Thursday, February 23, 2012



The Four Noble Truths

A Dhammatalk by Ajahn Chah

Today I have been invited by the abbot to give you a teaching, so I ask you all to sit quietly and compose your minds. Due to the language barrier we must make use of a translator, so if you do not pay proper attention you may not understand.
My stay here has been very pleasant. Both the Master and you, his followers, have been very kind, all friendly and smiling, as befits those who are practicing the true Dhamma. Your property, too, is very inspiring, but so big! I admire your dedication in renovating it to establish a place for practicing the Dhamma.
Having been a teacher for many years now, I've been through my share of difficulties. At present there are altogether about forty branch monasteries  of my monastery, Wat Nong Pah Pong, but even these days I have followers who are hard to teach. Some know but don't bother to practice, some don't know and don't try to find out. I don't know what to do with them. Why do human beings have minds like this? Being ignorant is not so good, but even when I tell them, they still don't listen. I don't know what more I can do. People are so full of doubts in their practice, they're always doubting. They all want to go to Nibbāna, but they don't want to walk the path. It's baffling. When I tell them to meditate they're afraid, or if not afraid then just plain sleepy. Mostly they like to do the things I don't teach. When I met the Venerable Abbot here I asked him what his followers were like. He said they're the same. This is the pain of being a teacher.
The teaching I will present to you today is a way to solve problems in the present moment, in this present life. Some people say that they have so much work to do they have no time to practice the Dhamma. ''What can we do?'' they ask. I ask them, ''Don't you breathe while you're working?'' ''Yes, of course we breathe!'' ''So how come you have time to breathe when you're so busy?'' They don't know what to answer. ''If you simply have sati while working you will have plenty of time to practice.''
Practicing meditation is just like breathing. While working we breathe, while sleeping we breathe, while sitting down we breathe... Why do we have time to breathe? Because we see the importance of the breath, we can always find time to breathe. In the same way, if we see the importance of meditation practice we will find the time to practice.
Have any of you ever suffered?... have you ever been happy?... Right here is the truth, this is where you must practice the Dhamma. Who is it who is happy? The mind is happy. Who suffers? The mind suffers. Wherever these things arise, that's where they cease. Have you experienced happiness?... Have you experienced suffering?... this is our problem. If we know suffering, the cause of suffering, the end of suffering and the way leading to the end of suffering we can solve the problem.
There are two kinds of suffering: ordinary suffering and the extraordinary kind. Ordinary suffering is the suffering which is the inherent nature of conditions: standing is suffering, sitting is suffering, lying down is suffering. This is the suffering that is inherent in all conditioned phenomena. Even the Buddha experienced these things, he experienced comfort and pain, but he recognized them as conditions in nature. He knew how to overcome these ordinary, natural feelings of comfort and pain through understanding their true nature. Because he understood this ''natural suffering'' those feelings didn't upset him.
The important kind of suffering is the second kind, the suffering that creeps in from the outside, the ''extraordinary suffering.'' If we are sick we may have to get an injection from the doctor. When the needle pierces the skin there is some pain which is only natural. When the needle is withdrawn that pain disappears. This is like the ordinary kind of suffering, it's no problem, everybody experiences it. The extraordinary suffering is the suffering that arises from what we call upādāna, grasping onto things. This is like having an injection with a syringe filled with poison. This is no longer an ordinary kind of pain, it is the pain which ends in death. This is similar to the suffering which arises from grasping.
Wrong view, not knowing the impermanent nature of all conditioned things, is another kind of problem. Conditioned things are the realm of samsāra  Not wanting things to change - if we think like this we must suffer. When we think that the body is ourselves or belonging to us, we are afraid when we see it change. Consider the breath: once it comes in it must go out, having gone out it must come in again. This is its nature, this is how we manage to live. Things don't function in that way. This is how conditions are but we don't realize it.
Suppose we lost something. If we thought that object was really ours, we would brood over it. If we couldn't see it as a conditioned thing faring according to the laws of nature we would experience suffering. But if you breathe in, can you live? Conditioned things must naturally change in this way. To see this is to see the Dhamma, to see aniccam, change. We live dependent on this change. When we know how things are then we can let go of them.
The practice of Dhamma is to develop an understanding of the way of things so that suffering doesn't arise. If we think wrongly we are at odds with the world, at odds with the Dhamma and with the truth. Suppose you were sick and had to go into hospital. Most people think, ''Please don't let me die, I want to get better.'' This is wrong thinking, it will lead to suffering. You have to think to yourself, ''If I recover I recover, if I die I die.'' This is right thinking, because you can't ultimately control conditions. If you think like this, whether you die or recover, you can't go wrong, you don't have to worry. Wanting to get better at all costs and afraid of the thought of dying... this is the mind which doesn't understand conditions. You should think, ''If I get better that's fine, if I don't get better that's fine.'' This way we can't go wrong, we don't have to be afraid or cry, because we have tuned ourselves in to the way things are.
The Buddha saw clearly. His teaching is always relevant, never out-dated. It never changes. In the present day it's still the way it is, it hasn't changed. By taking this teaching to heart we can gain the reward of peace and well-being.
In the teachings there is the reflection of ''not-self'': ''this is not my self, this does not belong to me.'' But people don't like to listen to this kind of teaching because they are attached to the idea of self. This is the cause of suffering. You should take note of this.
Today a woman asked about how to deal with anger. I told her that the next time she gets angry, to wind up her alarm clock and put it in front of her. Then to give herself two hours for the anger to go away. If it was really her anger she could probably tell it to go away like this: ''In two hours be gone!'' But it isn't really ours to command. Sometimes in two hours it's still not gone, at other times in one hour it's gone already. Holding onto anger as a personal possession will cause suffering. If it really belonged to us it would have to obey us. If it doesn't obey us that means it's only a deception. Don't fall for it. Whether the mind is happy or sad, don't fall for it. Whether the mind loves or hates, don't fall for it, it's all a deception.
Have any of you ever been angry? When you are angry does it feel good or bad? If it feels bad then why don't you throw that feeling away, why bother to keep it? How can you say that you are wise and intelligent when you hold on to such things? Since the day you were born, how many times has the mind tricked you into anger? Some days the mind can even cause a whole family to quarrel, or cause you to cry all night. And yet we still continue to get angry, we still hold onto things and suffer. If you don't see suffering you will have to keep suffering indefinitely, with no chance for respite. The world of samsāra is like this. If we know the way it is we can solve the problem.
The Buddha's teaching states that there is no better means to overcome suffering than to see that ''this is not my self,'' ''this is not mine.'' This is the greatest method. But we don't usually pay attention to this. When suffering arises we simply cry over it without learning from it. Why is that so? We must take a good hard look at these things, to develop the Buddho, the one who knows.
Take note, some of you may not be aware that this is Dhamma teaching. I'm going to give you some Dhamma that's outside the scriptures. Most people read the scriptures but don't see the Dhamma. Today I am going to give you a teaching that's outside the scriptures. Some people may miss the point or not understand it.
Suppose two people are walking together and see a duck and a chicken. One of them says, ''Why isn't that chicken like the duck, why isn't the duck like the chicken?'' He wants the chicken to be a duck and the duck to be a chicken. It's impossible. If it's impossible, then even if that person were to wish for the duck to be a chicken and the chicken to be a duck for the rest of his life it would not come to pass, because the chicken is a chicken and the duck is a duck. As long as that person thought like that he would suffer. The other person might see that the chicken is a chicken and the duck is a duck, and that's all there is to it. There is no problem. He sees rightly. If you want the duck to be a chicken and the chicken to be a duck you are really going to suffer.
In the same way, the law of aniccam states that all things are impermanent. If you want things to be permanent you're going to suffer. Whenever impermanence shows itself you're going to be disappointed. One who sees that things are naturally impermanent will be at ease, there will be no conflict. The one who wants things to be permanent is going to have conflict, maybe even losing sleep over it. This is to be ignorant of aniccam, impermanence, the teaching of the Buddha.
If you want to know the Dhamma where should you look? You must look within the body and the mind. You won't find it in the shelves of a bookcase. To really see the Dhamma you have to look within your own body and mind. There are only these two things. The mind is not visible to the physical eye, it must be seen with the ''mind's eye.'' Before the Dhamma can be realized you must know where to look. The Dhamma that is in the body must be seen in the body. And with what do we look at the body? We look at the body with the mind. You won't find the Dhamma looking anywhere else, because both happiness and suffering arise right here. Or have you seen happiness arising in the trees? Or from the rivers, or the weather? Happiness and suffering are feelings which arise in our own bodies and minds.
Therefore the Buddha tells us to know the Dhamma right here. The Dhamma is right here, we must look right here. The Master may tell you to look at the Dhamma in the books, but if you think that this is where the Dhamma really is, you'll never see it. Having looked at the books you must reflect on those teachings inwardly. Then you can understand the Dhamma. Where does the real Dhamma exist? It exists right here in this body and mind of ours. This is the essence of contemplation practice.
When we do this, wisdom will arise in our minds. When there is wisdom in our minds, then no matter where we look there is Dhamma, we will see aniccam, dukkham, and anattā at all times. Aniccam means transient. Dukkham - if we cling to the things that are transient we must suffer, because they are not us or ours (anattā). But we don't see this, we always see them as being our self and belonging to us.
This means that you don't see the truth of convention. You should understand conventions. For example, all of us sitting here have names. Are our names born with us or are they assigned to us afterwards? Do you understand? This is convention. Is convention useful? Of course it's useful. For example, suppose there are four men, A, B, C, and D. They all must have their individual names for convenience in communicating and working together. If we wanted to speak to Mr. A we could call Mr. A and he would come, not the others. This is the convenience of convention. But when we look deeply into the matter we will see that really there isn't anybody there. We will see transcendence. There is only earth, water, wind and fire, the four elements. This is all there is to this body of ours.
But we don't see it in this way because of the clinging power of Attavādupādāna. If we were to look clearly we would see that there isn't really much to what we call a person. The solid part is the earth element, the fluid part is the water element, the part which provides heat is called the fire element. When we break things down we see that there is only earth, water, wind and fire. Where is the person to be found? There isn't one.
That's why the Buddha taught that there is no higher practice than to see that ''this is not my self and does not belong to me.'' They are simply conventions. If we understand everything clearly in this way we will be at peace. If we realize in the present moment the truth of impermanence, that things are not our self or belonging to us, then when they disintegrate we are at peace with them, because they don't belong to anybody anyway. They are merely the elements of earth, water, wind and fire.
It's difficult for people to see this, but even so it's not beyond our ability. If we can see this we will find contentment, we will not have so much anger, greed or delusion. There will always be Dhamma in our hearts. There will be no need for jealousy and spite, because everybody is simply earth, water, wind and fire. There's nothing more to them than this. When we accept this truth we will see the truth of the Buddha's teaching.
If we could see the truth of the Buddha's teaching we wouldn't have to use up so many teachers! It wouldn't be necessary to listen to teachings every day. When we understand then we simply do what's required of us. But what makes people so difficult to teach is that they don't accept the teaching and argue with the teachers and the teaching. In front of the teacher they behave a little better, but behind his back they become thieves! People are really difficult to teach. The people in Thailand are like this, that's why they have to have so many teachers.
Be careful, if you're not careful you won't see the Dhamma. You must be circumspect, taking the teaching and considering it well. Is this flower pretty?... Do you see the ugliness within this flower?... For how many days will it be pretty?... What will it be like from now on?... Why does it change so?... In three or four days you have to take it and throw it away, right? It loses all its beauty. People are attached to beauty, attached to goodness. If anything is good they just fall for it completely. The Buddha tells us to look at pretty things as just pretty, we shouldn't become attached to them. If there is a pleasant feeling we shouldn't fall for it. Goodness is not a sure thing, beauty is not a sure thing. Nothing is certain. There is nothing in this world that is a certainty. This is the truth. The things that aren't true are the things that change, such as beauty. The only truth it has is in its constant changing. If we believe that things are beautiful, when their beauty fades our mind loses its beauty too. When things are no longer good our mind loses its goodness too. When they are destroyed or damaged we suffer because we have clung to them as being our own. The Buddha tells us to see that these things are simply constructs of nature. Beauty appears and in not many days it fades. To see this is to have wisdom.
Therefore we should see impermanence. If we think something is pretty we should tell ourselves it isn't, if we think something is ugly we should tell ourselves it isn't. Try to see things in this way, constantly reflect in this way. We will see the truth within untrue things, see the certainty within the things that are uncertain.
Today I have been explaining the way to understand suffering, what causes suffering, the cessation of suffering and the way leading to the cessation of suffering. When you know suffering you should throw it out. Knowing the cause of suffering you should throw it out. Practice to see the cessation of suffering. See aniccam, dukkham and anattā and suffering will cease.
When suffering ceases where do we go? What are we practicing for? We are practicing to relinquish, not in order to gain anything. There was a woman this afternoon who told me that she is suffering. I asked her what she wants to be, and she said she wants to be enlightened. I said, ''As long as you want to be enlightened you will never become enlightened. Don't want anything.''
When we know the truth of suffering we throw out suffering. When we know the cause of suffering then we don't create those causes, but instead practice to bring suffering to its cessation. The practice leading to the cessation of suffering is to see that ''this is not a self,'' ''this is not me or them.'' Seeing in this way enables suffering to cease. It's like reaching our destination and stopping. That's cessation. That's getting close to Nibbāna. To put it another way, going forward is suffering, retreating is suffering and stopping is suffering. Not going forward, not retreating and not stopping... is anything left? Body and mind cease here. This is the cessation of suffering. Hard to understand, isn't it? If we diligently and consistently study this teaching we will transcend things and reach understanding, there will be cessation. This is the ultimate teaching of the Buddha, it's the finishing point. The Buddha's teaching finishes at the point of total relinquishment.
Today I offer this teaching to you all and to the Venerable Master also. If there is anything wrong in it I ask your forgiveness. But don't be in a hurry to judge whether it is right or wrong, just listen to it first. If I were to give you all a fruit and tell you it's delicious, you should take note of my words, but don't believe me offhand, because you haven't tasted it yet. The teaching I give you today is the same. If you want to know whether the ''fruit'' is sweet or sour you have to slice a piece off and taste it. Then you will know its sweetness or sourness. Then you could believe me, because then you'd have seen for yourself. So please don't throw this ''fruit'' away, keep it and taste it, know its taste for yourself.
The Buddha didn't have a teacher, you know. An ascetic once asked him who his teacher was, and the Buddha answered that he didn't have one6. The ascetic just walked off shaking his head. The Buddha was being too honest. He was speaking to one who couldn't know or accept the truth. That's why I tell you not to believe me. The Buddha said that to simply believe others is foolish, because there is no clear knowing within. That's why the Buddha said ''I have no teacher.'' This is the truth. But you should look at this it the right way. If you misunderstand it you won't respect your teacher. Don't go saying ''I have no teacher.'' You must rely on your teacher to tell you what is right and wrong, and then you must practice accordingly.
Today is a fortunate day for all of us. I have had a chance to meet with all of you and the Venerable Master. You wouldn't think that we could meet like this because we live so far apart. I think there must be some special reason that we have been able to meet in this way. The Buddha taught that everything that arises must have a cause. Don't forget this. There must be some cause. Perhaps in a previous existence we were brothers and sisters in the same family. It's possible. Another teacher didn't come, but I did. Why is that? Perhaps we are creating the causes in the present moment itself. This is also possible.
I leave you all with this teaching. May you be diligent and arduous in the practice. There is nothing better than the practice of Dhamma, Dhamma is the supporter of the whole world. People are confused these days because they do not know the Dhamma. If we have the Dhamma with us we will be content. I am happy to have had this opportunity to help you and the venerable teacher in developing the practice of Dhamma. I leave you with my heartfelt good wishes. Tomorrow I will be leaving, I'm not sure where for. This is only natural. When there is coming there must be going, when there is going there must be coming. This is how the world is. We shouldn't be overjoyed or upset by the changes in the world. There is happiness and then there is suffering; there is suffering and then there is happiness; there is gain and then there is loss; there is loss and then there is gain. This is the way things are.
In the Buddha's time there were disciples of the Buddha who didn't like him, because the Buddha exhorted them to be diligent, to be heedful. Those who were lazy were afraid of the Buddha and resented him. When he died, one group of disciples cried and were distressed that they would no longer have the Buddha to guide them. These ones were still not clever. Another group of disciples were pleased and relieved that they would no longer have the Buddha on their backs telling them what to do. A third group of disciples were equanimous. They reflected that what arises passes away as a natural consequence. There were these three groups. Which group do you identify with? Do you want to be one of the pleased ones or what? The group of disciples who cried when the Buddha passed away had not yet realized the Dhamma. The second group were those who resented the Buddha. He was always forbidding them from doing the things they wanted to do. They lived in fear of the Buddha's scorn and reprimands, so when he passed away they were relieved.
These days things aren't much different. It's possible that the teacher here has some followers who are resentful towards him. They might not show it outwardly but it's there in the mind. It's normal for people who still have defilements to feel this way. Even the Buddha had people hating him. I myself have followers who resent me also. I tell them to give up evil actions but they cherish their evil actions. So they hate me. There are plenty like this. May all of you who are intelligent make yourselves firm in the practice of Dhamma. 
The best  way from



Monday, February 20, 2012

Embrace death

Embrace death 

 Life and death are actually one and the same matter. We will die in more or less the same fashion as how we live. If we live in ignorance, our final moment will likely be spent in agony, without any sense of peace and mindfulness. But if we constantly cultivate merits and self-awareness, we should be able to pass away peacefully, being in the state of mindfulness until our last breath.
Life of the awakened one is to be aware of the prevalence of death all the time. There is this ever readiness to confront death. And even when the mind does not yet feel ready, it can be further trained every day as the person performs his or her duty to the best, having accepted that uncertainty is but a fact of life.
There are several methods to cultivate this contemplation on death, or moranassati. Just a thought that we will all die sooner or later so we should maximise the remaining time we have is one example. However, for most people, such recollections may not be enough. They may be keen for a while, but eventually, their lives will fall back into the same patterns of habits, being again indulged in the work or entertainment at hand, while forgetting what is the most important thing to do in their lives.
One simple way to contemplate on death is to imagine what might happen to us if a death really took place _ now. What would we lose? Whom would we miss? There might arise a feeling of pain for those who think they are not yet ready. But such an unpleasant situation might help him or her to be better prepared, to practise for the remaining time we still have, in order to deal with the suffering when the moment of loss actually comes.
Here are some more ideas about how to contemplate on death and dying:
Practice dying at bedtime
At the end of the day, the time to rest the mind and the body, is a good opportunity to reflect on the inevitability of death. Practice the process of dying as if we were facing it at this very moment.
The suitable posture is to lie down and relax every part of the body from the head to the toes and especially the face. Breathe in and out freely. Feel the tip of your nose and the softness of the in- and out-breaths. Put down every thought, be it about the past or the future.
As the mind calms down, think of how we are approaching death. We just don't know when. Tonight might be the last night for us. Tomorrow might never come.
Think of how every breath will dissolve as death arrives. The heart will stop beating. The body will no longer be able to move, and it will turn cold and stiff, not unlike a useless log.
Then think of how every valuable material we have acquired and kept will no longer be ours. They will belong to someone else. We cannot do anything with them. What we used to hold dear will be left unattended.
Moreover, we will no longer have another chance to talk with our children or our beloved. Everything we used to do with them will become the past. We will no longer be able to visit our parents or do anything more for them. There is not even time to say good-bye, or to make amends with those we have had grudges with.
All the work has to be left behind too, even those that have not been finished. We can no longer make any further revision. However important that work is, it will have to be abandoned. The same with all the knowledge and experiences we have accumulated _ they will all disappear with us.
All the fame, power and supporters will leave our hands. No matter how powerful we are, we cannot take any of these things with us. Do not expect that people will continue to praise us after we die. Even our name will be finally forgotten.
As we reflect on this, observe our feelings. Do we worry, regret, or have an attachment to any of these? Are we ready to accept these losses? If not, what makes us still agitated? Such contemplation will help us realise that there are a few things that we should do but have not yet done (or done enough), as well as things that we still feel a strong attachment to. Such awareness will prompt us to do the important but often overlooked matters, as well as practicing the art of letting go.
Contemplation on death on various occasions
In fact, one can contemplate on death any time during the day. When travelling, by car or boat or plane, always be prepared. If there is something untoward happening in the next few seconds, how should we confront it? What would we think of first? Are we ready to give up everything we feel attached to at that point in time?
When leaving the house, think if this could be our last trip and we may not be able to return to see our parents, beloved, or children again. Is there anything left that we may have regretted for not finishing them first? Are there any conflicts that we may wish we should have reconciled? Such awareness will urge us to try to treat our family better and not let certain issues to be resolved in the future _ for such a day may never come.
Reading newspapers, especially reports about accidents or disasters, is another opportune moment to contemplate on the uncertainty of life. Anything could happen without warning; people can die at any place and time. Try to think of how the same thing might happen to us, too. Will we be able to confront it? Are we prepared to die?
Attending a funeral service should also be the time to remind ourselves of the imminence of death. Once the deceased also walked and moved about like us. In the future, we would all have to lie down like him or her, not being able to take anything with us except the effects of our good or bad deeds.
The best dharma teacher is the body in the coffin in front of us. He or she is trying to wake us up from indulgence and heedlessness in life. Whoever believes they still have a few more years to go will have to think again as they attend the funeral of a child or a teenager. Those engrossed in their power should realise that however ``big'' they may have been, everyone will end up being smaller than the coffin that would contain their body.
Similarly, when visiting the sick person, we should remember that our body will one day be in similar condition. Again, the patient, especially the terminally ill, is like our dharma teacher. Whatever their reactions _ anxious, traumatic, desperate _ they are teaching us how to prepare ourselves, so that when our turn comes, we may not suffer as much as they do. The sick person who seems to be in peace and able to maintain his or her composure despite the apparent physical pain, is also showing us examples on how we should likewise prepare ourselves, especially while we are still in good health.
To keep our mind still in time of sickness is the same matter as to keep our mind still when facing death. So think of the period when we fall sick as an exercise to prepare ourselves for death. Sickness is like the first few lessons before we move on to the most difficult level _ if we cannot deal with sickness, how then can we confront death?
Reminders on death
We could apply anything we come across in our daily life to remind us about death. It depends on one's circumstances and creativity.
Some Tibetan meditation masters would pour all the water from their personal glasses and put them with the bottom up next to their beds. They do this because they were not certain if they would be able to wake up and use the glass again on the following day. The ritual thus served like a reminder for the masters that death could come to them at any given time.
Later, a Thai writer has learned about this story and applied it to herself: Every night before she goes to bed, she always makes sure that every dish has been washed thoroughly. So if she happened to die in her sleep, there would be no dirty dishes left as burdens for others, she said.
A 55-year-old man used marbles as his ``death reminders''. Each marble is equivalent to about a week of living. The man has calculated that if he were to reach the average life span, taken to be about 75 years old, he would have about 1,000 weeks left. So he bought 1,000 marbles and put them in a plastic box. Every week he would take out one marble from the box. The diminishing amount of the marbles reminds him that his days are numbered. It reminds him of the approaching death, which enables him to choose to do the most important thing, and not let himself drift away worrying over the inconsequential.
Each person can choose different ``reminders'' _ from the sunrise and sunset, or the flower that comes out in a bud, blooms and finally withers away, or a leaf that springs from a tree branch and finally falls down to the ground. They remind us of the transience of life. Lord Buddha once suggested one should view life not unlike the foamy top of the waves, or as a dew drop, a lightning flash _ they are all transitory, and thus is our own existence.
Other activities to prepare for death
We could try an exercise of ``letting go'' of our beloved people and belongings. Choose seven objects _ they could be a person, a pet animal, or something we consider dear to us _ and ask yourself if we were forced to give up one thing, what would that thing would be. Continue with each of the remaining six objects. We could imagine ourselves being in an unpleasant situation _ like facing a fire, an earthquake or an accident _ that prompts us to lose each of our cherished items. What would we choose to keep? And what to give up?
Such an exercise will teach us how to let go. It will help us review our own sets of attachments, to discover what we consider to be the most important in our lives. Some may find they love or worry about dogs more than their brothers and sisters. Others may be willing to give up everything but not their favourite doll. Still others would choose their computer as the last item to give up. We may uncover something in ourselves that we have not been aware of before _ and then we could try to adapt to the changing circumstances. All this is crucial in the preparation for death since ultimately we will have to lose everything one way or the other. Actually, even when we are still alive, we are bound to lose certain things or people, and often without the ability to make a choice of what we would like to keep and what we would like to lose.
Contemplation on death and dying
Here is an example of a prayer you can recite every night, as a way to remind yourself of the transience of life:
"As you breathe in and breathe out, try to keep your mind in the calm and peaceful state.
Imagine a picture of a beautiful flower. Then visualise how the same flower starts to wilt, losing each petal, one by one. How the once dazzling colours slowly faze away until the whole flower becomes eventually lifeless. 

Imagine a scenery of a beautiful landscape at dawn. How the whole sky is basked in the first soft light of the day. Then think of the same place at noontide when the sun is at its fiercest. Time gradually tickles away until it is now dusk, and finally everything is dissolved into the darkness.
Absorb all these pictures into ourselves. Our existence is like the flower that will one day wither away. And like the sun that has to leave the sky every day, we will all have to leave this Earth sooner or later.
We will all have to leave this Earth. Nobody knows when that time will come. Maybe next year. Maybe next month. Or maybe tomorrow.
Let's imagine that today is the last day we will live on this Earth. There will no longer be tomorrows for us. By the time tomorrow comes, our body will be lying still, no longer able to feel anything, even our own breaths.
Let's imagine that in the next few hours, every person we have met, talked, and laughed with, those who have always been part of our lives, we will no longer be able to see them again. There is no exception whatsoever.
Imagine the picture of our parents, children, brothers and sisters whom we have met everyday. We will have to leave them all in the next few hours. Imagine the face of our beloved. The time to leave him or her is soon to arrive. Imagine how soon we will have to leave all the friends behind. We will no longer be able to see them again.
Think of what has happened this morning. Whom did we see? What did we do? Think of the time we spent during breakfast this morning.
Think of the time we went to see our children off at school. Think of the friends we have met in the meeting room.
Think of all the valuables we have toiled our labour to acquire them. The house, cars, jewellery, money, all the things we used to hold as dear. We will soon have to give up everything we once owned.
Think of all the work we have loved and devoted ourselves through all these years. Whatever it is, we will no longer have the opportunity to do it now. All the work that is still left undone, there will be no time to finish it now.
Soon the world we have known all our lives will disappear. There will be nothing left. Nothing at all. The important thing is that our whole lives will come to an end in the next few hours.
Now come back to explore our feelings at the moment. How do we feel right now? Are we scared? Contemplate on this fear. Feel it. Acknowledge it. What exactly are we fearful of? Where is this fear located actually? Take in this feeling called fear. Observe our own reactions thoroughly.
Are we worried about anything? What do we think is the hardest to leave behind? Our father and mother? Our beloved? Our children? Friends? Wealth? Work?
Keep our heart still. Contemplate if everything we think belong to us - are they ours really? Can we take them with us? Or are they just placed under our care, but only for a while. Now it is time for us to leave them so that others can take care of and to make use of them instead.
For all the work we have done, now it is time to give it up. It is time for others to carry it on. We have left enough legacies on this Earth. They are now part of this Earth, and not ours. They are no longer what we should worry about anymore.
Our parents, children, brothers and sisters, and everyone whom we have loved, we have had the fortune to live with them for a while. We have done what should be done. Now it is time for us to take leave. Do not worry that they will not be able to live without us. We used to leave them on their own before. The only difference is that this time around we will have to leave them longer than before.
We will soon have to leave this body. This body is not ours. We have borrowed it from nature.
We have been given this body for free through our parents. It is now time to return it to nature. It is now time for this body to return to all the four elements in nature - the Earth, the water, the wind and the fire.
It is now time for us to shed away every feeling of guilt, anxiety, remorse. Do not let these feelings burden our heart. It is not too late to ask for forgiveness. Now let's ask for everyone we have once hurt or harmed to forgive us. Let everyone of us be free from animosity toward one another. 
If we still hold grudges or revengeful feelings toward some people, give them up. Do not let the ill feelings eat us from the inside. Forgive them. Forgive everyone who has caused us to suffer. Free our heart from all the hatred and anger. Let everyone of us live in peace.
Finally, abandon everything we used to hold as ours. Give up everything, including ourselves. Actually, there is nothing that can be thought of as ours, even this thing we called "mine". They are not really ours. Give up every attachment to the notion of self. Do not anticipate about what will happen to us, in what form we will be reborn. Just remember that whatever that is will be [another cause of] suffering. There is nothing to grasp, to hold onto. Give up everything, be it the past or the future. Keep your mind in the state of peace, emptiness, the bliss of complete freedom." 
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Thursday, February 9, 2012

Buddhadasa Bhikkhu

       Buddhadasa Bhikkhu (Servant of the Buddha) became a monk in 1926. He established Suan Mokkhabalarama (The Grove of the Power of Liberation, Thailand) in 1932. He worked to explain the essential principles of what he called ‘pristine Buddhism’—the original realisation of the Buddha— before it was buried beneath commentaries, ritualism, and clerical politics. His work was based in research of the Pali texts, especially of the Buddha’s Discourses (Sutta Pitaka), followed by personal practise. He taught whatever he could say truly quenches dukkha (dissatisfaction, suffering). His approach was always straightforward and practical. Most of the monks involved in nature conservation and community development were inspired by him. He provided the link between the scriptural trad­ition and engaged Buddhist practice today.

       After the founding of , he studied all schools of Buddhism, as well as the other major religious traditions. This interest was practical rather than scholarly. He sought to unite all genuinely religious people in order to work together to help, as he put it, ‘drag humanity out from under the power of material­ism.’ This broadmindedness won him friends and students from around the world, including Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs. He died in 1993.
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Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Countering Stress and Depression

Countering Stress and Depression

By His Holiness the Dalai Lama

At a fundamental level, as human beings, we are all the same; each one of us aspires to happiness and each one of us does not wish to suffer. This is why, whenever I have the opportunity, I try to draw people's attention to what as members of the human family we have in common and the deeply interconnected nature of our existence and welfare.

Today, there is increasing recognition, as well as a growing body of scientific evidence, that confirms the close connection between our own states of mind and our happiness. On the one hand, many of us live in societies that are very developed materially, yet among us are many people who are not very happy. Just underneath the beautiful surface of affluence there is a kind of mental unrest, leading to frustration, unnecessary quarrels, reliance on drugs or alcohol, and in the worst case, suicide. There is no guarantee that wealth alone can give you the joy or fulfilment that you seek. The same can be said of your friends too. When you are in an intense state of anger or hatred, even a very close friend appears to you as somehow frosty, or cold, distant, and annoying.

However, as human beings we are gifted with this wonderful human intelligence. Besides that, all human beings have the capacity to be very determined and to direct that strong sense of determination in whatever direction they like. So long as we remember that we have this marvellous gift of human intelligence and a capacity to develop determination and use it in positive ways, we will preserve our underlying mental health. Realizing we have this great human potential gives us a fundamental strength. This recognition can act as a mechanism that enables us to deal with any difficulty, no matter what situation we are facing, without losing hope or sinking into feelings of low self-esteem.

I write this as someone who lost his freedom at the age of 16, then lost his country at the age of 24. Consequently, I have lived in exile for more than 50 years during which we Tibetans have dedicated ourselves to keeping the Tibetan identity alive and preserving our culture and values. On most days the news from Tibet is heartbreaking, and yet none of these challenges gives grounds for giving up. One of the approaches that I personally find useful is to cultivate the thought: If the situation or problem is such that it can be remedied, then there is no need to worry about it. In other words, if there is a solution or a way out of the difficulty, you do not need to be overwhelmed by it. The appropriate action is to seek its solution. Then it is clearly more sensible to spend your energy focussing on the solution rather than worrying about the problem. Alternatively, if there is no solution, no possibility of resolution, then there is also no point in being worried about it, because you cannot do anything about it anyway. In that case, the sooner you accept this fact, the easier it will be for you. This formula, of course, implies directly confronting the problem and taking a realistic view. Otherwise you will be unable to find out whether or not there is a resolution to the problem

Taking a realistic view and cultivating a proper motivation can also shield you against feelings of fear and anxiety. If you develop a pure and sincere motivation, if you are motivated by a wish to help on the basis of kindness, compassion, and respect, then you can carry on any kind of work, in any field, and function more effectively with less fear or worry, not being afraid of what others think or whether you ultimately will be successful in reaching your goal. Even if you fail to achieve your goal, you can feel good about having made the effort. But with a bad motivation, people can praise you or you can achieve goals, but you still will not be happy.

Again, we may sometimes feel that our whole lives are unsatisfactory, we feel on the point of being overwhelmed by the difficulties that confront us. This happens to us all in varying degrees from time to time. When this occurs, it is vital that we make every effort to find a way of lifting our spirits. We can do this by recollecting our good fortune. We may, for example, be loved by someone; we may have certain talents; we may have received a good education; we may have our basic needs provided for - food to eat, clothes to wear, somewhere to live - we may have performed certain altruistic deeds in the past. We must take into consideration even the slightest positive aspect of our lives. For if we fail to find some way of uplifting ourselves, there is every danger of sinking further into our sense of powerlessness. This can lead us to believe that we have no capacity for doing good whatsoever. Thus we create the conditions of despair itself.

As a Buddhist monk I have learned that what principally upsets our inner peace is what we call disturbing emotions.  All those thoughts, emotions, and mental events which reflect a negative or uncompassionate state of mind inevitably undermine our experience of inner peace. All our negative thoughts and emotions - such as hatred, anger, pride, lust, greed, envy, and so on - are considered to be sources of difficulty, to be disturbing. Negative thoughts and emotions are what obstruct our most basic aspiration - to be happy and to avoid suffering. When we act under their influence, we become oblivious to the impact our actions have on others: they are thus the cause of our destructive behaviour both toward others and to ourselves. Murder, scandal, and deceit all have their origin in disturbing emotions.

This inevitably gives rise to the question - can we train the mind? There are many methods by which to do this. Among these, in the Buddhist tradition, is a special instruction called mind training, which focuses on cultivating concern for others and turning adversity to advantage. It is this pattern of thought, transforming problems into happiness that has enabled the Tibetan people to maintain their dignity and spirit in the face of great difficulties. Indeed I have found this advice of great practical benefit in my own life.

A great Tibetan teacher of mind training once remarked that one of the mind’s most marvellous qualities is that it can be transformed. I have no doubt that those who attempt to transform their minds, overcome their disturbing emotions and achieve a sense of inner peace, will, over a period of time, notice a change in their mental attitudes and responses to people and events. Their minds will become more disciplined and positive. And I am sure they will find their own sense of happiness grow as they contribute to the greater happiness of others. I offer my prayers that everyone who makes this their goal will be blessed with success.
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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Peace of Mind For World Peace

Peace of Mind For World Peace
By Mr. S. N. Goenka

Every religion worthy of the name calls on its followers to live a moral and ethical way of life, to attain mastery over the mind and to cultivate purity of heart. One tradition tells us, "Love thy neighbor"; another says, Salaam walekum - "May peace be with you"; still another says, Bhavatu sabbamangalam or Sarve bhavantu sukhinah - "May all beings be happy." Whether it is the Bible, the Koran or the Gita, the scriptures call for peace and amity. From Mahavir to Jesus, all great founders of religions have been ideals of tolerance and peace. Yet our world is often driven by religious and sectarian strife, or even war - because we give importance only to the outer shell of religion and neglect its essence. The result is a lack oflove and compassion in the mind. 
Peace in the world cannot be achieved unless there is peace within individuals. Agitation and peace cannot co-exist. One way to achieve inner peace is Vipassana or insight meditation - a non-sectarian, scientific, results-oriented technique of self-observation and truth realization. Practice of this technique brings experiential understanding of how mind and body interact. Everytime negativity arises in the mind, such as hatred, it triggers unpleasant sensations within the body. Every time the mind generates selfless love, compassion and good will, the entire body is flooded with pleasant sensations. Practice of Vipassana also reveals that mental action precedes every physical and vocal action, determining whether that action will be wholesome or unwholesome. Mind matters most. That is why we must find practical methods to make the mind peaceful and pure. Such methods will amplify the effectiveness of the joint declaration emerging from this World Peace Summit. 
Ancient India gave two practices to the world. One is the physical exercise of yoga postures (Asanas) and breath control (Pranayama) for keeping the body healthy. The other is the mental exercise of Vipassana for keeping the mind healthy. People of any faith can and do practice both these methods. At the same time, they may follow their own religions in peace and harmony; there is no necessity for conversion, a common source of tension and conflict.
For society to be peaceful, more and more members of society must be peaceful. As leaders, we have a responsibility to set an example, to be an inspiration. A sage once said, "A balanced mind is necessary to balance the unbalanced mind of others." 
More broadly, a peaceful society will find a way to live in peace with its natural setting. We all understand the need to protect the environment, to stop polluting it. What prevents us from acting on this understanding is the stock of mental pollutants, such as ignorance, cruelty or greed. Removing such pollutants will promote peace among human beings, as well as a balanced, healthy relationship between human society and its natural environment. This is how religion can foster environmental protection. 
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Friday, February 3, 2012

Way to the happy life: THE FOUR NOBLE TRUTHS

Way to the happy life: THE FOUR NOBLE TRUTHS: THE FOUR NOBLE TRUTHS We can experience these truths, which lie at the heart of the Buddha's teachings, ...

Goodness and Generosity Perverted: The Karma of Capitalist Buddhism in Thailand

Goodness and Generosity Perverted:
The Karma of Capitalist Buddhism in Thailand

 Santikaro and Phra Paisal Visalo
Santikaro and Phra Paisal Visalo have been long time partners in the struggle to reform Thai Buddhism. Both have been deeply influenced by the pioneering efforts of the late Buddhadasa Bhikkhu and Phra Dharmapitok (P. A. Payutto). They are not only concerned to rectify erroneous understandings of core dharma principles, but also working to see that these principles play a guiding role in the development of Thai society. This chapter is an attempt to bring together their written perspectives on the nature and significance of dåna (generosity) and puñña (goodness/merit) into one essay. While the two halves of this chapter were written separately, we hope the reader will find enriching the shared perspectives of these two spiritual friends (kalyåˆamittå).

The custom of making merit (puñña)—lay people providing monastics and temples with material requisites—constitutes the core of popular Buddhist worship and practice in Theravada Buddhism. The dåna (generosity) embodied in providing these requisites is the key concept in this practice, which is one of the three main methods of making merit. Dåna, however, has broader meanings and applications. For example, as one of the Ten Perfections (påram¥), it is the simplest yet also the highest practice of perfection for the bodhisattva, and is thus equally suitable to lay and monastic alike. When we understand dåna in this broader and deeper way, it transforms from a ritual act of merit making into an ethical act of doing “good,” the literal meaning of puñña. If we want to understand sangha as authentic community life, rather than in the more narrow terms of the male monastic Sangha, we need to see dåna in such a way—as a reciprocal act of circulating “the gift,” being the glue that bonds lay and monastic, male and female, senior and junior, together.
Unfortunately, dåna and puñña have often not been understood in this way. In the period of high economic growth in certain Theravada Buddhist regions over the last thirty years, capitalism has exacerbated the ritualistic nature of dåna and puñña. Especially in Thailand, capitalism has intensified the shift from understanding puñña as goodness to merit by commodifying it in terms of money. In this way, dåna is no longer an act of service but the money to buy such services. The sense of reciprocity—of circulating “the gift”—is being lost, while materialism, individualism, and alienation increase. When wealth rather than character or service to others becomes the basis for being a good Buddhist, various forms of social injustice such as patriarchy and economic discrimination are legitimized. This chapter examines these problems and also considers the potential for authentic dåna and puñña. It concludes by looking briefly at a movement developing in Thailand to restore merit making as the gift of service.
Dåna : Teachings and Ideals
Let’s begin with a quick summary of traditional teachings on dåna. Then we can better understand how the practice of giving has changed, as the understanding of puñña has been perverted by capitalism. In early Buddhism, dåna is explained in various ways. It is commonly described as the first of three bases of good, meritorious activity (puññakiriyavatthu) (D.iii.218; A.iv.239; Iti.51). Along with dåna, ethics and virtue (s¥la) and mental cultivation (bhåvanå) are generally considered the three basic practices for householders. They are not considered equivalent to the Noble Eightfold Path and lead at best to happy rebirths (A.iv.239). On the other hand, monastic practice is usually described in terms of the three trainings (sikkhå), which place more emphasis on meditation and wisdom, are equivalent to the Noble Eightfold Path, and can lead to ultimate liberation. Thus, the puññakiriyavatthu formulation puts more stress on pre-meditation aspects believed more accessible and suitable for householders. Because mainstream Theravada considers Buddhist lay people incapable of awakening liberation, since they lack the required monastic renunciation, they are taught to focus on accumulating puñña for the sake of better rebirths, a practice that will eventually develop into the purity of monastic renunciation in some vague future. The effect is that dåna is commonly seen as the main practice for householders, while study and meditation, as well as keeping a more refined ethical discipline, are the concerns of monastics. Traditionally this has meant that householders are givers of dåna and monastics are recipients. These cultural forms have guided Southeast Asian Buddhism for centuries and may have been effective within their conventional limits. Nonetheless, the puññakiriyavatthu and three trainings overlap and are both suitable for sincere Buddhists, whether monastic or lay.
Another understanding of dåna places it among the perfections (påram¥)i . Both Theravada and Mahayana list dåna first among the “virtues for crossing over” the seas of egoistic becoming to reach the further shore of nirvana. A remarkable passage in Ven. Buddhaghosa’s The Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga), a Theravada classic, presages the Mahayana in its explanation of the påram¥:
For the Great Beings’ minds retain their balance by giving preference to beings’ welfare, by dislike of beings’ suffering, by desire for the various successes achieved by beings to last, and by impartiality towards all beings.ii And to all beings they give gifts, which are a source of pleasure, without discriminating thus: “It must be given to this one; it must not be given to this one.” And to avoid doing harm to beings they undertake the precepts of virtue … Through equanimity (upekkhå) they expect no reward. Having thus fulfilled the Perfections, these [divine abidings] then perfect all the good states classed as the Ten Powers, the Four Kinds of Fearlessness, the Six Kinds of Knowledge Not Shared [by disciples], and the Eighteen States of the Awakened One. This is how they bring to perfection all the good states beginning with giving. (Buddhaghosa 1991, 352–3; Vis.ix,124)
To free ourselves from suffering, and to live a life of compassion, we must give. What a beautifully simple and powerful perspective! We start by giving what comes relatively easy and gradually learn to hold nothing back, not even ourselves.
Jåtaka of Dåna
The Jåtaka are Buddhist versions of standard folk tale material. Primarily ways to make moral points, they purport to tell of the Buddha’s former lives as a bodhisattva—for example, as a hare who immolates himself in a starving Brahmin’s fire to feed the ascetic and sustain him on his path. In another Jåtaka story, the Bodhisattva is a prince who offers his own blood so that a starving tigress may nurse her cubs. Giving occurs without calculation; recipient and donor are both elevated within the path of perfections. However, offering one’s flesh and blood is not the ultimate charity, for that occurs under the bodhi tree when all clinging to “self” is released.
Ultimately, we perfect the virtue of generosity by giving all that we have, and then ourselves—all of ourselves—until nobody is left. The Vessantara Jåtaka, the final and most famous of all the birth stories, illustrates the unlimited giving of the bodhisattva. This tale has had an incalculable influence on the cultures of Southeast Asia; anyone seeking to understand these Buddhist cultures must know this story. It describes a life focused on giving until it hurts, with devas, parents, and all of nature supporting, even requiring, altruism. The drama of Vessantara’s life illustrates the great emotional complexity and turmoil in giving away social position and responsibility, wealth, family, children, and finally his beautiful, loyal, and beloved wife Maddi. The dramatic tension becomes high as those dearest to him suffer as a result of his giving.
At the age of eight, Vessantara thought to himself:
All that I give comes from without, and this does not satisfy me; I wish to give something of my very own. If one should ask my heart, I would cut open my breast, and tear it out, and give it; if one ask my eyes, I would pluck out my eyes and give them; if one should ask my flesh, I would cut off all the flesh of my body and give it. (Jåtaka 1981,
As he matures into manhood, Prince Vessantara is given immense wealth many times over. Whatever he is given, Vessantara passes it on. Gods and kings collude in giving him even more—to give away! Finally, he is asked for and willingly bestows the auspicious white elephant that arrived with his birth. The people of Sivi cannot accept the loss of this sacred, rain-bringing, battle-invincible elephant to a rival polity. Though they can find no fault with Vessantara, they demand his banishment, and his father, the king, gives in to the mob’s demands. So Vessantara begins to suffer for his generosity.
The price is an ascetic life for himself, his wife, and their children—and the real punishment for this big-hearted giver is seven months of nothing to give. Isolated in the forest, he finds himself unable to perfect himself further in the practice of giving. Our exiled ascetic hero’s first big chance to give is to the evil Brahmin Jujaka, whose wife demands Vessantara’s son and daughter as her slaves. Vessantara can only but give. The children’s parting from their father and longing for their mother (away gathering food) is heartrending for all. Maddi arrives late to find the children gone and her husband in dumb silence. The pathos is touching, disturbing. Yet the story makes it clear that Vessantara had to do what he did. That is never questioned. It is his purpose in life, necessary for his future realization of Buddhahood. iii
Later, when Maddi’s turn comes, the suitor is the god Sakka, disguised as a Brahmin. Vessantara gives her away immediately, and she obeys. However, this is merely a test, arranged by Sakka to help move the story along to its climax. Maddi is returned as soon as Vessantara and she have passed the test. The children, however, undergo abuse, beatings, and hard work from Jujaka, who accidentally takes them back to Sivi and ends up ransoming them to Vessantara’s father. The tale ends happily with Vessantara reinstated in Sivi and everyone reconciled except Jujaka, who gorges himself to death. Having passed the tests and fulfilled his destiny, Vessantara enjoys boundless wealth to give away until the end of his days.
From the perspective of this final Jåtaka, dåna is the final påram¥ to be perfected. Thus, dåna is both first and last. What is often portrayed as the most basic virtue turns out to be the culmination as well, the last perfection fulfilled before the bodhisattva is ready for his final birth. This shows that the spirit of dåna runs throughout and perfects all the påram¥. For the bodhisattva, there is no tolerance, wisdom, and compassion without wholehearted unlimited giving. One must give completely of oneself in order for compassion and the other perfections to be realized. iv

Dåna for the Sake of Community
Shakyamuni Buddha’s own life story is marked throughout by generous giving and receiving. In the traditional accounts, his great awakening depends on the dåna of Sujata, a serving girl, and Sotthiya, a grass cutter. Her sweet milk rice and his fresh cut grass sheaves give the Buddha-about-to-be strength and comfort for the supreme final effort. To these are added gifts of nature—a cool river for washing away accumulated ascetic grime, a friendly forest in which to meditate, the shade of trees, and the songs of birds. Finally, the Naga snake king provides his great hood for protection from weather and malevolent forces. Thus, the Buddha’s supreme human effort was not entirely individual; it depended upon the collective circulating charity of many beings. In return, liberated from personal concerns, the Buddha gave his entire life in service of the dharma.
The teaching of dåna continued through the Sangha founded by the Buddha. Monks and nuns walked mindfully out of forests and ashrams, across fields, through the pathways of villages and streets of cities, stopping at houses to beg silently. Not merely a stereotype, the practice still survives today in Southeast Asia and helps sustain Buddhism as a living reality. We can picture the shaven head of a nun or monk gently bowed over a bowl as a village child, housewife, or old man offers a spoon of rice, a dollop of curry, a piece of fruit. Dåna is especially powerful when it supports the sangha, which understood according to the original emphasis (supa†ipanno “those who practice well”) includes women and householders. In this way, the four assemblies of laity and clergy, male and female, interact through the practice of dåna, thereby making the religious tradition whole.
The Buddha praised gifts given to a community of serious practitioners (sanghadåna) over gifts given to individuals, even the most exalted of all (himself). Giving to the Thus-Gone-One who no longer needs anything is valued less than giving to those who are training in the way, their guides, and the community that will keep this noble way alive. Such dåna is for the sake of maintaining the centers of tradition, learning, and cultivation that support all who follow the way, whether home-leavers or householders. Individually, only buddhas fulfill the highest ideal of practice; by including the noble community, even struggling members are uplifted so that they contribute, too.
This is the Sangha of upright conduct
Endowed with wisdom and virtue.
For those people who bestow alms,
For living beings in quest of merit,
Performing merit of the mundane type,
A gift to the Sangha bears great fruit.v (Sa◊yutta Nikåya 2000, 333, S.i.233)
Community, as understood in early Buddhism and as practiced in Buddhist cultures, naturally involves different levels of dåna. However, consumerism and other modern forces have made this time-honored approach to community precarious. The Thai experience illustrates this well.
Traditional Buddhism throughout Thailand and Southeast Asia has had an agrarian village base. Here, “doing good” (thambun, bun from puñña, “goodness,” or more commonly “merit”) is the central operative value. The most prominent practice of thambun consists of giving food to the monks, especially when they are out gathering alms, as well as making other donations to the temple. Before capitalism took over in Thailand, such dåna was almost always in kind, since there was not much money in village economies. Dåna supplied the material goods needed by the monks personally and for daily maintenance of the temple. Because the temple served as community center, “town hall,” clinic, counseling center, news exchange, entertainment stage, and market, in addition to its religious and spiritual functions, supporting it meant supporting the entire community and most of its activities. In fact, until modernization, temples were communal property more than monastic property (though this was not the case in all Buddhist societies). Generosity sustained them.
For their part, the monks were expected to live simply and unselfishly, to look after the temple and to uphold traditions. When somebody wanted to talk about a problem, or the weather, the monks would listen. When a ritual, blessing, or chant was needed, the monks would go. They were available around the clock, like country doctors used to be in the United States. Actually, many of the monks were country doctors. Being around, being available, and being helpful were central to the life of village monks, including the itinerant meditators who would come and go. vi
Phra Dharmapitok (P. A. Payutto), the leading Thai Buddhist scholar and writer of recent years, concurs that the core principle of the old system was bun, goodness.vii Bun is what circulated within the religious economy of Thai life, back when the divisions between family, economics, community, politics, religion, and personal life were tenuous. Villagers gave what they had to give and considered “good,” worthy of giving: their best food, robe material, betel nut, tools, materials for repairing temple property, labor, and craft skills. The monks gave advice, consolations, blessings, rituals, teachings, meditation instruction, leadership, writing, and other specialized skills. Most important, the participation of monks gave religious meaning to daily acts of decency, generosity, and kindness, elevating these from the realm of mutual obligations to spiritual significance.
Bun circulated within fairly large loops connecting infants with grandparents, the better-off with the poor, women and men, temple dwellers, ancestors, spirits, even honored water buffaloes. The temple dwellers might include an old abbot who had been around for years, an itinerant or two, newly ordained “temporary monks” from the village or nearby, novices, nuns, temple boys, and senior citizens. Thus, the giving was seldom binary and tended to circulate widely. As bun, dåna circulated as the blood of the community so long as its members understood goodness mutually.
The Commodification of Dåna and Puñña
As noted earlier, Buddhist lay practice has tended toward simplified versions of dharma practice, such as the puññakiriyavatthu, in comparison to the more difficult practices recommended for monastics. Since Brahmanistic and Hindu influences have always been strong in Theravada Buddhist countries, it is not surprising that the common Buddhist understandings of karma, dåna, and puñña have become distorted by such influences. In particular, the lay practice of dåna has often become limited to making ritual offerings to the monks in order to gain merit (puñña) towards a better rebirth. As the monastic centered tradition continued to emphasize that lay followers, especially women, could not attain enlightenment in this lifetime, lay practice continued to devolve into performing or sponsoring rituals towards securing an advantageous rebirth. “Senior monks discouraged sermons on [essential] principles and teachings such as not-self (anattå), dependent origination (pa†icca samuppåda), thusness (tathatå), and voidness (suññatå). Supposedly, these were too difficult for ordinary people to understand. For the masses, moral teachings based on ancient—and not particularly Buddhist—beliefs about karma, rebirth, merit, heaven, and hell were considered appropriate and sufficient” (Santikaro in Buddhadasa 1994, xvi).
Here, too, the Jåtakas have played an especially powerful role as myths that influence popular beliefs. For example, the Mahåjanaka Jåtaka ( implies that if one has accumulated enough merit in past lives, one will be spared from misfortune or get lucky in this lifetime, often through the divine intervention of certain gods. However, Phra Dharmapitok (P. A. Payutto) remarks, “Overemphasis on rebirth into heaven realms and hell realms ignores the good which should be aspired to in the present . . . Good actions are performed for the sake of profit. Overemphasis on past and future lives ignores the importance of the qualities of moral rectitude and desire for goodness, which in turn becomes a denial of, or even an insult to, the human potential to practice and develop truth and righteousness for their own sakes” (Payutto 1993, 50). Such limitations and distortions are to be expected in popular religiosity; they are part of the local culture over which ordinary people have some control. Modernity brings in powerful influences that villagers have little influence on.
Capitalism intensified this shift away from the operative principle of goodness and onto money, that is, from bun to baht (the Thai currency). Increasingly, donors give baht or food purchased with baht, rather than prepare food and other offerings themselves. Village skills and handicrafts have suffered, partly because they were not voluntarily practiced and learned at the temple. More time was spent in the fields working on cash crops; economic migration to urban areas increased; and children saw less of their parents. Communal work and shared labor disappeared; even the temples had to start paying. People no longer wandered through or hung around the temple as they used to. Things that did not earn money were devalued. Eventually, Buddhism was expected to aid economic success, magically if not concretely.
In many towns nowadays, monks queue up at dawn before market stalls where ready-made food offerings are for sale. Such commercial food usually includes additives such as MSG and sugar, and contributes to poor health among many monks. Donors queue up on the other side, pay their baht, pick up a tray, and take their turn putting food into the waiting monks’ bowls (or buckets carried by temple boys, depending on how many offerings are purchased). Then donors and recipients go their own ways. All very efficient, in the wonderful way of consumer capitalism, with donors putting less time and care into their offerings and monks, accordingly, appreciating them less.
Rather than food offered as bun in promise of better karmic fruits, baht is given in hope of more baht (and dollars)—successful business ventures, passing exams for career advancement, winning the lottery. The monks, too, have become more money-minded. Monastic titles are linked to funds raised and spent on temple buildings (not to mention what goes into the envelopes passed under tables, e.g., for permission to travel abroad). Temple services such as the large funeral industry cost money and are treated as investments by temple committees, complete with outsourcing of flowers, coffins, and catering. City monks indirectly probe how much dåna will be given—cash in envelope—before deciding what meal invitations to accept. Of course, monks travel, study, and live in the same consumer economy as everyone else and thus need money. Nothing is free any more.
The magical side of popular Buddhism, too, is now much more about money and making money, than about protection from spirits and disease. Amulets are big business. Stories circulate about people getting rich after donating to a certain monk (e.g. Luang Pho Khun) or temple (e.g. the infamous Wat Phra Thammakai). Luang Pho Khun became famous during the 90s economic boom when rumors spread of people, including royalty, getting rich after making donations to him. The rumors may have been spread by those around his temple who benefited from the large influx of “merit makers.” viii
Wat Phra Thammakai is a still unresolved scandal concerning misuse of temple funds. The abbot personally invested in gold mines, which he attempted to justify as contributing to business efficiency in producing devotional objects “marketed” (Thammakai uses such terminology themselves) at margins that would make ordinary entrepreneurs drool. Thammakai has unabashedly embraced capitalism, often distorting the Buddha’s teaching to win followers amongst the merchant and professional classes. For a while, the abbot was suspended pending resolution of criminal charges. However, these charges were dropped two years ago during the Taksin regime. There is some speculation that the abbot—believed to be the source of all buddhas by the most cultish of his followers—curried favor with the Taksin government so that the charges were dropped.
The degeneration of the practice of puñña into such crass forms of spiritual materialism also promotes a kind of spiritual class-ism, reminiscent of the Hindu caste system. In such a system, the rich are better positioned to gain favorable rebirth because of their wealth. Also not unknown in other religions, such as the medieval Christian Church’s selling indulgences in Europe, rich Buddhists attempt to buy their way into heaven by building large, gaudy stupas and temples. Wat Phra Thammakai again serves as an appropriate example:
[Thammakai] not only promises worldly achievement to its followers, but also uses marketing techniques to create a demand for merit through “direct sale.” Merit is commodified and diversified in different forms for followers to have more choice. Competition is encouraged between volunteers who solicit donations and rewards are given to those who can achieve the highest amount of donations. These techniques are derived from the idea of its leader that “Buddhism is an excellent commodity that gets bad sales because of the lack of good marketing strategies.” (Visalo 1999, 242)
Perhaps what is of greatest concern here is the distorted karmic understanding that rich people have earned their merit and hence deserve their elevated status. This likewise implies, of course, that people who are poor also deserve their situation. This simplistic equation reverses the causality properly taught in Buddhism. Its corrupted logic reflects a deterministic understanding of karma that ignores the role of structural violence, for often it is economic and other social factors that force the poor into professions that violate the lay precepts and create bad karma, such as working in slaughter houses (killing), prostitution (unskillful sexuality), fraudulent marketing (lying), drug dealing (use of intoxicants), and downright theft. Generally, monks have little understanding of social factors and merely focus on the individual level and disembodied tenets memorized in their dharma classes.
Recovering Sangha by Making Meaningful Merit
When the great Thai Buddhist reformer of the past century Buddhadasa Bhikkhu was young, his mother taught him a mantra while taking care of the family’s rice field. “If birds eat our rice, that is puñña. If people eat our rice, that is dåna” (so don’t be angry with them). Buddhadasa once compared three different types of merit making with how we wash our bodies. The first type are those who sacrifice the lives of other beings in performing a supposedly meritorious ceremony, which is like washing the body with muddy water. The second type, likened to pouring perfumed water onto the body, refers to those who make merit with a belief that they will be rewarded somehow and be reborn in heaven. The last type, cleaning the body with pure water, is the highest level of merit making as the person fulfills the deed selflessly and without any attachment to the result.
Recovering sangha is one way that we can create non-consumerist breathing space. Since they have more material resources than society’s poor, monastics, too, ought to consider dåna as something for them to give. While this commonly occurs in forest practice temples, it is not common in city temples. From the other side, lay practitioners need not be limited by old stereotypes. Their practice of generosity need not be confined to giving only to monks. One can give to other people, and even animals, for this is a practice that can be carried out in various ways.

Traditional Approaches to Reciprocal Merit Making
The attitude that helping other people is also a merit making practice—that offering dåna to monks is not the only way to do puñña—can, in fact, be found in traditional Thai culture. There are many traditional practices in the North, as well as other regions, that are based on this attitude. For example, than tod is a practice where requisites or dåna (than) are offered to poor people by laying (tod) them near their houses and then lighting a firecracker to alert the recipients. It is believed that one can obtain as much merit from this practice as offering dåna to monks. Unfortunately, such practices have recently fallen into disuse, whereas offering dåna to monks still prevails, giving the impression that puñña can be obtained only through practice and rituals involving monks. In the past, however, offering dåna to monks and acts of community service were never distinguished. Since the temple was the center of community life, utensils offered to monks, for example, were often borrowed by villagers for feasts on various occasions, e.g. at a wedding, ordination, or funeral. As Thailand has modernized, the focus of village activities has shifted from the temple to secular institutions, such as modern schools and other social services provided by the government. Monks have become marginalized and their roles confined to strictly religious rituals like funerals and of course merit making. In this way, dåna offered to monks has become more and more confined to their personal use in the temples. In other words, puñña involving monks is increasingly divorced from community service.
In 1980, the Coordinating Group for Religion in Society (CGRS) initiated a new form of merit making called pha pa khao. Pha pa are the Thai words for “forest robe” and khao means “rice.” This practice is adapted from the traditional one of offering robes to monks (pha pa), which is a popular ceremony in which people collect money and offer it, along with robes, to monks for various purposes, e.g. building temples or supporting monastic education. In this new ceremony of pha pa khao, rice is collected, as well as money, in order to support rice banks or rice cooperatives in the local villages. Rice banks and cooperatives have been set up in many villages to assist indebted villagers by providing them with cheap rice or rice loans at low interest. In some years, however, due to drought, these projects could not get enough rice to help their members. To address this problem, those living in other villages have initiated pha pa khao to raise rice and money for the affected villages. Such practices not only help rice banks and cooperatives to function properly, but also raise funds to support other village projects, such as educational funds for the young and free school lunches.
During the last decade, pha pa khao has been increasingly practiced in the north and east. It has become popular because of the belief that much merit can be acquired by doing it. In the more traditional pha pa, the ceremony ends when money and robes are offered to the abbot. With the increasing use of cash money in modern merit making, however, pha pa has been manipulated for corrupt ends, usually due to lack of transparency in the temple administration, especially the temple’s bank account. There is a saying about pha pa money that “half goes to temple, and the other half to the (lay) committee.” Although the new practice of pha pa khao is not impervious to such corruption, there is an important shift in the direction of the money. The abbot, instead of keeping the offering for monastic purposes, gives the rice and money to villagers for community projects. Thus the traditional role of monks in community service, which has been ignored for decades, is being restored and strengthened.
It should also be noted that these practices are initiated by villagers in the surrounding areas, in the spirit of helping fellow villagers who are in trouble. In this way, the practice helps to strengthen the network of local villages and serves as a basis for cooperation among villagers in the area. In addition to sustaining existing rice banks and helping cooperatives to function properly, pha pa khao, which is now performed almost every year, plays an important role in supporting new rice banks and cooperatives in various villages. Apart from pha pa khao, which assists rice banks and cooperatives, there are also pha pa nangsue, which collects books to support rural literacy and education, and pha pa tonmai, which collects seedlings and plants for reforestation.
In addition to applying traditional ceremonies for community development, new social programs have been set up based on the concept of puñña. Satcha sasomsap or “savings with truthfulness” is one example. Satcha sasomsap is another type of local savings bank where people keep their savings and receive cheap loans, enabling them to avoid commercial banks and moneylenders. Satcha sasomsap was initiated by a monk, Phra Subin Panito, who successfully organized almost three hundred groups in many provinces. More than half of the villages in his home province of Trad have set up such groups. What makes satcha sasomsap distinct from ordinary local saving banks is the reliance on Buddhist virtues such as truthfulness. Every member of satcha sasomsap is required to make and keep a pledge of truthfulness that the same amount of money will be deposited in the group bank every month. This promise of truthfulness helps to maintain their commitment to the group. The concept of puñña is another principle of these groups. Members are told that their participation is a way of practicing puñña since their savings can be used to help people in trouble. In the process of making loan decisions, priority is given to people who are in trouble, such as needing money to pay medical bills or school tuition for children.
This is another attempt to revive the traditional virtues of compassion and generosity. In the past these virtues were so integrated into the life of village people that they could be seen in all details of their daily life, such as providing drinking water in front of houses, giving food and lodging to strangers, building shelters for travelers, giving a helping hand with rice harvesting, constructing houses or roads, etc. All these acts of cooperation were regarded as the practice of puñña. The systematic organization of satcha sasomsap, however, has developed this practice to another level. Rules and regulations are laid out for collective decision-making and transparency. Another difference is that money is mobilized, instead of labor as in the past. Further, these funds circulate within the local village economy rather than being siphoned off to distant financial centers. These are examples of applying merit making practice to structural issues such as supporting community work and reducing poverty.
New Approaches to Reciprocal Merit Making
Ideally, the goal of merit making encompasses three levels. The most basic is to bring about material well-being in the present, encouraging peaceful co-existence in society. A higher level is to elevate one’s mind so that the merit maker becomes a better person morally. The ultimate level is to develop one’s understanding of dharma so that one is no longer enslaved by the uncertainties of life. This combination of the material, moral, and spiritual dimensions of each meritorious act improves both the individual and his or her society as a whole. This expansive notion of puñña is essential for creating social harmony and well-being. It is also the basis of a strong and healthy civil society. In accordance with this, attempts have been made to promote a proper understanding of puñña as taught by the Buddha. The Network for Buddhism and Society (khrueakhai chaophut phuea phra phutthasasana lae sangkhom thai) is one of a few groups in Thailand that have launched programs along these lines during the past few years. It started its campaign by publishing a handbook for puñña practice called Smart Puñña Practice (Chalard Thambun) (Chai Worathammo 2001).
The handbook begins by introducing the reader to the three bases of meritorious action (puññakiriyavatthu) earlier, as well as seven others that are part of the popular tradition: humility (apacåyana), rendering service (veyyåvacca), sharing or giving out merit [i.e., getting others involved in meritorious service] (pattidåna), rejoicing in other’s merit (pattånumodåna), listening to right teachings of the dharma (dhammassavana), teaching the dharma properly (dhammadesanå), and correcting one’s views (di††hujjukamma) [D.A.iii.999]. The handbook also suggests new practices of puñña and dåna that are beneficial to recipients and that contribute to social and spiritual well-being.
For example, one can join a group of friends to cook food for the orphans, the disabled, or the HIV infected. Those with artistic skills may arrange some recreational activities for the underprivileged. One group often neglected is prison inmates who certainly appreciate compassion. Paying visits to the elderly can also teach one about the age-old truth of life’s transience. There are no limits to this alternative merit making: sparing free time to teach street kids, reading books to blind people, or volunteering for the community or at a local temple. In fact, the easiest way to make merit is simply to be good to those around us, be they our own parents, children, siblings, or neighbors. A caring gesture or a smile can bridge the gaps among people. Why wait until the last moment of one’s life to do good to each other? The true nature of merit making is “opening up”—learning to be compassionate and accepting towards every human being, regardless of differences in social status, religious beliefs, political ideologies, and so on. Discrimination is a form of violence and bad karma, often committed unconsciously and breeding more violence in return. The ultimate merit comes from opening our hearts to each other.
Some people believe that every religious act must involve elaborate rituals. In fact, recitation of prayers and other customary rules are simply tactics to enhance collective harmony and to prepare the bodies and minds of participants before a meritorious act begins, like cleaning a bowl before filling it with water. However, these rituals are not always necessary and, in themselves, do not bestow any sacred power to the performer. Fundamentally, a genuinely meritorious act of giving must provide the recipient with what he or she truly needs. Moreover, the amount of the donation is less important than the good, pure will in wishing well for other beings. Whether we are inviting others to make merit together with us, or are being asked to join in the activity, a meritorious deed is done with a joyful heart, not out of pride, fear, or with a competitive motive. Buddhism emphasizes that a charitable deed should be guided by mindfulness and wisdom in order to ensure that the meritorious deed will yield a wholesome result.
The beginning of vassa, the traditional rainy season retreat, was the occasion for launching the handbook mentioned above. Within three years, it received such a good response from the public and media that it was reprinted forty times, amounting to nearly two hundred thousands copies. The handbook has become popular as a gift or souvenir for important events such as birthdays, anniversaries, and funerals. Most people buy this book (or give it to their friends) because it opens their eyes to the proper practice of puñña. It helps them to realize that puñña can be practiced at any time and has nothing to do with an unintelligible religious ceremony.
In 2003, another handbook was published, a smaller and more concise collection of merit making practice with the title 30 Practices of Puñña for the Well-Being of Life and Society. At the back of the booklet, the addresses of non-profit organizations are provided for those who want to do meritorious acts by volunteering or donating money. For those who seek spiritual well being, places to do meditation in various parts of the country are also included. The booklet was put on sale at gas stations in Bangkok one week before the beginning of the vassa. Again, within a few days the booklet became very popular, with much positive coverage in the media. Nine reprints have already been made, totaling two hundred thousands copies. The fact that both handbooks are still in demand reflects the enthusiasm of modern people to know and participate in creative puñña practices that contribute to the well being of both individuals and society. People are showing that they want an alternative to conventional dåna practice that is wasteful, ritualistic, materialistic, and just another form of consumerism.

Phra Sekiyadhamma (a national network of socially concerned monks) and the Network for Buddhism and Society have been working to expand the practice of these reinvigorated forms of merit making to the national level. This year the Network for Buddhism and Society wants to take a further step in initiating concrete social action, hoping to persuade Thais to make merit by doing voluntary work during the vassa. Many non-governmental organizations are participating in this project, which has chosen the issue of children as the central theme. Officials in large private companies are the target group of this campaign. Thousands of volunteers will be recruited from the private sector to participate in various projects aimed at improving the quality of life for children in various ways, e.g. education, environment, media, social welfare, and human rights. This campaign not only aims to create a new attitude towards puñña and dåna among the Thai public, but also seeks to create a nationwide voluntary movement based on the concept of puñña. It is designed to revive the concept of puñña as a cultural force for the well being of society as a whole, instead of being limited to temple or religious rituals.
Though such a social movement motivated by puñña is not yet well established, there are already many individuals committed to social activities based on the concept of puñña. Given the bases of meritorious action (puññakiriyavatthu), one can see that puñña is essential to all aspects of well being (physical, social, mental, and spiritual) for both the individual and society. Every time dåna is offered properly, it not only reduces personal selfishness, but also contributes to social harmony and peace. This also applies to the other bases of puñña. If puñña is misunderstood, however, one’s practice tends to become a Brahmanistic-style offering for divine blessing or a capitalistic motivated exchange for more profit. The tradition of puñña is still powerful and has great potential for social reconstruction, especially in countries where Buddhism is prevalent. As this chapter has shown, it can provide an important social virtue for a uniquely Buddhist civil society. However, unless puñña is properly understood and practiced, through the proper education and propagation of Buddhism among lay people as well as monks, its potential will not be actualized for the welfare of all.

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Portions of this paper are based on Santikaro’s article “Practicing Generosity in a Consumer World,” which appeared in Hooked!: Buddhist Writings on Greed, Desire, and the Urge to Consume edited by Stephanie Kaza (Boston: Shambala Books, 2005).

i generosity (dåna), virtue (s¥la), renunciation (nekkhamma), discernment (paññå), energy/persistence (viriya), patience/forbearance (khanti), truthfulness (sacca), determination (adhi††håna), good will (mettå), and equanimity (upekkhå).
ii In other words, the Four Divine Abidings (brahmavihåra) of friendliness (mettå), compassion (karuˆå), sympathetic joy (muditå), and equanimity (upekkhå).
iii Not that he was aware of future awakening (nirvana); this is retrospectively added to the story, as so often happens.
iv I take this to be an early example of bodhicitta, so much emphasized in the Mahayana.
v Here, “Sangha” refers to the four kinds of noble ones, the exemplars of dharmic life and the leaders of the community of the Buddha’s disciples.
vi Kamala Tiyavanich’s The Buddha in the Jungle (Chiang Mai: Silkworm, 2003) provides abundant illustrations of this.
vii From a Thai language talk given at Suan Mokkh in the late 1980s. To my knowledge, this was never published.
viii Luang Pho Khun has been in poor health in recent years and has fallen from the level of popularity he held when this article was written.
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