Let’s talk silence

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A Buddhist proverb goes:
“If you can’t improve on silence, be silent.”

This is part of the whole >restraint< thing that Buddhists are really fond of.

“Good is restraint in body, restraint in speech is good, good is restraint in mind, everywhere restraint is good; the monk everywhere restrained is free from all suffering.”
[Dhammapada 361]

Restraining from talking has the great advantage that while being silent we can listen. There is a another saying that goes:
“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”

However, while countless articles in psychology talk about the importance of listening as a communication skill, nobody seems to be very good at it.

Studies show that we spend something like 80 percent of our waking hours in some form of communication. Of that time, we spend about 9 percent writing, 16 percent reading, 30 percent speaking, and – sadly – only 45 percent listening. Wait, … it gets worse.
In communication psychology it is common knowledge that from any nice chat you just had with a person, you will remember like 80% – of what YOU said – and about 20% of what the other person told you.

Now we can understand why in Buddhism >silence< is a highly valued resource that is thought to be extremely powerful.

I read somewhere that Zen actually knows three different forms of silence.

At first there is the silence of the student who just does not know the answer.

Then there is the silence of the teacher who knows the answer, but who wants his student to find out for himself.

Finally, there is the silence of the master, who has understood that there is no use in words when describing something that has to be experienced.

It is said that this silence sounds like thunder.

Are you awake?

Are you awake - Photo.jpg
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Normally, Zen stories are somewhere between confusing and rather annoying to me. Annoying, mostly when they come along the lines of: >Enlightenment is toilet paper at the drugstore!<.
However, every now and then I come across something I find just awesome. This following little story can be found from different sources, the most common one made its way into the Zen classics as case 12 of the Mumonkan. It stars Master Zuigan Shigen (chin. Ruiyan Shiyan, China 830-900) and goes like this:

Every single day Master Ruiyan sat in his quarters calling out: “Master of the house!” and then answering himself, “Yes!” He would then call out, “Are you wide awake?” and answer, “Yes.” Then he would call out again, “DON’T GET FOOLED!” And again answer, “Yes, yes.”

Asking yourself to not get fooled is hilarious enough, but what I find even more genius is to turn to yourself on a daily basis and seriously asking yourself: >Are you wide awake?<
Have you ever tried it?
I personally find the feeling quite uncomfortable. I always feel in my talkative mind that the obvious answer should be a clear >Yes<. However, at the same time I have the constant nagging and quite disturbing feeling that the more honest answer should be >No<.

This is what drives a man to medittion.

Defilements and Coffee-Dukkha

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I was heavily addicted to coffee for a long time.
I used to put cream in there and a ton of sugar and as many espressos as I could sneak in without my heart exploding.
At some point – with my heart racing and swimming in sweat – the realization dawned on me that this habit was maybe not in my best interest. So I kicked coffee forever … like ten times in ten years.
Finding a defilement is easy. Getting rid of it – completely different story.
I tried everything. I tried things that kick like coffee, things that look like coffee, things that taste like coffee, nothing worked. I usually stopped for a month, then I was back on it. I was beyond help. Did all my meditation help me? No. In the end I had to use a trick (as a Buddhist I should rather call it: Skillful mean.) I caught a bad stomach flue and from experience I knew that whatever I eat last before I turn into a living fire hose will be of my menu forever. This time I got lucky and my last meal was a cup of coffee.
So, did I enlighten myself out of the defilement of an addiction to sensual pleasure?
Not really, I used a simple conditioning tool to change my behavior since I notices that it makes me unhappy, even though it disguises itself as happiness. Now, does this mean I won? I won because I don’t drink any coffee any more? No, because I switched from one addiction to another. I switched to something else. I started to drink green tea. And now I was addicted to green tea. And also … I wanted a coffee. After a couple of years of drinking gallons of strong green tea I was ready to acknowledge the problem. So, I stopped drinking green tea … and now I have a shelf stuffed with twenty kinds of organic herbal tea.

By now there should be pattern revealing itself to the reader…

I know that me ranting over coffee and tea may seem childish, but my point is that it is not only the really big things we can’t control. The simple and sad truth is, that we can’t control shit in our life most of our time. However we are still supposed to fix the world while we are at it.
These days Buddhism is supposed to be really engaged in the big matters. War, economy, climate, gender confusions and whatnot. Because we strife to liberate everyone with our practice, supposedly.

In the meantime, there I am in my kitchen, claiming that I meditate for almost twenty years, while even a simple cup of colored water has me up against the ropes no problem. That’s just sad. Also it is an important lesson from the Buddha. It never ends. As long as we are here, there will always be a next thing. Another thing, that will always be followed by a next suffering.
The first important step is to acknowledge that.
You will not be able to eliminate all addictions by doing that, however you will train yourself to realize what it is you are doing. You will start to see these things as the simple but strong conditionings they are. Nothing more than that. Not your personal failure or something to be ashamed of. There will always be another suffering somewhere. This is how this realm of existence is build.

Do you know the Pali word for what we translate as suffering?
It is “dukkha”.
Do you know what dukkha originally was?
Imagine an old school ox chart with big wooden wheels.
Take one of the wheels of and look in the middle where the axis is.
That whole there was called dukkha.
Get it?
It’s a dirty place you are trapped in that goes round and round and round … forever.
It is also known as the wheel of suffering.

In case you haven’t noticed. Coffee can also mean sex, food, work or whatever else you find yourself addicted to.

Also, yesterday I had a coffee at Starbucks. Go figure.

What is true?

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Ajahn Sumedho (a Western monk) took a party of Westerners to ‘Wat Pah Nanachat’ (a Thai Forest Monastery) in 1981. He did not know that the Western nun there, Ajahn Chah’s first Western nun, had suddenly converted to a very fundamentalist brand of Christianity just before the group arrived.
Ajahn Sumedho was expecting she would inspire the Western lay folk who had travelled all that way to Thailand to meet real committed Buddhist practitioners.
Instead the nun went around telling this newly inspired group of Western lay practitioners that Buddhism and Ajahn Chah were the work of the devil himself.
Ajahn Sumedho got very upset and went to Ajahn Chah complaining about her, about that she was wrong and that Ajahn Chah should stop her immediately and get rid of her as soon as possible.

Instead Ajahn Chah just smiled and said:
“Well, Sumedho, maybe she is right.”

[This little story is mentioned in several places, including “The Life and Teachings of Ajahn Chah: Remembrances of His Western Students”, which you can find here.]

Inspecting Buddhism

Inspecting Buddhism
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I somehow made it past post number fifty and so I started wondering what it actually is I write about. A bit late, I know.

The Problem with writing about Buddhism is that the term in used by a million different schools in a million different ways. Humans really don’t use their words precise enough to avoid misconstrue and we not only don’t like to come up with new words, we also hate it to define what it is we are talking about. We much rather occupy a word that is already known and then just assume that everyone will agree with our personal definition. So I think it is useful to send a couple of disclaimer, so that all the people I piss off at least know exactly why and are not confused about all the things I missed and have the wrong view about.

I started meditating in 98 and today, almost twenty years later, it is getting tiresome to belong to a school or a sect or a club or a dojo or whatever fraction there might be that always seems to be just a bit more enlightened and true then everyone else. This is really just relevant for beginners, who search for meaning and stability on the outside. Later on you just try to get a grip of the Dhamma, which is hard enough since the longer you study the Buddha’s teachings, the less you are sure about anything you know. Here is what I think I know so far:

I know there are teachings that were supposedly given by one Mr. Gautama in India round about 2500 years ago. Today we call that man >The Buddha<. He started (as the current Buddha in charge during this kalpa) the path that is known this time around as >Buddhism<.

We know this because there is a vast canon of writing with thousands and thousands of lectures supposedly given by Mr. Gautama in his over 40 year long career as a teacher. We call this collection the Pali Canon, or the Tipitika. (There are many more canons, however the Pali Canon seems to be the most complete.)

Through historical research and text critical analysis we know that some parts of the Pali Canon are older then others. Supposedly the older ones can therefore with some certainty be placed closer to the life time of the Buddha. For those of you who are in the know, these parts of the early Buddhist teachings are the five Nikāyas.

These are my frame of reference, when I talk about the teachings of the Buddha.

When I try to understand what is or is not a teaching of the Buddha, I will go back to these texts and I will try to find out.
Based on this and if I really have to pick a school of Buddhism, then my closeness to the suttas will probably put me right in the Theravada sect. I am not quite sure how happy that makes me, however it is true, I feel very close to the old texts and so does Theravada.

People who say that we do not have to study ancient texts because they are not relevant for us any more and we have improved on that old and outdated stuff long ago make me really sad. For me people like that are ill informed about the nature of reality and especially human evolution. And saying that we improved on a Buddha sounds childish to me.

Do I personally believe the Buddha existed and the canon is a collection of his teachings?
Yes I do. It is because of the incredible consistency of the teachings within the thousands of suttas and the amazing depth they demonstrate the longer one studies them. Based on the knowledge I gathered so far it is very hard to come up with a plausible alternative for their origin.

Does this mean I fanatically stick to the letters of every sutta in the book?
No, I don’t. Sticking religiously to some text does not get you anywhere. The letters or the author are not the crucial point.  If these teaching go back to Mr. Gautama himself, or if they were give by someone else or if Mr. Gautama did not even exist at all, is not really relevant to a Buddhist. What really matters is if the teachings can be applied to my life. Are they practical?

Buddhism is not an Orthodoxy, even though it is practiced as one in most traditional Buddhist countries. However there is an important difference to be make between the Dhamma (the teachings of the Buddha) and the culture it is lived and transmitted in. I have written about this important point before. As much as these so called Buddhist countries want it to be, Buddhism was never meant to be an Orthodoxy. Buddhism is an Orthopraxis. This means what you do rather than what you believe in will define if or if not you are a Buddhist.
What you do means your practice. How does your practice influence your life?
The teachings of the Buddha should always be practically and applicable to your daily life.
If they are not, then they are not the words of the Buddha.

Apply them to your life and see if it works.
If it works, that is fine.
If not, that is fine, too.

Master of Similes 1

The five hindrances

People often wonder what makes the Pali Canon so special. What is it with these thousands and thousands of suttas? Why do we need that old stuff? Have we not improved on those stories long ago? What can they tell us, since we are so advanced already? We have cell phones, so who needs suttas?

There is a valid point in that. How can anyone today really know something about the value of texts that are 2500 years old? Even if you actually would like to know, you might be lost on were to begin. Well, there are countless aspects to talk about, let me just pick out one specific for today. 

One thing, that sets the Dhamma apart from anything else I have ever found in the spiritual world is that the Buddha used very simple everyday examples to illustrate very complicated issues. Somehow he was able to make connections in his analogies, that worked for someone in India 2500 years ago and the same connections still work for us today. He was able to construct similes that were always (almost eerily) right on point.
Furthermore, the Buddha did not do this just once, he literally did it hundreds of times and he always did it perfectly.

I know what you think. That’s all? What’s so special about similes. Everyone can do that.

Well, have you tried? In my experience it is surprisingly hard to come up with a simile that fits perfectly and does not misguide you, because it will – at some point – be ever so slightly of topic. When I come up with a simile, I will always end up forgetting at least one aspect, or the whole thing will end up sounding really labored. The reason is obvious. At the end I really don’t know what I’m talking about. It is kind of self evident, that only someone who really deeply understands an issue is able to come up with a perfect simile.

The Buddha was a master of similes. Consistently. Throughout the Canon.

I will walk you through one, just for starters. Let’s talk lists. The Pali Canon is full of lists. Four truths here, eightfold path there, plus seven factors and add five hindrances on top. It really goes on and on. This fetish for lists dates back to the time where everything had to be remembered by heart, because there was literally nothing to write on or with. Turns out if you have to remember everything it’s a lot easier to do this if you put things in neat lists.
(And there are a lot! Have a look at the Dhamma Lists)

Let us take the five hindrances (pañca nīvaraṇāni) as an example.
The pañca nīvaraṇāni are: Sensory desire, Ill-will, Sloth and torpor, Restlessness and remorse and Doubt. They are in the way of you getting enlightened, hence the hindrance. As just another list to remember by heart they are a bit dry to learn. The trick is to find a simile that brings them to life. A simile so vivid, that there is no chance you will forget the factors ever again.

in the Saṅgārava Sutta (SN 46.55) the Buddha explains the five hindrances to the Brahmin Saṅgarava, by using a powerful simile in which he compares the hindrances with different states of a pond in the forest.
He compares sensual desire with looking for a clear reflection in water mixed with lac, turmeric and dyes. He compares ill will with boiling water. he compares sloth-and-torpor with water covered with plants and algae. He compares restlessness-and-worry with wind-churned water. Finally he compares doubt with water that is “turbid, unsettled, muddy, placed in the dark.”

If you read through the simile and visualize a pond in the forest and follow the changes of the water through the different hindrances, it is surprisingly hard to ever forget them again. Even more surprising since I was not able to remember them (for the life of me) for many years before.

If you try to get access to the suttas and haven’t found your way in yet, than this is a powerful way to get started.
Just Google ‘The Buddha’ and search for ‘simile of the’. (Or check out this ‘ partial(!) index of the similes and metaphors that appear in the suttas’)

Also, I wrote about another famous list of five in Buddhism before. The Five Grasping Kandhas. They grasp because they represent the fingers of a hand. Check it out, it is really neat.


Lost in Translation 1

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In the Dhammapada verse 183 we find one of the shortest definitions of the Buddha’s teachings ever:

Sabbapāpassa akaraṇaṃ
Kusalassa upasampadā
Etaṃ buddhāna sāsanaṃ.

Avoid what is evil,
Engage in what is skillful,
Purify the mind;
This is the teaching of the Buddha;

[Translated by Gil Fronsdal]

It is a wonderful little verse which I love dearly.
It also quite useful, because it very nicely demonstrates a problem we have with the old teachings from the Pali Canon. Let us have a closer look at the translation.

The first and last line are pretty straightforward. For the third line we could kind of get away with understanding >purifying< as an insinuation for moral behavior and cultivation including meditation. I think it is the second line where we run into trouble. This is the crucial part where we are actually told what exactly it is we should do. In this line everything boils down to one word: kusalassa. Kusalassa is the Gen. Sg. of kusala. Kusala can be differently rendered as:
Good, wholesome, skillful, a good thing, good deed, merit, intelligent, expert, right, virtuous, meritorious, beneficial, lucky, happy, healthy and prosperous, … as the context demands (!).

So, basically as long as it is positive it seems that kusala can more or less mean everything.
Hence, a small variety of possible translations for line two would be:

“Learn to do good.”
“Do cultivate merit.”
“Engage in what is skillful.”
“Increase your wholesomeness.”
“Become an expert.”
“Be virtuous.”
… and so on.

If you are lucky enough to know the Dhamma already, you also know that the translation should imply at least two major aspects of the Dhamma. It should have a strong implication of virtuous moral behavior and it should reflect the practical aspect that all of the Buddha’s teachings have. >Skillful< does indeed cover the practical aspect very nicely, but sadly has no strong ethical implication as the word has in Pali. Vice versa there is no word that has the strong ethical aspect while making it clear that it is a practical engagement, not a philosophical one.

This makes it basically impossible to translate the term at all without at least one page of additional information for the reader. You could go for an extended translation like: >ethically skillful<, but that would put a word in the text that the original doesn’t have and also: What the heck is ethically skillful supposed to mean anyway? You would end up with what is called >Buddhist Hybrid English<, which sounds like you are translating, but you are really just making it worse by creating a new language, specially made for the initiates of the Buddhological community.

Btw, a case like this is by no means an exception, it is more or less the rule.
The longer you engage in the study of the old Buddhist texts, the more translation problems like this you will keep running into. At the end you will probably decide that it is just easier to use the pali term. So just be kusala, ok?

This leaves us with what I call the fundamental Theravada conundrum.
You have to be an advanced meditator with a lot of acquired wisdom to understand the meaning of the term well enough to be able to translate it into a different language. At the same time you need to understand the language very well to be able to become an advanced meditator who acquires wisdom in the first place.

And there I was thinking everything will be fine once I study Pali.


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When I started training in my very first Tai Chi class, the teacher told us that we should consider very carefully if we really want to continue on this path. He warned us that this training would change our whole personality and our whole life. Back in the day I laughed at this, but today, fifteen years later I have to strongly agree with him. It is really not about Tai Chi. Tai Chi is just one example for an internal martial arts style, which means that you will learn to look inside more than you are used to. It’s the same with every spiritual way. Once you start to look inside on a regular basis you will realize that the way you perceive the world around you will start to change.
This has consequences. If the way you perceive reality changes, reality changes also, since you are the one who creates the world you live in. A simple example for this is the energy of Tai Chi. Once you experience the energy flowing through your body yourself, while following the instructions of your teacher, all of the sudden there will be energy flowing through your whole universe. It is the same with meditation. Once you see that a peaceful mind is possible, you will start to experiment with a peaceful world. This process of discoveries will then continue to spread to more and higher functions of your consciousness, if you allow for the training to happen. It will move slowly through your physical world, but more importantly will involve more and more of your mind and therefore the minds around you. There lies a risk in this development which might only dawn on you many years down the line.
The risk is that while you are heavily involved in changing your reality, the rest of the world around you might not do so. After a while this might cause problems for you, especially if you start to put more and more weight on the spiritual side of your practice. The problems arise faster once you start to redefine your values, especially if your society defines these very same values in an entirely different way. Society, for example, loves cheap sensual pleasures in form of multimedia entertainment. Society encourages you to spend a lot of money to satisfy these sensual pleasures which in most cases do not even relate to reality any more. Society also needs you to work hard in jobs heavily disconnected from the same reality, so you can earn the money you need for spending more time in very transitory states of pleasure. Now add to this, that the self-definition of most people in the society around you is deeply rooted within the definition of these shallow values. Most people are deadly afraid to even question these established definitions, so if you plan to get anything back from society and the people living in it, you better learn to embrace these values society defines for you.
Any questioning of these values will distance you from the people around you. You will realize that life has many layers to it and that society is constructed mainly on the most superficial one. It creates what you might want to call >conventional reality<. The further you distance yourself from this reality, the stranger you will appear to the eyes of the people around you. They will have an increasingly hard time to follow you along the ideas you will establish in your mind and soon will feel threatened by the knowledge that is now common to you. The symptoms are very easy. You will not be fun at parties any more. You will be increasingly unwilling to explain yourself and soon people will consider you to be the victim of a brainwashing – which is entirely true. In bad cases you might wander away from the campsite of society far enough to lose your way back home again. This is when you are really in trouble.
This is what my teacher was talking about. You have started to wash your mind and free it from everything that stands in the way of you understanding reality for what it actually is. Part of this process are some harsh truths that people will not follow you on, like the truth that all sensual experience is disappointing by design. It has to be, simply because it is impermanent and uncontrollable. This path is dangerous but it promises that after you put your feet on it and start it with no official entrance or beginning, you might end up walking free through the universe.
Once you are free it should no longer be possible to imprison you anywhere or by anything.