Waking Up in Shanghai

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When the Buddha began to wander around India shortly after his enlightenment, he encountered several men who recognized him as an extraordinary being.

They asked him, "Are you God?"

"No," he said.

"Are you a saint?"

"No."

"Are you a prophet?"

"No," he said again.

Perplexed, they asked, "Well, what are you then?"

The Buddha replied, "I am awake."

-The Pali Canon (29 BCE)

"To be awake is to be alive. I have never met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?"

-Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854)

This is my story to a Buddhist temple in search of meaning.

   

Simplicity

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I'm enjoying my home in Shanghai. But I had never forgotten a thought I had while sitting on the floor of that one-room hut in Thailand. It was early morning while getting ready to do my first meditation session. The sun was ascending slowly athwart the clouds. Suddenly, a bird landed and stood next to me, unperturbed by my presence, waiting for the sun to rise.

The thought was: "I will never live in a better home than this."

It wasn't just the view of the great mountain in the background or the friendly company of a wild bird. It wasn't just knowing that I lived in a temple surrounded by interesting people who cared for one another.

It was the fact that this little house with its wooden plank, small bathroom and rain-water shower met all of my needs.

This begs the question: "Is it really necessary for people to live in a big, fancy house in an up-scale neighborhood?"

My life became easier. No traffic to stress about. No mortgage to worry. No taxes to pay. No jealousy over the neighbors. And best of all, no pollution.

The simple life is a lesson on what living is all about. It gives freedom. The freedom to enjoy nature. The freedom to do the things you love. The freedom to be who you truly are. And more importantly, the freedom to live in the present moment.

Modern people are so caught up with the pace of modern living. They forget who they are and their purpose in life. They dream of an identity and become immersed in the process of becoming. They swim in the vast ocean and challenge others in a race into the unknown. And when they finally realize what life is all about, aging, sickness or death comes to light simultaneously.

If you take a step back, put yourself away for a moment, and observe, you may realize ignorance is bliss. The less you know, the less you'll worry. The less desire you have, the less things you'll want. The less money you have, the less problems you'll encounter. And although we need money to maintain our basic needs, beyond this threshold, it is merely an illusion the mind creates to increase our desire.

Teaching the basic fundamentals of living is especially important to our children. In the past, our parents and grandparents endured the hardships of life, and to overcome the repeated burden, they provided their future generations with more abundant things: expensive homes, fancy cars, luxurious clothing, what have you. Contrary to what we think is good for our children, it is not always good to set a high standard for something so simple.

When a group of children get together, they compare themselves. They get jealous over their peers and get angry amongst themselves. They have more desire. They get attached to things. And it is left for the parents to set the "correct" example when dealing with such problem. Of course, the simplest solution is often the hardest. To let go of all the jealousy, anger, desire, and attachment in life.

Simplicity can also be in the form of food. Eating modest meal is one way we can appreciate simplicity from the things we eat. Food serves only to provide sustenance and energy. During my retreat, I've indulged only on plant-based meals. Surprisingly, they are very tasteful. They give the body more energy. And besides making the body healthier, they are more easy on the animals.

People often lavish on expensive food as a sign of wealth. Indeed, expensive food gives you an instant sense of happiness - which you can afford it from the hard works of your labor, but such action will not give you contentment nor it will give you permanent happiness. And expensive food isn't always good for you.

The Buddha has advised us against the foolishness of clinging selfishly to our property, without attempting to improve the quality of life and happiness of others. He states, "Your property will remain when you die. Your friends and relative will follow you up to your grave. But only your good and bad actions which you have done during your life-time will accompany you beyond the grave."

   

Buddhism

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Despite what many people think of Buddhism, it is not a religion. It is a philosophy. Similar to Stoicism or Taoism, everyone is free to learn and let go as they wish. There is no cult membership.

There are some hasty critics who denounce Buddhism as passive and inactive. This unwarranted criticism is far from the truth.

The Buddha was the first most active missionary in the world. He wandered from place to place for forty-five years preaching his doctrine to the masses and the intelligentsia. Till his last moment, he served humanity both by example and by precept. His distinguished disciples followed suit, penniless, they even travelled to distant lands to propagate the Dhamma (teachings of the Buddha), expecting nothing in return.

"Strive on with diligence" were the last words of the Buddha. No emancipation or purification can be gained without personal striving. As such, petitional or intercessory prayers are denounced in Buddhism, and in their stead is meditation, which leads to self-cultivation, purification, and enlightenment. Both meditation and service form salient characteristics of Buddhism.

"Do no evil," that is, be not a curse to oneself and others, was the Buddha’s first advice. This was followed by his second admonition – "Do good," that is, be a blessing to oneself and others. His final exhortation was – "Purify one’s mind" – which was the most important and the most essential.

Do you still think Buddhism as inactive and passive?

Clarifying the relationship with his followers, the Buddha states: "By oneself is one purified; by oneself is one defiled."

Buddhism indicates the path and it is left for us to follow that path to obtain our purification. Thus, self-exertion plays an important part in Buddhism.

The common folks are attracted by the devotional side of Buddhism and its simpler ethics while the intellectuals are fascinated by the deeper teachings and mental culture.

A casual visitor who enters a Buddhist temple for the first time, might get the wrong impression that Buddhism is confined to rites and ceremonies and is superstitious in nature which countenances worship of images and trees.

What the Buddha expects from his adherents are not these forms of obeisance but the actual observance of his Teachings. "He who practises my teaching best, reveres me most," is the advice of the Buddha.

Buddhism goes counter to most religions in striking the Middle Way and in making its teaching homocentric in contradistinction to theocentric creeds. As such Buddhism is introvert and is concerned with individual emancipation. The Dhamma has to be realized by "oneself."

As a rule, the expected ultimate goal of the majority of mankind is either nihilism or eternalism. Materialists believe in complete annihilation after death. According to some religions the goal is to be achieved in an after-life, in eternal union either with an Almighty Being or an inexplicable force which, in other words, is one form of eternalism.

Buddhism advocates the middle path. Its goal is neither nihilism, for there is nothing permanent to annihilate nor eternalism, for there is no permanent soul to eternalize. The Buddhist goal can be achieved in this life itself.

Till the ultimate goal is achieved, a Buddhist is expected to lead a noble and useful life. Buddhism possesses an excellent code of morals suitable to both advanced and unadvanced types of individuals. They are:

(a) The five Precepts – not to kill, not to steal, not to commit adultery, not to lie, and not to take intoxicating liquor.

(b) The four Sublime States (Brahma-Vihāra): Loving- kindness, compassion, appreciative joy and equanimity.

(c)The ten Transcendental virtues (Pāramitā):— generosity, morality, renunciation, wisdom, energy, patience, truthfulness, resolution, loving-kindness, and equanimity.

(d) The Noble Eightfold Path: Right understanding, right thoughts, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.

Buddhism offers the goal of Nibbāna (Nirvana) to those who need it, and is not forced on any. "Come and see," advises the Buddha.

As Zen Master Dogen said: "To study Buddhism is to study yourself, to study yourself is to forget yourself and to forget yourself is to perceive yourself as all things." Man is not meant for Buddhism. But Buddhism is meant for man.

   

Meditation

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Although my fascination for Buddhist philosophy started before my period of Vipassana meditation practice, it was the moment when I witnessed the truth about the mind during meditation that made it clear I'm in love with the teachings of the Buddha.

The purpose of Vipassana meditation is to extrapolate how the mind works. When practiced properly, it provides one with insight into the nature of life.

The untrained human mind likes to roam at random. It is undisciplined, distorted and depraved. Like a battlefield, every little incident disturbs the balance of the mind. The mind becomes exceedingly happy when a son is born. At the next moment, it becomes unhappy when the boy falls sick, meets with an accident or is struck with an incurable disease. The mind fluctuates between happiness and sorrow because it is not trained to see the true nature of life.

For that reason, the ordinary man will always experience suffering, fear, uncertainty and very little emotional satisfaction in this world of constant flux.

But when a person has trained his mind through the process of meditation and sees the nature of things as they really are, the mind is no longer attached to nor tied down by the world. As a result, he frees himself from suffering and the imperfections of the world.

Meditation is self-learning. The Buddha's "Do it yourself" method makes us realize the true nature of life, of ourselves, and of our problems. This is the beginning of wisdom. When we follow the practice of meditation, gradually we will recognize the problems in this world are caused by our own craving and ignorance. At the same time, meditation will reduce our mental defilements and eradicating the roots of our problems, thereby enabling us to experience spiritual growth and emerge completely liberated from worldy conditioning and suffering.

Self-cultivation through meditation also enables us to analyze and purify our mental state. Doing so will sprout our latent seeds of virtues to reveal our true divine and human nature. However, it is not an easy task. In the words of Master Mettiko: "The practice of meditation is a long process. It requires perseverance, determination, and effort."

Another thing about cultivating our mental state is achieving permanent happiness. Since happiness is just a mental state that doesn't depend upon the physical appetites and passions, external sources such as wealth, fame, social position, and popularity are but temporary sources of happiness. The real source is the mind. The trained and cultured mind enables everyone to cultivate inner peace and tranquility, detached from wordly things.

By renouncing that which is perishable on earth, one can get the imperishable gift of happiness.

   

Change

Making the world a better place is not an easy task. Through the ages, mankind have strived to do so through various forms of religions, myths, and beliefs. Albert Einstein said, "The world is a dangerous place to live in, not because of people who do evil but because of people who sit and let it happen." We can pray for peace, but there can be no peace in the world until the conflicts within man himself are resolved. To accomplish this, there is an urgent need to train the mind. One may ask, "How can we do it?" While this is a completely logical question, more important is the question, "Do we want to do it?" If the answer is a clear "Yes," accompanied by commitment, one can certainly develop the skills to train one's mind.

In the words of the Buddha, "The basic law of the mind is simple: As you see, so you feel. As you feel, so you think. As you think, so you will. And as you will, so you act."