Buddha’s Last Words – The Buddha Dharma Series

All compounded things in the world are changeable.
They are not lasting.
Work hard to gain your own liberation.
Practice diligently.

These are Buddha’s last words and the first part reminds us that all compounded things are impermanent. If we keep this in mind we will not get attached to things, which in turn will reduce our suffering.

The second part, which is the most interesting, says we should work towards our own liberation. Here the word liberation means an end to our suffering. This means we have to look within, take responsibility for our own actions and do the hard work ourselves.

It does not say liberation can be found outside of us, we should blame karma for what is happening in our lives or we have to hand our liberation over to some guru.

I believe we need teachers to help us along the path, but ultimately, we have to decide ourselves what path suits us best and which parts of Buddhism we decide to follow. It doesn’t mean we have to take on other people’s culture or superstitions. We also must decide how much time we devote to that path. The ball is in our court and no one can end our suffering for us.

The final part says that we should practice diligently. It is of very little benefit to simply understand Buddha’s teaching intellectually. They have to be practiced with great effort.

We have to firstly understand the power of the three poisons – clinging desire, aversion/attachment and delusion. Then we need to ensure oou minds are not clouded by these poisons. That is our starting point and something we need to be aware of throughout this path.

We need to fully understand the four noble truths and implement them into our lives. This is a lifetimes work and not something to be taken lightly. The eightfold path, which is the fourth of the truths, is a something we need to constantly ensure we are following.

Meditation is an extremely important part of Buddhism and I would encourage you to learn and practice each day. Mindfulness is also important, even though, the word has been totally misused of late, the four foundations are important to understand and practice.

There are many things in our lives that can bring us suffering and Buddha pinpointed eight of them in the teaching called the eight worldly concerns. Again, it is important to ensure we are not being led astray by these concerns.

Compassion is important in all religions and Buddhism is no exception. But Buddhism does not just talk about that. In the four immeasurables, Buddha spoke about equanimity, kind-heartedness, compassion, and open-hearted joy. All of these help us breakdown the barriers we erect between different types of people.

One of the most difficult to understand but without doubt, one of the most important, is the concept of non-self. We spend so much of our time building our identities and so find it difficult to appreciate that there is no solid, permanent and independent self. I would encourage you to revisit this teaching regularly, so you can slowly understand its importance.

I wish you all the best on your Buddhist journey and hope that these fourteen teachings have helped you in some small way.

I will leave the last word to Buddha:      

‘I say to you that these teachings of which I have direct knowledge and which I have made known to you — these you should thoroughly learn, cultivate, develop, and frequently practice, that the life of purity may be established and may long endure, for the welfare and happiness of the multitude, out of compassion for the world, for the benefit, wellbeing, and happiness of all beings.’

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The Causes of Suffering – The Buddha Dharma Series

The first noble truth describes how life has suffering running through it and in the second truth Buddha gave some of the reasons for this suffering. There is not just one cause of our suffering, as there is not one cause of anything. Things come into being through a series of causes and conditions, and that is the same for our suffering. However, there are three main things that cause us emotional and psychological suffering, namely, the three poisons. They are clinging desire, anger and aversion and unawareness.

In the Dhammapada it states:

The one who protects his mind from clinging desire, anger and aversion and unawareness, is the one who enjoys real and lasting peace’.

Clinging Desire

Not all of our desires cause us suffering; only the ones we cling to. We may have a desire to help people, a desire to reduce our suffering or to improve ourselves. As long as we are not clinging to these desires there is no problem.

So, desire on its own isn’t the problem. The problem is our clinging and grasping at the things we desire. We wrongly believe that material things and people, such as family, friends and loved ones, can make us permanently and truly happy. However, if we take the time to investigate, we will find that these desires eventually lead us into a feeling of discontentment, sadness and loss. Why is that? It is because we have grown attached to the people we love or the things we own. Again, there is not a problem with loving the people close to us; the suffering starts once we get attached to them, believe they will be with us forever and their thoughts and feelings for us will never change. This simply isn’t the case.

You can test this theory out. Think of a time when someone not very close to you died. How did you feel? I expect you expressed your condolences but didn’t have too much sadness. Now think of a time when a member of your family, a friend or a loved one died. How did you feel? I expect you were devastated and extremely upset for a long time. So, what is the difference between these two deaths? Attachment. You were not attached to the first person and so did not suffer a lot when they died, but you were attached to the second person, and your clinging attachment is what caused you so much suffering.

We get attached to our belongings and believe they make us happy. We think we can buy happiness. The problem with that is our desires are never ending. Once we have something new, we start wanting something else. We never quite manage to buy the happiness we are so desperately seeking because there is no happiness inherent in material things. We just project happiness onto an object and then cling and grasp at this imaginary happiness, and we eventually suffer once the object is stolen or stops working.

There is no problem in wanting things and trying to make our lives more comfortable; the problem is clinging and grasping at these desires. So do not stop loving the people close to you or stop wanting to improve your life believing Buddha told us to do that—he didn’t.

Our clinging desires lead us to act in certain ways, such as being proud, jealous and protective, and this in turn leads to our discontentment. This is because our clinging desires lead us into action, which in turn leads us into discontentment. It is a vicious cycle. Buddha said:

‘From desire action follows; from action discontentment follows; desire, action and discontentment are like a wheel rotating endlessly’.

To break this cycle, we have to see that clinging, grasping and getting attached to people and material objects brings us suffering because things are compounded and are subject to change. If we can truly embrace this point and apply it to our daily lives, we will be able to reduce the suffering caused by this poison.

Buddha stated, ‘Human desires are endless. It is like the thirst of a man who drinks saltwater: he gets no satisfaction and his thirst is only increased.’ This is surely something we should be reflecting on.


Anger and Aversion – Aversion is the opposite to attachment and anger leads to hatred, discrimination, aggression and a lack of compassion. None of these are helpful. With desire we want to cling to objects, but with aversion we do the exact opposite. We spend all our time and energy trying to push the thing away we do not like. As with desire, we just need to let go, not hold on to this aversion. Don’t engage with it, hold it or repress it – simply acknowledge you have an aversion for it, understand that it is causing harm to yourself and others and find a way of letting it go.

Buddha said this about anger:

‘This fury does so cloud the mind of man that he cannot discern this fearful inner danger’.

Some say that anger is natural and should be expressed at all costs. This is because most people only see two ways of dealing with anger, that is, express or repress. Both are unhealthy. If you constantly express it, you will find that after some time it will become a habit and you will react angrily all of the time. If you repress it, you are just storing up trouble for the future. You may be able to keep it down for some time, but eventually it will surface and may even come back more violent and hurtful.

Anger is such a destructive emotion because we engage with it and let it take control of us. So, the Buddha had a different idea. He advised us to look at the anger and see where it comes from. It is not to be dealt with but observed. If we do this, we will see that it stems from our exaggerating the negative qualities of someone or projecting negative qualities that are not actually there, on to someone or something.

Two of the best ways of counteracting anger is patience and acceptance.

Patience—This is something we should cultivate. The best advice is to try and walk away from the situation that is making you angry. If you cannot do that, then you should not react straight away, but should first try counting to ten and spend a little time reflecting on the situation. This will give you the space to calm down and see things more rationally. Of course, this is not a simple thing to do when one is wrapped up in the moment, and this is where patience comes in. The most hurtful things are said in the heat of the moment, so defuse that moment with patience.

You could try watching your breath for a moment, use your senses to engage with what you can see, hear, smell, taste and touch or you could try reciting the word patience over and over again. All of these will give you a chance to calm down and build patience.

There is no evil like anger, and no courageousness like patience.  

Acceptance—This is accepting that people are the same as we are. Everyone is struggling to find their way in life. We strive for happiness, and so does everyone else. If we think in this way, a feeling of warmth, empathy and compassion will arise in us. If we are empathic or compassionate towards others, it is harder to get angry at them. This, again, takes time to master but is something we are all capable of.

Unawareness

Unawareness is a lack of understanding of the true nature of things, which leads us into wrong views. Buddha stated:

‘Because of their unawareness, people are always thinking wrong thoughts and always losing the right viewpoint and, clinging to their egos, they take wrong actions. As a result, they become attached to a delusive existence’.

As we are unaware of the true nature of the world, we start clinging to objects, people and ourselves, which leads to wrong actions and causes us to grow attached to our perception of reality.

Impermanence is something we understand on an intellectual level, but it is not how we live our lives. That is because we are unaware of the true implications of impermanence. 

Whatever is
born is impermanent and is bound to die.
Whatever is stored up is impermanent and is bound to run out.
Whatever comes together is impermanent and is bound to come apart.
Whatever is built is impermanent and is bound to collapse.
Whatever rises up is impermanent and is bound to fall down.
So also, friendship and enmity, fortune and sorrow, good and evil,
All the thoughts that run through your mind – everything is always changing.
(Taken from ‘Words of My Perfect Teacher’ by Patrul Rinpoche)

All compounded things are impermanent and if we look closely, everything is compounded. So, everything is impermanent. This may seem negative or depressing but actually it is a breath of fresh air. Let me explain.

The definition of compounded is ‘something that consists of two or more things combined together.’ As I have just stated, all phenomena are compounded, and that includes you and me. Just think for a moment, is there anything in this universe that isn’t compounded? As of yet we haven’t found anything.

The point Buddha was making here is that anything that is made up of a combination of other things will eventually fall apart. It will come into being when the various causes and conditions are right, it will exist for a certain amount of time, and then it will disintegrate – this is the nature of all things, this is impermanence. It is an undeniable and inescapable fact of life.

Impermanence isn’t a word we readily warm to, and it would be much nicer for us to believe that everything is permanent. But this simply isn’t true, and in order to stop our suffering, we need to acknowledge this fact. The reason we do not like to hear about impermanence is because it brings up visions of sickness, pain, disintegration and death. We get a horrible sick feeling in our stomachs because we equate impermanence with loss – loss of a loved one, loss of our friends or even loss of something as trivial as our iPhone. So, it is vitally important for all of us to understand impermanence.

Why is it important? What are the benefits of understanding it? It means we will achieve freedom from fear, freedom from suffering and freedom from panic, because when we know things are not going to last, we are free from any fear, agony or pain of losing something or someone.

Our mistaken belief is that things come into existence on their own, and last forever. This kind of mistaken belief causes us to cling to worldly possessions, such as material objects, the search for pleasure, recognition, honour and so on. It causes pride, attachment, aversion and arrogance to grow within us because we truly believe things are here to stay. We grow completely attached to the concerns of this life.

So, it’s a relief when we finally understand that everything is impermanent, and we can’t do a thing to change that fact. We can now let go and relax our grip on things – that’s a real breath of fresh air!

Impermanence is not only true for pleasurable things, but for painful things as well. Maybe someone you care for has died or left you, and you are sad and lonely. These emotions are also impermanent and so will, after time, also change. All the things we have aversion towards will only last a short time. Like the morning dew, it will all soon change and disappear.

Like the dew that remains
for a moment or two
On the tips of the grass and then melts with the dawn.
The pleasures we find in the course of our lives
last only an instant, they cannot endure.
(Taken from ‘Thirty-Seven Practices of All Buddha’s Sons’ by Thogme Zangpo)

So, the first noble truth stated that there is suffering flowing through our lives, and the second truth explains some of the causes. In the third truth Buddha explains that there is freedom from suffering. 

This truth is called by various names, such as nirvana, liberation, enlightenment and so on. It is hotly debated these days. Some think that if you reach nirvana you will never be born again, others think you will be reborn, but you can pick where. For people who do not believe in rebirth, they see it as something we can achieve in this lifetime. I have no idea who is right and who is wrong – it maybe they are all wrong.

People think that nirvana is like heaven, full of happiness, the opposite of this world. They image that there, the sun shines brightly every day, only ‘good’ people are around, one doesn’t have to work, there are no money worries, everybody is friendly, and every moment is filled with happiness.

However, this is just a projection of our dualistic minds, trying to fill heaven with all the things we like best. But what about all the things other people like and we don’t? I would want a heaven where no one eats meat, while others would want one where they could eat a big fat juicy steak every day. Do we each get a heaven of our own? I believe if people really gave some thought to their concept of heaven, they would understand they were just changing one conditioned world for another. That way, heaven, like this world, would be equally impermanent.

I am just going to give my own thoughts here and you can decide for yourselves what you believe. I will show you that there are two good bits of news in this third noble truth.

I feel that the best word to describe this third truth is awakening. We awaken from the sleep of unawareness. I do not see the process of awakening as some mystical or metaphysical thing.

Buddha said that awakening is the ‘highest happiness’, but he wasn’t talking about the mundane happiness we strive for in our everyday lives. He was talking about absolute freedom from unskillfulness, freedom from craving, attachment, desire, hatred and unawareness. All of this we can achieve in this lifetime by truly understanding the four noble truths and following the eightfold path. Once we start meditating on these teachings and turning them from knowledge to wisdom, we will start to change our actions of body, speech and mind.

This state of being awake can be reached by anyone, whether they call themselves Buddhist or not, in this very lifetime – you just have to put the effort and hard work in. That’s the first bit of good news.

The second bit of good news is we do not have to die to become awakened. It can be obtained during this lifetime. Death is irrelevant to this process. People feel like this life is full of discontentment and causes them nothing but suffering, and the only way out is death. They feel at death they will be miraculously transported to a better place. But the third truth is not talking about a place; it is the cessation of the three poisons, namely, desire, anger and aversion and unawareness. The Buddha defined it as ‘perfect peace’, or a state of mind that is free from craving, anger and other afflictive states. We can find this perfect peace in this body, on this planet and in this lifetime.

I honestly believe the third truth isn’t talking about a metaphysical thing, it isn’t a place to go to and we do not have to die to realise it. We just need to put in a huge amount of effort so we can extinguish our afflictive states of mind.

I will leave you to reflect on this third truth, so you can decide which version makes the most sense to you.

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The Illusion of Permanence

This is a guest blog post from Stan B. Martin and is taken from his latest book entitled ‘Illusions on the Path.’

It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live – Marcus Aurelius

Our inability to face the fundamental truth of our existence, the fact of our physical mortality, was identified by the Buddha as one of the greatest causes of unnecessary suffering in our lives. Of course, we all understand to some degree, at least intellectually, the fact that we will die. But this thought is something that we may wish to sweep under the carpet for fear it might hamper or depress our plans, our dreams, our aspirations, and above all our pleasures. This fear is so ingrained in us that talk of death is frowned upon by many as a taboo subject. To turn the conversation in the direction of our mortality is deemed morbid and ill-mannered. It is certainly not to be found on a list of appropriate topics of conversation to be had at adinner party in the company of polite society.

In light of this cultural bias, it is then interesting, that the Buddha recommended not only that the thought of our death should be cultivated and meditated upon, but that it should become one of the main motivating forces in our lives. It is not that we are dim witted and can’t accept our own mortality. That’s not the problem. The problem is a habitual and harmful belief that deceives us. It’s the idea that death will most certainly not come to us today. This has become our modus operandi. This tacit and unconscious belief plays out in our lives and paints a panorama of future plans and dreams ahead of us. It afflicts us with a sense of complacency and lethargy. We act as if we will be here forever.

It’s as if we are wearing blinkers that obscure this indisputable truth and allows us to mindlessly enjoy the pleasures life has to offer. Of course, the idea that we will all live long healthy lives is good for business. It’s so easy to assume that we will reach the average lifespan of eighty years or so.  When we are young we all think we are immortal, it’s only old people who die. It may seem clever to hedge our bets in this way, then we can just put death out of our minds. When I lived in London and was meditating on the uncertainty of the time of death, I used to walk around cemeteries to read the headstones and contemplate this idea. Seeing flowers next to a small grave of an infant was heart wrenching. Likewise, descriptions of young men or women dying leaving behind their grieving parents. No age group is immune from the possibility of death. As we get older and start to lose friends and family this becomes clearer. But what does not seem to weaken amongst most of us is the enduring belief that it won’t happen to us, certainly not today. Millions cling onto this belief right up to the moment of their death.  Perhaps this is a reflection of some evolutionary instinct, to ignore the most basic fact of life.

To fully accept and face the reality that at any moment our worldly activities and dreams can come to a final end is of course not good news that is easily digested. But the moment we are born, it is the only certainty that we can lay claim to. The experience we call life will one day come to an abrupt halt. We will lose everything and everyone we hold dear. The more you meditate on this reality you don’t discover some silver lining within this horrific realisation. We don’t find some consoling belief that perhaps we really will live forever, we can escape death. It’s more that through accepting this truth, by familiarising ourselves with it, by getting used to it, we gain a new perspective on our life. We don’t necessarily become morose, start wearing black clothes and telling everyone around us about our existential angst. Instead we slowly realise that the time we have left to live is precious. Like any commodity in the world that is not only scarce but is also decreasing moment by moment, the time we have left is extremely valuable. Every moment counts.

To practice living everyday as if it could be our last, widens our perspective and shifts our priorities. It’s not that we should stop planning for the future and instead go on a bender, but rather we become less attached to the plans we make. We become quick to forgive ourselves and those around us for the mistakes we all make. If these could be our last moments together, why argue over trivialities? Why not make this time we have together the best we can? Why don’t we try to be the best people we can, in the time we have left? I often think that people who are given news from their doctors that they have only months or weeks to live are so fortunate to receive this news. They at least have time to set their lives in order and avoid the shock, fear and regret that often comes with the sudden onset of death. Instead of waiting too late to act and put our own lives in order, why not start today? A life guided by the consciousness of death naturally leads to choices being made that enhance the time we have left and eliminates regret from our life. We can make the best of the precarious situation we find ourselves in.  A life lived without regret is a life fully lived.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

We seek security and comfort not only by conveniently ignoring our mortal nature but also by projecting permanence on the objects we attach ourselves to in the world of our everyday experience. The world we wake up to every morning takes on the appearance of being solid and familiar. It seems like it is the same sun that rises every morning and illuminates the familiar horizon and landscape that we inhabit. The people in our lives appear the same as those we said goodnight to the day before. We find satisfaction picking up our favourite mug and making our morning brew. Repeating our daily rituals gives consistency and shape to our lives that feels both intimate and comforting. This sense of solidity makes us feel safe.

The Buddha’s insight into the impermanent nature of the world we live in, a view that counters the solid appearance it often takes, is confirmed by modern science. We learn at school that the appearance of solidity in even seemingly dense objects like rocks is illusory. If we zoom into these objects, we discover a universe of atoms and electrons whizzing around space in a state of flux. Every object we perceive is not simply vulnerable to change but is in fact constantly undergoing change, moment by moment. Change is one of the only fixed attributes of the world we live in. Everything that comes together through various causes and conditions gradually wears down and breaks up.

Even the Himalayas, the world’s greatest mountain range, is subject to constant instability. If it is not the rumblings and earthquakes brought on by the advance of the Indian continental plate below, it is the constant climatic pressures of rain, snow, heat and cold that push down on the mountains from above. If the mighty Himalayas are susceptible to such forces of change, how much more so are the lives of comparably insignificant individuals like us? If change is such an essential quality of our life, it then begs the question, why are we often so resistant to it? What are those things or people in our lives that we are so invested in that the thought of change sends shivers of fear down our spines? How much of our time and effort is spent attempting to hold back the inevitable force of change running like an undercurrent throughout our lives?

If I wake up one summer’s day and am not greeted by a sunrise but instead by the sound of thunder emanating from dark forbidding skies I might feel unnerved. If I then turn towards my partner and find her missing and in her place I see a note recounting her decision to leave me for good to live with her secret lover of many years, I might start to feel shock. Despite this, the force of habit may take me to the kitchen where as I reach out for my coffee mug I notice my hands shaking. The next moment my trusty mug is on the floor in pieces. This is the last straw; my life is in tatters.

Change is inevitable, it might not always play out in such dramatic or tragic ways, but small disappointments and frustrations crop up and afflict us throughout our lives. My new car breaks down. I drop my cherished smartphone and crack the screen. My girlfriend stops loving me. My hair starts turning grey. OMG! We slowly wake up from the old Hollywood fantasy that we can live “happily ever after”. The Buddha’s bleak message of “old age, sickness, and death” may paint a more realistic story but probably wouldn’t sell out in movie theatres. Hollywood might counter this with “facelifts, health care, and cryonics”. Any takers out there?

We may have abandoned the comfort blankets and teddy bears from our infancy only to replace them with more adult surrogates later in our lives. We all share the instinct to crave safety and security in our lives. We want something to cling onto that we can trust and rely on. This instinct proliferates a full range of unskilful behaviours including anxiety in its many forms, fears, jealousy, possessiveness, manipulative and controlling behaviours, anger and violence to name a few. Despite our strategies to find comfort and security in external objects the Buddha pointed out the futility in such endeavours. Our life is inherently insecure. To become comfortable or familiar with this truth takes much thought and meditation, but it results in dispelling many of the unskilful and disturbing responses that afflict our minds. To take refuge in and familiarise ourselves with the impermanent nature of ourselves and the world we live in frees us from our attachments and brings us into more sane and compassionate relationships with those around us.

This is an extract from ‘Illusions on the Path’ by Stan B. Martin.

Can we be reborn?

I want to start with a question I received recently. I get asked this type of question all the time. So, I thought I would post my understanding in a blog to help everyone who has doubts about rebirth. (more…)

A Sense of Self

In Buddhism, one of the most difficult teachings for people to understand is anatman or non-self. The doctrine states that in humans there is no permanent entity that can be called a self or a soul. This denial of “any Soul or Self” is what distinguishes Buddhism from other major religions, such as Christianity and Hinduism, and gives Buddhism its uniqueness. (more…)

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