Karma and accept the persecution of saints?

I think it is. A fact that the basic account of Karma usually leaves out is that we live in a world of other people who themselves make choices, act out habits, and follow through their karmic momentum in various ways. They impinge on our lives. We do not live in a world where we simply act and then experience the consequences of that action. Instead, our world is a swirling dance of karmic streams interacting with each other; other people influence our lives and we influence theirs. Since we do not live in a cocoon protected from the effects of others’ behaviour, unwarranted suffering becomes possible. The fact that we suffer at the hands of an evil person need not necessarily mean that we acted evilly in a previous life – or even in this one – it is just one of the hazards of living in a world in which there are evil people. It may even be that an evil person wants to hurt us precisely because of our moral integrity. This may be hard to accept. We generally need some explanation, even justification, for why we are suffering, and the possibility that it is somewhat arbitrary is cold comfort. But there are some events that seem hard to explain in any other way, such as natural disasters or the atrocities of psychopathic killers.

Having said this, we usually contribute to the situation so we need to take responsibility for this. For instance, the journalist Brian Keenan was kidnapped in Lebanon and held hostage for several years in appalling conditions (Brian Keenan, ‘An Evil Cradling’, Vintage, 1993). He did not necessarily ‘deserve’ that experience of suffering, it need not have been a punishment for his previous evil conduct, but he did choose to be in Lebanon at a time when he knew that Westerners were regularly kidnapped. So Keenan played a role, he was one of the conditions that gave rise to his capture, but his karma did not make it happen. The unscrupulous terrorists who kidnapped him played their part too.

The way in which our karmic stream is intertwined with others is brilliantly illustrated in J.B. Priestley’s play An Inspector Calls (J.B. Priestley, An Inspector Calls and Other Plays, Penguin, 2001). An Inspector Goole turns up unexpectedly at a family dinner party and announces that a young pregnant woman, Eva Smith, has just died in hospital after drinking disinfectant. Rather drunk and dismissive, the family can’t see what all this has to do with them. By a sequence of moves, Goole shows how each member of the family has played his or her part in leading Eva to the point of suicide. Birling, the father, her one-time employer, sacked her for asking for a pay rise. Sheila, his daughter, then had Eva dismissed from her post at a draper’s for apparently laughing at a dress that Sheila had tried on. Gerald, Sheila’s fiance, then took Eva as his mistress and eventually deserted her. Then Birling’s son, Eric, after throwing himself at Eva one night while drunk, got her pregnant and then abandoned her. Finally, Birling’s wife Sybil refused to offer help when Eva asked her charitable organization for assistance.

The whole family is implicated in the tragedy. One of the questions the play invites is: who is responsible? The family members are divided between those who see the implications of their own conduct and experience a moral awakening (Sheila, Eric, and initially Gerald) and those who refuse to accept any moral responsibility (Birling, his wife, and later Gerald). It’s clear that the young woman chose to take her own life, yet it is also clear that the conduct of the Birling family was a significant factor in leading her to this point. Sheila and Eric see deeply into the situation and become morally transformed by their awareness. They are able to understand how their conduct formed important links in a chain that resulted in a terrible tragedy. The others seek to evade any responsibility. Goole concludes his interrogation in the following way:

“But just remember this. One Eva Smith has gone – but there are millions and millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths still left with us, with their lives, their hopes and fears, their suffering, and chance of happiness, all intertwined with our lives, with what we think and say and do. We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other.”

After Goole leaves, doubts are raised as to whether he was a real police inspector. Birling phones the police and discovers there is no such person. Along with Mrs Birling and Gerald, Mr Birling concludes that the whole thing was a hoax: there was no suicide, and the hospital confirms this. They begin to treat the whole affair as a magnificent joke. But Sheila can’t.

“But you’re forgetting one thing I still can’t forget. Everything we said had happened really had happened. If it didn’t end tragically, then that’s lucky for us. But it might have done.”

The play ends with Mr Birling receiving a telephone call from the police. He is told that a young woman has died on her way to hospital after swallowing disinfectant…

Does rebirth matter?

Karma and rebirth were part of the cultural baggage of the ancient Indian Buddhist. For many contemporary Westerners – and even some Easterners – these ideas will not sit comfortably with their understanding of how the universe works, at least in their traditional guises.

Early Buddhism tended to speak of Karma and rebirth in two voices. First, it offered a fairly crude, simplistic model that was able both to account for suffering and to spur people into living a good life through fear of a nasty rebirth and the promise of a pleasant one. It offered a rather neat, even symmetrical, vision of life in which good was always rewarded, and evil was always punished. But like the traditional Christian vocabulary of heaven and hell, this was rather a blunt instrument. As we have seen, this model owes a great deal to pre-existing ideas and its limitations betray these origins.

Secondly, Buddhism talked about Karma in a subtler, more psychological way. This understanding embodies a genuine spiritual advance on what had gone before. With every choice we make, whether overtly expressed or not, we modify our character. Through skilful choices we develop creative habits, whereas through unskilful choices we not only starve our positive impulses but also encourage destructive ones. For better or worse, we are constantly renewing ourselves, even with every passing thought.

But more than this, in modifying our character we also modify our way of relating to the world, which means our experience of the world changes. In an important sense, our world is a creation of our mind. Part of this is the way we influence how others respond to us. But we have seen that this second voice speaks less dogmatically than the first; it allows for many variations, exceptions, and even anomalies. This might be unsatisfactory for some people, but perhaps this reflects the true complexity of experience.

It is fairly easy to accept the doctrine of Karma, at least as expressed in the second voice. We can see how people change because of what they do and the decisions they make. We can also see how this informs their outlook on the world and how others respond to them. But the same is not true of rebirth. We have to stretch our imagination a lot further if we are to take this on. Not only is it not immediately verifiable but it also raises a number of questions that traditional Buddhism has not decisively answered.

Do We Need Rebirth?

Given the cultural origins of the Buddhist teaching of rebirth, is it relevant to the modern world? Had it emerged from a different cultural background, would Buddhism have taught rebirth at all? Such questions invite us to re-examine the status of Buddhist teachings. Do they aim to provide accurate descriptions of reality or are they simply pragmatic? The Buddha’s declared aim was to lead people to spiritual liberation, freedom from all limiting beliefs and habits, the transcendence of suffering. He aimed to help others to reproduce in themselves the spiritual awakening that he himself enjoyed, not to indoctrinate them with a system of ideas. Possibly the Buddha talked in terms of rebirth because that is how people then conceived of themselves and their future; he needed to communicate his message in a way they could understand.

Because rebirth was taken to be self-evident, traditional Buddhism did little to argue in its favour. But we live within a very different cultural paradigm, one which does not generally accept rebirth. This means that either the case for rebirth needs to be convincing or the whole area should be left open. But is a belief in rebirth necessary in order to practise Buddhism effectively? While some traditional Buddhists would respond with an emphatic ‘yes’, it seems to me that the answer is ‘no’. Looking at the notion of rebirth pragmatically will help to clarify this.

Buddhism is a practical religion; progress does not consist in a happy consent to holy dogmas but in spiritual evolution, which means transcending selfishness, hatred, and unawareness. Beliefs are relevant in so far as they encourage this process; if they don’t, it is not that they are necessarily untrue, just beside the point. So how does a belief in rebirth help us to evolve? Historically, fear of rebirth has functioned not only as a spur to spiritual practice but also as a means of social control; people really believed they would be reborn, and that if they acted badly they would suffer. Buddhist tradition describes in great detail the appalling conditions that will be one’s lot if one lives an immoral life. Thus rebirth functioned as a kind of stick that goaded people to change their lives. More subtly, rebirth vividly expresses how our actions have implications beyond ourselves, even beyond our own deaths. Our conduct does matter, it will influence the future whether we are there to see it or not. Rebirth therefore enables us to recognize the importance of our actions. We cannot contract out of life; whether for better or for worse we are going to make a difference.

Despite the Buddha’s radical insight that a karma is a volition (cetana) and that one may reap the consequences of one’s actions within one’s current lifetime, the tendency of early Buddhist scriptures is to understand karmic consequences in terms of what will happen after death. So if one lives a skilful life one will be reborn in a happy realm, if one lives an unskilful life one will be reborn in a realm of suffering. It is clear that the early Buddhists believed that, without fear of retribution after death, people would have no positive motives for acting skilfully, because they would not see the danger in unwholesome motivations.(footnote 104) The doctrine of nihilism (natthikavada), as criticized in the Buddhist scriptures, not only denies rebirth but also rejects Karma altogether. It would seem that acceptance of an afterlife was integral to the early Buddhist conception of how Karma worked. The two were seen as inseparable, but they need not be.

If we don’t believe in punishment or reward after death, can we really have no motivation to live skilfully? The main issue seems to be finding another means by which to spur us to amend our lives. If we are able to develop a strong volition to live skilfully and strive for spiritual insight, then rebirth may be irrelevant. But in the absence of the ‘fear factor’ of punishment after death we will need to find another emotional fuel to propel us forward. We will need to see how spiritual practice will lead us to break free from suffering within this life and lead us to a happier, more fulfilled existence. We also need to understand how not taking care of our spiritual life will lead to painful consequences. This requires a more subtle and positive basis for spiritual practice than fear of punishment.

Such a foundation is embodied in the Pali term samvega, a word that is quite difficult to translate but which indicates an experience that includes, firstly, a realization that life as normally lived is futile and meaningless, and secondly, that we have been foolish and complacent in having let ourselves live so blindly. Finally, it suggests a vivid sense of urgency to find a way out of the meaningless cycle of mundane life. This final dimension of the experience of samvega is particularly crucial because it is the fuel that propels us to search for a way forward. The fact that there is a way out of our predicament, and that we can respond creatively to it, is what leads us towards the experience of spiritual commitment and saves us from existential despair.

It may be that it is only on the basis of a deep experience of samvega that spiritual life becomes a possibility. Until we recognize that our lives are lacking, a spiritual path is unnecessary; until we realize we are imprisoned, we are unlikely to want to escape. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein expressed this very well:

“It would be as though someone were first to let me see the hopelessness of my situation and then show me the means of rescue until, of my own accord, or not at any rate led to it by my instructor, I ran to it and grasped it.” (footnote 106)

Some people have said to me that if rebirth wasn’t true, and it wasn’t possible that we could be reborn in hell or as an animal, they would have no motivation to act ethically and spiritually develop themselves. I find this attitude difficult to understand because, for my own part, the suffering I experience in this very life, the sense of futility and emptiness that sometimes washes through me, are quite enough to motivate me to take care of my existence. At a time when institutions for social regulation were much less developed than they are now, ‘cosmic threats’ of hell may have been essential in order to keep human beings on the straight and narrow (though they weren’t universally successful). But do we still need the fear of hell to spur us to amend our ways? We can enter hell now, in this very lifetime. If we consider for a moment what some human beings have had to endure – the Holocaust, for example – could there be anything much worse? Heaven and hell are accessible to us right now; we don’t need to think of them as places we might go to after death.

As long as we can motivate ourselves to develop skilful mental states and eradicate unskilful ones, we can embark on the path of spiritual transformation. Beliefs about rebirth may be beside the point. And this is surely one of the most wonderful things about Buddhism: there is no need to accept a whole range of unverifiable dogmas before we can practise spiritually. This is a crucial point, because there is a danger of evaluating how ‘good’ a Buddhist one is in terms of how closely one’s beliefs accord with traditional doctrines. However, we don’t become better Buddhists through the uncritical acceptance of traditional Buddhist dogmas, but by developing wisdom and compassion.

A specious argument sometimes used to defend rebirth is that to reject it would undermine the principle of dependent origination. We have a certain ‘conscious momentum’; surely that momentum can’t just disappear? How can nothing come from something? This is quite a feeble line of reasoning because it assumes that our consciousness is independent of our physical body and can survive without it. But this is the very question at issue. The principle of dependent origination states that all things arise in dependence upon conditions, and when those conditions cease the thing itself ceases. If individualized consciousness is dependent on the body for its survival, it will disintegrate when the body dies. No one would insist that it contradicts conditionality to say that a rainbow disappears when the rains stops. We do not need to think that the rainbow ‘carries on’ in some way.

What if Rebirth is False?

Are there significant implications for Buddhism as a whole if rebirth is no more than an ancient Indian superstition? What I have said so far might suggest not, but I think there are. First, if rebirth does not take place then the content and scope of the Buddhist goal must be re-presented. For instance, one of the most common ways of describing the Buddha’s spiritual insight in the early scriptures is known as the three knowledges (tevijja) (footnote 107).According to this formula, three things were integral to the Buddha’s realization: the ability to recollect his manifold past lives, the ability, with his Divine Eye, to see the passing away and reappearance of beings and an understanding of how beings pass on according to their actions, and, finally, the seeing with direct knowledge (abhinna) that he has destroyed all negative inner drives.

So it would seem that, at least for the early Buddhist tradition, an understanding of rebirth was a critical dimension of the awakening experience. What is puzzling about the formula of the three knowledges is that the first two are not the sole preserve of spiritually awakened beings but are, rather, said to be supernormal powers that can be gained through meditative concentration. In other words, it is only the third knowledge – destruction of negative inner drives – that is uniquely characteristic of the Buddhist goal. This makes me wonder why the other two are so emphasized. It is clear that the formulation of a threefold knowledge is an ironic reference to the Brahmanical ideal, which itself focused on three knowledges. These were the Vedas, the orally-transmitted sacred texts. In emphasizing a personal spiritual insight above textual authority, the Buddhist tradition reconceived the meaning of knowledge: it was something the individual realized, not something learned by heart from the elders. This may explain why the first two of the Buddhist three knowledges appear so prominently in early texts: the formula became shorthand for a spiritual experience that to many may already have seemed rather remote. Given that only the destruction of all negative inner drives is a knowledge unique to spiritual awakening, it would seem likely that this particular property discloses the fundamental nature of that experience more than the other two.

Another possibility is that the three knowledges, though seemingly presented as literal realizations, could be understood more metaphorically. On such a reading, the first knowledge could indicate how the Buddha achieved deep insight into his own character. He sees how his past conduct has formed the person he is now, so his habit patterns have become completely transparent to him. The second knowledge shows how the Buddha understood the way in which others condition themselves and their futures. It enables him to read the characters of others, to understand not only where they come from but also where they are heading. The third knowledge illustrates the Buddha’s self mastery: he is in control of himself because he is fully conscious, not driven by unconscious desires or habits.

If we discard rebirth as conventionally understood, the traditional Buddhist way of describing our human predicament and the nature of the spiritual enterprise must be re-envisaged. No longer are we aiming to break free from the wheel of birth and death but rather to shake off our spiritual fetters in this very life. This is not an alarming adjustment, but many traditional texts talk about the Buddhist goal in cosmic terms, something to be worked towards over many thousands of lifetimes. If we have just one life, we will have to get a move on: we don’t have much time. This could have very positive consequences by generating a sense of urgency and an appreciation of the preciousness of the present moment. If we have thousands of lifetimes before us, we might be tempted into complacency and so slacken our spiritual efforts. By withdrawing attention from the possibility of future lives we can concentrate our attention more keenly on the present. The Buddhist saint becomes a human exemplar, not a cosmic superman: we really can emulate him or her, rather than just stand back in awe.

But a rejection of rebirth also calls into question the range of the Buddha’s spiritual insight. While some scholars have argued that the Buddha didn’t really teach rebirth at all, this charge could be made against all the teachings of early Buddhism: no one knows for certain what the Buddha actually taught. It is at least reasonable to assume that the Buddha not only taught rebirth but was convinced that such a belief was useful in the process of spiritual transformation. If the Buddha thought it was useful, who are we to argue?

I have already drawn attention to the provisional and instrumental nature of beliefs within Buddhism. A ‘wrong view’ (micchaditthi), according to Buddhism, is not a factually inaccurate one (such as a belief that the moon is made of green cheese) but a perspective that prevents us making spiritual progress. The form and style of the cultural universe in which the Buddha taught inevitably influenced how he communicated his insights. So, for instance, the Buddha made use of traditional Indian cosmology, a cosmology that appears quaintly primitive to today’s scientist. Few Buddhists would demand we adopt the ancient Indian view of the universe in its entirety. Rather, we must seek to understand the spiritual message it was used to express. Some of the ways that the Buddha thought and communicated about the world might seem from a modern point of view to be just plain wrong, but this would be to misunderstand their status. We must remember that the Buddha’s teachings were a raft, and their measure, therefore, is in how successfully they fulfilled their function. Crucially, the views that foster spiritual transformation need re-evaluation in the light of changing cultural and personal circumstances. This means that had he been around today the Buddha would probably have used different – perhaps even radically different – images and concepts to communicate his message.

Any practitioner of Buddhism must be wary of dogmatic acceptance or rejection of rebirth, and an examination of the motives for taking any particular view will be very instructive. We are often attracted or repelled by certain teachings for psychological reasons. For instance, we might want to live for ever, so we find rebirth comforting, or we might hate ourselves and find the notion of oblivion after death seductive. At the same time, we shouldn’t feel obliged to conform with a dogma simply because it has been a historical part of the spiritual tradition we have adopted, neither should we pretend to be convinced by a doctrine we think is culturally redundant. Following a spiritual path is not about subscribing to rigid dogmas but about overcoming selfishness and hatred and seeing our lives with complete clarity.

A pragmatic approach to Karma and rebirth I have found quite reassuring is the one found in the Kalama Sutta (Anguttara Nikaya 3.65). In this text, the Buddha points out that a man who lives a committed ethical life can be assured of four things: (1) if Karma and rebirth are true, then, owing to his skilful life he will be reborn after death in a good destination, even in a heaven world, (2) if rebirth is not true he will have lived a joyful life anyway, happy and free from ill will, (3) if evil conduct reaps suffering, the ethical person has nothing to fear because he has not acted evilly, (4) if evil conduct does not lead to painful consequences, then the ethical person has nothing to fear anyway.

The most important thing, then, is to live a skilful, compassionate life. If we do this, we need not worry about what may or may not happen after death, since if there is rebirth we will have established a wholesome foundation for our next existence, and if there is no rebirth it won’t concern us. We need not rely on the possibility of some ‘reward’ after death because there are great benefits to be gained here and now through spiritual practice.

104: See, for example, Apannaka Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 60.5-9)
106: Anthony Kenny (ed.), The Wittgenstein Reader,Blackwell, 1994, p.302
107: Maha-Assapura Suttafrom (Majjhima Nikaya 39.19-21)

The Interconnected Self

The traditional Buddhist teachings of Karma and rebirth express how our actions of body, speech, and mind have implications not only for ourselves but also for others, and even the world in general. Moment by moment we create and recreate ourselves through what we think, say, and do. Over time, we develop distinctive habits:a recognisable ‘self’ that makes us more likely to perpetuate those habits rather than adopt others. We get stuck in a rut. This is how most of us experience our lives most of the time: trapped in patterns of thought and behaviour that we can neither break out of nor see beyond. Our habits become the limit of our world and our range of choices becomes very narrow. Like blinkered cart-horses ploughing the same old furrow, we cut deeper and deeper gashes into the earth of life.

But our lives are also intimately connected to others. We are not detached selves isolated from everything and everyone but interconnected selves whose actions influence, and are influenced by, those around us. To be human is to relate to other human beings. Not only do our actions have implications for others in the present but they can also affect people who have not yet been born. Recognising this helps us to understand that how we conduct our lives is a serious matter. Our conduct can add to the sum total of goodness in the world or it can eat away at that goodness by adding to what is base. It may often seem as though our lives have no lasting value, and this can encourage us to cling to some consolatory hope of a life yet to come, but it is difficult to see our own life in perspective, difficult to recognise exactly the impact we have had – for better or worse. It is difficult to see what our life might have been like if we hadn’t performed good deeds (or bad). It might be a useful thought experiment to imagine what life would have been like had we never been born: would the world be a better or a worse place?

This device underlies the film It’s a Wonderful Life (directed by Frank Capra, 1947). The film tells the story of George Bailey. In many ways, George is very ordinary; he lives in the same small town all his life (though he has aspirations to travel and do something ‘big’), works in a finance company, has a wife and children. In many ways his life is quite humdrum. Towards the end of the film, owing to his uncle misplacing a large sum of money, George stands to lose his whole business and might even end up in jail. He becomes so desperate that he wishes he had never been born and decides to kill himself; a somewhat sad end to an unremarkable life, perhaps.

But George’s life is really rather remarkable. He cherishes personal ambitions but situations arise that seem to demand that he renounce his own desires in order to respond to the needs of those around him. His whole life is a continual struggle between personal desire and objective need, and he always chooses to respond to the need. But where has this got him? George thinks it has got him nowhere and he becomes a poor, wretched man on the brink of ruin and suicide.

Just as George is about to throw himself from a bridge, an angel arrives and throws himself into the icy water. George dives into the river to save him. Later, unconsoled, George still wishes he had never been born. The angel grants his wish by showing him how life in the town would have progressed without him. For example, George’s brother is dead (since George would not have saved him from drowning as a child), so he never grew up to be a war hero who saved many people’s lives. The town as a whole is dramatically different. It is characterised by harsh, selfish behaviour and is in the grip of a heartless property tycoon who keeps many of the residents in poverty by charging exorbitant rents.

George begins to realise that, while thwarting his personal ambition, the many sacrifices he made throughout his life have benefited the town immeasurably, adding to the quantum of decency, kindness, and solidarity of its citizens. While caught up in the whirl of daily life, George is unable to recognise his positive impact on the lives of others. Through stepping back and contemplating a world in which none of his little acts of kindness had happened he sees the true value of his contribution. He sees how seemingly small kindnesses snowball into the future to set up dramatically positive chains of events. He appreciates how rich he has become as an individual through his compassionate action and is finally able to lay to rest his regret at his unfulfilled ambitions.

It is easy to underestimate the impact of everyday kindnesses and cruelties. It is often only with time that the true character and influence of such actions can be seen. While the traditional Buddhist doctrines of Karma and rebirth may present themselves in a somewhat archaic, even naive, guise, they nevertheless communicate timeless truths about what it means to be human. We bear a responsibility to our future self and to other human beings through what we do. We have the power to transform the world for good or ill. It is through the compassionate exercise of this power that we fulfil our responsibility to life and transcend the confines of our ordinary mind. We place a feather on the scales of life that tips them towards goodness.

Is Buddhism atheistic?

Extract from Conze’s Buddhism: Its Essence and Development

It has often been suggested that Buddhism is an atheistic system of thought, and this assumption has given rise to quite a number of discussions. Some have claimed that since Buddhism knew no God, it could not be a religion; others that since Buddhism obviously was a religion which knew no God, the belief in God was not essential to religion. These discussions assume that ‘God’ is an unambiguous term, which is by no means the case. We can distinguish in this context at least three meanings of the term. There is firstly a personal God who created the universe; there is secondly the Godhead, either conceived as impersonal or as supra-personal; there are thirdly a number of gods, or of angels not clearly distinguished from gods.

(1) As for the first, Buddhist tradition does not exactly deny the existence of a creator, but it is not really interested to know who created the universe. The purpose of Buddhist doctrine is to release beings from suffering, and speculations concerning the origin of the universe are held to be immaterial to that task. They are not merely a waste of time but they may also postpone deliverance from suffering by engendering ill will in oneself and in others. While thus the Buddhists adopt an attitude of agnosticism to the question of a personal creator, they have not hesitated to stress the superiority of the Buddha over Brahma, the god who, according to Brahminic theology, created the universe. They represent the god Brahma as seized by pride when he thought to himself: ‘I am Brahma, I am the great Brahma, the King of the Gods; I am uncreated, I have created the world, I am the sovereign of the world, I can create, alter, and give birth; I am the Father of all things.'(from Dirghagama T1.xxii, T24.i; Vibhasa T1545.iic)The scriptures are not slow in pointing out that the Tathagata is free from such childish conceit. If indifference to a personal creator of the universe is atheism, then Buddhism is indeed atheistic.

(2) We are, however, nowadays, if only through the writings of Aldous Huxley, familiar with the difference between God and Godhead as an essential feature of the Perennial Philosophy. When we compare the attributes of the Godhead as they are understood by the more mystical tradition of Christian thought with those of Nirvana, we find almost no difference at all. It is indeed true that Nirvana has no cosmological functions, that this is not God’s world but a world made by our own greed and stupidity. It is indeed true that through their attitude the Buddhists express a more radical rejection of the world in all its aspects than we find among many Christians. At the same time, they are spared a number of awkward theological riddles and have not been under the necessity to combine, for instance, the assumption of an omnipotent and all-loving God with the existence of a great deal of suffering and muddle in this world. Buddhists also have never stated that God is Love, but that may be due to their preoccupation with intellectual precision, which must have perceived that the word ‘Love’ is one of the most unsatisfactory and ambiguous terms one could possibly use.

But, on the other hand, we are told that Nirvana is permanent, stable, imperishable, immovable, ageless, deathless, unborn, and unbecome, that it is power, bliss and happiness, the secure refuge, the shelter, and the place of unassailable safety; that it is the real Truth and the supreme Reality, that it is the Good, the supreme goal, and the one and only consummation of our life, the eternal, hidden, and incomprehensible Peace.

Similarly, the Buddha who is, as it were, the personal embodiment of Nirvana, becomes the object of all those emotions that we are wont to call religious.

There has existed throughout Buddhist history a tension between the bhaktic and the gnostic approach to religion, such as we find also in Christianity. There is, however, the difference that in Buddhism the gnostic vision has always been regarded as the more true one, while the bhaktic, devotion, type was regarded more or less as a concession to the common people. It is generally found in philosophical thought that even philosophical abstractions are clothed with some kind of emotional warmth when they concern the Absolute. We have only to think of Aristotle’s description of the Prime Mover. In Buddhism, however, in addition, a whole system of ritual, and of religious elevation, is associated with an intellectually conceived Absolute in a manner which is not logically very plausible, but which stood the test of life for a long time.

(3) We now come to the thorny subject of polytheism. The Christian teaching which has to some extent pervaded our education, has made us believe that polytheism belongs to a past period of the human race, that it has been superseded by monotheism, and that it finds no response in the contemporary mind. In order to appreciate the Buddhists’ toleration of polytheism, we must first of all understand that polytheism is very much alive even among us. But where formerly Athene, Baal, Astarte, Isis, Sarasvati, Kuan-Yin, etc., excited the popular imagination, it is nowadays inflamed by such words as democracy, progress, civilization, equality, liberty, reason, science, etc. A multitude of personal beings has given way to a multitude of abstract nouns. In Europe, the turning point came when the French deposed the Virgin Mary and transferred their affections to the Goddess of Reason. The reason for this change is not far to seek. Personal deities grow on the soil of a rural culture in which the majority of the population are illiterate, while abstract nouns find favour with the literate populations of modern towns. Medieval men went to war for Jesus Christ, Saint George, and San Jose. Modern crusades are in aid of such abstractions as Christianity, the Christian Way of Life, Democracy, and the Rights of Man.

Literacy, however, is not the only factor which differentiates our modern polytheism from that of ancient times. Another factor is our separation from the forces of Nature. Every tree, every well, lake, or river, almost every type of animal, could once bring forth a deity. We are now too remote from Nature to think that. In addition, our democratic predilections make us less inclined to deify great men. In India, kings were held to be gods and, ever since the days of Egypt, the despotism of a divine ruler has been a most efficient way of keeping vast empires together – in Rome, in China, in Iran, and in Japan. However much people may think of Hitler, Stalin, and Churchill, they are disinclined to grant them full divinity. The deification of great men is not confined to political figures. The inveterate polytheism of the human mind broke out in Islam and Christianity, through the crust of an official monotheism, in the form of the worship of saints. In Islam again the saints fused with the spirits which since ancient times had inhabited different localities. Finally, we must realize that religious people everywhere expect also immediate advantages from their religion. I saw, recently, in an Anglican shop window in Oxford, that at present Saint Christopher seems to be the only saint who appeals to those circles. His medals protect from car accidents. Similarly, the Buddhist expected from his religion that it would protect him from illnesses and fire, that it would give him children and other benefits. It is quite obvious that the one God, who soars above the stars and has the entire universe to look after, cannot really be bothered with such trifles. Special needs, therefore, engender special deities to provide for them. At present, we have developed a kind of confidence that science and industry will provide those needs, and our more superstitious inclinations are reserved for those activities which contain a large element of chance.

Among the populations which adopted Buddhism almost all activities contained a large element of chance, and a great number of deities were invoked for protection and help. The Buddhists would find no objection whatsoever in the cult of many gods because the idea of a jealous god is quite alien to them; and also because they are imbued with the conviction that everyone’s intellectual insight is very limited, so that it is very difficult for us to know when we are right, but practically impossible to be sure that someone else is wrong. Like the Catholics, the Buddhists believe that a faith can be kept alive only if it can be adapted to the mental habits of the average person. In consequence, we find that, in the earlier scriptures, the deities of Brahmanism are taken for granted and that, later on, the Buddhists adopted the local gods of any district to which they came.

If atheism is the denial of the existence of a God, it would be quite misleading to describe Buddhism as atheistic. On the other hand, monotheism has never appealed to the Buddhist mind. There has never been any interest in the origin of the universe – with only one exception. About 1000ad Buddhists in the north-west of India came into contact with the victorious forces of Islam. In their desire to be all things to all men, some Buddhists in that district rounded off their theology with the notion of an Adi-Buddha, a kind of omnipotent and omniscient primeval Buddha, who through his meditation originated the universe. This notion was adopted by a few sects in Nepal and Tibet.

Gods in Buddhism

The gods

(extract from The Wheel of Life by Kulananda)

This is a world of light and colour. Its beautiful inhabitants are endowed with the highest graces. Whatever they wish for simply appears: they have no need to work. Sweet sounds fill the air and everything sparkles with a scintillating luminosity.

The word deva, which is usually translated as ‘god’, derives from a root meaning ‘to shine’. The gods are the ‘shining ones’, radiant beings who live lives of unblemished happiness.

There are gods on earth, people to whom everything comes effortlessly and who enjoy highly refined states of mind. Some artists seem to live like this, and we can all think of people who seem somehow to be particularly favoured in their lives. They are good-looking, though not necessarily in the conventional sense, and there is something about them that just shines out. Everyone enjoys their company and they are always good to be with. Light-hearted and carefree, people like this have an aura of brightness about them that affects everyone with whom they come into contact.

In all likelihood, we ourselves have some experience of this world. Perhaps we remember times when we consistently enjoyed clearer, brighter, and more carefree mental states, or perhaps moments when we were absorbed in the appreciation of great works of art. Touching the fringes of the penetrating, refined consciousness of their creators, perhaps we entered – for a while – into their world.

The ‘human’ god-realm also contains those beings who, through their own spiritual efforts, have made substantial spiritual progress. They shine from within with a happiness that comes from spiritual practice. Having, through their transcendental insight, broken the fetters of habit, of a certain vagueness that always keeps all options open, and of superficiality, such beings live lives dedicated to spiritual practice – both for themselves and for others. According to the Pali tradition, such beings will be reborn on the Wheel no more than seven times.

There are also gods who are not in any sense human. Above our human world, according to the scriptural tradition, there exist plane after plane of increasingly refined states of being, all occupied by different kinds of gods. The first six of these levels, since the beings in them are still subject to subtle forms of sense desire, belong to the Wheel of Life.

Each god is embodied within a subtle physical form that is not perceivable by the usual human senses. Beautiful and noble, they experience continuous sense pleasure and satisfaction. The higher the realm, the more refined its pleasures. Each of the god worlds is traditionally shown as a kind of royal court, presided over by the chief god of that realm. Here, the gods pass their time at ease, fully absorbed in the enjoyment of beauty.

Because these gods inhabit the world of sense desire, they are able, to some extent at least, to interact with the human world. They like to visit places of natural beauty and are attracted to people who are happy and positive. They are particularly attracted to people who are practising spiritually, especially the spiritually developed, over whom they are sometimes said to cast a beneficial influence.

All the gods, however, are impermanent. Their lives are immeasurably long, and the higher the realm the longer the life, but like all other living beings the gods will die. This happens when the karma that made them gods in the first place is exhausted. None of the gods made the world and none of them presides over it indefinitely. In the Brahmajala Sutta of the Pali Digha-Nikaya the Buddha treats with gentle irony the notion of a creator god. There is a being who thinks he is the creator of all, the Buddha tells us, but he is deluded. He just happened to appear in his realm, through the force of previous karma, before any other beings. And when they in turn appear there, through the force of their past karma, he believes that he made them – and so do they.

Rather than being the centre of a god-made universe, the god realm for Buddhism is that world we inhabit as a result of previous skilful acts of body, speech, and mind. Skilful acts have positive consequences. Traditionally speaking, all our skilful acts create a stock of ‘merit’ which in time comes to fruition as a positive consequence. Gods are gods because they have accrued a great deal of merit.

The merit we generate through skilful acts may, if we have not previously created too much countervailing demerit, give rise in this life to greater ease and pleasure, or we may experience it in future heavenly rebirths. But however and wherever we experience the fruits of our skilful actions, the enjoyment and the pleasure they bring is always accompanied by the danger of intoxication. Living a life of unalloyed sensory delight, the gods are prone to forget themselves and they also lose sight of others. The existence they now enjoy is the result of their past mindfulness and ethical striving. Unless they continue to make an effort to preserve their awareness and to generate further positive karma through skilful acts, they will gradually sink to lower and lower levels of being. Eventually, it is sometimes said, intensely anguished at the loss of their former pleasures, such gods take rebirth in the hells.

As we make spiritual progress through our own efforts, we will naturally come to experience more and more pleasure as well as greater ease and confidence. Under such circumstances it is easy to forget that the fruits of the spiritual life are only ever the results of striving. Complacency easily sets in, and when it does we slowly begin to fall. The realm of the gods is a place of great danger for spiritual aspirants. For that reason, the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara appears in the world of the gods as a white Buddha, playing the melody of impermanence upon a lute. Only in this beautiful form can the message of universal impermanence come home to the intoxicated gods.

The Noble Eightfold Path

(this is a very long section!)

The Noble Eightfold Path in general

Written for the AQA syllabus by Robert Ellis, formerly a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order and a former Head of RS in a 6th-form college.

The Noble Eightfold Path is the most common formulation of the Path, the Fourth Noble Truth. (For a detailed exploration of the Four Noble Truths, see Access to Insight website.) It provides a breakdown of the different developments needed to make progress towards enlightenment. It consists of eight ‘limbs’ (anga).

Some important overall features of the Eightfold Path

1. Its limbs are interdependent. Progress on one part of the Path is supported by progress on other parts. To some extent, then, a Buddhist needs to work on all elements of the Path simultaneously. But they are also likely to concentrate on some elements more than others at certain points. Traditionally, a Buddhist starts more with the elements relating to ethics, goes on to those concerned with meditation, then concludes with wisdom. However, he/she will also need to have some concern with wisdom and meditation whilst focussing on ethics, and so on.

2. It is gradual. Progress on all the elements of the Path is made gradually. All the limbs of the path can be practised at a great variety of levels, from the most superficial to the most in-depth. Hence it is a path for both lay people and monks. Even those who are enlightened or nearly enlightened are said to practise it (in the form of the Transcendental Eightfold Path), though for them it is a spontaneous expression of their nature rather than an effort.

3. It is overlaps with other formulations. There are other formulations of the Path (e.g. the Middle Way, the Threefold Path, The Ten Perfections), but the Path itself is the same. In the different formulations it is simply being described and analysed differently.

4. The formulation is believed to originate with the Buddha. In the Pali Canon it is found in the Sutta on the Turning of the Wheel of the Dhamma (Dhammacakkapavattanasutta), where the Buddha’s First Sermon to the Five Ascetics at Sarnath is described. In this sermon he gives a brief overall account of the Four Noble Truths, and in explaining the Fourth Noble Truth he gives an account of the Noble Eightfold Path. All schools of Buddhism accept these basic formulations, though they may interpret and apply them differently.

The limbs of the Noble Eightfold Path

  • 1. Right View     (see below)
  • 2. Right Aspiration (1 & 2 correspond with Wisdom in the Three-Fold Way)
  • 3. Right Speech
  • 4. Right Action
  • 5. Right Livelihood (3, 4 & 5 correspond with Morality)
  • 6. Right Effort
  • 7. Right Mindfulness
  • 8. Right Concentration (6, 7 & 8 correspond with Meditation)

Before you move on, see if you can define each of the limbs in the space next to it above. Also see if you can define each element of the Threefold Path.

Past questions on AXA syllabus include:

  • Explain the meaning of the eightfold path, and assess the claim that the eightfold path is the most important teaching for Buddhists in their quest for enlightenment.
  • Examine the importance of the eightfold path as a means to enlightenment.
  • Explain and assess the claim that Buddhism is simply a humanistic moral philosophy.
  • With reference to vipassana and samatha meditation explain the nature and purpose of meditation in Buddhism.
  • “Meditation is a way of escaping from the problems of everyday life.” Explain and evaluate this view.

For a detailed exploration of the Eightfold Path from a Theravadin scholar-monk, go to Access to Insight website.

1. Right View (samma-ditthi)

The Importance of Views

The following was written for the AQA syllabus by Robert Ellis, formerly a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order and a former Head of RS in a 6th-form college.

Right View (alternatively, ‘right understanding’ or ‘right vision’) consists partly of the beliefs which will help one towards enlightenment, but also of a full understanding of those beliefs and realisation of their full implications. Right view is thus central to wisdom in Buddhism.

Right View is also often described as the forerunner of the other limbs of the Eightfold Path: this is because it enables one to understand how the other limbs are helpful and to judge what is correct practice. For example, it would be impossible to practise right action without an understanding of what are right or wrong actions. It provides an initial view according to which we then orientate ourselves.

Although in many ways we need some Right View in order to practise Buddhism at all, it’s also true that some initial practice may be needed to get a vision of what lies ahead. Sangharakshita, founder of the FWBO, explains this in terms of a metaphor:

Imagine we want to climb to some lofty mountain peak. What do we do? First we study a map of the terrain, of the surrounding foothills, and of the mountain itself. This study of the map corresponds to the theoretica; study of Buddhist doctrine….But we have to actually start our journey, to get going – we have at least to get to base camp. This corresponds to our preliminary practice of the Buddha’s teaching. Eventually, after several days, weeks, or months of travelling, we catch a glimpse of the distant mountain peak which is the object of our journey. We have come only a little way, and we are still far from the foot of the mountain, but there in the distance we see the shining snow peak. We have a direct perception – a vision – of it, although from a very great distance.

This glimpse of the peak corresponds to Perfect Vision, and it gives us inspiration and encouragement to continue our journey. We can go on from there, keeping our eyes on the peak, never losing sight of it, at least not for more than a few minutes at a time. We may not care how long the journey, how many nights we spend on the way, how difficult the terrain, how hot or cold it is. We may not even care if we are starving, so long as we have our eyes firmly fixed on the peak. We are happy in the knowledge that we are getting nearer day by day, and that one day we shall find ourselves at the foot of the peak – This process of travelling with the peak in view corresponds to traversing the remaining stages of the Noble Eightfold Path. Eventually we may find ourselves on the virgin snows of the peak itself – may find that we have attained Enlightenment, or Buddhahood.

Sangharakshita: Vision and Transformation p.32, Windhorse


Why do you think there are three different translation of samma-ditthi? Note the limitations of each translation below (what does each imply that the others don’t? What does it not tell you?)
Right View
Right Understanding
Right Vision

Extract from the Pali Canon on Right View (with notes in square brackets)

Of those [the other limbs of the Eightfold Path] , Right View is the forerunner. And how is Right View the forerunner? One discerns wrong view as wrong view, and Right View as Right View. This is one’s Right View. And what is wrong view? ‘There is nothing given, nothing offered, nothing sacrificed. There is no fruit or result of good or bad actions.[i.e. kamma] There is no this world, no next world, no mother, no father, no spontaneously reborn beings [i.e. rebirth] ; no priests or contemplatives who, faring rightly and practicing rightly, proclaim this world and the next after having directly known and realized it for themselves [i.e. [possibility of working towards Enlightenment].’ This is wrong view.

And what is Right View? Right View, I tell you, is of two sorts: There is Right View with effluents, siding with merit, resulting in acquisitions [i.e. Right View which still produces kamma]; and there is noble Right View, without effluents, transcendent, a factor of the path [Right View at a higher stage of the Path, which no longer produces kamma].And what is the Right View that has effluents, sides with merit, and results in acquisitions? ‘There is what is given, what is offered, what is sacrificed [i.e. our good actions do matter]. There are fruits and results of good and bad actions [these actions have kammic results]. There is this world and the next world. There is mother and father. There are spontaneously reborn beings [i.e. there is rebirth]; there are priests and contemplatives who, faring rightly and practicing rightly, proclaim this world and the next after having directly known and realized it for themselves [i.e. spiritual progress is possible].’ This is the Right View that has effluents, sides with merit, and results in acquisitions.

And what is the right view that is without effluents, transcendent, a factor of the path? The discernment [wisdom], the faculty of discernment, the strength of discernment, analysis of qualities as a factor of Awakening, the path factor of right view in one developing the noble path whose mind is noble, whose mind is free from effluents, who is fully possessed of the noble path. This is the right view that is without effluents, transcendent, a factor of the path. [i.e. one who practises right view spontaneously at a high level will have gained wisdom and will no longer produce kamma as a result of action]One tries to abandon wrong view and to enter into right view: This is one’s right effort. One is mindful to abandon wrong view and to enter and remain in right view: This is one’s right mindfulness. Thus these three qualities-right view, right effort, and right mindfulness-run and circle around right view.

Middle-Length Sayings Sutta 117

So, in summary, the Pali Canon stresses that Right View consists in a complete understanding of the workings of kamma and rebirth, creating responsibility for our actions, which it is claimed will always lead to results for which we will be accountable. It also includes understanding of the possibility of spiritual progress, for without this there would be no positive effect from recognition of kamma and rebirth. An alternative way of putting this same point is in terms of understanding and awareness of the Four Noble Truths.

Awareness of the Four Noble TruthsAn important part of Right View consists in the understanding of key Buddhist formulations. These would begin with the Four Noble Truths. A practising Buddhist needs to not only know in theory, but to understand in experience how suffering and frustration is a feature of the human relationship to the world (the First Truth), to understand the causes of that suffering and frustration (the Second Truth), to believe that there is an alternative (the Third Truth) and to appreciate exactly what changes in attitude and behaviour will lead him/her towards that alternative (the Fourth Truth).

To have a full awareness of the Four Noble Truths in one’s life means being able to break down the general idea into what it means in specific practical terms, and remain continuously aware of the Four Noble Truths in one’s life.


To get some idea of what is involved in understanding the Four Noble Truths, try
(1) saying what you think the Truth means and
(2) think of examples from your own experience which relate to each Truth. A Buddhist reflecting on the truths might well go through such examples slowly and carefully in meditation, preferably after achieving a state of jhana or deep concentration.

  • 1st Noble Truth: Suffering or Frustration
  • 2nd Noble Truth: Arising of Suffering or Frustration (i.e. craving and its result in kamma)
  • 3rd Noble Truth: The possibility of Enlightenment
  • 4th Noble Truth: The Path to Enlightenment


2. Right Aspiration

Right Aspiration (sometimes translated as ‘Right Attitude’, ‘Right Resolve’, ‘Right Emotion’, or much less precisely as ‘Right Thoughts’) is a further aspect of wisdom developed in the Noble Eightfold Path alongside Right View. Whilst Right View is concerned with complete understanding and acceptance, Right Aspiration is concerned with the motivation to develop towards Enlightenment. It consists in faith and a desire to progress.

Extract from the Pali Canon on Right Aspiration (with notes in square brackets)

Of those, right view is the forerunner. And how is right view the forerunner? One discerns wrong resolve as wrong resolve, and right resolve as right resolve. And what is wrong resolve? Being resolved on sensuality, on ill will, on harmfulness. This is wrong resolve.And what is right resolve? Right resolve, I tell you, is of two sorts: There is right resolve with effluents, siding with merit, resulting in acquisitions [i.e. creating kamma]; and there is noble right resolve, without effluents, transcendent, a factor of the path [i.e. without kamma].And what is the right resolve that has effluents, sides with merit, and results in acquisitions? Being resolved on renunciation, on freedom from ill will, on harmlessness. This is the right resolve that has effluents, sides with merit, and results in acquisitions.And what is the right resolve that is without effluents, transcendent, a factor of the path? The thinking, directed thinking, resolve, mental absorption, mental fixity, focused awareness, and verbal fabrications in one developing the noble path whose mind is noble, whose mind is without effluents, who is fully possessed of the noble path. This is the right resolve that is without effluents, transcendent, a factor of the path.One tries to abandon wrong resolve and to enter into right resolve: This is one’s right effort. One is mindful to abandon wrong resolve and to enter and remain in right resolve: This is one’s right mindfulness. Thus these three qualities-right view, right effort, and right mindfulness-run and circle around right resolve.

Middle-Length Sayings (Majjhima Nikaya) Sutta 117, Pali Text Society

Summarise what this passage is saying about right aspiration/resolve

Jack Kornfield on Right Aspiration

The American Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield has an interesting practical account of Right Aspiration, which he calls Right Attitude. He says that there are three aspects to it: openness, renunciation and love. Read his account in chapter 2 of the e-book and take notes on what he says about each of these three aspects.


3. Right Speech

Right Speech is traditionally distinguished from Right Action because of the traditional Indian distinction between body, speech and mind. This does not mean that speech is not an action, but that it is a type of action which should be given special emphasis. We often talk about our actions before doing them, so speech has an intermediate status between body and mind. A passing thought has less weight of kamma attached than one which is strong or habitual enough to result in speech, but it needs to be even stronger to result in further action.

The requirements of Right Speech can be analysed using the Ten Root Precepts (a basic ethical formulation applying to all Buddhists, as opposed to the Five Precepts which are directed at lay people). The Ten Root Precepts include no less than four which are concerned with speech, and specify the avoidance of false, harsh, useless and slanderous speech. In the Pali Canon these four precepts are explained thus:

Abandoning false speech, he abstains from false speech. He speaks the truth, holds to the truth, is firm, reliable, no deceiver of the world.

Abandoning divisive speech [or slanderous speech] he abstains from divisive speech. What he has heard here he does not tell there to break those people apart from these people here. What he has heard there he does not tell here to break these people apart from those people there. Thus reconciling those who have broken apart or cementing those who are united, he loves concord [i.e. harmony], delights in concord, enjoys concord, speaks things that create concord.

Abandoning abusive speech [or harsh speech], he abstains from abusive speech. He speaks words that are soothing to the ear, that are affectionate, that go to the heart, that are polite, appealing and pleasing to people at large.

Abandoning idle chatter [useless speech], he abstains from idle chatter. He speaks in season, speaks what is factual, what is in accordance with the goal, the Dhamma, and the Vinaya. He speaks words worth treasuring, seasonable, reasonable, circumscribed, connected with the goal.

Gradual Sayings (Anguttara Nikaya) X.99, Pali Text Society

Later in the same passage more details are given on false speech:

Abandoning false speech, he abstains from false speech. When he has been called to a town meeting, a group meeting, a gathering of his relatives, his guild, or of the royalty [i.e., a royal court proceeding], if he is asked as a witness, ‘Come and tell, good man, what you know’. If he doesn’t know, he says, ‘I don’t know.’ If he does know, he says, ‘I know.’ If he hasn’t seen, he says, ‘I haven’t seen.’ If he has seen, he says, ‘I have seen.’ Thus he doesn’t consciously tell a lie for his own sake, for the sake of another, or for the sake of any reward.

Read these passages and note in your own words what you think is meant by each of the root speech precepts, with examples from everyday life:

  • Avoidance of false speech
  • Avoidance of harsh speech
  • Avoidance of useless speech
  • Avoidance of slanderous speech

Having these four areas of speech naturally raises the question of priority between them. Those who say negative things about other people behind their back (slanderous speech) might well defend this by saying it is true, and what if one says something that is true but likely to seem harsh to others because they don’t want to hear it?

In the Buddha’s discourse to Prince Abhaya the Buddha clarifies the priorities between the different speech precepts with reference to his own (the Tathagata’s) practice.

Such speech as the Tathagata knows to be untrue, incorrect, and unbeneficial, and which is also unwelcome and disagreeable to others: such speech the Tathagata does not utter. Such speech as the Tathagata knows to be true and correct but unbeneficial, and which is also unwelcome and disagreeable to others: such speech the Tathagata does not utter. Such speech as the Tathagata knows to be true, correct, and beneficial, but which is unwelcome and disagreeable to others: the Tathagata knows the time to use such speech. Such speech as the Tathagata knows to be untrue, incorrect, and unbeneficial, but which is welcome and agreeable to others: such speech the Tathagata does not utter. Such speech as the Tathagata knows to be true and correct but unbeneficial, and which is welcome and agreeable to others, such speech the Tathagata does not utter. Such speech as the Tathagata knows to be true, correct, and beneficial, and which is welcome and agreeable to others: the Tathagata knows the time to use such speech. Why is that? Because the Tathagata has compassion for beings.

Middle-Length Sayings (Majjhima Nikaya) 58, Pali Text Society)

So, to summarise: Right Speech demands that we always speak both the truth and what is beneficial (i.e. not useless or slanderous). Both of these are non-negotiable: you shouldn’t say something true that’s not useful, or something useful that’s not true. However, with sufficient thought, awareness and wisdom (such as the Buddha possesses) we may be justified in saying things which may seem harsh but are true and beneficial, as well as things which are true and beneficial and also welcome.

Write an example of each of the following combinations and say if you think each one would constitute Right Speech :

  • True, beneficial and agreeable
  • True, beneficial and disagreeable
  • True, not beneficial and agreeable
  • True, not beneficial and disagreeable
  • False, beneficial and agreeable
  • False, beneficial and disagreeable
  • False, not beneficial and agreeable
  • False, not beneficial and disagreeable

Reflection/ Discussion
Do you agree with the Buddha’s advice about speech? Does it raise any problems?


4. Right Action

Three of the limbs of the Noble Eightfold Path are concerned with Morality: Action, Speech and Livelihood – below shows how they relate to the Five Lay Moral Precepts and the Ten Root Precepts, (with the positive counterparts in brackets). Right Action traditionally focuses on actions of the body rather than of speech or of the mind, but is concerned with what we do generally rather than just in our work (which is the specific concern of Right Livelihood.)

Right Action/ Right Livelihood

  • Abstaining from harming/killing living beings (loving-kindness)[1st of 5 precepts; 1st of 10 precepts]
  • Abstaining from taking the not-given (generosity) [2nd of 5; 2nd of 10]
  • Abstaining from sexual misconduct (stillness, simplicity & contentment) [3rd of 5; 3rd of 10]

Right Speech

  • Abstaining from false speech (truthful speech)[4th of 5; 4th of 10]
  • Abstaining from harsh speech (kindly speech) [5th of 10]
  • Abstaining from useless speech (helpful speech) [6th of 10]
  • Abstaining from slanderous speech (harmonious speech) [7th of 10]

Right Mindfulness/ Right Concentration/ Right Effort

  • Abstaining from intoxicants (mindfulness) [5th of 5 precepts]
  • Abstaining from covetousness (tranquillity) [8th of 10]
  • Abstaining from animosity (compassion) [9th of 10]
  • Abstaining from false views (wisdom) [10th of 10]

The Ten Root Precepts can be found in………..scriptural ref from 10 pillars

How to judge right and wrong action

The basis of judgement for right action in Buddhism is that of mental state. A wrong action is rooted in a mental state dominated by greed, hatred and ignorance, a right action in enlightened wisdom which has overcome these three tendencies. However, as we can’t overcome all traces of greed, hatred and ignorance all at once, we have to work gradually towards this goal. A good place to start is with our physical actions, because these have a strong effect on our whole situation in life. So the three lay precepts concerned with Right Action, forbidding violence, taking the not-given and sexual misconduct, recommend avoiding some types of behaviour which are generally deeply rooted in greed, hatred and ignorance, and which make that state worse.

Sangharakshita, founder of Triratna, illustrates the way following a moral precept can help overcome greed like this:

We say that an enlightened person, one who is a Buddha, is free from (let us say) craving or selfish desire. We ourselves are full of craving. We crave, for example, food of various kinds; we have a special liking for this or that. Suppose, as an experiment, we stop eating one of our favourite foodstuffs, whatever it may be. We give it up. We decide not to take it any more. Very regretfully, very sorrowfully, we close the larder door. We resist the temptation, whatever it may be – say plum cake. (I once knew a Buddhist monk who was wonderfully addicted to plum cake. It was said you could get anything out of him if you offered him sufficient plum cake!). What happens is that we may suffer for a while, and may not have an easy time at all. In fact, it may be quite hard going. But if we stick it out, if we banish those visions of plum cake, craving is gradually reduced and eventually we shall reach a happy state where there is no craving at all, and where we never even think of that particular thing. Our abstention from plum-cake is now no longer a disciplinary measure, but has become a genuine expression of the state of non-craving to which we have attained.

Sangharakshita Vision and Transformation p.84, Windhorse

Work out your own example of how following a precept to stop violent behaviour could influence habitual attitudes and mental states.


5. Right Livelihood

Right Livelihood applies morality specifically to the question of how one earns one’s living. This is an aspect of action, but a particularly important one. We have to put a lot of energy into our work, and the type of work we choose has a big effect both on us and on the world. Buddhism does not allow a big distinction between a job that we are “forced” to do and leisure time that we have control over, but rather stresses our responsibility for the work we choose to do and the economic processes we choose to support through that means.

The most obvious wrong livelihoods are those which directly involve breaking the Five Precepts: for example working in a slaughterhouse, being a fisherman or soldier (first precept), being a thief or swindler (second precept), being an astrologer or being a journalist on the Sunday Sport (fourth precept).

One important aspect of Buddhist ethics is the recognition that our actions may also indirectly contribute to others’ suffering. It is our intention rather than the directness of the effects of our actions which has the karmic effect. Indirect effects are often important in economic life. For example, by making or selling things that are harmful, we can indirectly contribute to harm even if we don’t actually directly apply that harmful thing. This is why Buddhism traditionally considers trading in poisons, weapons or alcohol to be wrong livelihood.

Even if violence, theft, sexual misconduct, lies and intoxication are things people choose to do for themselves, you are also partly responsible if you encourage them or provide them with the necessary facilities: so acting in violent films, receiving stolen goods, prostitution, advertising and working in a pub might all be considered more or less questionable when judged in terms of Right Livelihood. However, it’s obviously impossible to have no indirect connection at all with conditions which support breaking any precepts: do you refuse to sell apples because they could be made into cider, or a kitchen knife because it could be used violently? Obviously there are relative judgements to be made about how far to go in ensuring Right Livelihood.

Some occupations are also not obviously unethical, but how far they are Right Livelihood depends on how much effort is put into them. Working in a shop selling genuinely useful and non-harmful goods, for example, might be seen as Right Livelihood provided that one relates positively to the customers.

The supreme example of Right Livelihood is traditionally that of the monk or nun. Having renounced both possession of money and the responsibilities which require lay-people to earn money, the monk or nun relies only on gifts to meet their basic needs. No harm is done or even supported through this, but instead the opportunity is given for lay people to earn merit. Traditionally this is seen as an entirely blameless vocation.


Would these be examples of right or wrong livelihood? To what extent? Why? (NB this is often a matter of interpretation rather than having an absolutely right answer.)

  • Bingo caller
  • Diamond miner
  • Worker in a fish finger factory
  • Journalist working for Vogue
  • Merchant sailor
  • History teacher
  • Tree surgeon


6. Right Effort

With Right Effort we come to that part of the Noble Eightfold Path which is concerned with the mind and mental states. Effort can sometimes mean physical exertion, but more often (and especially here), exerting the will constantly towards a particular goal. This needs to be done in a way which can be sustained, rather than subjecting ourselves to a level of stress we cannot keep up. But nevertheless, progress towards Enlightenment can only be made by constantly trying.

The Four Exertions

Traditionally Right Effort is analysed into The Four Exertions : preventing, eradicating, developing and maintaining.
1. Preventing the arising of unskilful thoughts
2. Eradicating unskilful thoughts that have already arisen
3. Cultivating skilful thoughts
4. Maintaining skilful thoughts which have already arisen

‘Skilful’ and ‘unskilful’ are terms often used by Buddhists to translate the Pali kusala and akusala: that is, helpful in working towards Enlightenment and unhelpful in working towards Enlightenment (avoiding some of the assumptions we might make when talking of good or evil, but roughly equivalent). By working in these four ways we can produce the overall result of having more skilful thoughts and fewer unskilful ones.

1. Preventing the arising of unskilful thoughts involves the attempt to remain aware of ways in which we might be influenced by what we experience, and how this might give rise to greed, hatred, or ignorance. For example, if you know that if you spend an evening with a certain unhelpful friend you’re likely to end up drunk and strongly influenced by their prejudices, you decide not to expose yourself to these conditions and refuse the invitation. After you’ve exposed yourself to temptation to a certain extent, habit is likely to take over: so the best way to change your habits is to avoid the situation which produces the temptation to begin with.

2. Eradicating unskilful thoughts which have already arisen -supposing you haven’t avoided the situation. You have exposed yourself to the sense-experiences which give rise to unskilful mental states, and those unskilful mental states have arisen. You can still do something about this, according to Buddhism. Exactly what you can do depends on the type of unskilful mental state: unskilful mental states correspond to the Five Hindrances which prevent concentration in meditation: greed, hatred, doubt, restlessness & anxiety, and sloth & torpor. There are four common techniques which can be used for dealing with any of these types of unskilful mental state:

  • Considering the consequences: Reflect on what will happen if you carry on in this mental state. The more strongly you can envisage this the better, because you may then look beyond the current situation enough to change your attitude. E.g. if you’re trying to give up smoking and reach for that cigarette, feeling that nicotine-craving, you can visualise pictures of lungs full of tar or imagine yourself undergoing premature death.
  • Cultivating the opposite: Some of the hindrances are opposed to another hindrance: so greed is opposed to hatred and sloth is opposed to anxiety (whereas doubt is opposed by faith, a positive quality). So if you’re in a greedy state you can think about what’s hateful about the object of your greed, or if you’re in a state of anxiety you can try and calm down by measured breathing and concentrating lower in your body. E.g. If you’re attracted to someone ill-advised, you can think about all their unattractive features, such as their bodily excretions (there’s a tradition of this in Buddhist texts!)
  • Detachment: You can just let the unskilful thoughts pass like clouds in the sky. You just witness them as an impartial observer and detach yourself from them. E.g. if you have a feeling of resentment about what someone said to you, you can just let it go by, or alternatively analyse it psychologically.
  • Suppression: A last resort is to simply exert strength of will to force yourself not to think in this way. This is not really advisable (because there will be a backlash from the suppressed feeling later) unless you have to act in this way to avoid acting immorally. E.g. If your hatred means you’re about to do someone else an injury, it may be better to just stop yourself!

3. Cultivating skilful thoughts involves the converse of number 1. Rather than just negatively avoiding putting yourself in situations where unskilful thoughts are likely to arise, you positively put yourself in situations where skilful thoughts are likely to arise. This might mean spending time with friends who are wise and compassionate, or doing some activity (e.g. yoga) which one knows to be liable to produce wholesome thoughts, or deliberately dwelling on positive thoughts in meditation. Some forms of visualisation practice in Mahayana Buddhism involve visualising a Buddha or bodhisattva who is associated with skilful thoughts: so by using the symbol one constantly puts oneself back into a skilful frame of mind through association.

4. Maintaining skilful thoughts which have already arisen: once skilful mental states have been developed, it is very easy to slip out of them, so it is necessary to stay on one’s guard. So again, this exertion may mean avoiding unhelpful influences, as well as practices such as regular meditation which help to keep up skilful mental states.

Task: work out your own example of how the Four Exertions might be applied


7. Right Mindfulness

The Pali word usually translated as ‘mindfulness’ (sati) literally means something like ‘recollection’ or ‘memory’. This is memory in the specific sense of recalling our long-term intentions from moment to moment, rather than being able to recall specific facts or events (though mindfulness may help with this as well). Someone who is ‘forgetful’ is usually unmindful in this sense. Sati also involves having a broad awareness of what is going on in ourselves and our environment, so that, even if you are concentrating on one thing, a sense of the overall picture will still be there in the background. The more mindful you are the less likely you are to be distracted by stray thoughts, feelings, or desires, because you are more aware of the different parts of yourself and are less likely to be surprised by some new development.

The most important explanation of mindfulness in the Pali Canon is the Satipatthana Sutta, found in the Digha Nikaya (Long Discourses). There’s also another similar version in the Majjhima Nikaya (Middle-Length Discourses). In this text there is a helpful analysis of mindfulness into four types, depending on its object. Traditional sources have these as body, feelings, mind and mental qualities. Sangharakshita covers the same ground but uses a slightly different interpretation: awareness of things, awareness of oneself, awareness of others, and awareness of reality.

Awareness of things

The most basic (and foundational) aspect of mindfulness is awareness of our material environment, and the things we find in it. This means that we are interested enough in our environment to observe it, and to really look at and appreciate what we see (similarly with the other senses). This kind of awareness does not just mean being on the alert for particular things (like a hunter going through the forest looking for prey), but having a general open receptivity to what we sense; not just thinking about how useful things may be to us, but appreciating them for what they are. This is a type of awareness sometimes cultivated by artists, and especially in the Chinese and Japanese art influenced by Zen. The Zen artist might simply look at an object for hours, then when enough awareness has been developed, simply take up a brush and produce a brilliant (but simple) picture in a few strokes, which somehow captures what is most basic about that object.

Awareness of oneself

This involves awareness of the body and its movements, awareness of feelings, and awareness of thoughts. Body-awareness is the most basic of these, for without a certain amount of awareness of one’s physical nature and changing bodily states, it is very difficult to be mindful of one’s mind. It is very common for meditators to begin a session of any kind of meditation practice by cultivating awareness of the body: this means simply being aware of the fact that one is sitting, where and how one is sitting, and how that physically feels in all the parts of the body.

Another practice which cultivates body awareness is walking meditation. This is regularly done both in the Theravada and Zen traditions (in Zen it is called kinhin). It involves being fully aware of what each of the parts of the body is doing when one is walking (usually very slowly and deliberately). One may start with observation of the specific sensations in the soles of the feet, then gradually broaden that awareness to the movements and sensations occurring in the whole body.

Awareness of the feelings means being aware of how one is feeling, and what emotions one is subject to. Meditation practices such as the cultivation of loving kindness always begin with the recollection of what one’s feelings actually are. Our feelings can come out as a stream of thoughts and/or as feelings in the body, and it is important to acknowledge to oneself, as a starting point, than one is experiencing (for example) anger, disappointment, excitement or desire. If such feelings remain unacknowledged, they are likely to disrupt whatever else we try to do.

Awareness of thoughts means being aware of the direction that one’s thoughts are taking. This means not just having a thought, but also being aware of the fact that one is having that kind of thought. Thoughts can be a sign of feelings, and can also show what kind of beliefs we hold. One aspect of the practice of cultivating wisdom in Buddhism involves examining one’s beliefs to see whether or not they are in accordance with reality and leading towards enlightenment. It is impossible to do this unless one first recognises what sorts of belief one has.

Awareness of others

Awareness of others means trying to avoid immediate and unthinking emotional responses to others, instead trying to work out what they are really like. We have a natural tendency to immediately pigeonhole others according to our likes and dislikes: for example as an attractive person, as a boring person, or as a person we dislike. We also apply social expectations, especially to people of a different sex, age or nationality. But the reality is likely to be much more complex than we usually allow for, and people can often defeat our initial expectations as new aspects of them are revealed. For example, a brisk, authoritative manager probably has a more caring and human side, even if at first all you can see is someone in the role of an authority. Similarly, an attractive person of the opposite sex probably has weaknesses and limitations which we fail to recognise at first, blinded by the attraction.

The cultivation of positive emotions (such as metta or loving–kindness) in Buddhism begins with recognising our likes and dislikes, and making the effort to compensate for them. This will also involve observing the person and reflecting on what they actually are like as far as we can tell, rather than just following our initial responses.

Awareness of reality

This is the highest and most difficult of the fours types of awareness, and is really another way of talking about wisdom. Awareness of what is ultimately real (rather than what is distorted by our greed, hatred, or ignorance) is one way of talking about enlightenment itself. Initially we can try to gain more awareness of reality through the other three types, by gaining awareness of things, of ourselves and of others. Awareness of reality also means awareness of the Four Noble Truths, particularly starting with the first.

All vipassana meditation practices involve cultivating awareness of reality in one way or another, either by developing awareness of dukkha, impermanence or insubstantiality or by positively visualising a state of enlightenment in the form of a Buddha or bodhisattva. Meditating on the ten stages of the decomposition of a corpse, for example, brings one face to face with the reality of death. Meditating on the Buddha, on the other hand, brings one face-to-face with the reality of enlightenment. Whether one concentrates on facing up to dukkha or dwelling positively on positive images will be a matter for judgement in each individual case, depending on what sort of temperament one has.

Research a meditation practice.
Find out more details on any one meditation practice used in any school of Buddhism to develop any of the types of awareness. Make notes on the following ready to report back:
a) What exactly is done in the practice? e.g. what stages are there in it?
b) What sort of person would do this practice and in what circumstances?
c) What school of Buddhism it is associated with, and how it reflects the particular approach in that school?
d) What sort of awareness it cultivates and exactly how it does this?

Further Reading
Harvey An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics esp. p.37-46


Right Concentration

Right concentration consists in one-pointedness or focus of mind on a particular object. It is clearly needed for right effort – you can’t make an effort at something without concentrating on it – and also for all the other limbs of the Eightfold Path. This is suggested by the Pali Canon (Majjhima Nikaya 117):

And what, monks, is noble right concentration with its supports and requisite conditions? Any singleness of mind equipped with these seven factors – right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, and right mindfulness – is called noble right concentration with its supports and requisite conditions.

Concentration is a necessary condition for any practice of ethics, because you need to remain constantly aware of the moral change you have decided upon in order to put it into effect and avoid being swept away by other feelings in different circumstances. It’s also required for any kind of wisdom, because you can only break through illusions and come to terms with reality by concentrating on the alternative view you have discovered and recalling it at times when your old habitual view comes back.

Concentration and mindfulness

Concentration relates closely to the final limb, mindfulness. Both are different forms of awareness, but of the two concentration is more deliberate and narrow, mindfulness broader, more spontaneous and more open and receptive. A good example to illustrate the difference would be an exam: in an exam you are likely to be very concentrated, because you are forced to be (or at least strongly influenced) by the conditions and the thought of the bad consequences of failing if you don’t concentrate. But you are not likely to be very mindful: you won’t be very aware of the different sensations of your body, or different feelings, or of other people. Indeed, you are likely to be so concentrated that you exclude awareness of things going on around you. During an exam invigilators or other candidates can have minor crises and many candidates completely fail to notice.

But the ideal in Buddhist practice is to combine concentration and mindfulness and balance the two. There may be times when you need to exclude other things to focus on one thing, but generally you need to be open to the whole breadth of things that you may need to become aware of, not simply focussed single-mindedly on one thing. Thus there are many people in the world who have developed remarkable powers of concentration (think of surgeons performing complex and delicate operations, or concert pianists remembering a whole concerto), but these are not necessarily following right concentration as a limb of the Eightfold Path, for this must link with the other limbs.

Practices to develop concentration

There are some meditation practices which focus primarily on concentration. The kasina practice used in the Theravada, for example, is almost entirely just a concentration exercise. In this practice the meditator looks at a coloured disc and then recreates clearly in the mind’s eye. Some other forms of samatha meditation combine the cultivation of concentration with that of mindfulness, positive emotion and other skilful qualities of mind. An example of such a broader practice would be the mindfulness of breathing: here the meditator concentrates on the breath, but not in the kind of narrow way one would concentrate in an exam: instead the meditator will often move between a narrow focus of awareness (on the breath) and a broad one (on the whole state of the body and mind).

Concentration and integration

At a higher level ‘Right Concentration’ (which translates the Pali samma-samadhi) means much more than concentration in the everyday sense. Everyday concentration can only be sustained for a relatively short time, because it involves the suppression of other interests, feelings and desires which will break out again after a while. Longer term and fuller concentration can only be gained by integrating these other interests, desires and feelings. This means that unhelpful desires need to be tamed and brought into harmony with the others in the long term, so that our feelings about things become consistent over longer periods of time.

A higher level of concentration, then, means, not just ability to concentrate fully at one time, but greater consistency over time. This kind of consistency, again, is greatly assisted by mindfulness, and the higher the level of concentration, the more interdependent it becomes with mindfulness.

Task:Work out your own examples of the following aspects of right concentration:

  • Concentration without mindfulness
  • A higher level of concentration (Samadhi)
  • A practice to cultivate higher levels of concentration
  • A difference in emphasis between different types of Buddhism in cultivating concentration
The Bodhisattva concept

Written for the AQA syllabus by Robert Ellis, formerly a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order and a former Head of RS in a 6th-form college.

Revision of the Mahayana

We will now move on to consider aspects of Buddhist thought that are specific to the Mahayana. It will be helpful to revise your work from last year about the features of the Mahayana before going on. See if you can answer these questions at least briefly:

1. When and how did the Mahayana begin to be separated from the Hinayana?
2. What are the differences between the terms Hinayana, Theravada and Early Buddhism to describe non-Mahayana types of Buddhism?
3. What emphases are distinctive of Mahayana teaching?
4. What are the Mahayana scriptures, and what attitude do Mahayanists take to them?
5. What similarities and differences are there broadly between Theravada and Mahayana monasticism?

We will now be focussing particularly on three areas: the Mahayana doctrines concerning the Bodhisattva (which apply to nearly all schools of the Mahayana), The Mahayana view of the status of the Buddha (particularly that of the Yogacara School) and the Doctrine of Emptiness (which is specific to the Madhyamika School but widely influential across the Mahayana).

What is a bodhisattva?

The term ‘bodhisattva’ literally means ‘one who has enlightenment as his/her essence’, from bodhi (awakening or enlightenment) and sattva (essence). It is not simply another term for a Buddha, though: a bodhisattva is a being who is destined for enlightenment rather than one who has gained it already. A bodhisattva is also normally thought of as consciously working towards enlightenment: you can’t call someone a bodhisattva just because they might be enlightened in the future if they haven’t started making an effort yet. For this reason, the earliest use of the term ‘bodhisattva’ refers to Siddhartha Gautama before he gained enlightenment, and also in his previous lives.

In the Theravada, as in Early Buddhism, though, this is the only use of the term. There is only one Buddha per age, who is the trailblazer who discovers the Dharma. So for each age, at any rate, there is only one bodhisattva.

One of the difficulties this created in Early Buddhism was that there seemed to be two classes of enlightenment: the trailblazer’s enlightenment of the Buddha and the follower’s enlightenment of the arhat. At the same time, by about 500 years after the death of the Buddha, a reaction was developing against a narrowness that it was thought was developing in the tradition. To become an arhat, it seemed, all one needed to do was to become a monk or nun, follow the rules, get on with your practice of the Eightfold Path and you’d get there. To the early Mahayanists, this seemed a bit over-focussed on self-fulfilment to the exclusion of the Enlightenment of others. Mixed in with this there may have been some lay resentment of over-sheltered monks. After all, the Buddha had devoted fifty years of his life after enlightenment to helping others.

So, as an alternative two interlinked new ideas developed:
Firstly, that the arhat had not gained full enlightenment, and that everyone could go on to gain the full enlightenment of the Buddha. To become a full Buddha, not just an arhat, was the ideal for everyone, whether monks or lay-people. This was the ideal expressed particularly in the Lotus Sutra.
Secondly, that until such time as we all reach Buddhahood, we should become bodhisattvas. This meant that there was no longer only one bodhisattva per age, but potentially any number. The bodhisattva is striving for enlightenment for all sentient beings from the start.

The bodhisattva vow

The mark of a bodhisattva in the Mahayana is that he/she has taken the bodhisattva vow. The bodhisattva vow is solemnly made before one’s master in a special ritual, and involves four pledges:

  1. To save all beings from difficulties.
  2. To destroy all evil passions.
  3. To learn the truth and teach others.
  4. To lead all beings to Buddhahood.

This is obviously a mind-bogglingly immense undertaking, but the bodhisattva vows to do it nevertheless. However many beings there may be, the bodhisattva will save them from samsara and lead them not just to arhatship, but to Buddhahood. What’s more, the bodhisattva will not ‘cross the threshold’ into enlightenment him/herself, until this goal is achieved. If the bodhisattva were to do this, they would pass into parinirvana and no longer be reborn, and so would no longer be able to help other beings, so the bodhisattva is traditionally envisaged as pausing on the brink, turning back, and voluntarily taking rebirth to help others.

However, the bodhisattva does not work for himself or herself alone until he/she reaches this exalted point: rather he/she sets out from the start to save all sentient (i.e. conscious) beings and is as much concerned with their progress as his/her own. Related to this is the doctrine of anatta (insubstantiality) and the implications the Mahayana believe this to have: that we are not in fact ultimately distinct from others, but actually our interests are at one with theirs. If the idea that we exist separately from others is ultimately one of the illusions of samsara, it would seem contradictory that we should gain enlightenment for ourselves. The Mahayana doctrine of the bodhisattva faces this difficulty head-on.

For this reason it may be helpful not to take the idea of the bodhisattva pausing at the threshold of enlightenment too literally. This may simply be a way of expressing the insight that our enlightenment is ultimately one with that of others. To follow the bodhisattva ideal, then, we may need to give up the idea of ‘gaining enlightenment’ (as though enlightenment was a sort of thing one gains), and simply think of making progress alongside others.

Preparation for the vow

Naturally, such an enormous vow is not to be undertaken lightly, and in the Mahayana tradition it is only taken as the culmination of a period of intense preparation. This preparation attempts to bring about the arising of the Bodhicitta (the aspiration towards enlightenment), the desire to bring about the enlightenment of all sentient beings which should accompany a sincerely-made bodhisattva vow. The vow should only be made as the external sign of this internal opening, which involves a shift in perspective rather like that of a religious conversion. Sangharakshita describes the arising of the bodhicitta as ‘the most important event that can occur in the life of a human being’.

The period of preparation preceding the vow is thus devotional in nature, attempting to open the heart to the spark of enlightenment which arises from the development of wisdom and compassion. This devotional practice is known as the Supreme Worship. One of the most important texts in the Mahayana, the Bodhicaryavatara, was written in the eighth century by Shantideva to be used as a liturgy in this supreme worship.

Look at the Bodhicaryavatara on the web. Take brief notes on anything you find which helps to illustrate the nature of the bodhisattva or the bodhisattva vow (there are various details you can skip here).

Bodhisattvas of the Path

A person who has taken the vow then becomes a Bodhisattva of the Path. This person will have a genuine aspiration to bring all beings to enlightenment, but may still have a long way to go themselves. According to Mahayana tradition, the bodhisattva needs to practise the 6 or the 10 Perfections and ascend through the Ten Bhumis, which are levels of attainment of a bodhisattva.

Take notes from Cush p. 102-104 on the 6 or 10 Perfections and the 10 Bhumis. Alternative sources are Peter Harvey An Introduction to Buddhism p.122-4, or (for more detail) Paul Williams Mahayana Buddhism p.204-214.

Life as a bodhisattva is tough. According to Mahayana tradition, a bodhisattva needs to be able to give up absolutely anything for the sake of other beings, including his own life over and over again. If the bodhisattva is not yet generous enough to do this, he/she still has a way to go. The bodhisattva also needs infinite reserves of patience, because it will take a countless number of lifetimes to reach his/her goal, and humble: he/she can’t even take pride in saving sentient beings who really ultimately exist (see following section on Emptiness). The bodhisattva should even be willing to save others from bad karma by doing necessary deeds for which they would subsequently suffer (such as murder), on the occasional extreme occasion when this would be helpful to leading all beings to enlightenment.

In one Mahayana text, the Perfection of Wisdom in 8000 verses, the bodhisattva is compared to a hero who is lost in a terrible forest with his family. Here the forest represents samsara and his family is all other beings. The hero wouldn’t think of abandoning his family there to save himself. Instead he would do his utmost to reassure them and save them from peril.

Advanced and symbolic bodhisattvas

Bodhisattvas who have got close to the brink of enlightenment, beyond the sixth bhumi, are sometimes known as transcendental bodhisattvas. It is these bodhisattvas that are really in a position to start saving all sentient beings using their skilful means without making mistakes. It is these advanced bodhisattvas which are believed in the Tibetan tradition to take voluntary rebirth as incarnate lamas (tulkus), and to have control over the point of their new birth. The Fourteenth Dalai Lama, the religious leader of Tibetan Buddhists and former political leader of Tibet, is believed to be one such bodhisattva.

Advanced bodhisattvas are also widely represented symbolically in the Mahayana, both in visualisation practices and in art. These figures represent enlightenment generally, as do Buddha figures of various types, but in particular the qualities of the bodhisattva, of endless dedication to bringing all beings to Buddhahood. Some of the most widely known of these are Avalokiteshvara (“Lord who looks down”), the Bodhisattva of Compassion, and Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom. Avalokiteshvara is often represented with 1000 arms, each of which is reaching out to help all sentient beings. In Chinese Buddhism, Avalokiteshvara became the widely revered female bodhisattva Kwan-Yin, and in Japanese Buddhism Kannon (after which the electronics company Canon is named!).

Read more about Avalokiteshvara in Cushp.105-6

Questions for discussion
1. What do you think would be the Theravada defence against the charge that the arhat ideal is too self-absorbed?
2. Does the bodhisattva ideal seem impracticable, or merely ambitious?
3. Does the bodhisattva ideal provide enough of an answer to critics of Buddhism (e.g. Christians) who claim that it has too little emphasis on love?

Further Reading
Cush p.99-106
Sangharakshita Guide p.197-201
Williams Buddhist Thought p.136-140
Williams Mahayana Buddhism ch.9

Past questions in AQA syllabus
Examine the main features of the Bodhisattva concept in Mahayana Buddhism.

Buddhism in the Modern World

The Middle Way and Ethics

Written for the AQA syllabus by Robert Ellis, formerly a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order and a former Head of RS in a 6th-form college.

The Middle Way provides a more basic guide to the whole Buddhist path, or to ethics ‘in the broad sense’ than do the Five Precepts. As such it is an alternative way of understanding the whole Path, alongside the Noble Eightfold Path and the Threefold Path. It must always be remembered that these are not different paths, but different ways of conceptualising the same path.

The Middle Way of views and of behaviour

The Middle Way can be seen as a guide to right view, avoiding the extremes of belief in eternalism and nihilism, and it can also be seen as a guide to moral behaviour. The extremes to be avoided in the ethical Middle Way are those of asceticism (denying yourself and subjecting yourself to hardship) and self-indulgence. Traditionally it is believed that eternalist beliefs (believing in an eternal soul or self) tend to lead to asceticism and nihilist beliefs (denying an eternal soul or self) led to self-indulgence the idea here is that if you believe you will exist eternally, you will believe in an afterlife and thus have a motive to deny yourself in this life so as to gain merit for future lives. On the other side, denying an eternal soul meant that you denied the afterlife, and thus had no motive to do anything but enjoy yourself in the present. ‘Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die’ as the saying has it .

The Middle Way in morality

The Middle Way in morality, between denying your desires and indulging them, immediately sounds just like moderation. However, there’s a bit more to it than this. The Buddha’s claim is that the extremes of eternalism/asceticism on the one hand and nihilism/self-indulgence on the other will be more likely to trap you in greed, hatred and ignorance, the three forces which turn the Wheel of Life. Both asceticism and self-indulgence are based on greed of one type or another: either greed for a future pleasant experience or greed for a present one. In Buddhism it makes no difference whether your greed is for pleasure now or in heaven, it is just as much greed. Both are also likely to involve hatred of anything that stands in your way from getting that pleasure. Also, both asceticism and self-indulgence are based on ignorance, since in reality both the belief that we continue after death and are rewarded for our merits, and the belief that we are not, are just massive assumptions.

The Middle Way involves trying to avoid these assumptions and examine our experience with an open mind. We can look at our experience of ourselves, trying not to be attached to a fixed idea of who we are. On the other hand we can look at others and the world around us and maintain an open mind about what they are like, not being too attached to fixed ideas of people and things which lead us either to desire or hate them. If you want something very much, you probably have a fixed idea about what it is like and what it would be like to have it, and when you finally get it, for that reason you are likely to be disappointed because the thing is not exactly how you thought it would be. Buddhism suggests not just that you shouldn’t indulge or deny yourself too much, but that you examine the ideas about things that lead you to want to do so. You are more likely to be able to do so if you’re not too involved in constantly grasping things or pushing them away.

Practical application of the Middle Way

Practically speaking, then, applying the Middle Way to ethics means avoiding the extremes of indulging your desires and of totally denying them, in order to overcome the illusions you have and find a middle position of calm and content between two types of greed. Since moral issues are usually about how far we should follow our desires or deny them, the Middle Way can often be applied to moral issues in this way. For example, if the issue is whether it’s right to tell someone an uncomfortable or painful truth, you might examine how far your desire not to do so is due to the discomfort that you will feel yourself in telling it, or whether you’re really concerned about how the other person feels. The Middle Way might suggest that you should tell them the truth in as considerate a way as possible, overcoming your reluctance to do so but also not just blurting it out inconsiderately.

This means that the Middle Way may be especially useful in Buddhism in helping to interpret the Five Precepts or to judge conflicts between them. On moral issues like abortion, war or the exploitation of the environment there are often two opposed camps, one in favour of the indulgence of a desire (to have an abortion, to wage war, to exploit the environment) and the other against it. There will also be hatred of the other side. Each will have a case which probably has elements of truth in it. Even if a Precept seems to give you a definite moral line on one of these issues, the practice of the Middle Way will mean not leaping in on one side or the other too readily, and neither indulging not denying that desire. Rather a calm mental state will be cultivated in which the truth of the matter can be more easily investigated. On the basis of this a commitment to a position (on either side or in-between) might then be reached, but on the basis of which position is least subject to distorting assumptions rather than which is absolutely correct.


  1. Extreme views are expressions of greed and hatred.
  2. Extreme views do not reflect the truth very well because the truth is obscured by that greed and hatred.
  3. Following the Middle Way thus means trying to avoid getting caught up in that greed and hatred, but examining the truth of the matter carefully.
  4. Usually (but not always) a calm examination of the issues without any prior assumptions will find truth and falsity on both sides, and the truth lying somewhere in between.
  5. The Middle Way is thus not necessarily an in-between position, but this is often the outcome.

Identify the extreme positions on these issues, and the desires or hatreds that might interfere with an understanding of the truth of the matter from a Buddhist point of view.
1. The right of firemen to strike
2. Fox-hunting
3. Islamic fundamentalist terrorism
4. Vegetarianism
5. Equality of employment opportunities for women
6. The superiority of classical music over popular music
7. Car use
8. Dumping of nuclear waste

A quick checklist giving an easy way to apply Buddhism to a moral issue
1. Check whether any of the five precepts can be applied to the issue. Remember that there may be a variety of interpretations.
2. Check whether there are any other Buddhist teachings which have an impact on the issue (e.g. Right Livelihood on arms dealing, rebirth on abortion)
3. Where there are a variety of interpretations, or a conflict between different priorities, think about the assumptions made by each side and whether the Middle Way can be applied to give an answer lying between them.

Buddhist Ethics

If you have studied Buddhist ethics before see if you can answer the following questions from memory:

  • Define the meaning of a ‘precept’.
  • What is the difference between a precept and a rule?
  • What is the difference between lay precepts and monastic rules?
  • What is the difference between the five precepts and the ten (root) precepts?
  • What sources of authority might a Buddhist consult to help interpret the precepts?
  • Summarise your own understanding of the meaning each of the five precepts (from memory!).

The Five Precepts are the most common basic expression of ethics in Buddhism, and are recited by Buddhist lay people throughout the Buddhist world.

Past questions on AQA syllabus include:
1. Explain the meaning of the Five Moral Precepts for Buddhists
2. Examine the Five Moral Precepts and their application to daily life.

The 1st Precept: Non-Violence

Written for the AQA syllabus by Robert Ellis, formerly a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order and a former Head of RS in a 6th-form college.

I undertake the rule of training which consists in abstention from killing living beings.

How far does this precept extend?

Buddhists have always interpreted this precept to mean, not merely a prohibition of murder, but of all kinds of violence against human beings and animals. Whilst killing animals is considered less unskilful than killing human beings (because animals have a less developed consciousness and because killing a person requires more deliberate will and effort), we still have a responsibility to limit the killing and other violence inflicted on animals as far as possible. Buddhists should also avoid actions which indirectly support violence, in arms. An important aspect of Right Livelihood (one of the limbs of the Noble Eightfold Path) is that one’s job should not cause suffering as far as possible.

Why is killing wrong?

Killing is the expression of a mental state rooted in greed, hatred, and delusion. It is an unskilful act because it brings suffering on the doer and on the victim, holding both back from Enlightenment.

“To kill a living being means to inflict upon him the greatest of all sufferings or evils, for inasmuch as life is the greatest good, so the greatest suffering, or the greatest evil, that can befall one, is to be deprived of life.”

Sangharakshita, The Ten Pillars of Buddhism.

Himsa and Ahimsa

Killing is also considered wrong because it is the expression of himsa : force or violence. This violence can be mental or physical, and really means doing to another being something which that being does not want. Ahimsa (non-violence) is the opposite of himsa, and means actively trying to promote reconciliation and love between beings as well as refraining from acts of violence oneself. Ahimsa is described as the highest dharma, because violence is the unskilful action which does most damage and contributes most to suffering.

Violence and the self

Violence is the most extreme form of assertion of one self over another. In doing damage to another, one actually does damage to oneself: one only fails to understand this because of delusion. Non-violence thus follows from the doctrine of no-self.

There are two practices one can cultivate in Buddhism to try to prevent the arising of the self-view and its accompanying violence: 1. The equality of oneself with others, reflecting that one suffers from the same effects of samsara as other beings. 2. Putting oneself in the place of others, imagining that one experiences exactly the same pains and pleasures. The Dhammapada (v.129-130) mentions this practice:

All living beings are terrified of punishment; all fear death.
Putting oneself in the place of others one should neither kill nor cause to kill.

All living beings are terrified of punishment; all love life.
Putting oneself in the place of others one should neither kill nor cause to kill.

Can Violence never be justified?

Violence can only be justified if its aim is actually to help the living being towards whom it is aimed, to save it from its own ignorance. For example, one could justifiably use force to restrain a child from harming itself. In the Mahayana doctrine of Skilful Means the idea of the end justifying the means in this way is elaborated.

What do you think a Buddhist view is or should be on the following issues? How should the first precept be interpreted and what other points should be taken into account?

  • 1.War
  • 1. War
  • 2. Use of violence in self-defence
  • 3. Abortion
  • 4. Self-immolation as a form of protest (used by Vietnamese monks during the Vietnam War)

Further Reading
Sangharakshita The Ten Pillars of Buddhism p.55-63
Peter Harvey An Introduction to Buddhism p.202-5
Peter Harvey An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics p.69
Tricycle Winter 2003 p.38-9

The second precept: avoiding taking the not-given

I undertake the rule of training which consists in abstention from taking the not-given

The second precept involves undertaking not to take things that belong to others, unless these have been freely given. This is seen as a form of violence.

Stealing vs. generosity

Why is this so important? After all, Buddhist monks and nuns give up all individual property apart from a bowl and robe, all in a spirit of renunciation. If you steal someone else’s brand new Mercedes-Benz, isn’t this helping them to renounce possessions? It becomes obvious that the answer to this is “no” if you then think through what the average Mercedes-Benz owner would do once their car was stolen. First of all they’d be very angry, then go to the police, try to get the car back and the thief punished, and so on. These are not the actions of someone who has renounced attachment to their property! The fact is that you cannot force someone into renouncing their property. They have to do it freely for themselves. Stealing someone’s property generally has the opposite effect, of making them realize how much they are attached to it.

Instead, Buddhism puts forward the positive ideal of generosity. Generosity is an application of anatta, the doctrine of no-self that you will be studying in the next section. Through generosity, the boundaries of the self can gradually begin to be dissolved, as we no longer think of the thing we are giving (whether this is an object, a favour, time etc) as “mine”. Stealing and having things stolen, however, reinforce these ego-boundaries.

Generosity also leads to further good effects as other people respond to it. Gratitude is a natural effect of generosity, and has a similarly opening effect on our states of mind. Expressions of gratitude are encouraged in Buddhism for this reason. For example, disciples may formally express gratitude to a spiritual teacher.

Issues relating to taking the not-given

As with the other precepts, the interpretation of this precept raises problems about where you draw the line. A burglar who picks a lock, creeps into a house when the owner is away, and steals a computer is obviously stealing. But what about the starving person who steals a loaf of bread? What about the pocketing of corporate property at work? What if you fail to repay a loan made to you by a friend?

One basic principle in Buddhist ethics is that the motive behind the moral offence should be considered. If a man steals a loaf of bread so as to feed his starving family and save their lives, he has a good motive for his action. The Mahayana would stress this point more than the Theravada. The Theravadins, who tend more towards a deontological interpretation, would be more likely to say that a Buddha could not act in this way because of the nature of the act, regardless of the motive, so that even if we can easily understand why the loaf of bread was stolen, that doesn’t make it right.

Stealing indirectly, then, may also be a breach of the precept, depending on how deliberately this is done. Failing to repay a loan would be a form of taking the not-given, though it would be more blameworthy if it was deliberate than if one simply forgot to do so (though one is also responsible for one’s lack of mindfulness in Buddhism). It would also be more blameworthy depending on the size of the loan, as it requires a more deliberate action to fail to repay a larger loan, just as it it requires more deliberate effort to decide to steal a more important or more valuable thing.

Issues relating to generosity

Generosity is a very important positive emotion in Buddhism, and it is said that giving (dana) is a practice that anyone can engage in, however difficult they find other Buddhist practices. Generosity contributes to awareness as we become more aware of those we are giving to. Giving should also be made with good intentions, not out of self-interest or because one wants something back.

Any kind of giving is said to produce good karma because it reduces attachment and increases awareness. The Buddhist tradition particularly stresses the value of giving to monks, who are seen as a “field of merit”, i.e. providing an opportunity for others to create good karma, because of the way in which they are using the gift to help them directly in spiritual development.

There is no limit to how far generosity can be developed. There are some Jataka stories (stories of the Buddha’s previous births, found in the Pali Canon) that give examples of the ultimate gift: of one’s life. For example, there is the story of a prince who fed himself to a starving tigress (see Buddhist Scriptures p.24-6), and the story of Prince Vessantara, who gave away all his possessions, then his family, and finally himself. These examples might be considered extreme and questioned from the point of view of wisdom: it may be very generous to give away your body to a starving tigress, but is it the best use of your life, when you could do other greater things? It may be that they should be treated as exaggerated ways of making a basic point about the importance of generosity.

Reflection and discussion

How do you think the second precept should be applied in these situations, and why?

  • 1. A beggar on the street asks for some money. You suspect he is an alcoholic.
  • 2. You are considering taking out a loan to buy a newer and more expensive car.
  • 3. You are considering taking out a mortgage to buy a small house.
  • 4. You have removed several paper-clips from college for home use.
  • 5. You are unemployed and have been receiving income support from the state. One week you are overpaid by accident. Should you own up?

Further Reading

Sangharakshita The Ten Pillars of Buddhism p.64-70
Peter Harvey An Introduction to Buddhism p.205
Peter Harvey An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics p.69-71

The third precept: avoiding sexual misconduct

I undertake the rule of training which consists in abstention from sexual misconduct

The third precept could be literally translated as avoiding sensual misconduct (Pali: kamesu micchacara “in the (sensual) desires bad actions”). This means that some Buddhists (e.g. Sangharakshita) claim that it is not only concerned with sexual desire, but also other kinds of sensual desire. On this interpretation the third precept would involve avoiding eating too much chocolate as well as sexual misconduct. Others (e.g. the early Theravada commentator Buddhaghosa1) insist that it is only concerned with sexual misconduct, and certainly sexual misconduct is always the main focus of discussion of this precept.

The ultimate ideal in Buddhism is to go beyond sexual differentiation, because our attachment to being male or female, and the specific feelings this brings with it, is part of what holds us back from developing towards enlightenment. This is best achieved by avoiding sexual activity altogether, so the best practice (for those in a position to follow it) is celibacy, as practiced by monks and nuns. Sometimes temporary celibacy for a limited period is also followed by lay people, and in the Theravada this is one of the eight precepts that lay people sometimes take2 temporarily. However, if one is an adult lay person, the expectation in a traditional society is that one will be married, and thus not in a position to practice celibacy. The best alternative is to keep one’s sexual activity within certain moral bounds by avoiding sexual misconduct.

Interpretations of the precept

Minimally this means the avoidance of rape, abduction and adultery. So if one is married (and in the modern West, this is often taken to mean in any kind of settled sexual relationship) it would be a breach of the precept to have sex outside that relationship, or to have sex which involved violence (which would also be a breach of the first precept). There is more controversy over fornication (casual sex before marriage) and over homosexuality. Here there is a great gulf in attitudes between traditional Theravadins, who tend to be very conservative on sexual morality, and modern Western Buddhists, who tend to be liberal. Tibetan Buddhists are probably in between, as traditional Tibetan culture is relatively liberal about sex.

Buddhaghosha, in his commentary written in Sri Lanka about 400 C.E.(see Buddhist Scriptures p.71-72), provides a very conservative interpretation of the precept (entirely oriented towards men) forbidding homosexuality and sex with twenty categories of women, which seems to effectively rule out most possible sex outside marriage.

Sangharakshita, giving a modern interpretation for Western Buddhists, sees the third precept as being about avoiding sexual activity which is exploitative in any way or hurts others. This means it would be unethical to have sex with someone else’s wife or husband if this is likely to upset them, just as it would be unethical to have sex with someone else’s boyfriend/girlfriend where this would have bad effects. Sangharakshita has no problem with homosexuality, and indeed at times has been accused of favouring homosexuality over other forms of sexuality.

In practice attitudes to sex vary enormously between different Buddhist cultures. For example, in some parts of Tibet polyandry (one woman having several husbands) has been freely tolerated. In others Buddhism is used to support a strong condemnation of homosexuality that seems to be largely cultural. In the Tantra (Vajrayana form of Buddhism) in ancient India, there were some advanced meditation practices that involved sexual coupling whilst in a deeply absorbed meditation state, visualising one’s partner as a dakini (a symbolic deity). Again this has been tolerated within certain very restricted circumstances.


The positive counterpart of the negative form of the third precept is the cultivation of stillness, simplicity and contentment. This shows the close relationship between the underlying values of the third precept and meditation. It is one’s mental state that might drive one into unskilful sexual relationships, for example. Meditation practice can help in cultivating contentment with whatever one’s position is, whether celibate, single, or married. It also suggests that a lack of contentedness with other things (e.g. with one’s possessions) may have similar roots to sexual craving.

Discussion and evaluation

Do you agree with the view (a widespread Buddhist view) that sex is always the result of unskilful mental activity rooted in greed?
If so, how is it best to respond to this: through practising celibacy, through the institution of marriage, or by just trying to avoid the most obvious forms of sexual misconduct?

Further Reading
Peter Harvey An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics p.71-74 (& 89-90)
Sangharakshita The Ten Pillars of Buddhism p.71-75

The fourth precept: avoiding false speech

I undertake the rule of training which consists in abstention from false speech

The fourth of the five precepts focuses on avoiding false speech of all kinds, with the positive counterpart of truthfulness. We have already discussed this precept, and the four of the ten precepts relating to speech, under the heading of Right Speech in the Noble Eightfold Path in 1.e. It only needs to be noted that much of this material can also be used in discussion of the Fourth Precept. Have a look at the further reading below for material focussing specifically on the fourth precept.

Some key points to emphasise here about the focus on truth in the Fourth precept are that:

  • Truth is not only emphasised because lies can be harmful, but because Enlightenment is seen as a state in which truth is understood. The whole Buddhist Path is thus a quest for the truth (in a sense in which factual and moral truth come together).
  • Subtler forms of truth-telling involve not distorting the truth by exaggeration, selection, or evasion.
  • As with the other precepts, breaches can be indirect. One can undermine truth, not just by lying, but for example by not listening to or not believing someone else who is speaking the truth. Working for a newspaper that regularly lies or distorts the truth might also be seen as indirectly breaking the fourth precept, as well as being wrong livelihood.
  • As with other precepts, the motive is important, but this does not prevent us from being responsible for our lack of awareness. So we are not responsible for passing on others’ lies when we genuinely believe them to be true, but if more careful observation of others to detect lying could have avoided this situation, then we are at least partially responsible.


How do you think the Fourth Precept would apply to these situations, and why?(Think about the relationship of the Fourth Precept to the other speech precept here, as well as the points immediately above).

  • 1. You’re 30 minutes late for a job interview because you didn’t think carefully enough about how long it would take to get there. What do you tell the panel when you arrive?
  • 2. You’ve already lied to your teacher three times about a late essay, saying that your computer ate the work you had done. On the fourth occasion, you feel so guilty that you really do do the homework on time, but this time the computer really does eat it. What do you tell your teacher?
  • 3. Now imagine you’re the teacher in no.2 above, being told for the fourth time that the student’s homework was eaten by the computer. Do you believe him/her?
  • 4. Your friend tells you a story about the dancing abilities of his/her pet guinea pig, which you suspect to be false, or at least exaggerated. What do you say?
  • 5. You’re a journalist and are offered an excellent job at the Daily Mail. Do you accept?

Further Reading
Peter Harvey An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics p.74-77
Sangharakshita The Ten Pillars of Buddhism p.75-80

The fifth precept: avoiding intoxicants

I undertake the rule of training which consists in abstention from drink and drugs that cloud the mind

This precept is generally seen as an aid to mindfulness. Intoxicants are to be avoided partly because of their effects on one’s state of mind, but also because in an intoxicated state one is more likely to break the other precepts. Intoxicants may also have psychologically (or sometimes physically) addictive effects, leading to a cycle of craving illustrated at its extreme by the hungry ghosts in the Wheel of Life.

The precept particularly refers to alcoholic drink, but is often interpreted to refer to recreational drugs as well, or most broadly to the taking of any substance which can have an intoxicating effect. Some Buddhists have taken it to include smoking as well.

As with the other precepts, interpretations of this precept vary greatly within the Buddhist world. Some Buddhists interpret it to mean complete abstention from any alcoholic drink, others only to excessive consumption, or consumption with a desire to become intoxicated. According to Peter Harvey, very strict avoidance of alcohol is rare in traditional Buddhist countries, and many Buddhist monks and lay-people take a relaxed view of this precept, only really disapproving of excessive drunkenness. There is certainly much more flexibility in the way it is generally interpreted than in the Muslim prohibition on alcohol, which is often seen as an absolute rule.

This may be seen as lax, given the variety of ways in which alcohol can adversely affect the mind. Even in small quantities it can take the edge off a mindful state gained through meditation, and affect the sharpness of one’s memory. On the other hand, in some circumstances refusing alcohol may make it harder to have a friendly relationship with those who regularly consume it. It is also possible to get over-attached to teetotalism (as with any other moral stance) and use it too rigidly. Since all the precepts are to be applied to our motivations, it can also be argued that we should be thinking much more about why we drink and how much we crave intoxication than about whether a drop of alcohol passes our lips.

So, there is a continuing debate within Buddhism about how strictly the Fifth Precept should be interpreted in relation to alcohol. There is also a debate about the status of mind-altering drugs such as LSD. Some of the earliest Western Buddhists got involved in Buddhism through the experimental “hippy” scene of the sixties and seventies, a strong feature of which was the use of drugs which change perception and which were believed to give mystical insights. For this reason some Western Buddhists will defend the use of such drugs, at least in a careful and controlled way, to experience more profound mental states and in some cases provide an initial inspiration for meditation. Others argue that the use of such drugs is not compatible with the Buddhist path,. Not only are they against the fifth precept (not to mention being illegal in most countries), but there is no quick-fix route to enlightenment through a pill. They emphasise that real spiritual insight can only be gained through effort over a long period of time.

There is also a debate about where to draw the line in applying the precepts. Should we give up anything that can adversely affect our mental state? This might include sugar, tea, coffee, food additives, chilli and other spices, ruling a lot of foods widely eaten! Those who argue that the precept should mean moderation argue that although excessive alcohol is bad for your mental state, so is an excess of virtually anything!

Reflection/ Discussion

  • How important do you think it is for Buddhists to avoid all alcohol?
  • Do you think that mind-altering drugs should also be avoided under the Fifth Precept?

Further Reading
Peter Harvey An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics p.77-79

Matters of Life and Death

1. Buddhism and Abortion

(Written for the AQA syllabus by Robert Ellis, formerly a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order and a former Head of RS in a 6th-form college.)

Spiritual Instrumentalism and rebirth

To begin with it is important to clarify an aspect of the Buddhist attitude to human life. Human life, as in other religions, is often seen as vitally important, even sacred. However, the reason for this is not that God has created it, but because a human birth provides a precious opportunity to gain enlightenment (which is very much more difficult if you are not human, e.g. an animal, a god, or a hungry ghost). So human life is valuable, but instrumentally valuable, i.e. as a means to an end. That end is enlightenment, not an ordinary worldly end, so this view could be called spiritual instrumentalism.

When you apply this to abortion and put it together with traditional Buddhist belief in rebirth, this means that abortion is generally wrong, for the reason that it interferes with a human rebirth and thus prevents that being seeking enlightenment. Rebirth is usually believed to begin at conception, when the consciousness from the previous life (known as the garbha), craving a new rebirth, attaches itself to the fertilised egg [In the Theravada, this is seen as an instantaneous transfer from the previous body, but the Mahayana sees the transfer as occurring via an intermediate state (in Tibetan Buddhism known as the bardo) between death and rebirth, in which the consciousness wanders, eventually seeking new rebirth because of its fear of the apparent non-existence it encounters. [See The Tibetan Book of the Dead]. So there is no doubt in traditional Buddhism that abortion is the killing of a person.

The First Precept

The killing of a person is obviously against the First Precept. Abortion thus appears to be murder according to most traditional Buddhism. The Vinaya rules view a monk who has deliberately assisted a woman in having an abortion as having committed a very grave offence requiring him to leave the monastic sangha.

Nevertheless, in practice how bad the offence of abortion is does seem to depend upon the age of the foetus. Just as killing a more developed animal is taken to be worse than killing an insect, an early abortion, although still the killing of a person, is not as bad as a late abortion. This reflects the spiritual instrumentalism of Buddhism, where a human life is seen as very valuable, but this does not necessarily mean that all human life is equally valuable. Buddhism has strong reasons for avoiding killing of any sort, and clearly recognises abortion as killing, but these reasons are not based on a single special status for all human beings like the idea of the Image of God in Christianity.

The Middle Way

If you apply the Middle Way to abortion a more flexible position is likely to emerge. On one side of the debate is the appeal to the rights of the foetus alone, on the other the rights of the woman over her own body. Both of these positions are strongly defended, and each side refuses to accept the basic assumptions of the other. A calm look at the issues probably involves not just accepting either set of assumptions completely, but trying to take into account both the position of a pregnant woman with an unwanted child, and the status of the foetus. Probably neither the idea that the foetus is just part of the woman’s body, nor that it is a completely separate person, are totally correct.

If the desire to have an abortion is powerful in some circumstances, due to the need, say, for a woman to avoid her life’s ambitions being thwarted by an unwanted child, then it may not be appropriate to simply repress that desire in the name of duty. However, there are also many implications of having an abortion which might not be appreciated by a woman who simply justifies her desire for an abortion by saying she has a right over her own body: for example, the unfulfilled potential life of the foetus, and her own possible sense of loss and guilt.

So, one cannot rule out the possibility that someone giving the Middle Way priority in their interpretation of Buddhism might support abortion in some cases, but this would probably be after considering all the alternatives and ruling out other possibilities such as adoption. But this would probably mean also giving the Middle Way priority over traditional rebirth beliefs as well as the First Precept. Only a small number of radical Western Buddhists would be likely to take this line, with most Buddhists even in the West more likely to rely on traditional deontological principles and teachings.

Find out about the Japanese practice of mizuko kuyo and make brief notes. Use at least one of the following sources:
Contemporary Buddhist Ethics ed. Keown p.154-161
An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics Harvey p.332-341
Internet (search “mizuko kuyo”. Avoid sites with numerous question marks in the initial search results, which will be largely in Japanese!)
Make brief notes on the main points (not more than one side).
Discuss what this tells you about attitudes to abortion in Buddhism.
Overall discussion
What do you think a Buddhist attitude to abortion should generally be?

Further reading
Contemporary Buddhist Ethics ed. Keown ch.6
An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics Harvey ch.8

2. Buddhism and Euthanasia

The Buddhist case against suicide and euthanasia

The First Precept

The first ground for thinking suicide wrong according to Buddhist standards is found in the Five Precepts, in the first of which the Buddhist undertakes to refrain from taking life. In Buddhaghosha’s commentary, ‘taking life’ is defined as ‘the will to kill anything one perceives as having life’ (See Conze Buddhist Scriptures p.70). Killing oneself, or killing another out of mercy, is not explicitly included or excluded from this, so of course it may still be argued that there is an unwritten assumed addition ‘…except with the consent of the being killed’ which would justify suicide or voluntary euthanasia.

The Patimokkha

Slightly more explicit evidence for Buddhist opposition to suicide can be found in the Patimokkha, the summary of monastic rules. Here killing is one of the first-grade offences punishable with expulsion from the sangha, and added to this is

…and this applies also to a monk who incites others to self-destruction, and who speaks to them in praise of death, with such words as “O man, what is the use to you of this miserable life? It is better for you to die than to be alive!

Buddhist Scriptures p.74, Conze

Although this does not say explicitly that a monk who attempts suicide or seeks euthanasia should be expelled, it does seem to show a moral disapproval of suicide by discouraging the propagation of despair or the aiding of suicide. However, it does seem to be motives of despair behind suicide or euthanasia rather than the deed itself which the Patimokkha attacks. Peter Harvey comments that the recognition of dukkha in Buddhism means that suffering and impermanence are to be expected and are thus not an appropriate ground for despair. A Buddhist should accept and work with whatever suffering they find in their lives.

The value of a human birth

Although the Patimokkha is only concerned with monastic ethics, this general argument can be extended further to consider the backward step one takes in voluntarily giving up life as a human being. Buddhist Scriptures stress how rare it is to gain a human rebirth, which offers the better conditions for making progress on the path than any other states within samsara (even those of the gods). The Bodhicharyavatara (the Mahayana text used for devotion by those preparing to take the Bodhisattva vow) compares the chances of gaining a human rebirth to those that a turtle, surfacing from the depths of a great ocean, will happen to rise at the point where a yoke is floating on the surface so as to put its head through that yoke. In the light of this rarity, it is very foolish to voluntarily throw away a human life. To live a human life where the dharma is available is also a great fortune in a world of immense ignorance, so if one has made even the slightest progress on the path this is sufficient to avoid suicide or any other voluntary renunciation of life at all costs.

Applying the Middle Way

The Buddhist view of euthanasia seems to fall midway between the Eternalist Christian view that euthanasia is never justified and the Materialist secular view that it can be justified simply to avoid pain. The Eternalist believes that there is an afterlife which he/she will progress to as an immortal soul. This is the ground on which some Christians argue that euthanasia devalues the process of natural dying and prevents spiritual preparation for the afterlife (which may involve suffering, but this suffering may fulfil a spiritual purpose). Together with this view goes the idea that only God should determine life and death through the processes of nature, so we should not intervene to end our own lives.

On the other hand, the materialist Utilitarian does not believe in any existence beyond death, leading to the (in Buddhist terms) nihilist view that pleasure and pain in this life are all that matter morally. In this case, it seems that all that is required to justify euthanasia is that the person concerned desires it and judges that less pain will result from choosing it than otherwise.

The art of dying well

A traditional Buddhist view, incorporating belief in rebirth, takes the Middle Way between these extremes. On the one hand, there is some agreement with the Christian argument that we should prepare ourselves for death; on the other, it is not agreed that we are not responsible for our own deaths. In the Theravadin tradition, death-proximate karma is most important and will determine the next rebirth, therefore it is important to die calmly, positively and mindfully. In the Tibetan tradition, as recorded in The Tibetan Book of the Dead, death and the interval between death and rebirth (the bardo) provides the opportunity to gain enlightenment, which should be carefully prepared for. The lama is supposed to whisper the text of the book into the person’s ear at the time of death and after. This process certainly seems to be ruled out by suicide arising from a depressed or passionate mental state, and it is perhaps for this reason that the Buddha particularly tells monks not to encourage anyone into such a state. On the other hand, it could be argued that voluntary euthanasia, calmly decided upon by a person in a lucid mental state during a terminal illness, may be far preferable to hanging onto life longer with increasing confusion.

The value of suffering

The Buddhist is likely to agree with the Utilitarian, however, that suffering in itself has no value, and disagree with the Christian who argues that it must have value because God has sent it. Facing up to suffering can bring about spiritual progress, as is shown by realisation of dukkha being the first stage on the Spiral Path: however, it must be coupled with faith to be of any practical use, otherwise it merely leads to frustration and the perpetuation of samsara.

Hence the pain of a terminal illness can only be of value if the sufferer has a positive attitude towards coping with it, and judges that he/she will benefit from doing so. In other cases there seems to be no justification for prolonging life unnecessarily. If the dying person lacks faith and confidence, or has them but sees no value in continuing, there is no possibility of further spiritual progress in that life.

The Buddhist case for euthanasia

Ronald Nakasone, a Californian Pure Land Buddhist, provides an argument in favour of some voluntary euthanasia from a Mahayana perspective (see Nakasone Ethics of Enlightenment p.66-81). First he establishes that Buddhist ethics are not based purely on rules, appealing to the account given in the Vinaya of the best way to deal with disputes. This is not just to rely on the letter of rules or even the spirit of rules, but to refer to ones teachers and ones own judgement. Hence, it seems, from the outset, ones judgement on suicide and euthanasia should be made situationally, allowing exceptions to the norm. He then goes on to draw on the Samantapasadika, a Mahayana scripture which gives two examples of the Buddha’s attitude to monks contemplating suicide because of a painful disease. In the first, the Buddha stressed that his fellow monks should encourage him to be positive and regard his illness as an opportunity for spiritual practice. In the second, however, he suggests that a monk who decides to die because he is a drain on others may be acting rightly.

Here it is the consequences to others which clearly justify the suicide. However, Nakasone also stresses the principle of autonomy, meaning that in this case it must be the monk himself who decides to end his life. Hence voluntary euthanasia and suicide seem to be justifiable where the motive is the welfare of others rather than simply avoiding pain.

Protest deaths

Nakasone also focusses on the suicides of a number of Buddhist monks in Vietnam who burned themselves to death during the 1960’s in protest against the war, and particularly on Chi Mai, a young student who did the same thing (Ethics of Enlightenment p.111-114) . These deaths are also justified in his eyes because they are the actions of Bodhisattvas, showing dauntless compassion in sacrificing themselves for the good of all. Thus, although their actions go against the letter of the first precept, they are justified by the ideal behind that same precept. Nakasone also quotes the Jataka story (given in the Penguin Buddhist Scriptures p.24-6) of the Bodhisattva who fed himself to a hungry tigress in dramatic demonstration of the same selflessness.

The case for euthanasia

If one takes into account the Middle Way and Nakasone’s argument, then, one can make a Buddhist case for euthanasia. Euthanasia can only be justified when it is voluntary, due to the importance of autonomy in Buddhism. With non-voluntary euthanasia we enter a similar debate as for abortion, with the main tradition being firmly against but with some possible arguments on the grounds of compassionately-motivated skilful means. There is no moral difference between suicide and euthanasia on the grounds of who does the action, or between active and passive, natural or unnatural euthanasia, provided the person consents fully and consistently. Euthanasia or suicide, however, is not justified solely as a means of fleeing pain while there is still some real possibility of spiritual progress. Spiritual progress towards nirvana is the highest good and overrules any rules or precepts against suicide, but anyone using this as a justification for suicide or euthanasia needs to do so on the basis of spiritual practice and take great care lest they be deluding themselves. The best justifications for suicide or euthanasia seem to be to avoid being a drain on others and to avoid pain where there is no more possibility of spiritual progress.

How far do you think a Buddhist could justify euthanasia in the following cases?

  1. An elderly man in great pain, in the final stages of cancer and in a state of great agitation.
  2. A Buddhist monk who is likely to die of a terminal disease during the next month, who wishes to die whilst he is still calm and mindful.
  3. A woman who has developed Alzheimer’s Disease, who in a Living Will has specified that she wishes to be killed before she reaches the advanced stages of dementia.
  4. A man almost completely paralysed by motor neurone disease who believes there is no longer any reason to live and wishes to die.
  5. A woman in a persistent vegetative state, with no higher brain functions, from which recovery would be miraculous.
  6. A baby who has been born with Tay-Sachs disease and is likely to live only a few days of intense suffering.
  7. A man suffering from cancer, who is afraid of further pain and wishes to end his life. Doctors estimate that he will probably live for several months longer and has a 10% chance of complete recovery.

Further Reading
Peter Harvey An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics p.292-310
Damien Keown (ed.) Contemporary Buddhist Ethics ch.7

3. Buddhism and Embryo Research

Objections to embryo research

More conservative and traditional (especially Theravada) Buddhists are very likely to object to embryo research.

1. Embryos are persons
The Buddhist attitude to embryo research depends very much on Buddhist attitudes to the status of the embryo. Following the traditional Buddhist belief that human personhood begins at conception, when the garbha from the previous life joins the fertilised egg, there is no difference between the moral status of the embryo during the first two weeks after fertilisation and its status later on after further development. The destruction of “spare” embryos in IVF would thus be killing of persons, which clearly goes against the first precept.

2. Indirect killing is no defence
Nor would it be accepted as a defence in Buddhism to say that embryo research aims mainly to preserve life, but involves the destruction of embryos as a side effect, so that the violence is indirect. Indirect violence is still treated as blameworthy in Buddhism, for example in the advice given about Right Livelihood: selling arms or poisons are seen as wrong livelihoods because these things are used to take life, and blame will attaches to the seller even though his/her role in the violence was indirect. Similarly, whilst embryo research only indirectly destroys human life, the scientist is still to blame for this.

3. The goals of embryo research may reflect greed
The idea that the killing of embryos is justified in order to save or improve other lives in the long run may also be questioned from a traditional Buddhist point of view, on the grounds that the goals of embryo research are themselves questionable. Stem cell research, for example, aims to be able to grow cloned organs in a tank as spare parts ready for transplantation. But if the price of this is the destruction of human life, it may be argued that the desire for such organs reflects greed and a lack of acceptance of the impermanence of the human body.

How strong do you think these arguments are against embryo research?(think what assumptions they make and how acceptable these assumptions are)

Defences of embryo research

Only a few radical, and most likely Western, Buddhists are likely to support embryo research on Buddhist grounds, by emphasising other aspects of Buddhist ethics

1. Personhood cannot be precisely identified
Some Western Buddhists may doubt traditional accounts of the rebirth process, either because they are doubtful, or at least agnostic, about rebirth itself, or because they accept rebirth but would not accept the traditional account of when and how it occurs. It might be argued that it is more in accordance with the findings of modern science to suggest that rebirth occurs gradually, and that karmic residues from a previous life are merged gradually with a developing foetus in the womb. They might also appeal to the Buddhist doctrine of insubstantiality (anatta) as pointing out that there is really no such category as “personhood” in Buddhism. According to this teaching, a ‘person’ is really just a set of processes to which we attach a label ‘person’. When we should attach that label for moral purposes, then, is not very clear cut.

2. Killing varies in blameworthiness
Whether or not the embryo has the status of a ‘person’, to kill it would still be blameworthy under the first precept. However, there is a also a traditional recognition in Buddhism that the killing of a larger animal is a more serious matter than that of a smaller animal, as it requires more effort and deliberate action. For this reason, late abortion is still considered more blameworthy than early abortion, and research on embryos would thus be killing, but not such blameworthy killing as that involved in abortion or other types of killing of humans.

3. The Middle Way
Finally, the Middle Way may be invoked to support a more moderate approach to embryo research. More traditional and conservative forms of Buddhist ethics simply exclude any serious consideration of the advantages of embryo research, or of the desires that lead to it, but the more basic Buddhist teaching of the Middle Way would suggest that these advantages, and the desire to help others which lies behind embryo research, should be recognised and taken into account. Simply holding onto the fixed idea that we should not kill involves eternalism, whilst abandoning our responsibility towards embryos involves nihilism. Perhaps a moderate position avoiding both extremes would involve trying to recognise ways in which embryos are not in fact persons whilst acknowledging our responsibility towards them as potential persons. This might lead to trying to minimise any unnecessary experimentation on embryos, but supporting experimentation which stands a good chance of relieving suffering, such as much stem cell research.

  • What reasons might more conservative Buddhists have for rejecting these arguments? (try to respond to ideas in the arguments themselves rather than just giving a contrary position)
  • What conclusion do you think Buddhists should draw about embryo research, and why?
  • How well do you think a Buddhist approach to embryo research compares to a Kantian approach?
  • How well do you think a Buddhist approach to embryo research compares to a Utilitarian approach?

Further Reading
Peter Harvey An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics p.318-9

4. Buddhism and Organ Donation (1)

Attitude to death and afterlife

Unlike the theistic religions, Buddhism does not have any belief that the human body was created by God. So there is nothing intrinsically wrong with organ transplantation because of its interference in the human body, whether living or dead, although obviously an organ should only be taken from a live donor with their consent. There are also no beliefs in bodily resurrection. Karmic processes move from one body to another, and there is no sense in which a body can continue to exist after death in Buddhist tradition. So there are no particular religious objections to organ donation from a corpse. Traditionally in Buddhism, funerals are an opportunity to reflect on impermanence, and the dead body is cremated rather than buried.

What is important for a person at the time of death for a Buddhist is not the condition of their body but of their mind. A state of non-attachment to the body is desirable at this time, and this could be aided by the generosity involved in deciding that one’s body could be used to help others after death.

There are a number of Buddhist doctrines which might be used to give positive reasons for supporting organ donation.

Second precept

The main precept of the five which may be seen as having a bearing on organ donation is the second precept in its positive form. The giving of an organ is an opportunity for generosity. The giving of part of one’s body to a person in need is an example of a very high level of generosity, in which the distinction between one’s own interests and those of others (a result of unenlightened ignorance) becomes much weaker. This would obviously be particularly the case with donation from a live donor, but donation from a corpse is also an instance of worthwhile generosity. So there seem to be no good reasons why a Buddhist could not carry a donor card.

There are examples from Buddhist scriptures which illustrate an extreme version of the kind of generosity which might be called for here. In the Jataka tales (stories of the Buddha’s previous lives) in the Pali Canon, there are some where the Buddha is an animal who gives him/herself voluntarily for food to a starving person. This theme is also found in the Sutra of Golden Light, a Mahayana Sutra, where the Buddha in a previous lifetime (as a young prince) is said to have encountered a starving tigress and her cubs and killed himself in front of her to provide her with food (See Buddhist Scriptures p.24-6). Obviously this sacrifice goes further than most organ donors would need to go! It can also perhaps be read as an exaggerated popular story to make a point, for the wisdom of sacrificing one’s life in this way could be questioned from a Buddhist point of view, given the other good things one might achieve with a human birth.

The negative form of the second precept also suggests that the consent of those giving organs, whether living or dead, is important, for taking an organ without consent is taking the not-given. For this reason more conservative Buddhists might be inclined to reject any proposal to introduce an objector’s card system.

Impermanence and insubstantiality

The doctrines of impermanence (anicca) and no-self or insubstantiality (anatta) are part of the First Noble Truth, of the existence of dukkha (frustration or suffering). These doctrines will be studied in more detail in the A2 Buddhism course, but in brief it can be said that dukkha occurs because, although we have both pleasant and unpleasant experiences, the pleasant experiences will be impermanent (they will always come to an end) and insubstantial (they will not be exactly as we think them to be, and thus be disappointing). Impermanence and insubstantiality thus have a close supportive relationship with dukkha.

Impermanence and insubstantiality also apply very much to our bodies. Our bodies are constantly changing, and will eventually die. So although they may enable us to have pleasant experiences, those experiences will soon come to an end because our body does, as well as because the source of the pleasant experience (e.g. the bar of chocolate) will end. Even if life consisted of one non-stop pleasant experience, it would still be impermanent. Are bodies are also insubstantial because they are not always what we take them to be. We tend to assume they are reliable but then we have illnesses and injuries. We also often take the body to be beautiful, but Buddhist texts often stress that this involves a very selective view of the body, not taking much account of all the unpleasant substances our bodies contain and frequently excrete. We should also not identify ourselves with our bodies: for we do not have a self, either in our bodies or in our minds, the self being ultimately an illusion.

So, if the body is impermanent and insubstantial, this provides a further reason for not getting too attached to it. An organ of the type we might donate is not in any sense ‘ours’ other than due to the fact that the being I conveniently call ‘me’ for the time being happens to be temporarily using this organ. If it’s not really ‘mine’ to begin with, and it’s impermanent anyway, there’s really no reason why I shouldn’t give it away when someone else needs it, especially if I definitely don’t need it any more because I’m dead.

Some Buddhist views

Organ donation is an extremely positive action. As long as it is truly thewish of the dying person, it will not harm in any way the consciousness thatis leaving the body. On the contrary, this final act of generosity accumulatesgood karma.

Sogyal Rinpoche – The Tibetan Book of Living & Dying, published byRider.

I would be happy if I was able to help someone else live after my own death.

Dhammarati, Triratna Buddhist Order

Non-attachment to the body can be seen in the context of non-attachmentto self and Buddhist teachings on impermanence. Compassion is apre-eminent quality. Giving one’s body for the good of others is seenas a virtue.

The Amida Trust

Organ donation is acceptable in Theravada Buddhism. It is a Buddhistvirtue to generously extend help to other sentient beings and this covers thecase of organ donation.

Phramaha Laow Panyasiri, Abbot, The Buddhavihara Temple

Resources issues and the Middle Way

In general then, organ donation seems a good action for Buddhists. However, wherever a gift is given there can always be questions about the wisdom of that gift. Obviously some gifts can be unwise compared to others. If you have a moderate amount of money to give away, it is better to give it to someone in great need than someone who is already rich. In the case of organ donation, some have argued that these expensive and risky operations are not justified by their results, given that both money and the time and skills of doctors could be more effectively applied to simpler treatments which might save more lives in the long run.

In Buddhist terms, this may be an obvious case where it is useful to apply the Middle Way. The Precepts tell one only to save lives and be generous, but not how to judge between conflicting ways of doing this. The Middle Way might suggest that both the suffering of those needing transplants and those of others need to be taken into account. It may be that more money and doctors could be provided for both, but if not then a fair allocation needs to be made which meets the long-term needs of all as far as possible. But anyone making decisions about the allocation of medical resources in this way needs to carefully check how far they might be motivated by greed or hatred in relation to either rich or poor.

Questions for discussion
1. Do you think Buddhists should support a switch to an objector’s card system for organ donation? Why/ why not?
2. How far do you think Buddhists should support particularly expensive and risky transplant operations such as heart transplants?

Organ transplantation (2)

by Munisha, Clear Vision’s former education officer.

In 2004, the UK Network of Buddhist Organisations (NBO) was asked by the UK Transplant Authority to come up with a statement outlining Buddhist attitudes to transplantation. NBO members thought it would be simple. However, it was not to be.

Though many people followed the line of Robert Ellis’s piece here, there were dissenting voices. In particular there were concerns from some UK Tibetan Buddhist organisations, which may be summarised as follows:

  • The manner in which the departing consciousness leaves the body will affect the rebirth it chooses. Removal of organs is necessarily soon, speedy and invasive and will compromise the tranquillity of the psycho-physical organism around the time of death.
  • Consciousness leaving an undisturbed body has a greater chance of a good rebirth – leading to a contented and ethical life, beneficial to other living beings. This is, in the long run, of greater benefit to the world than the short-term benefit to the single recipient of the donated organ. (Contrast this with the view of the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Sogyal Rimpoche, quoted in Upeksacitta’s article.)
  • There is a danger that the need of the would-be recipient will be put before the need of the dying person. Click here to see the NBO’s final statement.

5. Buddhism and the allocation of medical resources

Very little has been written by Buddhists on this. However, there are certainly some specific teachings in Buddhism which could be used to help determine an order of priorities in resource allocation.

The First Precept and Four Noble Truths

The First Precept (particularly in its positive form) and Buddhist ideals of compassion provide a strong reason for providing medical care. Medicine of different types has been practised in Buddhist countries through the ages, although the type has depended more on culture than religion (e.g. Ayurvedic medicine in India, Chinese medicine in China, Tibetan medicine in Tibet).

Another basic justification lies in the Four Noble Truths, which start with the recognition of suffering and set out to overcome it through a process of identifying the cause, the cure, and the prescription. The similarity of the Four Noble Truths to the activities of a doctor has often been noted, and there is even a figure known as the Medicine Buddha who symbolically represents this.

This does not take us much further, though, than the general idea that medical treatment to relieve suffering and to save life is good. It doesn’t help in deciding priorities between different forms of medical treatment.

Holistic medicine

Holism is the idea that we should think about things as a whole rather than just isolating specific parts and taking them out of context. The tradition of Western medicine tends not to be very holistic, but rather to concentrate on finding a ‘magic bullet’: a specific cure for each specific ailment. Confronted by a patient with, say, appendicitis, a Western-trained doctor is quite likely to start thinking immediately about how to cure the appendicitis, rather than other aspects of the patient’s health and well-being, whether they are happy in their job or whether their lifestyle is sustainable for them. This contrasts with the traditions of Indian and Chinese medicine, which tend to be more holistic, i.e. they treat the whole person rather than just the disease. Chinese doctors are traditionally paid for keeping their patients in health rather than for curing them of diseases.

Indian and Chinese forms of medicine have come out of complex cultural background, but Buddhism is certainly one important influence on them. Holistic views of health care can certainly be defended using Buddhist teachings about the interdependency of all conditions. The doctrine of dependent origination, symbolised by the outer ring of the Wheel of life, suggests most basically that all aspects of our existence are interrelated and interdependent, particularly our nature with our desires. A lot of traditional Buddhist practice reflects this by working with all parts of the body and mind on the assumption that they affect each other: meditating one loving-kindness could help relax your body, doing Tai-Chi could help you concentrate, and increased awareness through meditation can help you develop wisdom. For this reason many modern Western Buddhists use or even practise alternative (and usually more holistic) forms of health care such as homeopathy, acupuncture, massage and reflexology.

If you take this tendency towards holism into account it would suggest that Buddhist ethics would favour long-term solutions to health problems over short-term ‘magic bullets’, so that stress might be given to preventative medicine and health education. When an illness does occur, it might be seen not simply as the responsibility of the NHS to cure it, but of the person to change their lifestyle in a way that could allow their health to improve and remain improved.

Saving lives vs quality of life

There would probably be much more disagreement between Buddhists on the issue of saving lives vs. quality of life. Traditionalists who stress the importance of the First precept are more likely to prioritise saving lives. However, the idea of spiritual instrumentalism (see abortion) might lead other Buddhists to put more emphasis on the quality of life.

1. Do you think doctors should be paid for curing people or for keeping them healthy?
2. What do you think are the advantages of a holistic approach to medicine?
3. What might be the disadvantages?
4. How well do you think a Buddhist approach to the prioritisation of medical resources compares to a utilitarian approach?

Buddhism in business relationships


(extract from What is the Sangha? by Sangharakshita)

The principle of non-exploitation should ideally hold good in all the relationships of life. It should be possible for us to take what we need, whether food, clothing, education, or anything else, and give whatever we can. There is no need for there to be any connection between what we give and what we receive. Unfortunately, however, the way things usually work is that each person involved in any transaction, whether as the giver or as the receiver, thinks only of himself or herself, giving as little as possible in exchange for as much as possible. This is how ordinary life generally works: we negotiate transactions in which what we give is determined by what we can get for it, not by any regard for the consequences of the transaction for other people.

Beyond a certain point, any commercial profit made is necessarily at the expense of someone else; but the plight of the losers in the game does not generally bother the winners. A particularly brazen form of this universal phenomenon is to be found in poor places like India, where hugely wealthy dealers in grain, especially rice, hoard their stocks, refusing to admit that they have anything to sell, so as to force prices up. This may go on for weeks at a time, especially in remote parts of the country, to the point where people are actually starving, yet the merchants will hold on to those stocks as long as they possibly can, before slowly releasing them at extortionate prices on the black market. The poor have then to scrape together every penny in order to buy enough food to live on. Such exploitation happens – albeit usually in more subtle ways – in all walks of life, in all parts of the world.

The idea of non-exploitation is clearly related to the second of the five precepts (the precepts which form the basis for the ethical life of all Buddhists). In trying to live in accordance with the second precept, one undertakes not to take what is not given.(footnote 96) This is more than simply a roundabout way of saying ‘not to steal’. Not stealing isn’t enough. It leaves too many loopholes. Someone may be a perfectly honest person according to the letter of the law, but they may still build up their business in all sorts of irregular, dubious, or downright shady ways. Thus a great deal of wealth is amassed through highly unethical means without the breaking of any conventional ethical codes.

But the Buddhist precept is an undertaking not to take something unless those who are its present owners, whether individuals or the community as a whole, are willing and ready to give it to you. If it has not been given to you, you do not take it. I mentioned that there should be no connection between what we give and what we take. However, what we take must at the same time be given – in this respect giving and taking are two aspects of the same action. In some Buddhist countries monks are supposed to be so strict in the observance of this precept that when food is given to them on formal occasions, they are not allowed to eat it unless the plate containing the food is lifted up and actually placed in their hands.

The same principle finds application in the fifth stage of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path: right or perfect livelihood.(footnote 97) The very fact that right livelihood is included in the list gives an idea of the importance given within Buddhism to the way one earns one’s living. People may talk of getting the perfect job, but we can guess that this is not what is meant by ‘perfect livelihood’. But how does something so apparently mundane as employment find a place in this august collection of ideals?

We all have to earn a living – those who are not monks, anyway – but however we do it, no harm should come either to others or to ourselves through the work we do. The early scriptures even offer a rough and ready guide to right livelihood in the form of a list of occupations which are prohibited for those following the spiritual path.(footnote 98) The first of these concerns any commercial activity that involves trading in living beings, whether humans or animals. Slavery is and always has been condemned and prohibited in Buddhist countries – Buddhists did not have to wait until the eighteenth or nineteenth century for a clear line on this issue. Of course, trading in human beings still goes on in the world today, but even more widespread is trading in animals for slaughter, also prohibited in Buddhist societies: you will never find a Buddhist butcher or slaughterman. This form of livelihood is harmful not only to – of course – the animals being slaughtered, but also to those doing the slaughtering. To spend eight hours a day killing pigs, cows, sheep, or chickens will necessarily bring about some degree of mental or emotional damage to the slaughterman, as a result of stifling his natural feelings of compassion for other living beings.

Another early Buddhist prohibition was placed upon trade in poisons – not of course medicinal poisons, but poisons used to take life. Before the days of autopsies, this was an almost foolproof way to dispose of someone; a dealer in poisons would give you a phial of the requisite potion – whether fast or slow working, painful or painless – and you would then dose that inconvenient person’s curry with it. Like slavers, dealers in poisons are, in a sense, found less frequently today than they used to be. But, of course, the modern equivalent – the widespread dealing in what are called class A drugs (like heroin and cocaine) – is just as harmful. Also, many people are involved in the manufacture and sale of cigarettes and other indisputably harmful drugs, including advertising them and dealing in shares in them.

The third prohibition was against making or trading in weapons. For the early Buddhists this meant bows and arrows, spears and swords. From these primitive beginnings of the arms trade, however, our more advanced cultures have made considerable progress – so they would say – in the development of wonderfully safe and refined methods of ensuring victory over the enemies of civilized values. But any involvement in making these means of destruction, however ‘intelligent’ they may be, is to be condemned as wrong livelihood. There is no question of justifying any war, any idea that weapons are a deterrent, any bombs, however ‘smart’.

These prohibitions are of course directed at the laity, but there are also certain ways of earning a living which are forbidden specifically to monks. For example, various forms of fortune-telling, of which there were very many in the Buddha’s day, are enumerated and roundly condemned in the scriptures. However, all over the Buddhist world monks to this day are relied on by the laity to foretell the future, and unfortunately many monks take advantage of this trust in their powers of prognostication.

Monks are also prohibited from earning a living through the display of psychic powers, or by promising psychic powers to others. The reason for this is obvious, really. People are naturally very interested in psychic phenomena, supernormal powers, and so on. Such things are generally taken more seriously on an everyday level in the East, but in certain circles in the West there is also an intense – and unhealthy – fascination with the idea of acquiring mysterious and occult powers that other people don’t possess. If you dangle psychic powers in front of someone’s nose, you can, if they are easily led, lead them almost anywhere.

I was once presented with the opportunity of doing this myself. When I lived in Kalimpong in the 1950s, an Englishman arrived on my doorstep one evening in the midst of the rainy season. I was quite accustomed to unexpected visitors, so I invited him in and he introduced himself. He was a medical man who had trained in Dublin. Quite soon I got round to asking him what had brought him to Kalimpong. He said straight out, ‘I want to develop psychic powers.’ This was not the first time someone had expressed to me this kind of interest, so I just said, ‘What sort of psychic powers do you want to develop?’ He said, ‘I want to be able to read other people’s thoughts, and to see the future.’ He was not at all coy about it; he was quite open about what he wanted. I then asked him, ‘Why do you want to develop these powers?’ He simply said, ‘It will help me in my work.’ What that work turned out to be is not germane to this specific issue; I will mention only that he was a disciple – or had been a disciple – of Lobsang Rampa, who wrote a lot of books about the more fabulous and fanciful aspects of Tibetan Buddhism. Inspired by one of the most successful of these books, The Third Eye, my visitor was searching for a Tibetan lama who could perform an operation to open his third eye. It involved, he believed, drilling a little hole in the middle of his forehead and thereby endowing him with the clairvoyant vision he wanted.

One can see the temptation that this kind of person puts in the way of monks and lamas. He could have been milked by any unscrupulous teacher who was ready to pander to his desire for developing psychic powers. What he said to me made this very clear: ‘If anyone can teach me these things I’m quite prepared to place at their disposal a very large sum of money.’ He came to an untimely end, unfortunately, but before he did so, several people got quite a lot of money out of him in one way or another.

So much for general prohibitions as regards earning a living. However, the Buddha did not leave it at that, for, as we know, the economic relationship is one of the commonest fields of exploitation in the whole range of human life. Employers exploit employees if they can, and employees exploit their employers whenever they get the chance. We tend to think that problems of suspicion and exploitation between management and workforce, capital and labour, boardroom and factory floor, are peculiarly modern. But the Buddha gave considerable attention to this issue, in his advice to Sigalaka as recorded in the Sigalaka Sutta. In the section of the discourse devoted to the employer-employee relationship the Buddha enumerates five duties of the employer towards the employee, and five duties of the employee towards the employer.(footnote 99) Together, these amount to a general guide to capital and labour relationships, and a business code of economic ethics for Buddhists.

Taking the duties of the employer first, the Buddha says that the employer must give the employee work according to his bodily and mental strength – that is, work he or she can do without injury. Unfortunately, 2,500 years later, this principle is still not being observed – certainly not in India. In India today, thousands of men and women earn their living as coolies, that is, as unskilled labourers. They are treated as beasts of burden, carrying heavy loads on their backs, or more usually on their heads, and anybody who ever goes to India will see them at work. Coolies are at the very bottom of the economic ladder, and they have virtually no hope of rising above that level, even though they may have to support a growing family as well as themselves.

The problem from the point of view of the merchant hiring a number of coolies to carry, say, sacks of rice is that some coolies cannot carry as much as others, and they do not move as fast, particularly if they are old or unwell. It is shocking to say that the solution for a great many well-to-do merchants is to make sure they get their money’s-worth out of all their coolies equally. This is a pitiable sight indeed – some old man, old before his time, staggering along, his veins standing out, muscles stretched like whipcord, and the perspiration streaming down, under loads which he has no business to be carrying at all. It’s the same with the rickshaw pullers that you used to find all over Asia (though not any more, I am glad to say). Their life-expectancy was no more than a few years. They used to start pulling rickshaws when they were fifteen or sixteen; by the time they were twenty-five they usually had tuberculosis, and that would be the end of them within a few months. Their inadequate diet and the huge physical stress of their work quite literally killed them.

But for a very long time it was not an issue that bothered anyone. I remember vividly the first time I was in Sri Lanka, taking a ride in a rickshaw – rather against my will. As we moved smartly through the streets I kept telling the coolie to go slower, but he didn’t understand me – he thought I was telling him, as most of his fares must have done, to go faster. The more I expostulated with him, the faster he went, until I had to tell him to stop altogether. Thereafter I used a rickshaw only in an emergency; and even then I would pick someone who was fairly strong and sturdy, and insist that he went at a reasonably leisurely pace. In retrospect, I should not, probably, have used them at all, but at the time it seemed there was no other work for them to do. However, the Buddha was quite clear that no human being should be hired to work beyond his natural capacity.

Secondly, the Buddha said that the employer should give the employee sufficient food and pay. This is still the custom in certain parts of India. If you employ someone you give them food and clothes, plus some cash, rather than a salary. But the operative principle is to give food and pay that is sufficient in terms of enabling the employee to live a full and decent human existence, not simply sufficient in relation to the work done. There shouldn’t be any correlation between the amount of work done and the amount of pay received. Even if the employee is strong and healthy, and his output is prodigious, he should not get paid more than his weaker or even lazier fellows; he should just get what he needs by way of remuneration. We have become accustomed to thinking in terms of rewarding hard work and penalizing those who underperform: so much work done, so much pay received. But while this is an effective incentive to invention and enterprise, a Buddhist should ideally find that incentive somewhere else. If the incentive is greed, you are feeding that mental poison.

The employee is enjoined by the Buddha to work as faithfully as he can, and the employer is enjoined to provide for the employee’s needs. These needs constitute not just a bare subsistence, but the means to live a richly human existence. We no longer have a society that divides quite so rigidly into employer and employee as the society of the Buddha’s day, but the Buddha was not of course recommending the particular social structure of his day, he was simply pointing out the essential principle by which the people in his society could make an economic relationship an essentially human one.

We have to try to do the same within our own society. One radical plan that used to get an airing from time to time, and did seem to express the principle of non-exploitation very effectively, is the idea that on the attainment of their majority everyone should be given by the government a basic stipend to cover the cost of food, clothing, and shelter, regardless of whether they work or not. If they want more than this – if they want to travel, buy expensive electronic equipment, go out to cinemas and restaurants, have the luxury lifestyle that most people see as a virtual necessity – they will have to work. But in a luxury culture people should work because they want to – because they want to make a creative contribution to their society, or because they want a few extras, or both – not simply in order to live. In this way the state would support the spiritual community, enabling individuals who wanted to devote themselves to creative but financially unremunerative activity – to meditation, study, even the arts – to do so, if they were prepared to live a very simple, even monastic life.

Thirdly, the Buddha says that the employer should provide the employee with medical treatment and support after retirement. This we do have nowadays, with pensions, insurance, and so on, but it has taken two millennia for us to get round to this scheme of the Buddha’s. Fourthly, the Buddha says that the employer should share with the employee any extra profit he makes. That is, you don’t take the profits for your own purposes while telling your employees that they must make do with a basic level of support. Once again, we have caught up with this idea rather late in the day, in the form of bonus schemes. Fifthly and lastly, it is the duty of the employer, according to the Buddha, to grant the employee holidays and special allowances – and this, too, has something of a modern ring to it. However, we should not lose sight of the essential principle expressed in the Buddha’s advice – that of establishing the human dimension of the economic relationship – which is not always what bonus schemes, holiday allowances, and pension schemes are about.

So much for the five points made by the Buddha for the guidance of the employer in relationship to the employee. The employee also has certain duties. The first of these is that he or she should be punctual. Indians are of course notorious for their lack of punctuality. Trains can be two or three hours late. Someone may say, ‘I’m coming to see you at three o’clock,’ and you’ll see them the following week. A public meeting may be advertised to begin at eight o’clock sharp, but if you are nai>ve enough to turn up at that time, you may find the place deserted. The meeting has not been cancelled: if you wait until nine o’clock the organizers will arrive; by ten o’clock the platform is being erected. At eleven o’clock the audience is beginning to arrive, and at half past eleven you will be invited to begin your talk. In the West we are a lot more punctual than this; but the Buddha’s principle is not just about clocking in on time, but of not needing to clock in at all. Indeed, the Buddha suggests that you try to be already working before your employer arrives: you are not coming to work simply to be seen to be working.

Secondly, the employee should finish work after the employer. You should try to become free of the whole clock-watching mentality. You don’t fling down your tools as soon as the clock strikes. Thirdly, the employee should be sincere and trustworthy. This is quite obvious, as is the fourth point, which is that the employee should perform his or her duties to the satisfaction of the employer. Fifthly, the employee should speak in praise of his employer. The Buddha must have been aware of how readily workers abuse the boss behind his or her back, then as now. They may be dutiful and respectful during working hours, but what you hear outside the company gates can tell a different story.

The Buddha is reminding us that, as with any relationship, the economic relationship should not be one of antagonism, in which all you feel you can express is impotent frustration. Ideally, it is a happy, harmonious relationship, in which there is no exploitation on either side. Each takes from the other what he or she needs, without causing harm, and gives what he or she can. If you are an employer, you make use of the labour and skills of your workers, and also take responsibility for seeing that their needs are met. And if you are an employee, you work to the best of your ability and take what you need from that work situation. There is then no need for a grim, protracted bargaining between employers and unions, as though they were in opposite camps, arranging a truce between opposing armies. As the Buddha says to Sigalaka, ‘In this way the nadir is covered,’ (the nadir being the direction which denotes the relationship between ‘master and servant’) ‘making it at peace and free from fear.’


96: See Sangharakshita, The Ten Pillars of Buddhism, Windhorse, Birmingham 1996, p.68

97: For more on Right Livelihood as a limb of the Noble Eightfold Path, see Sangharakshita, Vision and Transformation,Windhorse, Birmingham 1999, chapter 5: ‘The Ideal Society’.

98: This list is to be found in the Anguttara Nikaya (v.177), and is quoted in Nanamoli, op. cit., p.239.


(extract from What is the Sangha? by Sangharakshita)

As the bee takes honey from the flower,
Leaving its colour and fragrance unharmed,
So let the monk go about the village.

Dhammapada 49

This verse comes from the Dhammapada, an ancient and deeply loved anthology of verses which was the first Buddhist text to be translated from the original Pali into a European language (in this case Latin). It is characteristic of Buddhist scriptures to draw all sorts of beautiful illustrations, metaphors, similes, and parables from day-to-day life in India, and so it is with this verse from the Dhammapada, which is taken from the chapter called ‘Flowers’, so-called because each verse mentions a flower of some kind, or flowers in general, by way of illustration.

Anyone who has lived in India or in any of the Buddhist countries of South-east Asia will be familiar with the timeless scene evoked in these lines – the monk going for alms in the village. It was a scene I participated in myself in my own wandering days as a monk, when I went around on foot from place to place. But I have seen it as an observer often enough, and will describe it here from that viewpoint. Usually the monks go out for alms very early in the morning, because in India there is no such thing traditionally as a midday meal. People eat what we would call lunch at about nine o’clock in the morning; it is a huge meal, consisting mainly of rice. After that – in the villages at least – people go off to work in the fields and don’t come back home again to eat until five or six in the evening. So if the monk wants to fill his bowl, he has to be off at the crack of dawn, leaving the monastery and moving silently along the deserted streets, stopping briefly at each house.

The Buddhist custom is that throughout his alms collection tour, as it is called, the monk should stand silently at each door with his begging-bowl, not asking for anything. But people are usually on the lookout for monks at this time, so it may be that a child runs inside and says, ‘Mummy, the monk is here,’ and the mother says, ‘All right, ask him to wait.’ Then she quickly ladles out some rice and curry, and takes it outside to put in the monk’s bowl. The monk then recites a verse of blessing in Pali, and moves on to stand at the door of the next hut.

The idea is not to get the whole meal from any one house, but to take a little here and a little there. In India even today Hindu sadhus follow this custom. It is called madhukari bhiksa, which means collecting alms just like the bee collects honey. Just as the bee collects a little pollen from each flower it visits, in the same way the monk accepts a little food from one house, a little food from another, until he has enough to sustain him for the day.

Food is just one of four things that the monk is traditionally entitled to expect from lay supporters. These four requisites or essentials are: firstly, food; secondly, clothing, especially in the form of the saffron robe; thirdly, shelter, whether a temporary hut, a monastery, or some arrangement in between; and fourthly, medicine. When the monk is ordained he is told that this is all he should expect from the lay people, and all he can accept from them.

The idea is that the monk or nun – that is, the person devoted to the religious life – should accept from lay supporters only what is necessary to keep him or her going, so that he or she can practise meditation, study, and teach the Dharma, and make progress towards Enlightenment. Inevitably, after 2,500 years of Buddhist history, a few things have been added to the list of requisites. The most significant addition is perhaps books; in modern times a collection of a few books tends to count as a fundamental requisite.

But Buddhist monks still generally lead an exceedingly simple life, making do with one or at most two meals a day, quite basic accommodation in cottages or huts, the minimum of clothing (easy enough in a tropical country), and very simple medicines. Incidentally, this medicine is supposed to be made of gallnuts and cow’s urine. This is less bizarre than it sounds; you can make a sort of ammonia out of cow’s urine which is efficacious in a number of ways. Many Buddhist monks take cow’s urine religiously, so to speak, and swear by its curative powers. Indeed, a very orthodox Sri Lankan monk with whom I was in regular correspondence wrote to me while I was once lying ill, in Benares, and advised me in the strongest terms to take cow’s urine, assuring me that if I did so I would never be sick again in my life. (Not having heeded his advice, I cannot vouch for this.)

But people in the West often say, ‘Well, that’s all very well. It’s a great arrangement from the monk’s point of view: he gets his food, he gets his clothing, he gets housed, perhaps in a beautiful monastery, he gets medicine when he is sick. Everything is provided for him, so that he can quietly get on with his studies, his meditation, his literary work, or his preaching, as he thinks fit. But what does he give in return?’

The traditional answer to this question is: nothing. He gets all he needs and he does absolutely nothing in return. Nobody even expects anything in return, and it does not occur to the monk that he should give anything in return. Anything you give to monks or nuns is given for the support of the sangha, not as payment for teaching. Correspondingly, teaching is not given in return for that support. The monk accepts what he needs, and he gives what he can, but there is no relationship between the two, no equivalence between what you give and what you get, no reciprocal relationship at all. You don’t think of translating what you give into so many equivalent units of what you ought to receive. You keep the two things quite separate. When you can give, you give. When you need, you accept. There is no question of a bargain being struck. Just as the bee accepts the pollen it needs from the flower to make its honey, without injuring the flower in any way, in the same way, the monk quietly and gently accepts what he needs without doing any harm to the village. In both cases, there is no exploitation.

This, then, is ideally the nature of the relationship between the layperson and ‘ascetics and brahmins’ which the Buddha lists as the last of the six relationships to which Sigalaka (and all of us) should pay attention. But perhaps this relationship is more obscure to us than the others; Western Buddhists do not generally think along the traditional lines of monastic and lay, although we may find it easier to relate to the full-timer/part-timer distinction we considered in an earlier chapter. But there is a further aspect of this verse of the Dhammapada that most translations fail to draw out clearly, but which broadens out what is being said beyond the monastic-lay relationship. It concerns the term ‘monk’.

The first problem with this word is that in Buddhism there is nothing resembling the Western conception of a monk. This problem is further compounded by the fact that ‘monk’ is the standard rendering of the term bhiksu, whereas the word in this verse is not bhiksu but muni. In some contexts muni means monk in the sense of bhiksu, but not always. A muni, essentially, is a wise man, or holy man, or sage. The Buddha was not only called ‘Buddha’; he was given many other titles, including Shakyamuni, ‘sage of the Shakya tribe’. Muni is also related to the term mauna, which in Sanskrit, as well as in the modern languages of northern India, means ‘silence’. So a muni is one who is silent, or even one who observes a vow of silence. In order to bring out this double meaning, some translators render muni as ‘the silent sage’.

This combination of meanings reflects an interesting association of ideas: it suggests that silence and wisdom go together, that the wise man doesn’t talk too much. Whether he is wise because he is silent or silent because he is wise, or both, it may be difficult to say. In any case, it is clear that we are talking about more than just monks here. It becomes clearer what muni means once we consider that this verse is very ancient, one of the earliest (along with some passages of the Sutta Nipata) of all Buddhist scriptures. Some scholars believe that muni was the original term used by Buddhists for the disciple of the Buddha who is himself Enlightened. According to this theory, the word arhant – the term for this ideal which has become so familiar – came later.

We can therefore get a much broader, more universal meaning from this verse by replacing the line ‘so let the monk move about the village’ with ‘so let the wise person live in the world’. In this way, what appears to be an injunction restricted to those who are at least technically monks becomes applicable to everybody who lives in the world. It is important that it does so because it establishes a fundamental principle of the ethical and spiritual life, which is that the wise person does not exploit anyone or anything. This may seem very simple to understand, but if it were to be thoroughly and systematically put into practice, the effects would be far-reaching indeed.

If we are wise, we take from society, from others, from our environment, what we objectively need in order to sustain life, to work, and to progress spiritually. But we do no harm to individuals, to society at large, or to the environment. And we give what we can. However unrealistic this ideal may seem, one does occasionally come across reflections of it in real working relationships, and there is no reason why it cannot be held up in the context of any working environment. Moreover, the principle of non-exploitation extends far beyond the field of economics. It has psychological and even spiritual implications which can be extended to cover the whole field of personal relationships, especially our more intimate relationships.

We don’t just decide to like someone on a whim. We like them because they fulfil a certain need we have – a need of which we are not usually conscious, although we can become conscious of it if we try. If we don’t try to become conscious of what our own needs are, we tend to rationalize our liking for someone: we say we like them because they are considerate and kind, or because they love animals as we do, or because they are interested in Buddhism as we are. But behind these rational appraisals there is often something quite different at work. Perhaps that person satisfies our need for attention, our psychological need to be at the very centre of things. As long as that need continues, we shall continue to want it to be satisfied. And if we get from someone the attention we need, then obviously we will want that relationship to continue.

But how are we going to ensure that it does continue? Most of us, whether we realize it or not, find that the best way of doing this is to find out what the other person needs, and make sure that we are the person who satisfies that need. They may have, say, a deep lack of self-worth that manifests as a craving to be appreciated. Latching on to this, we start saying, ‘What a wonderful writer you are – I wish I had such a way with words!’ or ‘Did you really paint this yourself? How do you manage to achieve such magical effects?’ We give them what we sense they need, so that they become dependent on us for the satisfaction we give them, just as we have become dependent on them for the satisfaction of our own needs. In short, together we create a relationship of mutual dependence and exploitation. An unconscious bargain is struck; this is the basis of most human relationships. Because the whole process is more or less unconscious, neither party to the bargain questions whether the need is valid, or whether it is an artificial and unhealthy need which it would be better not to encourage. In this situation, the relationship is likely either to terminate catastrophically or to settle down into an increasingly boring routine.

Does this mean that we should never look to another person to fulfil our needs? Do we not have some valid psychological needs? The answer to this question lies in this same verse from the Dhammapada. Yes, we do have valid needs – material needs, psychological needs, and spiritual needs – but we should fulfil them as the bee takes pollen from the flower, without exploiting the person who fulfils those needs.

There are two kinds of need. Under the influence of one kind, we unconsciously negotiate a situation of mutual exploitation. The other kind of need is one of which we are more conscious, more aware. It is not bargain-hunting, but an ever-deepening spirit of mutual giving, without any thought of return. It happens between parents and children at their best. The parents give freely to the children without thinking that the children are going to reward them later for their efforts. The children, likewise, give what they can to their parents, not thinking about everything their parents have done for them, but simply giving to them because they love them.

This principle of non-exploitation and mutual generosity is the key to the Buddha’s philosophy of personal relations, whether in political, religious, economic, or more intimate personal relationships. It is a principle the Buddha himself exemplified. He spent forty-five years going around north-eastern India on foot, teaching. All that he took from people was one meal a day, a few yards of yellow cloth, a little hut somewhere – perhaps in somebody’s garden – which he borrowed from time to time, and occasional supplies of medicine.

What he took was infinitesimal. But what he gave was – is – incalculable: indeed its nature is that it cannot be measured out and bartered. The gifts he gave – compassion, understanding, sympathy, wisdom, guidance, love – by their very nature can only be given with no thought of return. His was the perfect example of his philosophy of personal relationships. He took only what he needed; he gave everything he had to give. Ranged against this philosophy is a sort of shopkeeper’s mentality, which is the bane of the human race. And in all our relationships we can choose between these two attitudes.


(extract from What is the Sangha? by Sangharakshita)

Usually, influenced by books or even Buddhist scriptures, we think of the Buddha’s Enlightenment as having taken place at a particular time, roughly 2,500 years ago – which, of course, in a sense, it did. We also tend to think of it as having taken place on a particular day, at a particular hour, even at a particular minute, at the instant when the Buddha broke through from the conditioned to the Unconditioned.

But a little reflection, and a little further study of the scriptures, will show us that it didn’t happen quite like that. Here we can consider the distinction between the path of vision and the path of transformation – a distinction usually made in connection with the Noble Eightfold Path. On the path of vision one has an experience of the transcendental, a profound insight into the true nature of Reality which goes far beyond any merely intellectual understanding. This insight comes gradually to pervade and transform every aspect of one’s being – one’s body, speech, and mind, to use the traditional Buddhist classification. It transforms all our activities. It transforms one, in fact, into a very different kind of person – a wiser and more compassionate person. This process is known as the path of transformation.(footnote 101)

Something like this takes place in the spiritual life of each and every one of us. And we see the same sort of thing happening, on a much more exalted plane, in the case of the Buddha. The Buddha’s vision is unlimited, absolute, and all-embracing, and his transformation of body, speech, and mind can therefore be described as total, even infinite. But all the same, it did take a little time for this final transformation to take place. Buddhist tradition speaks of the Buddha as spending seven – or nine – weeks (accounts vary) in the vicinity of the bodhi tree, the tree beneath which he attained Enlightenment. In the course of each of those weeks something of importance happened. We could say that the Buddha’s experience of Enlightenment started percolating through his being, until by the end of the last week (whether the seventh or the ninth) the process of transformation was at last complete.

One week a great storm arose, and the Buddha was sheltered from the rain, so the story goes, by the serpent king Mucalinda, who spread his sevenfold hood over the Buddha’s head as he meditated. Another week, Brahma Sahampati, the ruler of a thousand worlds, requested the Buddha to teach the Dharma, saying that at least some of the beings in the world would be capable of understanding it, their eyes being covered with only a little dust. And the Buddha, out of compassion, agreed to teach.

But here I want to focus on another episode, one that occurred quite early in the period after the Buddha’s attainment of Enlightenment – during the second week, according to one source. According to this tradition, the Buddha stood at a distance to the north-east of the bodhi tree and remained for one week gazing at the tree with unblinking eyes.(footnote 102)

Centuries later, a stupa was erected on that very spot, to mark the place where the Buddha had gazed at the bodhi tree. It was known as ‘the stupa of unblinking eyes’, and Hsuan Tsang, the great Chinese pilgrim, saw it when he visited India in the seventh century ce. In the memoirs he dictated to his disciples in his old age back in China, he described it thus: ‘On the left side of the road, to the north of the place where the Buddha walked, is a large stone on the top of which, as it stands in a great vihara, is a figure of the Buddha with his eyes raised and looking up. Here in former times the Buddha sat [he says ‘sat’ but the source text says ‘stood’] for seven days contemplating the bodhi tree.'(footnote 103)

Perhaps the Buddha didn’t literally stand or sit there for a whole week, but we may take it that he gazed at the bodhi tree for a very long time. And the source text makes it clear why. He did it because he was grateful to the tree for having sheltered him at the time of his attainment of Enlightenment. According to the scriptures, the Buddha demonstrated gratitude in other ways too. After Brahma Sahampati had made his request that the Buddha should teach the Dharma, and the Buddha had decided to do so, he then wondered to whom he should teach it. He thought first of his two old teachers, from whom he had learned to meditate not long after he left home. Finding their teaching insufficient, he had left them, but they had been helpful to him at a particular stage of his career, and after his Enlightenment he remembered that. It’s as though he had a spiritual debt to them that he wanted to repay. But he quickly realized that his old teachers were dead.

He then thought of his five former companions. They too were people he knew from an earlier period of his spiritual quest, from the time of his experiments in asceticism. After leaving his first two teachers, he started practising extreme self-mortification, in the company of five friends who became disciples of his and admired him greatly because he had gone further in his self-mortification than anybody else at that time. But eventually the Buddha-to-be saw the futility of asceticism, realized that that was not the way to Enlightenment, and gave it up. When he started taking solid food again, just a few handfuls of rice to sustain himself, the five ascetics left him in disgust, saying, ‘The sramana Gautama has returned to luxurious living.’ But this parting was not what remained in the Buddha’s mind. Having realized that his two old teachers were dead, he reflected, ‘The five ascetics were of great help to me when I was practising the penances. I would like to preach the Dharma to them.’ So this is what he did. He went to them, he taught them, and eventually they too realized the Truth that he had realized. And he did this out of gratitude.

So the newly Enlightened Buddha was a grateful Buddha, an idea which is perhaps unfamiliar to us. We think of the all-wise Buddha, the compassionate Buddha, the resourceful Buddha, but we don’t usually think of the grateful Buddha. But one of the very first things the Buddha did after his attainment of Enlightenment was to show his gratitude to those who had helped him. He was even grateful to a tree.

This incident alone gives us food for thought. The Buddhist scriptures contain a number of references that show that the Buddha and his disciples didn’t regard trees and stones as inanimate dead matter. They regarded them as living things. They would even have a relationship with them; they would talk to a tree or a flower, or rather to the spirit – the devata, as they called it – inhabiting it. It is surely much better to have this attitude, to be an animist, than to think that trees and flowers and rocks and stones are just dead matter. The Buddha certainly didn’t think in that way, and it was therefore possible for him to be grateful even to a tree.

It is not surprising, given that this was the Buddha’s attitude, that gratitude finds a place in his ethical and spiritual teaching. It is found, for example, in the Mangala Sutta, the ‘Sutta of Blessings or Auspicious Signs’. This sutta, which is very short and is found in the Pali Canon, is often regarded as summarizing the whole duty, as we may call it, of the serious-minded Buddhist, and it enumerates gratitude as one of the auspicious signs. According to the Mangala Sutta, it is a sign that you are making spiritual progress.(footnote 104)

But what is gratitude? What do we mean when we use this term? To find this out, we can turn to the dictionaries – and, of course, we should be very grateful to the makers of dictionaries. I am personally very grateful to Samuel Johnson. His historic dictionary is always at my elbow in my study, and when I am writing I sometimes consult it several times a day. Johnson defines gratitude as ‘duty to benefactors’ and as ‘desire to return benefits’. Coming to more modern dictionaries the Concise Oxford says, ‘being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness’, and Collins has ‘a feeling of thankfulness or appreciation, as for gifts or favours’.

Such are the definitions of the English word, and they do give us some understanding of what gratitude is. But from a Buddhist point of view we need to go further, and look at the Pali word being translated as gratitude: katannutaKatameans that which has been done, especially that which has been done to oneself; and annuta means knowing or recognizing; so katannuta means knowing and recognizing what has been done to one for one’s benefit. These definitions indicate that the connotation of the Pali word is rather different from that of its English translation. The connotation of the English word gratitude is emotional – we speak of feeling grateful. But the connotation of katannuta is rather more intellectual, more cognitive. It makes it clear that what we call gratitude involves an element of knowledge: knowledge of what has been done to us or for us for our benefit. If we do not know that something has benefited us, we will not feel grateful.

The Buddha knew that the bodhi tree had sheltered him, and he knew that his five former companions had been helpful to him, so he felt gratitude towards them. Not only that: he gave expression to that feeling. He acted upon it by spending a whole week simply gazing at the bodhi tree, and then by going in search of his five former companions so that he could communicate to them the truth that he had discovered. The important implication is that it is a perfectly natural thing to feel grateful for benefits we have received.

But the benefit has to be recognized as a benefit. If we don’t feel that someone or something actually has benefited us, we won’t feel grateful to them or to it. This suggests that we have to understand what is truly beneficial, what has really helped us to grow and develop as human beings. We also have to know who or what has benefited us, and remember that they have done so – otherwise no feeling of gratitude is possible.

In Buddhism there are traditionally three principal objects of gratitude: our parents, our teachers, and our spiritual friends. We have already considered some aspects of each of these relationships. Here I want to reflect a little on gratitude in relation to each of them.

I came back to England after spending twenty years uninterruptedly in the East studying, practising and teaching the Dharma. When I came back, I found that much had changed. Quite a few things struck me as unusual – I hadn’t encountered them in India, or at least not to the same extent. One thing that definitely surprised me was finding out how many people, at least among those I knew, were on bad terms with their parents. Perhaps I noticed this especially because I was in contact with people who were concerned about their spiritual development, and wanted to straighten themselves out psychologically and emotionally.

If one is on bad terms with one’s parents, something is quite seriously wrong. Perhaps it wouldn’t even be an exaggeration to say that one’s whole emotional life is likely to be affected, indirectly at least, by this state of affairs. I therefore used to encourage people to get back into positive contact with their parents, if it happened that they were estranged from them for any reason. I encouraged people to be more open with their parents and to develop positive feelings towards them. This was especially necessary in connection with the practice of the metta bhavana, the development of loving kindness. People had to learn to develop metta even towards their parents, and for those who had had difficult childhoods, or had even suffered at the hands of their parents in some way, this was not easy. But even so, it was necessary in the interests of their own emotional, psychological, and spiritual development to get over whatever feelings of bitterness or resentment they were harbouring.

Some people, I discovered, blamed their parents in all sorts of ways for all sorts of things – an attitude which is reflected in a well-known little poem by Philip Larkin called ‘This Be The Verse’. In this poem, Larkin gives expression in rather crude language to what he thinks your mum and dad have done to you, and he draws a rather depressing conclusion from that. The last verse of the poem reads:

Man hands on misery to man,
It deepens like a coastal shelf;
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

What a grim, nasty little poem! In 1995, however, it was voted one of Britain’s favourite poems, coming in between Thomas Hood’s ‘I remember, I remember’ and D.H. Lawrence’s ‘The Snake’. The fact that Larkin’s poem should be so popular among intelligent poetry readers gives food for thought, suggesting as it does that negative attitudes towards parents are fairly widespread in our society.

The Buddha himself had quite a lot to say about our relation to our parents. In the Sigalaka Sutta he is represented as saying that there are five ways in which a son should minister to his mother and father as the eastern direction. He should think, ‘Having been supported by them, I will support them, I will perform their duties for them. I will keep up the family tradition. I will be worthy of my heritage. After my parents’ deaths I will distribute gifts on their behalf.'(footnote 105) The same applies, of course, to a daughter. She too should minister to her mother and father as the eastern direction, she too should think in this manner.

There is a lot that could be said about the five ways in which one should minister to one’s parents. Here, though, I want to touch on something even more fundamental – so fundamental that in this sutta the Buddha seems to take it for granted. It is hinted at, however, in the imagery of the sutta. The Buddha explains to Sigala that one pays homage to the east by ministering to one’s parents in five ways. But why the east?

The reason is perhaps obvious. The sun rises in the east, it has its origin in the east, so to speak, and similarly we owe our origin to our parents – leaving aside questions of karma, of which perhaps parents are only instruments. If it were not for our parents, we would not be here now. They have given us life, they have given us a human body, and in Buddhism the human body is regarded as a very precious thing. It is precious because it is only in a human body (whether male or female) that one is able to attain Enlightenment. In giving us a human body, our parents are therefore giving us the possibility of attaining Enlightenment and we should be intensely grateful to them for that, especially if we are actually practising the Dharma.

Not only do our parents give us a human body; despite Larkin, they bring us up as best they can. They enable us to survive, they educate us. They may not always be able to send us to university and all that, but they teach us to speak, and this is the basis of most of the things we subsequently learn. Usually it’s our mother who teaches us our first words, and this gives us the expression ‘mother tongue’. It is through our mother tongue that we have access to all the literature that has been written in the language we learn in our earliest days, and we can enjoy that literature fully because it is in our mother tongue, rather than in a language we learn in later life.

Not everybody cares to acknowledge their debt to their parents. The classic example in English literature is the character Mr Bounderby in Charles Dickens’s Hard Times, which happens to be one of my favourite Dickens novels. Mr Bounderby is a successful industrialist, and he is very fond of telling everybody that he is a self-made man. He tells them this on every possible occasion and at great length. He describes in vivid detail how he was abandoned by his mother, how he was beaten by a drunken grandmother, how he lived in the gutter as a child and had to fend for himself, how nobody had ever helped him and how he had made his own way in the world and become a rich man entirely by his own efforts. In the course of the novel, however, it transpires that all this is completely false. In truth he had a loving mother who brought him up carefully and educated him and helped him as much as she possibly could. In fact, his mother is still alive, but he keeps her at a distance in the country somewhere and won’t allow her to visit him. In other words, Mr Bounderby is a monster of ingratitude.

We will consider the question of why people are so ungrateful later on. First, though, let us turn to the second of the principal objects of gratitude in Buddhism: our teachers. By teachers here I mean not Dharma teachers, but all those from whom we derive our secular education and culture. Here our school teachers obviously have an important place. From them we derive the rudiments of such learning as we have, and we therefore have to be grateful to them. The fact is that we have found out very little of what we know, or what we think we know, as a result of our own efforts. Practically everything we know has been taught to us in one way or another. If we think of our knowledge of science or history, for example, few of us have even performed a single scientific experiment, or discovered a single historical fact, which no one else had performed, or discovered, before. All our work in this field has been done for us by others. We have benefited from their efforts, and our knowledge is little more than the echo of theirs.

As well as learning from living teachers, we also learn from people who have been dead for hundreds of years, from the writings they have left and the records of the words they spoke. It is not just a question of learning from them in a purely intellectual sense, acquiring information. Among those books are great works of the imagination – great poems, great novels, great dramas – and these works are a source of infinite enrichment, without which we would be immeasurably poorer. They help us deepen and enlarge our vision. We should therefore be grateful to the great men and women who have produced them. We should be grateful to Homer and Virgil, Dante and Milton, Aeschylus and Kalidasa, Shakespeare and Goethe. We should be grateful to Murasaki Shikibu, Cervantes, Jane Austen, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, and hundreds of others, who have influenced us more than we can possibly realize. The American critic Harold Bloom has gone so far as to claim that Shakespeare is the creator of human nature as we know it, which is a very big claim indeed (though he gives his reasons for it).

Of course, our experience is also deepened, and our vision enlarged, by the visual arts and by music. The great painters, sculptors, and composers are also among our teachers. They too have enriched our lives, and to them too we should be grateful. I won’t mention any names in this connection because there are simply too many to choose from – both ancient and modern, Eastern and Western – certainly not because I think that the great artists and composers are any less important than the great poets, novelists, and dramatists.

Thus by ‘teachers’ I mean all those who between them have created our collective cultural heritage, without which we would not be fully human. Remembering what we owe them, and feeling grateful to the great artists, poets, and composers, we should not only enjoy their work but also celebrate their memory and share our enthusiasm for them with our friends.

Before we go on to consider the third principal object of gratitude, our spiritual friends, I want to make the general point that we need not think of these three objects of gratitude as being completely separate and distinct from one another. There’s a certain amount of overlap between the first and second, and between the second and third. Our parents are also our teachers to an extent. In Buddhist tradition parents are called poranacariyas, which means ‘former (or ancient) teachers’. They are called this because they are the first teachers we ever had, even if they only taught us to speak a few words. We can be grateful to our parents not only for giving us life but also for giving us at least the rudiments of knowledge, and initiating us into the beginnings of our cultural heritage.

Similarly there is some overlap between teachers and spiritual friends. The very greatest poets, artists, and composers can inspire us with spiritual values, help us rise to spiritual heights. In the course of the last few hundred years, great changes have taken place, at least in the West. Previously, Christianity as represented by the Church was the great, even the sole, bearer of spiritual values. But now, having lost faith in Christianity, many people look elsewhere to find meaning and values, and they find them in great works of art: in the plays of Shakespeare, the poetry of Wordsworth, Baudelaire, and Rilke, the music of Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart, the great painters and sculptors of the Italian Renaissance. These great masters become, as it were, our spiritual friends, especially if we remain in contact with them and with their work over many years. Learning to admire and love them, we feel intensely grateful to them for what they have given us. They are among our spiritual friends in the broadest sense.

But now let us come to our spiritual friends ‘proper’. Here, as with the word gratitude, we have to go back to the Sanskrit words behind the English equivalent. As we have already seen, the Sanskrit phrase translated as ‘spiritual friend’ is kalyana mitraMitra comes from the word maitri (Pali, metta), and maitri is strong, unselfish, active love, sharply distinguished in Buddhist tradition from prema (Pali, pema), in the sense of sexual love or attachment. A mitra or friend is therefore one who feels a strong unselfish active love towards one. And kalyana means firstly ‘beautiful, charming,’ and secondly ‘auspicious, helpful, morally good’. Thus kalyana mitra has a much richer connotation than the English phrase ‘spiritual friend’.

Our spiritual friends are all those who are spiritually more experienced than we are. The Buddhas are our spiritual friends. The Arhants and the Bodhisattvas are our spiritual friends. The great Buddhist teachers of India and China, Tibet and Japan, are our spiritual friends. Those who teach us meditation are our spiritual friends. Those with whom we study the scriptures are our spiritual friends. Those who ordain us are our spiritual friends. And all these spiritual friends should be the objects of our intense, heartfelt gratitude. We should be even more grateful to them than we are to our teachers.

Why? Because from our spiritual friends we receive the Dharma. We have not discovered or invented the Dharma. We have received it as a free gift from our spiritual friends, from the Buddha downwards. In the Dhammapada the Buddha says, ‘The greatest of all gifts is the gift of the Dharma.'(footnote 106) The greater the gift, the greater the gratitude we should feel. We should not only feel that gratitude in our hearts; we should give expression to it in words and deeds. We can do this in three ways: by singing the praises of our spiritual friends, by practising the Dharma they have given us, and by passing on that Dharma to others to the best of our ability.

The greatest of our spiritual friends is the Buddha Shakyamuni, who discovered – or re-discovered – the path that we as Buddhists follow today. It is to him that we go for Refuge, it is the Dharma he taught that we try to practise, and it is with the support of the Sangha he founded that we are able to practise the Dharma. We therefore have reason to be intensely grateful to him – more grateful, in principle, than we are to anyone else. Our parents have indeed given us life, but what is life without the gift of the Dharma? Our teachers have given us knowledge, education, and culture, but what value do even these things have without the Dharma? It is because they are so intensely grateful to the Buddha that Buddhists perform pujas in devotion to him, and celebrate his life in the context of the various Buddhist festivals.

But people don’t always find it easy to be grateful to their parents, or their teachers, or even their spiritual friends. Why is this? It is important to understand the nature of the difficulty. After all, gratitude is an important spiritual quality, a virtue exemplified and taught by the Buddha and many others. Cicero, the great Roman orator and philosopher, said that gratitude is not just the greatest virtue, but the mother of all the rest. Ingratitude therefore represents a very serious defect. On one occasion the Buddha said that ingratitude was one of the four great offences which bring about niraya in the sense of rebirth in a state of suffering – a very serious and weighty statement.(footnote 107)

But why are we ungrateful to our parents, our teachers, our spiritual friends? One would have thought that as Buddhists we would be simply bubbling over with gratitude to all these people. A clue is to be found in the Pali word which we render as gratitude, katannuta. As we have seen, it means knowing or recognizing what has been done for one’s benefit. Similarly, akatannuta (a being the negative prefix), ingratitude, means not knowing or recognizing what has been done for one’s benefit.

There are a number of reasons for ingratitude. Firstly, one may fail to recognize a benefit as a benefit. There are some people who do not regard life itself as a benefit, and hence do not feel grateful to their parents for bringing them into the world. Sometimes people say things like, ‘Well I didn’t ask to be brought into this world.’ If you believe in karma and rebirth, of course, this isn’t quite true – but anyway, it is what people say. In a few cases, they may not regard life as a benefit because they experience it as painful, even predominantly painful, and therefore don’t appreciate its value, don’t realize the immense potential of human life. In Buddhist terms, they don’t realize that it is possible for a human being, and only for a human being, to attain Enlightenment, or at least to make some progress in that direction.

Similarly, there are people who don’t regard knowledge or education or culture as benefits. They feel no gratitude towards their teachers, or towards those who at least try to teach them something. They may even feel resentment. They may feel that education or culture is being imposed upon them. Such people are unlikely to come into contact with spiritual values, with the Dharma, or with spiritual friends, and even if they do, such contact will be external and superficial. They will not be able to recognize it for what it is. They may even see those who try to be their spiritual friends as enemies, and therefore the question of gratitude will not arise.

This was true of some people’s responses to the Buddha himself. Not all those who heard him speak or teach felt grateful to him, by any means. There were many people in his day who saw him as a rather eccentric, unorthodox teacher. They certainly didn’t feel any gratitude towards him for the gift of the Dharma. Sometimes people slandered him, and some people even tried to kill him.

On the other hand, we may recognize benefits as benefits, and even recognize that they have been given to us by other people, but we may take those benefits for granted. Not realizing that they are a free gift, we may think that they are owed to us, that we have a right to them, and that therefore in a sense they belong to us already, so that we have no need to be grateful for them.

This attitude is widespread in society today. People tend to think that everything is due to them, that they have a right to everything. Parents, teachers, or the state have a duty to provide them with whatever they want. Even spiritual friends, they may think, have a duty to provide them with what they want. If they don’t get what they want from one spiritual friend, or teacher, or guru, and get it quickly, in the way they want it, off they will go, to try to get it from someone else. Once again, the question of gratitude doesn’t arise. Of course, parents, teachers, and friends have a duty to bestow benefits to the best of their ability. But it should be recognized that those benefits have been given, and that the response to them should therefore be one of gratitude.

Another reason for ingratitude is egoism. Egoism takes many forms, and has many aspects. Here I mean by it an attitude of chronic individualism: the belief that one is separate from others, not dependent on others in any way, and that one therefore does not owe anything to others. One feels that one is not obliged to them, because one can do everything oneself. Dickens’s Mr Bounderby is a good example of this sort of attitude, but there are other examples in literature, like Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost, and ‘Black Salvation’ in The Life and Liberation of Padmasambhava. The person who is egoistical in this sense is incapable of feeling gratitude, and cannot admit that they have been benefited by others. They may not actually say so in the way Mr Bounderby does, but this is their underlying attitude.

This attitude sometimes finds expression in the sphere of the arts. Some writers and artists don’t like to think that they owe anything to their predecessors. Wanting to be original, to strike out on a completely new path, they don’t like to think that there is such a thing as cultural heritage, or a literary canon. In some circles this attitude has taken an extreme, even a virulent form, and has resulted in an attempt to repudiate the greater part of our literary and artistic heritage on ideological grounds. This is an extremely unfortunate, even potentially disastrous development, and it is to be resisted wherever possible. Egoism in the sense in which I am using the word also finds expression in the sphere of religion. It happens when we don’t acknowledge the sources of our inspiration, or when we try to pass off as our own a teaching or practice that we have in fact learned from our spiritual friends.

The fourth and last reason for ingratitude that I want to mention here is forgetfulness. There are two main reasons for forgetfulness of benefits received. First, there is simply the passage of time. Perhaps the benefits were given to us a long time ago – so long ago that we have no distinct recollection of them, and no longer feel grateful to whoever bestowed them upon us, even if we did originally feel grateful. This is perhaps the principal reason for our not feeling actively grateful towards our parents. Over the years so much has happened in our life: early memories have been overlaid by later ones, other relationships have assumed importance, and perhaps we have moved away from our parents, geographically, socially, or culturally. And the result is that – practically speaking – we forget them. We forget the numerous ways in which they benefited us when we were young, and we cease therefore to feel grateful. The other possible reason for our ‘forgetting’ to be grateful is that we did not feel the positive effects of the benefits very strongly in the first place, and therefore did not feel much gratitude. In such circumstances, it is easy for the gratitude to fade away and be forgotten altogether.

These, then, are the four most important general reasons for ingratitude: failure to recognize a benefit as a benefit, taking benefits for granted, egoism, and forgetfulness. Ingratitude is, unfortunately, liable to crop up in various ways in the context of the life of a practising Buddhist. Beyond a certain point of spiritual progress, it is simply impossible to feel ungrateful. A Stream-entrant is incapable of it, and in fact will be overflowing with gratitude to parents, teachers, and spiritual friends. But until we have reached that point, we are in danger of forgetting to be grateful.

Over the years – more than thirty, at the time of writing – since I myself founded a Buddhist movement, I have received many, many letters, perhaps thousands, from people who have recently discovered the Dharma through one of the centres of the movement I founded, or through contact with individual members of the order. Every year I receive more and more of these letters. They come from young people and old people, from people in many different walks of life, from many different cultural backgrounds and nationalities. And all these letters say, among other things, one and the same thing. They say how glad the writers are to have discovered the Dharma. Not only that, the writers of the letters want to express their gratitude to the Three Jewels and to the Buddhist movement, and to me personally for having founded it. Some people express their feeling of gratitude very strongly indeed. They say that the Dharma has changed their lives, given their lives meaning, saved them from despair, even saved them from suicide.

Such letters of gratitude reach me nearly every week, and they make me think that I have not altogether wasted my time all these years. But over the years I’ve also noticed that while some people, perhaps the majority, stay grateful, and even become more and more grateful, in the cases of a few people, unfortunately, the feeling of gratitude weakens. They start forgetting the benefits they have received, and even start questioning whether they really were benefits at all. No longer knowing or recognizing what has been done for them, they become ungrateful. Feeling ungrateful to their spiritual friends, they may even start finding fault with them. This is a very sad state of affairs indeed, and in recent years I have given some thought to it and have come to certain conclusions about how it happens.

It seems to me that people forget the benefits they have received because they no longer actually feel them. And they no longer feel them because for one reason or another they have put themselves in a position where they cannot receive them. Let me give a concrete example. Suppose you have started attending a meditation class. You learn to meditate, and you achieve some success. You start practising at home. But one day, for one reason or another, you stop attending the class and then you gradually stop practising at home. You cease to meditate. Eventually you forget what meditative experience was like. You forget the peace and the joy you felt. You forget the benefits of meditation. So you cease to feel grateful to those who introduced you to the practice. The same thing can happen with regard to retreats, Dharma study, spending time with spiritual friends, taking part in pujas, and attending Buddhist celebrations. People can get out of touch. They can forget how much they did, once upon a time, benefit from those activities, and therefore they can cease to feel grateful to those who made the activities possible.

Sometimes people reconnect after a while; they start attending the meditation class again, or go on retreat again, perhaps after many years. I have known people who have re-established contact after anything up to twenty-two years – rather a long time in anybody’s life. When this happens, they nearly always say the same thing: ‘I had forgotten how good it was.’ And therefore they feel renewed gratitude.

This is entirely appropriate. It is appropriate that we should be grateful, that we should recognize the benefits we have received. It is appropriate that we should be grateful to our parents, with all their admitted imperfections – parents are not perfect any more than children are. It is appropriate that we should be grateful to our teachers, to our spiritual friends, and to the Buddhist tradition. Above all, it is appropriate that we should be grateful to the Buddha, who, as we have seen, was himself utterly and instinctively full of gratitude.

notes and references

101: For more on the path of vision and the pathof transformation, see Sangharakshita, Visionand Transformation, Windhorse, Birmingham 1999, pp.12-15.
102: See, for example, the Lalitavistara in The Voiceof the Buddha, trans. Gwendolyn Bays, Dharma Publishing, Berkeley1983, vol.ii, p.570; or the Abhiniskramana S<@251>train The Romantic Legend of Shakya Buddha, trans. SamuelBeal, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi 1985 (first published 1875), p.237.
103: Huien Tsiang, in Buddhist Records of the Western World,trans. Samuel Beal, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi 1981 (first published1884), part ii, p.123.
104: ‘Reverence, humility, contentment, gratitude and timely hearingof the Dhamma; this is the most auspicious performance.’ MahamangalaSutta in Sutta-Nipata verse 265. This translation byH. Saddhatissa, Curzon Press, London 1985, p.29.
105: from Sigalaka Sutta (also known as the SigalovadaSutta), Digha-Nikaya iii.188. This translation fromThe Long Discourses of the Buddha, trans. Maurice Walshe, WisdomPublications, Boston 1995, p.467.
106: Dhammapada 354.
107: Anguttara-Nikaya IV.xxii.213.

Buddhism and the Environment

Buddhism and environmental issues

(Introduction written for the AQA syllabus by Robert Ellis, formerly a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order and a former Head of RS in a 6th-form college. Subsequent sections by other authors, see below)

Buddhist attitudes to nature

Buddhism, in common with some other Eastern traditions, does not make the big distinction found in the West between “nature” and human beings. It is stressed that we are not set apart from nature (as is believed in Christianity), but that we are part of it. The doctrines of karma and of rebirth put the whole of human life in the context of an endless series of cycles, which resemble those which operate in the natural world (e.g. the water cycle, the food cycle). The Buddhist stress on impermanence reminds us that our bodies are subject to the endlessly-changing processes of nature, whilst beliefs about rebirth suggest that even our consciousness is recycled in relation to a new body. The form of things changes constantly, but certain basic patterns continue.

So, it should certainly not come as a shock to practising Buddhists to discover what environmentalists are now telling us. That is, that nature is not a boundless ocean of resources (the doctrine of impermanence should have made this clear), and the actions that we perform have an effect on the world around us. In the theory of karma the effects of our actions are in proportion to the greed and hatred which motivated them, so if our spoiling of the planet through stripping its resources and polluting it was motivated by greed, we are now beginning to experience the effects of that greed. The earth is our mirror.

Buddhism thus offers some strong arguments for environmentalism, and it is quite difficult to interpret Buddhism not to at least be sympathetic to environmental concerns. On the other side there are not really any anti-environmentalist Buddhists, but there are some who have given the environment relatively little priority in their thinking, perhaps because of a focus on the personal pursuit of enlightenment.

The Precepts

The practice of the First Precept requires respect for all sentient beings, not merely human beings.

This has often meant respect for animals. The majority of Buddhists historically and in the East have not been vegetarians, but the assumption is nevertheless there that vegetarianism is the ideal and that killing animals and eating meat is a source of bad karma. Buddhists have often protected animals, for example by establishing nature reserves around monasteries, and hunting is quite rare in Buddhist countries.

Sometimes the first precept has also implied respect for plants: sometimes plants are described as “one-facultied”, having some of the sensitivity of animals through the sense of touch alone. Obviously Buddhists could not protect all plants, but the wanton destruction of trees has often been opposed. A Buddhist campaign group trying to save trees in Thailand famously did this recently by ordaining a number of trees as Buddhist monks.

However, the first precept does not give such obvious reasons for preserving natural resources (apart from trees and wildlife) and avoiding pollution, unless these are seen as indirect ways of harming others. The Second Precept might deal with this more explicitly.

If one takes things from nature which are required by future generations, this might well be seen as taking the not-given. Consuming beyond one’s own immediate needs whilst taking resources that later generations will need is not taking resources that they have actually laid a claim to as yet, but it is depriving them of their needs. There is no reason why them being further away in time should make any difference to this.

The Simple Life

However, the more profound objections to over-exploitation of natural resources and pollution in Buddhism are related to the attitudes behind these actions. It is greed or craving (tanha) which leads us to take more than we need for simple and straightforward living. The monastic life in Buddhism gives a model for what simple living without too much consumption might look like. If everyone lived as simply as a Buddhist monk or nun, it might be argued, there would be no problems with depletion of resources, and very little pollution produced, because the sources of pollution (manufacturing, transport etc) would be much more limited.

The point of the simple life in Buddhism is that it creates an environment where there is less likelihood of craving and greater likelihood of contentment. Such contentment is further cultivated through meditation practice. It is in mental states, Buddhists may argue, that the solution to environmental problems is ultimately to be found.

Middle Way

However, in real life environmental issues are a constant matter of compromise and negotiation. I might want to live more simply, but the attitude of my family, or the requirements of my job, might make this very difficult. For example, air travel and car use create a good deal of pollution, but some jobs in the modern world (which may be otherwise right livelihood) involve quite a lot of either or both of these. Also, air travel may have other important and positive purposes, such as communication with people overseas or broadening of one’s outlook through contact with other cultures.

The Middle Way might help provide a balanced and realistic way of dealing with these. Supposing the dilemma for a Buddhist is whether to make an air journey, which contributes to pollution, in order to go to hear the teachings of a great Buddhist teacher in Asia. Obviously both the desire to hear the teacher and to avoid pollution need to be considered, but a broader view of the issue might show other alternatives. Perhaps it is possible to wait until the teacher comes to this country, or perhaps it is possible to incorporate the air journey into a longer trip that will also serve other purposes. If the air journey is unavoidable, it may be possible to make restitution in other ways. Some Buddhists now are going ‘carbon neutral’ by making sure that they plant trees which soak up a corresponding amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to that released by the air journey.

Not all activities which use natural resources or release pollution are a result of greed, and to cease all such activities may seem an extreme reaction which interferes with people’s development towards enlightenment in other ways. Buddhists may thus end up with various compromises which take environmental issues seriously, but nevertheless do not result in complete purity in environmental matters. This fits in with the general Buddhist perception that ethics is not about gaining purity so much as following through a right intention.

Discussion Questions
1. Work out your own example of an application of the Middle Way to an issue of natural resources
2. How useful do you think it is to follow the example of the simple lifestyle of a Buddhist monk in overcoming environmental issues?
3. Do you agree that environmental problems could be solved by changes in mental states?
4. How do you think Buddhists would respond to the criticism that the Middle Way is a sell-out, not dealing with the full force of the environmental problems that face us?

Write some ideas on the following:
1. What are the Buddhist grounds for arguing that pollution should be reduced?
2. What possible grounds are there for arguing that pollution is not a problem?
3. What attitude should a Buddhist take to pollution?
4. What grounds are there for conserving natural resources (Choose one type of resource e.g. energy, forests, fish)
5. What possible grounds are there for exploiting this natural resource?
6. Should a Buddhist use this resource freely, limit consumption or avoid it altogether?

Further Reading
Peter Harvey An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics p. 150-156 & 174-186
Damien Keown (ed.) Contemporary Buddhist Ethics ch.5 (a sceptical article arguing that Buddhism gives little support to environmentalist principles)
Christopher Titmuss The Green Buddha (The strongest Buddhist statement yet of support for ‘Green’ principles).
Akuppa Touching the Earth: A Buddhist guide to saving the planet, Windhorse



(3 extracts from Akuppa’s book Buddhist Guide to Saving the Planet)

There are many practical ways of living more in harmony with nature, and I’ll be looking at some of these in the next chapter. But living in harmony with nature is inseparable from living in harmony with each other. It’s not just a question of somehow bolting environmental awareness on to our existing lifestyles. Environmental problems, with their roots in greed, hatred, and unawareness, should cause us to question our whole way of being in the world. When the Buddha saw that we are not ultimately separate from the universe or from others, it was not just an intellectual observation. His realization that all things are interconnected was something felt in his heart as much as his head, and it moved him to live out the rest of his life helping others.(footnote 13)

If we experience a desire to do something to help the environment, it is probably because we ourselves have to some extent understood interconnectedness. According to the Buddha, this is something we can grow to understand more and more deeply. We can do this by trying it out, little by little, through individual acts of kindness. If we are truly interconnected, these will make us on the whole freer and happier. In this chapter, I’d like to examine how this sense of exploration might bring to life our whole approach to the environment.

The Armchair Society

In the West, people have become ever more oriented to material consumption, and live in smaller and smaller units. The average number of people in each household is steadily declining. If the trends continue much further, we will soon all be sitting in our own armchair, in our own house, watching our own television. The information age, progressing through the successive technologies of radio, television, the Internet, and mobile phones, is reaching the point of saturation, where everyone has instant access to virtually unlimited information. We have televisions in the kitchen and the bedroom, computers on our palms, and telephones in our pockets. In turn, each new technology has become the object of fetishistic desire, as status symbol or fashion statement. All too often, the actual content of the information having been transmitted, the quality of our communication becomes of secondary or no importance at all. Indeed, the very quantity of information at our fingertips can numb our minds to the whole notion of quality. The television addict, the computer nerd, and the loud but vacuous mobile phone user have become the successive icons of the passing decades.

It is not just information that we expect to have at our command. We expect fast food, fast transport, fast service. We expect a wide array of choices of even the most everyday products. I heard a story of an East European woman who was visiting England. Faced with the bewildering array of different kinds of shampoo on a supermarket shelf, she burst into tears. Yet choice is what we’ve come to expect and consider normal. We would probably like to think of ourselves as an exception – it’s other people who are the rampant materialists, who are obsessed with information and gadgets. But I wonder whether it might apply to all of us more than we’d like to acknowledge. When you are brought up within a particular culture, you unconsciously imbibe its values and habits. We can come to consider the strangest things quite normal.

The writer Helena Norberg-Hodge lived for many years in the Himalayan kingdom of Ladakh. It is a place that had, until the advent of the Westernized economy, a very strong sense of community and co-operation. Despite living in a land with few resources and a harsh climate, Ladakhis have a reputation for irrepressible happiness and laughter. Norberg-Hodge relates how, when told that many people in the affluent West were so unhappy they had to go to see their doctor, the Ladakhis’ mouths dropped open in astonishment.(footnote 14)

How have we so spectacularly failed to build a happy society despite our material wealth? How can we begin to move forward? What are the unconscious assumptions that are holding us back?

We carry a model in our heads about the way we function in society, one that most of us rarely question. We see ourselves as tightly defined units, either individually or in households. To put it crudely, money comes into the unit at one end when we receive our wages and it goes out of the other when we buy things. Compared to other societies, our actual experience of being connected with others is slight. The advertising industry, which equates consumption with status, and the job market both promote an essentially competitive relationship between units. Somewhere along the line we have lost the art of living together.

In the post-industrial era, many of the cohesive forces in society have been weakened. There is much more geographical and social mobility – there are few who live and work with the same people, and families and friends tend to live further apart. Traditional rural communities and industrial working-class neighbourhoods have largely dispersed. There are few communities left where a unifying ideology, such as Christianity, socialism, or nationalism, can be taken for granted. The ideal of democracy, in so far as it is shared, allows us to live together but does not provide a common purpose, something higher than our private economic interests.

Our problem is that we are living as though disconnected. We think we are disconnected from our neighbours, from people in other countries, from the natural world. But this isn’t in accord with reality – it doesn’t work. Everything we eat and drink comes from the earth. We depend on others in countless ways even for the most basic necessities of life. But, too often, we just want to look after our own little unit. And the more we have withdrawn into our own private sphere, the more boredom, loneliness, or desire for status has driven us to consume.

We now have a choice. One option is to sit in our armchair and accept the ascendancy of untrammelled capitalism, with all its social and environmental problems. Another is to try to escape to an imagined utopia away from it all, a rustic idyll where we can turn back the clock. A third option is to begin to build within our society a new cohesion, co-operation, and trust from first principles, based not on an imposed ideology but on our common humanity. This means patiently beginning the work of rebuilding. It means connecting with people, as a way of trying out the truth of interconnectedness.

To begin this patient work of rebuilding, we can reflect on how we affect other people individually and on how we affect the world as a whole. Having done so, we can make a conscious effort to connect with people in a more positive way by giving.

How do I Affect Other People?

Every time you speak to someone, buy something from them, or just sit opposite them on a train, you are sending out ripples of cause and effect into the world. The effects are sometimes positive, sometimes negative. Being preoccupied with our own concerns, we all too often forget this, but as part of the process of learning and awakening, we can train ourselves to think more about it. I’ll come back to this later. The point I want to make here is that it’s not just our deliberately willed actions that affect others. We are constantly communicating with others across a much broader spectrum than simply our words – through every minor detail of our body and speech. We communicate who we are as well as what we do; we communicate our lifestyle, our state of mind, our values. The Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh illustrates this with an image of some refugee ‘boat people’ adrift on the ocean:

“Often the boats are caught in rough seas or storms, the people may panic, and boats can sink. But if even one person aboard can remain calm, lucid, knowing what to do and what not to do, he or she can help the boat survive. His or her expression – face, voice – communicates clarity and calmness, and people have trust in that person. They will listen to what he or she says. One such person can save the lives of many.”(footnote 15)

When we talk with other people about environmental issues or the state of the world, it is not just what we are saying that makes a difference, but how we are saying it. We can communicate panic and despair, or clarity and calm. The communication of panic and despair follows from a desire to take from other people a sense of reassurance or comfort. The communication of clarity and calm follows from a desire to work with others to find a solution. These are two very different kinds of environmentalism.

We can see this even in very ordinary circumstances. If you have ever worked with someone in a very negative state of mind, you will know how this casts a cloud over everyone. Conversely, just the occasional friendly word on a train can dispel the atmosphere of reserve and make for a more relaxed and enjoyable journey for everyone.

A Reflection

Take some time to reflect on what you communicate to others, how you connect to others across this broad spectrum through your body language and tone of voice. You may be fortunate and know someone whom you could ask and who will give you an honest answer.

Consider in particular whether you transmit calm or anxiety, clarity or confusion, friendliness, reserve, or ill will. Communicate a natural concern when talking about environmental issues, rather than despair. Think back to people who have had a positive influence on your life. What was it about their communication that affected you? Could you affect others in a similar way?

How Do I Change the World?

As well as thinking we are disconnected from others, we very often think we are disconnected from the world at large. To use the words of the political thinker Andre Gorz, we feel ‘impotent in the face of autonomized processes and faceless powers’.(footnote 16) We tend to think that the world is only really changed by people in positions of wealth and power. This is certainly the view perpetrated by the news media, which can often whip up the most trivial murmur in circles of government as if it were a matter of great national import.

But this is a very narrow way of thinking about how change occurs, and one that makes us feel so marginal and unimportant that we can be misled into thinking that our own actions don’t have consequences. An alternative view is that acts of parliament or international treaties come about because of the forces of public opinion – or perhaps something deeper than just opinion. People’s values and perceptions, individually and collectively, can shift in quite mysterious and unpredictable ways. The sum total of the broad spectrum of communications going on, by which people communicate their values and states of mind, will have an effect. In this light, formal politics can look more like what the writer Tor Norretranders has described as ‘tardy rationalizations of what has already taken place’.(footnote 17) He cites as an example the end of the mutual paranoia that underpinned the Cold War. In the mid-1980s, he argues, even before the break-up of the Soviet bloc, there was a defusing of tension that could not be explained by any formal political process. He speculates that this was the result of millions of ordinary people, persistently, over the decades, talking about the unthinkable nature of nuclear war. In unseen ways, they brought about a phase transition that changed history. In this perspective, politicians just bumble along a few years behind the cutting edge of change. Human society is as complex and chaotic as any ecosystem. We may think that our behaviour, conversations, and transactions are our own private business, but, in aggregate, they are constantly bringing about changes in ways we don’t even suspect. You don’t have to win an election or stage a revolution to change the world. Our actions do have consequences.

This isn’t to say that political activity, such as environmental campaigning, isn’t necessary, but we shouldn’t lose sight of how we affect people in very ordinary ways. Having high ideals about saving the environment is not necessarily enough; one could spend one’s whole life talking and thinking about ideas, bold plans, utopian visions, but without a way of putting them into practice – at least to some extent – they have been not the slightest bit of use to anybody. There is a danger with big issues such as the global environment that you lose yourself in abstractions. You might even entertain private fantasies about saving the world single-handedly. You can convince yourself that you have great concern for the world, when actually you can’t even get along with the people you see every day.

A Sharing Revolution

What are the ordinary individual words and deeds that will bring about a phase transition towards an environmentally sustainable future? If lack of connection lies at the heart of the problem, it follows that the most direct antidotes are things that start to reconnect us, such as giving and sharing. The quality of generosity is rarely mentioned in environmentalist writings, yet it has never been so indispensable. Giving material things reminds us that happiness comes from connecting with others. Sharing things breaks down the barriers of our isolated consumer units.

Giving and sharing are powerful acts because they undermine the notion, taken for granted by some economists, that we all act out of economic self-interest and that economic growth is the greatest good. On a world scale, these qualities will be expressed as a global vision of fairness and security, which will counter the attitude, still advanced by leading politicians, that the national economic interest should always take precedence over global concerns. Economists can only measure financial transactions and too easily forget that happiness does not equate with how much money we spend.(footnote 18)

Generosity is a kind of liberation movement. Liberation movements arise when people refuse to assent any longer to whatever regime or ideology is oppressing them. The idea of freedom becomes contagious and pressure for change becomes irresistible. If materialism and isolation are the great oppressions of Western society, then generosity is liberation.

So the first step forward can be taken through the very ordinary and simple act of generosity. Anyone can do it. Even someone in the most self-absorbed state, if they put their mind to it, can find some way of giving, even if it’s just a tiny gesture of friendliness. This is the first step towards rejoining the human race, connecting with others. It relieves us from the narrow, constricted pain of selfish isolation.

Progressively, starting from wherever we are and working upwards, we can try out more ways of freeing ourselves. At each stage, we can reflect on how generosity feels, not in a self-righteous way, but feeling what it’s like to be more connected to other human beings. If you have ever worked in a situation where everyone is pulling together, or played in a band, or been part of a sports team, you may recall sometimes thinking in terms of ‘us’ rather than ‘me’. We can look to develop this sense of ‘us-ness’ in our everyday lives, beginning with those around us, then including more and more people. Here are some examples of giving and sharing, many of which have an environmental flavour:

  • Give a gift to your neighbour.
  • Pick up a piece of litter every day.
  • Share garden tools.
  • Start a car-sharing scheme.
  • Adopt a development charity to give to, or volunteer for.
  • Offer your services via a local or international volunteer bureau.(footnote 19)
  • Adopt a local green space and help to improve it.
  • Become a conservation volunteer.(footnote 20)
  • Join a lets (local exchange trading scheme) or a skills co-operative.(footnote 21)

There are many other things we could do, of course. Perhaps as we go on, we’ll find that we want to increase the amount of time and energy we give to them. This is one way of responding to the environmental crisis – learning to connect with others more and more. A sharing society will tend to live in greater harmony with nature.

In the Buddhist scriptures there is a story about three disciples of the Buddha who were living in a wooded place called Gosinga.(footnote 22) One day, the Buddha came to visit. He first enquired after their physical well-being and then asked whether they were living together in harmony. He was pleased to find that they were bearing each other in mind so naturally that no words about practical tasks were needed. The first to return from the almsround would fetch drinking water, and the last would wash the refuse bucket. Whoever noticed that the washing water was low would fetch more. Each would maintain the attitude that while they were different in body they were one in mind. Being sensitive to nature, they took care that no waste was discarded wherever there was greenery or water that supported life. For the three disciples, devoted to simplicity and meditation, complete harmony with each other and with their environment was the foundation of a truly human existence.


13: The chapter title is the epigraph in E.M.Forster’snovel, Howard’s End

14: Helena Norberg-hodge, Ancient Futures: Learningfrom Ladakh, Rider: London 1992

15: Thich Nhat Hanh, Being Peace, Parallax:Berkeley 1987, pp. 11-12

16: Andre Gorz, Capitalism, Socialism, Ecology,trans. Chris Turner, Verso: London 1994, p.4

17: Tor Norretranders, The User Illusion: CuttingConsciousness Down to Size, Penguin: London 1999

18: There is a growing amount of work to replace theGross National Product, which only measures financialtransactions, with a measure that takes account of social,cultural and environmental factors. The Government ofBhutan, for example, has introducted a measure of GrossNational Happiness – see

19: See for a wide range ofinternational volunteering opportunities

20: For information on becoming a conservation volunteerin the UK, contact the BTCV at

21: For information on LETS schemes in the UK andelsewhere, see

22: Culagosinga Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya 31



Having given some thought to how we might get into the habit of being more connected to others, the next question is – what specific things do we need to do? How should one’s lifestyle be changed to help the environment? Most books of this kind will include a list of environmental dos and don’ts. This one is no exception, so here it is – a list of twenty-five specific things you can do that will make a difference. A lot of them are one-off actions that will have lasting consequences. You could set yourself a timescale, say a month, and put a reminder in your diary to check how many you’ve done. But please read the rest of the chapter before you start, because I’ll be suggesting that it’s not just what you do, but how and why you do it, that makes a difference.(footnote 23)

Twenty-Five Excellent Things To Do

See how many of these action points you can tick off after a month. Most of them can be carried out in any country, though most of the information references and phone numbers are uk-based.

  • Make a decision to avoid air travel whenever possible. Calculate the carbon emissions from your flight at
  • If you drive, set yourself a target to cut down on car mileage – a 25% reduction could save a tonne of greenhouse gases in a year.
  • If you do drive, avoid going at over 55 mph, as fuel efficiency decreases rapidly above this speed. For more on energy-efficient driving, see
  • Try out public transport alternatives for your most frequent journeys and find ways to enjoy the ride.
  • Take up cycling, especially for local journeys. To join a peaceful bike-power protest, visit
  • Switch to phosphate-free detergents to avoid killing plant-life and fish. Or try out eco-balls (available from, which contain no harmful chemicals at all.
  • Clean your house without polluting the world. Check out environmentally friendly cleaning products at
  • Wash your clothes at 40°C maximum – any hotter is unnecessary.
  • Turn down your central heating thermostat by 1°C.
  • Check your insulation and find out some other energy saving ideas through the Energy Savings Trust at You could save up to £200 a year on your bills.
  • Switch to green electricity. It is now possible to buy from only renewable sources through companies such as Good Energy ( You can check out the alternatives at
  • Check out green DIY and building products at
  • Learn how to become an ethical shopper. There’s loads of information available at , , and
  • There’s more specific information available at the UK Organic Directory (; the Clean Clothes Campaign (; the Fairtrade Foundation (; the Recycled Products Guide (; and the Green Stationery Company ( And if you’ve done all that, reward yourself with some
  • Reduce your food miles – how far your food has travelled and contributed to climate change. See
  • Avoid plastic packaging by making your own sandwiches instead of buying them ready-made. And carry your own water bottle rather than buying bottlled water. You can check out the effects of the bottled water industry at Take your own shopping bag and refuse excess packaging when it’s offered to you.
  • Start a compost heap, preferably built from scrap materials. Remember that they benefit from fibres such as tissues and cereal boxes, as well as uncooked food. See for more tips.
  • Get into a ‘slow food’ rather than ‘fast food’ habit. Take time to enjoy growing, preparing and eating food. For inspiration see
  • Arrange for a green burial! Information on pollution-free funerals and biodegradable coffins is available from the Natural Death Centre at
  • Make yours a pesticide-free wildlife garden. is an excellent site for this. Help save endangered species of butterfly through
  • Grow your own flowers or give plants instead of commercially produced flowers. They are often associated with heavy pesticide use, cheap labour, and high transport-related pollution.
  • Ask your bank whether it has an ethical investment policy. If not, switch to the Co-op or Triodos and tell your old bank why you changed. For further information, see
  • Eliminate junk mail! If you register with the Mailing Preference Service, you can choose what direct mail you want, and what you don’t want.
  • Keep an eye on what your MP is doing (or not doing) about environmental issues through – and let them know what you think! And go and talk to your local councillor about issues such as road building and recycling.
  • Support a development charity or campaign. Here are a few examples to choose from: WaterAid 020 7793 4500, the World Development Movement 020 7737 6215, Oxfam 01865 312610, or for a Buddhist-run alternative dedicated to dignity and self-confidence, the Karuna Trust 020 7700 3434.
  • For more in-depth information and advice on ecologically friendly daily living, see The Ecologist magazine, or their site

Lists such as these are an excellent place to start and give us plenty of good, practical things to be getting on with, but there are some drawbacks to just ticking off boxes. First, lists in themselves don’t motivate us to take action. Even if we do take action, we don’t always sustain it. Most of us who have made New Year’s resolutions know how easy it is to slip back into our unwanted habits by February.

Secondly, it is all too easy to select the least challenging things on the list and ignore the rest. For example, it is tempting to think that by recycling one’s glass and paper, one is ‘doing one’s bit for the environment’. Whilst recycling reduces the amount of waste that is incinerated or dumped in local landfill sites, it has little or no impact on big global issues such as climate change. If you’re making a special car journey to the recycling bank, it might even have a negative effect. It is easy to espouse an environmental sentimentality whilst quietly putting off decisions that are really going to bite. We need to be clear about what we’re doing and why. There needs to be a clear relationship between the precise problems we want to address and the actions we take. The well-known slogan ‘Think Global, Act Local’ only works if the action taken locally is appropriate to the global problems.

A third pitfall of lists of dos and don’ts is that they can reduce environmental concern to a matter of following rules. The problem of following rules is that you can forget the original motivation for doing so and it becomes a very dry experience. There’s a danger of becoming a bit of an eco-bore. You’ve probably met the kind of person who sternly tells you off for putting your orange peel in the wrong compost bin. Or worse, you might have found yourself doing it to others. This type of ‘environmental correctness’ probably does more harm than good. How many of us are so perfect that we are in a position to judge others? In any case, what is an easy decision for us might require a real effort for someone else. A morally superior attitude singularly fails to inspire other people to take action. Perhaps the best thing to do if you find it creeping into your own thinking is to throw your jam jars into the main rubbish bin for a day or two, and enjoy the sense of freedom! To avoid these pitfalls, we need to keep the following points in mind when we try to apply an action list:

Don’t let the fact that you can’t be perfect stop you from doing anything at all. We can all make a start somewhere.

Remain aware of your basic motivation. What motivates you positively? Is it, for example, a concern for wildlife, or a desire that people should be able to live happily on the earth in the future?

Do the unexpected. If you find yourself dismissing certain actions as too difficult, gently ask yourself why. It is likely to be the difficult things (usually those that have implications for the way we spend our time or money) that break the more harmful patterns of our lives and really make a difference. Work up to doing at least one thing that is quite radical and unexpected, despite the difficulties.

Don’t rest on your laurels. There is always something more to do.

Don’t get stuck in guilt. Enjoy doing what you can and try to make progress. What a difference it would make if everyone did that.

Cultivate simplicity. Don’t think of the action list as an end in itself, but as a guideline for cultivating a richer, more contented lifestyle, in tune with the environment and with others.

In the rest of this chapter, I’ll look at these areas in more depth and see how the Buddha’s teachings might give us some insight into them.

Motivation: The Cultivation of Wisdom and Compassion

What motivates us to take action on the environment in the first place? In some way, it is probably a desire to end suffering, particularly the suffering that comes from the pollution, stress, and exploitation associated with the environmental crisis. We see people struggling to survive drought, or animals losing their habitats, and something inside us is moved to respond. Something resonates.

This basic desire that other beings should not come to harm is what underlies Buddhist ethics. There are no commandments in Buddhism – just a set of guidelines to help us cultivate non-violent and loving states of mind. The things that lead us to such states, covering actions of body, speech, and mind, are:

  • acts of kindness,
  • open-handed generosity,
  • stillness, simplicity, and contentment,
  • truthful communication,
  • clear and radiant awareness.

Underlying these is the principle of non-violence. The Buddha himself exemplified it. Not only did he oppose the iniquities of the caste system of his day, but he also repeatedly spoke against the practice of blood sacrifice.(footnote 24) There is some evidence that the Buddha’s teachings brought about a change of attitude towards animals throughout India, even within his own lifetime, which endures today. Non-violence is difficult or even impossible to apply in an absolute way. Just being alive implicates us in the death of countless micro-organisms inside our bodies. There are many situations in the world – violent crime, state brutality, terrorism, war – in which it is hard to see a non-violent solution that does not itself imply more suffering. But these difficulties need not deter us from being as non-violent as we can, trying our best in each circumstance to see the best way forward. They don’t undermine non-violence as a principle, but only go to demonstrate that we live in a world of complex choices, where we don’t have the comfort of simplistic rules that will tell us what to do in every situation.

What we can do, over a period of time, is push back the boundaries of our sensitivity to other living things. In Buddhist ethics, what defines an act as positive or negative is not whether it conforms to a rule, but the motivation behind it. So non-violence is not a rule or an external observance, but a state of heart and mind. In each situation, we bring to bear whatever wisdom and compassion we have and try to act non-violently. From each situation, we learn how we might have done better, how we can become wiser and more compassionate. The Buddha likened this development of wisdom and compassion to lotuses growing from the mud. We may begin by being tightly closed and bound within mud, but we can start to reach out of the mud and up through the water. Eventually, we will rise above the surface of the pond and open up to the sunlight as beautifully coloured and fragrant flowers.

We can use our action list in the same way – not as a list of commandments to be obeyed out of grim duty, but as a tool to help us cultivate an attitude of non-violence to all that lives. To the extent that we can do this, our actions to help the environment will become a natural expression of our growing wisdom and compassion. They will become a celebration of life itself.

Doing the Unexpected

It is sometimes difficult enough to behave ethically even when face to face with those affected by one’s actions. How much more difficult it is when separated by thousands of miles, or by decades or generations. This is exactly the predicament we face in the modern world. The complexities of manufacturing systems, technological processes, and trading patterns all obscure from us the effects of our actions. We don’t know where our potatoes were grown, which forest our newspaper came from. We don’t see the undesired effects of the chemicals we spray in our gardens. We may not even know what happens to our own effluent once it disappears round the U-bend.

It follows that to act truly ethically in the modern world will require some extra effort on our part. The changes we need to make to our lives are very real and visible, while the benefits they might have are far away and far removed. It is very easy in these circumstances to develop ethical blind spots – areas that we’re dimly aware of but would rather not look into too closely. But if we do look at them, they can be seen as valuable opportunities, because these are exactly the changes that will have the most transformative effect on ourselves and the world.

We need to be willing to change our habits. People often fear that behaving in an environmentally friendly way means spending one’s days lost in complex calculations of the effects of car exhausts, roof lagging, and plastic bags, continually weighing one course of action against another. But our lifestyles are really just an amalgam of habits. We don’t usually decide from scratch on each new occasion which washing powder to buy or how to travel to work. With a little initial effort, habits can be changed. Perhaps we can have the greatest effect by keeping the environment in mind when making big decisions – where to live, how to make a living, where to go on holiday, and so on.

In this way, instead of necessarily thinking about changing everything at once, you could think about changing your habits and conditions over a period of time. You could, for example, make a list of proposed changes and make a note in your diary to review your progress every three months. The important thing is to remember why you want to make the changes, not to lose touch with your motivation. In this way, changing your lifestyle will be a natural part of broadening your sphere of concern. If this happens, making the right choices will become second nature.

a case study: air travel

Let’s take as an example the first point on our action list – air travel. Perhaps the most pressing global issue of the moment is climate change, the greenhouse effect. This is brought about by so-called greenhouse gases (mainly carbon dioxide) which we have been emitting in large quantities since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and especially in the last fifty years. They reduce the amount of heat that the earth radiates back into space, leading to a gradual warming of the atmosphere. There are a number of ways in which you can reduce the levels of greenhouse gas emissions for which you are personally responsible. One of these is to avoid travelling by air, or at least to reduce your air mileage. Increasing numbers of people are travelling by air, which has led to a three per cent increase in greenhouse gas emissions per year.(footnote 25) You can cause as much greenhouse gas emission in one return transatlantic flight as in driving a car for a year. So, avoiding a rule-following approach, how can one engage one’s imagination more with the consequences of air travel? There are two ways of doing this, both of which might help.

First, before booking a flight, visualize a square on the ground ten metres by ten, and imagine all the air above it, stretching up to the top of the atmosphere. The same amount of carbon dioxide is contained in that column of air as is emitted for each passenger on a 1,500-mile flight (roughly the distance from London to Athens). To absorb that amount of carbon dioxide, you would have to plant a tree that would grow to twelve metres in height.(footnote 26) Once emitted, the gas will stay in the atmosphere for more than a century, still, as it were, bearing your name on it.

Imagine meeting and talking with some of the people who, over that period, will lose their homes, their means of livelihood, or their lives, through rising sea levels, floods, and droughts brought about by global warming, and to which you have contributed. What would you say?

Imagine, again, being back in Tuvalu, talking with Tubwebwe (see chapter two). As she strains the nonu juice she talks about her anxiety as to what will become of her three children if their island is lost beneath the rising sea. She asks you why this might happen and whether you can help.

Imagine watching a nature documentary in a few decades’ time describing the death of the last coral reef. How would you feel?

Imagine the effects that some scientists are warning of, in which some of the Antarctic ice sheet slips into the sea, leading to an even higher rise in sea levels than predicted for ordinary global warming scenarios, and deluging vast populated areas such as London. Or to take the worst scenario of all, imagine the fate of the last surviving people and animals struggling to find sustenance from an increasingly scorched planet.

Perhaps you have now decided not to buy the ticket, or you might have taken the consequences into account but decided they are outweighed by the benefits to the world of your journey (not something one could do lightly). You could still choose to travel overland by bus or train, or go by sea.

Perhaps you have dismissed the above scenarios as overly emotive, or even hysterical, even though they merely point out some very real possibilities. Or you could argue that the aircraft is travelling anyway and one extra passenger won’t make any difference. Aircraft only fly, though, because passengers pay the airlines. Yours might be the booking (or cancellation) that makes the difference between a flight going ahead or not. We have individual responsibilities even in collective situations, a point which also accounts for the ‘my little bit of greenhouse gas emissions won’t make that much difference’ argument.

Perhaps you feel concerned by the effects of air travel, but not concerned enough to make a difference to your decision. Thinking about the consequences only makes you feel guilty. To get this far is a very positive step if, instead of just feeling guilty, you recognize the limitations of your concern for others and resolve to do something about it.

Now try out the second way of imagining the consequences of all our actions. Imagine the earth in a few decades or centuries, home to happy, thriving human societies and a myriad colourful forms of life. Cultivate a care for the health of the planet, as you would care for the health of your own body. Think of yourself as the protector of coral reefs and future generations of people. Imagine talking to those future people and being able to say, ‘I was one of those who helped to change things for the better.’

Using the Imagination:
Some Other Examples

Similar exercises of the imagination can easily be devised with respect to other common choices we are faced with.

Car travel is another major contributor of greenhouse gases and other forms of pollution such as acid rain – a cocktail of photochemicals that has damaged vast stretches of forest and poisoned tens of thousands of lakes in Europe and North America. Pollution from cars also aggravates asthma and can cause eye irritation, coughs, and lung and chest problems. When you buy a new car, you are using up large quantities of finite resources in steel, plastic, aluminium, and rubber. Imagine the effects of all these on real people.

Keep in mind, if you do drive, that the houses, villages, and towns that pass like a blur outside the windows are people’s homes, and how you drive affects their peace of mind and safety. Noise is a frequently overlooked aspect of environmental pollution. It is worth taking some time to think how one affects others in this respect, not only by the transport one uses, but also through stereos, barking dogs, security alarms, and so on.

The immediate effects of eating meat are quite easy to imagine, especially if you’ve ever visited a slaughterhouse. Many Buddhists are vegetarian simply because meat-eating involves the taking of life, but there are also very good environmental reasons for eating less meat. It is a grossly inefficient use of agricultural land – as much grain is fed to livestock in the United States as is consumed the populations of India and China put together.(footnote 27) Farm animals produce about a fifth of the methane (a greenhouse gas) in the atmosphere. About a hundred and fifty thousand square miles of the Amazon rainforest have been cleared for beef production.(footnote 28) This deforestation also contributes to global warming, because trees soak up carbon dioxide. Imagine the richness of the forests, or the people who could be fed as a result of using land more efficiently.

Experiments with Simplicity

If we practise environmentalism as a list of rules bolted on to our existing lifestyle, we might find it’s an unwanted complication; just one more thing to think about. But if we use our imagination and think of it as a way of cultivating a richer connection with life, the opposite is likely to be true.

Many people in the West are locked into high-income high-consumption ways of life, working long hours to buy the best cars, holidays, and electronic gadgetry. Sometimes we get into self-perpetuating loops – earning the money to buy the car that we need for work; or to squeeze enough enjoyment out of one fortnight’s holiday to compensate for overworking the rest of the year.

Some people have embraced the idea of ‘voluntary simplicity’ and made radical changes to their lifestyles, working less and consuming less. Some are motivated by environmental concerns, while others are escaping the rat race. Many have found that their lives have been enriched – rather than impoverished – by the experience. It can reduce stress, sweep away a lot of the time-consuming clutter of life (buying, cleaning, maintaining, and insuring things), and encourage more creativity and communication.

The Buddha taught simplicity as a guideline for living because he knew how easily distracted we are, how easily we can get caught up in inconsequential detail. Being caught up in details alienates us from other people, or brings us into competition or conflict with them. The more we can open ourselves up to the question of how much is really necessary, the more likely we are to be in harmony with others and with the natural world.

Everyone can try some experiments with simplicity. Here are some examples of modest steps we could take towards lower consumption, most of which could be tried out for a week or two:

Buy food in bulk and enjoy the art of cookery.

Live without television, radio, and your computer.

Ignore the news media for a while.

Reduce working hours and use the extra free time creatively.

Give up the idea of shopping as a leisure activity.

Keep a note of what you spend your money on and see how much is really unnecessary.

Get rid of things that are neither useful nor beautiful.

Use public transport instead of a car, spending the time in reflection or reading.

Once you have tried these experiments, you might, if you have not already done so, feel more inclined to more radical courses of action, such as living without a car, changing your employment patterns, or living more communally.

The point is not to deny ourselves things, but to strip away some of the inessentials of life so that what is essential can shine through. Initially we might find ourselves bored without our usual distractions, or it may be that we have to ask ourselves what the essential is – what is life for if not to work and consume?

Practised in this way, simplicity is more than a way of avoiding stress or even of living in greater harmony with the environment. It is a way of streamlining our lives around their central purpose. As part of awakening the heart and mind, the process of simplification can be carried much further than choices of lifestyle. Ultimately, all our thoughts, words, and deeds can express non-harmfulness and loving-kindness – which become part of who we are as well as what we do. The Buddhist teacher Sangharakshita describes what he calls this aesthetic simplicity in the following way:

The truly simple life glows with significance, for its simplicity is not the dead simplicity of a skeleton but the living simplicity of a flower or a great work of art. The unessential has melted like mist from life and the Himalayan contours of the essential are seen towering with sublime simplicity above the petty hills and valleys of the futilities of mundane existence.(footnote 29)


23: The chapter title is taken from Henry David Thoreau:’Our life is frittered away by detail … simplify, simplify.’ Walden and Civil Disobedience, Penguin: London 1983, p.136.
24:Kutadanta Sutta, Digha-Nikaya 5.22 ff.
25:Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Aviation and the Global Atmosphere, 1999
26: You can check out the implications of your own journey at<
27:Nicholas Hildyard, ‘Foxes in Charge of Chickens’, in Wolfgang Sachs (ed.) Global Ecology: A New Arena of Political Conflict,Zed: London 1993
28: Bodhipaksa, Vegetarianism, Windhorse: Birmingham 1999
29: Sangharakshita, from ‘The Simple Life’, in Crossing the Stream, Windhorse: Birmingham 1987



In September 1915, the philosopher Albert Schweitzer was travelling on a steamer along the Ogooue River in French Equatorial Africa (now Gabon).(footnote 39) He was turning over in his mind the question of what might be the soundest basis for ethics. Just then, the boat passed close to a herd of hippopotamuses. As he paused to watch them, a phrase flashed into his mind that was to become the basis of all of his future work: ‘reverence for life’. This phrase came to him quite unexpectedly and unsought. It was not so much a logical deduction as a leap of intuition, a heartfelt conviction that arose in response to the beauty around him.(footnote 40)

We all have some experience of natural beauty – perhaps a passing sense of being stirred by a particular sight, or an unexpected peace and oneness with nature while out walking in the countryside. Sometimes these experiences can have a deeper feel to them, as if they concern the meaning and purpose of life itself, as if they are showing us something of how to live our lives. If, like Schweitzer, we are able to learn from them, our lives will naturally be richer and more purposeful. We will live not on the basis of moral codes or assumed ideologies, but from a heartfelt experience of truth. Natural beauty, it seems, can be a gateway to wisdom.

But how can we learn for ourselves from such experiences? We can’t seek the unsought, or even expect something unexpected. We can, however, be open to the experience of beauty. We can learn to see nature with a warm heart. We can spend more time with nature. And we can reflect on it. I’ll say more about each of these in the following paragraphs.

Being Open

We need to be open in a number of different ways. We need to be open-minded enough to see the world not only through facts and figures, and to recognize that we don’t have all the answers. And we need to be open-hearted enough to want to seek – even long for – higher levels of truth and value. (In Buddhism, the word ‘faith’ denotes exactly such openness and longing, rather than referring to any sort of intellectual belief.)

We also need to be open-handed, because beauty will resist any attempt at appropriation. The truth of this struck me a few years ago. As I was setting off for a week in Scotland, a friend of mine, whose writing workshops I had been attending, set me an exercise. He suggested I write a poem about the loch in front of the retreat centre where I was staying. When I arrived, I looked and looked at the loch, but all I could see was an expanse of water occupying the glen, nothing inspiring at all. The loch was just a loch. It was only after a few days, when I’d given up in exasperation, that I was finally able to experience something of the beauty of the surroundings and write my poem. To appreciate beauty, I first had to stop grasping after it.

Sometimes, natural beauty can be difficult to resist. The majesty of a mountainous landscape, or the night sky, is such that it resists all attempts at appropriation. Not even a Sibelius or a Van Gogh can really capture them – all they can do is try to share their own sensibility to them.

Seeing with a Warm Heart

Appreciating the beauty of nature is too important to be left entirely to artists, poets, and musicians. Appreciation means seeing the world with a warm heart, which is essential if we’re going to sustain our efforts to save it. There are two things that are likely to get in the way of this kind of seeing. One is seeing the world in a utilitarian way – seeing nature just as an economic resource. The other, which as environmentalists we are likely to be more prone to, is seeing the world in a problem-oriented way. The rainforest becomes just another issue to be angry about, and the sight of a blue whale is just another occasion for anxiety.

The utilitarian view can be likened to that of a gardener who creates one big vegetable patch, cutting down hedgerows, trees, and anything else that gets in the way so as to save some money on the grocery bill. The problem-oriented gardener, on the other hand, is one who can’t look out of the window without worrying about when they’ll find time to mow the lawn, or remarking on how pernicious the bindweed is. For both of these types, actually working in the garden is likely to be a matter of grim necessity. But for the gardener who takes time simply to enjoy the garden for its own sake, the hours spent working will melt away unnoticed. Their warm appreciation of the richness of the soil and the unique qualities of different plants will turn their work into pleasure.

With the same warm appreciation as the happily absorbed gardener, our work in the world will be enriching and invigorating. As we have seen, we can cultivate warm appreciation of people through meditation and the practice of ethics. We also need to cultivate a warm appreciation of all of nature.

Time with Nature

In practice, this means that we need to take some time away from the usual business of life to enjoy nature. The Buddha himself did this in his own life. Much of his time was spent instructing his own followers, or in walking from village to village to share his understanding with as many people as possible. He also spent time cultivating individual friendships and urged his followers to do likewise. But at other times, he would just enjoy being alone with nature.

On one occasion, feeling hemmed in by the crowds of followers, kings, ministers, and other visitors, the Buddha took off alone to spend some time in a forest. Once there, he came upon a great bull elephant, who, also feeling hemmed in by his herd, had left to find some solitude. It seems that the two recognized in each other a kindred spirit. And so, for a few months, they lived, of one mind, each delighting in the unclouded waters and tranquil solitude of the forest.(footnote 41)

Reflecting on Nature

We can get a little closer to the truths of nature through active reflection. This won’t, of course, be just an intellectual exercise, but will involve feeling the truth as well as thinking it. To illustrate what I mean by this, let’s try to imagine what the Buddha might have been thinking and feeling in the forest.

The Buddha taught that all things are part of inter-dependent networks of causes and effects. When he looked at a tree, he wouldn’t just have thought ‘here’s a tree,’ or even ‘here’s a beautiful tree’. You can imagine that his understanding and warm appreciation would go deeper than that. He would have seen the tree as the product of conditions – the seed of another tree, the rain, the sunlight, the nutrients in the soil around the roots. When a leaf or a branch falls, it ceases to be part of what we call the tree. If a woodcutter were to come along, the tree might be turned into a pile of firewood, leaving only the stump in the ground. So ‘tree’ is just a label that we attach to an arbitrarily defined part of a much bigger process. It is not a separate or permanent feature of reality, but a temporary arrangement in a flow of energy and matter. From an atom’s point of view, the tree is just a stage on the journey from the atmosphere, to tree, to firewood, and to ashes.

This is not to say that the Buddha would necessarily have analysed the tree in a scientific way. Perhaps these insights would have been contained within a more intuitive appreciation of the tree’s beauty. Just as he felt a natural sympathy with the bull elephant, so he would have understood what united him with the tree. A tree is made up of the same air, water, and sunlight as a human body. A mango picked from its branches one day might be a part of the human body the next. People, trees, elephants, and mangoes are not ultimately separate, they are merely labels that we attach to different parts of a greater interconnected process.

If trees are not separate and permanent features of reality, then by applying similar logic we can say the same for individual atoms, for the earth as a whole, and for ourselves. Perhaps much of the anxiety that attaches to the survival of the planet arises from a reluctance to think about one’s own death. Thinking about the inevitability of death forces us to question life’s meaning and purpose. It forces us to look beyond what we arbitrarily label as our self towards the mystery of whatever greater process it is that unifies all life and all things. Thinking about the inevitability of the end of life on earth – whether in a hundred years or in a hundred million years – prompts us to ask the same question all the more deeply.

In looking at a garden of roses at the height of summer, or the play of light on the sandflats as the sun goes down, one might catch a glimpse of reality. Would a rose be as beautiful if it wasn’t so delicate and didn’t fade in the autumn? Would the light from the sun setting over the sandflats be as beautiful if it stayed the same all day and night? In experiencing their beauty, one knows that any words one might try to attach to them will pale into insignificance.

To find ultimate meaning, according to the Buddha’s teachings, one needs to see this same fragile, evanescent beauty not just in roses and sunsets, but in oneself, in other people, in all living beings and, indeed, in everything. As the ‘Diamond Sutra’ concludes:

‘As stars, a fault of vision, as a lamp,
A mock show, dew drops, or a bubble,
A dream, a lightning flash, or cloud,
So should one view what is conditioned.’

Indra’s Net

We can learn to see this beauty not only in things viewed individually, but also in reality as a whole. As nothing is fixed, it is not ultimately separate from everything else. The Avatamsaka Sutra<i*>, another ancient Buddhist text, illustrates this unity in diversity by means of the simile of Indra’s net. Indra, the king of the gods in Indian mythology, owns a net made of strings of jewels. Each jewel perfectly reflects, and is reflected by, every other jewel. Thus each jewel shares in the existence of every other jewel yet does not lose its individual identity.</i*>

Indra’s net symbolizes an aspect of beauty that has increasingly come to light through the environmental crisis. It shines through the delicate balance of ecology, the interconnectedness of all life from the coral reefs of the Pacific Ocean to the open horizons of the African savannah. This vast net of life, which contains more species than we have yet counted, is worth cherishing not just because it is useful, but because we are part of it and it is part of us. Just as we see our selfishness reflected in the despoliation of the environment, so, in its rich beauty, we see an intimation of our own potential.

Indra’s net is also a symbol for the unity of humanity. Here, spread out across the surface of a living blue-green planet, we are the universe aware of itself – each person individual and unique, yet inextricably connected. We are all in the same boat. We are in the human race and the human race, in all its beautiful diversity, is in us.

It is not just a question of seeing beauty, or talking about it or writing about it. Beauty has failed if it doesn’t change us. As part of the intricate, delicate web of life, forever changing beneath the blue sky, our perspective shifts. We see living things and the world as forever changing but all the more to be cherished and revered – not from an anxiety to preserve things as they are, but from simple compassion. In losing the world, we save it.


Try this exercise somewhere in a natural landscape, perhaps one that is familiar to you or where you have spent some time.

Look all around you. Take in the shape and form of the land, its texture, the weather, the water flowing or standing on the earth’s surface, the kind of vegetation, any animals you can see. Note the forms, colours, patterns of sunlight and shade.

Feel the earth beneath where you are standing or sitting. Be aware of gravity – the solid matter in your body being drawn to the greater solid matter of the earth. Reflect that the food from which your body is made comes from the earth and will return there.

Look at the rivers and streams. Their form changes only slowly, but the water that flows through them is constantly changing. Be aware of the flow of liquid through your body – through your digestive system, your bloodstream, your skin. Water comes in and goes out, just like a stream.

Reflect on the forces that brought the earth into being, the vast energy of the expanding universe. Imagine the earth coming into being, its surface solidifying into a crust. Imagine the forces that have shaped the landscape over millions of years – the movement of the earth’s surface, being worn down by ice or rivers. Feel your own physical energy – your movement, the warmth of your body. Reflect that this energy has come from the same source. The same energy that you feel inside has brought into being the landscape around you.

Watch the clouds or the wind, changing from second to second. Feel the air on your skin. Feel the air entering and leaving your body, filling your lungs and sustaining your life from moment to moment.

Reflect how dependent you are on the landscape around you, on the extent to which your body has evolved to survive on the earth’s surface. Try to still your mind and sit in silence, simply experiencing yourself as part of the landscape rather than as a detached observer.

39:The chapter title is paraphrased from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot.
40:Quoted in Peter Marshall, Nature’s Web: Rethinking Our Place on Earth, Cassell: London 1992
41:Udana iv.5

Buddhism and vegetarianism

(extracts from Bodhipaksa’s book Vegetarianism)

The sufferings of farm animals

Old macdonald had a factory

What do we think of when we stroll along the aisles of the supermarket looking at the almost clinical cellophane-wrapped parcels of lamb or beef? Few of us have had the opportunity to see what goes on in the production of meat. Our ideas about farming are often based on childhood picture-book illustrations of happy cows, fluffy yellow chicks, and pink pigs with curly tails running around a farmyard. Our ideas about farming – if we have any – can be highly romanticized and sanitized. Most of us have never set foot in a farmyard, and I probably wouldn’t have either, if it were not for the fact that I’d trained as a vet. I’d like to take you on a guided tour of the modern farm. We don’t have the time or space to look at every detail, or every animal; I will give just a few examples to convey a feeling for what life is like for a farm animal today.

Life for farm animals nowadays is not pleasant and you will almost certainly find parts of this account distressing. The accounts I give are of general modern farm practices – they don’t represent the worst (and sometimes illegal) things that go on in the factory farm. There are relatively compassionate farmers who keep their animals in far better conditions than I describe. In addition, the regulations governing animal welfare, as well as the degree of enforcement of those regulations, varies from country to country. In some ways animals in less industrialized countries have freer lives, but in other ways life – and death – for animals, just as for humans, can be far crueller in poorer parts of the world. What you are about to read is a fairly typical account of how farm animals live in the industrialized world.


A cow’s natural life expectancy is twenty years – fairly long for an animal – but most won’t live beyond four. The demands placed upon their bodies, draining milk at a rate which nature never intended, will typically leave them spent by their fourth year. Naturally, their bodies would produce less than 1,000 litres of milk in a year. Due to selective breeding and modern husbandry techniques, they deliver between 6,000 and 12,000 litres.

To achieve this they are milked almost all year round, even while pregnant. There is a period of only a few weeks during which they are given a respite. This is when they are heavily pregnant and their body simply couldn’t cope with a growing foetus as well as milking.

Dairy cows often experience metabolic diseases because they can’t take in enough nutrition to meet the demands of the milking machine. Their systems may run short of calcium or magnesium, bringing them to the point where they physically collapse. The demands placed on the cows’ metabolism mean that they are often effectively malnourished, no matter how much they eat.

Cows are commonly artificially inseminated with semen from one of the large beef breeds. This gives a more valuable calf, which is good for the farmer. Unfortunately for the cow, this means that they give birth to a far larger calf than their pelvic girdle allows for. They frequently suffer greatly giving birth to these huge offspring, or require Caesarean operations, which weaken them further and shorten their lives.

A cow has to calve every year to produce milk, but her calf is taken away shortly after birth and fed on reconstituted milk. The mother’s milk is too valuable a commodity to waste on a calf. Like most animals, the cow has a strongly developed maternal instinct and it’s distressing for her to lose her calf. It’s upsetting for the calf as well.

Whereas a calf would have suckled, on and off, all day long, the cow is milked by machine, usually only twice a day. Cows frequently suffer from painful mastitis – due mainly to the amount of milk they have to produce. The pressure of accumulated milk causes great pain. Cows sometimes kick their own udders because they are in such distress. Eventually the strain may cause the ligaments of the udder to give way and the cow will be useless for milking. A short trip to the abattoir and her brief life is over.

People often assume that cows produce milk just because they are cows, and that producing milk is what they do – as if it were their job. But cows produce milk only in order to feed a calf. They have to be made pregnant every year so that they keep producing milk. This results in a lot of calves as a side-effect of milk production. What happens to a calf once it is taken from its mother? Not many need to be kept to maintain the dairy herd. Some 42 per cent of them end up as beef at around eighteen months old. Some are sent off a few days old to be reared as veal. The meat industry and the dairy industry are inseparable and as much as 80 per cent of beef comes from dairy farms.

The calves destined to become beef tend to have the most natural lives. Some are kept on grass and can roam relatively freely, although many live out their lives on concrete and are fed concentrates to accelerate their growth. They may be castrated and dehorned. Both these operations are highly stressful and usually very painful. The animals find being handled very distressing and they are often castrated without anaesthetic. Animals are dehorned to make them safer to handle. The operation should be performed under local anaesthetic. Unfortunately, animals are usually dehorned in batches, so the anaesthetic often hasn’t started to work or it may have begun to wear off by the time the dehorning starts. Worse still, I knew one vet who didn’t always use anaesthetics at all because some farmers wouldn’t pay the extra cost. ‘If they see me taking the anaesthetic out of my bag they just laugh,’ he told me.

You may wonder why having a horn cut off requires anaesthetics. The reason is that horns contain nerves and blood vessels. Having a horn removed is not like having your fingernails trimmed but more like having a finger or even a hand sawn off.

Veal was originally just the meat of an unweaned one- or two-day-old calf. Because they were so young, and had never eaten grass or exercised, their meat was unusually pale and tender. It was also expensive because there isn’t much eating on a baby calf. Now veal production has become an industrial process. The calves are still taken from their mothers at a day old, but they are now kept in highly artificial conditions in order to keep their flesh pale and soft. Veal calves often live in pens so small that they can barely move. This stops them from using their muscles, so their flesh remains very tender. Sometimes they are kept in virtual darkness because there is a rather irrational belief that this contributes to the paleness of the meat. This makes observation for illness next to impossible, of course, so disease may go untreated.

However, the very nature of veal production prevents the welfare of veal calves being of crucial interest to those who rear them. The calves are allowed no solid food and are fed only on milk substitutes deficient in iron. Veal calves are deliberately made ill with anaemia in order to keep the meat pale. A malnourished calf is the whole point of the veal system. In addition, their stomachs, which are designed to process large quantities of roughage, are deprived of anything solid whatsoever. The calves are not even allowed straw to lie on in case they eat it. Their craving for roughage is so strong that they chew on wood and eat their own coats. Their lives are very distressing.

However, even before the calves reach the veal units they have to face the stresses of transportation. It’s unpleasant and distressing for us to be in a bus or crowded underground train in the rush-hour; how much more so then for animals being transported for (as current uk regulations allow) up to 28 hours in such conditions, for much of that time unable to feed or drink. At least when we endure such circumstances for a much shorter period we know why we are there – the animals are terror-stricken because of the unfamiliarity of the whole experience. It was against these movements of animals that thousands of people protested at airports and docks in the uk in 1995. These mass demonstrations resulted in changes in the regulations affecting uk veal production, but conditions in many other parts of the world are unchanged.


Chickens are reared in more intensive conditions than any other farm animal. Despite the increased availability of so-called free-range eggs the overwhelming majority of laying chickens still live in tiny wire cages in vast sheds. Usually there are five birds to a cage, and each bird has a living space slightly less than the size of this opened book. There is hardly enough room to turn round. Birds kept in these conditions develop ‘vices’, or destructive behavioural habits, and they often have their beaks painfully severed to prevent them from pecking at, and even eating, each other. It’s worth adding that chickens are not particularly nasty creatures. It’s simply intensely frustrating for them not to be able to fulfil any of their natural urges. They aren’t able to stretch their wings, dust-bathe, walk, establish social structures, forage for food, or sit on eggs. Take away these natural outlets and birds go mad.

The wire of the cages imprisoning the birds irritates their feet, resulting in sores that will go untreated (with 30,000 birds in a shed there is no personal attention). The birds’ feet can even become ‘welded’ to the wire mesh as their claws or flesh grow around the metal. If they are lucky they are within reach of food and water when this happens.

Laying birds are usually killed at the end of a year. They are all females, of course. Skilled workers separate the males from the females at one day old and treat them as a waste product. They may be killed by gassing, or suffocated in rubbish bags, or they may be thrown into boxes where they crush and suffocate each other. Some, it is claimed, are thrown live into mincing machines to be used for animal feed.(footnote 1)They look exactly like the fluffy yellow Easter chicks that we see on greetings cards.

Many so-called free-range chickens don’t fare much better. Despite the more attractive label, many rarely get outside. They are often crammed into sheds in their tens of thousands in conditions that are far from natural. These overcrowded conditions also prevent the birds from fulfilling their full range of natural activities and from establishing a proper social structure. Bullying and stress are common. A small group of dominant and aggressive hens can prevent the others from getting to the outside world, making a nonsense of the ‘free-range’ label.

Chickens for eating are called ‘broilers.’ They live (you’re probably getting the hang of this by now) in huge sheds in tens of thousands, sometimes crowded together on the floor in a living carpet, sometimes in racks of cages. The amount of space recommended by the Ministry of Agriculture gives them about the same amount of room, when fully grown, as a battery hen.

They stand on their own accumulated faeces, which quickly become disease-ridden. The lights are dimmed to reduce the stress of overcrowding so the stockman probably won’t see animals that are ill or have died. In any event there may be only one stockman for tens of thousands of birds, making effective supervision impossible. Health experts consider these sheds to be a serious hazard for workers. As one writer points out:

‘Researchers warned chicken farmers to spend as little time as possible in their sheds and to wear a respirator when they go in. But the study said nothing about respirators for the chickens.(footnote 2)


Few pigs will ever have the opportunity to be outside, to run, to wallow in mud, to dig, to nest (yes, wild pigs build nests), or to play. Pigs are as smart as clever dogs, and like most intelligent animals pigs are very playful.

Instead, most pigs live in concrete boxes or are confined by iron bars in warehouse-sized sheds. The breeding sows have the worst time of it. Most of the time they stand singly in stalls so narrow that they are unable to turn round. They have no bedding and lie on bare concrete. Pigs don’t find it any easier than you or I to lie on concrete, so you can perhaps imagine the discomfort. They have no way of socializing or playing or of fulfilling any of their natural impulses. Life is brutally painful and devastatingly boring.

The sow leaves her stall only when it is time for mating or for transfer to the farrowing accommodation where she will give birth to her litter. Again she lives on bare concrete and often can do nothing except lie down and stand up because the space is too narrow to allow anything else.

A farm worker snaps her piglets’ eye-teeth off, severs their tails, and castrates the males – all usually at a few days old and without anaesthetic. After weaning, the piglets are kept in batches – usually on a concrete slatted floor in a bare concrete box. Any intelligent animal would become bored in such conditions and pigs are no exception. They often become so frustrated in such unnatural and limiting conditions that they become deranged. Young pigs often indulge in neurotic behaviour such as suckling each other or inanimate objects. They frequently go insane. A common sign of this is tail-biting, where pigs bite the tails of their fellow-inmates, gnawing them to the base of the spine. This is why they have their tails removed at an early age. However, once bored pigs have reached this level of psychopathy they may gnaw the remaining stump of the tail as far down as they can. Another similar ‘vice’ that pigs develop in these conditions is vulva-biting. The prominent vulva of the females is an easy target for a deranged pig.

Because so many pigs live in one building, airborne infections spread easily. As a result, pneumonia is widespread. When animals stand on slats above their own faeces and urine, as they usually do, the ammonia produced is an irritant to the respiratory system, further aiding the spread of respiratory infections. Leg injuries and arthritis are common because the pigs live on concrete and cannot exercise, and because forced rapid growth puts strain on the joints.

The concrete boxes in which fattening pigs live commonly overheat in warm weather. Since pigs, contrary to the popular saying, cannot sweat, they have to roll in their own faeces to keep cool. Imagine yourself in the same position.

If you are beginning to think that pigs are nasty animals because of tail- and vulva-biting then think again. You won’t see this kind of behaviour in the wild. It is the result of sheer boredom. They are signs of insanity. Humans kept in similar conditions would do crazy things as well. The ‘vice’ is surely not that of the animal but the conditions that bring about this derangement.


Sheep are the least intensively reared farm animals. In most of the world they tend to have relatively natural lives, brought indoors only for lambing and receiving little handling except during shearing and dipping. The downside of this is that they often die through exposure, neglect, or starvation. Sheep form a large percentage of the 16,000 large animals that die on British farms every day.(footnote 3)Many sheep are kept on hill farms and at lambing time in particular their mortality rate, due to disease and exposure to a harsh hill climate, is especially high. In Britain, 23 per cent of single-born lambs and 55 per cent of twins die on extensive pastures.(footnote 4)

The thick woolly coats that we associate with sheep are not entirely natural but are the product of selective breeding, or ‘unnatural selection’. In the rain their wool soaks up masses of water (making for a fairly miserable sheep), and in the summer they overheat. Sheep are very prone to painfully itchy skin infections due to their woolly coats. The organophosphate chemicals in which they are dipped to prevent the spread of parasitic diseases are a major health hazard for the farmers, who don’t actually have to go into the dip-bath. What does it do to the sheep?

A sheep’s main problem is its lack of financial value. Few sheep are worth much, so they tend not to be given prompt medical attention. If you ever see sheep grazing ‘kneeling down’ it’s because standing is too painful for them. This happens when the ground is persistently wet during periods of heavy rainfall, and fungal infections, followed by secondary bacterial infections, invade the hoofs, causing great pain. Judging by the severity of some of the cases I’ve observed, first aid for sheep is not usually a priority.

A story one farmer told me sums up the lack of regard given to individual sheep. One of his ewes was having trouble lambing. Rather than waste money calling the vet to do a Caesarean – which would cost as much as the ewe was worth – he did the operation himself, with a carving knife and no anaesthetic. He was pleased with himself for having saved money.

The kind of treatment farm animals receive may seem incredible. What would happen if you or I tried to keep a dog in the conditions that a pig has to endure, or if we confined a pet bird so that it couldn’t spread its wings? In any civilized country a court would quite rightly prosecute us for cruelty. Farmers can keep animals in such conditions only because of the demand for cheap meat. There is a chain of causality connecting a consumer’s appetite with the kind of suffering we have seen.

Fish are the only commonly eaten animals living an entirely natural life (except for farmed fish). However, their death through suffocation when they are taken from the water must be deeply unpleasant. Fish farming causes serious pollution, not least because of the heavy metals used in anti-fouling paints used to prevent molluscs and seaweed colonizing the fishes’ cages. We have to remember that eating fish also puts us into competition with fish-eating wildlife. Part of the true price of fish is the culling programmes carried out on wild animals like seals and birds of prey to make sure there are enough fish for human consumption. Vast numbers of the fish caught in nets are not used for human consumption. The fishing industry call them ‘trash’, and dumps their corpses at sea. ‘Trash’ can constitute as much as half of a catch.(footnote 5)An additional indicator of our lack of regard for both fish and land animals is that 40 to 50 per cent of the world’s fish catch is fed to farm animals – most of which are naturally vegetarian.(footnote 6)

The way of all flesh

Few of us would wish to visit an abattoir. They are hellish places. The stench of death, the blood-slicked floors, the noise of machinery, chain-saws tearing flesh and bone, the report of the captive bolt pistols that stun animals before they have their throats cut and, above all, the noises of fear and distress as animals are led to their deaths; all contribute to make a slaughterhouse a hell on earth.

In the abattoir, haste is essential to keep costs down. Animals have to be bullied to come forward to the killing area as quickly as possible. Some abattoir workers believe that a distressed animal makes for better meat due to the release of adrenaline. This ‘fight or flight’ hormone – released in conditions of fear – tenderizes the muscles and helps stop the meat from becoming infected with bacteria. Slaughtermen are often therefore at no pains to make the animals’ last minutes less distressing than they need be. Electric cattle prods goad animals towards the slaughtering area. That these implements are distressing can be inferred from the fact that they are a favoured instrument of torture in countries with the worst records of human rights abuses.

Abattoir workers have to stun all animals that are to be slaughtered to lessen the animals’ distress. The exception to this is Muslim (halal) or Jewish (kosher) slaughter, where animals are fully conscious while they are turned upside-down and have their throats cut. The distress of this is unimaginable, and it is worth remembering that many animals slaughtered in this way end up on the shelves of our supermarkets.(footnote 8)

A common method of stunning is by captive-bolt pistol. A metal rod is fired from a gun into the brain, destroying the higher functions. A flexible plastic rod is then inserted in the bullet hole and stirred to destroy the reflexes in the lower brain – a process known as ‘pithing’. Pithing is done to prevent the corpse from thrashing around and injuring the workers. Pigs, and sometimes sheep, are often stunned with electric tongs, which, in theory, render the animal unconscious. More rarely a carbon dioxide gas chamber may be used. These have been described by researchers as causing ‘severe respiratory distress’.(footnote 9)

Electric tongs are, understandably, dangerous to the workers, and problems arise because low voltages are used in order to render them less hazardous. Animals commonly begin to recover consciousness before they are killed. In any event some people believe that animals stunned in this way are not unconscious at all, merely paralysed. One hopes that this is not true – it must be appalling to be aware of what is happening but unable even to cry out. Even when carried out effectively the electric stunning is likely to be extremely painful, as humans who have experienced similar shocks report.(footnote 10)The actual killing is achieved by cutting the arteries that carry blood to the brain.

Chickens are killed in specialized processing plants. They too have to be stunned first, and this is usually done by suspending them upside-down by the legs on a conveyor line that leads them towards an electrically charged saline bath. Inevitably, as some of the birds struggle, they manage to miss being stunned and are still conscious when they reach the rotating blades that sever the carotid arteries.

Some authorities believe it is better to allow animals destined for slaughter to see their fellows being killed in order to shorten the time they have to wait in terror. Others hold that animals should wait longer so that they are spared seeing their fellows being killed.(footnote 11) It is a useful exercise in empathy to decide which we would prefer if such circumstances were forced upon us. Afterwards we could reflect on whether we want to put animals in that situation at all.


1: Peter Singer, Animal Liberation , Random House, London1995, p.108.
2: Animal Liberation , op. cit., p.105.
3: Veterinary Record vol.iii no.2, 1982. Quotedin Kath Clements, Why Vegan , Heretic, London 1995, p.56.
4: ‘Piggy in the middle’, New Scientist, 23 January 1999.
5: Animal Liberation , op. cit., p.173.
6: John Bennett, The Hunger Machine , Polity, Cambridge1987, p.37.
7: H. Saddhatissa (trans.), Sutta Nipata , Curzon, London1985, p.34.
8: Farm Animal Welfare Council, Report on the Welfare ofLivestock (Red Meat Animals) at the Time of Slaughter , hmso,London 1984, paragraphs 88 and 124.
9: Agscene , no.128, Winter 1997, p.13.
10: Animal Liberation , op. cit., p.152.
11: See, for example, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food’s Response to the Report on the Welfare of Livestock (Red Meat Animals) at the Time of Slaughter, MAFF, Surbiton 1985,pp.7-8, where the pros and cons are discussed.


Why are we beastly to animals?

If we are beginning to become aware of the suffering involved in the meat trade, but still eat meat, then we have a problem. We have a source of conflict in our lives.

We have to decide what to do with that awareness of the suffering inherent in meat-eating. It’s all too tempting to push the awareness away so that we can carry on acting as before. We may even recall having done this in the past with this very issue. Another, and more creative, response would be to face up to and explore the conflict so that we can learn and grow from the insights this might reveal. A good place to begin is with an exploration of the views and assumptions that underlie meat-eating and provide a foundation for the practices of the farm and slaughterhouse.

One of the most powerful insights of Buddhism is that behind every action is a view . Views are not necessarily philosophical positions that we have carefully worked out; in fact we may never put some of our deepest-held views into words at all. Our views are more likely to be held as unconscious ‘inherited’ assumptions about the world. These assumptions guide and give rise to our actions. Bringing views into consciousness, and recognizing where they have come from and how they affect us, is a valuable exercise. It gives us the power to change our views for ones that will bring more harmony and fulfilment to our lives.

Applying this principle to meat-eating, we can see that many of our views about our relations with animals come from the Judeo-Christian model of the world. Even if we don’t believe in the biblical account of the world it probably affects us unconsciously. After all, it has shaped the Western psyche for close on two millennia. Some of the views that we have unconsciously absorbed from this tradition stand in the way of our respect and compassion for animals.

Firstly, we have inherited the view that humankind has dominion over the animals and that we therefore have a ‘right’ to kill animals and that it is ‘natural’ for them to live in fear of us. We have come to assume that animals have been put on earth for us to use, and that their suffering is unimportant if it arises as a result of our use of them.

‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.'(footnote 12)

The book of Genesis clarifies what this stewardship entails when God tells Noah:

‘And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, upon all that moveth upon the earth, and upon all the fishes of the sea; into your hand are they delivered. Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you.'(footnote 13)

Consequently, most of us believe that ‘Thou shalt not kill’ does not apply to animals. The Western approach has typically been to see a rigid separation between humans and animals, with humans having a ‘soul’ or ‘rationality’ setting us apart. Westerners have generally seen human suffering as a matter for concern (with some important exceptions) while we have tended to ignore or deny animal suffering much of the time.

This view of animals as possessions to be used in any way we please became a philosophical standpoint for many Western thinkers. Thomas Aquinas, probably the greatest medieval European philosopher, wrote:

‘We cannot wish good things to an irrational creature, because it is not competent, properly speaking, to possess good… Nevertheless we can love irrational creatures out of charity, if we regard them as the good things that we desire for others.’ (footnote 14)

In other words we can only care for the welfare of animals if it will benefit a human, not for the sake of the animal.

The philosopher Descartes and his disciples developed yet further the idea that, because they are ‘irrational’, we can treat animals in any way we wish. Descartes regarded animals as no more than complex mechanisms, devoid of rationality. His followers took this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion. If an animal has no ‘soul’, and is merely a mechanism, then the cries of an animal when it is injured no more signify that it is in pain than the rattling of a faulty engine suggests that an automobile suffers. His followers ‘kicked about their dogs and dissected their cats without mercy, laughing at any compassion for them, and calling their screams the noise of breaking machinery’, according to one of his biographers.(footnote 15)

This was probably the low point of Western relations with animals (although some factory farming methods come close), but some people have expressed such views well into the twentieth century. In the 1960s a theologian claimed that animals exhibit ‘a very interesting and, indeed, very mysterious psychism, but one that is devoid of consciousness of any kind ‘. (Original emphasis retained.) He goes on to conclude that

‘the problem of animal ‘suffering’ is an empty one, as ‘unconscious suffering’ is a contradiction in terms. To suffer and not to be aware of the fact, to suffer and not to be conscious of suffering, is the same as not suffering at all.’ (footnote 16)

One powerfully influential scientific view of the early twentieth century came from the same current of thought. The school of ‘behaviourism’, whose most famous exponent was B.F. Skinner, dismissed the idea of animals having any self-consciousness. Like Descartes, he saw animals as complex machines devoid of the capacity to experience pain. Although this view has lost ground, it still has its exponents in the scientific community today. As recently as 1992, a serious scientific magazine could carry an article entitled ‘Do Animals Feel Pain?'(footnote 17) The article reported that a working party of experts rather tentatively decided, after three years of deliberation, that vertebrates (which include all farm animals) ‘ may be capable of experiencing some suffering’. (My emphasis.)

It would be wrong to suppose that all Christians (or scientists) hold, or have held, the inhumane views we’ve touched upon. Many have taken a leading role in animal welfare, and some Christians (and scientists) are vegetarian and have a strongly compassionate relationship with the animal world. However, traditional Western views have deeply conditioned many of us and underpin our acceptance of the modern horrors of the factory farm, where animals are treated as machines, and where the pain they feel is regarded as inconsequential.

the buddhist perspective

At first one should meditate intently on the equality of oneself and others as follows: ‘All equally experience suffering and happiness. I should look after them as I do myself.  I should dispel the suffering of others because it is suffering like my own suffering.’ (footnote 18)

The Buddhist view of animals and their relation to humans is rather different from the traditional Western viewpoint outlined above. Buddhism has always recognized that animals show every sign of experiencing and fearing suffering. That animals lack some faculties that humans have, or have them less well developed, is a separate issue, and not one that affects animals’ ability to suffer. Buddhism sees suffering as undesirable and freedom from suffering as something to be preferred, irrespective of whether it is an animal or a human that suffers.

Buddhism, then, regards animals as being worthy of our respect, and urges us to have compassion for animals when we see they are suffering. When they are free from suffering Buddhism also encourages us to respect that fact and not to cause them any unnecessary pain or distress.

In the West, the myth of humans being given dominion over the animals has shaped Western relations with nature. Many Buddhist myths and symbols, recognizing the continuity between animals and humans, and showing that all sentient life is intimately interrelated, are expressive of the Buddhist approach to animals. One such traditional Buddhist symbol is called the Wheel of Life.(footnote 19)This shows six realms of existence, including the realm of animals and the human realm.

The Wheel of Life is a symbol of change; it shows us how we progress or regress, depending on how we act. Buddhism does not see the realms as being completely separate from one another – beings can die in one realm and be reborn in another. Animals may be reborn as humans in the future and, possibly, those of us who are humans now may be reborn as animals. There is no absolute discontinuity, in the Buddhist account, between animals and humans. Instead, our continuity and commonality are emphasized. Animals and humans are, so to speak, all trapped on the Wheel, one of whose characteristics is a tendency to suffering.

As well as this symbol, there are many popular folk tales, called Jatakas, about the Buddha’s previous lives. In some of these stories – which are similar to Aesop’s fables – the Buddha is portrayed as an animal. Usually he is the animals’ leader and performs heroic deeds that benefit others.(footnote 20)These stories illustrate Buddhist teachings through the simple, direct medium of storytelling rather than doctrinally.

These myths are not presented as reasons for becoming vegetarian, but as an illustration of how fundamentally different the Buddhist view of animals is from the Western view. Although there is no need for Western Buddhists to believe that the Buddha was literally an animal in previous lives, we can learn from the Jataka tales that early Buddhists had no problem with thinking about their revered teacher as having been an animal in a past life.(footnote 21)Once more, animals and humans are seen as part of a continuum of life.

Although humans may or may not literally be reborn as animals, the underlying message of these images – that there is similarity and continuity between animals and humans – is something we can learn from. We all have the capacity to suffer and the desire to escape suffering. There is therefore no question of Buddhists regarding animals as ‘things’, to be possessed or treated as if they were objects without feelings. There is also no question of animals having been put here for us to use. Instead, we’re all trapped in this Wheel of Life together. The main difference between humans and animals is that humans have a greater ability to seek and create happiness – for ourselves and others. Buddhism encourages us to empathize with animals and see them as worthy of our kindness and compassion.


12: Genesis 1:26.
13:Genesis 9:2- 3.
14:Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica . Christian Classics,Westminster 1981, p.1282.
15:J.P. Mahaffy, Descartes , Blackwood, Edinburgh 1880,p.181.
16:Fernand van Steenberghen, Hidden God , PublicationsUniversitaires de Louvain, Belgium 1966, p.252.
17:New Scientist, 25 April 1992.
18:Kate Crosby and Andrew Skilton, The Bodhicaryavatara ,Oxford University Press, Oxford 1995, p.96.
19:See Alex Kennedy, The Buddhist Vision , Rider, London1985, for a detailed account of this symbol.
20:A particularly good example is the children’s book, TheMonkey King , written and illustrated by Adiccabandhu and Padmasri,Windhorse, Birmingham 1998.
21:See P.D. Ryan, Buddhism and the Natural World , Windhorse, Birmingham 1998, for further explorations of therelationship between Buddhism and animals.


The benefits of vegetarianism

benefits for the world

Giving up meat means that fewer animals will die, and fewer animals will be reared in the appalling conditions we have looked at. Just by changing your diet you will ensure that there is less suffering in the world. However, the benefits of becoming vegetarian go much further than that. In adopting a vegetarian diet you will have a real impact on the planet in many ways.

We live in a time of unparalleled crisis, with growing environmental problems which some believe may threaten the very existence of our planet. Raising animals for food causes many of those problems, which are therefore avoidable.

Farming animals is intensely wasteful of resources. It has been estimated that 500g of steak from intensively-reared animals consumes 2.5kg of grain, 10,000 litres of water, the energy equivalent of four litres of petrol, and about 16kg of topsoil (footnote 32). Intensive beef production is very wasteful of fossil fuels. In America, intensively-reared beef consumes 33 calories of fossil fuel energy for every calorie of food energy it produces (footnote 33). This short-sighted squandering of the planet’s resources is simply not sustainable.

It takes 10kg of plant protein to produce 1kg of animal protein. If a field is capable of producing 10 tonnes of soya beans, we can do two things with it. We can feed humans with the soyabeans or we can feed the soya beans to cattle. If we do the latter we effectively lose 90 per cent of the protein and energy value of the original crop, which means we use 10 times more land than is necessary.

Because rearing animals is intrinsically wasteful of land, the demand for ever more farmland has resulted in the loss of more and more ofour wilderness areas. We have ripped out hedgerows, felled forests,and drained marshes in order to produce more grazing land for animals. More than 25 per cent of the forests of Central America and 40 million hectares of the Amazon jungle have been cleared for beef production (footnote 34). In the case of the rainforests these natural areas will never recover. Deserts all over the world are expanding as overgrazing leads to depletion of the soil in marginal areas. Our forests produce the very oxygen we breathe, yet we are destroying them in order to make beefburgers.

We are all aware now of the threat of global warming brought about by the build-up of ‘greenhouse gases’, which trap the sun’s warmth in the atmosphere, leading to a rise in global temperatures.We may not be aware that cattle and sheep produce large quantities of methane, which is a greenhouse gas. Farm animals probably produce around 20 per cent of the 400 million tonnes of this gas that is produced every year worldwide (footnote 35). Since global warming may be one of the greatest dangers to the future of our species, a reduction in the numbers of farm animals will help reduce that threat.

Farming animals also produces large amounts of sewage which frequently contaminates aquatic environments (footnote 36). The raised level of nutrients in the water leads to the rapid growth of algae and the death of fish (footnote 37).The pollution of lakes and rivers can have devastating effects, harming human health and livelihoods and impoverishing our environment.

With fewer people eating meat these pressures will lessen and the effects may even be reversed. With more of the population becoming vegetarian we may be able to allow land presently under cultivation to return to wilderness – with more forests, swamps, and moorlands for future generations to thank us for. With more farmland being freed up there is enormous potential for cultivating biomass fuels -plants grown for fuel – which make a zero net contribution toglobal warming. By adopting a vegetarian diet we will help support a more sustainable world for future generations.

However, perhaps the most worrying side-effect of agricultural activity on humans is the emergence of new disease-causing organisms. According to one authority,

‘by far the most potentially destructive effect…is the evolution of pathogens with mass destruction potential when they are transferred to their final host: man. This could produce epidemics paralleled only by the plagues associated with the increase in the population density in the Middle Ages and Victorianepochs.’ (footnote 38)

It’s worth contemplating that the medieval plagues wiped out between a third and a half of the population of Europe. The unidentified pathogen that causes bse in animals and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans is only one of the latest of these diseases – and we don’t yet know how extensive that problem is. Some animal viruses and bacteria have the potential to cross into the human population and this is believed to happen on farms. Cholera, which has killed millions, spread to the human population from sheep and cattle as have many other diseases (footnote 39). The various waves of influenza that periodically sweep the world, causing millions of deaths, are believed to have their origins in agriculture. 20,000,000 people were killed by the influenza epidemic that followed the first World War – 10,000,000 more than died in the war itself (footnote 40).

In late 1997 and early 1998, the entire chicken population of Hong Kong, followed by much of the domestic animal population, had to be exterminated to prevent the spread of a deadly avian virus that had begun to infect humans. A plague may have been averted – but at a tremendous cost in suffering. In early 1999, an outbreakof a deadly strain of encephalitis began in Malaysia, spreading to humans from pigs. At the time of writing, 67 people had died and another 99 had been admitted to hospital. Malaysian farmers are slaughtering hundreds of thousands of pigs to try to prevent a deadly human epidemic (footnote 41). With pig population densities in some parts of Europe reaching 9,000 animals per square kilometre, the potential for a disastrous human epidemic is vast (footnote 42). By lessening our dependence on the growing of animals for food we will be helping to protect the human population, particularly the youngand elderly, from such diseases.

Antibiotics are used on animals to treat disease (oftenarising from the intensive manner in which they are confined) and as a routine food additive to promote faster growth. A uk National Consumer Council report points out that ‘some antibiotic residues in food may be toxic and cause some people to become hypersensitive to antibiotics. They could also make bacteria resistant to antibiotics’ (footnote 43). The emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria is one of the greatest challenges to modern medicine – and much of the problem comes from farming.

The benefits of vegetarianism for our world are far-reaching. Every meal we eat has some say as to which direction our world moves in – towards the ever-accelerating degradation of the planet or towards increasing harmony with nature and a sustainable future for the planet and for our species. These choices are, truly, on our menu. Which will we have?

benefits for our health

It certainly isn’t necessary to be a vegetarian to be healthy, although I am personally convinced that vegetarianism is, generally speaking, a healthier alternative than meat-eating. And it does seem to be the case that vegetarians are, overall, healthier than average. A paper by the British Nutrition Foundation says that ‘many studies have shown that vegetarians as a group have lower rates of heart disease and of some cancers, and may also benefit from the reduced risk of some other conditions’ (footnote 44). A massive study of over 120,000 men in Japan showed that simply adding meat to the diet increased the risk of dying from heart disease by 30 per cent. (footnote 45) A recent uk government report recommended that those eating an average 90g of meat (less than a quarter-pound hamburger) per day should consider cutting back (footnote 46).

There are, of course, good and bad vegetarian diets and whatever diet one follows it is important to eat healthily. If we eat a varied and interesting vegetarian diet there is little or no risk of deficiencies, and a good prospect of living a longer and more healthy life. The chart on page 56 gives an example of the food sources that can form the basis of a healthy vegetarian diet.

Ultimately, I am attempting to convert people to vegetarianism not on health grounds, but on ethical grounds. However, a point that we often need to highlight is that vegetarianism is a perfectly healthy option. Many people still have worries that a vegetarian diet might not be healthy, though in fact becoming vegetarian is one of the simplest steps they could take to improve their chance of a long and healthy life. Below I outline the main nutritional issues that can arise for someone switching to a vegetarian diet.

Some will say that it’s natural for us to eat meat. I often wonder if they have thought through the idea of meat-eating being natural. For example, when a lion takes control of a pride his first action is to kill all the offspring of the previous dominant male so that his own offspring will have the best chance of surviving. This is natural, but we would hardly use it as a basis for human morality. That something is natural does not mean it is ethical. Humans are capable of living in ways that transcend ‘animal’ nature and, from an ethical point of view, it is only by so doing that we can become truly human.

In a very real sense meat-eating is not natural for us: we are poorly adapted to eating meat. The human gut is proportionately far longer than that of a carnivore, and this is probably why meat-eaters have a far higher incidence of bowel cancer than vegetarians. A likely explanation is that the bacterial breakdown of meat in the gut produces carcinogenic by-products. True carnivores, like cats and dogs, have a much shorter length of gut in proportion to their body than us,and can expel waste more quickly. We just don’t seem to be cut out to eat flesh. You could say that it just isn’t natural for us to eat meat.

Our bodies are also not good at dealing with the amount of fat found in meat. The editor of the American Journal of Cardiology wrote that ‘no matter how much fat carnivores eat, they do not develop atherosclerosis’.(footnote 47)He went on to say that dogs, even when fed a massive 200 times the average level of cholesterol that Americans ingest, do not develop heart disease.(footnote 48)Heart disease in humans is,of course, a major killer.

People often have worries about iron, calcium, and protein, and fear that these are deficient in a vegetarian diet. None of these concerns has any real basis in fact. According to the American Dietetic Association,’appropriately planned vegetarian diets are healthful, are nutritionally adequate, and provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.'(footnote 49) Let’s take a look at these specific nutrients.


Many women in particular worry about anaemia,which is, of course, more common in women due to blood loss during menstruation. They have understandable concerns that a vegetarian or vegan diet might make them more likely to suffer from this condition.However, as the British Nutrition Foundation points out, ‘studiesof haemoglobin levels indicate no significant differences between vegetarian and non-vegetarian groups, or between vegans and controls.'(footnote 50)Anaemia seems to be no more of a problem in vegetarians than in meat-eaters,for plants can provide all the iron most healthy people need. Leafy green vegetables, wholemeal bread, molasses, dried fruits, lentils,and pulses are all important sources of iron. For those who are clinically anaemic, whether meat-eaters or vegetarians, it is preferable to take an iron supplement rather than rely solely on dietary iron.


Osteoporosis (weakening of the bones) is another disease that affects mainly women, usually in later life, and again many people worry about whether a vegetarian diet can supply enough calcium.This may be rather ironic, since a study in America showed that women on a vegetarian diet had half the chance of developing osteoporosis than women who were omnivorous.(footnote 51)Other studies, however, have shown no significant differences between bone density in vegetarian and omnivorous women. At the very least we can say with confidence that a lack of calcium is not a problem for most vegetarians. Perhaps surprisingly, osteoporosis is most common in countries where the population eat a lot of meat and dairy products. It is least common in countries like China and Japan where many people eat a mainly vegetarian or vegan diet.(footnote 52)

Important vegetarian sources of calcium are dairy products, leafy green vegetables, bread, nuts, and seeds (especially sesame seeds),dried fruits, calcium supplemented soya milk, and tofu.


While it’s mostly women who have concerns about iron and calcium, it often seems to be men who worry about getting enough protein on a vegetarian diet. There is a great deal of mythology surrounding protein. Many people assume that meat equals protein, which in turn equals health, and that we need a lot of protein and therefore need to eat meat. A lot of advertising for meat plays on this belief. Actually we can easily get the protein we need (45g a day for women, 55g for men, (footnote 53) although more is needed if pregnant or exercising heavily) from a vegetarian diet which includes nuts, seeds,pulses, and soya products – eaten daily. Dairy products and eggs are of course sources of protein for many vegetarians, although elsewhere in this book I have pointed out the ethical implications of eating these.

Although vegetarian diets may contain less protein, on average, than omnivorous diets, the British Nutrition Foundation’s briefing paper on vegetarianism tells us ‘there is abundant protein with a high overall amino acid score in most vegetarian diets’ (my emphasis).Surveying a number of studies of protein intake in various groups,it concluded: ‘In all cases, intakes of protein in vegetarians andin vegans appear fully sufficient in relation to estimated average requirements for protein.'(footnote 54)Just because there is less proteinin a vegetarian diet does not mean there is not enough. Many top athletes,like tennis player Martina Navratilova, olympic gold hurdler Ed Moses,and cycling champion Sally Hibberd, are vegetarians. The list of famous vegetarian and vegan athletes includes bodybuilders, ice-skaters,basketball stars, runners, weight-lifters, and triathletes, showing that it is possible for the body to perform at peak effectiveness without meat.(footnote 55)

In fact, eating too much protein is bad for health. Diets very high in protein (in excess of 150g daily) cause calcium to be lost through the urine. This may explain why those who eat a lot of dairyproducts and meat are more likely to suffer osteoporosis than those who are vegetarian or vegan.(footnote 56)In addition, proteincannot be stored in the body in significant quantities. When we consume excess protein we convert it into carbohydrate, producing toxic nitrogenous waste products.

Having said that, those who are pregnant, or who participate in intensivephysical activities, do need to eat more protein than the average person. But even the amounts of protein that bodybuilders require(and bodybuilders are fanatical about protein) are easily supplied by a vegetarian diet. The nutrition director of an internationally famous chain of body-building gyms said: ‘I supervise 160 employees around the world who’ve probably worked with over 300 vegetarian body builders. These employees report to me that the vegetarian bodybuildersare building muscle just as nicely as if they ate meat.'(footnote 57)

There is a persistent myth that meat proteins are ‘first class’ while proteins from vegetarian sources are ‘second class’. This outdated view is based on the fact that meat and eggs contain all the amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) whereas no individual vegetable or pulse does, except soya. Twenty amino acids go to make up proteins.We can make many of these in the body by converting other amino acids,but there are eight that must be present in the diet. These are the ‘essential amino acids’.

However, it turns out that when we eat rice or cereals in combination with pulses or nuts all the essential amino acids are present in thecorrect proportions. This means that many classic food combinations(rice and dhal, macaroni cheese, beans on toast, felafel with pitta   bread, peanut butter sandwiches) give protein that is at least as high in quality as meat. However, it’s not strictly necessary to combine proteins in every meal. We have a ‘pool’ of amino acids and if one  amino acid is deficient we can make this up from our body’s stores if we eat them all regularly.(footnote 58)

If you are unfortunate enough to suffer from serious health problems such as kidney or liver disease, it would be prudent to take medical advice before changing your diet. For healthy individuals, as longas you eat a vegetarian diet drawing on a variety of sources as indicated in the chart on page 56, you will be eating enough protein and giving your body all the amino acids it needs.


32: Animal Liberation , op. cit., p.166.
33:Peter Singer, How Are We to Live? , Prometheus, Amherstny 1995, p.44.
:34:ibid., p.45.
35:S. Tamminga, ‘Gaseous Pollutants Produced by Farm AnimalEnterprises’,in Clive Phillips and David Piggins (eds.), Farm Animals and theEnvironment , cab International, Wallingford 1992,p.347.
36:Farm Animals and the Environment , op. cit., p.325,quotes statistics from the National Rivers Authority showing an average3- 4,000 incidents of water pollution from farms annually.
37:Animal Liberation , op. cit., p.168, reports 3,500incidents of water pollution in 1985, just one of which -involving one farm – caused the deaths of 110,000 fish.
38:Clive Phillips and David Piggins, ‘Effects of Farm Animalson the Environment’, in Farm Animals and the Environment , op.cit., p.326.
39:Peter Cox, Why You Don’t Need Meat , Bloomsbury, London1992, p.45.
40:Frank P. Mathews and Robert J. Rubin, ‘Influenza’, ColliersEncyclopedia , Colliers, New York 1996, vol.13, p.16.
41:‘The pigs must die’New Scientist , 3 April 1999.
42:In 1997, six million pigs had to be slaughtered in theNetherlands to control a major epidemic of Classical Swine Fever which,fortunately for us, is not transmissible to humans. ‘This little piggyfell ill’New Scientist , 12 September 1998.
43:’Intensive farming methods <@147>risk to health<@148>’,Guardian ,12 March 1998, p.6.
44:Vegetarianism , British Nutrition Foundation, London1995, p.4.
45: Why You Don’t Need Meat , op. cit., p.7.
46:’Eat less red meat to cut cancer risk, urges report,’Guardian ,26 September 1997.
47:Atherosclerosis: Hardening and thickening of the arteriesaccompanied by fatty degeneration – a common sign of heart diseaseassociated in humans with over-consumption ofsaturated fats.
48:Why You Don’t Need Meat , op. cit., p.148.
49:American Dietetic AssociationVegetarian Diets.
50:Vegetarianism , op. cit., p.15.
51:ibid., p.22.
52:Why You Don’t Need Meat , op. cit., p.153.
53:Vegetarian Society information sheetBasic Nutrition (link unavailable but see Vegan Society fact sheetKey facts).
54:Vegetarianism , op. cit., p.10.
55:An extensive list of vegan and vegetarian athletes of national and international stature (link unavailable – but see PETA’s Top 10 Vegetarian Athletes).
56:Vegetarian Society information sheet , Calcium (link unavailable).
57:’Where’s the Beef? Vegetarian bodybuilders show there’smorethan one way to feed growing muscle’, Muscle and Fitness , October1992, p.130.
58:Vegetarian Society information sheetBasic Nutrition (link unavailable but see Wikipedia article on protein combining).


Commonly asked questions about vegetarianism

You may still have some questions – most people do when they are considering changing their diet. This section attempts to address some of the more common questions.

How do I give up eating meat?

Nowadays it’s remarkably easy to become vegetarian. Indeed, it is easier now, in the West, than at any previous time. Virtually every restaurant has a vegetarian selection on the menu. A few years ago, vegetarians had to haunt health-food stores; now even the supermarkets have latched on to the fact that the vegetarian population is substantial (7 per cent of young adults in the uk in 1999) and enthusiastically market vegetarian products.

There has been an explosion in the number of cookery books devoted exclusively to vegetarian food, and many of these are remarkably inexpensive. Buy some. Look at the pictures and try out some of the recipes. You may realize that some of your favourite foods are vegetarian and you hadn’t even thought about it! Many people imagine that a vegetarian meal is meat-and-two-veg with the meat missing, or replaced by some kind of soya substitute. Once you begin to explore vegetarian cookery you will begin to see that pattern as hopelessly limited and won’t even try to imitate it most of the time. You can slowly build up a new repertoire of dishes, gradually phasing the meat out of your diet. Or you can just decide to stop eating meat right now.

Telling others what you are doing and why – kindly and clearly – can help you to reinforce it and clarify your thinking. Some will be supportive, others may be hostile (and may think they’re being criticized even when they aren’t). Those who might invite you to dinner need to know you’re vegetarian or it might prove embarrassing for both of you. Let them know – it’s really not a problem since most people by now must be used to catering for vegetarian friends. Anyone who wants to have guests round had better get used to catering for vegetarians, given that people are increasingly giving up meat.

If you’re the only vegetarian in your family, that is more difficult, but not insurmountable. There are cookery books designed to help you and your family cope with this. In addition, supermarkets supply many vegetarian frozen and chilled foods (although it’s a shame to eat mass-produced food when home-cooked is usually much better). You could try introducing the others in your family to the food you eat. They might be pleasantly surprised.

Surely it is impossible to live without causing harm?

It’s true that it’s impossible to live without causing any harm. Even the cultivation of vegetables and grains kills many small creatures living in the earth, and pesticides (whether organic or chemical) kill many insects. We should not dismiss this out of hand. If we wish to reduce the amount of suffering in the world, we should be aware of such issues.

However, some forms of agricultural practice cause less destruction than others. If we have a choice of foods grown in different ways, it would be sensible to choose those grown by the most ethically acceptable methods. At the very least, it would be good if we began to make more use of organically grown produce. The build-up of long-lasting toxic chemicals in the food chain undoubtedly leads to problems for birds and higher mammals (including ourselves), and we should discourage the use of such chemicals.

As an argument for meat-eating, though, the idea that we cannot avoid causing some harm simply does not hold water. There is some harm that we can avoid. The harm caused to farm animals is unnecessary, and we can, and indeed should, avoid it if we regard ourselves as compassionate. We may not be able to live without causing any harm at all but we can certainly live in such a way that we cause less harm.

Plants are living too. Aren’t vegetarians inconsistent?

The notion that vegetarians are being inconsistent in eating plants because plants are living things is very common: there can scarcely be a vegetarian who hasn’t heard this argument several times. It is hard, however, to see how plants can suffer. They have nothing corresponding to a central nervous system or even to nerves. While it’s of considerable evolutionary benefit for animals to have a sense of pain so that they can escape danger, why should plants, which are by nature static, have evolved such a sense? I believe that we instinctively recognize that plants are of a different order from animals. I doubt if many who employ the above argument would really feel the same seeing a carrot pulled out of the ground and eaten as they would seeing a lamb having its throat cut. The difference seems obvious.

A second count on which this argument falls is that it takes ten kilos of vegetable protein to produce one kilo of meat protein. Thus, by eating plants directly, rather than by converting them into animal protein first, we cause the deaths of far fewer of them. If you’re concerned about causing less destruction to plants then become a vegetarian!

Why should I worry about animals when there is so much human suffering in the world?

For some, the issue of animal suffering is insignificant compared to the problems involved in human suffering. They would rather not, they say, divert their energies into preventing animals from suffering while there are so many humans in the world who lack food, medicine, and clean water.

If we had to make a choice between alleviating the sufferings of animals and that of humans, this argument would have a great deal of force. However, it is not necessary to do this. Becoming a vegetarian is not a difficult thing to do. It adds little or no extra demands to our lives. In choosing what to eat (something we have to do anyway) we simply choose to eat food that does not contain meat. In doing so we boycott a trade that leads to immeasurable suffering. The rest of our time is free to spend in whatever way we wish, including working for the welfare of other members of our species.

There is also a strong argument for becoming vegetarian to help other humans (apart from the many ecological arguments we’ve already looked at). The ten kilos of vegetable protein it takes to produce one of animal protein mean that raising animals is a vastly inefficient method of producing food. Animal farming has been correctly described as ‘a protein factory in reverse’. As much as 40 per cent of the world’s grain is used to feed cattle, pigs, and poultry.(footnote 59)In theory (for there are also problems of unequal distribution of wealth and food), we could feed many more people on a vegetarian diet. There would be far more food in the world to feed the hungry if we did not eat meat and potentially far less human suffering as a result.

How do I relate to meat-eaters?

Some meat-eaters seem to feel threatened when they are with a vegetarian. It is as if they sense an implied criticism in the simple action of someone asking if there is anything vegetarian on the menu. This may reveal an underlying sense of moral unease. We rarely acknowledge that meat is part of a dead animal, and nowadays meat is packaged to disguise the connection with the farm and slaughterhouse. Reminders of the connection are often unwelcome. It’s therefore quite natural and to be expected that some meat-eaters will react in this way.

In return, some vegetarians can be self-righteous and harsh, but most are not. If a vegetarian is self-righteous, the problem is with their lack of metta, and not with their diet. They need to learn to have more respect and kindness towards others and not to judge harshly. If you are going to become a vegetarian it’s good to be aware of any tendency you might have toward self-righteousness. You can then deal with it by reminding yourself that you once ate meat, and for the same reasons that others continue to eat meat. A little patience, kindness, and humility are called for.

What would happen to the animals if we all became vegetarian?

There is one other argument that comes up surprisingly often. Well, if the whole world decided simultaneously to stop eating meat, there would be an enormous crisis! However, common sense tells us that changes do not happen in such a way, except where there is a major panic over health, as with salmonella in eggs or the bse scare. Vegetarianism has been growing in recent decades but in the way we would expect – in a relatively slow, steady, and progressive manner. When change happens in this way, farmers and the food industry adjust to suit the market. Fewer animals are bred, so the total number of farm animals declines. There is no question of us being lumbered with vast herds of animals roaming around the countryside.

Will I miss having meat in my diet?

To start with, the answer for many people is probably ‘yes’. It would be normal for you to experience cravings for meat from time to time – but this will probably be just a passing phase and won’t last very long. If you begin to have doubts about what you’re doing then reflect on your reasons for becoming vegetarian in the first place. Think about what it is you’re really giving up – your involvement in death and destruction. Think about the benefits of what you’re doing, for yourself; the benefits for your health and for your conscience – and for others; the contribution you’re making towards a better world.

We all hit times when our own actions seem insignificant in this very large and complex world of ours. In the chapter on ‘Meat and Metta’ (page 80) we’ll see that the whole subcontinent of India became almost entirely vegetarian as a result of individuals giving up meat – and that was in a time and place where there were no mass media to spread ideas and information. At times when we feel discouraged, it’s good to bear this in mind. Your actions are important. You are shaping the world whatever you do. Why not change it for the better?

Above all, enjoy the change in your diet. You’ll be performing a highly positive action in giving up meat. You’ll probably get more pleasure from your food, you’ll almost certainly be healthier, and you can be absolutely sure that there will be less suffering in the world as a result of your actions.

What about veganism?

A vegan diet is one that excludes all animal products, including dairy and eggs. In addition many vegans do not wear leather or wool, and avoid other products that contain ingredients derived from animals.

For some, becoming vegetarian is not enough. The sufferings of animals in the dairy and poultry industries are so great that many people feel they have to take a stand against it by abstaining from dairy products and eggs. Indeed, it’s a perfectly logical step from vegetarianism to veganism. If we want to reduce the amount of harm that our needs and appetites cause, it is unhelpful to assume that because we’ve become vegetarian we’ve done all we can. Vegetarians need to avoid complacency, and the arguments in this book support the change from vegetarianism to veganism just as much as they do the change from meat-eating to vegetarianism.

As we have seen, the dairy and meat industries are, in reality, a single economic entity. Cows have to calve in order to lactate. Most of the calves (mainly the male ones) have no value except as meat. By supporting the dairy industry, we are also supporting the meat industry. It makes sense, considering what we have seen, to go the whole way and stop supporting both. This can involve a bit of scrutinizing of labels – eggs and milk are used in a large range of products, including biscuits, cakes, yoghurt, ice-cream, chocolate, etc., although there are vegan alternatives to all of these.

If you do decide to become vegan there is one nutrient that you do need to take special notice of – vitamin B12. This is needed for the healthy production of blood and to maintain the nervous system. Meat and dairy products are rich sources, but vegetables have only traces of this vitamin. However, it is abundant in yeast extract and fermented foods like soy sauce and miso, and B12 is added as a supplement to other foods (some margarines, soya milk, breakfast cereals, etc.). We need only minute quantities every day, and even in pregnancy two-millionths of a gram daily should be sufficient for good health. If in doubt take a supplement.

If you eat meat, you might think it’s too big a change to go straight to a vegan diet. In fact your digestive system might not take kindly to such a large change in your dietary habits in too short a time. It makes more sense to change your habits little by little – after all, any change you make in moving towards veganism is going to benefit the world. Even if you don’t feel you can make the step from being a meat-eater to being a vegan all at once, it is still good to be aware that becoming vegetarian is an immensely positive action. It will lead, over the course of an average human life, to many scores of animals not having to experience the hells that we have been exploring in imagination. Once you feel comfortable about being a vegetarian you can begin to adopt a vegan diet more and more.

If you are a vegetarian who still eats dairy products and eggs, I hope this exploration of the principles of vegetarianism and the practices of modern farming will persuade you to take a further step in the direction of abstaining from harm and cultivating an all-embracing love for all that lives.


59: John Bennett, The Hunger Machine , Polity Press, Cambridge1987, p.37.

Engaged Buddhism

Is there such as thing as disengaged Buddhism?

An article by Maitrīsara, former secretary of the Network of Engaged Buddhists.

I have one of those ‘thought for the day’ pads next to my desk called Insight from the Dalai Lama. I find it helps to remind me of the intention behind my daily work as a community worker and trainer in the voluntary sector.

One day recently the entry said:

It is not enough to be compassionate. You must act. There are two aspects to action. One is to overcome the distortions and afflictions of your own mind, that is, in terms of calming and eventually dispelling anger. This is action out of compassion. The other is more social, more public. When something needs to be done in the world to rectify the wrongs, if one is really concerned with benefiting others, one needs to be engaged, involved.

The Dalai Lama

So what has Buddhism got to offer when ‘something needs to be done in the world’?

Effectiveness – How many times have decisions that have adversely affected our communities and our planet been based on rage, revenge and the egotistical craving to be noticed and to make a mark on the world? To understand our deeper motivations and to be realistic about the motivations of others, helps us to get to grips with the action which would really make a difference.

Sustainability – Buddhist based mind trainings encourage calm, balance, patience, energy and courage. Above all, the practices help to address greed, hostility and confusion. In an ever more materialistic society, the relevance of simple living and contentment are evident.

The world of activism and action for justice also has something to offer our practice.

An expression of interconnectedness – Buddhists believe that life is a web of interconnections; in Thich Nhat Hahn’s words, we all “inter-are”. This means that every event – near or far, past or present is to do with us. We are connected with it and our response to it can help to heal or perpetuate its dis-ease. Each and every situation – locally and globally is an opportunity for compassion, for generosity, for truth and for equanimity.

The development of compassion – Buddhism is a practice of love and the Mahayana teachings tell the story of the Bodhisattva who suspends her attainment of Enlightenment until she has helped all to find peace. The Karaniya Metta Sutta tell us that we should cultivate loving kindness towards all living beings, just as a mother cares for her only child. How can we best express that care for other humans, our brother and sister species and all life?

Existing justice and helping organisations and movements already have structures, experience and resources to make a difference and Buddhists can take their place within them for maximum effect. The campaign against the DSEi arms fair in 2005 for example, was a protest during which a number of different peace groups took different roles and carried out different actions. Buddhists meditated on the trains full of arms fair delegates thereby demonstrating their objection to the sale of arms. At other times, Buddhists can work together within their Sanghas to take action such as the work of the Karuna Trust which raises money in the UK for social projects in India among the poorest Dalit communities.

Engaged Buddhism is a practice which helps to link the work on your own mind and the more social, public dimension of compassion. As the Dalai Lama suggests, all Buddhism is compassionate action – but engaged Buddhism refers to those aspects of action which are more public, more collective. Kenneth Kraft suggests that:

an exclusively inner transformation, however profound, is not the end of the trail. Greed, anger and delusion .. need to be uprooted in personal lives, but they also have to be dealt with as social and political realities.

Ken Jones refines the term to pinpoint just what we are talking about:

It usually comes down in discussion as to what ‘engagement’ means. This is why I prefer ‘SOCIALLY engaged Buddhism’ Otherwise it is claimed that ALL authentic Buddhism must inevitably be ‘engaged’, and the discussion starts to go round in circles.

Though there is no suggestion that all Buddhists should express both these aspects in their practice, the Buddhist world as a whole needs to and perhaps every Sangha needs to consider doing so in some way.

Buddhism in the West

Types of Buddhism and their Development in the West

(A slightly amended text written for the AQA syllabus by Robert Ellis, formerly a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order and a former Head of RS in a 6th-form college.)

The focus in this section is mainly on Buddhism in the West and the way that Buddhism has adapted to Western conditions. However, to understand this fully it will also be necessary to look further at some schools of Buddhism in the East to compare their Eastern and Western forms.

By ‘The West’ throughout, we shall mean the developed countries of Europe, North America and Australasia, with particular focus on the UK. ‘The East’, on the other hand, is a shorthand term for the traditionally Buddhist countries of Southern and Eastern Asia. It is worth pointing out that this is purely a matter of convention, and that who is West or East of whom depends on which way round the globe you go!

The Development of Buddhism in the West

The spread of Buddhism to the West

Although the Ancient Greeks undoubtedly had contact with Buddhism, all through the Middle Ages and beyond, the West was almost totally ignorant of it. One of the saints in the Roman Catholic list is St Josaphat, believed to be a corruption of ‘Bodhisat’, and the stories about him bear a vague resemblance to those of the Buddha (see Catholic Encyclopediaunder “Barlaam and Josaphat”). It was only in this heavily filtered and misunderstood form that stories of the Buddha made their way to medieval Europe.

Two hundred years ago, not only were there no Buddhists whatsoever in the West, but few even amongst educated or travelled people would recognise the term. There was very little understanding of what linked the Asian religions that stretched from Sri Lanka to Japan. Although stories about the Buddha were vaguely known, he was thought to be a god and there was no knowledge of a historical Buddha. No Buddhist texts had been translated into any European language.

Today, Buddhism is recognised as one of the great world religions throughout the West. All the most important texts have been translated, and there are Western scholars with detailed knowledge of the scriptural languages. Buddhist art and practices such as meditation are widespread. Buddhism is researched and taught at Western universities and also taught in some schools. Although the numbers of committed Buddhists still form a very small proportion of the population (perhaps about a quarter of 1%), the influence of Buddhism is spread much more widely than this, and continues to grow.

Of course, one could still argue that Buddhism is still widely misunderstood and fairly marginal in Western society. But nevertheless, the contrast between these two situations is astonishing. Given that a religion has to be recognised, known, understood and accepted before it can go as far as making converts, and that there is enormous resistance to Buddhism from other religions and from secular society, Buddhism has come a very long way in a relatively short time.

Overall reasons for the spread

Some of the major reasons for this are as follows:

  • The development of Oriental Studies, which created basic knowledge of Buddhism in the West
  • The development of competing forms of Christianity after the Reformation, which enabled an atmosphere of religious tolerance and individual religious choice to develop in the West
  • The declining influence of Christianity in the West, given the impact of science and humanism
  • European colonialism in Asia, which put Europeans in contact with Asian culture (especially the British with India)
  • The development of the “New Age” movement, which is hospitable to Buddhism and has helped people be receptive to it
  • The usefulness of techniques of meditation and martial arts in the modern West
  • The Chinese invasion of Tibet, creating a “Tibetan diaspora” of exiled lamas abroad
  • The efforts of certain key teachers in “translating” Buddhism into a form that can be readily understood and used by Westerners

We will be investigating some of these reasons in more detail in the rest of this section. Before we do this it is also worth noting one of the major reasons which is absent in the case of Buddhism which largely accounts for the spread of Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism in the West during the same time period. The spread of Buddhism is not due very much to immigration to the West from Buddhist countries. Although there are a few traditional Thai, Vietnamese, Korean and Chinese Buddhists in the West, particularly in the United States and Australia, this ethnic minority Buddhism has had very little connection with the spread of Buddhism among the native inhabitants of Western countries.


Why do you think that Buddhism (in contrast to, say, Islam) has spread and gained influence more through native Western populations than through ethnic minorities?

Oriental Studies

One of the most basic conditions allowing the understanding of Buddhism to develop in the West to start with has been the rise of Oriental Studies. This was the academic study of oriental cultures, including those of India, China, Japan, and other countries, by Westerners. This has included study of languages and texts, archaeology and anthropology.

Oriental Studies was pioneered by figures like Sir William Jones, who was a British judge in Calcutta in the late eighteenth century, one of the first British people to take a genuine interest in Indian culture. In China and Japan Oriental Studies was pioneered by missionary Jesuits who realised that in order to convert the natives of those lands, it was first essential to understand their view of the world. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries these studies developed to such an extent that today many (though not all) British and American universities offer Oriental Studies courses of some kind, and an entire institution, the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, is devoted to them.

Some key figures in Oriental Studies for the understanding of Buddhism:

  • Max Müller, Sanskritist: developed the understanding of Hindu and Buddhist scriptural languages
  • Sir Alexander Cunningham, archaeologist: first realised that the Buddha was a historical figure
  • Eugene Burnouf, philologist: the first European academic to identify “Buddhism” as a religion and subject of study
  • Alexander Csoma de Körös, Tibetan scholar: a Hungarian who was the first European to study and translate Tibetan texts
  • T.W. Rhys-Davids and Mrs T.W. Rhys-Davids: founders of the Pali Text Society devoted to translating Pali scriptures (which still exists), and translators of many texts from the Pali Canon
  • Arthur Schopenhauer: The first Western philosopher to take Hindu and Buddhist ideas seriously and incorporate them into his philosophy


Choose one of the above figures and research them further, using Stephen Batchelor’s Awakening of the West or the internet. Write a brief summary on their contribution to the Western understanding of Buddhism.

The first Western Buddhists

Even during the nineteenth century scholarly investigation of Buddhism, however, it did not occur to any of the investigators to actually practise Buddhism. Most of the scholars would have thought of themselves as at least loosely Christian and would not have dreamed of changing their religion. They were practising science in investigating Buddhism from what they took to be an objective standpoint, and religious participation would be taken to undermine the objectivity of the investigation. These kinds of attitudes linger to this day amongst many scholars of Buddhism in universities.

The only actual serious Western convert to Buddhism recorded before the late nineteenth century was the former Jesuit missionary Christavao Ferreira, who may have been a forced convert to Buddhism in Japan during the seventeenth century. However, the next converts, Madame Blavatsky and Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, revealed the beginning of a new tendency. Founders of the theosophists, a universalist group who tried to find truth in all religions but singled out Buddhism for special praise, Blavatsky and Olcott were the first Europeans to publicly take the Refuges and Precepts in 1880. Olcott encouraged a revival of confidence among Buddhists in British occupied Sri Lanka, which led to a number of monks gaining Western education and some other Westerners becoming Buddhists.

In 1902, the first Englishman was ordained as a Buddhist monk: this was Allan Bennett, who received the name of Ananda Metteyya. Although he returned to England from Sri Lanka, though, he was not really able to do very much to spread Buddhism in England.

In 1924 came the foundation of the Buddhist Society in London, by Christmas Humphreys, a high court judge. The Buddhist Society was not aligned to any one school of Buddhism, but tended to be Theravada in flavour. Many of its members thought of themselves as Buddhists, but many were of an armchair variety who were mainly interested in discussing the ideas rather than meditating or changing their lifestyle. The Society survives to this day.

The Sixties

It was only really in the 1960’s that more actively Buddhist organisations began to emerge in the West. It was at this point that new freedoms began to open up for young people in the Western democracies: they were able to experiment with different beliefs and lifestyles, and also to travel. This coincided with the arrival of Buddhist teachers in the West, especially Tibetan lamas fleeing the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1961. Other new teachers, such as the Englishman Sangharakshita and the German Lama Anagarika Govinda, were returning from a self-imposed exile in the East.

At this point Buddhism became one of the influences on the New Age movement. Various famous hippies and beatniks experimented with Buddhism, such as Jack Kerouac (author of “The Dharma Bums”) and Allan Ginsberg (poet). Anti-establishment figures like Timothy Leary, the LSD pioneer, drew parallels between drug experience and meditational experience. Many hippies took the road to India, many overland in various battered vehicles, and congregated in Kathmandu, Dharamsala or Goa in search of enlightenment. Some of these eventually encountered Buddhism. There was much enthusiasm for Buddhism at this time, but little order or discipline, and much woolly thinking.

Out of this, however, emerged individuals and organisations who took Buddhism much more seriously and were determined to live their whole lives by its precepts. The new Buddhist organisations can be divided between those which imported an established Eastern form of Buddhism into the West, and those which attempted to start a new, distinctively Western form of Buddhism.

Traditional forms of Buddhism in the West

Perhaps the most popular of the traditional forms of Buddhism was Zen. Under the impact of western popularisers like Alan Watts, Zen changed from being the austere and deeply ceremonial religion it often is in Japan, to a religion of spontaneity and instant realisation. The simplicity of Zen practice made it easily compatible with Western lifestyle, and the teaching that we simply have to realise that we are already enlightened was often understood to cut out the hard work involved in Buddhist practice. Those who tried to practise Zen seriously then found that this was a misunderstanding, and that the spontaneity of Zen is created through much hard work.

Zen also became popular through its links with martial arts such a judo and taekwondo, and the Zen aesthetic, expressed in Japanese rock gardens and tea ceremonies, also became popular in the West. There were also more scholarly, but still enthusiastic, communicators of Zen to the West like D.T. Suzuki and Christmas Humphreys. Zen monasteries were founded in the West, of which the most famous in this country is probably Throssel Hole Priory in Northumberland.

Tibetan Buddhism also became popular in the West through the efforts of exiled lamas. Some of the most important of these have been Chögyam Trungpa (a gifted but controversial teacher), Lama Yeshe, and Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. Trungpa and Yeshe founded Samye Ling, a Tibetan monastery in the border area of Scotland, but Trungpa then disrobed and married and went to the United States, where he founded several new organisations. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso founded the Manjushri Institute in Cumbria, which has become the headquarters of the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT), an exclusive group in the tradition of one particular school of Tibetan Buddhism, which has spread rapidly through the UK and become the most numerous Tibetan group.

The Theravada has also been represented through the foundation of a number of Thai and Burmese monasteries in the West. One of the first of these in the UK was the London Buddhist Vihara, founded by Hammalawa Saddhatissa in 1954. Amaravati in Hertfordshire and Chithurst in Sussex followed, founded by the Thai teacher Ajahn Chah. These monasteries depend on lay support in the traditional fashion, which they gain through a combination of support from the Thai community in the UK and Western converts who might, for example, go to the monastery to learn meditation. These monasteries now contain a mixture of Thai (sometimes Burmese) and Western monks.

Two Japanese devotional schools have also found their way into the West. The Pure Land school is mainly represented by people of Chinese and Japanese origin particularly in the United States. In the UK it was promoted through the mid-20th century by the Reverend Jack Austin, originally a Soto Zen priest, who was ordained in the Jodo Shinshu tradition in Japan in 1977 and founded the Shin Buddhist Association of Great Britain. The other devotional school is Nichiren Shoshu, which is focused on devotion to the Lotus Sutra and recitation of a mantra which means ‘homage to the Lotus Sutra’: nam myoho rengye kyo. A combination of simplicity of practice and flexibility in trying to make use of worldly motives has helped Nichiren Shoshu spread quickly in the West and gain some famous supporters, such as pop stars.

At the same time, from the sixties, others were taking a more radical route: attempting to establish a new form of Buddhism more directly suited to Western conditions. There were two early attempts at this, a ‘Western Buddhist Order’ (different from the recent one) set up in 1951 by Robert Clifton, and the Scientific Buddhist Association set up by Gerald du Pre and Paul Ingram. Neither of these have gained very much support, and the first Western Buddhist Order has now long died out. However, in the Sixties two Westerners who had each spent much time in the East, studying and practising Buddhism, returned to Europe and each tried to begin a new Western form of Buddhism. These two figures were Lama Anagarika Govinda and Sangharakshita. Govinda founded the Arya Maitreya Mandala, but again this is a very small organisation. It is Sangharakshita who has had the most success.

Sangharakshita, an Englishman from London originally called Dennis Lingwood, spent twenty years in India, ordained first as a Theravada monk and then increasingly adopted Mahayana practices whilst living in contact with Tibetan lamas in the town of Kalimpong on the northern frontier with Tibet. He came to believe that a Buddhist practitioner who had understood the core principles of Buddhism could make use of a wide range of practices from the whole Buddhist tradition, so he refused to confine his loyalties to one school. On returning to the UK, he at first tried to work with the Buddhist Society, but got into too much conflict with them and decided to form his own organisation. Thus in 1968, the Western Buddhist Order (distinct from Clifton’s version – and now known as the Triratna Buddhist Order, TBO) and the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (now known as Triratna Buddhist Community, TBC) began.

The TBO is not a monastic order, but has a membership who are publicly acknowledged as effectively committed Buddhists despite leading a wide variety of lifestyles. The TBC has succeeded in making Buddhism more accessible to Westerners by teaching two simple core meditation practices and stressing the spiritual value of friendship and of individual cultural development within a western setting. It has also dropped the hierarchical power structure of traditional Eastern schools and has become increasingly decentralised. At the same time it has stressed the value of creating contexts for serious Buddhist practice: communities, right livelihood businesses, retreat centres and urban Buddhist centres. It has now spread to many parts of the world and throughout the UK.


Why do you think Buddhism has developed these two different forms in the West, rather than simply importing Eastern schools or simply adopting a Western form of Buddhism?

Further Reading
Cush p.154-160
Peter Harvey An Introduction to Buddhism p.300-321
Batchelor The Awakening of the West
James Coleman The New Buddhism

Past questions on AQA syllabus:
Consider the factors which have contributed to the establishment of various forms of Buddhism in the West.
Outline the establishment of Buddhism in the West, and assess the claim that Buddhism is popular in the West because it contrasts so much with the Western way of life.

Theravada East and West

Theravada Buddhism East and West

(Written for the AQA syllabus by Robert Ellis, formerly a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order and a former Head of RS in a 6th-form college.)

Theravada Buddhism in the East

In brief, Theravada differs from Mahayana Buddhism in its appeal to the historical Buddha and the Pali Canon, the stress on nirvana as an individual goal to be reached through becoming a monk, and its generally greater conservatism. Theravada Buddhism is the only surviving school of the Hinayana (or non-Mahayana) schools in Ancient India. When Buddhism was wiped out in mainland India in the tenth and eleventh centuries CE, Theravada Buddhism survived in Sri Lanka and subsequently established itself in Thailand, Burma and Cambodia. It is the dominant religion in all these countries (in Thailand and Burma, the established and official religion).

The practice of Theravada Buddhism in the East today is changing, but maintains some important core features:

  1. A close association with nationalism. Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka, Thailand and Burma is closely associated with national identity in those countries, having been established as the official religion for many centuries.
  2. High social status for monks, who, for example, always eat before the laity and sit at a higher level.
  3. Temporary ordination as an important part of the education and socialisation process for young men
  4. A changing role for monks in the community, whose role as a provider of social services is being gradually taken over by the state
  5. The erosion of Buddhist identity by consumerism (especially in Thailand) and conflict with Marxism (which, under Pol Pot, tried to destroy Buddhism in Cambodia)
  6. Buddhism also becoming the focus of radical social, political and environmental movements, such as the Sarvodaya Sramadana in Sri Lanka (see Harvey Introduction to Buddhist Ethics p.225-234)

Using Cush p.70-84, make notes on Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka and Thailand. You can find more detailed information in Richard Gombrich’s Theravada Buddhism.

After looking at Theravada Buddhism in Asia, what features of it would you expect to be most difficult to transfer to the West?

Theravada Buddhism in the West

As the most conservative form of Buddhism, it might be thought that Theravada Buddhism would have the most difficulty adapting to different conditions in the West. However, some other features of the Theravada have proved helpful in establishing it in the West.

  • The greater reliance on scripture, appeal to the historical Buddha, perceived greater rationality and ritual simplicity, creates a parallel with Protestantism which has made the Theravada easier to accept than the Mahayana for Westerners with a Protestant background. (However, it’s certainly a huge oversimplification to think of Theravada as “Protestant Buddhism” and Mahayana as “Catholic Buddhism”: it’s a parallel to be used only with great caution!)
  • Many of the early Orientalist scholars assumed that Theravada was “real” Buddhism and Mahayana some kind of corruption of it: an attitude which has lingered in some quarters. This involves an uncritical acceptance of Theravada claims of superiority based on a supposed link with the historical Buddha. The Mahayana viewpoint on this remained unheard for a long time in Western academic circles.
  • The Theravada has maintained a strong meditation tradition amongst the “Forest Monks” of Sri Lanka and Thailand. This has made a major contribution to the development of Buddhist meditation in the West.
  • British colonial links with Sri Lanka and Burma have created a ready point of contact between Theravada and the Western world, particularly with the UK. There was also a lot of contact between Thailand and Americans during the Vietnam War, when Thailand provided a base for American operations.

Theravada has spread in the UK by two types of methods: the founding of monasteries, and the development of local groups or societies. Local groups have sprung up in many places in the UK, and the Samatha Trust, for example, teaches Theravada-style meditation in local groups.

There are now about 12 Theravada Buddhist monasteries in the UK. Some of these are inhabited wholly or mainly by expatriate Thai or Burmese monks, and are mainly supported by, and give teachings to, an expatriate lay community. However, there are other monasteries where most if not all the monks are Westerners. A group of these has been founded by Ajahn Sumedho, the American-born disciple of Ajahn Chah, a leading teacher from the tradition of Forest Monasteries specialising in meditation in Thailand. These started in Chithurst, Sussex, and since then new monasteries have been founded in Devon and at Amaravati, near Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire. Chithurst is one of the few places in the UK where you can see Buddhist monks going on a regular alms round.

The absence of a traditional supporting community has naturally led to some of the features of the Theravada in the East being compromised when it is imported to the West. For example, the tradition of young men joining the monastery as part of their education has not been imported. However, Theravada monasteries in the UK do continue to depend entirely on lay donations, strictly follow the vinaya rules (for example, only eating before midday, celibacy, wearing the correct robes, strictly limited personal possessions etc.), and continue to preserve the strong Theravada distinction between the roles of monks and lay people. Theravadins argue that all these things are intrinsic parts of the pure Theravadin tradition and must not be compromised.

Net search
Look at at least one of the following websites of Theravada organisations in the UK. Take notes on the history of the organisation and ways they seem to have and or have not adapted to a Western environment:

Western Buddhist critics of the Theravada in the UK argue that the Theravada organisations have imported features of Eastern Buddhism which are merely cultural and not essential to Buddhism. How far would you agree or disagree?

Past questions
Outline how Theravada Buddhism has adapted itself in the West and adapted to Western society, and assess how successful this adaptation has been.

Further reading on Theravada in the West
Peter Harvey An Introduction to Buddhism p.310-314

Tibetan Buddhism East and West

Tibetan Buddhism East and West

Written for the AQA syllabus by Robert Ellis, formerly a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order and a former Head of RS in a 6th-form college.

Tibetan Buddhism in the East

Buddhism in Tibet was imported directly from India between the 8th century and 12th century CE, and thus has preserved many of the features of Indian Buddhism as it had developed up to that time, just before Buddhism in India itself was wiped out. In particular it stresses the Vajrayana (or Tantra), believed to be the third phase of development both of Buddhism as a whole and of the individual practitioner, after those of the Hinayana and Mahayana. The isolation of Tibet, a country which consists of an enormous high-altitude plateau surrounded by the world’s highest mountains, contributed to preserving this form of Buddhism from outside influences.

The Vajrayana, or Tantric Buddhism, applied the reasoning found in the Madhyamika doctrine of Shunyata in a very practical way. If all things are Shunyata, then even the most despised things in the world are part of it, as much as the holiest. In the teaching of the Tantric saints of India, known as siddhas, Buddhist practice must force us to face our prejudices about things we consider impure or immoral, and through ritualisation and meditation, realise their nature as Shunyata and their ultimate purity. Tantric ritual thus incorporated the use of sex, meat, and alcohol, and laid particular stress on direct confrontation with death. It is due to this Tantric influence that figures in Tibetan Buddhist art contain representations of skulls, bowls of blood, severed heads, fearsome animals, monsters, nudity and sexual union. For example, the Padmasambhava figure here is holding a skull-bowl full of blood and is holding a trident with three heads impaled on it in order of their stage of decay. These are intended to force us to confront our fears and taboos and realise an aspect of enlightenment.

Tibetan Buddhism thus preserves some features which have made it fascinating to Westerners: a rich and colourful religious art based on a complex symbolism, a wide range of meditation practices from the simplest mindfulness practices to extremely complex visualisations, and a highly developed monastic system which had a central place in Tibetan society, yet at the same time allowed lay participation in the highest levels of practice (unthinkable in the Theravada). Religion had a central part in Tibetan society which was not differentiated from other areas of human concern, with even the rulers, the Dalai Lamas, being monks and teachers.

Some distinctive features of Tibetan Buddhism are:

  • The adaptation of a large number of indigenous Tibetan gods (from the pre-Buddhist Bön religion) to powerful symbolic roles as representatives of aspects of enlightenment. This is represented in Tibetan legend by Padmasambhava, the figure credited with bringing Buddhism to Tibet, taming its demons and making them serve the dharma.
  • The use of elaborate magical ritual derived from the Tantra.
  • The existence of a teaching role independent of the status of monk: the lama. Not all lamas are monks: some are laymen with families.
  • The belief in reincarnate lamas, or tulkus, who are believed to be bodhisattvas taking voluntary rebirth to help others. The Dalai Lama is one of these.
  • Emphasis on the role of the guru as an immediate representative of the Buddha, in direct relationship to the disciple.
  • The development of four different schools within Tibetan Buddhism. These agree on most fundamental aspects of Tibetan Buddhism but differ on the teachings and practices they emphasise and the traditions they maintain.

Read and take notes from Cush p.115-123 on Tibetan Buddhism.

What aspects of Tibetan Buddhism would you expect to be most difficult to transfer to the West?

The Chinese invasion and Tibetan diaspora

The spread of Tibetan Buddhism in the West is impossible to separate from important political events in the East. Tibet was an independent country prior to 1951, but China had a longstanding claim on it. Between 1949 and 1951, following the communist triumph in the Chinese civil war, the Chinese invaded Tibet, but at first a settlement was reached whereby the Dalai Lama stayed and retained control over internal affairs. However, in 1959 there was a Tibetan uprising, put down by the Chinese, the Dalai Lama fled to India, and the Chinese, after taking full control, began a period of repression in Tibet which went on for about 20 years.

According to the International Campaign for Tibet:

The destruction of Tibet’s culture and oppression of its people was brutal during the twenty years following the uprising. 1.2 million Tibetans, one-fifth of the country’s population, died as a result of China’s policies, according to an estimate by the Tibetan government in exile; many more languished in prisons and labor camps; and more than 6000 monasteries, temples and other cultural and historic buildings were destroyed and their contents pillaged. (see

During this period large numbers of Tibetans, particularly including monks, nuns, and lamas, fled to India and Nepal, some going on from there to Western countries. The Dalai Lama established a government in exile in Dharamsala in the Indian Himalayas, which continues to peacefully challenge Chinese rule in Tibet.

Large numbers of Chinese have migrated to Tibet since the invasion, meaning that Tibetans are now outnumbered. Some monasteries have now been reconstructed and monks and nuns allowed to return under strict conditions of Chinese government regulation.

Naturally, many Westerners who have adopted Tibetan Buddhism have also joined the political campaign against the Chinese occupation of Tibet. For a pro-Tibetan view giving detail of Chinese repression of Tibet, look at For a balanced account including the Chinese view, see

Tibetan Buddhism in the West

Tibetan Buddhism in the West needs to be understood in relation to the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism in the East: Kagyu, Gelug, Sakya and Nyingma. All of these have been represented in the West to some extent, though it is the Kagyus who arrived first and have been most active. It is the Gelugs who are the most influential politically, and this is the school to which the Dalai Lama belongs. The Sakyas are the smallest school and have had the least impact in the West, whereas the Nyingmas, with their tradition of married lamas and their tradition of Dzogchen “Pure Awareness” meditation training, have had a distinct following.

The following attempts to make the relationships clear between the schools, the best-known teachers and organisations. Most of the teachers have the title of Lama (teacher), Rimpoche (incarnate teacher), or Geshe (doctor):

Chögyam Trungpa, Akong Rimpoche, Chime Rimpoche, Ato Rimpoche, Vajradhatu Organisation,Rokpa

Lama Yeshe, Lama Zopa, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, Geshe Rabten, Geshe Wangchen
Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT), New Kadampa Tradition (NKT)

Ngakpa Jampa Thaye

Dudjom Rimpoche, Sogyal Rimpoche, Namkhai Norbu Rimpoche
Rigpa, Dzogchen Community, Rigdzin Shikpo, Longchen Foundation

The spread of Tibetan Buddhism in the West has raised a number of issues:

  • Should Tibetan Buddhist division into schools and sectarianism be imported into Western conditions?
  • Should the traditional model of ordination as a monk or nun be used for Westerners?
  • Should the importance of faith in the guru as representative of the Buddha, important in Tibetan Buddhism, be promoted as much amongst more sceptical (or gullible) Westerners?
  • Related to this, should apparently erring lamas be unconditionally trusted? Should Westerners who want them be given access to higher (Vajrayana) teachings when they have not yet absorbed the basic (Hinayana) ones?
  • Should traditions closely associated with ethnic Tibetan tradition, such as the use of divination, the burying of jewels in stupas, or the following of traditional Tibetan festivals, be followed in the West?
  • How should Tibetan Buddhists relate to other types of Buddhists and to other religions? Should they maintain traditional claims of exclusive access to the true dharma, or adopt Western relativism?

Websites of Tibetan Buddhist Organisations

Chinese/Japansese Buddhism East and West

Chinese and Japanese Buddhism East and West

(Written for the AQA syllabus by Robert Ellis, formerly a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order and a former Head of RS in a 6th-form college.)

Buddhism in China

In contrast to the Vajrayana Buddhism of Tibetan, the Mahayana Buddhism of China was imported at an earlier stage of Buddhist history, after the development of the Mahayana but largely before the development of Vajrayana (though Tantrism does form one small school in the Chinese and Japanese tradition). The Buddhism of China thus started off with a selection of Mahayana schools imported from India, but then also developed its own schools, giving a distinctively Chinese slant on Buddhism, which proved more popular in the long run. It was these Chinese schools which then went on to spread to Korea, Vietnam, and most importantly Japan.

Buddhism in China had a whole new set of conditions to adapt to. Chinese culture was perhaps almost as different from Indian as European culture is to Indian, and there were already two well-established Chinese religions, Confucianism and Taoism. These had a big influence on the way Chinese Buddhism developed. The emphasis on accepting an enlightenment that is already present in oneself in the Ch’an tradition, for example, could be seen as due to Taoist influence. The changes in attitudes to monasticism in China, such as the fact that monks started to work (the Chinese were less sympathetic to the value of monastic idleness as a sign of renunciation), may also be seen as due to Confucian influence.

The most important home-grown Chinese schools are the TienT’ai School, which stresses the Lotus Sutra, the Ch’an School, which emphasises meditation, and the Pure Land School, which emphasises devotion to Amitabha (the Red Buddha) in order to be reborn in his Pure Land, whence it is much easier to gain enlightenment. The following shows the main Chinese schools in relation to their Indian forbears and Japanese descendants:

INDIA: Madhyamika: Purely philosophical school. Name means “Middle Way”. Founded by Nagarjuna in C2nd CE. Developed Prajnaparamita teachings about emptiness…> CHINA: San Lun: Introduced by Kumarajiva in C5th, called ‘3 Treatise School’. Straight Indian import with no Chinese modifications. Soon absorbed into other schools…>JAPAN: Sanron: A minor school in Japan

INDIA: Yogachara/ Cittamatra: Purely philosophical school. Founded by Asanga and Vasubandhu in C4th CE. Psychological explanation of the dharmas. Trikaya doctrine: the Buddha’s 3 bodies…>CHINA: Fa Hsiang: Introduced by Paramartha and Hsuan-Tsang in C7th, called “Characteristics of dharmas” school. Soon absorbed into other schools…>JAPAN: Hosso: A minor school in Japan

INDIA: Avatamsaka: Based on the Indian Avatamsaka Sutra which describes Indra’s Net – the interpenetration of all dharmas…>CHINA: Hua Yen: First systematised by the Chinese master Fa-tsang in C7th. Used Yogachara ideas and put them in a wider framework.Also Tien Tai Named after mountain (Heavenly Terrace) of its HQ. Founded by Chih-I in C6th. Based around Lotus Sutra: stressed meditation and study….>JAPAN: Kegon: Kegon Among earliest Japanese schools. Stresses Buddha-nature based on interpenetration. Never gained wide following in Japan. Also Tendai Brought to Japan by Saicho in C9th. HQ at Mt. Hiei. Found favour at court and developed elaborate ritual and philosophy. Highly influential.

INDIA: Tantra/ Vajrayana: Began around 500 CE (also in Hinduism) Based on Tantras describing meditations. Complex magic, ritual and symbolism. Non-rejection of things in world…>CHINA: Chen Yen: Introduced in C8th but died out quickly. Passed on to Japan and Korea. Dominant form in Tibet and Mongolia…>JAPAN: Shingon: Brought to Japan by Kukai in C9th. Developed elaborate magical rituals invoking spiritual beings. Favoured by court and highly influential.

INDIA: Pure Land Sutras…>CHINA: Ching T’u: Started by Tan-Luan in C6th. Faith-based school where Amitabha is invoked to bring one to the Pure Land. Wide lay following…>JAPAN: Jodo/Jodo Shin: (Pure Land) Started by Honen and Shinran in C12th, splitting from Tendai. Gives up all faith in own efforts and relies on Amitabha completely. Extremely popular among laity.

CHINA: Ch’an: Founded by Bodhidharma in C6th. Name means “dhyana”: back to meditation. Stresses return to simplicity and strict practice…>JAPAN: Zen: Introduced in C12th by Eisai. Strictness andpracticality appealed to Samurai. Minority following. 2 types: Rinzai and Soto.

Buddhism in Japan

Buddhism was imported into Japan either directly from China or via Korea. So, although most Japanese Buddhism reveres the historical Buddha and shares basic Buddhist doctrines like the Four Noble Truths with every other form of Buddhism, it is only indirectly related to the Indian roots of Buddhism, and most of the schools that were successful in Japan were ones that had developed in China.

Buddhism shares the Japanese religious landscape with Shinto, the native Japanese religion that involves reverence for a variety of gods, ancestors, and the Emperor. Often it is difficult to tell where Buddhism ends and Shinto begins, and many Japanese combine the two in some way. The history of religion in Japan is one of a struggle for influence between the two religions, with each being dominant during different periods in relation to the political situation.

Today, Buddhism in Japan really falls into four types: the traditional schools like Tendai and Shingon, which maintain a strong monastic tradition; the Zen schools, which have monasteries but also influence a minority of lay people; the Pure Land schools, which have no monks but have a popular lay following and have non-celibate priests; and the Nichiren Shoshu (Soka Gakkai) tradition, which developed in Japan itself, and like the Pure Land is a non-monastic and devotional form of Buddhism.

A Brief History of Japanese Buddhism: dates, historical events in [ ], followed by developments in Buddhism:

538: [Epidemic]: First Buddhist delegation arrives from Korea. Buddhist temple burned and Buddhism expelled.
C7th & C8th: [Strong Chinese cultural influence] : Six Chinese schools imported. Buddhism supported by elite. Shinto-Buddhist conflict.
794-1185: [Power shifts to Kyoto] : Distinctive Japanese schools emerge. Tendai and Shingon ascendancy: elaborate ritual and philosophy. Monasteries gain political power. Shinto-Buddhist harmony begins.
1185-1336: [Power in hands of samurai (warriors) and the shogun (military dictator)] : Decline of Tendai and Shingon. Down-to-earth religion, especially Zen, favoured by the samurai. Rinzai Zen imported by Eisai (1141-1215). Soto Zen imported by Dogen (1200-1253). Pure Land founded by Honen (1133-1212).Nichiren (1222-82) founds Nichiren Shoshu.
1336-1573: [Samurai dominance continues. Increasing prosperity and urbanisation.] : Zen flourishes among the samurai. Devotional forms of Buddhism achieve greater popular followings.
1573-82: [Nubunaga breaks samurai power and reunites Japan.] : Power of established Buddhist schools broken. Tendai temple complex on Mt.Hiei destroyed.
1582-1868: [Long period of international isolation and authoritarian rule.] : No new developments in Buddhism. Time of some great Zen figures like haiku poet Basho (1644-94) and Zen master Hakuin (1685-1768).
1868: [Imperial power restored. International isolation ended.] : Shinto becomes the state religion and emperor divinised. Buddhism considered foreign and persecuted for a while.
Late C19th: [Rapid industrialisation.] : Contact with other Buddhist countries stimulates scholarship.
Early C20th: [Rise of militant nationalism.] : Nichiren Shoshu heavily involved in nationalism. Other Buddhist groups remain passive.
1941-45: [Japan in World War 2. Invades large section of Eastern Asia, then driven back by Allies. Defeated by use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.] : According to Brian Victoria’s controversial book Zen at War, Zen Buddhists were closely implicated with the Japanese imperialism and war effort.
1945-present: [Rapid recovery and continued economic development.] : ‘New Religions’ such as Soka Gakkai (based on Nichiren but stressing peace) emerge. Zen, Pure Land and Soka Gakkai spread to the West.

Chinese and Japanese Buddhism in the West

It is the above three schools which have found their way to the West, rather than the more traditional Japanese schools of Buddhism, and nearly always in the Japanese form rather than Chinese, with the exception of communities of ethnic Chinese Pure Land Buddhists and a few practitioners of Chinese or Korean Zen among the Western population.

It is Zen Buddhism which has become the most common and widespread of these three forms of Buddhism. Perhaps it began in the UK in 1953, when Alan Watts, a Zen teacher from the US, leapt onto a platform, stood still for a few moments, and then cried ‘Wake Up!’. Western Zen has been divided between the serious traditional practitioners and the wacky spontaneous radicals.

The leading teachers who have gone through traditional Zen training include some Japanese monks who have come to the UK, and also Western teachers have gone to Japan for training and returned to start new organisations: perhaps the most famous of the latter is Peggy Kennett, who, as Roshi Jiyu Kennett, founded the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives, including Throssel Hole Priory in Northumberland. Throssel Hole makes considerable (and controversial) use of Christian ideas and language to try to create a form of Zen adapted to the West.

The wacky spontaneous radicals include mystic Alan Watts, poet Alan Ginsberg and eccentric figures like Douglas Harding, author of On Having No Head, and Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. On a very loose definition of the term the ‘Dharma Bums’ like Jack Kerouac in the United States were also advocates of ‘Beat Zen’.

Zen also has close links to martial arts in the West, and many people have developed an interest in Zen through the martial arts. A leading practitioner of both who has taught in Britain for many years is Trevor Leggett.

Some of the major questions Zen practitioners have had to face concern how to treat the Japanese and Chinese Zen heritage and how far to try to create a new radical form of Western Zen. Some teachers have argued that a basis in rigorous traditional training is essential to stop Zen becoming very superficial in the West, whilst others have argued that the essence of Zen has often been betrayed by the Japanese tradition, which claims access to a wordless truth beyond traditions and yet closely adheres to traditions and rituals. Western Zen practitioners visiting Japan have often been shocked by how authoritarian and ceremonial Japanese Zen is. Other Zen teachers have tried to recreate this tradition using elements of the Christian tradition in the West.

Look at at least four of the following websites, taking notes on any evidence you find of how forms of Chinese or Japanese Buddhism in the UK have maintained Chinese or Japanese practices, and how far they have adapted Western ones.


Nichiren Shoshu UK
Pure Land / Shin Buddhism or Amida Trust

Further Reading
Peter Harvey An Introduction to Buddhism p.148-169
Paul Reps Zen Flesh, Zen Bones (collection of ko’ans)
J. Blackstone Zen for Beginners
D. Suzuki An Introduction to Zen Buddhism
Alan Watts What is Zen?
Brad Warner Hardcore Zen

Triratna Buddhist Community

Triratna Buddhist Community

(Written for the AQA syllabus by Robert Ellis, formerly a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order and a former Head of RS in a 6th-form college. Triratna Buddhist Community was formerly known as the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, FWBO)

Triratna has already been briefly introduced, as the main movement which has made radical attempts to adapt Buddhism to Western conditions. Triratna differs from the more traditional Buddhist schools in the West in the following ways:

  • Its practices draw on the whole range of practices used in the traditional schools of Buddhism, and also incorporate Western practices where these are useful.
  • Its core ideas are based on the central concerns of early Buddhism and the teaching of the historical Buddha, but it also draws on Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana teachings.
  • The institution of monasticism has been replaced with membership of the Triratna Buddhist Order (TBO), which is a public recognition of commitment to a Buddhist practice rather than to a specific lifestyle.
  • Decision-making in the movement is made by consensus between members of the order. Order members in particular positions of responsibility do not have any power over other order members, unlike in the traditional schools. There is now no longer any headship of the Order.
  • Triratna has, however, continued a tradition of single-sex activities, which is established in traditional Buddhism but rarely practised below monastic level amongst the more traditional schools in the West.
  • Triratna has been distinctive in its emphasis on Right Livelihood Businesses and single-sex communities as ways of helping to support people who want to live a full-time Buddhist lifestyle in modern conditions. Like more traditional schools, it also has urban centres and retreat centres.
  • It has emphasised the value of friendship, and its helpfulness in spiritual development, much more than the traditional schools.
  • It has also emphasised the use of Western arts (visual arts, music, literature, etc) as providing a gateway to spiritual inspiration for people in the West.

What do you think might be the advantages and disadvantages of this kind of approach, compared to that of the traditional schools?

Use the Triratna website to find out about the following and make brief notes.
1. Attitudes to Eastern Buddhism
2. The emphasis on commitment to the 3 Jewels
3. Attitudes to Sangha
4. Communities and businesses
5. How Triratna is organised

Further Reading
Cush p.160-162
Sangharakshita Guide to the Buddhist Path p.215-218
Subhuti Sangharakshita: A New Voice in the Buddhist Tradition (esp. Chs. 9 & 10)

Past questions in AQA syllabus
Describe the various forms of Buddhism found in the West.
Explain and assess the validity of the claim that ‘Buddhism is rooted in eastern culture and can only be a passing fashion in the western world’.

Buddhist Meditation and Worship
  • learn meditation online with Wildmind
  • listen to various Buddhist chants
  • see below for extracts on aspects of meditation


The Diamond Throne

(extract from Change Your Mind, by Paramananda)

If asked, most of us would probably say that meditation is concerned with the mind. We might even hint that it is a kind of mind control or a way of putting oneself into some sort of a trance. In fact, to begin with anyway, meditation concerns not the mind so much as the body, although this is really just a way of talking, as you can’t separate the two. They are not two separate systems operating together, but two ways of talking about the one system which is us.

However, it is useful to think that meditation begins with the body if only to counteract our tendency to think of the mind, in its limited sense, as something that functions quite separately. We will perhaps be clearer about this if we think of meditation as being concerned simply with the quality of awareness. Awareness is a quality of the whole of us, not just of the mind or the body. If you watch a skilled potter working on a wheel, you see that their awareness is concentrated in their hands. When you watch a skilled actor, you find that the emotional meaning of the performance is revealed in the use of the body as much as in the spoken words.

Many of us seem to inhabit our heads rather than our bodies. It is as though all our energy is in our heads, and our bodies are rather elaborate vehicles for our brains to get about in – like sci-fi aliens with giant heads on underdeveloped bodies. There is also the opposite extreme, of total identification with the body, seeing the body as the ultimate repository of our sense of who we are. We can, it seems, go to either extreme: devaluing the body, or becoming obsessed with its superficial appearance.

In meditation, we are not concerned with either of these extremes. We are looking at the body in an altogether different way. We are trying to re-inhabit our bodies. We want to bring our awareness into our bodies, to rebuild a relationship with our physical selves that is characterized by a sensitivity like that of the hands of the potter, and an awareness of the emotionality of our bodies such as the actor might have.

One of the best-known symbols of Buddhism is that of the Buddha seated in meditation. This image can help to give us a sense of what we are trying to move towards when we meditate, and it conveys quite a lot about the spirit of meditation. It is an image found throughout the Buddhist world and increasingly in the West. The Buddha’s body expresses a sense of profound relaxation and alertness. It is still and composed, but at the same time vibrant. It seems alive with subtle energy. We see in this image that meditation is something that happens as much in the body as in the mind. I want to spend a little time talking about the image of the meditating Buddha before moving on to deal with the more practical aspects of posture.

The life of the Buddha makes a wonderful story. Very briefly, it is the story of a boy born into great luxury as the son of a local king in northern India, who becomes aware of the suffering inherent in human existence, of the impermanence that seems to vitiate even the most favourable circumstances of life. He is groomed by his father to be a ruler, but develops an intense desire to understand the source of human suffering, dukkha, and to find a way for himself and all others to be freed from it. Accordingly he leaves his homeland and lives the life of a wanderer, going from one spiritual teacher to the next. After many years of hardship he finally gains Enlightenment. He spends the rest of his long life teaching the path to Enlightenment that he has discovered, to all that would listen.

The Buddha’s life serves as a kind of blueprint or pattern for Buddhists, because it is as much in the events of his life as in his teachings that the wisdom of the Buddha is revealed. Here I am concerned with the image of the prince on the verge of breaking through to Enlightenment, but it is well worth reading a fuller account of the Buddha’s life, as the story can be a source of great inspiration, whether or not one thinks of oneself as a Buddhist.

Prince Siddhartha encountered great difficulties in his attempt to find an answer to the unsatisfactoriness of human existence. He brought himself to the brink of death in trying to liberate his ‘spirit’ from his body by means of the severe ascetic practices that were popular at the time. He became so weak that he nearly drowned in a shallow river whilst bathing, and this experience brought the realization that such self-mortification was of no use. He saw that unless he changed his ways he would very soon die without having found any solution to the fundamental problems of existence.

He resolved therefore to regain his strength and try a different approach. This new approach came to him out of a memory of his childhood. Once as a young boy he had been seated under a tree, watching his father plough a field, when he quite spontaneously entered into a state of great bliss and contentment. It now occurred to him that such a state might form the basis upon which a higher understanding could arise. So, having eaten, he seated himself under a tree, composed his body and his mind, and brought his powers of concentrated awareness to bear upon his examination of the human predicament.

It is at this point that, according to Buddhist mythology, there arose a figure called Mara, ‘the evil one’, who gathered together all his forces to try to prevent Siddhartha from becoming the Buddha. On a psychological level we could say that Mara is the personification of all the forces within our psyche that are resistant to change, and want to keep things as they are.

I am sure we are all familiar with at least some aspects of ourselves that are resistant to change, even if consciously we feel quite clear about what we would like to do. The prince was on the verge of going beyond the normal self-centred aspects of his own being, so it is not surprising that the opposite forces within him should rise up in a last desperate attempt to resist such profound transformation.

In Buddhist art, Mara’s forces are depicted as a vast army of strange and furious beings hurling all kinds of missiles at the prince, while he sits composed and undisturbed. As the rocks and arrows come close to the prince’s body they are transformed into beautiful blossoms and fall harmlessly around the majestic figure. After the failure of his attack, Mara tried a different approach to turn the prince’s mind away from the task it was resolved upon. Mara tried to instil a sense of doubt in his mind by questioning his right to be seated on the ‘Diamond Throne’.

Here Mara is referring to the place that Siddhartha has chosen for his meditation. According to Buddhist myth, all Buddhas gain Enlightenment on the same spot, and this is said to be the central point from which the whole universe unfolded. Now this doesn’t mean you have to go to India in order to meditate properly: in a sense, the Diamond Throne is created wherever someone sits in deep meditation. It refers not to a physical space, but to an unshakeable attitude. When you sit with complete composure you sit at the centre of all things; you create a centre of stability within the constantly changing chaos all around you.

So Mara challenged Siddhartha’s right to seat himself on this spot. In reply the prince extended his right arm and touched the earth with the tips of his fingers -a gesture of the hands known as the ‘earth-touching mudra.’ This is an image of the Buddha that is very often depicted in Buddhist art.

What happens next is quite wonderful. The goddess of the earth rises up out of the ground and testifies that the prince is indeed rightfully seated on the Diamond Throne, by virtue of his own great effort. She testifies that she has seen Siddhartha, throughout many life-times, develop to the point of perfection all the positive qualities of the human being – qualities of generosity, patience, energy, kindness, and awareness. At this testimony, Mara is completely undone and flees in dismay.

We might well wonder what this episode of calling the earth to witness, pivotal as it is in the life of the Buddha, has to do with us as individuals just embarking on the path of meditation. If we allow it to speak to us, we will find that it resonates with our own situation, at the very beginning of our own personal spiritual quest. We too need to call the earth to witness. We need to feel that when we take up our meditation posture we are, at our own level, occupying the Diamond Throne.Every time we sit down to meditate we are involved in the supreme human task of transforming the forces of Mara into the positive energies of the earth goddess. We are engaging in the process of evolution. As human beings we are the result of millions of years of evolution and development, from the time that the universe first took form. When we sit, we sit with the whole of this history behind us. In us, the process of evolution has become self-conscious. This is a truly remarkable thing. We have the opportunity to take evolution forward: as individuals, we can transform the seemingly blind, chaotic forces of nature into an increasingly concentrated power of self-awareness, clarity, and loving-kindness.

This might sound a little grand and overwhelming, when perhaps all we want is to learn to relax a bit, to calm down and enjoy life more fully. However, if we can engage those aspects of ourselves that reach out to go beyond what we now are, we will find that our lives become far richer. We will feel, perhaps for the first time, that our life is of real significance and meaning.

I’m not suggesting that we become puffed up and inflated with our own spirituality – we will soon find that such attitudes are the food of Mara. But we should take ourselves seriously. Buddhism teaches that all human beings are capable, through their own efforts, of Enlightenment. Even if we have only a glimpse of what such a state of being might be like, it is a wonderful thing just to feel that we are moving towards it, however long it might take us to achieve.

This attitude of sitting as though on our own Diamond Throne is developed through our meditation posture. This does not mean we have to sit perfectly in ‘full lotus’ position. It means sitting with confidence and a clear intention. It means learning to experience our body as a gift that comes to us out of inconceivable aeons of evolutionary development, and to feel that in this very body we can realize the highest expression of life.

Principles of Posture

Different schools of Buddhism have different ideas about which posture to adopt for meditation, and its importance, but essentially what we are trying to achieve is a posture that is comfortable and alert. Of course it is good if you can sit comfortably in a full lotus position, but unless you have done many years of yoga, or something similar, it is unlikely that you will be able to do so. You have to take into account your age, physical condition, and so on.

I like to use the word ‘comfort’ when talking about posture, not only because it means sitting at ease, but also because it has an interesting derivation. ‘Com’ means ‘with’, and ‘fort’ means ‘strength’, so ‘comfort’ means ‘with strength’. Sitting comfortably also means sitting ‘with strength’.

There are three general modes of posture to choose from. However, if you have particular health problems you may have to work out your own solution to them – whilst bearing in mind the basic principles of good posture.There are two distinct ways of sitting on the floor, or of course you can sit on a chair. I have heard many horror stories about people on retreat who are told that the only way to meditate is by sitting on the floor, and who spend the whole retreat struggling with unnecessary physical discomfort. There is nothing wrong with using a chair if this proves best for you.

Sitting on the Floor

You can sit either in some kind of cross-legged position or astride a few cushions. For many people sitting astride is a better option as you don’t need to be as flexible in order to do it. You should choose this position if you are not able to get the underside of the lower legs easily on to the floor in some form of cross-legged position (fig.1).

When you sit astride cushions you will normally need to be quite high off the ground – high enough not to put undue pressure on the lower legs or the ankles. You will soon find out if you are too low because it will hurt. And here is a good time to say very clearly that pain should not be endured during meditation. A certain amount of discomfort is a common experience when we are still quite new to meditation – after all, most of us probably haven’t sat still on the floor since we were children, if ever. But pain is our body’s way of telling us we are damaging it. So listen to it.

When you sit astride the cushions your legs and feet should point straight back. They should at least not be too splayed out. Your ankles should not be bent so that your feet stick out to the side. The rest of the posture is the same either way you sit, so let’s move on to the cross-legged position.

In general, I would tend to favour the cross-legged position unless you are distinctly more comfortable with one of the other options. You can sit in ‘full lotus’ or ‘half lotus’, or just with one leg resting in front of, or on top of, the other.

These positions are never, of course, entirely symmetrical because one leg has to be on top of or in front of the other. So if you are going to do a regular meditation practice it’s a good idea to alternate the relative position of the legs. It sounds more complicated than it really is!

Whether you sit straight or not is determined by the angle of your pelvis, and this in turn is dependent on the height of your cushions. It is my experience that most people tend to try to sit lower than they need to. All I can say is that it really isn’t more ‘spiritual’ to only use one cushion. Experiment a little with the height of your seat to determine what feels right.

What you are trying to achieve is a cushion height at which the pelvis feels upright, which will mean that the weight of the body feels as though it is falling directly down through the pelvis into the floor. In other words, the weight is not being taken by the legs. If you are too low your back will have a tendency to bow out, whilst if you are too high, the opposite will happen -the back will arch in (figs.2 & 3).

The idea of a straight back is rather misleading, as the spine is naturally curved and to force it to be straight is both impossible and undesirable. It is more that the back should feel naturally and easily erect, not collapsed in the lower back or forced into a ‘ramrod’ posture.

We need to have a sense of patience and sensitivity when we work with our posture. We might have sat in a rather slumped manner for many years, and to expect a ‘good’ posture right off is unrealistic. But if we get the height of our cushions right – and this can mean quite small adjustments sometimes – we should be able to get a fairly upright posture without too much trouble.

The type of cushion we use is important. It should not be too soft, like a pillow. If you are unable to find firm cushions, one option is to roll up pillows quite tightly to make them firmer. If you decide to take up meditation it is well worth investing in some good cushions made for the job. It’s the only expense involved in having a regular practice and it really does help.

Some people find they get on better on a meditation stool or bench, which should be fairly easy to find these days. The advantage of a bench is that it provides a firm sitting surface -you can use a thin cushion to provide a little padding. The disadvantage is that you are stuck with the same height, so make sure you know how high you need to be before you buy one.

Once you have the base of your posture right the rest tends to fall into place. Your arms need to be relaxed, supported either on the legs or in the lap, with the elbows kept quite close to the body. I like to wrap a blanket around my waist and tuck my hands into the top of the blanket. If your hands hang too low you may find that the weight of your arms pulling at the shoulders produces middle to upper back pain after a while. Your hands need to be in a position that allows your shoulders to be relaxed and your chest open.Your head should be very slightly inclined forward but not to the extent that you are constricted in the back of your neck or throat. Note that it should be your head that inclines forward, not your neck. The neck should be as upright as the rest of your spine.

Sitting on a Chair

It is ok to use a chair for meditation. It should have a fairly firm seat. It sometimes helps if the back legs are raised up just a little by means of, say, a phone directory or two. The resulting slight tilt will make it easier to maintain an upright posture without strain. Your feet should be flat on the floor, which will both help to relax your legs and provide stability and contact with the ground. Generally speaking, the back of the chair should not be used for support. If you are tall, try to find a chair with legs long enough to allow your knees to be a little lower than your pelvis. The rest of the posture is the same as for sitting on the floor.

Getting the Body Right

We all have habits of the body as well as the mind. For example, we might tend to hold one shoulder higher than the other, or our head to one side. This means it is not always easy to tell if we are sitting well. It can be useful, therefore, if someone else has a look at how you sit and gently adjusts your position. If you normally hold your head slightly crooked, it will at first feel lop-sided when it is adjusted to a better position. Posture is an important element in meditation and it is not just a matter of finding the correct posture then forgetting about it. We will need to work with our posture as part of our meditation practice.

There is a definite link between the state of our mind and our posture. This is why some forms of Buddhism put so much emphasis on the body. For example, in the Zen tradition they say ‘get the body right and the mind will naturally be concentrated’. And if we can work with the mind by working with the body, the converse is also true. As we become more concentrated the body will often adjust itself. We might feel our shoulders relaxing or some other part of the body where we tend to hold tension just easing off and allowing the body to straighten up and relax. As we become more experienced in meditation we will discover that even very subtle physical adjustments can make a big difference to the way we feel when we sit, as well as to our mental states.

While everyone’s body has its particular limitations, it can, with sensitivity, patience, and a good posture, become a source of great energy and pleasure within our practice. We might also find that meditation is a means by which we can slowly come to a different relationship with our body.

Experiencing the Body

Our attitude towards our own body is an important element in our attitude towards life. It is well known that a lot of people feel dissatisfied with themselves as a result of seeing their own bodies as objects. In extreme cases quite severe mental suffering can be caused by people who compare their own objectified bodies with unrealistic media and advertising images of what the body is meant to look like.

Our culture has produced a dramatic split between the mind and the body -we tend to overvalue either the one or the other. And if we do not experience ourselves as an integrated whole, one consequence of this is that we associate certain emotions either with the body or with the mind. In some cases people are completely unable to feel certain emotions that they associate with the body.

So some people can be attracted to meditation because they are rather alienated from the physical aspect of themselves. They have the idea that meditation will allow them to disappear into an abstract world where the body is no longer experienced. And it is true that in certain highly concentrated states our experience of our body may become quite attenuated. However, in order to achieve these states we have to pass through others where our body awareness is very acute.

Furthermore, these states have their origins, at least in part, in the ability to experience the body as a source of pleasurable feelings and sensations. Mental bliss arises out of bodily rapture. Within the meditation practices we will be spending quite a bit of our time working directly with the body, and we will see that it is the body that provides the basis for meditation.

Body Meditation

Awareness of the body is the foundation for the practice of developing mindfulness, and for the cultivation in meditation of positive emotion as well. The body is our fundamental reference point in meditation. It is by maintaining a sense of our bodies when we meditate that we keep the practice in the realm of concrete experience, rather than drifting off into an abstracted or alienated state of mind.

Being aware of the body also helps us to tune in to, and stay in contact with, our emotional state. In meditation, the awareness of the body provides the context for the particular meditation practice that we are doing. That is, it provides a broad, experiential reference for the focus of the practice. We will be taking a closer look at this idea of breadth and focus later on.

All meditations should be preceded by a short practice of the kind that follows, though as a rule it probably doesn’t have to be quite so protracted. Generally, we won’t need to take more than a few minutes over it unless we find that we are feeling rather disconnected from our body and our emotions.

Being aware of the body means directly experiencing the sensations, feelings, and emotions associated with it. When we first try to experience ourselves in this way it is not at all uncommon to find it quite difficult. Many people are rather disconnected from their bodies, taking notice of them only when they do not feel right. The body can experience pleasure as well as pain, but often -unless this pleasure is quite intense, as in sexual activity -we hardly notice it at all.

So we want slowly to try to become sensitive to the more subtle sensations occurring all the time in our bodies. For a moment, close your eyes and just become aware of your palms, fingers, and the back of your hands. You can probably feel a constant flow of sensation in them. You can feel whether they are warm or cold. You might well have the experience of energy, the body’s vitality, flowing through them. Because hands are packed with nerves they are a good place to start coming back to, for a simple, direct experience of ourselves. Certain parts of our body are much less abundant with nerve endings; they do not need to be as wonderfully sensitive as our hands. Nevertheless we can still learn to bring our awareness to them.

Although we are trying to have a direct experience of ourselves, rather than just an idea, this does not mean that the mind is of no use in helping us towards this experience. The imagination in particular can be of great help in beginning to get us back in touch with ourselves. One exercise I sometimes use in meditation classes is to ask students to select a category -animals, say, or plants or types of weather -anything that comes to mind will do. Then I ask them to sit quietly – or lie down if they prefer – and take their awareness through the different parts of their body, associating each part with the category they have chosen. You can start either with the feet and work upwards, or vice versa. So, for example, if you started at the top with types of weather as your category, you might feel that your head was foggy or misty or, perhaps, bright and clear.

This probably sounds a little wacky but it can be fun, and it should help us begin to take an interest in what is happening inside. Interest really is the key to starting to make progress in meditation. We have to stimulate an interest in what we are doing or we will find our minds just go elsewhere.

Something else I do is give people paper and lots of coloured pencils and ask them, after a body meditation, to draw their experience; not to draw what they look like, but rather what they feel like. The drawing that comes out of this exercise might bear no resemblance to the body at all; it might be completely abstract (in an artistic sense) with swirling colours, light and dark patches, areas of movement, and heavy, static areas.

There are many such exercises one could do, such as writing poems about what your body feels like. The point is to stimulate an interest, even be a bit playful. We don’t need to become all solemn and heavy about what we are doing. Much better if we can enjoy it. We are taking up meditation in order to be happier, so the cultivation of a playful interest is a good way to start. All these simple exercises are ways of ‘mapping’ the body. The meditation that follows below is another.

Don’t skimp on preparing properly for this meditation. Choose a time when you will not feel rushed. Find a relatively quiet place in your home, turn the answerphone on. Read through the led meditation a few times, so that you have a good sense of its form and content. Alternatively, you might like to do this exercise with a friend, in which case they can read it to you. Take your time setting up your posture, making sure that you have enough cushions and that you will be warm enough. Don’t have the room too warm, though, or you will tend to fall asleep.

Body Meditation: a led practice

Once you have a comfortable position, close your eyes and allow your face to relax. Take a couple of deeper breaths. As you breathe in, feel your chest gently open. No need to puff it out – you’re not on parade. Just allow it gently to open up a little. Then as you let out the breath, relax the shoulders, easing them down and back.

See if you can take your awareness down into the parts of your body in contact with the cushion or the chair. Have a sense of contact with the ground. If you are sitting on a chair, check that your feet are planted flat on the floor. Feel the weight of your body bearing down on the ground, feel the solidity of the body.

Now become aware of the soles of your feet, allowing them to soften and relax. Try imagining that you are drawing up awareness from the ground, up into your body. Slowly allow this awareness to move up through your feet into your ankles and lower legs. You might like to imagine this awareness as a kind of light, or a feeling of warmth in your body.

Let the muscles of your lower legs relax, allowing them to soften and become heavy. Notice any sensation in the part of the body where your awareness is, but do not force anything. If you don’t feel much that’s fine; just notice what is there.

Letting the awareness move up into your knees, imagine a sense of space in your joints, then move the awareness into the large muscles of your upper legs. Allow your muscles to fall away from the bone under the soft force of gravity.

Broaden your awareness to include your buttocks, pelvis, and genitals. Experience this whole area filling with soft, warm awareness. If you notice any slight ‘holding’ of energy, which is quite common in the buttocks, try to let the awareness soften it.

Now gather your attention at the base of your spine. Do not try too hard: we cannot force awareness without tensing up. Just gently bring your mind back when it drifts off. From here we are going to trace the line of your spine slowly up through the body.

Bear in mind that the spine is well inside your body, rather than on the surface of your back. It is quite hard to get a sensory experience of the spine, so we need to use our imagination a little. But by this I don’t mean just inventing some sensation that isn’t there. It’s more a matter of a kind of openness to very subtle sensation.

Trace the gentle curve of your spine up through your body, through the lower back, the middle back, and between your shoulders up to where your spine meets the base of your skull. This is quite high up, about level with the top of your ears.

Once again, see if you can gather your awareness at this point. Ease the muscles at the base of your skull – imagine them letting go, the muscles relaxing like a fist unclenching. Your head isn’t going to topple over if you forget to hold it up – we’ll find that it can balance very nicely by itself. Imagine that your head can move perfectly freely and is just poised on top of your spine. You might want to adjust your head slightly to achieve this quality of feeling.

Now, locating a sense of the top of your spine, take your attention back down the spine to its base. Try to hold both these places in mind – the base and top of your spine. Imagine these two areas being infused with light, a warm, soft light, and that these two points of light are very gently – more just a tendency than an actual movement – easing apart. One is drawn towards the earth, the other towards the sky. Try to hold this image for a few minutes; these two points of light very slowly moving apart, like two stars in the night sky imperceptibly drifting away from one another. See if you can soften the two ridges of muscle that run down either side of your spine. Imagine that as these muscles soften, your spine is released, and these two points of light can ease further apart.

Allow your shoulders to relax a little more. Then begin to take your awareness into the top of your arms and slowly down towards your hands, collecting it in your palms and fingers. Use the sensations in your hands to get a sense of the vitality of your body.

Now bring the awareness into your belly – another area where we often find the flow of energy held up. Then slowly up into your chest. Feel the movement in your chest, your rib-cage gently opening to accommodate the breath. Have a sense of the breath opening your chest.

Move the awareness up into your throat, and then into your face. Soften your face a bit more, taking time to feel the sensations there. Become aware of the shape of your skull – allowing the skin of your scalp to become soft – then extend your awareness to the crown of your head. See if you can feel any sensation at this point.

Become aware of the touch of the air against your face. Feel how very sensitive your face is; notice the temperature of the air, and allow your face to soften against the air.

Now without any particular effort, notice the process of breathing that is taking place. As you draw down the air into your body imagine that the air is saturated with awareness, like a soft mist of tiny water particles. So as we take the air in, we also draw down awareness.

Follow the breath down into your body, down until you become aware of the movement of your belly as you breathe in and out. Let your breath be calm and gentle. Don’t force it down. Notice your belly as it moves to accommodate the breath. Allow the breath to soften your belly from the inside out. Notice the movement in your chest, at the sides of your body, in your back; feel the whole of your rib-cage gently moving with the breath.

Breathe in a sense of spaciousness; the space outside you becoming space inside you. Gently gather your attention around the area of your heart. Just sitting and breathing, be aware of any sensations in the area around your heart. Allow the breath to create space around your heart, space for how you feel, for your emotions.

Just breathing, being aware of your body, your breath, being aware of your feelings, let the feelings come and go in a sense of spaciousness, just as you let the breath come and go. Stay with this as long as you feel comfortable, just being with yourself.

Then feel your connection with the ground once more. Allow yourself to be aware of the room in which you are sitting and any outside noises, and in your own time allow your eyes to open, bringing the practice to an end.


This exercise is both a ‘body mapping’ and a relaxation. It is an excellent preparation for meditation, or it can be used on its own to help us relax and calm down. In this exercise we use the imagination to help us come into contact with our body and our feelings.

Sometimes we might like to try simply sweeping the body with awareness from feet to head and back again, without imposing any ideas at all – just bare sensation. This can be very effective when we have some experience of being more aware of our bodies, but I think to start with it is probably more useful to engage the imagination.

Try to imagine your awareness having a colour. Or ask yourself what each part of your body feels like, letting an image come to mind. Do use the imagery association method I suggested before. It can be a lot of fun and rather interesting to relate different parts of the body to different examples of a particular class of image – animals are great to do!

You can, if you like, work out other ways of becoming more aware of yourself within the meditation. Do not be afraid of experimenting. To begin with go with what feels right. Just remember not to force the attention. There may be areas of the body you find it hard to be aware of, but if an area feels dull or dark do not force yourself to be aware of it. Simply be patient and bring your common sense and an attitude of care and kindness to whatever you find.



The Metta Bhavana

The Metta Bhavana is sometimes called the development of universal loving-kindness. It is one of a set of four meditations known as the brahma-viharas, which means something like ‘abodes of the gods’. So we could say that the practice of this meditation and its three companion meditations (of which I shall say a little more later) are designed to put us in the same frame of mind as the gods.

I should mention that the Buddhist idea of gods is rather different from the one we are probably used to. To start with, there are quite a lot of them. Furthermore, being a god is not a permanent condition. A human being, according to traditional Buddhist teaching, can become a god by being reborn in a god-realm; this happens if they have been particularly good! But they will not remain a god for ever; at some point they will be reborn in a different realm, of which there are many.

The point about the brahma-vihara meditations is that they help us to experience positive and enjoyable mental states that are equivalent to the mental states of the gods. The Metta Bhavana is the foundation of this set of meditations. The others, which are concerned with the development of compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity, are, in a sense, aspects of this basic practice. So the Metta Bhavana is really the most important of the four, and the place where we need to start.

The Metta Bhavana may seem at first sight very different from the Mindfulness of Breathing, but the two complement each other very well. Even if we prefer one of the meditations to the other, which most people do, we will find that practising the one enriches our experience of the other. In the end, they are both about developing awareness. Let’s see if we can get a handle on what is meant by the word metta, and then we will look at the structure of the practice itself.

The Pali word metta is often translated ‘universal loving-kindness’. Sometimes it is rendered simply as ‘friendliness’ or, less often, ‘love’. I rather like the least common rendering -‘love’. It has drawbacks in that it usually refers to romantic or sexual feelings, which few of us in our culture need consciously to cultivate. But despite these connotations, for me it has a certain directness and strength that makes it seem appropriate.

Bhavana is another Pali word, and it means ‘cultivation’ or ‘development’. So this meditation is about the cultivation of metta. The idea that we can cultivate some emotions rather than others goes rather against the grain in Western society. I get the impression that most of us think that whilst we may learn to control the expression of our feelings through discipline or strength of character, we are more or less stuck with the basic way we respond to things emotionally. Buddhism does not take this view. The Buddhist view is that whilst our basic emotional attitudes are quite deep-seated, it is within the reach of all of us to change, if we know how. We just have to make a consistent effort.

So this meditation is concerned with the cultivation of positive emotion. More than that, it is about establishing in ourselves a basically positive attitude towards ourselves and others. Whilst we are often aware that our moods change from day to day, or even from hour to hour, we can also probably sense a kind of background emotionality. We all have our ups and downs, but it is clear that different people deal with these inevitable fluctuations in very different ways.

The Metta Bhavana is concerned with giving us a positive emotional foundation or background to our lives. To begin with, our practice of this meditation is in great part a kind of investigation of our emotional life. It is an application of increased awareness, or mindfulness, a sense of clarity, to our emotions. It is not a matter of controlling them. It is a slow process of getting to know ourselves; learning to acknowledge who we really are; then encouraging the more expansive and warmer aspects of ourselves.

I remember very well the first time I heard this meditation taught. I was on my first meditation retreat. At the time I worked as a psychiatric social worker and I tended to see the world in psychological terms. That is, I adhered to the view that we are only able to alter our basic emotional patterns through long and exhaustive therapeutic intervention, and that even then it is more a matter of learning to adjust to those basic emotional patterns than fundamentally transforming them.

When the teacher had introduced the meditation, which he did in a simple straightforward way, I thought ‘No, this can’t work!’ But I was also filled with a sense of excitement: ‘Suppose it does work! Can Buddhists have been wrong for 2,500 years?’ Well, many years later I can say that no, they were not wrong, although it must be said that the effects of the practice are not necessarily instantaneous. Nor do I find it an easy practice – whereas I took to the Mindfulness of Breathing like a duck to water. However, I do feel it is a wonderful meditation and, perhaps because I have had to work rather harder at it, I have gained great benefit from it. And I am still filled with a sense of excitement whenever I teach this meditation.

This is as good a time as any to underline the fact that meditation is neither a cure-all nor a quick fix. We have spent all our lives – many life-times according to the traditional Buddhist view – acquiring our mental and emotional habits. If we are going to change them significantly it is going to take time and practice. Buddhism is realistic in this way -neither pessimistic nor optimistic, but realistic. And this is one reason I feel it can be trusted. Change is indeed possible, but it requires time and effort.

We are all unique. Who we are is a complex combination of many factors – our biology, our race, our family, the social context of our lives, and so forth. From the point of view of meditation, it does not matter much what weight we give these various factors; they have all played some part in what we have become. The point is that we are a product of conditioning.

This conditioning has been going on not just for this life-time. Whether or not we accept the Buddhist idea of rebirth or re-becoming, it is still true that as human beings we are the product of the whole evolutionary process. And whether or not we accept the full implications of the central Buddhist truth of conditionality, most people would probably accept its general thesis, which is that all phenomena arise in dependence on conditions; everything is the result of a complex set of conditioning factors.

We too are the product of conditions – laid down by our circumstances and the habits of mind we have developed over the years. And we can now go on to change the conditions we set up, if we choose. We are, to the degree that we are aware, responsible for ourselves. It is this gift (and curse) of self-reflective consciousness that defines us as human, and that gives us choice. As long as we remain only dimly self-aware we can avoid having to confront those choices. If on the other hand we want to be more aware, more alive, we have to make those choices; we have to start the long process that leads to liberation.

While in this vein I might as well risk putting you off the whole idea of meditation. If you take up meditation at all seriously, you are introducing into your life a powerful force for change. Some parts of us do not want to change. Change can be frightening, and we can never say with any certainty where it will end. We are therefore, in a sense, inviting conflict. Furthermore, change is not just some kind of head-trip; it has real consequences in the real world, in our world.

We will not be just the same kind of person, but a bit more positive, a bit more aware. Over time we may become quite different, and this will have repercussions. This is a kind of health warning I try to remember to give to people learning meditation. Meditation is an adventure, and the very nature of adventure is uncertainty. After having meditated for a few years people often find that their lives have turned upside-down. I have not, I should say, met anyone who has regretted it – but be warned. Well, I feel I have done my duty as a responsible meditation teacher now, so let’s get back to the Metta Bhavana.

In the last chapter we saw that mindfulness is not an emotionally neutral state. It is in itself a clear, bright, and positive mental state. But at the same time we need to address our emotions more directly.

Later, we will be looking at the idea of ‘insight’ (in the sense of insight into the nature of reality) in some detail. But it is worth mentioning here that this insight -which is the goal of Buddhist practice -is not a dry affair. It is an affair of the heart at least as much as the intellect. What would happen if we suddenly saw everything as it really was? It is rather probable that we would be overwhelmed by the experience.

The problem that confronts us is that we are deluded. And this delusion is not so much intellectual as emotional. It is our emotional need to try to fix ourselves and the world around us. We know in our heads that everything about us, and in us, is in a constant state of flux. But in our hearts we continue to cling desperately to the things we love -or even to the things we hate. We want things to stop changing, we want permanence in our lives. The fact that no such permanence exists anywhere threatens the very core of our sense of ourselves.

So there is little point in being more aware of all this reality if we lack the positive emotional basis from which we can respond to it in a creative and joyful way. In order to take on the fact of impermanence, and therefore rid ourselves of the suffering which comes from clinging to a false view of reality, we have first to cultivate a strong sense of loving-kindness or metta – towards both ourselves and others.

It is this positive emotional base coupled with the clarity of awareness that prepares us for the arising of insight or wisdom. Insight is a deep penetration into reality supported by loving-kindness and mindfulness. This wisdom is not to be found somewhere out there; it cannot be learned. It is a direct experience of ourselves and of our true nature.

“If you speak delusions, everything becomes a delusion,
If you speak the truth, everything becomes the truth.
Outside the truth there is no delusion,
But outside delusion there is no special truth.
Followers of the Buddha’s way!
Why do you so earnestly seek the truth in distant places?
Look for delusion and truth in the bottom of your own hearts.”

So according to Buddhism there is no special truth to be found outside of oneself, outside of one’s own nature. The finding of this truth does not depend on intelligence or exceptional talent of some kind. It is simply a matter of being aware of oneself in a deeper and deeper way. This is all that we need to do. But to be fully aware of anything we must have a real interest in it, we have to want to understand. You could even say we must have a passion to understand. Our emotions have to be involved, we have to have a sense of care, concern, and sympathy.

The basis of metta is this sort of concern towards ourselves. We have to want to be happy! Our happiness has to be based upon love towards ourselves, for if it is dependent upon the love coming to us from others it will sooner or later break down. We have to learn to like ourselves for what we are, not in comparison with others. When we have positive feelings towards ourselves it becomes much easier then to like others; we are not threatened by them, we wish them to be happy as well.

To have sympathy towards ourselves means to be honest – to seek the truth – within a context of understanding and love. We have to be able to recognize our faults and to acknowledge that we make mistakes. We don’t just shrug them off and get on with making more; we try to see them clearly and at the same time keep a perspective, recognizing that we are much more than our faults and mistakes, that we also have the capacity to love, to be creative, to give and to change. If we develop metta towards ourselves we will be able to see our failings within a broader context and they will not overwhelm us. The same will be true of our attitude towards others.

The Metta Bhavana is a very simple practice. There is nothing difficult about it. It becomes difficult only when we are looking for something that is not there. If we are trying to work with delusion it will be painful. If we want to feel great compassion when in fact we are fed up and depressed, we are creating a gap which will be filled with frustration and pain.

If, on the other hand, we start from where we are, from feeling fed up, we will feel good that the meditation has helped us to shift those feelings, even if only a little bit. We will experience a sense of change, a sense that we can work with our feelings. In fact, when we start from a position of honesty, we open up the way for real change to take place, and sometimes we will find that this change can be quite dramatic.

The practice is divided into five stages. In each stage we try to direct a feeling of metta towards a different person (or persons, in the case of the last stage).

Stage One

As we have seen, the ability to feel metta towards others is based on, or is dependent on, the ability to feel metta towards ourselves. This is therefore where the practice begins. In this stage we try to cultivate a sense of metta towards ourselves. Sometimes this can feel quite awkward – if we have been brought up to feel that caring for ourselves is selfish.

In fact, if you think of someone you know who is selfish, it is, I think, unlikely that they will strike you as having a deeply loving attitude towards themselves. Selfishness has its roots in a feeling of impoverishment. We feel that everyone else has it better than us; that it’s a dog-eat-dog kind of world and we are going to get ours.

Generous people normally seem quite content; they like themselves; they have an inner richness and do not feel depleted by giving to others. Here I am not so much talking about material generosity, which is to some degree dependent on material wealth, and can even be a substitute for real generosity. I am talking about people who make us feel they have time for us, who will go out of their way to be helpful. Generosity is a very important part of the Buddhist path, because it is the outward expression of metta. In this sense it is a kind of barometer of mental health. So to cultivate metta towards oneself is the first step towards being less selfish.

In this practice it is important not to think in terms of imposing metta. It isn’t a matter of just overlaying our old emotional patterns with a surface film of loving-kindness. The meditation is working towards making deep changes in those patterns, not covering them up. So it has to be done on the basis of how we really feel, not how we would like to feel or how we think we should feel.

We have already discussed this a little in relation to the body, but it is well worth repeating: we need to be as much in touch with ourselves as we can before we begin the practice. Again, a short body-awareness exercise will help us. However, this does not mean raking around looking for trouble. Let sleeping dogs lie, as the old saying goes; they will awaken when they are ready and we can take them out for a walk then.

So we want to try for an honest, direct experience of how we are at the time we undertake the practice. We want to leave aside ideas about who we are, and concentrate on what we actually experience. Once we feel we’re aware of our general state of mind we can begin to think in terms of encouraging metta towards ourselves.

We need to contact a sense of wishing ourselves well, even if we are aware that other feelings are also present. So we begin to work with whatever positive feelings we already have. We are not sitting here like a hanging judge. We have a concern for ourselves as towards a loved friend. We are being open-hearted towards ourselves, and tender. It is with this attitude that we work with what we find in our experience. We begin to nurture what is positive, to give energy to it. We do this by showing an interest in it. No feeling is too small for our interest.

It is as if your child has brought home a painting from school. You do not tell her it is not a very good painting. You can see she is very pleased with it, she has put her heart into it. So you too can see that it is a wonderful painting: it is wonderful because it is a positive expression from her heart.

Any positive feeling we have is wonderful in the same way. It is worth our attention. So we allow ourselves to enjoy it. Anything we can appreciate in our experience of ourselves we should be aware of and encourage in this stage.

A much-used way of doing this is simply to say a few encouraging words towards oneself: ‘May I be well, may I be happy, may I be free from suffering, may I make progress.’ The point of this is, of course, not just to say the words but to encourage a feeling or emotion of kindness or warmth towards oneself. This approach works well for some people, but there are many other methods we can use, which I will discuss later on.

Stage Two

Now we bring to mind a good friend, someone whose company we enjoy. It is said that it is best to choose someone who is about your own age, who is still living, and of the same sex. To be on the safe side I usually suggest you choose someone of your own sex towards whom you do not have any sexual feelings. These conditions help to keep this stage of the practice as clear-cut as possible, and most of us will more easily and naturally feel an affinity with friends of our own sex.

So we bring to mind this person. Don’t spend too long trying to think of exactly the right person – it’s not as critical as all that. I normally just say to myself ‘a good friend’, see who pops up, and go with them – unless it’s clear they don’t fit in to this section.

Try to hold this person in mind. Some people find visualization easy, so this is a good method to employ to help keep the person in mind. If on the other hand visualization is a bit of a mystery to you, as it is to me, there are plenty of other things you can do to evoke this friend. I find I am good at calling to mind people’s voices, and I often listen for, rather than look for, my friend.

You are trying to hold this friend in your awareness, so if you drift off, this is the point of reference to come back to. Once you feel you have established some degree of contact with your friend, you can wish him or her well. Again you might use words, or you might just feel warmth or love flowing towards them. Of course, you can make a conscious effort to stimulate such feelings, but you can’t force them, so don’t try to do that. Just be open to what is actually happening. These feelings might be strong or faint; you might feel nothing at all, or even quite inappropriate feelings. The important thing is just be aware of what is happening.

If you feel you are completely losing your way, take a deep breath and come back to yourself, then start again. Often this stage will be fairly easy; you have chosen someone you care about, so just bearing them in mind should be enough to set going a flow of warmth towards them.

This is a very important stage of the meditation, as it begins to encourage us to spend time with positive feelings, and allow them time and space to grow. How often do we give ourselves this chance to enjoy our feelings of friendliness, to relish our appreciation of someone else? We tend, for some reason, to indulge negative feelings a lot more often. If you think of someone who has recently upset you, you will find, most probably, that you spend a great deal of mental energy on this person – a lot more than you do on feelings of friendliness.

Having said that, metta is rather more than just wallowing in the special friendships we may have. Metta is not a ‘sticky’ thing, so the work in this stage involves letting go of the friend, allowing them to be happy for their own sake, not for ours. We have to try to let go of our own expectations of them, our own need for them. This is not necessarily all that easy, so we need to be patient with ourselves.

Stage Three

In this stage we bring to mind a different person, this time someone that we could call a ‘neutral’ person, someone we have no strong feelings towards, one way or the other. It might be someone we work with but have never really got to know, or it might be someone we often see in our locality; it doesn’t matter too much. What we are trying to encourage here is an expansion of our normal emotional range, a broadening of our emotional awareness to include those who do not have a direct impact on our lives.

We are trying to experience the same well-wishing towards this person as we do towards our friend. So we are encouraging the beginnings of a basic reorientation of our whole emotional life; a movement away from an emotionality based in a self-referential attitude towards an attitude that is far more expansive and open. I am sure that at some point in our lives we have all experienced metta from a stranger – an act of friendliness free from any selfish motivation. It might be as simple as a smile, or help when we need it.

A word I often use when describing this stage is solidarity. We are encouraging a feeling of solidarity towards others, not because they have a direct effect on our lives, but simply because they too are alive. We know, if we use a little imagination, that these neutral persons share with us the same range of emotions; they have their hopes and fears, their joys and pains, just as we do, and it is on the basis of this recognition of our shared humanity that we find the desire to wish them well. I hardly need to point out what a different world we would find ourselves in if we all took the time and trouble (perhaps I should say time and pleasure) to cultivate such feelings towards each other.

Stage Four

We now make a move into enemy territory, that is to say, we bring to mind a person who would normally provoke in us rather unfriendly feelings. We bring to mind an enemy, or at least someone we find difficult or irritating. This is a very interesting stage of the meditation to teach, as it tends to provoke strong reactions from people. These range from denying there is anyone they dislike, to honestly stating that they do not want to wish such a person well, as this would seem hypocritical.

To those who say they don’t have anyone they dislike in their life I sometimes suggest they bring to mind a member of their family. This normally gets a laugh of recognition. The problem here is that we tend to think that if we are a ‘nice’ person we shouldn’t have such feelings. But it isn’t a matter of what we should or shouldn’t have; it is just a fact that these feelings are part of our lot as human beings. It is very unlikely that we don’t entertain any negative feelings at all towards anyone. It is much more likely that we do not acknowledge these feelings in ourselves because we think they are bad.

This is important, because it takes a lot of emotional energy to hold down these more negative feelings, and while our energy is being employed to do that it is not available to us for more useful things. It is relatively easy to transform energy, but that energy must first be available.

I have worked with many deeply depressed people, and very often one of the first signs that the depression is beginning to lift is an upsurge of anger. This is an extreme example, but the principle holds true in more subtle forms. It is as if these feelings are the crudest expression of our emotional energy. The crude ore has to be extracted before the process of refining it can begin. So don’t worry about having these negative feelings – they are the raw material for metta. Nor is there any need to worry if it takes us a little while to free up some of this energy. Once again, don’t force it. Trust in the practice.

As for the other extreme, people who frankly admit to strong feelings of hatred or dislike, but do not see why it is in their own interest to work with these feelings – I like to tell them the analogy for hatred in traditional Buddhism. Hatred is likened to picking up a burning log or coal to throw at your enemy; quite possibly you will miss, but you can be sure that you will burn yourself. Hatred is not something we can direct at others without it having a seriously unpleasant effect on ourselves. So even if at first one cannot honestly find an altruistic motive for working with these types of emotions, there is a good enough reason of self-interest to get us going.

However, this is the stage where there may be some risk of falsifying what you actually feel. Do not expect great waves of overwhelming love to flow from your heart. It is very nice if they do, but don’t imagine they are the norm. It is more likely that you will drift into revenge fantasies; one moment you’re sitting there trying to experience loving-kindness, and the next you have an axe in your hands!

If something like that happens, try to see the humorous side of it. Go easy on yourself; just take a breath, centre yourself, and try again. If it’s really too much, pick someone else; maybe you will have to work up to dealing with your bete noiregradually. Even when you see the uselessness of hatred it is still difficult to give it up. According to Buddhism, negative attachment is as strong as, if not stronger than, positive attachment. It is often harder to give up what we hate than what we love, so take it easy.

In this stage it’s particularly important to stay in touch with what is going on in your body. Usually, negative feelings, as well as positive ones, have a physical component. This is of great help to us because it gives us another means to work with what is happening. We shall take a closer look at this later, but for now just think about keeping the body relaxed but alert. It’s really quite hard to feel anger when you are physically relaxed and open.

Just do your best to wish this person well. You can reflect that there is probably a lot more to this person than the negative aspects you pick up on. You can also bear in mind that – from a Buddhist point of view at least – trying to wish this person well really means wishing their happiness, and in particular their spiritual well-being. If that person were happier, more aware, kinder, would you still find them so difficult?

Note that in this practice we are wishing people well, not kidding ourselves that everyone is really ok, when clearly plenty of people aren’t ok. We are simply attempting to break the circle of hatred spawning more hatred.

Stage Five

In the final stage of the meditation we really let ourselves go. We try to apply whatever feelings of metta we have unearthed to all manner of other people, wherever they may be – or, indeed, to all manner of living beings, human and non-human. First of all we bring together the four people we have already included in the meditation, with the thought ‘May I feel equal metta for all these people.’ This means ‘May I feel equally strong metta towards all four people.’

This doesn’t mean that we stop having particular friends. It doesn’t mean that we stop enjoying the company of some people more than that of others. It’s just that when we awaken the faculty of metta within us we find that it’s impartial. It’s not that it’s impersonal, but it goes beyond our personal view of things. It is a response deep within us that is activated by any living being. Almost all of us have it anyway to some degree; at our best we respond naturally to the life in others that we find in ourselves.

So in this stage we are developing the element of non-exclusivity in our metta. We imaginatively expand the range of our metta, gradually taking in all beings; wishing all beings well, wishing all beings freedom from suffering, wishing that all beings may make progress towards true happiness.

You can do this geographically, starting perhaps with those sharing the building you are meditating in, then taking in those living in that street, the locality, the town, the country, the continent, and so on. Or you might do it by first thinking of your friends, then your family, then your acquaintances, and so on. Or you might find another way of expanding outwards.

What is important is that we take in as wide a circle of people as we can. Sometimes this strikes people as rather abstract; we may wonder how we can really extend metta to people we have never met. But if we let go of the limitations we impose on our imagination, we may well find this to be a very powerful experience.

I once saw a short documentary consisting of a number of interviews with people – from many different countries – who have travelled into space. What was remarkable about the film were the similarities in the responses of most of the people interviewed. Nearly all of them said how deeply affected they had been by the experience of seeing the Earth from space. They described in their own ways what might be called an experience of universal metta. Seeing how beautiful and fragile the Earth appeared when seen from space brought forth in these people, some of whom were pretty tough cookies, an overwhelming feeling of love, a feeling of wanting to take care of the Earth, a realization of just how precious life is. Sometimes when I do the Metta Bhavana I imagine what the Earth must look like from so far away.

Approaches to Cultivating Metta

I have said that one way to encourage and sustain a sense of metta in meditation is to use words. This means finding a simple phrase such as ‘May I care for myself,’ and using this phrase to stimulate a feeling. It does not mean that you sit and repeat in a dull and unreflective way -‘May I care for myself – may I care for myself.’ We are not attempting a form of self-hypnosis.

If you are going to use a simple phrase to help you develop metta, you will have to give it some weight and feeling. You will also have to give it time to affect you. It’s as though you take this idea in the form of words and drop it into your heart. You can actually imagine these words going down from your head into your body, coming to rest in your heart, or lower down still. And you can imagine these words setting up a sympathetic vibration in your body which is the feeling of metta.

If you want words to provoke an experience of metta they must be said with the intention to realize metta. That is the point of them. They suggest an emotional response, so they have to be said with feeling. If you happen to be a lawyer, no doubt you will see that this is rather a circular argument: it is as though we have to have metta in order to say the words with metta in order to produce metta. In a way this is true, but it is also true that there is no absolute division between thoughts, in the sense of words, on the one hand and feelings on the other. If you are sensitive to your words you will find that they always have an emotional component to them. There is no such thing as a completely abstract thought, free from all emotion. Even in the abstract field of pure mathematics, one of the qualities the mathematician looks for, or responds to, in an equation, is its elegance.

For some people words do not work very well in meditation. Even when they try to put warmth into them, the words still come out rather mechanical. If this is your experience after trying the practice a few times, don’t just keep plugging away; try a different approach. For example, it might be that a simple image will work to stimulate a feeling of metta – a flower, say, slowly opening in your heart.

Alternatively, you could try using your memory. Remember a time when you were happy, and use this memory to reconnect with your feeling at that time. This can be of great help in the second stage: remember a time when you were in the company of a friend, having a good time or feeling a particularly deep connection with them.


It is also quite possible to base the metta practice in actual physical sensations. Let’s say that, during the body meditation, you find yourself relaxing – well, you can encourage this sensation, allowing it to spread and grow. Just being aware of a sense of warmth and life in your hands can be the basis for encouraging metta to arise.

So there are many ways to approach this practice, and you should feel free to experiment. One word of caution: keep it simple. Complications can give rise to distractions – you will drift off into associated ideas or images and lose your basic intention, which is simply the cultivation of loving-kindness.

Now we’ll do a led practice so that you get some idea about at least one possible approach to the Metta Bhavana: the development of universal loving-kindness.

The Metta Bhavana: a led practice

Before you start, think of three people you are going to use in the second, third, and fourth stages, so you do not spend the whole time picking and choosing people. Also remember to find a time when you will not be interrupted, and a quiet comfortable place to sit. Read through the practice a couple of times. You don’t have to stick to it word for word – just try to get a good sense of it, or have a friend read it out loud.

Begin by taking the time you need to settle into your meditation posture. When you are comfortable, allow your eyes to close. As you close them try to let your face relax. Have a sense of not needing an expression on the face to set against the world or against your own experience – so that there is a feeling of the face being soft and open. If it still feels hard, introduce the ghost of a smile, which will encourage the facial muscles to relax. Try to allow your eyes to become still. You can think of them as soft and round, just resting.

Then take your attention down to your contact with the floor. Have a sense of the ground underneath you, supporting you. Try to let go of the weight of your body, giving it to the ground to support. Begin slowly to experience your body from the ground up.

Imagine your awareness filling your body, perhaps like a warm soft light – penetrating gently into your bones and muscles, relaxing the body as it moves upwards…taking in the feet and the legs…up into the pelvic area…and into the lower back.

Be aware how your body responds to your directed attention, making that attention warm. The practice of loving-kindness begins by addressing ourselves with an attitude of loving-kindness. Take the time you need to contact your physical experience. Do not force your awareness into areas of the body that feel resistant to it, but be aware of that resistance, allowing the surrounding areas to soften and relax.

Draw your attention through your back, across your shoulders, and down your arms into your hands. For a few moments focus your attention on your hands. Check that they are relaxed and that your arms feel comfortable. Bring your attention back up your arms into your neck and up to the base of your skull.

Feel the muscles of your neck release and soften, and have a sense of your head being balanced rather than held. Become aware of the back of your head and then the top of your head. Feel the shape of your skull and allow the scalp to soften. Now return to your face, letting the whole of your face relax a little more…the brow, the cheeks, the mouth, the jaw.

Feel the air against the skin of your face and become aware of your breath entering and leaving the body, finding space inside your body. Allow the breath to be easy and natural. Become aware of your body responding to the breath. Have a sense of your body being alive with the breath.

See if you can feel the movement of your body as the breath comes and goes. Find the movement low down in your belly, allowing the breath to soften the belly from the inside; then in your chest, feeling the whole of the rib-cage gently expanding to accommodate your breath, both at the front and the sides and the back.

Keeping an overall sense of stillness in your body, experience the soft rhythm set up by the breath. As you breathe in, have a sense of your chest opening, your shoulders relaxing. As you breathe out, let go into the breath, expelling any tension that you feel.

Slowly use the breath to help you begin to gather your awareness in your chest, inside your body where you imagine your heart to be. Imagine the breath is creating a connection between your head and your heart. Imagine the in-breath taking awareness down into the area of your heart and the out-breath allowing the feelings of your heart up into awareness.

Just spend a few minutes experiencing the breath as connecting up the head and the heart. Allow the breath to create a sense of spaciousness around your heart area. Allow yourself to experience what you feel, allow your heart to express itself into the space your breath is creating.

Then begin to imagine that the breath is carrying down into your heart a sense of well-wishing towards yourself. This may be a few simple words: ‘May I care for myself,’ or just your name spoken in your mind with warmth, or it may just be a sense of kindness. Keep it simple, just the intention of well-wishing directed down into your heart, into your body.

Give the words or intention time to settle, Don’t rush or push yourself. Give yourself all the time in the world. ‘May I be well, may I be happy.’ Allow the heart to respond in its own time. Slowly experience your heart space filling with this simple idea. Continue in this way for a few minutes.

Now bring to mind a good friend. Invoke them, or evoke them, in whatever way works for you: with an image of their face, or by remembering their voice, or by remembering the last time you met. Bring them into your awareness.

Experience the warmth in your heart naturally turning towards them. ‘May they be happy – may their life be how they would like it to be.’ Take your time – not forcing out a feeling, just working with a clear intention to wish them well.

Allow time to experience any response you might have to this intention. Enjoy any positive feelings or thoughts that this intention generates towards your friend. Renew this intention whenever it feels it has been lost, and just keep the friend in mind.@GILL = Keep the practice simple: on the one hand maintain a sense of your friend, on the other develop a simple intention of well-wishing, of loving-kindness, together with an overall awareness of yourself. Continue this for a few minutes.

Allowing your friend to fade away from your attention, bring to mind the neutral person – who like yourself and your friend also wishes to be happy. Try to maintain the same kind intention, the same well-wishing as before, and simply extend it to include this person.

Keep your sense of them as bright and clear as you can, coming back to them if you find your mind moving away. Very gently, look beyond the limited view you have of this person. For once, don’t just dismiss them from your mind once you have labelled them. If you like, use your imagination to evoke the individual richness and significance of their life.

May they be well, may they be happy. Don’t force anything. Just allow whatever positive feelings you have to reach out to this person. Be sensitive to what is there, rather than trying to create some big feeling. Continue this for a few minutes.

Allowing the neutral person to fade out, bring to mind an enemy. Keep the face relaxed and open. Notice if the body has reacted to the introduction of this person. If you feel yourself tensing in your shoulders or your belly, take a few slightly deeper breaths, and soften your body.

Notice what your mind is doing. Has it got an old story it wants to replay about this person? Try to catch it before it goes off in this way; bring it back to the present and the intention to wish this person well.

Imagine this person well and happy, imagine them relaxed and joyful. See the other side of this person -from the side you find difficult. Try wishing this person well. Say their name and wish them well: ‘May they be happy, may they be well.’

Give yourself time to see what that feels like to you. Allow yourself to feel what is happening in your heart; feel your resistance – or feel that you are letting go of old destructive patterns. Imagine what it would be like to let this person be, to wish them well in their life, to lay aside the negative feelings you keep hold of. May they be well. Continue this for a few minutes.

Now bring to mind all four people you have thought of in the meditation: the difficult person, the neutral person, the friend, and yourself. Imagine all of you together, imagine a feeling of metta between you. All of you recognizing one another’s desire to be happy and wishing one another well.

Look for a positive response to all four that is the same, that is equal – the same deep response of solidarity with another human being. Now you can begin gently to extend this feeling of well-wishing outwards.

Allow your awareness to move outwards, an awareness imbued with metta. Slowly take in the street, the locality, the district, and so on…just moving outwards. Metta has a natural tendency to expand.

Wish all beings well as they are encountered in your imagination. You can think of all kinds of people, from all kinds of cultures. Try to imagine the tenor of their lives, and identify particularly the aspects we all have in common in some form or another. Again, you may want to listen to their voices in your imagination rather than rely on visual imagination.

Think not only of people you may naturally feel sympathetic towards, but also of the kinds of people towards whom you feel less sympathetic. Include bad people as well as good, criminals as well as victims, people you disapprove of as well as people who are ok. May all beings whatsoever be well, may all beings be happy, may all beings be free from suffering, and may all beings make progress. Continue in this way for a few minutes.

Now slowly bring the awareness back to yourself. Think: just as I wish all beings well, so too may I be well, may I too be free from suffering and may I make progress. Finally, come back to your body sitting on the floor, back to the breath coming and going, back to a sense of the room around you. Then slowly bring the practice to a close. Sit for a minute or two with how you are now feeling.



(extract from A Deeper Beauty, by Paramananda)

When I begin a meditation course I ask participants why they want to learn to meditate. The most common reply is that they need to calm down; they live stressful lives and hope that meditation will help them to unwind. Others have an interest in what could be termed spiritual development, but these are a small minority. It might be that people in this secular age are uncomfortable admitting to a spiritual aspiration. Even so, it seems that, on the whole, people look towards meditation mainly as a technique to help them deal with the stresses of modern life. It is interesting that meditation has this reputation, and that the supposed benefits of stress reduction have been responsible for its growing popularity. Meditation is traditionally a spiritual practice, and whatever health benefits it might confer have been seen, if at all, as secondary.

It is also probably true that only in more recent times have the physical and spiritual health of the individual been regarded as separate. Where, in the past, we might have sought reason for our disease in the territory of the soul, we now tend towards scientific explanations. Despite this, conditions like stress are not treatable with antibiotics, and meditation has become one of the officially sanctioned means with which to address such annoying complaints. I am rather uneasy about seeing meditation as a stress reduction technique, partly because this encourages an idea of meditation that strips it of its real value, and partly because I am not sure that it is effective in stress reduction. But my main misgiving about offering meditation as a panacea for the ills of modern life is that, in so doing, meditation is being used to address the symptoms rather than the causes of the disease. Furthermore, by mitigating the symptoms we miss out on learning some lessons about the way we live our lives.

A Productive Life?

Stress seems to be a major contributory factor to a wide variety of health problems, and has many causes. Lifestyles that produce stress in one person seem to be the conditions under which other people thrive. The manner in which most of us live leaves little room for the considerable differences in human temperaments. We are all expected to embrace the notion of an economically productive life as the rationale for life itself. Education is increasingly vocational, stressing the development of skills that will allow us to become a success in the world of work. It is presumed that by so doing the student gains access to the ‘good life’. This stress on the development of economically productive skills seems to be reaching further and further back into childhood. Education as a ‘leading out’ of the child, the development of the imagination and ethical sensibility, have become secondary, if they are addressed at all. Only the old, who have ‘earned’ their leisure, seem exempt from the pressure to be productive. Even motherhood is no longer valued above work. In the United States, single mothers are now required to work in order to qualify for welfare. In a culture where family values are lauded, the idea that a woman should be ‘productive’ is given precedence over child-rearing, while the state offers scant provisions for childcare. The rationale of forcing mothers to work or starve seems to be that the negative effects on the child of having a welfare mum are dire. It is as if the new cause of all neuroses, replacing Freud’s parental bedroom, is the actual presence of the ‘unemployed’ mother.

I have been shocked at the importance given to work in the United States, while the rest of life is seen as secondary. The media portrays the developed personality as one which works hard and plays hard. After twelve hours at our job we go to the gym, work out, then go to a sophisticated restaurant with our beautiful (read successful) counterpart. At weekends, according to this image, we ‘gear up’, jump in the four by four, and go for a hike. Somewhere we fit in participation in an ‘extreme’ sport. The stressful lifestyle is the successful lifestyle. In reality, 50% of Americans are obese, according to government health sources, while the quantity of television watched is mind boggling, as is its quality. For many, the demands of work leave them capable of little more than collapsing in front of the anaesthetizing television.

This importance of work transcends the idea of making a reasonable living. It has become the very rationale for life. For those who genuinely love their work, and are employed in something beneficial to society, this may not be a problem, but for many work is unpleasant, with little intrinsic value. Sadly, the result of all this work is the degradation of the planet and the creation of an increasingly superficial and mindless culture. The grim ‘joke’ above the gates of Auschwitz, ‘Work will set you free’, has become the mantra of America. The multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical industry tirelessly researches and markets drugs to help us ‘work hard and play hard’, drugs that numb the pain of both the body and mind.

The persona that must be worn is one of efficiency, hard work, stability, and glowing health. The necessity of melancholy – the nights of the soul – for the creative imagination finds no place. The persona of America glows with rude health, while the real thing pigs out, watches television (mostly advertising in America) and reaches for a painkiller. The image of the individual seems to be increasingly divorced from the psychic reality of actual people. Complex and multifaceted individuals give way to consumers who, cut off from their creative minds, turn to products through which to define themselves. The light and shade of human experience is replaced by virtual experience. Many of our emotions with any real depth are regarded as symptoms needing treatment, and rapture has been replaced by excitement, bliss by strident happiness. Society glorifies production and consumption.

The health of the individual cannot be separated from that of the society in which he or she lives. This is something recognized by most traditional cultures including Renaissance Europe, as testified to by the words of the sixteenth-century physician, Paracelsus:

“If the physician understands things exactly and sees and recognizes all illnesses in the macrocosm outside man, and if he has a clear idea of man and his whole nature, then and only then is he a physician.” (‘The Foundations of Medicine’, Paracelsus)

Although there is a growing awareness in society at large of the effects of environment on health and well-being, there seems to be little consideration of the effects of the Zeitgeist on the individual. When the spirit of the age is predatory and exploitive, when people’s worth is gauged by their productivity, the human spirit is impoverished and weakened.

Meditation should be like the good physician, but what is understood as meditation is often not meditation at all, from a Buddhist perspective. The concern of Buddhist meditation is to understand the complexity of human life, not to reduce that life to symptoms to be eradicated. What passes as meditation is often simply a relaxation technique. Though this might be useful, it does not attempt to address the whole person. The individual cannot be divorced from the society in which he or she lives or indeed from the macrocosm of all life. In the final analysis, Buddhist meditation is concerned with bringing the individual into a harmonic relationship with reality rather than with the adaptation of the social persona. The purpose of meditation is for the meditator to see the true nature of reality and to live at ease with that reality, the underlying assumption being that true human nature is not different or separate from the rest of reality. If we experience this, we come into a sense of well-being and connectedness that is free of the fear that drives so much human activity. This is not some esoteric, metaphysical doctrine but a pragmatic openness to how things really are. Through meditation we can have an actual experience of the correspondence between ourselves and the rest of life. The reason we so often feel cut off from one another is that we experience the world from a basis of fear and selfishness. Meditation can help us move beyond this egocentric view of the world to one in which we have a sense of place and purpose.

Facing Up to Suffering

Stress implies that we are living under tension, being bent out of shape. We are living in a manner that is distorting us. It is this basic distortion of the human being that Buddhism addresses, not the symptoms it produces. I am not suggesting some Rousseauist idealism that views man as noble but corrupted by an ignoble society. Man has created the society in which he lives and the characteristics of human culture are also inherent in the individual, but just because they are inherent does not mean they are inevitable. Human history testifies not only to the crippling effects of social conditioning, but also to the possibility of overcoming or rising above our given lot. What Buddhism is interested in is our potential to transcend our limitations, traditionally named as the three dominant forces of greed, hatred, and delusion – the third being based in a blinkered understanding of reality. The reduction of stress is only tangential to the realization of this potential.

Buddhism begins with the fact of dukkha, which is usually translated ‘suffering’. It begins at this point because suffering, in its many varieties, is a universal human experience. No life is free from suffering – stress being a common form. According to Buddhism, when we suffer a possibility opens up, a crack appears in the habitual pattern of our lives. As with all opportunities, we then have a choice – we either enter our experience or do what we can to avoid it.

Meditation is a means by which we can enter more fully into our experience and, by doing so, deepen our understanding of it, and eventually move through it. When meditation is used just as a relaxation, to reduce suffering by avoiding it, it becomes a kind of spiritual aspirin taken to relieve the symptoms, rather than facing up to the deep-rooted patterns that lead to stress and unhappiness.

The positive side of using meditation as a means of combating stress is that our initial limited aims can lead us somewhere unexpected. We start off just wanting to get our shoulders down from around our ears and end up discovering that we are on a spiritual journey. People are sometimes so stressed that they need to reduce the stress to a manageable level before they can consider any journey at all. The danger of using meditation in this way is that we never see beyond the limited benefits of relaxation and use it as a means of sustaining a life that is in desperate need of change. We need to realize that it is not that there is something wrong with our life. This is often the fantasy that we have: that the suffering we experience is somehow unique to us, that the rest of the world is having a jolly good time and it is we who are alone, stressed and at our wit’s end. The nature of suffering is that it inclines us towards this kind of near-sighted view of the world. We know that others also suffer – but our emotional reality is one of isolation and negative self-absorption.

One of the most moving stories in the life of the Buddha relates how he helped a woman who had lost her young child.

A young woman, distraught and frantic, is unable to relinquish her dead child. She goes desperately from one person to the next, clasping the corpse to her breast, begging them to heal her baby. One of the people she approaches suggests she goes to see the Buddha, who is staying in the vihara nearby. So the woman hastens to find the Buddha and implores him to cure her child. The Buddha replies that he can indeed help the woman, but that in order to do so he requires a mustard seed, commonly found in all Indian homes. But the Buddha makes one stipulation: the seed must be come from a house where no one has died.

The woman goes off to find the seed, still clutching her dead child. She goes from house to house. Everyone is willing to part with a mustard seed, but no house has been free from the sorrow of death. Again and again, at house after house, she asks. How long the woman searches for the untainted seed we do not know, but at some point her grief takes on a different form. It is transformed into a grief shot through with universal compassion.

In the end she returns to the Buddha, and at last laying down the corpse of her child, asks the Buddha to become her teacher.

The story shows us the creative power of suffering, from which can arise a greater feeling for life, a sense of compassion that allows us to carry on with a new sensitivity and insight into the human condition. It must be made clear that Buddhism does not court or encourage suffering. On the contrary, Buddhism promotes joy and contentment. But it also recognizes that suffering is unavoidable, deep in the grain of our lives. What is avoidable is the desperate clinging to a fantasy view of what life should be like. Understanding and compassion are capable of transforming our experience from a desperate, frantic state of denial to a state of creative endeavour.

A friend of mine recently lost a child at birth. It was a particularly tragic loss because the pregnancy had followed a previous one that had been extremely difficult, with twins born at the start of the third trimester and at great risk. The twins survived. It had been a great joy for her to have a normal pregnancy after nearly losing both her own life and that of her twins. Sometime after the stillbirth, we held a small memorial service at her home, along with the doctor and midwife and a few friends. People spoke, read poems, and said prayers. Finally, the bereaved mother read something she had written about the death of her child. As she read, sitting with my eyes closed I felt a great release of energy sweep through my body that I can only call bliss. For a while I was quite disconcerted by this, as it seemed an inappropriate response, but I now realize that what I experienced was an opening up to the suffering of the parents, and the experience allowed me to respond more deeply to the grief they felt. It was, I think, a response of compassion, of which I had become more capable because of my willingness to experience my own suffering and impermanence. Although I have not been able to maintain that level of openness, it serves as a reminder of why I practise and why I try to cultivate loving-kindness through the Metta Bhavana meditation. It reminds me that a creative response is possible even when confronted with despair and sadness.

Real Compassion

It is important to recognize that we cannot fix all the pain and suffering in our own lives, let alone the lives of others. We can’t make everything better. But there is an alternative to both avoidance and despondency. We can value and deepen our own experience and arrive at a place of real compassion towards ourselves and others. Within compassion there is the possibility of creative action. This requires a type of positive realism. Death, illness, problems in relationships, and all the other frustrations of our lives, are not just going to dissolve in bliss because we meditate. This is the Buddhist version of the American dream. Life is not like that and we know it, yet we still buy in. The truth is that a meaningful, creative life is something for which we must work, something that arises from real effort directed towards noble ends. Such a life is open to all who choose it. We do not have to be particularly clever or talented or good-looking, but we do need to make a consistent effort and be prepared to look honestly at ourselves and the world we are creating. We need to address the needs of our soul, to find a way to access what is deepest in us. We need to follow, not so much our dreams, but our reality. Such a life may be simple with no external great achievements. We will probably never win the Nobel Peace Prize, but we can develop kindness and awareness. That is within reach of us all and is a life well lived.

The highest Buddhist ideal is symbolized in the archetypal figures known as Bodhisattvas, beings who have vowed to work tirelessly, through countless lives, for the good of all. Two such figures are the Bodhisattvas known as Avalokita and Tara, who both represent perfect compassion. This is one of the many legends associated with the birth of Tara:

After taking a vow to end the suffering of all beings, Avalokita worked tirelessly for an unimaginably long time. One day he looked down on the world and saw people suffering in all conceivable ways – through warfare, famine, disease, and bereavement. He was overwhelmed. Despite all his efforts nothing seemed to have changed. Suffering still seemed to be at every door. He began to weep. His tears flowed in a great river. They were so plentiful that a puddle began to form, then a pool, and eventually a vast lake of crystal clear brilliance. Then there arose from the centre of the lake a wondrous lotus, and seated on the lotus was a radiant young woman, green in colour. His tears had brought into being Green Tara, the Bodhisattva of active compassion, serene and playful, full of joy and limitless energy.

The spiritual life begins in the facing of suffering, not just the abstract suffering of others but the pain of our own lives. As long as we cling to the fiction of a meaningful life through consumption we numb ourselves to the dukkha of our lives. It is ironic that the principal spiritual practice of Buddhism has been co-opted by many into the arsenal of techniques and drugs supposed to make life bearable, but that in the long term they undermine the awareness needed to make changes in the way we live. Meditation is not a way of avoiding this suffering, but a means of cultivating a compassionate and aware response to it.

reflection: Constant Change

Start with the first stage of the Metta Bhavana meditation, that is, cultivating a sense of wishing yourself well. Then reflect that this sense of kindness is not directed towards an idealized you, but you as you actually are.

Bear in mind that in future you are bound to encounter suffering, your own and others’, and that there will be disappointments and hardships. Be aware that there is much in your own life that you cannot control, no way that you can insure yourself against the universal truths of old age, sickness, and death. Try to have a sense that these are natural aspects of life – your life, human life, all life.

Be aware that you cannot change reality in regard to the impermanent nature of things and that for kindness to be meaningful it must exist in relation to this reality, not in opposition to it. Don’t try to force this reflection but see if there is a way you can open to this impermanence with a sense of kindness and well-wishing towards all life. Try to cultivate a sense that the vitality and beauty of life is dependent on the fact of constant change, as is the suffering. If there is a sense of sadness see if you can sit calmly with it rather than pull away.

Feel the breath in your body and feel that your body is in a constant state of dynamic interaction with the ever-changing world. Try to sit with the breath and the feeling that reflecting in this way evokes a sense of kind understanding, one that is broad enough to engage with the way things really are and not just trying to make everything all right. Encourage a sense that while life is sad and painful some of the time, life itself could not exist without pain. Use the breath to feel a sense of the fluid nature of your existence, being aware that without this constant taking in and letting out of the breath there would be no life.

As you breathe out try to have a sense of letting go of everything fixed and rigid. Let go into the constantly changing world. Sit for a while with your breath, feeling it bring life into your body as you breathe in and having a sense of letting go into life as you breathe out. Allow your breath to encourage a sense of the movement that is life, being aware of the movement in your body and the movement that is the world outside you. Breathe and have a sense of your place within all this movement that we call life and death.



Over the years that I have practised Buddhism, I have noticed that although Buddhists tend to be noticeably more mindful than non-Buddhists, perhaps more helpful and considerate too, they have not struck me as more joyful. Some Buddhist centres even have a rather sombre atmosphere. I once took a Buddhist friend, who was over from England, to a large American Zen centre. After we had looked around, he commented that the place felt like a mausoleum, which seemed to me a fair assessment. Sangharakshita, my teacher, who spent many years in India, has remarked that much English Buddhism often seems a very worthy but rather sanctimonious affair (or words to that effect). Yet he found it quite different in India, where people seem to approach their practice of the Buddha’s teachings with real joy, particularly at celebrations such as Buddha Day.

Some years ago I visited a Tibetan Buddhist centre in France. They had recently held a ritual for an important teacher who had died. This ritual was conducted by two Tibetan lamas, who seemed to be sharing a private joke, and some of the students were quite upset at this attitude, which they felt indicated a lack of respect for their departed teacher. While it is understandable that they were upset, this does seem to me to illustrate both a different attitude towards spiritual practice and, perhaps, more profoundly, towards life itself.

More recently, I visited a number of Chinese and Tibetan Buddhist monasteries. I was moved by the combination of devotion and cheerfulness the non-Western pilgrims displayed. In particular, many of the Tibetans seemed delighted to see a Westerner turning the prayer wheels or kneeling beside them at the shrines. While they spoke no English and I spoke no Tibetan, they would often stop me with beaming smiles and thumbs-up signs, and leave me in no doubt as to the happiness they felt in our shared devotion.

There does, by contrast, seem to be a lack of joy in Western Buddhism. This may be due partly to temperament and partly to inherited ideas of what religion is. There are of course exceptions to this, but I suspect these are naturally joyful people, and their quality of taking delight in the spiritual life has managed to withstand this more gloomy atmosphere. Perhaps in the West we have been conditioned to regard spiritual development as a serious and sombre affair?

Perhaps, also, people’s approach to the Dharma is often dominated by a negation of themselves that stems from a superficial understanding of the idea of ‘non-self’, and such terms as ‘overcoming the ego’. Buddhists often seem to be more concerned with what they shouldn’t do than with what they should do (which of course very much includes the cultivation of a happy and joyful attitude towards the ups and downs of life). It seems that many Westerners understand the Buddhist precepts (ethical guidelines) primarily as prohibitions, rather than seeing them as opportunities for the positive expression of awareness and compassion. Western Buddhists often seem a little stiff, as if, in them, the valuable practice of mindfulness finds its emotional energy in the will, rather than from calmness and clarity. A clear, still pond ripples at the slightest breeze. A calm, clear mind is forever ready to respond to the world around it.

Mindfulness is not primarily a matter of restraint, although that is sometimes valuable. It is better understood in terms of a freshness and responsiveness to all aspects of our experience. I have sometimes wondered if a lot of meditation is good for Westerners if it is not balanced by a joyful expression of some sort. Meditation can help us to realize that we can, and need to, experience ourselves fully, in an unrestrained manner – without always expressing it outwardly. Realizing that we can make a choice about how we behave in the world based on a fuller awareness, rather than on repression, is of fundamental importance in maintaining joy in our lives. While it is important to avoid inflicting our negative emotions on others, it is just as important to give ourselves the freedom to fully express positive mental states.

Within meditation we have a chance to become more familiar with our emotional energies within a context that provides a sense of containment and clarity. We learn that the full range of our human emotions can be experienced without the necessity to act them out. Meditation allows us the leisure to experience the richness of the human heart – but it also teaches us that there is a choice – and a difference – between experience and expression.

Directing our minds

Related to this alienated kind of mindfulness, and lack of joy, there often seems to be an emphasis on meditation being a struggle, and on the eradication of the natural liveliness of the human mind. The aim of meditation is to direct the energy of the mind, not to control the mind by repressing its natural curiosity and spontaneity. Meditation aims to encourage a state of awareness characterized by openness and flexibility, free from anxiety and fear.

Our approach to meditation should not be one of wanting to dominate the mind or of seeing ourselves locked in some epic struggle with an evil ego. Such an attitude is often based on a kind of inverted inflated view of ourselves. Self-flagellation is not part of the Buddhist tradition, which regards severe asceticism as just as misguided as unheedful hedonism.

Nor, when we experience difficulties in meditation, should we give up. This often happens if our practice is too idealistic. If we have an unrealistic notion of ourselves – Enlightenment or bust – the chances are we will bust. The false notions that we are likely to gain full Enlightenment some time next week, or that we are so bad that no amount of practice will ever do more than scratch the surface of our dark souls, are equally undermining in the long run. So when things get a little difficult we should try to lighten up a little and see things with a bit of humour.

Our minds are often like those of small children. We can try to deal with a situation through stern discipline or we can enter into a more playful and interested relationship with ourselves. Of course, completely free parenting does not work; we need a balanced approach. So while there is a real need for some degree of discipline if we are serious about meditation, to get ourselves to the cushion on a regular basis, we do not need to be too rigid. I have known some people who, when for some reason they have been unable to meditate at their usual time, become quite distressed. It is as if they regard their meditation as a daily fix and they will go into some awful DTs if they are unable to do it. Of course we have to be careful that we are not just being lazy and finding all these good reasons why we can’t meditate today, but fretting about the rare occasion when it really is not possible seems to me a little neurotic.

It is hard to talk about what really goes on in meditation. We are using the mind to work with the mind. It is like massaging one hand with the other. It is very difficult to separate clearly the sensation of one hand from the other. The self-reflective part of our awareness is not clearly distinguished from the rest of our mind, of which it is aware. For any sort of meditation to happen there has to be some element of this self-reflective awareness. We have to be aware that we are aware. It is then very easy to see the mind as dualistic, one part of it trying to control the other. A good part, a ‘grown-up’ part that wants to be a ‘good Buddhist’ tries to control another part that is seen as, well, evil, or at least rather naughty. For most people it is rare to become sufficiently concentrated to experience the mind as an integrated whole. While it often feels as though there is a good mind versus a bad mind, this is not a very useful attitude to take.

So while we can talk about meditation as the mind working directly on the mind, we should try not to regard those aspects of our experience that are less under our conscious control as something requiring eradication. Through a patient, kindly approach we can gradually involve all our psychic energies in our meditation. Indeed, it is the engagement of the aspects of our mind that are not subject to our will that gives meditation its depth and richness. Meditation is a place where our wilful ‘should-be-ness’ can be relaxed. We move towards an experience of ourselves as a textured and complex individual, where the sometimes conflicting aspects of ourselves can at least get a sense of each other. If meditation is a mental training, it is a training based in love rather than force. It is a means by which we can begin to heal the internal conflicts that thrive in the black-and-white atmosphere of dualistic thought, the good mind versus the bad.

Big mind

We each have only one mind, even though at times it doesn’t feel like it. The good mind and the bad mind are one and the same, as expressed in the wonderfully prosaic term popularized in the West by Shunryu Suzuki, ‘big mind’.(footnote 3)

Big mind captures the experience of heightened awareness that can occur in meditation. It is not the self-reflective part of us watching over us like Big Brother, but our whole mind, saturated with awareness. Although our actual experience of what we can call big mind might be quite limited, we should nevertheless strive to bring such an understanding to our meditation. Although our mind often feels fragmented or divided against itself we should remember big mind, and remind ourselves that behind the confusion is at least the possibility of a sense of clarity and expansiveness where all our conflicting mental and emotional experiences disappear into a calm, pure awareness. We can perhaps think of a vast ocean that on the surface is whipped into mighty waves, but further down, in the depths, is calm.

Big mind is like big heart – it is open to what is actually there. It is patient and it is forgiving. It does not enter a situation with the idea of a fixed outcome. ‘This situation will be like this’ is not the attitude of big mind. The first thing is to take an interest in what is actually going on. If we go in with an idea of how things should be, and they are different, we get very frustrated. Perhaps our parents thought we would enjoy playing the piano, but we didn’t – it was a fine day and we would have preferred to play with our friends. Even our parents hated the racket we resentfully made. If we want someone to learn we need to sit down and learn with them. To enjoy playing a piano a child needs the parent to be actively interested in what is happening, and the parent needs to be open to learning in order fully to take part. Similarly, if we pit one part of our mind against another in meditation, we will find it very hard to find real joy. There will always be some resistance to what we are doing.

Big mind takes in the whole situation. It enters into the situation completely. It is not one part of the mind trying to impose its will on another.

The most common way we split the mind is into intellect and emotion. We think we should do something, but we have no real emotional energy invested in it. Depending on our personality, we might do it anyway or we might just give up. One of the reasons we meditate is to try to bring these two facets of ourselves together and encourage a unification of heart and mind. Big mind is the ability to encompass the divisions that exist within ourselves and to seek a creative way of working with them.

It is sometimes necessary to do things even when we do not feel wholehearted about them. With meditation, too, there has to be some discipline. We may not always feel like doing it, but this does not mean that we cannot at least acknowledge the part of us that isn’t very interested. We have to be able to pay attention to ourselves in this way, to see both sides of ourselves. When we do this a third element can arise that is not so dualistic, but more concerned with working with the whole of us. This part of us is what we meditate with. It is a self-awareness that is above, but also encompasses, the conflicting parts of ourselves. This kind of self-awareness can arise when there is some kind of dialogue between the divergent aspects of our mind. The ‘good idea’ part of us has to value the energy that is pulling in another direction.

This energy is often where our imagination is. It is only when we are able to engage this kind of energy that some real sense of vision can arise, and it is this sense of vision that sustains us in the spiritual life. There needs to be a sense of excitement and joy in our practice, a sense that what we are doing is of real worth. This also has to be nurtured outside meditation. We cannot expect it just to be there when we sit down to meditate, if the rest of the time we neglect it. This means that we need to stimulate the emotional side of ourselves, and in particular find ways of cultivating a sense of excitement about the spiritual life and, through reflection and reading, reminding ourselves of the benefits that meditation and ethics can bring.

Flexible awareness

I have often been struck by the number of people who do not seem to enjoy their meditation, especially those who have an established practice. In some ways it is laudable that they keep trying. If you meditate regularly there are bound to be times when it is difficult, but in order to sustain a beneficial practice there needs to be a strong element of enjoyment at least some of the time. It is not enough that we think meditation is good for us and we therefore force ourselves to do it. Rather, the direct experience of meditation needs to be sustaining. Part of the problem is having a fixed idea of what should happen when we meditate, what our mind should be like.

It reminds me a little of the local gym, where many people appear to be at war with their bodies – no pain, no gain. They seem to want to force their bodies into an unnatural shape that conforms to some idea they have, but bears little relationship to their particular type of body. Why do people meditate if they do not enjoy it? Why do they continue to approach it in the same old way if it brings them little joy?

I recently led a workshop for quite experienced meditators. One woman, who had been meditating for seven years, had been taught the form of Mindfulness of Breathing in which one counts the breaths. She said she had never found this counting useful. Counting made her tense and anxious. I asked her why, after seven years, she was still counting her breaths. Her response was that this was how she had been taught. This situation highlights the need to get into dialogue with other meditators, especially those with more experience than ourselves, if at all possible. I suggested she tried it without the counting to see if it worked better, for although this approach seems effective for most people, perhaps it was not the best one for her. The main thing seemed to be that she needed to enjoy her breath rather than seeing the practice as a chore.

I was reminded of the story of the devoted peasant who was given a mantra by a passing guru, which he misheard so that the sacred syllable hum was replaced by a similar Tibetan word meaning ‘cow’. The peasant chanted this mantra to good effect until the guru returned to the isolated village to check on his progress. On discovering the mistake he carefully corrected the pronunciation. However, the correct mantra seemed not to work, and the beneficial effects of the practice were lost. Some time later, on a third visit, the guru gave his pupil special permission to revert to his original version, and once again the peasant began to experience the benefit of his heartfelt invocation of the cow.

We need to trust our experience and feel free to try different approaches that might work better. There are forms of the Mindfulness of Breathing that do not employ counting. The initial delight we find in meditation is often lost because we become too rigid in our employment of technique. Our practice becomes a routine that we go through regardless of our experience, like going to the gym and feeling we have to do so many press-ups or swim a certain number of lengths.

The most important quality we try to encourage when we meditate is awareness. The various techniques are there to help us do this. We need to keep in mind the nature of the awareness that we are trying to develop – not a rigid awareness that is insensitive to our real experience, but an open, flexible awareness that can respond to our actual situation.

A friend and I were once walking along a beach, and we were passed by a number of joggers. Most of them seemed to be in some state of distress. We then came upon a young woman exercising. I don’t know if she was employing some system of exercise or just making it up as she went along, but what she was doing reminded me of the spontaneous joy of a young child. She was jumping and skipping, throwing her arms in the air. It was quite wonderful to watch. Her body seemed to be full of joy and life. She seemed open to the wind and the sea, and appeared to be really enjoying herself. At the same time her movements were graceful and co-ordinated, all in striking contrast to the desperate joggers. I thought, ‘this is what the mind should be like when we are meditating.’ It reminded me of Milarepa’s ‘Song of a Yogi’s Joy’.

Milarepa was an eleventh-century Buddhist poet famous for the depth of his meditation and the expression of his profound experience in spontaneous song:

“The greater the distress and passions,
The more one can be blithe and gay!
What happiness to feel no ailment or illness;
What happiness to feel that joy and suffering are one;
What happiness to play in bodily movement
With the power aroused by Yoga.
To jump and to run, to dance and leap, is more joyful still.

“What happiness to sing the victorious song,
What happiness to chant and hum,
More joyful still to talk and loudly sing!
Happy in the mind, powerful and confident,
Steeped in the realm of Totality.”

Milarepa is clearly expressing a profound state in which dualism has been overcome. What comes through is a real sense of joy. We might be a long way from being able to respond to our distress in the same manner as Milarepa, but we can encourage an attitude of interest and joy. On the most basic level we need to frame our practice in a manner that allows us to take delight in it. We could think of ourselves as poor human beings lacking in awareness and compassion, desperately needing to meditate in a frantic attempt to improve a little. But such a view does not allow for the possibility of joy and delight in meditation; it limits us even before we take our seat. Conversely, we can encourage the idea that as humans we have a tremendous potential, that we can build on our existing awareness and nurture the kindness that we already experience.

The joy of no comparisons

The scriptures of Buddhism are full of accounts of the most unlikely characters gaining insight into Reality. Milarepa himself had a rather unpromising start. After the death of his father, his uncle, now the head of the family, plotted to steal the family’s wealth and land. Milarepa’s mother was reduced to a state of penury and treated little better than a slave in her own home. Under the influence of his embittered mother the young Milarepa learned the black arts and used them to take revenge not only on his uncle but on the whole village, who had stood by while his family had been cheated and humiliated. Later, having been responsible for the deaths of many people, Milarepa had to undergo many hardships before he attained the joyful state of liberation to which his songs testify.

Few of us start from such a position, weighed down by such a murderous past, but the extreme life of Milarepa illustrates the potential we all have to transcend the limitations of a life dominated by greed and hatred. Most of us in the West have a tremendous opportunity to cultivate ourselves. We are relatively free from the hardships faced by most of the world’s people. We live in a society where we have the freedom to practise, and we have access to a great many resources to support our efforts. What we often seem to lack is a basic confidence in ourselves and a joyful relationship to life. Confidence, in the modern world, seems to be based mainly in a sense that we are in some way better than others. From an ever earlier age, children are encouraged to see themselves in a competitive relationship with one another, their sense of worth linked to the achievement of external goals.

In Buddhism, it is regarded as arrogant to think of ourselves as better than someone else. It is also said to be a form of arrogance to think of oneself as inferior to another, or even the same as another. Here, Buddhism is trying to help us to see that comparing ourselves to others is beside the point. It is not a useful way to view either ourselves or other people. It is quite ridiculous for a child to be conditioned to feel that self-worth depends on making the school basketball team, or being top of their class. Instead of children being encouraged to find joy in sport or literature, they are pitted against one another.

When we internalize this kind of attitude as a child it is very hard to let go of it later. We find it a particularly great handicap if we wish to develop as individuals. When we meditate we will have in the back of our minds the idea that we are either a better or a worse meditator than other people. This is, of course, a quite meaningless idea. Spiritual practice is not something we can measure and compare. We can find ourselves looking at the spiritual life as if it is some kind of competitive sport, constantly concerned with how we are doing in relation to others. Not only does this lead to anxiety, it also means that we cannot really encourage and support others, because we are jealous that they might outdo us. Rather than feeling joy in our own, and others’, progress we are caught up in ideas of superiority and inferiority. Confidence does not arise by encouraging ourselves to feel better than others, but by valuing the progress made.

Meditating with other people can be a great support to our own practice. We feel supported in the sense that others affirm that what we are trying to do is of real worth. If we are a little sensitive to those around us we will find that we can tune in to someone else’s concentration, and allow the general atmosphere of awareness to help us. We can have a tangible experience of being part of a great tradition that goes back to the historical Buddha, and includes many outstanding figures like Milarepa. We are working with the same basic stuff they had to work with – human awareness. The difficulties we might encounter have been encountered – and overcome – by many thousands before us. We then have to encourage a basic confidence in our own ability to cultivate awareness and compassion. This does not mean having some overblown idea of ourselves as one step away from being a Buddha, but a quiet appreciation of the progress we are making – and a sense that, although it takes time and effort, there is really no limit to our practice.

It is not that one day we will be done with spiritual practice. As we progress, it opens up rather than narrows down. If we have a rigid idea of wanting to reach the end we will find the spiritual life very frustrating. It is as if we are in a rush to get to the top of a hill: we climb what we think is the final ridge only to find that the hill goes on and on. So it is with our spiritual practice. We need to have a general sense of direction but at the same time take in and enjoy the landscape as we go.

I sometimes play with this idea when I teach walking meditation. I instruct people in a very slow form of walking in which we take one small step with each breath. People often find this quite hard because they feel they are getting nowhere. When I sense that people are getting frustrated, I tell them to imagine that this is all we will be doing tonight, just walking very slowly together, for the next two hours. If people can let go of the idea of there being some fixed destination, they are often able to relax into what is really happening. It is hard to express in words just how wonderful it can be to walk slowly with others, being aware of oneself and of one another. There is a simple joy in such an activity, a sense of connectedness and completeness – just from walking in a circle without hurry.

Whenever we begin to feel frustrated in what we are doing, we should slow down and pay closer attention to it. Frustration takes us away from ourselves; we become alienated from our experience. When we feel this beginning to happen we need to pay more attention to our experience. I used to live with someone who was a great cook, but he was very messy and seemed to use every pan in the house. After a meal the kitchen would be in a state of chaos. Because I was home in the morning, my writing time, I was often confronted with the chaos from the night before. I found it very interesting to become aware of my reaction as I set about cleaning up. I tried to just take the time it needed, not rushing to return to my writing, but trying to find some pleasure in cleaning up. If I found myself beginning to feel resentful I would remind myself what a nice meal I’d had the night before. I would slow down and try to enjoy the experience of restoring order. The point is that if I had rushed through it feeling resentful and put upon, by the time I got down to what I wanted to do, I would have created frustration and distraction. I would then find that I was not able to work effectively. Then of course I would get into an even worse state. Alternatively, I could see it as a useful way to become more aware of myself and actually supporting my next activity. I don’t want to give you the impression I can always to do this, but I do manage it some of the time.

This, then, is a small example of what is going on all the time in our lives. It can go on in the sense of wishing to be done with a particular activity, but it can also go on in the overall context of our lives. In perhaps its most extreme form it can be a whole life wasted doing something in which we really have no passion or true interest. Sometimes this is called becoming ‘a success’.

Changing our relationship to time

It may at first seem a harsh statement, but Buddhism sometimes talks of most human lives as basically being wasted. It is as if we throw away what is most dear to us. From a Buddhist perspective human life is rare and precious. Having a human form is a unique and wonderful opportunity. While we take being human for granted, Buddhism calls on us to see it as an exceptional, almost miraculous, occurrence. Possessing a human form and a human consciousness makes possible the unlimited expression of love and awareness. What is more, and is in a sense profoundly ironic, is that we somehow intuitively know it is true. What else could explain human beings proving themselves, again and again, willing and capable of acting from love – even at the cost of their own lives? We sense our capacity to act for the good as surely as we fear our capacity to act from the bad. It sometimes seems to me that much of my life is lived as if I am caught in the headlights of my possible actions. I fear doing evil, but I lack the courage to do good. I can feel startled and paralysed. I see my meditation practice as attempting to bring a spaciousness and joy into my life. Then following the good can become a form of playfulness.

It seems wonderful to me that many of us, when faced with extreme conditions, behave with such courage and humanity. I have seen this in the way many face their own death or the death of those dear to them. But it also seems to me a great pity that we perhaps have to find ourselves in extreme and painful situations before we find the courage to tap into such goodness.

The remarkable autobiography of Jean-Dominique Bauby, The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly, recounts his experience of suffering a severe stroke which left him completely paralysed. Formerly a successful and urbane fashion editor, Bauby manages to dictate his memoir by a laborious semaphore of fluttering an eyelid – the only part of his body still capable of voluntary movement. What is revealed is that through the trauma and desolation of his condition, a new sense of being alive to the world has emerged. Bauby here recounts a trip from the hospital:

“I have come to gorge on the aromas emanating from a modest shack by the path leading away from the beach. Claude and Brice bring me to a halt downwind. My nostrils quiver with pleasure as they inhale a robust odour – intoxicating to me, but one that most mortals cannot abide. ‘Ooh!’ says a disgusted voice behind me, ‘What a stench of grease!’ But I will never tire of the smell of frying potatoes.

I hope I do not have to face such a situation, but I also hope that I become increasingly able to live from what I most value. We need to start from where we are at any given time. We cannot wait for extremes. We must look at our lives as they are now – to see how we are being formed by our everyday activities. In our daily lives there is often the sense that we are doing something just to get it out of the way, so that we can get on with what we really want to do. We can even find this attitude developing towards meditation. All the time we are thinking, ‘I will just get this out of the way – it’s good for me – then I can get on with things.’ When we have this attitude we are limiting our experience. We are placing it in a ‘good for me’ box.

One of the realizations we are trying to cultivate through our meditation is that life isn’t really divided into distinct segments. How we do one thing will affect the mental state we take into the next. A sense of frustration and rush will stay with us. It seems all too easy for modern life to become one continuous rush tainted with frustration and a feeling that there is never enough time to do anything with care and sensitivity. So it is a very useful practice just to take one’s time. The truth is that if we can take pleasure in what we do and be mindful, we will find we have more time. Our relationship with time itself can change. Time becomes full of life rather than second by second stealing our life away.

In practical terms, we might not have very much time to meditate, but we should still learn to take our time and be fully in the time that we do have. We should not rush into the meditation but take care in laying out our cushion and making sure we are comfortable. We need to prepare for the meditation, being aware of our body and taking time to tune in to how we feel. It doesn’t matter if this means we spend more time in preparation than formal practice. If our approach to preparation is one of care and attention, there is no difference between that and the meditation itself. If we can find joy in placing a cushion mindfully on a mat that we have carefully smoothed out, we will find that we are in time and the time that we do have will be useful.

Shunryu Suzuki has a passage in his book of essays Zen Mind, Beginners Mind (a book in which I have found much joy and inspiration) that has always intrigued me:

“So when you practise zazen [meditation], your mind should be concentrated on your breathing. This kind of activity is the fundamental activity of the universal being.”

I understand Suzuki to mean, at least in part, that when we do anything, no matter what, with clear awareness and a sense of care and kindness, we express what is highest in us. We are in the best sense most fully ourselves. There seems to me great hope in the fact that such expression can be found in the activities of our daily lives.

reflection: Witnessing Yourself

Take up your sitting posture. Spend a little time becoming aware of your body and developing a sense of your general emotional and mental state. This does not mean that you have to work out why you feel as you do; it is more a matter of just being aware of your emotional colour and state of mind. Once you feel you have settled you can begin with the first stage of the Metta Bhavana meditation, and cultivate a sense of kindness towards yourself.

When you have established a basis of metta towards yourself, bring to mind a situation about which you still have confused emotions. This could be something that has happened recently or from way back. It might, for example, be an occasion when you behaved harshly towards someone, while another aspect of you feels that they had it coming. Or it might be related to how somebody has acted towards you. The important thing is that you are aware of having conflicting feelings around the incident.

Rather than getting into an internal debate with yourself, give each side a few minutes to state their case, or, more importantly, let yourself experience both sides in turn. Allow yourself to be receptive to whichever side is speaking, while as far as possible avoiding the voice that wants to say ‘yes but…’. What is important to note is that I am not asking you to judge which of your emotional responses is ‘right’, but that you let the two, or more, sides have their say.

So there is another part of you which is willing to listen to the conflicting voices without feeling the need to value one above the other. This kind of awareness is sometimes called witness awareness, and it is a type of awareness that can be developed through meditation. So in this reflection, we are not trying to make a judgement about what is the right way to feel, but simply giving all sides a chance to be experienced as fully as possible. After you feel you have given voice to the various aspects of your emotions return to the Metta Bhavana and spend a few minutes re-establishing a sense of well-wishing towards yourself, that is, try to cultivate a sense of kindness towards yourself as you are, with sometimes conflicting emotions, rather than a idealized version of yourself.

Note that I am not implying we should value all our emotions in the same way. There are many emotions we should not allow to become the basis for action. But this does not mean that it is healthy or useful to pretend they do not exist. Meditation is a place where we can develop the ability to witness ourselves fully while understanding that there is a difference between experiencing and expressing.

reflection: Appreciating Yourself

Start as always by taking a little time over your posture and making sure you are settled and have a sense of how you are. Just be aware of the breath coming and going in your body. See if you can locate a pleasurable sensation associated with your breathing. It might be quite subtle, a gentle movement in your belly for example.

Give your attention to this sensation. Don’t try to make anything happen; just use this simple sensation as the focus. If you realize you mind has drifted off, bring it back to the sensation. Once you feel you have centred yourself in your body, slowly start to bring your surroundings to mind.

Bear in mind that the space you sit in is not empty, but that you sit in a space full of the element air. Without opening your eyes become aware of your surroundings. Be aware not only of the objects in the room, but also of the materials from which these objects are made. Develop a sense that everything around you has, in one way or another, been made from materials found in the natural world. Think of the brick or wood of which the building is constructed.

Become aware that even in the heart of the city the element earth is under the buildings. Let your awareness of your context slowly expand. Keeping a sense of yourself, let your imagination come into contact with the world around you. Be aware of the life that, even in an urban environment, manages to flourish: the birds, insects, plants, then beyond the town into the countryside to the ocean. Have a sense of the abundance of life, a sense of the richness of the organic and inorganic world.

Sitting quietly in the midst of all this life, encourage an awareness of being part of this world, part of the manifestation of life. Feel that you are breathing in this world, in the middle of a breathing world. Be aware that you are made of the same basic elements that make up everything around you. See if you can encourage a sense of yourself as part of this remarkable phenomenon of life. Just sit quietly for a while, having a sense of your place in the world of things.

reflection: Being in Time

Find ways of being in time, rather than against time. Take a leisurely stroll around the park; have a day in the country; sit down and listen to your favourite CD; spend an hour reading poetry.

Try to build into your daily life activities that you engage in for their own sake. Give yourself over to these simple pleasures as fully as possible. Make some time in your life free from striving and doing.

There are many activities supportive of the spiritual life, activities that create a sense of spaciousness. Just sitting with an awareness of my breath encourages a sense in me that I am in time. Feeling the breath coming and going in my body nourishes a sense of belonging to a living world unfolding within organic time. Try using awareness of your breath to slow down whenever life begins to overwhelm you. Even if you don’t have time for a formal session of meditation, you can just be aware of your breath for a few minutes. Imagine as you breathe out that you are letting go of any mental tension. See if you can develop a sense of the world around you based in a feeling of kindness towards others, as if you are breathing out kindness into the world. Let your breathing be easy and relaxed, tuning in to its rhythm, feeling time in your own body.

Try to be aware if your experience begins to take on a frantic edge, when you start to feel oppressed by time. If this happens, consciously slow down. Stop for a few moments and be aware of the breath until it becomes calm.

Sex and relationships

Intimacy, sex and our sense of lack

An article by Ken Jones of the Network of Engaged Buddhists, UK.

The modern era is marked by an urge for intimacy which has become intense and compulsive. This focuses upon ‘relationships’, a word which assumed its present meaning only in the second half of the twentieth century.

In the Middle Ages marriage was a means of perpetuating family, inheritance and title, or, for the poor, the production of children to care for their parents in old age. The choice of the marriage partner belonged to the parents, and mutual attraction came low in the considerations governing the match.

It was not until the eighteenth century, and particularly in Protestant Europe, that love, sexuality and marriage came together as modernity’s liberative agenda for the newly emergent private life. This was the sphere allotted to well-to-do women largely excluded from public responsibilities. And for many men the calculative rationality of business, administration and the professions was never enough, even with the gutsy self­affirmations of fame and power. For those yearning for relief from such vanities, and for the absolute gratification of absolute desire (or better still the hope and expectation of it) there was nothing to equal romantic love. And in the adulterous flouting of convention, individualism found its most extreme expression. In the age of Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, romantic love and adultery were celebrated as the great enliveners of personal life and romantic novels were produced in huge quantities until superseded in part by the Hollywood dream factory.

Just as individualism had to be accommodated to the needs of capitalism and the subordination of those without capital, so, in the new middle class marriage, did romantic love have to be accommodated to patriarchal property rights and the subordination of women. The expectations were clear: marriage for life, with the man as breadwinner and the woman as ‘the angel of the house’. Divorce was exceptional and stigmatised, and adultery was shocking – certainly in Protestant countries.

In the second half of the twentieth century this model of marriage was substantially disembedded by the needy, restless individualism of high modernity, peeling off another layer of the existential onion in its search for authenticity at the heart. It has been supplanted by ‘partnership’ (married or not) in a committed relationship. The ‘relationship’ is a unique phenomenon of high modernity in that, unlike traditional marriage, it is totally disembedded from any external social conditions and exists only for itself. It must therefore accommodate all the emotional, intellectual and existential baggage of both parties, seeking to satisfy in the relationship a range of needs which had previously been met at least in part by a more three dimensional kind of culture than that of high modernity. It requires continual maintenance, sustained commitment and total mutual trust.

Traditionally, matrimony provided a framework of social assumptions which constrained, but which also provided, institutional space and time in which the synergy of a potentially fruitful relationship could work. But the fast­food culture of a high divorce rate and serial marriage gives little encouragement to patient cultivation and slow ripening. Whilst it is true that in earlier times shorter lives and high mortality rates in childbirth produced similar objective conditions, the well established extended family did provide some stability. Nowadays, although child rearing still necessarily moves at a premodern pace, children have to accommodate themselves to the new hyper-individualism as best they can.

Here, as elsewhere in high modernity, the total freedom of a driven individualism comes at a cost of greater insecurity and anxiety. The deluded pursuit of authenticity through ever greater self-fulfillment must often prompt reflection on whether life really has to be a hot griddle, on which the fleas that jump must fall, and the fleas that fall must jump…

The pursuit of erotic novelty is a further destabiliser in a culture in which ‘good sex’ is widely considered an inalienable human right, essential for self esteem. There is nothing new about instrumental sex, but in the high modernity of mass communication it has been increasingly commodified, and has become for many an addictive fix. The following is from the American business magazine U.S. News & World Report:

In 1996 American spent more than $8 billion on hard­core videos, peep shows, live sex acts, adult cable programming, sexual vices, computer porn, and- sex magazines – an amount mueh larger than Hollywood’s domestic box office receipts and larger than all the revenues generated- by rod: and country music recordings. Americans now spend more money at strip clubs than at Broadway, off-Broadway, regional and non-profit theaters, at the e opera. the ballet, and jazz and classical music performances — combined.

The Guardian journalist reporting the above observed that, according to War on Want, $8 billion is more than enough to provide debt relief for the world’s twenty worst affected countries, effectively springing them from the poverty trap.

All that being said, it is not my argument that relationships and eroticism are nothing more than a futile attempt to relieve the sense of emptiness, the precariousness of being human, which high modernity has accentuated. They may also be profound explorations which can give insight into the nature of lack itself. The searcher after self-fulfilment can be educated by love into discovering deepest fulfilment in the well-being of another. Marriage, or any similar long term committed relationship, offers one of the most valuable practices that high modernity has to offer in the art of becoming a fully realised human being. Religions embedded in premodern cultures – and particularly a strongly monastic one like Buddhism – can have little directly to say about this (at least in their original cultural packaging). Yet they do have a potential that could be serviceable in this context. John Welwood explains:

We often feel tremendous resistance to letting love in, because love is a power that. can dissolve the shell of our false ego. We start to think: ‘I didn’t get into a relationship for this! I didn’t bargain on having my most precious strategy for security and survival threatened like this!’ At this point, we imagine something is desperately wrong – with ourselves, with our partner, or with the relationship. Yet this is actually a tremendous opportunity to break through to a larger and deeper sense of who we are and what we can be.

This is what I call unconditional presence. The two limbs of unconditional presence are awareness and loving-kindness. In this case awareness means seeing our conditioned structures and inquiring into the unconscious set-ups that are operating…. And loving­kindness involves being willing to make room for the difficult feelings that inevitably come up in relationships. To meet them fully and directly, in a kind and gentle way. This kind of compassion is an absolutely essential element of conscious relationship.

The above quotation is from Love and Awakening: Discovering the Path of Intimate Relationship, by John Welwood (Harper Collins, 1996).


Glossary of Buddhist Terms

Glossary of Buddhist terms

(Written for the AQA syllabus by Robert Ellis, formerly a member of the Western Buddhist Order and a former Head of RS in a 6th-form college.)

Most of the terms you really need to know are explained in the text but there may be other terms you come across when researching about Buddhism which are not immediately clear. This glossary is fairly detailed and is provided for reference: you do not need to learn all the terms given here! Some of the terms also only come up in A2 and you do not necessarily need to know about them for AS.

Key to language abbreviations: S = Sanskrit, language of the Indian Mahayana texts P = Pali, language of the Theravada texts C = Chinese J = Japanese
q.v. = see separate explanation under that heading here


Abhidharma (S) Abhidhamma (P) The ‘further teaching’: a complex Buddhist system of psychology based on the ‘dharmas’ or momentary experiences and their classification.
Abhidhamma Pitaka (P) The third ‘basket’ of the Tripitaka (q.v.)
Ahimsa (S/P) Non-violence: the ethical principle of not harming other living beings.
Ajivakas (S) ‘Alternative lifers’: religious movement of the time of the Buddha which denied the doctrine of karma and believed that all actions were pre-determined.
Alaya-Vijnana (S) ‘Store Consciousness’. According to the Yogacara school, this part of the mind is a store for the impressions left on us by our karmic actions. These impressions are then organised by the manas (q.v.).
Amida (J), Amitabha (S) The symbolic Buddha (not the historical Buddha) who rules over the Pure Land: the object of devotion in Pure Land Buddhism.
Amidism Another name for Pure land Buddhism (q.v.): so called because it involves devotion to Amida (above).
Anatman (S) Anatta (P) ‘Not self’: the teaching that we have no permanent identity and are merely a stream of processes.
Anitya (S) Anicca (P) ‘Impermanence’: the teaching that everything in the universe is constantly changing.
Arahat (S) Arhat (P) One who has ‘merited’ (i.e. gained) enlightenment. In the Mahayana, an enlightened person who is not a Bodhisattva (q.v.)
Aryans Race which invaded India in ancient times and established themselves as the dominant (‘noble’) class of society.
Aryan Truths see Noble Truths, Four
Asceticism A religious practice of self-denial and even inflicting pain on oneself.
Asrava (S) Asava (P) Variously translated ‘canker’, ‘taint’, ‘influx’: One of the three things which hold us to unenlightened existence – sensuous craving, thirst for existence, and ignorance.
Asuras (S) ‘Titans’: those consumed by envy, in one of the 6 realms of the Tibetan Wheel of Life.
Atman (S) The soul or self in Hindu belief.
Avatamsaka (S) Hua-Yen (C) ‘Flower Adornment’ School of Mahayana Buddhism, expressed in the Avatamsaka Sutra, which stressed liberation through contemplation of the totality of the universe as found in every part of it (even down to a speck of dust).


Bardo (T) An intermediate state, between normal states of consciousness, in which there is an opportunity for enlightenment. One of these is the Bardo between death and rebirth.
Bardo Thödröl (T) see Tibetan Book of the Dead.
Bhikshu (S) Bhikkhu (P) A Buddhist monk.
Bhikshuni (S) Bhikkhuni (P) A Buddhist nun
Bodhi (S) Awareness,Enlightenment
Bodhi Tree (or Bo Tree) The type of tree under which the Buddha was said to have become enlightened, otherwise known as the pipal tree. It has distinctively shaped leaves.
Bodhichitta (S) In the Mahayana, the impulse to gain enlightenment purely for the sake of others: the first mark of a bodhisattva (q.v. 2)
Bodhisattva (S) Bodhisatta (P) ‘One who has the essence of enlightenment’ : (1) A person who will become a Buddha in the future, (2) One who puts off ultimate enlightenment until all other beings are saved (in contrast to an arhat, who takes nirvana for himself).
Bodhicaryavatara (S) ‘A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life’. An important Mahayana text describing the Bodhisattva Ideal, written by Shantideva.
Bodhisattva Ideal In the Mahayana, the ideal of becoming a Bodhisattva rather than an Arhat, becoming enlightened for the sake of others.
Brahma (S) The God of Hinduism, unifying all other gods and part of the structure of the universe. Ridiculed by Buddhism as Brahma-Sahampati.
Brahmacharya (S) The practice of celibacy (never having sex).
Brahmans or Brahmins The priestly caste of Hinduism.
Brahmaviharas (S) “Sublime Abodes”. The 4 states of positive emotion cultivated by 4 related meditations: Maitri (S)/Metta (P) (loving-kindness), karuna (compassion), mudita (sympathetic joy) and upeksha (equanimity).
Brahminism The religion of elaborate ritual performed by Brahmins/ Brahmans.
Buddha (S/P) ‘Awakened one’ : (1) Any person who has achieved enlightenment, (2) The Buddha, Gautama, sometimes referred to as ‘The Historical Buddha’, the founder of Buddhism. (3) A mythical or symbolic figure representing the ideal of enlightenment.
Buddha Land see Pure Land
Buddhapada (S) “Buddha-foot”. The Buddha’s footprint, used as a symbol of the Buddha and of his enlightenment.
Buddhavacana (S/P) ‘The word of the Buddha’ : Tradition of the Buddha’s life and teachings which was first passed down by word of mouth and later written down as the Tripitaka (q.v.) or Pali Canon.
Buddhism A Western name for the religious tradition which began with the Buddha. Buddhists themselves usually refer to this as the Dharma (q.v.)


Canon Recognised body of religious texts.
Caste The social group to which an Indian traditionally belongs, associated with a particular type of occupation, within which he is born and must marry. See also varna.
Celibacy The practice of not marrying and abstaining from all sexual activity.
Chaitya (S) Type of stupa found in Nepal
Chakravartin (S) Chakkavatti (P) “Wheel-turner”: the ideal king who practices, supports and spreads Buddhism (“Turning the Wheel of the Dharma”).
Ch’an (C) see Zen.
Chedi (Thai) Type of stupa found in Thailand.
Ching t’u (C) The Chinese name for Pure Land Buddhism (q.v.)
Chorten (T) Type of stupa found in Tibet.
Chitta (S) Mind, consciousness.
Chitta-matra (S) ‘Mind only’: Teaching of the Yogachara that the objective world does not exist in itself, but only in the mind.
Conditionality The process of cause and effect which affects all actions and events in the unenlightened universe.
Conditioned Co-Production see Pratityasamutpada.
Confucianism The religion established in China before Buddhism arrived there, which stressed social conformity and order.
Cupola The dome which forms the base of a stupa.


Daoism see Taoism
Daimoku (J) The mantra used in the practice of Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism (q.v.): namu myoho renge kyo (“Homage to the Lotus Sutra”).
Dakini (S) Symbolic naked female figure, representing absolute freedom.
Dalai Lama (T) The reincarnating lama who is the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, and was also the political ruler of Tibet until the Chinese invasion.
Dana (S/P) Giving or generosity as a spiritual practice required in Buddhist ethics. Can also refer to a donation (eg. to a monastery).
Delusion A mistaken understanding of the nature of the universe, causing suffering.
Dependent Origination see Pratityasamutpada.
Deva (S/P) One of the gods found in the Realm of the Gods in the Tibetan Wheel of Life. These are not worshipped by Buddhists but just considered to be beings caught up in very refined experiences.
Devi (S/P) Goddess (feminine version of deva: see above).
Devotion The practice of worshipping Buddhas and Bodhisattvas through meditation and puja (q.v.), so as to bring about their ideal qualities in oneself.
Dharani (S) See Mantra.
Dharma (S) Dhamma (P) Several meanings need to be carefully distinguished: (1) In the Abhidhamma (q.v.): an impersonal momentary event or phenomenon, the smallest building-block of experience. (2) In Hinduism: Duty, the right conduct for one’s own caste and situation (which varies in each case but forms part of a whole system). Religion. (3) In Buddhism: The Truth, The Teaching (of the Buddha). Any true religious teaching. Buddhism (q.v.).
Dharmachakra (S) The Wheel of the Dharma: a symbol used for the Buddha and his teaching, and also associated with the Chakravartin or Wheel-turning monarch (q.v.). Also the name for a mudra (q.v.) which symbolises teaching.
Dharmakaya (S) The eternal body of the Buddha (according to the Mahayana teaching of the Three Bodies of the Buddha) equivalent to the Dharma embodied as a person.
Dhammapada (P) Basic and important text on the nature of the Dharma.
Dhyana (S) Jhana (P) A state of meditative absorption and concentration. Categorised into four dhyanas at varying levels of absorption, plus four further ‘formless’ dhyanas.
Dialectic Philosophical enquiry which tries to find a higher way between two contradictory views.
Diamond Sutra see Vajracchedika Sutra
Domestication of the Sangha The process described by scholars as taking place during the early history of Buddhism, in which monks left their initial wandering life and settled down in monasteries.
Dualism Philosophical view that there are two distinct realities: in Buddhism this means the realities of Nirvana and Samsara. Also used to describe the view that there are two distinct parts of the person: body and soul or body and mind.
Duhkha (S) Dukkha (P) Teaching that the universe has a basically unsatisfactory nature.
Dvesha (S) Dosa (P) Hatred.


Ego The self, the illusion that one is separate from the rest of the universe, which must be broken down to achieve enlightenment.
Eightfold Path, Noble Formulation of Buddhist practice into 8 elements: Right View, Right Aspiration, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.
Emptiness see Shunyata
Empty Throne see Vajrasana
Enlightenment see Nirvana
Eternalism Idea, rejected by Buddhism, that the same soul or self survives through all our rebirths, and that this gives us absolute values.


Fa Hsiang (C) Chinese form of the Yogachara School (q.v.)
Five Aggregates see Skandha.
Five Hindrances Formulation of the things which prevent successful meditation: Sense Desire, Anger, Doubt, Anxiety and Sloth.
Five Precepts Ethical vow taken by lay Buddhists to avoid harming living beings, taking the not-given, misusing the senses, telling lies, and intoxicating oneself.
Forest Monks Monks in Sri Lanka who have chosen a more secluded existence concentrating on meditation: distinguished from the more common “Village monks”.
Four Noble Truths see Noble Truths, Four.
F.W.B.O. (Friends of the Western Buddhist Order) Western Buddhist organisation founded by Sangharakshita.


Gelugpa (T) Prominent order of Tibetan Buddhism to which the Dalai Lama belongs.
Gods see Deva
Gohozon (J) Scroll or plaque used as an object of devotion in Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism, with the daimoku (q.v.) inscribed on it.
Guru (S) Literally ‘heavy’: Spiritual teacher in the traditions both of Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism.


Halo Circle or globe depicted around someone’s head in religious art, showing that they are especially revered.
Harmika (S) The “kiosk” or box-shaped part of a stupa, above the dome.
Heart Sutra Short text containing the most essential teaching of the Prajnaparamita (q.v.)
Heaven Realm One of the six realms of the Tibetan Wheel of Life, where the devas (q.v.) live in the bliss of refined experiences. This is not an eternal heaven: it is possible to work one’s way out of it or slip down to a worse realm.
Hell Realm One of the six realms of the Tibetan Wheel of Life, where people’s hatred and anger lead them to experience agony and torture. It is not an eternal hell: it is possible to work one’s way out of it by leaving angry and hatred-filled mental states.
Hinayana (S) ‘Lesser Vehicle’: word used by the Mahayana or ‘Greater Vehicle’ (q.v.) to describe the Theravada (q.v.): sometimes regarded as derogatory.
Hindrances see Five Hindrances
Hinduism Name invented by Westerners for a wide range of Indian religious traditions which follow on from Vedic Religion (q.v.). What we call Hinduism includes everything from the worship of local village gods to profound philosophy, but it is bound together by the caste system and by monism (q.v.).
Honorific Umbrella The umbrella-shaped structure near the top of many stupas: shading someone with an umbrella is a sign of respect and honour, so the same respect is being shown to the stupa and what it represents.
Hua-Yen (C) see Avatamsaka.


Iconoclasm An view that religious images can have negative effects, which sometimes involves destroying them. (adjective iconoclastic).
Iconography Religious images and their interpretation through a system of symbolism.
Iddhi (P) see siddhi.
Indra’s Net (Indra-Jala [S]) An image used by the Avatamsaka School (q.v.), of a net made of many jewels, each of which reflects all the others: this shows how every element of the universe participates in every other element in total inter-connectedness.
Indriya (S) Spiritual energy or controlling force in the psyche, often translated ‘Spiritual faculty’.
Insight The awareness and understanding of the true nature of the universe needed for enlightenment.
Insight Meditation see Vipassana.


Jainism Indian religion which began at about the same time as Buddhism, founded by Mahavira and still in existence today. It differs fundamentally from Buddhism in believing that the consequences of actions, not the motives behind them, produce karma.
Jataka (P) ‘Birth Story’: Story of one of the Buddha’s former lives. A collection of Jatakas forms one element of the Tripitaka.
Jewels, Three see Three Jewels
Jhana (P) see Dhyana.
Ji (J) “The Time” : early, small sect of Pure Land Buddhism
Jiriki (J) “Own-Power”: Term for the approach of most Buddhist practice (which assumes you can find salvation by your own efforts), used in Pure Land Buddhism. See Tariki.
Jnana (S) Ñana (P) Knowledge, Wisdom.
Jodo (J) “Pure Land”: earlier of the two main sects of Pure Land Buddhism (q.v.)
Jodo Shin (J) “True Pure Land”: later of the two main sects of Pure Land Buddhism (q.v.)


Kagyupa (T) School of Tibetan Buddhism which concentrated on practical mysticism, and contained the adepts Marpa and Milarepa
Kama (S/P) Desire, Lust: not to be confused with karma.
Kami (J) Term for a god in Shinto (q.v.)
Karma (S) Kamma (P) Literally ‘Action’ but usually used to mean Karma-Vipaka or ‘The fruits of action’: this basically means the effects that all our actions (or more strictly, the motives for them) have on our future by setting up habits or patterns of behaviour. An enlightened person is free of karmic effects.
Karuna (S) Compassion.
Kasina (P) Plain coloured disc used as a focus for concentration in a Theravada form of meditation.
Kathina (P) Special ceremony at the end of the rainy season where lay people present monks with new robes.
Kensho (J) Experience of dhyana as described in Zen. This term is sometimes equivalent to satori (q.v.) but sometimes describes a lesser experience.
Khanda (P) see Skandha.
Ko’an (J) Kung-an (C) Contradictory statement intended to lead us beyond reason by frustrating it: used in Zen as a focus of meditation.
Kshatriya (S) Class of rulers and warriors to which the Buddha belonged by birth.


Lama (T) Tibetan teacher or guru (q.v.): may be a monk but not necessarily.
Lamaism Name sometimes given to Tibetan Buddhism.
Lankavatara Sutra (S) Important Mahayana scripture, the first chapter of which forms the basis of the philosophy of the Yogacara (q.v.)
Literalism Belief in the complete truth of written scripture as it is stated.
Lobha (S) Loha (P) Greed.
Lohan (C) Chinese term for Arhat (q.v.)
Lotus A plant which grows in water (like a water-lily) which became spiritual symbol of purity because, although its roots grow in the mud, its beautiful flowers grow clear of the water.
Lotus Sutra (Saddharmapundarika or ‘White Lotus of the True Dharma’) Important Mahayana text, showing the differences between Mahayana and Theravada approaches, the paths of the Bodhisattva (q.v.) and the Arhat.


Madhyamika/Madhyamaka (S) ‘Middle Way’ : Philosophical school of the Mahayana, founder by Nagarjuna, who disproved all doctrines by rigorous logic and thought that truth was to by found by dialectic (q.v.) to find the middle way between pairs of opposite teachings, such as those of Eternalism (q.v.) and Nihilism (q.v.).
Mahasanghikas (S) School of early Indian Buddhism which put more emphasis on the humanity of the Buddha. Precursors of the Mahayana.
Mahayana (S) ‘Great Vehicle’ : Great new movement of re-interpretation of the Buddha’s teachings which began in India about 500 years after the Buddha (or 0 C.E.), and spread to China, Tibet, Mongolia, Japan, Korea and Vietnam. Sometimes called ‘Northern Buddhism’, as distinguished from the ‘Southern Buddhism’ of the Theravada.
Manas (S) According to the Yogachara school, the part of the mind which organises the impressions collected by the alayavijnana (q.v.) and gives us the mistaken sense that each thing in our experience has independent identity.
Mandala (S) ‘Circle’: symbolic representation of the cosmos or human mind in the art of Tantrism (q.v.). The centre of the circle represents enlightenment and the edges its constituent elements.
Mantra (S) A sequence of powerful words, each having a deep meaning in itself but not usually forming a coherent sentence, which are recited as a meditation practice or in puja (q.v.). The sound of the words is said to have spiritual qualities which purify the mind.
Mara (S/P) ‘Death’ : Symbolic character representing the forces working against enlightenment, who is depicted as trying to scare and then lure the Buddha from his purpose as he came close to nirvana (q.v.).
Materialist A person who thinks there is only a material type of existence.
Meditation Practice found in Buddhism and other religions, consisting of some kind of systematic mental exercise to change and improve habitual mental states. There are numerous types of meditation practice in the Buddhist tradition, divided into Samatha (q.v.) and Vipassana (q.v.).
Metta (P) Maitri (S) ‘Loving-kindness’: an impartial and unconditional love for all beings, cultivated by Buddhists.
Metta-Bhavana (P) ‘Development of Loving-Kindness’: A meditation practice for the systematic cultivation of metta (q.v.).