As some of you are aware, I’ve been suffering with chronic pain for more than three years now. It’s been an exhausting, distressing and confidence-shattering experience in many ways, and medical science still struggles to find solutions to this problem, so most days the best I can hope for is that things simply stay stable. I have to accept that it’s quite possible I will never have a day in my life again where I feel totally healthy and pain-free.
In my own case, pain management experts within the NHS have been extolling the virtues of complementary therapies, most particularly mindfulness practices and meditation (with a side-order of yoga). In the medical context, mindfulness and meditation have proven very successful in their own right, divorced from their original Buddhist context and presented in a Westernised, clinical framework. Mindfulness has been shown to increase psychological well-being, reduce symptoms of stress, and crucially, reduce pain.
I have a long relationship with Buddhist thought and practice, having discovered both during a period of mental health difficulty as a teenager. For a number of years after that I maintained an interest in Buddhist meditation and philosophy, practicing meditation regularly and reading thousands of pages of sutras, commentaries and guides to Buddhist thought. Then, bizarrely, I moved to a country with a rich Buddhist tradition (Japan) and largely fell out of Buddhist practice.
Now that I’ve been reminded of the benefits of these practices I left behind, I’ve jumped back into mindfulness and meditation recently. For me, while mindfulness has benefits even outside the Buddhist context, its benefits are much more far-reaching when that context is maintained. Then mindfulness goes far beyond a calming influence, and becomes a means to re-orient your understanding of self, consciousness, and the nature of mental and physical suffering. It’s also really interesting to read and nerd out on this stuff.
So, this is all a very long way of saying I’ve been reading a lot of Buddhist stuff again and doing daily meditation. Along the way I’ve been speaking to some people about it, and realised there are some major misconceptions out there about the nature of Buddhism and meditation. So partly for those who are interested, and partly to put down in words my own understanding and remind myself of areas that require further study, I’ve decided to put together a little guide to the basics of Buddhist thought and hopefully provide you all some interesting stuff to read along the way.
Before I start all that, if you’re interested in practicing mindfulness and meditation, I can highly recommend the book Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Gunaratana. In my opinion it’s the most readable, detailed, and well-organised guide to Buddhist mindfulness practice available. If you read this book and follow the advice within it, you’ll have all the tools you need to start an effective and comprehensive mindfulness practice in your daily life.
Also, a disclaimer: all of this represents my own understanding of core Buddhist principles and practices. Don’t take my word as being 100% accurate. Some of it is heavily simplified, some of it will have my own misconceptions layered in there. Take it as one guy’s summary and fill out the gaps with more authoritative sources!
Common Questions about Buddhism and Meditation
Doesn’t Buddhism involve worshipping the Buddha? I thought you were an atheist.
I am an atheist, and lucky for me, Buddhists do not believe in a creator god. The Buddha is not a god, he was a human who spent years struggling to understand his place in the world, and eventually achieved enlightenment, and offered the knowledge he gained to the world. He’s an object of respect and admiration, but not worship as some of us might offer to figures like Jesus Christ — and worship would be somewhat antithetical to the Buddha’s teachings, which encourage us to strive for enlightenment on our own terms, and only follow those teachings which match our own experiences and critical analysis.
Doesn’t Buddhism require belief in a soul, so that reincarnation can work? Again that seems antithetical to your scientific mindset.
Not at all. There are three core concepts, the three marks of existence, that define the Buddhist concept of the world: anicca (impermanence); dukkha (suffering); and anatta (not-self). In short, everything in the universe is subject to decay and eventual destruction (impermanence), our existence is plagued with feelings of unsatisfactoriness and discontent (suffering), and our concept of a defined, eternal ‘self’ is an illusion (not-self).
To unpack the ‘not-self’ concept a bit, Buddhists believe that we are not defined, separate individuals with a unique essence, or soul. I, for example, was once a baby — I was tiny, looked really different, had no beard, and my brain couldn’t even properly encode memories. Yet I still say that baby is ‘me’, despite having a different physical and mental existence in every aspect. I have an innate tendency to believe that this highly changeable and temporary existence is somehow united by some unique, ineffable essence that makes me, me. For some of us that essence is an eternal, non-physical soul.
Buddhists deny this, and say that this concept of self is an illusion. Our existence is actually an amalgam of the five skandhas, or five aggregates: form (matter), or rupa; sensations (feelings), or vidana; perceptions, or samjna; mental activity, or sankhara; and consciousness, or vijnana. These five aggregates constitute our experience of physical and mental existence, and create the illusion of self to which we cling. Part of the Buddhist path to liberation is to realise that our existence is a consequence of the constant interaction of these five changeable aggregates, and further, that these aggregates are without fundamental independent existence.
So, the idea of an eternal, unchangeable ‘soul’ is actually incompatible with Buddhist thought. The sense of self we have is the direct result of constantly changing interactions with our surrounding reality. There is no eternal soul, and further there is no separate ‘spirit realm’ in which it could exist.
It’s worth noting that the Buddhist concept of these aggregates is broken down even further into extensive detail, but I won’t go into this here. It’s extremely interesting though so I may do that — again for self-study reasons as well — in a later post.
Wait, hang on a minute — how does that work, don’t Buddhists believe in reincarnation? How can we reincarnate if we don’t have souls?
No, they don’t. Buddhists believe in a cycle of life, death and rebirth, called samsara. Rebirth is not the same thing as reincarnation. Reincarnation is something we see in other religions, wherein our eternal soul transfers into a new body after death and experiences a continued existence in another physical form.
Buddhism, as explained above, doesn’t accept the idea of a soul. Buddhists believe that when we die, we die — our experience ceases completely, nothing is transferred beyond death. When I die, the being known as Eric ceases to exist, my consciousness and self-identity as Eric dissipates, and my body becomes worm food.
However, that’s not the end of the story. This is where karma, or kamma to stick to the Pali versions of terms I’ve been using, comes into the frame. Our actions in each existence cause positive or negative kamma, not as some sort of supernatural judge of good or ill will in our beliefs and actions, but as a physical cause-and-effect relationship — if I do a good/bad thing, good/bad results will inevitably develop later.
It is this kamma that continues beyond death. The Buddhist belief, at its core, is that once we die, the consequence of our kamma is that another birth takes place, and our little bundle of karmic pluses and minuses determines what kind of birth that will be. This cycle is inevitable, and eternal, unless we are able to break free of this cycle via liberating ourselves from clinging to this world and become enlightened.
This cycle can be hard to conceptualise, so it’s often described using an analogy. Imagine my life as a burning candle, with the flame representing my consciousness. Right as the candle is running out, I use that flame to light the next candle. The next candle lights up right as the old one burns out. So my consciousness directly causes another, subsequent consciousness to arise in the next life, but my original consciousness burns out — the new one is a different consciousness, existing in a different body (which may or may not be human). Kamma is what lifts the old candle to the new and causes the new one to light up.
Now there’s obviously a hell of a lot more to kamma, death and rebirth, but that’s the gist of it. Rebirth is probably the hardest thing for Western Buddhists to get to grips with, and many people (including myself) choose to conceptualise rebirth largely as a reframing of the physical facts of death — so upon death, the matter of my body will inevitably become part of the environment and provide materials and energy for future beings, so in that sense I am ‘reborn’ and contribute to the arising of some future sentient being(s), and this then keeps happening over and over. That framing is totally fine for many people, and still works alongside the importance of Buddhist ethics, meditational practice and kamma, so the whole edifice hangs together well enough.
Some then later go on to accept the whole picture of life, death and rebirth; personally I’m more willing to buy that picture than anything hinging on eternal souls, infinite punishments in Hell after death for finite crimes in this world, or various other things. Buddhist rebirth also still accepts death as a real cessation of existence; only kamma continues to the next life, not the same consciousness and there’s no essential essence that transfers over. But still it’s a pretty major leap. Most people I’ve encountered online or elsewhere who properly believe in rebirth as Westerners came to that conclusion after years of meditative contemplation, so who knows, I may also decide such a thing a decade from now.
As a point of clarification — yes, the Buddha does say upon reaching enlightenment that he can see all his previous lives. However, this is not because of direct recollection of those experiences through an eternal soul or directly transferred consciousness, but because he at that point attained perfect understanding of kamma and thus his own karmic history. So he was able to see all that as an unfolding of karmic cause and effect across unimaginable aeons of time. That’s the idea as I understand it, anyway.
And for the hell of it, an additional answer to an unasked question — what do I mean by ‘aeons’? Well, Buddhism talks about a truly immense units of time called a kalpa. How long is a kalpa? Imagine a huge cube of granite, measuring 16 miles on a side. Now imagine every 100 years, a man comes along and gently brushes a silk handkerchief against that mountain of rock. A kalpa is how long it would take for the mountain to be completely worn away by that bit of silk. So when Buddhists talk about long cycles of death and rebirth, they’re talking about really really long cycles.
Okay fine, so reincarnation isn’t a thing, it’s rebirth. How do you explain the Dalai Lama, isn’t he supposed to be a reincarnation?
Well, we’re getting to the limitations of my knowledge here, but technically the Dalai Lama is not a reincarnation but is an emanation, specifically the 14th emanation of Avalokitesvara (Chenrezig in Tibetan, Kannon in Japanese Buddhism), the boddhisattva of compassion. There’s a lot to explain here, much of which I don’t fully understand, so I won’t attempt to do all that. I’ll do a bit of explanation, but bear in mind some of the details may be oversimplified or a bit ‘off’.
The gist of it is that Avalokitesvara is an enlightened being that can ’emanate’ into different physical existences. So each Dalai Lama is essentially a physical manifestation of an enlightened Buddha, who put a bit of themselves into the Dalai Lama to hang about on the Earth and teach us Buddhist things. After a Dalai Lama dies, the next one appears somewhere else, again as a manifestation of the same enlightened being.
This is why each new Dalai Lama is tested to see if they recall certain objects, places and people from their last incarnation — the idea as I understand it from the Dalai Lama’s own statements is that as an emanation of a higher-level being, that higher-level mindstream (another complicated Tibetan Buddhist concept) retains knowledge of experiences from their last go-round. So the Dalai Lama’s existence is still compatible with Buddhist concepts of rebirth and not-self — he is not literally the same soul reincarnating around the place, but a manifestation of a larger being that creates different individuals in each emanation. That larger being retains knowledge of the karmic processes of cause and effect that link each emanation, allowing the Dalai Lamas to remember things from previous incarnations.
Does that really make sense? For me it’s pretty hard to swallow, perhaps because I’m viewing it from outside its original Tibetan context, where incarnate Lamas (tulku) are a major thing and have been for centuries. Personally, viewed either way it doesn’t affect my opinion of the Dalai Lama himself, who I’ve had the great fortune to see speak in person at length for several days back in 2004. He’s quite clearly an exceptional human being, and when he speaks about compassion I very much trust what he has to say, whether he’s an emanation of Avalokitesvara or not; his behaviour, knowledge and practice speak for themselves, independent of any other considerations.
OK fine, so I get that there’s no God, no soul, no self, and suffering is everywhere and we’re constantly reborn into that suffering forever, but honestly that sounds awful. If all that’s true, then what’s the point of anything? If we’re all doomed to just suffer and die over and over again, why bother with any actions at all?
This is a very good question, and a really common one. It’s very easy to misconstrue Buddhist thought as being fundamentally nihilist. The self is not real, there is no God, death is for-real death for the most part, and suffering is all we get.
But the Buddha very explicitly, and repeatedly, denies this interpretation. He frames this debate as the idea that reality is absolute and real against nihilism, in which nothing exists. Buddha’s way is called the Middle Way because it embraces neither sensual indulgence nor strict asceticism, and likewise here it straddles two extremes. While everything is always changing and dependent on external causes and conditions to exist at all, that does not mean nothing exists; instead, it means that things — including ourselves — do not have an inherent, independent existence.
Imagine, for example, the chair you’re sitting on right now. That chair was not always a chair, but was once bits of wood, which were once part of a tree, which grew out of some seeds, and so on. The Buddhist might say that the chair is thus not an absolute, independently existent thing, but is instead the result of various causes and conditions that lead to its current existence as a chair. What we call a chair is a product of conceptual thought, not absolute reality, because actually chairs are all differing composites of various other things and the events that caused them to exist.
Crucially, however, that does not mean the chair or the bits of wood or whatever don’t exist at all; it just means that we should avoid clinging to the chair as an independently-existing thing and instead accept it as a fundamentally impermanent agglomeration that will eventually decay and cease to exist in its present form. So, things still exist in Buddhist thought, but are empty — not of existence as a whole, but of independent, absolute existence. In relative terms — everyday terms — that chair still exists, as do we, and the causes and consequences of our actions every day.
To take it even further, because we ourselves are not-selves and are composed of the five skandhas roaming about the place, we are also interdependent on everything around us. So in that sense, not-self and emptiness concepts mean we are less separate from the world than we are in traditions that hold we have a non-physical, eternal soul. My existence is dependent upon, and intermingled with, the causes and conditions that also make up everything else, so in that context it’s extremely important I be mindful of my actions as I am also not absolutely existent independently, but am part and parcel of the swirling mess that is samsara.
OK right — I kind of get it. Or maybe not. But if I take it as read that stuff still exists, and things I do actually matter, then what do I do to avoid suffering? If suffering is inevitable, as it sounds like it is, then what can I possibly do to not be miserable?
Now we reach the core of Buddhist actions, rather than just philosophising. In his very first discourse after reaching enlightenment, Buddha laid down the core of Buddhist practice: the Four Noble Truths, and the Noble Eightfold Path. The Four Noble Truths are (roughly) as follows:
- The Truth of Suffering — there is suffering (dukkha), and it is everywhere.
- The Truth of the Origin of Suffering — suffering comes from attachment, or grasping/clinging to sense-pleasures, desire for existence, or desire for non-existence.
- The Truth of the Cessation of Suffering — suffering can cease when we give up these attachments.
- The Truth of the Way Leading to the Cessation of Suffering — the way to end suffering is to follow the Noble Eightfold Path.
So all is not lost — yes, suffering is everywhere, and now we know that fundamentally suffering arises due to our desire to cling to aspects of existence even when existence is ultimately impermanent and constantly changing. But we can end our suffering through the Noble Eightfold Path, which the Buddha conveniently lays down shortly after this:
- Right View — basically, accepting the Four Noble Truths, and believing that there’s a way out of all this.
- Right Resolve — renouncing material attachments and devoting oneself to a more contemplative life.
- Right Speech — don’t lie, don’t speak ill of other people, and don’t say things that are not of benefit to others.
- Right Action — don’t kill people, no stealing, no sexual misconduct.
- Right Livelihood — make your living without harming other sentient beings or doing other bad things.
- Right Effort — exert your will to avoid unwholesome states of mind that spawn ill will, desires for sense-pleasures, etc.
- Right Mindfulness — cultivate awareness of existence as being impermanent, full of suffering, and devoid of self (anicca, dukkha, anatta).
- Right Concentration — develop a ‘one-pointedness of mind’, or the centring of consciousness on a single object, without loss of focus.
So the way to end suffering is to lead an ethical life, refraining from absorbing ourselves in materialistic sense-pleasures and from causing harm to sentient beings, while also cultivating a concentrated, mindful consciousness. In so doing we improve our kamma, reduce our attachment to the impermanent world around us, and develop experiential insight into the nature of mind and reality. Eventually, if we do well enough, we can break the endless cycle of samsara and enter nirvana (nibbana), and we no longer suffer and instead experience unimaginable bliss.
I feel it’s important to note again here that in the context of the Buddha’s original sutras — called the Pali Canon and the core texts of Theravada Buddhism — the Buddha can’t help you with all this, as he’s not an interfering Christ figure or God. Praying to him won’t do anything. Ultimately the responsibility for your enlightenment — or lack thereof — rests with yourself and your own practices. There are no supernatural authorities to reward or punish you; instead you simply reap the results of your good or bad actions through kamma.
This is not necessarily the case in Mahayana or Vajrayana Buddhism, where Buddhas and Boddhisattvas are seen as enlightened beings that do in fact try to help the rest of us mooks achieve enlightenment. But even in the most ritual-laden Tibetan practices, still these ‘deities’ are seen as ultimately symbolic of qualities we wish to cultivate in ourselves, rather than as real gods/goddesses or beings that can intercede directly in our affairs.
Wow, finally — that Right Mindfulness/Right Concentration stuff sounds like meditation to me, at last! You started all this off with that and haven’t given me any details at all yet. So get to it.
Sorry about that. I like talking about Buddhist philosophy so I got a bit caught up.
Right, so from the start here I should say I’m again focusing on the Pali Canon and the original sutras from the Buddha. So essentially I’m talking about meditation as practiced in Theravada Buddhism, which are practices also core to every Buddhist tradition. There’s tons of other types of meditation in Mahayana and Vajrayana (Tibetan) Buddhism, but they differ widely and would make this post even more ridiculously long than it already is.
Right Mindfulness in the context of the Noble Eightfold Path can be cultivated via what we now call insight meditation (vipassana). Insight meditation is about developing awareness in ourselves of the three marks of existence: impermanence, suffering, and non-self. The way this is done is deceptively simple, and it all starts with watching the breath.
This means that we sit in a comfortable, stable posture, and simply observe our breathing as it rises and falls. Other thoughts will rise constantly, but rather than attend to them or explore them, we simply note their arrival and return to watching our breathing. Physical pains may develop as we sit as well, and we do much the same: note the sensation, observe it as it rises and falls, don’t become involved, and allow it to pass. As we do this over weeks, months and years, eventually we find it easier to redirect our attention away from the various thoughts and sensations that come and go, and we begin to understand that all mental phenomena — and indeed all phenomena — are like this. Things come, and they go, and if we gently allow that to happen and return to focusing on the breath, we likewise train our minds to stop attending so much to impermanent, momentary thoughts and sensations. In this way we develop mindfulness — a clear awareness of impermanence (anicca), direct experience of the way our mind clings and thus suffers (dukkha), and knowledge of not-self as we see our mind as it really is, composed of a mess of thoughts and sensations with no permanency or independent existence (anatta).
Now, having success with vipassana also requires that we develop concentration, or the ability to focus on a single object within our minds. This is the other main type of Buddhist meditation, called samatha (sometimes translated as ‘calm abiding’). In samatha, conveniently, we also can use the breath as an object of focus, but instead of trying to develop insight into the arising and passing away of phenomena and observing this process, we focus on developing single-pointed concentration on the breath. If other thoughts arise, we note them, immediately drop them, and return to the breath. Over time, we can maintain this focus longer and longer, and enter states of deepening concentration known as the four jhanas. I won’t go into these much but will just quote the Buddha here:
[i] Here, the monk, detached from sense-desires, detached from unwholesome states, enters and remains in the first jhana, in which there is applied and sustained thinking, together with joy and pleasure born of detachment;
[ii] And through the subsiding of applied and sustained thinking, with the gaining of inner stillness and oneness of mind, he enters and remains in the second jhana, which is without applied and sustained thinking, and in which there are joy and pleasure born of concentration;
[iii] And through the fading of joy, he remains equanimous, mindful and aware, and he experiences in his body the pleasure of which the Noble Ones say: “equanimous, mindful and dwelling in pleasure”, and thus he enters and remains in the third jhana;
[iv] And through the giving up of pleasure and pain, and through the previous disappearance of happiness and sadness, he enters and remains in the fourth jhana, which is without pleasure and pain, and in which there is pure equanimity and mindfulness.
Buddhism being Buddhism, of course, this is far from the end of the story. There are four more jhanas beyond those, and the whole system is described differently in some Mahayana traditions and in Tibetan literature, so there’s tons more to discover on both main varieties of meditation.
Now these two meditation methods may seem rather closely related, or even hard to distinguish, and you’d be quite right — in fact in the early Buddhist canon the two seem to be intimately connected. There’s a lot to talk about on this topic, which I won’t bore you with but instead will direct you to this free book on the close relationship between samatha and vipassana: A Swift Pair of Messengers. Note however that this book assumes significant familiarity with meditational practices and Buddhist terminology, so it’s not recommended for beginners.
If you want to start practicing vipassana, again I’d direct you to Mindfulness in Plain English which is entirely about this kind of mindfulness meditation and is extremely clear and good. Helpfully, the same author wrote a follow-up about samatha and the jhanas called Beyond Mindfulness in Plain English, which is equally excellent.
Right, so there are two main kinds of meditation, closely related but with different ultimate goals. But aren’t they both, ultimately, about withdrawing from the world? In meditation are we not just hiding from reality?
No, completely the opposite. Mindfulness and meditation are about creating awareness of the world, how it functions and how our minds perceive it and relate to it. In deep states of meditation, one understands how our normal states of mind are constantly polluted with unwanted thoughts, desires, and constant noise. Buddhists call this the ‘monkey mind’ — the tendency of our minds to leap heedlessly from thought to thought, like monkeys cavorting in the jungle canopy. We never settle, never allow ourselves to perceive anything in and of itself, but instead coat everything with conceptual thought and wallow in endless diversions.
When you start meditating, it won’t be long before you see this ‘monkey mind’ in action and realise that you are completely insane in a way you’ve never noticed before. Focusing on the breath sounds simple, and turns out to be almost impossible. Our brains leap from tree to tree, never allowing us a moment’s peace. You might snap back to the breath and realise you’ve been stuck in a sexual fantasy for the last five minutes without even remembering how you got there. Or you may try to count your breaths and never get past three as the distractions come so thick and so fast. You may even discover — this is my problem — that you can have two or three independent, completely fleshed-out trains of thought going simultaneously, and it all seems like an unstoppable cacophony.
But it’s important to be gentle with yourself, and simply allow these things to pass away, and say to yourself ‘OK I was distracted, that’s fine — now back to the breath’. The simple act of redirecting your attention back to the meditation object is mindfulness! You are being aware of your mind’s constant straying, and consciously moving back to moment-to-moment experience. Keep doing that, keep redirecting yourself, and eventually that redirection will become easier and easier to achieve. Each time you do it, you’re retraining your mind and developing a new habit: instead of getting lost in conceptual thought, retreating from the world and the realities of mind and life, you will redirect yourself back to experience. Eventually, meditation will allow you to carry over this training into your everyday life, and your awareness of every moment of existence is enhanced.
So, ultimately meditation is not about retreating from reality. Meditation is about being present in reality in a way we normally never are. We train ourselves to experience moment-to-moment existence as it really is, observe the comings and goings of our thoughts and the world around us, and become more aware of our reality than before.
OK that sounds a bit more positive. But what about compassion and loving-kindness and all the stuff the Dalai Lama talks about? This all seems really inwardly-focused.
Well, I wouldn’t necessarily agree with that — cultivating insight in one’s own mind naturally helps us to perceive the impermanence and suffering present in the world for everyone else, too. As we become aware of our own crazy ‘monkey minds’ we understand how everyone suffers the same thing, and over time that helps us build compassion.
But yes, there are meditation methods specifically oriented around metta, or loving-kindness. This is a Buddhist vision of compassion in which we experience pure, unconditional kindness toward all sentient beings; it’s often described as similar to the love a mother feels for her child. In developing metta within ourselves, we attempt to give that same love to any and all sentient beings on Earth, whether they are friends, enemies, business competitors, or whatever. Tibetan Buddhists like to say that, in all the hugely long kalpas of the universe’s history, all beings have at some point been our mother, so we should treat them with the same unconditional love and respect we do for our current mothers.
I’m truly becoming a broken record at this point, but our good friend Bhante Gunaratana wrote another helpful book on metta meditation, which again I highly recommend: Loving-Kindness in Plain English: The Practice of Metta. Again this is well worth picking up if you want a readable, approachable introduction to metta.
In essence, this kind of practice revolves around entering a calm, meditative state, and then beginning to imagine you are offering pure love and compassion to others, but always starting with yourself. This can take different forms depending on the practitioner; you may mentally recite a series of well-wishing phrases to yourself, then to a close friend, then your whole family, then your enemies, then to the entire world, for example. Or it may involve visualisations, like fondly remembering a moment of pure compassion and then imagining that radiating outward from your body to encompass the entire planet. However you do it, the idea is to bring that genuine feeling of compassion into your mind, then imagine giving that out to the world. Over time, this practice trains your mind to offer compassion as your default response to other people.
One kind of metta meditation I particularly like is tonglen, which is a Tibetan practice. Tonglen, like many Tibetan practices, centres on visualisations which is a method that I find easier to focus on. Again there are many variations, but a common method of tonglen is to imagine your own suffering as piping hot black smoke emanating your body and mind. As you breathe in a deep breath, that black smoke enters your body and is transformed into cool, clear vapour. Do this a few times, then imagine a wider group of people, like friends or family, and again take all their suffering into your lungs, and breathe out only cool, clear vapour. Then you can expand further and encompass the suffering of all sentient beings. In this way, tonglen is meant to help us face suffering in ourselves and others, and be willing to take it into ourselves and offer something positive in return. Tibetans particularly endorse this practice for helping us deal with ill health, or even terminal illness in ourselves or others. In a way it helps us ‘toughen up’ and develop the mental strength to absorb bad things selflessly and compassionately. If our dearest friend is dying, we might do tonglen while imagining their terrible situation, in order to build our strength so we can face it with them.
Metta is a very positive meditation experience for most people, and in my experience can help us be more compassionate toward ourselves as well as others. Some might find it easier to get started with than vipassana or samatha, as well, since it has a more emotional, everyday focus.
OK great, thanks for that. That’s quite enough for now. Why did you write so much of this, anyway?
I felt maybe someone might find it interesting, I guess, but mainly it’s for me. Buddhism is complex and studying it alone is difficult, so I felt the urge to get these core ideas down somewhere for my future reference. As time passes and I get some more structured Buddhist experience and tuition, I’ll come back to this and adjust anything that doesn’t convey things well or introduces oversimplifications or mistakes. Eventually I’ll probably write further posts in the future exploring some more detailed aspects of Buddhist thought.
In any case, I hope someone found this interesting, and perhaps even might be inspired to try some mindfulness/meditation practice. As I said, even divorced from the Buddhist context these practices are often very helpful for people. And if you try them and do find Buddhist philosophy intriguing, I hope this gives you a good idea of the basics.
So let’s say I read this and I do find it interesting, where do I go from here?
As I mentioned above I’ve focused on core ideas from the Pali Canon, the Buddha’s original teachings and the core texts of the Theravada Buddhist tradition. This text alone is rather huge — you can find authoritative, complete translations by Bhikku Bodhi in hardcover in five exceedingly large volumes (one of them exceeds 2000 pages!). There’s a ton to study there for a start. If you want a great introduction to the Pali sutras with insightful commentary and a reasonable page count, pick up In the Buddha’s Words, also by Bhikku Bodhi. If you decide to get deep into sutra study, you can follow Bhikku Bodhi’s extremely thorough lectures on all the Middle-Length Discourses here.
Update 29/12/17: For a bit more challenging reading on Theravada, check out this thorough translation of the Visuddimagga, The Path of Purification, in PDF format (853 pages!). This is an extremely in-depth meditation manual and explanation of the Abhidhamma, often referred to as the core of ‘Buddhist Psychology’. Highly recommended for philosophers, but it helps to have read the Pali Canon first. If you’re feeling brave, throw in the Vimuttimagga, another manual on the Abhidhamma, available as a 433-page PDF and in numerous other formats. Finally, if you’re feeling experienced enough in vipassana to tackle an 800+ page manual on the subject that digs deeply into the Pali Canon and related commentaries, you can try A Manual on Insight Meditation.
Beyond Theravada, there’s the Mahayana tradition, the ‘Greater Vehicle’, which embraces later teachings that focus much more on the ideal of the boddhisattva, or someone who reaches enlightenment but delays entering nirvana to help other sentient beings end their suffering. Famous sutras to read in this tradition include the Heart Sutra, the Diamond Sutra and the Lotus Sutra. The Lotus Sutra in particular presents a pretty major reconceptualisation of the Buddha(s), and is rather huge to boot, so should keep you busy for awhile, particularly if you dig into the nearly endless commentaries. If you want to be a completist you can read English versions of the eighty-five volumes (!) of the Taisho Tripitaka. For more approachable summaries of what Mahayana is about, Thich Nhat Hanh offers a well-written but still dense summary of his view on the tradition in his book The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching. The Dalai Lama’s books also cover some key concepts of the Mahayana tradition, particularly loving-kindness/metta.
Zen Buddhism is a Mahayana tradition, and probably one of Japan’s most famous exports. It’s also the most popular form of Buddhism in the West. Zen is known for its intense focus on zazen (sitting meditation), some rather crazy Zen masters, and mind-twisting koans that challenge the eager student’s perceptions of dharma. If you want to read a classic of Zen thought, check out Dogen’s Shobogenzo, which is huge and dense but considered a masterpiece and the central text for Soto Zen. For a more accessible intro to Zen, The Three Pillars of Zen is probably the best and most thorough.
Update 29/12/17: Shasta Abbey Buddhist Monastery offers free PDFs of a number of books on Soto Zen practice here. The page is helpfully laid out and suggests which books are best for beginners and for advanced practitioners. The beginner books I’ve had a look at thus far (Zen is Eternal Life, Roar of the Tigress I, Serene Reflection Meditation) all seem to offer extensive introductions to both Soto Zen beliefs and practices, so do take advantage of these if you want a free intro to Zen thought.
After Mahayana comes Vajrayana, Tibet’s unique mixture of Mahayana Buddhism and yoga tantra. Tantra came to Tibet back in the 8th century or so and melded with Mahayana practices and native Tibetan Bon shamanistic practices to produce a ritual-heavy esoteric tradition, characterised by heavy use of mantras, tons of ritual objects, and lengthy, complex tantric practices featuring detailed visualisations. Vajrayana can be tough to get a grip on as it’s an esoteric tradition, meaning practitioners aren’t really supposed to talk about the tantric practices with non-practitioners, and you won’t normally be taught any of them unless you’ve received an initiation from a lama. In order to be initiated you may be asked to complete the ngondro preliminary practices, which consist of things like 100,000 prostrations, 100,000 mantra repetitions, and 100,000 of other stuff besides, although from what I understand you can sometimes start with tantra immediately once you start doing ngondro.
However, you can get a great historical summary of Tibetan Buddhism and a detailed survey of practices in the four major Tibetan traditions in Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism by John Powers. Tibetan Buddhism is also gaining lots of Western adherents these days, largely thanks to the global adoration for the Dalai Lama, so various cities around the US and Europe actually have proper Tibetan monasteries now. Like any Buddhist group they’ll be more than happy to have you join in, so if you read Powers’ book and find it interesting, look up your local Tibetan group, ring them up and ask to join a meditation or puja. Some Tibetan sects also offer teachings online, or even tantric initiations/empowerments via webcam.
That basic idea works for any tradition, really — if you like what you read and want to try meditation under proper instruction and with encouragement from a group, find one in your area and give them a ring. Just be careful to mind how you go, as some unscrupulous types do take advantage of new maybe-Buddhists seeking answers and try to suck them into some cultish stuff (looking at you, New Kadampa Tradition and Diamond Way Buddhism — don’t join these folks). Remember that Buddhist Dharma teachings should be offered free or at cost, and Buddhists aren’t really into converting people and should welcome you to just sit and meditate in peace, whether you’re interested in Buddhist practices or not. Retreats might cost more money, generally to cover accommodation and food, and the attendance of the teacher who may be travelling quite some distance.
A few things to remember, if you do go to a group — if you borrow or are given any Buddhist literature while you’re there, don’t leave it on the floor, step over it, or put things on top of it, this is disrespectful. Put it on a table or shelf with nothing resting on top of it. In Tibetan practices, don’t point your feet towards the altar or the lama either — be mindful of this if you need to shift positions while meditating, for example. And of course, try not to disturb anyone who’s meditating, and please turn off your phone!
If you ultimately decide you want to be a Buddhist and do something ‘proper’ to mark that commitment, you can do what’s called ‘taking refuge’. In doing this you pledge yourself to take refuge in the Three Jewels — the Buddha, the dharma (the Buddha’s teachings), and the sangha (the monastic community). Most traditions will have some kind of ceremony for this. This means you decide to trust that you can reach enlightenment as the Buddha did; that you understand the Four Noble Truths and will follow the Noble Eightfold Path; and that you will trust in those already following that path. As usual, if you do this and then don’t practice or fall out of Buddhism, there aren’t any supernatural judgments awaiting you — it’s up to you to make good on that promise, or not.
It’s worth noting that major Buddhist figures like Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama have stressed that it’s not really important to ‘convert’ to Buddhism. You’re a Buddhist once you start following Buddhist practices and teachings, you don’t have to prove that to anyone, since no god or gods are watching or judging you anyway. You can even be a Buddhist while following other religions, though bear in mind some fundamental Buddhist concepts are quite at odds with certain religions (might be hard to still be a Christian if you don’t believe in a creator God or an eternal soul, for example).
Anyway, that’s more than enough for now. If any of you decide to try meditation, good luck, and if any of the Buddhist philosophy stuff appeals to you, I hope you find some of these links and books interesting.