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Category Archives: Personal

Hmm… faith? Is that the right word? The Sanskrit term that is often translated as ‘faith’ is ‘sraddha‘, which doesn’t really mean faith as we’d understand it in a western context. I mean, when Christians (for example) talk about faith, they’re basically saying ‘I know that it’s all a fairly story but I’ll choose to believe in it anyway’. Sraddha is not that – not blind faith – but has more to do with engaging the emotions into our practice.

Anyway, I’ve been having some personal difficulties over the last few months, and as a consequence, found myself becoming more distant from my meditation practice. I wasn’t conciously aware of a thought that said ‘oh, don’t sit down, because being by yourself with your head might be unpleasant today’ but I guess that’s what was going on. Also, practice stopped feeling good. Now, that’s not the point. A wise man once said;

The purpose of meditation is not to have good meditations. The purpose of meditation is to transform your life.

Or something like that. When I look at my experience of meditation practice, I know that’s true. Many are the times when I’ve sat down and been thoroughly uninvolved in a practice, or massively distracted, or sleepy, or whatever. Basically lots of my meditation feels… well, not bad, but something other than a ‘good’ meditation. But, despite that, progress is being made, especially in my response to difficult situations outside and negative emotions inside. My buttons are getting harder to push.

Of course, all this change happens so slowly that it’s easy to lose sight of it, and my recent troubles have made me take my eye off the ball somewhat.  I can see that now, but a few weeks ago it was much more difficult. What struck me in the midst of all of this, though, was how dry my practice was feeling – unconnected, perhaps. There seemed to be no emotion involved, and that’s what got me thinking about faith in this way.

So my purpose was to develop ‘more’ faith. To more fully engage my emotional life, and thus my whole being, with my practice. Luckily, 2,500 years of tradition in Buddhism has come up with an excellent way of addressing just this very problem, in the form of devotional practices. I have the good fortune to live very close to a Buddhist centre that seems to be aware of this problem too, and therefore I have the ability to take part in some kind of devotional practice on a regular basis. That’s in addition to doing it at home – everything from a few minutes of chanting before meditation, to performing a full-blown Puja.

Reflecting now on what’s happened, it seems obvious now why this sequence of events came about. As a relatively new practitioner, i’ve been immersing myself in the dharma, learning about various practices, doing a lot of reading… in short, gathering wisdom. In the formulation of the Buddhist path known as the five spiritual faculties, faith is there to counterbalance wisdom. All wisdom and no faith makes Jack a dull and uninvolved boy, to paraphrase the saying. So this was waiting to happen, and I would do well not to ignore the emotional side of my practice again.

And, like most of Buddhism, it does what it’s advertised to do. I can feel myself coming back. I do feel more emotionally engaged (and positive). So this idea of developing faith in Buddhism is a useful one. If we are to have faith in something (in the Judaeo-Christian sense) then it ought to be in something that we can identify in our experience as working. Once again, Buddhist practice has proved itself to me.

Samsara gets us all down. One day can be glorious, feeling like we’re halfway to enlightenment, then the next it’s all doom and gloom and an effort to do anything again.

But it’s OK.

Funny that. Once it would have been evidence of some greater scheme, some piece of the puzzle that wasn’t fitting, that needed bashing and bashing to get into place. Or evidence that some part of life was not as it should be, and the whole shooting match needs to be dismantled and picked over carefully, before choosing utterly random events as a justification for misery.

The reality is it’s none of that, and all of it. It’s samsara. It’s just the way things are. Good stuff happens, bad stuff happens, that’s just the way it is. The sure fire way to get yourself dissapointed with life is to cling onto any of that stuff. We all know this intellectually but it doesn’t stop all of us from going round in an endless cycle of good/bad/good/bad etc. And if you take the term samsara literally, that goes on forever, for all your future lifetimes too (if you believe in reincarnation).

Thinking of life this way really helps me get a handle on the whole idea of impermanence. Crap day today? Never mind, it won’t last forever. That’s strangely comforting. I guess it’s a bit like the feeling a christian (muslim, jew, hindu etc.) gets when saying ‘well, it’s god’s will, i’ll put up with it’. It’s the whole idea of going outside of yourself in order to take refuge from the constant stream of shit that life can throw at you. I’m not sure people following other religions realise that this ability to take refuge exists in Buddhism – ‘It’s all about yourself, aren’t you lonely?’ is what they say (to me, anyway).

Realising that the way things are right now is not going to stay the same is massively liberating. It leaves us free to see the whole present moment for what it is – the good and the bad. Right now for me, I feel crappy – a bad head cold, a dull but demanding day at work, the prospect of a slow cycle home through some grey and damp weather, but I’ve got a hot cup of tea, my last patient has cancelled. I can enjoy all of these things without any single one dominating. I can see all of the possibilities that this moment contains – and chief amongst these is the possibility for the next one to be different.

I’m smiling now.

I’ve been reflecting on yesterday’s quote. To remind you…

“The greatest thing the Buddha has done is to show the world that it can only be transformed by the reformation of the mind of man.”

– Dr B R Ambedkar

This might be stating the obvious, but it seems to me that this is why so many people in the west are becoming interested in the Buddha’s dharma. On the whole we’re a pretty unhappy lot; anything that talks of transformation, especially in the context of being happy, is bound to appeal. I know from my own experience that life can sometimes seem very bleak, so I was naturally attracted to the promise of transformation.

The odd thing is, it’s already happening in some ways. The way I relate to the world, and the people in it, is subtly shifting in ways that couldn’t have been envisaged 6 months ago. Chief among this is the idea that change IS possible; no longer am I the hamster on the wheel (samsara?) that I saw myself as. Nowhere is it written that I must put up with a soul-destroying daily grind just to supply a percieved need. In a funny way, though, this realisation has actually made some of that daily grind (the meaningful part) not just bearable but enjoyable! And the other bit is going to die a natural death soon anyway. OK, so I’ll earn less money, some think I’m mad for doing this, but it makes me happy and gives me time to do what I think is important. Which right now is following the dharma, but that might change… and that’s OK too.

Oh, and another shock – it’s not long since I could truly describe myself as the king of the self-haters. Now I actually like myself, with other people following closely behind. This is unprecedented for me. Perhaps I’ll write more about my past beliefs and behaviour later, but I was clearly following the wrong religion (relativism with a bit of scientific materialism thrown in. Or perhaps it was cynicism – but then that’s just the same thing).

Now I’ve got it right. It feels like I’ve come home.