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From the Bodhicaryavatara

Just as the earth and other elements
Are serviceable in many ways
To the infinite number of beings
Inhabiting limitless space
So may I become
That which maintains all beings
Situated throughout space
So long as all have not attained
To peace

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.

padma2

Of all the bodhisattvas I’ve encountered on my journey so far, Padmasambhava is one of the most appealing. Coming over like an 8th century action hero, he is a historical figure credited with bringing Buddhism to Tibet. That fact alone would be enough to establish him as a great man, but his unlimited energy and supreme wisdom have seen him raised to the pantheon (is that really the right word?) of bohdisattvas.

There are plenty places where details of his life can be found (here’s one – warning! pdf!) so in brief…

Padmasambhava was allegedly not born, but incarnated as an 8-year-old boy in a lotus in the middle of a lake. He was taken in by a local king and trained in the dharma; before long it became obvious to all that he was supremely accomplished, particularly in the realm of siddhi. This translates literally as ‘perfection’ but has aslo come to mean supernatural powers. He was said to have dispatched an enemy by these means, leading to his exile and eventual arrival in Tibet, where he was said to use the same siddhi to tame the demons ravaging the kingdom and establish the dharma. Phew.

I’ve also recently discovered his mantra, through which it appears to be possible to access a little of Padamasambhava’s energy. Get chanting!

Om A Hum Vajra Guru Padma Siddhi Hum

The usual thing applies about mantras being essentially untranslatable, but there’s something in this along the lines of ‘Indestructible teacher of supreme perfect enlightenment’.

Padmasmbhava is understandably revered in Tibetan buddhism. Tibetan buddhism is characterised by it’s rich symbolic nature, so we must remember that the guy in the picture above is an archetype rather than the real historical figure of Padmasambhava, if there even was such a person. He’s there, I think to remind us that enlightenment doesn’t just come to those who sit around smiling faintly, there’s a whole lot of energy involved in bringing the qualities of meditation and wisdom (both of which Padmasambhava embodies) to their conclusion.

On the bohdyangas, from the Pali canon (Anapanasati Sutta). A modern teacher might present this a little differently, but I like the way the buddha put it. Bottom line? Develop these qualities to the nth degree and you have enlightenment. Easy.

The Seven Factors for Awakening

“[1] On whatever occasion the monk remains focused on the body in & of itself — ardent, alert, & mindful — putting aside greed & distress with reference to the world, on that occasion his mindfulness is steady & without lapse. When his mindfulness is steady & without lapse, then mindfulness as a factor for Awakening becomes aroused. He develops it, and for him it goes to the culmination of its development.

“[2] Remaining mindful in this way, he examines, analyzes, & comes to a comprehension of that quality with discernment. When he remains mindful in this way, examining, analyzing, & coming to a comprehension of that quality with discernment, then analysis of qualities as a factor for Awakening becomes aroused. He develops it, and for him it goes to the culmination of its development.

“[3] In one who examines, analyzes, & comes to a comprehension of that quality with discernment, unflagging persistence is aroused. When unflagging persistence is aroused in one who examines, analyzes, & comes to a comprehension of that quality with discernment, then persistence as a factor for Awakening becomes aroused. He develops it, and for him it goes to the culmination of its development.

“[4] In one whose persistence is aroused, a rapture not-of-the-flesh arises. When a rapture not-of-the-flesh arises in one whose persistence is aroused, then rapture as a factor for Awakening becomes aroused. He develops it, and for him it goes to the culmination of its development.

“[5] For one who is enraptured, the body grows calm and the mind grows calm. When the body & mind of an enraptured monk grow calm, then serenity as a factor for Awakening becomes aroused. He develops it, and for him it goes to the culmination of its development.

“[6] For one who is at ease — his body calmed — the mind becomes concentrated. When the mind of one who is at ease — his body calmed — becomes concentrated, then concentration as a factor for Awakening becomes aroused. He develops it, and for him it goes to the culmination of its development.

“[7] He oversees the mind thus concentrated with equanimity. When he oversees the mind thus concentrated with equanimity, equanimity as a factor for Awakening becomes aroused. He develops it, and for him it goes to the culmination of its development.

“And how are the seven factors for Awakening developed & pursued so as to bring clear knowing & release to their culmination? There is the case where a monk develops mindfulness as a factor for Awakening dependent on seclusion… dispassion… cessation, resulting in relinquishment. He develops analysis of qualities as a factor for Awakening… persistence as a factor for Awakening… rapture as a factor for Awakening… serenity as a factor for Awakening… concentration as a factor for Awakening… equanimity as a factor for Awakening dependent on seclusion… dispassion… cessation, resulting in relinquishment.

“This is how the seven factors for Awakening, when developed & pursued, bring clear knowing & release to their culmination.”

I love this one.

The universe does not care what you believe. It is what it is, and it is right there in front of you.

One of the first books about buddhism I read (Buddhism Plain & Simple) kept on going on about ‘seeing things as they really are’. It came up so often that I ended up with the idea that there was something terribly profound and mystical to be seen. But the more I think about it now, the more I think that view is wrong. We are meant to see things as they are rather than as we want them to be. So goes the second part of this quote – ‘it is right there in front of you’. Just look. Nothing more.