The Buddhist concept of emptiness refers to the idea that all things lack intrinsic or inherent existence. It is a way of understanding the nature of reality and the way in which things come into being. By recognising the emptiness of all things, we can let go of our attachment to fixed identities and concepts, leading to greater freedom and compassion.
The concept of emptiness is probably the most difficult to understand in Buddhism. It is also one of the most misunderstood, and so in this article I will explore the concept of emptiness and its practical implications for our lives.
What is emptiness?
The concept of emptiness is a central Buddhist teaching. At its core, emptiness refers to the idea that all things lack intrinsic or inherent existence. This means that everything in the world, and that includes ourselves, is empty of any unchanging, permanent essence. If things had their own inherent nature, it would mean they are permanent and have an unchanging nature. It would also mean they arose without a cause and are completely indestructible.
It is often misunderstood as nihilistic or negative. However, emptiness does not mean that things do not exist or that the world is meaningless. Rather, it is a way of understanding the nature of reality and the way in which things come into being.
If we are trying to understand emptiness, it is helpful to first reflect on the concept of dependent origination. According to this concept, everything in the world arises in dependence upon other things. Nothing exists independently or in isolation. All things are interconnected and interdependent. This concept is a fundamental teaching in Buddhism that explains the nature of existence and the causes of suffering.
Buddha taught that all things are conditioned by other things, and nothing exists independently or in isolation. Every phenomenon arises due to a complex web of causes and conditions, which themselves arise due to other causes and conditions. This chain of causation is known as the “twelve links of dependent origination.”
The twelve links begin with ignorance, which leads to actions and choices, which in turn lead to consciousness, and so on through birth, old age, and death. Each link in the chain is dependent on the previous link, and the entire chain perpetuates the cycle of existence.
The Buddha taught that being delusional about the way life really is causes us to suffer, and that by understanding the chain of dependent origination, one can break free from the cycle of suffering and attain liberation or freedom from a deluded mind. By understanding the causes and conditions that lead to suffering, one can begin to uproot the underlying delusion and cultivate wisdom, which leads to the alleviation of suffering.
In a nutshell, dependent origination teaches that everything is impermanent, constantly changing, and interconnected. It invites us to investigate the nature of reality and to see things as they truly are, rather than as we imagine them to be. Investigating dependent origination helps us to develop an awareness of the causes and conditions that lead to suffering, and cultivate the wisdom necessary to attain ultimate freedom, which is not an external freedom but a freedom from the delusional projections of the mind.
So, emptiness is the recognition that this interconnectedness and interdependence means that everything lacks inherent existence. All things are dependent upon other things for their existence and identity. This means that everything is impermanent, constantly changing, and ultimately insubstantial.
Emptiness can also lead to greater compassion and interconnectedness. When we recognise the emptiness of all things, we can see that everything is interconnected and interdependent. This can lead to a greater sense of compassion for others, as we recognise that their experiences are also impermanent and constantly changing.
Practical examples of emptiness
Understanding emptiness is not just an intellectual exercise, so let’s consider some practical examples. Take a table, for instance. We might think of a table as a solid, stable object with a fixed identity. However, when we examine the table more closely, we see that it is made up of various parts, such as legs, a top, and screws or nails. These parts are themselves made up of smaller parts, and so on.
Furthermore, the table is dependent upon other things for its existence. It is made from wood, which comes from trees that rely on sunlight, water, and soil for their growth. The table was also created by a carpenter, who used tools and materials that were themselves created by other people and processes.
In other words, the table is not a fixed, permanent object. It is a temporary arrangement of parts that is dependent upon other things for its existence. The table is empty of intrinsic nature.
Emptiness can also be applied to a car by recognising that it is composed of many different parts, such as the engine, wheels, and body. These parts are not inherently a car in and of themselves, but rather they come together to create the appearance of a car. In other words, the car is empty of car-ness, or a self-nature that makes it inherently a car.
Furthermore, the car is also impermanent and subject to change. It is constantly undergoing wear and tear, and eventually, it will break down and cease to exist as a car.
By recognising the emptiness of a car, we can begin to see it as simply a temporary phenomenon that arises due to various causes and conditions.
So, understanding that all phenomena are empty, or have no intrinsic nature, can help us let go of our attachment to material possessions and develop a greater sense of equanimity.
Benefits of understanding emptiness
Understanding the Buddhist concept of emptiness can offer a range of benefits in our lives, both on a personal and social level. Here are some of the main benefits:
1.Freedom from suffering: According to Buddhist teachings, the root of suffering is attachment to things that are impermanent and constantly changing. By recognising the emptiness of all things, we can let go of our attachment to fixed identities and concepts. This can lead to greater freedom and a reduction in our suffering.
2. Compassion and interconnectedness: When we recognise the emptiness of all things, we can see that everything is interconnected and interdependent. This can lead to a greater sense of compassion for others, as we recognise that their experiences are also impermanent and constantly changing.
3. Wisdom and insight: The recognition of emptiness can lead to greater wisdom and insight into the nature of reality. It can help us to see things as they really are, rather than being caught up in our own limited perceptions and concepts.
4. Reduced conflict: Many of the conflicts in our world arise from a sense of fixed identities and concepts, such as nationalistic or religious identities. By recognising the emptiness of these identities, we can reduce our attachment to them and become more open to others.
5. Environmental awareness: The recognition of emptiness can also lead to greater awareness of our interconnectedness with the natural world. By identifying that everything is interdependent and impermanent, we can become more mindful of our impact on the environment and work towards greater sustainability.
So, understanding the concept of emptiness can offer a range of benefits in our lives, including greater freedom from suffering, compassion for others, wisdom and insight, reduced conflict, and environmental awareness. It can help us to see things as they really are and become more mindful and compassionate beings.
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Over the years, I have spent a lot of time meditating and reflecting on world peace. I have even wondered if it was even possible. I concluded that it is not only possible, but also essential for humanity. It is complicated, multifaceted and requires cooperation, but it is achievable.
World peace is important because it is the foundation for global prosperity, stability, and security. Without peace, individuals, communities, and nations are vulnerable to conflict, violence, and instability. War and conflict result in the loss of human lives, destruction of infrastructure, displacement of populations, and economic devastation, which can have long-lasting and far-reaching effects. In contrast, peace promotes cooperation, understanding, and respect for human rights, and creates an environment where individuals and societies can thrive and reach their full potential. World peace is essential for achieving sustainable development, promoting social justice, and ensuring a better future for all.
After deliberating, I have identified these six points that I believe could pave the way towards peace.
Understanding World Peace
Understanding what world peace is, and why it is important, is crucial for individuals and societies alike. World peace refers to a state of harmony and absence of conflict on a global scale. It is a state where nations, communities, and individuals work towards mutual understanding, respect, and cooperation, without resorting to violence or aggression.
The importance of world peace can be approached from different angles. Firstly, peace is a basic human right, and every individual deserves to live in a peaceful environment. The absence of peace can lead to physical and psychological harm, and it can negatively impact people’s lives and well-being. For example, in areas of conflict, people may experience displacement, trauma, and loss of life and property. Therefore, understanding the concept of world peace can help individuals appreciate the value of peace and work towards achieving it.
Secondly, world peace is essential for global stability and prosperity. In a world where nations are interconnected and interdependent, conflict and instability in one region can have far-reaching consequences. Conflict can lead to economic downturns, political instability, and the displacement of people, which can cause a ripple effect across the globe. Therefore, understanding the importance of world peace can help individuals and nations work towards creating a stable and prosperous global environment.
World peace is a mindset and understanding world peace requires individuals to adopt a holistic and inclusive perspective. It involves acknowledging and respecting diverse cultures, beliefs, and values. It requires individuals to embrace open-mindedness, empathy, and compassion towards others, even those with whom they disagree. It also requires individuals to recognize that peace is not just the absence of conflict, but it is a positive state that requires active efforts towards justice, equality, and human rights.
It isn’t just about a mindset though; it also has to become a way of life. Understanding world peace requires individuals to adopt a lifestyle that promotes peace and non-violence. It involves avoiding behaviours that contribute to conflict, such as discrimination, prejudice, and aggression. It also involves promoting behaviours that contribute to peace, such as dialogue, cooperation, and mutual understanding. Individuals can also promote peace by participating in peace-building activities, such as volunteering, advocating for human rights, and supporting non-profit organizations.
Importance of Education
Education is a key part of world peace because it provides individuals with the knowledge, skills, and values they need to understand and engage with the world in a positive and constructive way. By providing people with access to education, we can help them to develop a broader perspective on life, to appreciate diversity, and to learn how to solve problems in a peaceful and collaborative manner.
Here are a few reasons why education is critical for promoting world peace:
1. Education promotes understanding: Education helps people to understand different cultures, beliefs, and perspectives. It teaches individuals to respect diversity and to appreciate the value of different opinions and worldviews.
2. Education fosters critical thinking: Education provides individuals with the skills and knowledge they need to analyse complex issues and to think critically about the world around them. This helps to prevent conflicts and promotes peaceful resolution of disputes.
3. Education promotes equality: Education is a powerful tool for promoting equality and reducing inequality. By providing individuals with equal access to education, we can help to level the playing field and ensure that everyone has the opportunity to succeed.
4. Education promotes tolerance: Education teaches individuals to be tolerant of others and to respect differences. This helps to reduce prejudice and discrimination, which are often underlying causes of conflict.
5. Education promotes economic development: Education is a key driver of economic development, which in turn promotes stability and peace. By providing individuals with the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in the workforce, we can help to reduce poverty and promote prosperity.
Overall, education is a critical component of building a more peaceful and just world. By investing in education, we can help to create a brighter future for all. That is why I believe peace should be taught in schools. This will give students the tools and skills required for world peace.
Eradicating Poverty and Inequality
This is a key parts of world peace because poverty and inequality are often underlying factors that contribute to conflict, violence, and social unrest. When people are struggling to meet their basic needs for food, shelter, and healthcare, they may become more vulnerable to extremist ideologies or resort to violence as a means of survival. Similarly, when there are large disparities in wealth and power between different groups in society, this can create tensions and fuel resentment and conflict.
Here are a few reasons why eradicating poverty and inequality is critical for promoting world peace:
1. Poverty and inequality can fuel extremist ideologies: When people are struggling to meet their basic needs, they may be more vulnerable to extremist ideologies that promise a better life. By eradicating poverty, we can help to reduce the appeal of these ideologies and promote more peaceful and inclusive societies.
2. Poverty and inequality can lead to social unrest: When there are large disparities in wealth and power, this can create tensions and lead to social unrest. By promoting greater equality, we can help to create more stable and harmonious societies.
3. Poverty and inequality can exacerbate conflicts: Poverty and inequality can exacerbate conflicts by creating grievances and increasing the likelihood of violence. By addressing these underlying factors, we can help to prevent conflicts from escalating and promote peaceful resolution of disputes.
4. Poverty and inequality can undermine human rights: Poverty and inequality can undermine human rights by limiting access to education, healthcare, and other basic services. By promoting greater equality, we can help to ensure that everyone has equal access to these essential services and can live with dignity and respect.
Overall, eradicating poverty and inequality is critical for promoting world peace because it helps to address the root causes of conflict and instability. By creating more equitable societies, we can help to build a more peaceful and just world for all.
Protecting Human Rights
Human rights are a key part of world peace because they provide a framework for promoting dignity, equality, and justice for all individuals. When people’s rights are respected and protected, they are more likely to live in peace and security, and less likely to engage in conflict or violence.
Here are a few reasons why human rights are critical for promoting world peace:
1. Human rights promote equality: Human rights principles such as non-discrimination and equal treatment help to promote greater equality in society. By ensuring that everyone is treated with dignity and respect, we can help to reduce tensions and foster greater social harmony.
2. Human rights promote justice: Human rights principles such as the right to a fair trial and due process help to promote greater justice in society. By ensuring that everyone is held accountable for their actions and that justice is applied equally, we can help to prevent conflicts and promote peaceful resolution of disputes.
3. Human rights promote freedom: Human rights principles such as freedom of expression, association, and assembly help to promote greater freedom in society. By ensuring that individuals are free to express themselves and to associate with others, we can help to create more open and inclusive societies where everyone feels valued and respected.
4. Human rights promote security: Human rights principles such as the right to life and security of the person help to promote greater security in society. By ensuring that everyone is protected from violence and abuse, we can help to create more stable and peaceful societies.
Overall, human rights are critical for promoting world peace because they provide a framework for promoting dignity, equality, and justice for all individuals. By upholding these principles, we can help to create more peaceful and just societies where everyone can thrive.
Developing Forgiveness and Reconciliation
These are key parts of world peace because they help to break the cycle of violence and promote understanding and harmony between individuals and groups. When people or groups have been wronged or harmed, it can create deep-seated anger and resentment, which can fuel a desire for revenge or retaliation. This can lead to an endless cycle of violence, as each act of revenge leads to further retaliation.
Forgiveness is the act of letting go of anger and resentment and choosing to extend compassion and understanding to those who have wronged us. It can be a difficult process, but it has the potential to break the cycle of violence and promote healing and reconciliation.
Reconciliation, on the other hand, is the process of restoring relationships and rebuilding trust between individuals or groups. It involves acknowledging past wrongs, seeking forgiveness, and working towards a shared vision for the future. Reconciliation is a powerful tool for promoting peace, as it helps to address the underlying causes of conflict and promote understanding and empathy between people.
Ultimately, forgiveness and reconciliation are essential for world peace because they promote healing, understanding, and cooperation between individuals and groups. By breaking down barriers and promoting understanding and empathy, they help to create a more peaceful and harmonious world.
Dialogue and nonviolent conflict resolution are key parts of world peace because they promote understanding, cooperation, and respect for human rights. In situations of conflict, people often resort to violence because they feel that it is the only way to achieve their goals. However, violence only perpetuates the cycle of conflict and can lead to further suffering, death, and destruction.
Dialogue, on the other hand, is a process of communication that involves listening to and understanding the perspectives, needs, and interests of all parties involved. It requires a willingness to engage with others in a respectful and constructive manner, and a commitment to finding mutually acceptable solutions. Dialogue helps to build trust, reduce tensions, and promote cooperation, which are essential for sustainable peace.
Nonviolent conflict resolution is a process of resolving conflicts without the use of physical force. It involves a range of strategies, such as negotiation, mediation, and arbitration, which help to address the underlying causes of conflict and find mutually acceptable solutions. Nonviolent conflict resolution promotes respect for human rights, encourages peaceful coexistence, and fosters a culture of nonviolence.
Together, dialogue and nonviolent conflict resolution are powerful tools for promoting world peace. They help to create a culture of peace and respect for human rights, build trust and cooperation between individuals and groups, and promote sustainable solutions to conflicts. By promoting understanding, cooperation, and nonviolence, they help to create a more just, equitable, and peaceful world.
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You do not have to study Buddha’s teachings for very long to understand that the very heart of his teachings centre around the mind. Sometimes the essence of his teachings is reduced to three points:
If you cannot help, at least do not harm them;
And calm your mind.
These three points form a graded sequence of steps that leads you from an external practice to the essential internal practice. If we want to reduce our suffering, we cannot do it just by knowledge and meditation alone. We need to live a responsible life by understanding that we do not live in a vacuum and our actions influence others, as their actions have an effect on us. We should look upon Buddha’s teachings as a bird. On one wing there is ethics, and on the other there is the calming of our mind. The bird cannot fly with just one wing and, likewise, we cannot reduce our suffering with only one part of the teachings.
This is what Buddha said to his monks in the Vatthupama Sutra regarding defilements of the mind:
Why is a simile of a soiled piece of cloth used in this discourse? It is because the cloth is naturally pure, so it is possible to remove the dirt by washing it, as it is not permanently stained by the dirt. The same can be said for our mind. The defilements have not permanently stained our mind; they have just temporarily polluted it. The defilements can be cleansed, but as with cleaning the cloth, it will take effort on our part. However, before we can start cleansing our minds we have to first understand that our minds are defiled, as Buddha stated in the Pabhassara Sutra:
Before I talk about what the defilements are I must point out that we are not trying to stop the defilements from arising; I believe this is not possible, or even desirable. We are also not trying to repress them either, as that again will not be desirable. What we are aiming at here is being aware of the defilements when they arise and having a strategy to deal with them. I will talk more on this later.
Depending on what book you are reading, defilements can range from three to one hundred and eight. The three defilements are known as the base defilements and are clinging desire, anger or aversion and unawareness—the three poisons. What I want to go through here are the ten defilements. These form the basis for all the other defilements.
Briefly, the ten are:
Clinging desire—holding on to sensual objects, thinking they are going to bring us permanent happiness.
Anger or aversion—getting thoughts of hatred towards others and discriminating against certain people and material things.
Unawareness—not understanding the concepts of impermanence, nonself and cause and conditions.
Conceit—believing yourself to be better than others.
Wrong views—thinking things are permanent, there is a solid and lasting self, and believing whatever you do will not have any consequences.
Doubt—when something does not seem to agree with your experiences.
Torpor—inactivity resulting from lethargy and lack of vigour or energy.
Restlessness—when your mind is hopping about like a demented frog and cannot settle on anything.
Shamelessness—behaviour marked by a bold defiance of what is considered right and proper.
Recklessness—the trait of giving little thought to danger towards yourself or others.
The defilements arise in our mind and, if we want to reduce our suffering, we need to focus our work on the mind. As these unhelpful mental states run beneath the surface of our stream of consciousness, we have to exert sustained effort to be aware of them when they start to arise.
The process of becoming aware of the defilements starts with self-understanding, and we can do this in a daily reflection session. Before we can work on the defilements, we must first learn to know them, to notice them at work penetrating and influencing our day-to-day thoughts and lives. In today’s world we strive for instant results, but this is not possible with the defilements. It takes patience, time, and perseverance. We have to systematically understand each defilement, what the consequences of them are, and then work out a strategy where we can let them be without engaging with them. Luckily, there are antidotes for each of the defilements and I have listed some below, but it has to be noted that different things will work for different people. So, this is just a list of suggestions.
Clinging desire—see that everything is impermanent and so our happiness with the sense object is not going to last. If we love someone and we get attached to them, when they want to move on, we suffer. Just enjoy your time with the person while you can but understand that one day it will come to an end.
Anger or aversion—when we let anger and aversion arise they lead us into inappropriate speech and action. We must understand that in these states of mind nobody wins. It is better to walk away or not let yourself get involved in the situation.
Unawareness—we have to study and reflect so that we understand the concepts of impermanence, nonself and cause and conditions. It is no good just intellectually knowing these three key concepts; we must reflect on them, so they become a part of our lives.
Conceit—if we believe ourselves to be better than others, we are going to lack compassion as we will not care for what others think or feel. We are actually denying others their opinions because we believe our opinions are more valid. We will also not be making ourselves very popular as conceit is not a good trait to have. So, listen to others with an open mind and welcome their point of view. This way we will not become conceited.
Wrong views—First, if we see things as permanent we will suffer when they change. So, understand that all things are impermanent. Second, if we think we have a solid and permanent self, we will waste our time and money on pampering it and trying to reinforce this sense of self. This will make us suffer when we become old or sick. See that this body is just a vehicle to carry us through this life. It is made up of innumerable parts and so is impermanent. Whatever we experience in this world is not through a sold self, but through the five aggregates, which are form, feeling, conception, action and consciousness. Finally, we need to see that any action we take is going to have a consequence. This will steer us towards helpful actions and away from harmful ones.
Doubt—this can really eat at us if we do not resolve it satisfactorily. When doubt arises ask questions, reflect on it, look in books or on the Internet for answers, whatever is best for you; don’t just leave it, as it will grow and eventually become a real obstacle.
Torpor—when we allow this to take hold we become lazy and cannot be bothered with anything. If you start to feel like this, take a walk, splash cold water on your face, have a break. Again, it is for you to see what works best, but do not just follow the torpor or you will end up a couch potato.
Restlessness—usually we get restless when our minds are stuck in the past or drifting off to the future. It may be caused by stress or anxiety. The best thing to do is a breathing or body scan meditation. This will relax you and bring you back to the present.
Shamelessness—this behaviour shows that you really do not care for yourself. It could be that you have low self-confidence or have reached a low point in your life. If you leave this unchecked it could lead to an addiction, such as alcohol or drugs, and even may land you in prison. You need to look at the cause of these feelings of self-worth. You may need to seek professional help, such as a therapist.
Recklessness—when our thoughts are of a reckless nature, our actions will also be of the same nature. This is dangerous for you and those around you. As with the defilement above, you really need to find the root cause of this behaviour. Having compassion for others will help here, as you will be able to see that your actions may bring harm to them.
During a daily reflection practice, look at a situation where a defilement arose. See what caused the situation to arise. After a while you will begin to see patterns emerge. Certain defilements associate themselves with certain situations. Armed with this information, you will be able to apply the appropriate antidote. What we are aiming at is to be able to spot the defilements when they arise and deal with them. As I said before, we are not ever going to stop them, and we shouldn’t try to repress them. Just spot them and apply the antidote.
If we are not aware of the defilements, they will arise and we will unwittingly follow them. Remember what I have spoken about all the way through this series on the Mangala Sutra: first we think and then we act. Keeping this in mind is the key to reducing our suffering.
Impermanence is one of the most important topics Buddha taught.
In the Dhammapada it states this:
‘All conditioned things are impermanent’
‘All conditioned things are unsatisfactory’
‘All things are nonself’
…when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering. This is the path to purification.
So, what things are impermanent? Buddha said this:
‘You may well take hold of a possession, monks, that is permanent, stable, eternal, immutable, that abides eternally the same in its very condition. But do you see, monks, any such possession?’—‘No, Buddha’.—‘Well, monks, I, too, do not see any such possession that is permanent, stable, eternal, immutable, that abides eternally the same in its very condition’.
So, it is clear from this stanza that nothing remains without change. Why is that? Well, all phenomena are made up of two or more parts and come into existence through a series of causes and conditions.
Buddha taught that there is no phenomenon that exists from its own side—that is, there are no phenomena that are not compounded.
Things do not just come into existence by sheer magic or by some superior power, such as a god. It is through causes and conditions, the joining together of things, that phenomena come into existence.
Everything is dependent on other things. When we fill a jug with water, it is not the first drop that fills it, nor the last drop; it is each drop individually coming together that fills the jug.
When we plant a seed in the ground, it will not just miraculously grow. It needs water, sun, nutrients from the soil and so on, or it will not grow. It grows when these causes and conditions come into play. We came into being when sperm meets with an egg. We don’t just miraculously appear or are made by some so called higher being; it is through various causes and conditions.
When things come together, something comes into being. They last a while, even though they are constantly changing, and then they disintegrate. This is the true nature of all phenomena, and it is because of this everything is impermanent.
Let’s look at some examples of what is impermanent. The universe is impermanent. Planets explode and black holes keep forming—all this is a display of impermanence.
Let’s look closer to home, to the earth. We are all aware of how the earth is changing, mainly because of our own actions. A thousand years ago the earth was a very different place. Innumerable species of animals have since become extinct, other species have evolved, forests have disappeared, and lakes have dried up, while so-called human civilisation grows dramatically. This is due to impermanence.
The weather changes constantly, and time does, too. Seasons change and, quite importantly, so do our thoughts and feelings. Absolutely everything around us is changing. Impermanence is a far-reaching factor in our lives. So, why do we find it so hard to embrace it?
Even though we nearly all understand impermanence on an intellectual level, we choose to ignore it. It is much nicer to believe things will last forever. But this simply isn’t the case and all we are doing is setting ourselves up for future suffering.
We struggle against impermanence because we get too attached to things, get so involved and wrapped up in them. We fool ourselves into believing that something we like will last forever. When it doesn’t, we are surprised and start suffering. But this idea that things will last forever is a delusion.
Let’s look at an example of our attachments to something and how it makes us suffer.
Imagine you see an advertisement for the latest smartphone. You then search the Internet to check out the specifications. Your excitement grows. Your anticipation is high. When the product arrives in the shops, you rush to buy it. One hour later it’s in your hands and you are playing with it. The more you look at it, the more you see how indispensable it is, and you become convinced that it is the one thing that can bring you true happiness. You can’t think of anything else, and you wonder how you ever lived without it. You spend the next few weeks proudly showing it to your friends, who envy you for having it. Every time you look at it, a sense of pride fills you. You are so happy—your life seems complete.
Then the inevitable happens: a newer, faster, smaller, and more powerful version comes out. You hold the smartphone in your hand, but your happiness has turned to discontent. Why is that? Buddha taught us that all sense objects, including those fashionable, technical gadgets, are impermanent. There is no happiness inherent in them; we simply project happiness onto these objects. When our thoughts toward the object change, or the object changes itself, the suffering kicks in.
That is the type of impermanence we do not like. On the other hand, if we are experiencing hard times, we are only too glad that things change. We may have gone out last night and this morning we have a headache. That will eventually go, and we will start to feel better. We may have had a serious illness, but things change, and we survived it and we are happy. Perhaps we have just separated from our loved one and are now going through a bad time; when that ends, we will be more than happy. If we have just lost our job and are now facing financial hardship, we will of course be extremely pleased to find new employment. So, impermanence is not all bad news.
Our view of impermanence can become quite selective. We don’t seem to fully understand the nature of impermanence and seem not to even spend time thinking about it. We need to make the understanding of impermanence a part of our lives and our very way of thinking. To do this we must reflect on it, but before we can do that, we need to understand why Buddha taught this and what the benefits are.
So why did Buddha teach us this? To stop us from grasping at things. If we understand that phenomena only come together through causes and conditions, and thus do not exist by themselves, we will not get attached to our friends, family, or belongings. If we are not attached to them, it follows that we are not going to suffer once they have changed or gone.
What is the benefit of knowing about impermanence? There are many, but a major one is that it helps us focus on our lives and on setting goals, so we don’t waste the precious little time we have on this earth. This is using impermanence as a motivational tool. If we just stop and think for a moment, how much time do we waste in a day? We manage to waste time in so many different ways. Without knowing it, the days turn to months, the months into years and before we know it, we will be on our deathbeds full of regret.
Impermanence helps us realise that we and all our friends and family will eventually die. We don’t know how, where, and when, but we do know it will happen. If we are not attached to them, we are not going to suffer once they depart.
If we understand impermanence, knowing the thing we hold dear is going to change, we are less likely to get attached to it, and if we are not attached, when it changes, we will not suffer.
I will let Buddha have the last word. This is how he spoke about impermanence:
‘Nothing in the world is permanent or lasting; everything is changing and momentary and unpredictable. But people are ignorant and selfish and are concerned only with the desires and suffering of the passing moment. They do not listen to the good teachings, nor do they try to understand them; they simply give themselves up to the present interest, to wealth and lust’.
Before we finish I want to teach you reflection practices that I think are going to help you come to terms with impermanence.
I have been traditionally trained in Buddhism, and one thing I was taught to do was reflect upon death. Now I know this may sound morbid and even a little strange, but I can tell you from my own experience that it really works. It works on so many levels. First, you understand impermanence and start to let go of your clinging attachment to things. Second, you become motivated to make the best of this life. And third, you will not be fretting about death. In the West, talking about death is such a no-no. Why is that? We can learn so much from reflecting upon it.
Here are four reflections on different aspects of death. Please do not get distressed; just work through them slowly. These are taken from the traditional Buddhist practice and may be too much for you to reflect on. If that’s the case, I suggest you look at why that is.
1—Think that nothing lasts
Think that this year will soon be gone; last year has already gone; each year departs so quickly. Think about the world and all its inhabitants, and how they are impermanent. Think about how you have gone from a baby to a child to an adult and realise that you are heading towards death. Think of how every day, week, month, and year brings you closer to your death. Reflect upon these points. This is not to depress you; it is to make you understand that everything is impermanent and the time to try and reduce your suffering is now.
2—Think about how many other people have died
Think about all the people you have known who have died. Some have been older, some younger and some the same age. There have been so many! Think about how most people, even though they are surrounded by impermanence, have died unprepared. Think of the times that you have been shocked to find out about someone dying, even though you are surrounded by impermanence. Read the papers and watch the news, count how many people have died or been killed today. Reflect on these points and understand that death is all around us, and let this fact motivate you to be a better person.
3—Think of the many causes of death
Think of the numerous circumstances that can bring about death: heart attack, illnesses, accidents, falling down the stairs, being hit by lightning—the list is endless. We do not know when, where and how we are going to die. What we know is that death will come. As we don’t know our fate, we should spend the precious time we have engaging in practice. Reflect on these points and don’t let your death be a surprise.
4—Reflect what will happen at the time of death
If you have misused your life and spent most of it indulging in unhelpful actions and being consumed by clinging desire, anger or aversion and unawareness, at the time of death you may be terrified. You are not going to be able to calm your mind, and it will run riot. It may be that you imagine all kinds of scary situations and will be afraid of losing your family and friends. You may even worry about the money you are leaving behind. It is not possible to relive your life once you reach death, even if you are full of regret and remorse, so don’t allow yourself to get to that point.
Spend some time reflecting on these points, as they will help you understand impermanence and let go of your clinging attachments.
In Buddhism, the ten fetters are ten things that shackle us to a life of suffering. If we cut through these fetters, we will be able to start to alleviate our suffering.
I have mentioned various ways of reducing our suffering throughout this series on the Mangala Sutra, so now I want to discuss things that may stop us from reducing our suffering, namely, the ten fetters. These are ten things that shackle us to a life of suffering. If we cut through these fetters, we will be able to start reducing our suffering.
So, what are these ten fetters? Buddha stated this:
‘There are these ten fetters. Which ten? Five lower fetters and five higher fetters. And which are the five lower fetters? Self-illusion, doubt, grasping at rites and rituals, clinging desire, and resentfulness. These are the five lower fetters. And which are the five higher fetters? Passion for form, passion for formless, conceit, restlessness, and unawareness. These are the five higher fetters. And these are the ten fetters.’
The first of the ten fetters that shackle us to suffering is self-illusion. This is the belief that we are permanent, unchanging, and solid beings. This leads to the illusion of a separate self, which we get attached to, defend, cherish, and spend lots of money on glorifying. It makes us egotistic, arrogant, proud, and conceited. This is a major obstacle to reducing our suffering. I will discuss this fully in the next blog.
The second fetter is doubt. What we are talking about here is having doubts about Buddha’s teachings and practices. It is a state of mind where nothing we hear or see satisfies us. It’s when our expectations do not match our experiences. It may lead us to become perplexed and confused.
Now, doubt shouldn’t be looked upon as a bad thing, as it can encourage us to investigate deeper and help clear up our confusion. The problem comes when our doubts are not satisfactorily resolved, and at that point they become a hindrance.
If, after much questioning and investigating, you still have extremely strong doubts about Buddha’s teaching and practices, I would suggest it’s a good time to revaluate whether you are following the right path for you. When there is doubt in your practice that cannot be resolved, this can bring you up against a brick wall. It is better to walk away than to try and carry doubt into your practice.
The third fetter is grasping at rites and rituals. This isn’t saying we shouldn’t use various practices to help us reduce our suffering, such as meditation and mindfulness practice, because these are very helpful. What it is saying is that we shouldn’t get attached to rites and rituals, or have the wrong view about them, such as thinking they have some magical power.
Our attachment to rites and rituals is as problematic as our attachment to sense objects and people, or anything else for that matter. Rites and rituals are the coming together of causes and conditions, which makes them impermanent. So, by clinging to them, we are actually causing ourselves more suffering, not less.
We have to understand that by grasping at a certain rites or rituals we are not going to be miraculously transported to a better place or become a Buddha. That simply isn’t realistic. Purification does not come about by washing yourself in a holy river, paying monks to do prayers for you, or adopting some form of extreme abstinence. We actually have to do the practice for it to work. Think of it this way: you are sitting by the river, and you want to cross it, but there is no bridge or boat. However, there is wood, nails, hammer and so on laying on the ground, so you could make the effort and construct a boat to cross the river. Instead, you decide to sit there and pray—do you think you are going to get to the other side by reciting prayers? No, and neither did Buddha. Instead, he emphasised the importance of making individual effort to achieve our goals. He stated in the Ittha Sutra that if we want to attain things, we must follow the path of practice:
‘These five things are welcome, agreeable, pleasant, and hard to obtain in the world. Which five?
‘Long life, beauty, happiness, status, and rebirth are welcome, agreeable, pleasant, and hard to obtain in the world.
‘Now, I tell you, these five things are not to be obtained by reason of prayers or wishes. If they were to be obtained by reason of prayers or wishes, who here would lack them?
‘It’s not fitting for the disciple who desires happiness to pray for it or to delight in doing so. Instead, the disciple who desires these should follow the path of practice leading to happiness (the eightfold path). In so doing, he will attain happiness’.
(The same applies to desiring a long life, beauty, status, or rebirth.)
To free ourselves from the shackles of this fetter, we have to practice with diligence and make sure we do not get attached to any rites and rituals. We also need, once we have studied a teaching, to examine its purpose. This will ensure we do not wrongly grasp at its meaning, as this could bring us more harm and suffering. In the Alagaddupama Sutra, Buddha gave this advice to the monks:
‘There are here, monks, some foolish men who study the teaching; having studied it, they do not wisely examine the purpose of those teachings. To those who do not wisely examine the purpose, these teachings will not yield insight. They study the teaching only to use it for criticising or for refuting others in disputation. They do not experience the true purpose for which they ought to study the teaching. To them these teachings wrongly grasped, will bring harm and suffering for a long time. And why? Because of their wrong grasp of the teachings’.
Fetter four and five, which are cling desire and resentfulness, have both been mentioned several times in this series on the Mangala Sutra, so I won’t go into them again here.
Fetters number six and seven are concerned with becoming attached to form and formless realms, respectively. When we are attached to the form realm, we want to be reborn as a human; when we are attached to the formless realm, we wish to be reborn in another world system. The point is that any attachment, be it to this world or another world, is going to impede our progress along the path to reducing our suffering. Now, many of you may have suspended your belief in rebirth or other realms until there is some clear and demonstrable evidence. That is not a problem, in fact it’s a wise thing to do. But what we need to gain from these fetters is that attachment to anything is only going to set us up for more suffering.
The eighth fetter is conceit. This is where we think ourselves superior to others, we have a superiority complex. We also believe ourselves to be right. We may listen to others’ views, but as we know better, we are never swayed by them.
When I first came to India and did the rounds of Buddhist teachings, I was submerged into the world of the Dharma bums – this is what they were called then. They would sit around for hours and brag and boast about their practice and the high teachings they have had. They would say things like, ‘I’ve had hundreds of empowerments’, ‘I know so-and-so guru very well’, and ‘My meditation practice is secret, and I can’t talk about it’—even though they did. They were so conceited, it made it hard for me to even listen to them much of the time.
I understand that we are all different and we do different practices, but if we talk in a conceited way, it is going to hinder our practice. We will end up with more suffering. So, the answer is to be humble. If you ask someone something, do it out of curiosity and not pride. I find it difficult to be around people talking about how wonderful their practice is and how much better it is than anyone else’s.
Restlessness is the ninth fetter. This is an overexcited, distracted, confused, worried and uneasy state of mind. It is a mind that is not at peace or tranquil; it is the opposite of the one-pointed mind that we aim for in our meditation practice.
It is caused when we allow our mind to be worried about something in the past we cannot change or concerned about something in the future that hasn’t happened yet. So, of course, the antidote to this is being mindful and present in the moment.
It can also be caused by not fully understanding why you are doing a certain practice. Before you start any practice, ensure you know why you are doing it, what the benefits will be and how you will monitor your progress.
The final fetter is unawareness. It means not understanding that we are suffering, the causes of this suffering and the path out of this suffering. It also means not knowing that our actions have consequences, that things are impermanent and that there is no solid and lasting self. This fetter is very powerful as it makes us go through life seeing things in an unrealistic way.
All these fetters are things that shackle us to a life of suffering. If we are going to be able to reduce our suffering, we have to be aware of these fetters and apply the appropriate antidotes.