World Clock

Friday, July 10, 2009

Mindful Eating with Dr. Jan Chozen Bays

Jan Chozen Bays is a Zen teacher in the White Plum lineage (successors of Taizan Maezumi Roshi). She is a pediatrician specializing in child abuse, and author of numerous medical articles and two books, Jizo Bodhisattva: Guardian of Children, Travelers and Other Voyagers and Mindful Eating: A Guide to Rediscovering A Healthy and Joyful Relat.... She and her husband, Hogen Bays, serve as co-abbots of Great Vow Zen Monastery in Oregon.

Chozen writes:

Mindful eating is not reading about mindful eating. It is not reading while eating. It is doing the practice of mindful eating. Mindful eating is paying full attention to the events of the internal and external environment, without criticism or judgement, while eating and drinking. Because we are so used to multitasking and to going unconscious while we eat, it is difficult at first to pay full attention to what is happening, say, in the mouth, in a completely continuous manner.

Just like any other form of meditation, mindful eating involves bringing the mind’s attention to the sensations of eating, then discovering that the mind has wandered off. We find that we are eating while opening our e-mail or while fantasizing about the weekend. We notice this and once again bring the mind back to real time, to the actual sensations of eating. We practice this over and over, until it becomes a wholesome habit.

You might start modestly by undertaking a week or a month of mindful eating. Here are some suggested exercises.

One important note. Please take on these practices with a sense of curiosity and good humor. Mindful eating is a meditation and an adventure (not a test). It can open a fascinating world that is hiding, quite literally, right under our noses.


This assessment is the foundation of mindful eating and will serve you the rest of the week. At least three times today, as you begin eating, practice assessing the seven hungers.

You begin with Stomach Hunger. How hungry is the stomach? Is it completely empty or partially full? How much food does the stomach want you to eat? Now turn to Body or Cellular Hunger. This is more subtle. If your cells could talk, what would they ask you to eat? Citrus? Starch? Soup? Protein? See if you can get any information about what the body is asking you to eat.

Then turn to Eye Hunger. Look at the food, taking it in with the eyes. Look at colors, shapes and textures, the play of light and dark. Next you assess Nose Hunger, by inhaling the aromas of the food a few times, as if assessing a fine wine. Then comes Mouth Hunger. Put a bite in the mouth and really savor it, fully aware of changing flavors and textures. Chew slowly, returning the mind’s attention, again and again, to the mouth.

Now we turn to Mind Hunger. What is the mind telling you about eating? See if you can catch the stream of thoughts about eating, perhaps about what you should or should not eat based upon the latest research on foods. Lastly we turn to Heart Hunger. How does the heart feel? Is there any emotional satisfaction in eating this meal? Are difficult feelings softened by eating? Or perhaps difficult emotions are created by eating.

After you’ve eaten some amount, turn your attention to Stomach Hunger again. How full is the stomach? One quarter, half, or already full?

Please practice assessing the Seven Hungers, Eye, Nose, Mouth, Stomach, Body/Cells, Mind and Heart, several times today. If you continue to do this practice at the start of each meal during this week, you’ll become skilled, and you’ll only need to pause for a few seconds.


You’re learning to pause before eating to assess the seven hungers. Now try deliberately pausing several times during a meal. You’re practicing a more relaxed, civilized way of eating, as in France, where lunch can take up to two hours. You could try pausing when you are one quarter done, one half, three quarters and finished with the meal. When you pause, turn the mind’s attention to the stomach. How full is it? When you pause, relax the body. Take three deep, slow breaths. Do this again at the end of the meal.


As you eat and pause to assess how full you are, stop when you reach four fifths full. Pause and take a drink of liquid, a fair amount of water, juice or tea.

You could say to yourself (as many Asians do), “The first four fifths were for me. The next fifth is for the doctor.” Try deliberately leaving (or taking home in a doggy bag) the remainder of the food, to eat tomorrow or give to a homeless person.

If you find that you are full but intend to eat more anyway, say out loud, “I’m completely full but I’m going to eat this anyway.”


Now we’re progressing to the advanced levels of pausing practice.

When you’ve eaten one bite of food, deliberately put down the fork (or spoon, or chopsticks, or sandwich or cookie) and turn your full attention to what is occurring in your mouth. Close your eyes if it helps you focus better on changing flavors and textures in the mouth. Only when that one bite is thoroughly chewed and swallowed do you pick up the utensil or item of food and take another bite.


In Japan it is very rude to walk and eat or drink. Today you will carry this a bit further and undertake the task of not eating or drinking when you are doing anything else. This means sitting down and giving “respect” both to the particular food or drink you are taking in and to the sacred and intimate act of taking the bodies of other living beings into your body. When we are mindful, eating is communion, a thrice daily honoring of the interdependence of all life.

Practically speaking, this means not eating or drinking while walking, driving, riding on a bus, reading, working on the computer, watching TV, listening to music or iPods, or even talking. When eating, just eat. “How will I converse with my family?” you ask? First, you can tell your friends and family that you are trying mindful eating and ask their support. They may want to try it, too. Next, you can practice alternating: eat, then do something else. Talk for a while without eating, then stop and eat one bite, tasting it fully. After you swallow, you can talk again. Read a page in your book or answer one e-mail, then stop and eat a bite or two with attention. Repeat as needed.


Today you will be both guest and host. You will give yourself the extra attention you would give a guest at a meal. Keep this awareness as you approach eating or drinking, even making and serving a cup of coffee or tea. “How would I prepare this if the Dalai Lama suddenly dropped in? “ You can substitute any other honored guest, your guru, Jesus or Michelle Obama.

First you play the host. It could be as simple as using a nicer cup for tea and setting it down before your self with extra care. Then you play the guest, drinking it with appreciation. It could be putting a saucer under the tea and adding a cookie or two. It could be spreading out a napkin and laying your chips out in a nice pattern at lunch. Appreciate the pattern before you start munching. At dinner you might put out a place mat and some flowers and light a candle. Be creative. Just remember, each time you eat or drink, you are taking care of a special guest.


Each time you sit down to eat, please pick one item of food or drink and spend a few moments looking into where it came from and who brought it to you. It’s like running a video backwards. Use your imagination and keep asking, “ . . and before that, who held this?”

For example, if you are going to eat a piece of bread, you imagine the person who put the bread on your table, then back to the person who bought the bread at the store, the store clerk who rang it up at the checkout stand, the clerk who put the price on the loaf, another clerk who stocked the bread shelves, the driver of the delivery truck, and the people who baked and packaged the bread.

You continue to ask, “ . . . and before that?” You see the wheat fields, the farmer, the cows, chickens, sugar cane, all the workers on the farms, and so on. You can add in all the non-human beings who helped bring this bread to you, the earthworms, the pollenizing bees, the soil bacteria and fungus, and the millions of tiny yeast that helped the dough to rise.

As you imagine all the beings whose life energy contributed to bringing you this meal, you can silently say something like, “To all those beings who brought me this food, known and unknown, I thank you. May you be free from anxiety and fear. May you be at ease. May you become enlightened.”


I’ve saved two of my favorite exercises for the last. For this exercise you will use your non-dominant hand for eating.

Thus, if you are right handed, you will use the fork and spoon with your left hand.

And if you are usually left handed for eating you will use your right hand.

You may have to watch to see which hand you usually use for picking up glasses and mugs, and then switch.

If you want a real challenge, use chopsticks with the non-dominant hand!

This can be a hard task to remember. The dominant hand is quite bossy and likes to take over.

You could write a note “NON-DOMINANT HAND” and put it where you usually eat.

You could put something on your hand like a piece of tape, or a band aid, or a rubber band on your wrist to help you remember.

Have fun!


Today you will be paying attention to the tongue as you eat and drink. Here are some questions to answer.

How does the tongue get food off the spoon or fork and into your mouth? Does the tongue go under the spoon/fork or on top?

How does the tongue help get liquid into the mouth? How does it shape itself?
If you have trouble seeing these things, slow the tongue’s movements way down.

How does the tongue help with chewing? IF you have trouble seeing this, try chewing without moving the tongue. Then slowly let the tongue start its usual movements.

What is the tongue’s role in swallowing?

This is one of my favorite mindful eating exercise. I’ve been doing it for years and I still make discoveries.

This is our last task, since no new tasks are posted on the weekends.* Thank you very much for all your thoughtful comments.

I would like to save them for potential use in a second mindful eating book. I will disguise your names, of course.

If anyone does not want me to use their insights, please let me know.


At the end of the week, you can pick a few mindful eating practices to continue exploring.

You could try some of the other exercises in the Mindful Eating book.

You could form a mindful eating support group, meeting once a week to share what you learned from your week of attentive eating.

You could join The Center for Mindful Eating. See:

Whatever you do, please have a good time with mindful eating. Enjoy your meal!


Here are some suggestions:

(1) If you’d like to continue doing mindful eating exercises, you can repeat the exercises for day one through nine again.

You can take up each task for an entire week, instead of just a day.

Always start meals by assessing the Seven Hungers and take portions and eat accordingly.

Once you become 4/5th full, leave the rest. You can have it tomorrow when you are hungry again or compost it.

(2) You can read Mindful Eating and do the exercises on the CD in the back of the book.

(3) Some people have started mindful eating support or practice groups.
They meet once a week and report in on last week’s task, then take on a new task as “homework.”

This is an ongoing practice, one that continues to unfold and educate us about our body/heart and mind.

Remember: Mindfulness is the best seasoning, for your food and for your whole life.

Palms together in gratitude for this life and the opportunity to practice together,

Jan Chozen Bays

Friday, June 26, 2009

How to Be Mindful

How to Be Mindful

1. Do one thing at a time. Single-task, don’t multi-task. When you’re pouring water, just pour water. When you’re eating, just eat. When you’re bathing, just bathe. Don’t try to knock off a few tasks while eating or bathing or driving. Zen proverb: “When walking, walk. When eating, eat.”

2. Do it slowly and deliberately. You can do one task at a time, but also rush that task. Instead, take your time, and move slowly. Make your actions deliberate, not rushed and random. It takes practice, but it helps you focus on the task.

3. Do less. If you do less, you can do those things more slowly, more completely and with more concentration. If you fill your day with tasks, you will be rushing from one thing to the next without stopping to think about what you do. But you’re busy and you can’t possibly do less, right? You can. I’ve done it, and so have many busy people. It’s a matter of figuring out what’s important, and letting go of what’s not. Read more: The Lazy Manifesto: Do Less.

4. Put space between things. Related to the “Do less” rule, but it’s a way of managing your schedule so that you always have time to complete each task. Don’t schedule things close together — instead, leave room between things on your schedule. That gives you a more relaxed schedule, and leaves space in case one task takes longer than you planned.

5. Spend at least 5 minutes each day doing nothing. Just sit in silence. Become aware of your thoughts. Focus on your breathing. Notice the world around you. Become comfortable with the silence and stillness. It’ll do you a world of good — and just takes 5 minutes!

6. Stop worrying about the future - focus on the present. Become more aware of your thinking — are you constantly worrying about the future? Learn to recognize when you’re doing this, and then practice bringing yourself back to the present. Just focus on what you’re doing, right now. Enjoy the present moment.

7. When you’re talking to someone, be present. How many of us have spent time with someone but have been thinking about what we need to do in the future? Or thinking about what we want to say next, instead of really listening to that person? Instead, focus on being present, on really listening, on really enjoying your time with that person.

8. Eat slowly and savor your food. Food can be crammed down our throats in a rush, but where’s the joy in that? Savor each bite, slowly, and really get the most out of your food. Interestingly, you’ll eat less this way, and digest your food better as well.

9. Live slowly and savor your life. Just as you would savor your food by eating it more slowly, do everything this way — slow down and savor each and every moment. As I type this, for example, I have my 3-year-old daughter, Noelle, on my lap. She’s just sitting here quietly, as the rain pours down in a hush outside. What a lovely moment. In fact, I’m going to take a few minutes off just to be with her now. Be right back. :)

10. Make cleaning and cooking become meditation. Cooking and cleaning are often seen as drudgery, but actually they are both great ways to practice mindfulness, and can be great rituals performed each day. If cooking and cleaning seem like boring chores to you, try doing them as a form of meditation. Put your entire mind into those tasks, concentrate, and do them slowly and completely. It could change your entire day (as well as leave you with a cleaner house).

11. Keep practicing. When you get frustrated, just take a deep breath. When you ask yourself, “What should I do now, Self?”, the answer is “keep practicing”.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Buddhist Answers 4

24 May, 2009 - As a Buddhist practitioner, I like attending teachings and try to bring them into my daily life. Is this not enough? Why do we also need to make merit?

For people with good karma, it is possible to attain enlightenment by just listening to the teachings. The Chinese Zen monk Hui Neng is a good example of this. He awoke merely upon overhearing someone chant the Diamond Sutra.

However, most of us are too lost in the clouds of delusion for this to occur. Even if we listen to the teachings diligently, there is still every chance that we will not fully grasp the meaning. This occurs because of lack of merit.

We all naturally possess wisdom, but the clouds of ignorance cloak it. Merit provides a means for the light to shine through, and so enables us to see reality. In this respect, we can consider merit as a kind of ‘ability’.

Merit actually benefits on two levels. On an ultimate level, it is one of the causes of full enlightenment, while on a mundane level it provides a means to live wisely. How many people, for example, enjoy wealth, good health and live in beautiful surroundings, yet idle away their days watching Hindi soaps, playing video games or drinking. The inability to raise their lungta is entirely due to lack of merit. Even having the ability to relax and savour a cup of tea is contingent on merit.

In terms of mind, how does merit function? Well, our present situation did not arise from nowhere and at random, but is part of a flow of intertwined events that are both the result of the preceding event and the cause of the next.

In practical terms how does this function? Take, for example, a trip to Siliguri. From the moment the idea to visit the city was conceived, a series of events unfolded that allowed us to arrive there. First, we purchased a bus ticket, got on the bus and finally in Jaigaon, got transferred to another vehicle. We did not suddenly appear in Siliguri the moment we thought about going there, nor did we arrive without the right combination of causes and conditions. Our current situation is the same. It arose through a succession of events, with each being the result of the former and the cause of the next.

In this context, merit can be defined as anything that has a positive effect on this flow, such as thoughts, words or deeds that challenge ignorance and lead to the truth. Take compassion as an example. By benefiting others, we lessen our attachment to the false view of an independent self. Prostrations, likewise, crush our pride, while rejoicing in others good fortune serves as an antidote to jealousy. Listening to Dharma teachings, offering butter lamps and undertaking mandala practice are all excellent ways to generate merit.

In contrast, thoughts, words or deeds that preserve the wrong view, such as violence or arrogance, contaminates the flow and leads to inauspicious results.

How do we make merit? If you do not drink, for example, then make a vow to maintain this practice for the benefit of all beings. The ‘merit-meter’ will continue to tick away every moment that you do not consume alcohol. Likewise, if you decide to refrain from taking meat, but cannot do so on a daily basis, then make a vow to be a vegetarian on just one day a week. Later, when the act is complete, dedicate the merit to the enlightenment of all beings. Dedicating merit in this way is like adding a drop of water to the ocean.

In conclusion, merit is an essential aspect of life, and when combined with wisdom leads to full enlightenment. Therefore, we should not underestimate the benefits of merit, but strive to generate thoughts, words and deeds that lead to the truth whenever and however we can.

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche said: “We cannot ac*****ulate merit if we have a macho sense of pride and arrogance that we have already have enough truth and virtue and now are going to collect more. The person who collects merit has to be humble and willing to give rather than willing to collect...”

Buddhist Answers 3

31 May, 2009 - I’m a Buddhist, but I know I’ll never leave home and practice in the mountains or do a long retreat. Is there any point for me to practice?

Yes, definitely. When asked by his disciples how to explain the Dharma, the Buddha instructed them to say that an ordinary human called Siddhartha came into the world. He achieved enlightenment. He taught others how he achieved enlightenment and finally he passed into parinirvana.

These statements are of the greatest significance. They teach that an ordinary human being like us can awaken to reality. This is possible because we all posses basic goodness of heart. In this respect, there is no difference between us and the Buddha.

Obviously, there are great advantages to practise as a hermit or monk. Who has not been captivated by tales of Milarepa living in isolated Himalayan caves or by scenes of Theravada monks walking barefoot under the glare of Bangkok’s skyscrapers? These people add colour, authenticity and inspiration to the traditions. However, there are also lay people who reached high levels of attainment.

Take King Ashoka as an example. Without his valiant efforts, the Dharma may never have flourished and spread to all corners of the globe. Likewise, there were ordinary householders who gained enlightenment. Marpa is perhaps the most famous. The Dharma is concerned with transforming our mind and waking us to reality. Whether we enjoy a high or low social status or whether we shave our heads or keep our hair styled is irrelevant.

How can we transform our mundane life into a spiritual journey? Well, it is said that the Buddha taught 84,000 methods that lead beings to uncover our basic goodness of heart. Although the methods differ, they all include three components: view, meditation and action.

To develop the correct view, we should study the ‘Four Seals of Buddhism’. These are ‘all compounded things are impermanent; all emotions are pain; all things have no inherent existence and nirvana is beyond concepts ‘. In order to gain confidence in these teachings, it is important not to read them casually, but work with them as a goldsmith tests gold. Once we agree that the Four Seals represent the truth, we adopt them as the ground in which to interact with our world.

Normally, our lives are dominated by emotions, and even a minor problem causes us to instinctively recoil. Instead, we could use the situation to gain wisdom.

For instance, you are about to speak before a thousand people. Suddenly, you realize that you have brought the wrong script. Rather than making lame excuses and struggling to hold your ground, you allow the rug to be pulled from under. You simply apologize for the inconvenience and observe the embarrassment. There is so much humility and dignity here.

The Four Seals teach us that all compounded things are impermanent and have no inherent existence. Embarrassment, anger and disappointment offer a golden opportunity to experience these truths on a heart level. When we fall apart, simply allow the experience to touch us.

Although fear may initially accompany such responses, acting in this way allows for so much spaciousness and clarity. All our lives we have tried gathering the pieces to recreate the illusion of something solid and unchanging. It hasn’t worked. Meditation allows us to non-judgementally observe. Whatever thoughts arise, we just let them go. We take this practice into our daily life.

Difficult situations are rarely used as practice. We either try to avoid or destroy them. Like a person who shuts the windows and doors to keep their room clean, we try to hold our lives together by avoiding reality. We want security, but instead create hope and fear. Facing problems and watching our mind is like opening the windows and doors. There may be chaos, but there is life and vitality. We embrace the challenges, and use them as a means to gain wisdom. Basically, we stop struggling and allow things to take their course.

To return to the question, Buddhism is not so concerned about discarding the material world, but aims to make us aware of the habitual clinging to phenomena and self and enable us to renounce the clinging. As we familiarize ourselves with the Four Seals, we don’t necessarily discard things, but instead change our attitude towards them. Mediation allows us the space to watch without judgement. We act accordingly.

Buddhist Answers 2

7 June, 2009 - Women sometimes appear like second class citizens in Buddhism. Why is this?

Buddhism transcends equality between male and female, and aims to fully destroy all discriminatory concepts. Equality based on establishing two entities on a level footing is merely a fight between the changing concepts of superior and inferior. As such, it is not does not lead to genuine equality.

For example, a person discovers that a colleague is on a higher salary scale. He feels victimized and upset. Later, he hears that the colleague’s salary has been reduced. He regains his composure and feels happy. During the whole saga, the man’s income and life-style remained exactly the same. Yet, he was disturbed because his peace of mind was contingent on external reference points, rather than his own sense of well-being.

Therefore, relying on them as a means to gain peace is no different from leaning on a wobbly chair for stability - impossible. This is not to say that we not challenge social injustices, we should. However, when we do, we need to be aware that our opinions are not facts and will change. As history shows, this year’s champion is often next year’s villain.

Some people might question the Vajrayana stand on eliminating all worldly discriminations. Well, it is our attachment to the validity of one opinion over another that causes suffering.

Let’s consider a beauty contest. The judges ascribe beauty to a particular contestant and declare her the winner. However, this cannot be true. If a person truly possesses beauty then everyone would agree. Yet, a child may not consider the winner beautiful, maybe even an adult from a different culture. So, we understand that attributes such as beauty, ugly, pure or impure are merely imputed and do not exist separate from their reference points.

How does this help? Well, when we cling to a view as a fact, our opinions solidify. A beautiful person, for example, is considered to possess this quality, but from our analysis we know this cannot be true. Trying to maintain such unattainable standards causes much fear, from which only the owners of cosmetic companies and plastic surgery clinics can hope to gain. Examining the question from a different angle, we should consider our nature of mind. There is no male or female basic goodness of heart, nor are there inferior or superior versions. We all possess the same inner qualities.

On a mundane level, there are certain differences in the capacity of people to practice the Dharma. However, these are related more to karma, not gender. In Vajrayana, the only major difference between male and female relates to the way the mind takes rebirth. The energy of a male tends to be more concentrated, which signifies compassion. In a female, the energy is more spacious, which is linked to wisdom.

Likewise, there is absolutely no gender bias in enlightenment. Whether male or female, whoever contemplates the teachings and practices accordingly gains enlightenment. It is as simple as that.

History is testament to the ability of women to gain enlightenment. In recent times, the togdenmas in Tibet were an excellent example. Many of these yoginis spent decades in remote caves and achieved high levels of attainment.

Sukhasiddhi was another example. This fifty-nine year old mother of six was thrown out by her husband for showing too much generosity to a beggar. Wandering alone in the hostile valleys that border present day Pakistan and Afghanistan, she finally acquired a small amount of grain that she distilled and sold as alcohol. Her small business enjoyed modest success, and she was able to make an offering to a yogi practising in a nearby cave. As acknowledgement, she received a Dharma teaching. It is said she attained enlightenment that very evening.

It is important to realize that there are not two kinds of basic goodness - one for men another for women. We all awake to the same spaciousness and clarity. Any women who feel discouraged should remember Sukhasiddhi. She offers living proof that ultimately there are no gender, age or social barriers to enlightenment and that all human life is equally precious.

Buddhist Answers 1

Building up bodhicitta for a better world: Compassion is the essence of Buddhism, but many Buddhists spend time and money going on pilgrimage tours or making merit only for themselves. Isn’t this a contradiction?

That’s a good point. Let’s explore how compassion is linked with undertaking meritorious action, such as going on a pilgrimage, offering butter lamps or hoisting prayer flags.

Everyone will agree that action begins in the mind. Therefore, transforming the mind is the focus of Buddhist practice. If we are arrogant or proud, for example, how can our activities benefit others? It is no different from expecting healthy crops to grow from polluted or infertile soil. While a farmer will use manure to vitalise the ground, a Buddhist will undertake meritorious action to purify the mind.

As the question states, however, many people practice Dharma activities for personal benefit, not out of compassion. They go to Bodh Gaya or cir*****ambulate a chorten in order to pray for business or examination success. When we undertake a Dharma activity, it is absolutely essential that it is done with a pure motivation to benefit others.

Prince Siddhartha understood this when he fled the palace in the middle of the night. Even though he had the potential to be a great ruler and benefit many people, he knew that he did not yet posses the wisdom or skill to help people overcome the root of suffering. Consequently, he renounced his title to begin mind training. He did not flee the palace to escape his responsibilities, but to benefit all beings on a profound level.

Here’s another example of this attitude. A person lives in a country where sickness pervades. He possesses tremendous courage and compassion, but lacks the medical knowledge to help. As a result, he decides to leave and train to become a doctor. The motivation to do this is not for personal benefit, but to gain a skill and increase his ability to assist others. In Buddhism, when we reach the same conclusion, we undertake practice with the aim of liberating all beings from suffering. This is called the mind of bodhicitta.

It is important to emulate this attitude when we embark on a pilgrimage. In fact, before we begin any meritorious action, we should repeat words such as: “I will do this not for myself, but for the benefit of sentient beings”. The act should be concluded by dedicating the merit towards the enlightenment of all beings.

People who doubt that visiting a sacred site can be of value to others, should reflect on the importance of mind. Transforming the mind and correcting our view is the basis of benefiting others. Like a stone dropped in a pond, the ripples from a positive aspiration can cause far reaching effects.

In this respect, it is said that, when greed dominates a society, corruption is rampant. When anger clouds our minds, war follows, but when kindness fills our hearts, peace ensues. We should not dismiss the power of collective energy.

In the same way that a visit to Hong Kong offers us an opportunity to do business and create wealth, a trip to Bodh Gaya offers us the chance to purify our minds and create conditions for peace and stability. Therefore, we can understand that going on a pilgrimage does not contradict the Buddhist ideal of compassion in any way. It actually generates the causes and conditions that allow it to manifest.

Buddhist Answers to common questions - Lam Shenphen Zangpo

Lam Shenphen Zangpo answers basic questions that every man, woman, and child on the street wants to know.

I often suffer with mood swings. Some days I am quite happy, but the next I feel quite irritated or depressed. How can Buddhism help me stabilize my life?

Well, nothing arising from no-where, and so there must be a reason for your emotional swings. Perhaps they are sparked by a colleague’s insensitive words or maybe you expect too much from life.

Whatever the trigger, the root cause is the same: relying on external references for happiness. This is an underlying reason for our vulnerability.

As we know, all form, emotions and perceptions are composed of an infinite number of parts, and even a minor change in any of these has far reaching effects. A stock market crash in London causes bankruptcies in Taipei. A politician killed in Lahore causes heightened security in New York. Due to its intricate and dependent nature, our environment is extremely fragile and unstable.

Therefore, it is natural to feel insecure when our mental well-being is contingent on external reference points. It is like leaning on a rickety desk. When it moves, we move. The trick, therefore, is remove ourselves from these externals and instead develop a genuine and flexible mind.

The great Indian Buddhist scholar Atisha Dipankara identified eight hopes and fears that bind us to external reference points: praise and blame, gain and loss, pleasure and pain, and fame and disgrace. These are hooks and we are like fish deceived by their appearance. We believe they are a source of happiness, whereas in reality they are a short cut to suffering.

In the same way that a fish needs to identify these hooks to remain safe, we likewise need to detach from these eight dharmas for our mental well-being. They are the cause of our insecurity and mood swings.

Take an everyday situation as an example. Our boss praises our efforts. We are happy. Although we feel good, this should actually be a warning sign. It is like the bell on the fisherman’s rod warning us that we have been caught and are in trouble.

Why should being happy as the result of praise be dangerous? It is because the result is dependent on an unstable source. No sooner has our boss finished praising us than we are being berated by a jealous colleague. Crash. We fall from our lofty position.

Praise is like a happiness drug. It is addictive. And, like any drug or emotion, it causes us to relinquish control of our lives. That is suffering.

Furthermore, in order to get a continuous supply of this praise-drug, we start to channel our energies into gaining others’ approval. Our genuine mind and dignity are lost. We become fake and weak. We can even hurt others because we give them what they want, not what they need. Like a grandmother who stuffs her grandchildren with sweets and unhealthy snacks to gain love, we please others to garner their support and approval.

That is not to say that we should be indifferent towards others. Definitely, we should not. Compassion and caring are the root of Buddhist practice and are essential for the social cohesion of the planet. However, our action and words should be genuine and aimed at benefiting others, not motivated by personal gain.

How do we use this knowledge to gain stability? Well, Buddhism teaches three steps to transform the mind. The first is view, the second is meditation and the last is action. Knowing that the eight worldly dharmas are the cause of suffering is the view.

Buddhism encourages debate, and the teachings should not be taken on blind faith. Instead, like gold, they need to be examined and tested. In this respect, we meditate and contemplate on the view. We ask ourselves does it make sense. Does it benefit others? Finally, when we agree that it does, we enter the final stage - action.

Whenever we feel happy, we should ask ourselves, “Is this happiness due to others’ praise or the result of personal gain?” If it is, then we should immediately remind ourselves that it won’t last. We can say to ourselves, “This feeling has never lasted before, and it won’t last now”. Obviously, the same can be said for unhappy experiences. This is how we infuse our life with the correct view. Our exit from the emotional roller coaster is imminent.

So, to return to the question, Buddhism helps stabilize our lives by offering us a means to sever the root of instability. Obviously, this is a worthy achievement. However, it does not define the ultimate goal of Buddhism. If we consider human existence, we will realize that mere security cannot protect us from sickness, old age and death. It was this realization that caused the young Prince Siddhartha to flee the pleasantries of his palace and begin the path of self discovery. We should bear this in mind. In this way, we will not work with the Eight Worldly Dharmas merely to gain temporal mental peace, but instead aim to achieve full enlightenment. This is the true legacy bequeathed us by Prince Siddhartha.

I have a friend who had a very unhappy childhood. Now he is bitter and angry towards everyone. Are there any Buddhist practices that could help him let go of his anger and move on with his life?

Well, there needs to be some acknowledgement of the situation by your friend. Many people with this kind of attitude either do not recognize or do not accept they have a problem. They are in denial. The first step is to awaken your friend to the problem. Only then can remedial action begin.

I’ll relate a story. Some years ago when I was staying Tokyo, I occasionally visited a store run by an elderly lady. She was very much loved by the community, and one day I mentioned this to her. She replied that it hadn’t always been the case, and explained that she had suffered an unhappy childhood followed by an abusive marriage. She felt the world was against her and she fought back. According to her, she was very unpopular.

The situation began to change, she explained, after a friend persuaded her to attend a Dharma teaching. It was a very basic teaching on cause and effect, but it struck a chord. It caused her to realize that it was her own response to the world that was perpetuating the suffering. She was caught in a downward spiral. People were mean to her, and she retaliated. The teaching woke her to reality. She was out of denial, and swore from that moment to sever the downward spiral.

Therefore, it is important that you use skilful means to make your friend aware of his problem and, at same time, offer him solutions. You have to be like the Buddha who in his first sermon proclaimed that life was suffering, but at the same time offered a means to go beyond it.

Methods are plentiful, but to be effective they must have a view. Like the various parts of the eco-system, we are all connected and dependent on each other. Failing to recognize this fact creates a sense of alienation, which, as the old Japanese lady realized, is often followed by bitterness and anger. In her younger days she did not realize that her hostile attitude was like a tree shedding toxic leaves onto its own roots. She was poisoning herself.

Tonglen is a Buddhist practice that offers an effective means to challenge our ingrained fears and to dissolve our clinging to the ego. If your friend can do it regularly, I think it might help him overcome his anger and bitterness.

Practically, how do we practice tonglen? Well, first we think of someone who is suffering, perhaps a terminally ill patient alone in hospital or maybe a street-child in some anonymous city. We contemplate their fears and hardships and breathe in their suffering. On an inhalation we aim to take on all their pain and allow them the space to open and relax. On an exhalation, we send them happiness and whatever relieves their pain and fears.

During the practice, it is common to experience resistance or even anger. We just don’t want to take on another’s suffering or give them our happiness, and our deepest fears are represented by a heaviness in the pit of our stomach or a tightness in our chest. At such moments, we switch our attention to others who are likewise unable to face their fears, and we begin to take on their pain and send them happiness and joy.

In the same way that knots are removed from matted hair by continuous combing, our fears and bitterness are removed by repeated practice of tonglen. Over and over we breathe in others’ suffering and over and over we breathe out happiness and joy.

Let’s be honest. We have spent our whole lives chasing pleasure and running from pain, and it hasn’t worked. The same shadows follow us. Tonglen offers a means to challenge these fears and to finally lay them to rest. At the same time, the practice enables us to awaken our innate compassion and to experience the vastness of mind. We let go of past traumas and develop a spacious attitude to present problems. Life is no longer such a big deal.

Therefore, to return to your question, it is important that your friend first acknowledges that he has a problem. If he can do this, then recommend that he begin tonglen as a daily practice. In addition, he can also do it spontaneously. For example, if he sees someone in pain. At that very moment he can starting breathing in their suffering and sending them happiness.

As the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hahn says: “Breathe - You are alive!”

Everyone learns the thirty-seven practices of the bodhisattva in school, but I have no idea how to apply them in my daily life. How can we do this?

It is impossible to explain each verse in a short article like this, but at least I’ll try to offer some examples of how to approach the practices.

Let’s explore a couple of verses at random: “Regardless of how long spent living together, good friends and relations must some day depart. Our wealth and possessions collected with effort are left fare behind at the end of our life. Our mind, but a guest in our body`s great guest house, must vacate one day and travel beyond. Cast away thoughts that concern only this lifetime - the Sons of the Buddhas all practise this way.”

Superficially, the verse appears to implore us to abandon worldly life. This is not the case. If enlightenment depended on leaving friends and kin, then all we have to do is spend some time on a desert island to achieve it. It is not that simple. Whenever we consider the teachings of the Buddha, it is important to bear in mind that the focus in on transforming the mind and alleviating suffering. Physical action only supports this role.

Of course, undergoing intense mind training in a retreat environment can offer enormous benefits, but the best time and place to practice is right here and now - not at some future location that may never materialize.

Happiness is the motivation for our lives. From having a biscuit to getting married, everything we do is done with this intention. Most of the time, however, we don’t consider whether our action actually leads to this goal. We just follow habits and impulses. Even a gangster kills with the intention of being happy. Yet, I have never met a happy gangster.

Often, we are like a person in Wangdue who wants to go to Jakar, but drives South. Even after he does not reach his destination after a day of driving, he does not check his direction. Instead he drives faster.

In this respect, Gyalsé Ngulchu Tokmé is inviting us to examine our direction. It is not that friends and relatives are bad, but that our connection with them is often one of dependency. We feel lonely, and immediately reach for the phone. In this way, friends and relatives actually hinder our goal - to achieve freedom from suffering.

I’ll explain further. Emotions such as loneliness arise in the mind through a combination of many factors, such as past fears, mood and educational and social influences. In this way, they are a compounded phenomena, no different from a rainbow or mirage. They appear, but lack true existence. If this is difficult to accept, then try to locate the feeling of loneliness. Is it in the brain, in the heart or perhaps somewhere else? Like a mirage or rainbow we will not find it. In this way, we should understand that the emotion cannot harm us. It is only a sensation, and the way to realize this is to just watch it in a non-judgemental way.

When we do this, fears dissolve like storm clouds in the clear Autumn sky. On the other hand, constantly calling a friend at the merest twitch of loneliness perpetuates the illusion. It is like taking an aspirin to cure a chronic disease. The symptoms may temporarily disappear, but the overall condition deteriorates.

Therefore, the verse is not recommending that we abandon friends and family, but instead abandon the misconception that they are a solution to our emotional problems. If we can do this, then we can develop a healthy relationship with our associates that truly benefits all.

Here is another verse: “If in the midst of a large crowd of people someone should single us out for abuse, exposing our faults and flaws, we should not get angry or become defensive but instead just listen in silence and, heeding his words, bow in respect to this man as our teacher. The sons of the Buddhas all practise this way.”

Outwardly, this passage may appear to advocate passive acceptance, but this is not the case. Like the previous verse, it offers an effective way to work with the mind. For example, most people would feel embarrassed if their faults were exposed in front of a thousand people. Resentment and perhaps revenge would follow. However, we do not have to respond in this way. Instead of following our habitual responses, we could instead use the experience to examine our mind. We question what causes us to feel embarrassed. And, if we are honest, we will acknowledge that we have developed a pretty solid and overrated impression of ourselves. This is why the words hurt.

The verse invites us to free ourselves from these habitual responses. Rather than protecting ourselves from the outer world, we use the light of wisdom to examine the target. We ask what is it that hurts. Under this kind of scrutiny, the target dissolves like ice under the midday sun. We regain our flexible and spacious mind. When this occurs, there is nothing for the words to hit. This is no small liberation.

The 37 practices are an invitation to explore our mind. They are not indictments to abandon our responsibilities, but instead offer advise on how to deal with our world in a healthy and beneficial way.

Compassion is supposed to be the essence of Buddhism, but many Buddhists just spend their time and money going on pilgrimage tours or making merit for themselves. Isn’t this a contradiction?

That’s a good point. Let’s explore how compassion is linked with undertaking meritorious action, such as going on a pilgrimage, offering butter lamps or hoisting prayer flags. Everyone will agree that action begins in the mind. Even the construction of the world’s tallest building or the invention of the internet began as one single thought. Therefore, transforming the mind is the focus of Buddhist practice. If we are arrogant or proud, for example, how can our activities benefit others. It is no different from expecting healthy crops to grow from polluted or infertile soil. While a farmer will use manure to vitalize the ground, a Buddhist will undertake meritorious action to purify the mind.

As the question states, however, many people practice Dharma activities for personal benefit, not out of compassion. They go to Bodh Gaya or cir*****ambulate a chorten in order to pray for business or examination success. Some even consider a pilgrimage as a feather in their cap, something to boast about to friends. Rather than decreasing attachment to the idea of a separate and permanent self, which is the root of negative action and suffering, a pilgrimage done in this way actually perpetuates the attachment. When we undertake a Dharma activity, therefore, it is absolutely essential that it is done with a pure motivation to benefit others.

While, of course, there will be some worldly advantage in undertaking meritorious action for ourselves, we are still mired in the suffering of birth, sickness, old age and death. Basically, we are still in prison, but have just made our stay a little more comfortable.

Prince Siddhartha understood this when he fled the palace in the middle of the night. Even though he had the potential to be a great ruler and benefit many people, he knew that he did not yet posses the wisdom or skill to help people overcome the root of suffering. Consequently, he renounced his title and began mind training. He did not flee the palace to escape his responsibilities, but in order to benefit all beings on a profound level.

Here’s another example of this attitude. A person lives in a country where sickness pervades. He possesses tremendous courage and compassion, but lacks the medical knowledge to help people on a profound level. As a result, he decides to leave in order to train to become a doctor. The motivation to do this, however, is not for personal benefit, but purely to gain a skill that can increase his ability to assist others. In Buddhism, when we reach the same conclusion, we undertake practice with the aim of liberating all beings from suffering. This is called the mind of bodhicitta.

It is important to emulate this attitude when we embark on a pilgrimage. In fact, before we begin any of meritorious action, we should repeat words such as the following: “I will do this not for myself, but for the benefit of sentient beings”. The act should be concluded by dedicating the merit towards the enlightenment of all beings.

People who doubt that visiting a sacred site can be of value to others, should reflect on the importance of mind. As said earlier, even the the world’s tallest building or major technological breakthroughs began as a single thought in one person’s mind. Therefore, transforming the mind and correcting our view is the basis of benefiting others. Like a stone dropped in a pond, the ripples from a positive aspiration can cause far reaching effects. When thousands or millions of aspirational stones are dropped at one place, a tsunami of positive causes and conditions are initiated.

In this respect, it is said that when greed dominates a society, corruption is rampant. When anger clouds our minds, war follows, but when kindness fills our hearts, peace ensues. We should not dismiss the power of collective energy.

In the same way that a visit to Hong Kong offers us an opportunity to do business and create wealth, a trip to Bodh Gaya offers us the chance to purify our minds and create the conditions for peace and stability. Therefore, we can understand that going on a pilgrimage does not contradict the Buddhist ideal of compassion in any way. Instead, it actually generates the causes and conditions that allows it to manifest.
I am not attracted to visualizations or ritual. I want a practice that I can use in my daily life - something that changes my way of living. Can you suggest anything?

All genuine Buddhist practices aim at enlightenment, and we should be careful not to learn a technique merely to help us relax. Practice done in this way is no different from taking a painkiller for a chronic disease. The symptoms are temporarily removed, but the roots of suffering remain.

Visualizations and ritual are likewise explicitly linked to this final goal, and we shouldn’t feel intimidated by their seemingly complicated forms. The theory behind visualization is actually quite simple. When we imagine ourselves and environment in a pure form, we de-construct our strongly entrenched prejudices that create a sense of imperfection.

Take a broken cup for instance. To a person who is attached to the concept of cup as a drinking utensil, it is an imperfect object. Yet, for someone who has never seen a cup, it is no less inferior than a complete cup. In fact, a photographer might prefer the broken item as it provides an interesting subject for his work. Likewise, an insect will be as happy to rest on one as the other.

In this way, we understand that values aren’t inherent to the object itself, but are imposed by our prejudices. Ultimately, all phenomena are just a combination of the five elements and, as such, are pure and unstained.

Dividing phenomena into rigid categories of good, bad or neutral is the engine that drives the wheel of suffering. Deities and other figures used in visualization practices are expedient means to break this habit and correct our view. They are not gods, but representatives of our innate goodness of heart.

In respect to your request, perhaps you could undertake the Thirty-seven Practices of Bodhisattvas that were explained in a former edition of this Q&A column. In addition, the Mahayana practices of the six paramitas are also focused on transforming the mind in everyday situations and contain no ritual or visualization practices.

‘Para’ means ‘the other shore’, while ‘Mita’ is ‘one who goes there’. So, paramita means ‘one who reaches the other shore’. They are also known as the six transcendental actions as they offer a means to transcend the conventional concepts of virtue and non-virtue. The six practices are generosity, discipline, patience, exertion, meditation and wisdom.

There is a tendency to recoil when we hear words like patience or discipline. We imagine a strict teacher wielding a stick and telling us that patience is a virtue and that we need more discipline. This attitude could not be further from the spirit of the paramitas. They are not moralist in anyway, but rooted in wisdom and insight.

Morals or ethics deprived of wisdom can cause more harm than good. For example, when we decide that something is bad, whose definition do we adopt? The traditional courtship methods in Eastern Bhutan might be considered immoral in the conservative Middle East. Yet, within the context of Bhutanese society they are perfectly acceptable. That all things are impermanent and compounded and that emotions based on dualistic view cause suffering are basic facts. They were not invented by anyone. Action that flows from this wisdom is not dogmatic, but spacious and flexible. This is the way in which we should work with the practices.

Let’s explore the first paramita. Fear is at the heart of being stingy. We are afraid, and so we hoard. Generosity challenges these fears. It has nothing to do with economic status, but is a state of mind.

Once a wealthy monarch invited the Buddha and his monks for a feast. Although the king had done a great deed, it was revealed that an old beggar woman standing at the gate had gained the most merit from the occasion. Rather than being jealous, she had been overjoyed that the king could serve the Buddha in this way. Among all gathered, she possessed the most generous heart.

All our lives we’ve employed attachment, aggression, arrogance and jealousy to maintain the walls of ego’s fortress. Yet, the structure has no more substance that a sand castle. Generosity provides a means to de-construct our self-obsession. As a result, we confidently dismiss the builders and let the walls crumble. Suddenly, it is as if we are on top of a mountain, with the deep blue sky and lush valleys meeting at the horizon. In this way we connect with our innate goodness of heart.

All the paramitas should be undertaken in this spirit. They are not moral injunctions, but practices aimed at undermining the illusion of a permanent and separate self. In this respect, the first four paramitas must be connected to meditation and wisdom. When we meditate, for example, we renounce worldly prejudices. Whatever arises, we allow it to pass. Generosity born from this practice is not moralistic, but spacious and all encompassing. Likewise, in order to develop a meditation practice we need the qualities of patience, discipline and enthusiasm.

Wisdom means insight into the interdependent and impermanent nature of self and other. Deprived of this view, the paramitas cannot lead to enlightenment, but merely operate on a mundane level. Wisdom infuses them with transcendental qualities. In this way, ‘one who reaches the other shore’ is both the name of these practices and their epithet.
I made a vow at a temple to quit taking drugs. Unfortunately, I broke it. Now I worry about the consequences.

I’ll answer the question in separate parts. Regarding the karmic consequences of your action, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche has said: “The only virtue of negative karma is that it can be purified. In fact, there is nothing that cannot be purified, even the most apparently heinous deed.”

While there are many ways to purify karma, perhaps the most effective is the four powers: the power of support, the power of regret, the power of resolution and the power of the antidote.

First is to confess the negative action to a support, second is to express our remorse, third is to make a commitment never to repeat the negative action and fourth is to practice virtue as an antidote. Confessing in this way can completely purify negative karma.

Why do we need support? Well, think of the mind like a pane of glass and negative karma like mud smeared on that pane. As the mud is not part of the original structure, it can be cleaned away. The mind is the same. Negative karma is not part of the mind. Like mud, it was not there originally, and so can be removed. In the case of glass, we might use detergent, water and a cloth as a cleaning agent or support. For our mind, we visualize a sublime being.

Some people might wonder why we use a sublime being as a support rather than a friend or our own guru in his common form. Well, with a fellow human we might think, “Ah, he won’t know about this and that”, and so we are tempted to conceal certain details. With a Buddha or our guru in the form of a deity, we will not have this reservation, and so will fully expose our negative action. Like a wound, negative karma can be cleaned when exposed and treated. It festers when left hidden.

While deities like Vajrasattva serve as excellent supports for our purification practice, it’s important that they are not taken as external gods. In reality, they are just representations of our innate goodness of heart. This is the reason that the support deity and practitioner merge at the conclusion of a visualization practice.

Expressions such as cleaning, purification or removing defilements often arouse a sense of anguish. We are reminded of a trip to the dentist to extract a decayed tooth or the neglected task of cleaning our room. In this respect, it is perhaps preferable to emphasize the element of ‘drawing closer’. In the same way that each wipe of the pane of glass reveals more of the original inner brightness, so each practice of Vajrasattva uncovers more of our innate goodness of heart.

An empowerment and complete explanation from a qualified lama is required before beginning Vajrasattva practice.

On another level, you need to consider the root of your addiction. Excessive use of alcohol or drugs is often a way to avoid reality. We feel lonely, we pick up a bottle. We feel bored, we flip a tablet in our mouth. Initial relief soon turns to suffering as we surrender control to dependency. We are on a slippery slope that becomes increasingly difficult to leave.

So, what is the alternative? Instead of immediately reacting to a sense of discomfort, just watch it. It is impossible for anyone to pass through life without ever feeling bored or depressed. It is like driving to Kurtoe and expecting to always be on high mountain passes. It is unrealistic. Sometimes we will be high among drifting clouds. At other times, we will pass through narrow, dark valleys. Mountains and valleys co-exist. We cannot have one without the other. The trick is to accept every kind of terrain as equally part of the journey. In this way, we are enriched by all aspects of life.

Therefore, next time we feel bored or depressed, we should refrain from cracking open a can of beer or even switching on the TV. Instead, just watch the sensation without judgment.