Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Abandon the unskilful, Cultivate the Skilful

There are many challenges to the Buddhist path. However, when we start to follow the path, sometimes we discover that some of these challenges are actually just illusions created by our own minds. One big challenge is the challenge of continuous, ethical behaviour. To behave ethically all the time is the human challenge. Or to put it another way, to get through life without hurting anything or anyone physically, emotionally or in any other way seems impossible. Often, to avoid hurting one person, we have to hurt another. To the person setting out on the path, this seems an insurmountable wall to climb over.
Here’s a controversial thought. I sometimes wonder if other religions and spiritualities offer an easier path. The reason for this is that they seem to offer clear rule books for how to behave in certain situations. In other words, if you behave in this particular way you will make progress. Almost like an instruction manual if you like. This can of course work both ways. Some of these rules are almost impossible to achieve in some religions and they leave the follower constantly dealing with the guilt of not quite meeting them.
A while back, Denise (my partner) and I took Argentine Tango Lessons. We had some dancing experience so we arrived with a fair degree of confidence. This confidence soon diminished when the teacher, a very talented Tango teacher, said that he wouldn’t teach us any specific steps. We just had to follow the main principles of Tango and ‘feel the music’. I remember vividly the feeling we both experienced at that time. Adrift, directionless and a little frustrated. However, we stuck at it and we did begin to feel a little of the beauty of this amazing dance.
In many ways, the Buddhist path feels similar. You have guiding principles but there don’t appear to be any clear rules. However, now I am a little down the path I can see and feel the reason for this. The Argentine Tango has its beauty because of its lack of rules. Follow the principles instead and it has a lovely flexibility which can be adapted to many different types of music. As soon as you wrap rules around something you establish boundaries and limits within which those rules are set. If a situation takes you outside of those rules, you are left standing with nowhere to go. Try dancing a waltz to Bob Marley for example?
So, if the rules of our religion don’t quite apply to the particular situation we are in then we are left standing and some of us may walk away. For a while I think I followed Buddhist principles looking for the rules that I should apply. I was searching for the steps to the dance, if you like. Then I read a very simple passage from the Pali Cannon, the Buddhist scriptures. “Abandon the unskilful, cultivate the skilful”. There it was! It certainly reads like a rule as it has the feeling of a commandment about it. However, the Buddhist path is guided by a set of principles rather than rules. Like the Argentine Tango, it can be danced to many different types of music. This may be way we see many Anglican Vicars in the UK also following Buddhist practise for example.
“Abandon the Unskilful” the guidance says. This is a lovely word, Abandon. There is something in it that implies that that which is unskilful shouldn’t be hated. That ‘hating’ in itself would be unskilful. We should just walk away from it. Let it go. Also, we don’t have to wait for a particular time, event or ceremony. We can just start now. There is no ‘right time’ to start letting go of unskilful behaviours.
The order is also interesting here, advising us to abandon the unskilful before we start to cultivate the skilful. The implication here is that it makes the cultivation a little easier, perhaps a little more worthwhile. I don’t believe we have to let go of all our unskilful behaviours before we head out on the path of cultivation. But it helps to start down that road.
There is something else present in the word “abandon”. It was chosen very carefully I believe. When we abandon things, they are usually things we have held dear or had some form of attachment to. When the Buddha gave this sermon I believe he was suggesting a similar feeling towards unskilful behaviour. Often we have some form of attachment to our unskilful behaviours. Just think of anger and how some people seem to thrive on it. Some of these behaviours it will require a certain amount of bravery and will-power to let them go as we may feel that they are very much a part of us.
So the second part of this lovely sentence is “cultivating the skilful”.
It’s right that we begin by abandoning the unskilful first. After all, it’s no good spending hours on the meditation cushion if we are going to head off and tell lies at work afterwards.
The word ‘cultivate’, just like the first word ‘abandon’ has been chosen with care. To cultivate is to grow or to develop. However, it carries for me a gentle patience with it. Just like growing a plant or a crop, it implies something that can’t be rushed. Some effort has to be applied but it can’t be forced. We must water a plant, but it will grow at its own pace. Throwing more water on it won’t make it grow quicker. It also implies that you can start with the smallest seed. Hopefully and with effort the skilful behaviour will flourish.
I think it is also important to feel this word cultivate and see what it says to you personally before applying it to skilful thinking and behaviour. For me it feels as though, if I work at it, I can slowly change from my root, my heart, from the ground up. In other words, fully and completely, not in some superficial sense.
Then of course we put the two sides of the sentence together. The letting go and the growing of something new. In order to do this, I need to be vigilant all of the time. So I spend time on the cushion and train myself in the ways of mindfulness and concentration. In this way, the circle is completed. I invest in mindfulness and concentration on the cushion and let go of the unskilful and cultivate the skilful in my daily life. Hopefully over time, I will make progress.

By Andy Spragg

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Tai Chi World record in aid of Breast Cancer research

Re-Vitalise Tai Chi (Denise and Andy are the owners and also attendees at Letchworth) have organised a world record attempt. Sunday 25th July 11.00am. In aid of Breakthrough Breast Cancer Research we hope to raise £40,000 by working with Tai Chi clubs throughout the UK. We will be onstage at the WOMAD music festival teaching the crowd Tai Chi. (10,000 hopefully!)

If you'd like to see details of the event see here :-

Or, if you'd like to make a donation to support us, follow this link :-

With thanks and Metta,

Andy and Denise


Saturday, June 12, 2010

Wessak Celebrations

Weds 20th May saw Triratna Letchworth celebrate Wessak Day, the festival which marks the Buddha's attainment of supreme Enlightenment.

There was a full evening of activities, including meditation, a talk on the life of the Buddha and puja, (which means ritual devotion).

The evening was also dedicated to formally marking our name change from the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order to the Trirana Buddhist Community. I gave a little bit of history of the movement and explained why the founder of our movement, Sangharakshita, had decided to change the name. One of the most important reasons is that the FWBO has grown beyond its Western origins, and is now to be found in all the inhabited continents on the planet. 'Western' no longer seemed to be a good description of who we are, despite the fact the movement was founded as a restatement of Buddhism that took into account Western values and culture. Essentially, those who practice within the context of the movement hold dear the central values of Buddhism: namely: the Buddha (the ideal of human Enlightenment), the Dharma (the path leading to the state of Enlightenment) and the Sangha (the community of practitioners who follow the Buddha's teaching). The core values are reflected in our new name: the Triratna Buddhist Community. Triratna literally means the Three Jewels, and represent these three central ideals of Buddhism.

The evening was a very positive occasion, and the room was decked-out beautifully, with a lovely shrine and a huge banner depicting the three jewels. It was videoed, and soon some of my talk will (hopefully!) appear of our website, as well as on video sangha and YouTube.
May all beings be well and happy.
With much metta,

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Who am I?

Who am I? What am I?

This is the second article that was based on a discussion and talk on one of our retreats on Holy Isle, Scotland – September 2009

From a Buddhist perspective, we have a surprising answer to the question posed here. I don’t exist!

This is an amazingly difficult concept to grasp as we spend our entire lives protecting this thing we call ‘I’. In this article, I take a look at this particular answer, from the Buddhist perspective, to see if it could actually stack up with reality.

Firstly, it is very clear that there is an entity called ‘Andy Spragg’ There is a thing standing on earth, moving about, communicating and making decisions. But is there actually anything individual and permanent about ‘Andy Spragg’ or am I just the sum total of my component parts, moving and interacting with the world. The idea of permanence is interesting. It is here where we hit the real heart of this question. In order for there to be an ‘I’, there must be something permanent, in some way, about this entity called Andy Spragg. A Soul perhaps?

My personal interpretation of this question comes from the Buddhist perspective, that this entity is made up of the 6 elements. Earth, Air, Fire, Water, Space and consciousness (the mind).
It is with the mind element that the discussion gets interesting. The other 5 elements can quite easily be seen as temporary and transitory. Take water for example. Water actually makes up about 70% of our bodies, so for any element to lay claim to ownership of the entity from a volume perspective, it would be water. However, we know that water is constantly flowing into and out of us. (Try holding on to ‘water’ for a day or two and you soon discover how little ‘ownership’ of the water element you have). Water is the glue that holds our cells together and gives the viscosity that allows our blood to flow. Without it, our cells turn to dust. However, it is completely transitory. It merely contributes to the Andy Spragg’ness at a point in time and continues flowing and changing.
If we look back at all of the 5 main elements and meditate on them we find the same. Some are easier than others to see their true nature but all are transitory and impermanent. We cannot ‘own’ them. They pass on and become a part of other things. Constantly flowing. So, the question to ask is ‘ is the mind the same? We are starting to touch two Buddhist concepts here that are incredibly important. Sunnata, the concept of the void or lack of s single ‘self’ and Anatman, the concept of a lack of a soul. For many spiritual traditions, the concept of the soul is key. So I’ll tackle this one gently. But before I do, let me explain something. The Buddhism I practise isn’t a faith. It is an experiential practise. It is however still a spiritual practise. In my practise, I seek to experience things directly either through my meditation or my daily observation. However, anything that I haven’t experienced may and could still exist. So I cannot just discount things that are outside of my own experience. With this in mind, I do not discount the existence of the soul. I just don’t understand it.

So, with this thinking in place, if we were to have a soul, where would it sit? It doesn’t feel like it would sit in the body, as the body’s transitory nature doesn’t seem to allow for this. Intuitively, to me, it would sit with or in the mind. Perhaps our soul is our mind?
Through meditation, we begin to understand the nature of our minds. A fascinating, chaotic jumble they prove to be. Thoughts tumble through like flotsam and waves on the surface of the sea. I REALLY hope that this isn’t representative of my soul otherwise my life after death will be an exceptionally chaotic place. It seems clear to me that this chaotic jumble that makes up my thoughts can’t represent my soul.

So, from the perspective of my mind, we maybe start to arrive at what makes up this entity called Andy Spragg at a much deeper level. Yes, the 5 elements of earth, air, fire, water and space have there place. But they are like the bricks and mortar that make up a library. The library is nothing if it wasn’t for all those books in side. And the more varied the books, the more successful the library. From my meditations I can see that my mind, as it stands (or sits?) today is the result of everything that has gone before. But I should be a little more specific here. What we find, as Buddhists, is that our minds as they are, are the result of all the decisions and choices and actions that we have made and undertaken before. i.e. everything that we have made some form of choice over, moulds us and makes us. Good or bad, skilful or unskilful, it’s all in there. Through my practise, I really FEEL how every single choice I make and have made, brings me to where I am today. There is nothing now that I can do about those choices I have made. But actually, what this means is that my mind is as transitory as my body. Thoughts come in and pass through my mind. I choose to act or not and so my mind has a fluid nature to it.

I, however, find this deeply comforting. Because of this, I CAN progress. I can alter the unskilful parts of my character and make progress. If I was something static, it would imply that my character was static. I’d always be the way I am, including my unskilful aspects! But it’s not like that. I can progress and I can change. Actually, with every choice I make and therefore every action I take with intention, I change just a little.

The best way to illustrate this is to move back to the body. If I have a fit body but I stop exercising, start to eat a high fat diet, I smoke and I drink heavily then over the years the appearance of my body will definitely change for the worse! The same goes for my mind. If I make choices, within each moment, unskilfully, I will gradually change. The more mindful I become and the more aware of the moment-by-moment operation of my mind, the more aware I become of all the tiny choices I am making. Many thousands a day. When I see someone at a distance, If I am mindful, I become aware of the views I form towards that person, even if they are total strangers. The decisions and choices, tiny though they may appear at the time, are like just another slice of cake or one more cigarette. They mount up and they are habit forming. They make me! This is Karma truly at work. This is what Karma is.

So back to the question. Who am I? Well, there doesn’t seem to be much left. I think here we get down to simple awareness. Interestingly, when we take ‘ourselves’ out of the picture, we have true awareness left. We don’t overlay our mental habits, our emotions, our past history, our Karma, on the situation. We are just purely aware. In the rare occasions when I experience moments such as this. When I can totally let go of myself for just an instance and experience things as they are, I feel truly at peace. This, I think may touch the edge (the very edge that is) of enlightenment. Of course, to be enlightened I believe we have to let go fully, completely and permanently. A tall order.

So here I have a fascinating and confusing conclusion. Here ‘I’ am, working to make personal spiritual progress. And in my own small way I believe I am. But, to hit the end-game, I’ve got to fully let go of this preoccupation I have with a ‘self’ a ‘me’. But then, who would be making the progress!?!

Andy Spragg

Monday, October 26, 2009

Pain and Pleasure

September 2009 – Holy Island Retreat.
Pain and Pleasure

This was the first of a series of talks during the week and covered the Buddhist concept of Dukka.

Our lives, in the west, are relatively easy compared with other regions of the world. Our climate is temperate, we have mineral wealth and plenty of food. I think that a direct result of this general wealth is an abundant supply of what I shall call ‘sensual pleasure’ Sensual, here refers simply to all the possible pleasures of the senses. When you start to drill down through the senses and look at sensual pleasure, it becomes apparent just how ‘abundant’ these pleasures are here in the west. Certainly our wealth makes them available. To gauge the level of sensual pleasure available to us, just apply a little mindfulness to the study of advertising for a while. Every aspect of our senses is entertained by just a five minute TV break. We see adverts for food, clothing , cars, perfumes, audio equipment, sport and recreation. It really is fascinating to see how your five senses plus the desires and craving present in your mind, are tantalised by a 5 minute advert break. So we really do have more than we need, here in the west. Even those of us on more moderate salaries can afford to purchase way way more than we actually need.

I’m not saying this is a bad thing. Actually, I believe it is just fine to enjoy the fruits of our labours, to purchase these things and enjoy them. I do not believe in some austere form of Buddhism where we must shut ourselves away in a cave and live off roots. After all, the Buddhist 8-fold path talks about right-effort.

But there is a single fact of life that points to the fact that despite all of this wealth and all of this ‘sensual satisfaction, something isn’t quite working. Here in the west we have the highest rates of mental illness than anywhere in the world. Now, we have to take figures with a pinch of salt. In the 3rd world, I would think that measuring levels of mental illness in the general population is difficult at best. However, we cannot argue that mental illness is extremely high in our population. A 2004 cross-Europe study found that approximately one in four people reported meeting mental-illness assessment criteria at some point in their life for at least one of the disorders assessed, which included mood disorders (13.9%), anxiety disorders (13.6%) or alcohol disorder (5.2%). Approximately one in ten met criteria within a 12-month period. Women and younger people of either gender showed more cases of disorder. That is exceptional high! 1 in 10 of us suffers with some form of mental illness during a 12 month period. When we have all this stuff!!

To me it almost feels like the cruellest of drugs. The more sensual satisfaction available to us, the more we crave and the more we suffer (dukka). Before I go further I should explain what suffering means in the Buddhist perspective. Actually, Dukka doesn’t translate into the kind of experience we normally associate with suffering. Normally we would think of acute pain, lack of food or water or extreme poverty. Dukka translates as a general feeling of ‘unsatisfactoriness’. So it is more like a grumbling feeling of discontent, going on under the surface all the time. I think this hits the nail on the head. For me, suffering doesn’t come from physical pain. That may sound very surprising. However, once you become aware of dukka in your life, you begin to see the distinction. And you do have to ‘feel’ it. Not just understand it at an academic level. I’ve had a tumour in my hip joint and a kidney stone so far in my life. Both of which were excruciatingly painful. The tumour went on for some years so I have experienced long periods of intense pain. As for the kidney stone, well they do say that this is more intense than labour pain. I don’t know how you’d measure it but it was an ‘all consuming’ experience for me. Both these episodes taught me a great deal about pain. What still surprises me is that I don’t feel that I ‘suffered’. Although there was intense pain, mentally, they didn’t touch me. Yes, the pain made me tired and weary but it feels to me that the pain actually took me further away from the things that cause dukka to arise in my life. Things that cause suffering in the mental sense and change me mentally in some way. You could say that these periods of intense p[ain gave me a sense of perspective on life and helped reveal to me that grumbling ‘dukka’ under the surface. In Buddhism, we understand that dukka is primarily caused by our grasping desire to have our senses constantly satisfied. This is the nature of us. We are constantly looking for ways to satisfy our senses and that need to satisfy is massive. We buy a brand new car and within weeks we are looking other cars. We have a beautiful meal, we eat way too much and we then feel uncomfortable. We reach for indigestion tablets to make our stomachs comfortable again. Then we do the same again! There are many many examples of this kind of behaviour that we all follow to a greater or lesser extent. There are some more subtle forms too. Our desire to be loved, appreciated, praised and the suffering that arises when we don’t get what we want.

Again, this all sounds like we should be able to live without these things. We should be able to do without the dinner party, the fast car or the loving partner. I am NOT suggesting this at all. Interestingly, what I’ve found with dukka and the way to deal with it is to understand that it’s OK to suffer. Clearly, once we’ve discovered what dukka is, we have a desire to be free of it. But that desire seems to be more gentle than the usual mad cravings that we experience in our lives. The acknowledgement of dukka and its nature brings with it a gentle understanding and compassion more akin to an aspiration and a hard goal.

So now we understand the problem. But what is the solution? Well actually, the first step is seeing the problem for what it is. This is the small first step to escaping dukka. Next we begin to understand what fuels dukka. The answer to that is simple. Our thoughts. If we become mindful of the way we react when we see images presented to us, we become aware of the thoughts that arise, the emotions that spin out of them, the actions that appear next and the habits that form in us as a result. Given enough time, these habits harden into character and then we are trapped in a cycle of dukka. By watching our thoughts, we break the cycle, easing the emotions that arise, not undertaking the actions that come out and so avoiding these habit forming behaviours. Over time, we change our character.

So watching and weeding out our thoughts slowly eases our suffering. Because those unconscious desires that lead to it become conscious and visible. We can then make an actual choice about how we react to them. They no longer control us. We control them.

We can’t just shut down our thoughts of course. The thoughts will still be there. (At least for a while, until we change our mental habits) We simply choose not to be driven and guided by them. We make a choice.

The thoughts that are left, once we ignore the ones that are driven by craving and desire (which are of course inward facing) are all our outward facing thoughts. Thoughts which drive empathy, compassion, generosity. These are skilful thoughts and they develop skilful habits if we persist in encouraging them.

Buddha said :-

The thought manifests as the word;
the word manifests as the deed;
the deed develops into habit;
and habit hardens into character

So watch the thought and its ways with care;
and let it spring out of love born out of concern for all beings.

This talk was followed on the island by a silent “mindfulness of breathing” meditation. If practised this meditation develops general mindfulness and concentration which helps to put into practise the challenge set out in this talk.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

It's GREAT to be back.

It was just lovely to be back at the Sangha this evening. To see everyone and settle down to a meditation in our new home.

Denise and I have been missing for a couple of months. Sickness in the family and challenges at work always seem to happen on a Thursday.

But we are back now and (fingers crossed) Denise will hopefully be there next week two.

Thanks to everyone tonight for welcoming me back. I thoroughly enjoyed leading the meditation and look forward to maybe seeing Aryadhara next week.

With Metta.


Thursday, October 01, 2009

Getting to Buckden Towers

Our Autumn retreat looms large and if you're coming but are not sure of how to get there, here's some directions. Actually, it's pretty simple, just skoot up the A1 for 40 minutes and you're there!

View Directions to Buckden Towers in a larger map

Friday, September 04, 2009

Friends Meeting House

Last night was the first sangha in our new location at Howgills, the Friends Meeting House. We marked the occasion by a small dedication ceremony followed by a puja. It was great! If you weren't able to make it, please come along next time as it has a great vibe. Drinking tea from a mug was a pleasant change too.

Howgills and its car park are not very obvious from the road, so I've updated the post below to give a little more information.

Don't forget, Jayarava is our guest next week - he knows his Dharma and he's not afraid to use it!

See you soon!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

October Retreat Update

Dear friends,

Just a reminder that we have our Autumn retreat coming up at our usual venue of Buckden Towers.

The dates will be Fri 16th -Sun 18th October. We will start at 6pm on the Friday and finish at around 3pm on the Sunday.

The theme will be: 'Going for Refuge to the Three Jewels....what does it mean?'.

On the retreat , we will have a chance to explore what it really means to be a Buddhist, and how we can put it into practice in our lives.

There will be one talk on the Saturday morning, as well as opportunities for group discussion, silent reflection, and of course, meditation and puja.

The cost of the weekend is £80 /£60 concessions.

I'm feeling quite excited about this retreat, and feel sure that it will be a vibrant and refreshing weekend for all.

For more information, please contact me, Aryadhara. (either after a class, or via email: aryadhara@googlemail.com).

See you there!

Monday, August 24, 2009

10th September

Jayarava will again be our guest on the 10th September to continue his talk on Evil (or "Things I don't believe and why").

Please come along if you can!