Our first PiPs Grimsby Reading Group of 2021 is on Thursday, 14th January 7:30 – 9:30pm. We will be guided in our reading about Buddhism by John Mooney, who is a dedicated scholar of the subject. This post is quite extensive but magnificent because John has included many useful links for finding out more about Buddhism to inform our discussion.
Our discussion will take taking place online via Zoom at this link: https://zoom.us/s/91328331644
We love having new people come along, so please join us!
John’s Buddhist Philosophy Primer
I think it’s fair to say that before his awakening the “historical figure” of Siddhartha Gotama of the Shakyamuni Clan (aka The Buddha) was struggling to understand what the hell was going on with this existence malarkey and left his comfortable life to seek the “truth”
The telling of his story, prior to and following that decision, is mythologised and has had countless bells and whistles attached over time (about 2500yrs give or take a hundred) but the important part of the story is that, despite having been protected by his father and family from the harsh realities of life, he discovered that people got old, got sick and eventually died. This provoked an existential crisis and the rest, as they say, is history.
If you like stories (I do) you can find a version of the Buddha’s life here https://www.diamondway-buddhism.org/buddhism/buddha/
Prior to his awakening then, he had been appraised of and shocked by the reality of human existence and this provoked him to leave home to search for the answers he was seeking.
The Four Noble Truths
Post awakening he had the following realisations expressed in the Sutras as the Four Noble Truths – the first one he already knew, the following three are the crux of his realisation:
1. Life Means Suffering
To live means to suffer, because the human nature is not perfect and neither is the world we live in. During our lifetime, we inevitably have to endure physical suffering such as pain, sickness, injury, tiredness, old age, and eventually death; and we have to endure psychological suffering like sadness, fear, frustration, disappointment, and depression. Although there are different degrees of suffering and there are also positive experiences in life that we perceive as the opposite of suffering, such as ease, comfort and happiness, life in its totality is imperfect and incomplete, because our world is subject to impermanence. This means we are never able to keep permanently what we strive for, and just as happy moments pass by, we ourselves and our loved ones will pass away one day, too.
2. The Origin of Suffering is Attachment
The origin of suffering is attachment to transient things and the ignorance thereof. Transient things do not only include the physical objects that surround us, but also ideas, and, in a greater sense, all objects of our perception. Ignorance is the lack of understanding of how our mind is attached to impermanent things. The reasons for suffering are desire, passion, ardour, pursuit of wealth and prestige, striving for fame and popularity, or in short: craving and clinging. Because the objects of our attachment are transient, their loss is inevitable, thus suffering will necessarily follow. Objects of attachment also include the idea of a “self” which is a delusion, because there is no abiding self. What we call “self” is just an imagined entity, and we are merely a part of the ceaseless becoming of the universe. One can have a preference for things and principles, but attachment yields suffering.
3. The Cessation of Suffering is Attainable
The cessation of suffering can be attained through nirodha. Nirodha means the unmaking of sensual craving and conceptual attachment. The third noble truth expresses the idea that suffering can be ended by attaining dis-passion. Nirodha extinguishes all forms of clinging and attachment. This means that suffering can be overcome through human activity, simply by removing the cause of suffering. Attaining and perfecting dis-passion is a process of many levels that ultimately results in the state of Nirvana. Nirvana means freedom from all worries, troubles, complexes, fabrications and ideas. Nirvana is not comprehensible for those who have not attained it. Dis-passion does not mean inaction, or lack of joy. Indeed, Buddhist monks and the Dalai Lama are very jovial, passionate, and happy people.
4. The Path to the Cessation of Suffering
There is a path to the end of suffering – a gradual path of self-improvement, which is described in more detail in the Eightfold Path. It is the middle way between the two extremes of excessive self-indulgence (hedonism) and excessive self-mortification (asceticism); and it leads to the end of the cycle of rebirth. The latter quality discerns it from other paths which are merely “wandering on the wheel of becoming,” because these do not have a final object. The path to the end of suffering can extend over many lifetimes, throughout which every individual rebirth is subject to karmic conditioning. Craving, ignorance, delusions, and its effects will disappear gradually, as progress is made on the path.
The Noble Eightfold Path
The Noble Eightfold Path is summarised as follows:
1. Right View
To see and to understand things as they really are and to realise the Four Noble Truths. It means to see things through, to grasp the impermanent and imperfect nature of worldly objects and ideas, and to understand the law of karma and karmic conditioning. It begins with the intuitive insight that all beings are subject to suffering and it ends with complete understanding of the true nature of all things. Since our view of the world forms our thoughts and our actions, right view yields right thoughts and right actions.
2. Right Intention
While right view refers to the cognitive aspect of wisdom, right intention refers to the volitional aspect, i.e. the kind of mental energy that controls our actions. Right intention can be described best as commitment to ethical and mental self-improvement. Buddha distinguishes three types of right intentions: 1. the intention of renunciation, which means resistance to the pull of desire, 2. the intention of good will, meaning resistance to feelings of anger and aversion, and 3. the intention of harmlessness, meaning not to think or act cruelly, violently, or aggressively, and to develop compassion.
3. Right Speech
Words can break or save lives, make enemies or friends, start war or create peace. Buddha explained right speech as follows: 1. to abstain from false speech, especially not to tell deliberate lies and not to speak deceitfully, 2. to abstain from slanderous speech and not to use words maliciously against others, 3. to abstain from harsh words that offend or hurt others, and 4. to abstain from idle chatter that lacks purpose or depth. Positively phrased, this means to tell the truth, to speak amiably, warm, and gently and to talk only when necessary.
4. Right Action
Unwholesome actions lead to unsound states of mind, while wholesome actions lead to sound states of mind. Right action means 1. to abstain from harming sentient beings, especially to abstain from taking life (including suicide) and doing harm intentionally or delinquently, 2. to abstain from taking what is not given, which includes stealing, robbery, fraud, deceitfulness, and dishonesty, and 3. to abstain from sexual misconduct. Positively formulated, right action means to act kindly and compassionately, to be honest, to respect the belongings of others, and to keep sexual relationships harmless to others.
5. Right Livelihood
Right livelihood means that one should earn one’s living in a righteous way and that wealth should be gained legally and peacefully. Harmlessness essentially states that Buddhist practitioners ought not to engage in trades or occupations which, either directly or indirectly, result in harm to other living beings or systems. Such occupations include “trading in arms and lethal weapons, intoxicating drinks, poisons, killing animals, [and] cheating”, among others. Furthermore any other occupation that would violate the principles of right speech and right action should be avoided.
6. Right Effort
Without effort, which is in itself an act of will, nothing can be achieved, whereas misguided effort distracts the mind from its task, and confusion will be the consequence. Mental energy is the force behind right effort; it can occur in either wholesome or unwholesome states. The same type of energy that fuels desire, envy, aggression, and violence can on the other side fuel self-discipline, honesty, benevolence, and kindness.
7. Right Mindfulness
Right mindfulness is the controlled and perfected faculty of cognition. It is the mental ability to see things as they are, with clear consciousness. Refers to the practice of keeping the mind alert to phenomena as they are affecting the body and mind. Usually, the cognitive process begins with an impression induced by perception, or by a thought, but then it does not stay with the mere impression. Instead, we almost always conceptualize sense impressions and thoughts immediately. We interpret them and set them in relation to other thoughts and experiences, which naturally go beyond the fact of the original impression. The mind then posits concepts, joins concepts into constructs, and weaves those constructs into complex interpretative schemes. All this happens only half consciously, and as a result we often see things obscured. Right mindfulness is anchored in clear perception and it penetrates impressions without getting carried away. Right mindfulness enables us to be aware of the process of conceptualization in a way that we actively observe and control the way our thoughts go. Buddha accounted for this as the four foundations of mindfulness: 1. contemplation of the body, 2. contemplation of feeling (repulsive, attractive, or neutral), 3. contemplation of the state of mind, and 4. contemplation of the phenomena.
8. Right Concentration
Concentration in this context is described as one-pointedness of mind, meaning a state where all mental faculties are unified and directed onto one particular object. Right concentration for the purpose of the eightfold path means wholesome concentration, i.e. concentration on wholesome thoughts and actions. The Buddhist method of choice to develop right concentration is through the practice of meditation. The meditating mind focuses on a selected object. It first directs itself onto it, then sustains concentration, and finally intensifies concentration step by step. Through this practice it becomes natural to apply elevated levels concentration also in everyday situations ( Original text here http://campaugusta.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Eightfold_Path.pdf )
This then is the basis of the Dharma or the universal truth common to all individuals at all times as proclaimed by the Buddha.
The Five Precepts
Following a basic understanding of the Dharma, those who subsequently choose to take up training as monastics or lay practitioners, vow to follow the Five Precepts which, stated positively, could be translated as follows:
- To the best of my ability, I will protect and support life and encourage the fulfilment of the potential for loving kindness, compassion and understanding in others.
- To the best of my ability, I will take only what is freely given and vow to practice gratitude and generosity.
- To the best of my ability, I will respect and support on-going relationships, honour my commitments, and practice discernment between those things that arouse passion and the compulsiveness to act on them.
- To the best of my ability, I will say what is true, useful, and timely and practice deep listening such that both my speaking and listening reflects loving-kindness and compassion.
- To the best of my ability, I will maintain a clear and alert mind that is aware of its motivations, moment to moment, such that it can discern between what is the cause of suffering and what is not the cause of suffering.
Once a person is established in their practice there is another vow, that of the Bodhisattva, to be taken which to the unenlightened appears to be a set of impossible tasks, one form of which is:
Beings are numberless,
I vow to save them all.
Delusions are inexhaustible,
I vow to end them all.
Dharma gates are boundless,
I vow to enter them all.
The Buddha Way is unsurpassable,
I vow to accomplish it.
With all this talk of suffering and difficulty following the Way I am reminded of something Leonard Cohen said at a concert in London, that he had “…studied deeply in the philosophies and religions but cheerfulness keeps breaking through.” and I would suggest that remaining cheerful in the face of that which is seemingly endless is as important to develop as compassion or loving-kindness.
Consequently the next piece of reading I will suggest will be much easier to read if you approach it cheerfully go here https://plumvillage.org/sutra/the-diamond-that-cuts-through-illusion/ in which, just to add to the confusion the following word is used often.
- an honorific title of a Buddha, especially the Buddha Gautama, or a person who has attained perfection by following Buddhist principles.
You might also want to scan read this article to see how diverse Buddhist thought has become since Siddhartha Gotama left home. The Dharma gates are indeed boundless: https://www.quora.com/How-many-Buddhist-sutras-are-there
And a final useful link: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/mind-indian-buddhism/
To end on a cheerful note I will leave you with one of my favourite poems
Shovelling Snow With Buddha
In the usual iconography of the temple or the local Wok
you would never see him doing such a thing,
tossing the dry snow over a mountain
of his bare, round shoulder,
his hair tied in a knot,
a model of concentration.
Sitting is more his speed, if that is the word
for what he does, or does not do.
Even the season is wrong for him.
In all his manifestations, is it not warm or slightly humid?
Is this not implied by his serene expression,
that smile so wide it wraps itself around the waist of the universe?
But here we are, working our way down the driveway,
one shovelful at a time.
We toss the light powder into the clear air.
We feel the cold mist on our faces.
And with every heave we disappear
and become lost to each other
in these sudden clouds of our own making,
these fountain-bursts of snow.
This is so much better than a sermon in church,
I say out loud, but Buddha keeps on shovelling.
This is the true religion, the religion of snow,
and sunlight and winter geese barking in the sky,
I say, but he is too busy to hear me.
He has thrown himself into shovelling snow
as if it were the purpose of existence,
as if the sign of a perfect life were a clear driveway
you could back the car down easily
and drive off into the vanities of the world
with a broken heater fan and a song on the radio.
All morning long we work side by side,
me with my commentary
and he inside his generous pocket of silence,
until the hour is nearly noon
and the snow is piled high all around us;
then, I hear him speak.
After this, he asks,
can we go inside and play cards?
Certainly, I reply, and I will heat some milk
and bring cups of hot chocolate to the table
while you shuffle the deck.
and our boots stand dripping by the door.
Aaah, says the Buddha, lifting his eyes
and leaning for a moment on his shovel
before he drives the thin blade again
deep into the glittering white snow.