From Perception to Action: Unveiling the Five Omnipresent Mental Factors

In Buddhism, there are five omnipresent mental factors. These factors are present in every moment of our mental experience and play a fundamental role in shaping our thoughts, emotions, and actions. Understanding these factors can help us cultivate mindfulness and develop a deeper awareness of our own minds.

The five omnipresent mental factors are:

Contact: Contact refers to the meeting of the sense organs with their corresponding sense objects. It is the initial connection between the mind and the external world. For example, when the eye contacts a visual object, such as a beautiful sunset, the mental factor of contact arises. It is through contact that sensory information enters our awareness.

Feeling: Feeling refers to the subjective experience that arises in response to contact. It can be pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. Using the previous example, when the eye contacts a beautiful sunset, the feeling of pleasure may arise. Feelings color our experiences and play a significant role in the arising of desire or aversion.

Perception: Perception is the mental factor responsible for recognizing and labeling objects or experiences based on past conditioning. It involves categorizing and conceptualizing sensory input. For instance, when we see a sunset, perception helps us recognize it as a sunset based on our past experiences and knowledge.

Intention: Intention refers to the mental factor behind our thoughts, emotions, and actions. It is the motivation that drives our behavior. Intention can be skillful or unskillful, wholesome or unwholesome, depending on the underlying mental states. For example, if we appreciate the beauty of the sunset and wish to capture it in a photograph, the intention to take the photo arises.

Attention: Attention is the mental factor responsible for directing and sustaining our awareness on a particular object. It is the faculty that selects what to focus on amidst the vast array of sensory information available. Attention plays a crucial role in determining the clarity and depth of our awareness. In the case of the sunset, attention allows us to immerse ourselves fully in the visual experience, noticing the colors, shapes, and textures.

These five omnipresent mental factors work together to create our experiences. Let’s take an example of someone walking in a park. As they walk, their eyes come into contact with various objects such as trees, flowers, and birds (contact). This contact generates feelings of pleasure, indifference, or even discomfort (feeling). Through perception, the person recognizes and labels these objects as trees, flowers, or birds (perception). Based on these perceptions, intentions may arise, such as feeling a sense of awe towards the beauty of nature or wanting to take a closer look (intention). Finally, attention directs the person’s focus to the details of the objects they find interesting or captivating (attention).

To become more aware of these mental factors, we can practice mindfulness. By cultivating mindfulness, we develop the ability to observe our thoughts, emotions, and actions as they arise in the present moment. We can observe the contact between our senses and the external world, notice the feelings and perceptions that arise, and become aware of the intentions and attention that shape our experiences.

Through meditation and mindfulness practices, we can develop a deeper understanding of these mental factors and their impact on our lives. By recognizing the patterns and tendencies of these mental factors, we can gain insight into our habitual patterns of thinking and reacting. This increased awareness allows us to respond to situations with greater clarity and wisdom.

So, let’s look deeper at ways to cultivate awareness of the five omnipresent mental factors:

Meditation: Engage in regular meditation practice to develop mindfulness. During meditation, observe the arising and passing of the mental factors as they manifest in your thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations. Pay attention to the contact, feeling, perception, intention, and attention that arise in each moment.

Daily Mindfulness: Bring mindfulness into your daily activities. As you go about your day, bring your attention to the present moment and notice how the five mental factors are at play in your experiences. Observe the contact with your senses, the feelings that arise, the perceptions that shape your understanding, the intentions that drive your actions, and the attention you give to different objects.

Reflective Practice: Set aside time for reflection and contemplation. Review your experiences and examine how the five mental factors influenced your thoughts, decisions, and interactions. Look for patterns and tendencies that may be causing suffering or hindering your growth. This reflection can help you develop insight and make conscious choices.

Wise Discernment: Develop the ability to discern the wholesome and unwholesome qualities of the mental factors. Notice when unwholesome intentions or unskillful attention arise and consciously redirect them towards more wholesome and skillful states. Cultivate wholesome intentions such as kindness, compassion, and generosity, and train your attention to focus on objects that promote wellbeing and understanding.

Non-Identification: Practice observing the mental factors without getting caught up in them. Recognize that these factors are impermanent and not self. Instead of identifying with them and taking them personally, see them as passing phenomena arising and ceasing in the mind. This non-identification allows you to cultivate a sense of spaciousness and freedom in relation to the mental factors.

By developing awareness of the five omnipresent mental factors, we can gain a deeper understanding of our own minds and the nature of experience. They can influence our actions in both unskillful and skillful ways, depending on the underlying qualities and intentions present. Here are examples of how each mental factor can contribute to unskillful or skillful actions:


– Unskillful Action: When contact arises with an object that triggers craving or attachment, it can lead to unskillful actions. For example, if someone encounters a delicious dessert, the contact may trigger a strong attachment, leading to overindulgence or greed-driven behavior.

– Skillful Action: On the other hand, contact with objects that promote wholesome qualities can lead to skillful actions. For instance, when someone comes into contact with a person in need, it may trigger compassion and motivate them to offer assistance or support.


– Unskillful Action: Unpleasant feelings, such as pain or frustration, can give rise to unskillful actions driven by aversion or anger. For instance, if someone experiences a setback at work and feels intense frustration, they may react impulsively and lash out at colleagues.

– Skillful Action: Pleasant feelings can motivate skillful actions. For example, feeling joy and contentment from a meditation practice may inspire someone to cultivate kindness and share their positive energy with others.


– Unskillful Action: Misguided or distorted perceptions can lead to unskillful actions. For instance, if someone perceives a person from a different cultural background as a threat due to stereotypes or biases, it can lead to discriminatory behavior.

– Skillful Action: Skillful actions can arise from clear and accurate perceptions. For example, recognizing the interconnectedness of all beings through the perception of interdependence may lead someone to engage in acts of altruism and environmental stewardship.


– Unskillful Action: Unwholesome intentions, such as greed, hatred, or delusion, can lead to unskillful actions. For instance, if someone harbors ill will towards another person, their intention may be to cause harm or seek revenge, resulting in unskillful actions.

– Skillful Action: Skillful actions arise from wholesome intentions, such as compassion, generosity, and wisdom. For example, if someone cultivates the intention to alleviate suffering, they may engage in charitable acts or offer support to those in need.


– Unskillful Action: Unskillful actions can arise from unwise attention. If someone dwells on negative thoughts or fixates on flaws and faults, it can lead to unskillful actions rooted in resentment or self-criticism.

– Skillful Action: Skillful actions can emerge from wise attention. For instance, if someone directs their attention to the present moment with mindfulness, they can respond skillfully to situations and make wise choices that promote well-being and understanding.

It’s important to note that these mental factors often arise in combination and interact with each other, influencing our actions in complex ways. Recognizing their impact and cultivating mindfulness can help us discern unskillful patterns and intentionally cultivate skillful actions that lead to greater happiness, well-being, and the welfare of others.

We should not confuse the five omnipresent mental factors with the five aggregates. These are two distinct frameworks used in Buddhism to understand the nature of human experience. While they are related, they focus on different aspects of the mind and are used for different purposes. Here’s an explanation of the difference between the two:

Five Aggregates: The five aggregates are a framework used to analyze and understand the nature of human existence. They are Form, Feeling, Perception, Mental Formations, and Consciousness. The aggregates describe the components that make up our experience and sense of self. Form refers to the physical body and sensory experiences, Feeling refers to the pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral tone of experience, Perception refers to the recognition and labeling of objects, Mental Formations refer to the mental factors and volitional activities, and Consciousness refers to the awareness and cognition of objects. The aggregates are impermanent, subject to change, and lacking inherent self-identity. They help us understand that there is no fixed and independent self-entity behind our experiences.

Five Omnipresent Mental Factors: Let’s just recap what has been said about the five omnipresent mental factors. They are mental qualities that are present in every moment of our experience. They are Contact, Feeling, Perception, Intention, and Attention. These factors are considered universal because they arise in relation to all objects of perception and play a fundamental role in shaping our thoughts, emotions, and actions.

Understanding and working with these mental factors can help cultivate mindfulness and develop a deeper awareness of our minds.

While there is some overlap between the mental factors and the aggregates (such as Feeling and Perception), the main difference lies in their purpose and scope. Mental factors focus on the specific mental qualities that arise in every moment, emphasizing their role in shaping our experiences and actions. On the other hand, the aggregates provide a broader framework for understanding the components of our existence and the nature of selflessness.

Both frameworks are valuable tools for contemplation and insight in Buddhist practice. They help us develop a deeper understanding of the mind and the nature of reality, leading to the cultivation of wisdom and liberation from suffering.

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Unravelling the Mind for a Deeper Understanding

In both Buddhism and neuroscience, the concepts of brain, mind, and consciousness play vital roles in understanding human existence and awareness. While Buddhism offers a philosophical and spiritual perspective, neuroscience approaches these concepts from a scientific and empirical standpoint.

This article aims to explore how Buddhism explains the brain, mind, and consciousness, provide clear examples, explain the differences between these concepts, and highlight the importance of understanding them. We will also touch upon the perspective of neuroscience to provide a comparative analysis.

The Buddhist Perspective:

Buddhism views the brain, mind, and consciousness as interconnected elements shaping human experience and reality. According to Buddhist teachings, the mind is the primary factor of one’s experiences and perceptions, while consciousness serves as the underlying foundation of awareness.

The Brain:

In Buddhism, the brain is considered a physical organ responsible for processing sensory information and generating mental states. It is similar to a computer processor that receives inputs from the environment, processes them, and produces corresponding outputs. While the brain is crucial for cognitive functions, Buddhism emphasises that the mind’s activities are not solely dependent on the brain.

The Mind:

The mind is often referred to as “citta” and encompasses thoughts, emotions, and mental processes. It is not limited to the physical brain and extends beyond it. It is considered to be an ever-changing stream of mental phenomena rather than a fixed, permanent entity. The mind is seen as a dynamic process that arises and ceases due to various causes and conditions. It is believed to be the driving force behind actions and the creator of one’s subjective reality.

Imagine observing a beautiful sunset. The brain receives visual stimuli, processes them, and generates neural activity. Simultaneously, the mind perceives the sunset, experiences awe or tranquillity, and generates corresponding feelings and thoughts. Buddhism emphasises that the mind’s experience of the sunset goes beyond mere neural processes and involves subjective interpretation and emotional engagement.

Buddhism recognises different levels or aspects of mind. One of the fundamental teachings is the distinction between conceptual mind and nonconceptual mind. The conceptual mind is characterised by ignorance, attachment, and suffering, while the nonconceptual mind is free from delusion and is characterised by wisdom, compassion, and liberation.

One important aspect of the Buddhist understanding of mind is the concept of non-self or the emptiness of self. According to Buddhism, there is no permanent, unchanging self or soul that exists independently. Instead, the mind and all mental phenomena are seen as impermanent and devoid of inherent selfhood. This understanding challenges the notion of a fixed, enduring self and is a key aspect of the Buddhist teachings on liberation from suffering.

It’s important to note that the concept of mind in Buddhism is vast and multifaceted, and different Buddhist traditions may have variations in their understanding and terminology. However, the fundamental idea of the mind as a dynamic, ever-changing process and the exploration of its nature as a means to liberation are common threads across Buddhist teachings.


The concept of consciousness is complex and multifaceted, and it is often discussed in relation to the theory of mind and the nature of human existence. The Buddhist understanding of consciousness is different from the conventional Western understanding.

According to Buddhist teachings, consciousness refers to a continuum of mental states or experiences that arise and cease in each moment. It is not considered as an eternal, unchanging entity or a self. Instead, consciousness is seen as a dynamic process without a fixed essence.

Buddhism recognizes the concept of “dependent origination” or “dependent arising,” which explains the interdependent nature of all phenomena, including consciousness. According to this doctrine, consciousness arises dependently on the presence of various conditions, such as sensory organs, sense objects, and mental processes.

Buddhist philosophy also asserts that consciousness is impermanent, constantly changing, and devoid of inherent existence or self-nature. It arises and passes away in a continuous stream of moments, influenced by causes and conditions. This understanding aligns with the broader Buddhist concept of impermanence and the absence of a permanent, unchanging self.

Moreover, Buddhism emphasizes the cultivation of mindfulness and insight meditation as a means to gain direct experiential insight into the nature of consciousness and reality. Through meditation and contemplation, practitioners aim to develop a deep understanding of the transient and conditioned nature of consciousness, leading to insights that can liberate them from suffering and delusion.

The Importance of Understanding Brain, Mind, and Consciousness:

Understanding the interplay between brain, mind, and consciousness holds significant implications for personal well-being, spiritual development, and the alleviation of suffering. Buddhism emphasises the importance of comprehending these concepts for the following reasons:

Self-Awareness and Liberation:

By understanding the nature of the mind and its connection to consciousness, individuals can cultivate self-awareness and gain insights into the causes of suffering. Buddhism teaches that recognising the impermanent, interdependent, and selfless nature of the mind and consciousness leads to liberation from attachment, craving, and suffering.

Ethical Conduct:

Understanding the mind’s role in shaping thoughts, emotions, and actions enables individuals to cultivate ethical behaviour. By recognising the impact of their mental states on their actions and the interconnectedness of all beings, individuals can promote compassion, empathy, and a sense of responsibility towards others.

Neuroscience’s Perspective:

Neuroscience, as a scientific field, seeks to understand the brain, mind, and consciousness through empirical research, brain imaging techniques, and neurobiological studies. While neuroscience focuses on the physical aspects of these phenomena, it provides valuable insights that complement the Buddhist perspective.

The Brain:

From a neuroscience standpoint, the brain is a complex organ composed of neurons and intricate neural networks. It is responsible for processing sensory information, regulating bodily functions, and generating cognitive processes. Neuroscientific research has revealed the brain’s role in shaping emotions, memories, and behaviour.

The Mind:

Neuroscience recognises the mind as the subjective experience and mental processes that arise from the brain’s activities. It acknowledges that the mind emerges as a result of neural processes and interactions within the brain. Cognitive neuroscience investigates how neural networks give rise to mental processes such as perception, attention, memory, and decision-making.

Through brain imaging techniques like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers can observe the brain’s activity while individuals engage in various mental tasks. These studies provide insights into how different brain regions are involved in specific cognitive functions, giving rise to the mind’s experiences. But what it is unable to do is to see exactly what the person is thinking.


Neuroscience approaches consciousness as the state of awareness and subjective experience. Although the exact nature of consciousness remains a topic of ongoing research and debate, neuroscientists study the neural correlates of consciousness (NCC) to understand the relationship between brain activity and conscious states.

Research on NCC has identified brain areas associated with specific conscious experiences, such as visual perception or self-awareness. By studying patients with brain injuries or disorders, scientists can explore how alterations in brain function affect consciousness.

Comparative Analysis:

While Buddhism and neuroscience approach the brain, mind, and consciousness from different perspectives, there are areas of convergence between the two.

Buddhism provides a holistic and philosophical viewpoint, focusing on the subjective experience, the nature of suffering, and the path to liberation. It emphasises the role of mental states, emotions, and consciousness in shaping human existence. Neuroscience, on the other hand, offers empirical evidence and neurobiological explanations for the processes underlying the mind and consciousness.

Both Buddhism and neuroscience acknowledge the dynamic and interconnected nature of brain, mind, and consciousness. They recognise that mental processes arise from neural activities, and subjective experiences emerge from the interplay between the brain and the external world. Both perspectives highlight the impermanent and ever-changing nature of these phenomena.

To gain a deeper understanding of brain, mind, and consciousness, a synthesis of Buddhist insights and neuroscientific findings can be beneficial. Integrating contemplative practices and mindfulness-based interventions with neuroscience research allows for a more comprehensive understanding of the human mind and its potential for transformation.

In conclusion, Buddhism and neuroscience provide distinct yet complementary perspectives on the brain, mind, and consciousness. Buddhism emphasises the subjective experience, the role of the mind in shaping reality, and the path to liberation from suffering. Neuroscience focuses on the physical aspects of these phenomena, investigating the brain’s neural processes and their relationship to consciousness. By integrating these perspectives, we can develop a more holistic understanding of human existence, cultivate self-awareness, and explore the potential for personal growth and well-being.

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Secular Buddhism: Bridging Eastern Wisdom and Western Minds

Buddhism, originating in ancient India, has traversed continents and centuries, touching the
lives of millions. As it spread to the West, it underwent adaptations to resonate with the
Western mindset. One such adaptation that gained popularity is Secular Buddhism. In this
article, I want to explore the essence of Secular Buddhism, its distinctions from traditional
Buddhism, and the reasons behind, what I think, is its appeal to Westerners.

Secular Buddhism is a contemporary movement that seeks to distil the core teachings of
Buddhism, while shedding some of its religious and metaphysical elements. It embraces a
humanistic approach, emphasising the practical application of Buddhist principles in
everyday life. By focusing on the universal truths of human suffering and the pursuit of
happiness, Secular Buddhism aims to make Buddhist teachings accessible to people of
various religious backgrounds or those that have no religion at all.

Before I go on, I should declare an interest here. I am western and spent many years
studying traditional Buddhism, especially Tibetan Buddhism. I then spend several more
years trying to separate what I believed to be Buddha’s teachings from what I saw as
cultural embellishments. This led me to start teaching Buddhism in a more secular way. I
defiantly would not class myself as a traditional Buddhist but would not say I was fully
secular either. For me Buddhism is not about rituals and dogma, in fact, I don’t think it is a
religion at all, it is a path of practice. Teaching in a secular way helps me make Buddha’s
teachings relevant to today’s world. If the teachings aren’t relevant and practical, they
aren’t of any use. That’s just my personal opinion, for what it’s worth.

Now, back to the purpose of this article. Let’s look at some differences between traditional
and secular Buddhism.

Secular Interpretation: Secular Buddhism places a strong emphasis on rationality and
critical thinking, which I believe Buddha was emphasising in his teachings. It encourages
practitioners to interpret Buddhist teachings in light of scientific knowledge and
contemporary understanding, rather than relying solely on traditional beliefs and dogmas.
Non-religious Nature: Unlike traditional Buddhism, Secular Buddhism does not require
adherence to supernatural concepts such as rebirth or karma. It allows individuals to
engage with Buddhism on a philosophical, psychological, or ethical level, without
subscribing to religious rituals or supernatural beliefs. It encourages the practice side of
Buddhism rather than the ritual. It doesn’t say karma and rebirth are untrue, it simple
keeps an open mind.

Ethical Focus: While traditional Buddhism encompasses a broad range of practices,
including devotional rituals and monastic discipline, Secular Buddhism places primary
importance on ethical conduct, mindfulness, and meditation. It emphasises the cultivation
of compassion, wisdom, and personal well-being as central aspects of the path.

Cultural Adaptation: Secular Buddhism recognises the need for contextual adaptation as it
encounters diverse cultural backgrounds. It encourages practitioners to explore the
teachings of Buddhism in a way that aligns with their own cultural values and social norms.
So, why is secular Buddhism so attractive to Westerners? Here are some reasons I feel are

Compatibility with Western Thought: Secular Buddhism harmonises with the Western
tradition of philosophical inquiry and scientific exploration. By emphasising humanistic
values, critical thinking, and personal agency, it resonates with the intellectual frameworks
prevalent in Western life.

Psychological and Emotional Well-being: Humans often experience high levels of stress,
anxiety, and existential dilemmas. Secular Buddhism offers practical tools, such as
mindfulness and meditation to address these challenges. Its focus on self-awareness,
acceptance, and compassion provides a framework for psychological growth and emotional

Individual Autonomy: Secular Buddhism empowers individuals to explore and adapt
Buddhist teachings according to their own needs and aspirations. It encourages personal
agency, allowing practitioners to integrate Buddhist principles into their lives without
constraints imposed by religious dogma or institutional authority.

Emphasis on Ethics and Social Justice: Secular Buddhism highlights the ethical dimensions of
Buddhist teachings, urging practitioners to cultivate compassion and engage in social
responsibility. This resonates with Western sensibilities, aligning with the values of equality,
justice, and environmental sustainability.

Interfaith Dialogue: Secular Buddhism offers a bridge for interfaith dialogue, as it
transcends religious boundaries and welcomes people from diverse backgrounds. It
encourages mutual understanding and collaboration between Buddhist practitioners,
atheists, agnostics, and individuals from other religious traditions.

Secular Buddhism represents a dynamic and evolving approach to the ancient wisdom of
Buddhism. By stripping away the religious trappings and embracing a more humanistic and
pragmatic perspective, it has become an attractive path for many Westerners seeking
spiritual fulfilment and personal growth. The compatibility of Secular Buddhism with
Western thought, its emphasis on psychological well-being, individual autonomy, ethics,
and social justice, and its ability to foster interfaith dialogue are some of the reasons behind
its appeal.

Secular Buddhism serves as a bridge between Eastern wisdom and Western minds, allowing
individuals to engage with Buddha’s teachings without the need for religious conversion or
dogmatic adherence. It offers a practical and accessible approach to incorporating Buddhist

principles into one’s daily life, helping individuals navigate the challenges of modern

However, it is important to note that Secular Buddhism is not without its critics. Some
argue that it dilutes the depth and richness of traditional Buddhist teachings, and that
removing the religious and metaphysical elements can diminish the transformative
potential of the practice. Others express concern that secularisation may lead to a
superficial understanding of Buddhism, focusing solely on self-improvement rather than the
deeper spiritual aspects.

Nonetheless, Secular Buddhism has undoubtedly made Buddhism more accessible and
relevant to the Western world. It has sparked conversations and dialogue, encouraging
individuals to explore their own beliefs, values, and paths to self-discovery. By adapting to
the cultural context and addressing the needs of Westerners, Secular Buddhism has
become a dynamic and evolving movement that continues to attract a growing number of

In a nutshell, Secular Buddhism represents an evolution of Buddhist thought that resonates
with the Western mindset. By emphasising rationality, ethics, mindfulness, and personal
well-being, it offers a practical and adaptable approach to the timeless wisdom of
Buddhism. While it may differ from traditional Buddhism in certain aspects, it provides a
valuable entry point for Westerners seeking to explore Buddha’s teachings and integrate
them into their lives. Ultimately, the appeal of Secular Buddhism lies in its ability to provide
guidance and insight on the path to self-discovery, inner peace, and compassionate living in
the modern world.

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a month.

The Fluidity of Reality

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.

(You can read more about this topic here –

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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Mangala Sutra – Part Six

In part six of the Mangala Sutra, we look at the importance of having a teacher, guide, or spiritual friend. We are obviously going to face obstacles and hindrances on the path, so having someone with experience to support us is essential.

You may be a secular Buddhist and not wish to join any group, club, or organisation because you don’t want to be tied to any belief system, or you may be someone who doesn’t like groups and would sooner study from books. There is no problem with either of these. However, I strongly believe you still need a teacher or mentor to help you along your spiritual path.

Buddha’s teachings aren’t about blindly believing a set of principles or being given a practice and told to get on with it. It is about working on your own mind and experiences, and sorting through your own problems and difficulties. Sometimes we are going to come across obstacles that we will need help navigating. This is where teachers come in handy. They can guide us through our difficult times and encourage us to persevere.

Even though Buddha encouraged us to be a refuge to ourselves and not look for external refuge, he wasn’t talking about going it alone. He meant that we should not be looking outside of ourselves for gods or higher beings to take responsibility for our lives. That responsibility is ours and ours alone.

So, a teacher is a guide, mentor, and spiritual friend, not a god or a higher being. Their job is to help us along the way. It states this in the Dhammapada, verse 276:

‘You yourselves must strive; the masters only point the way. Those who meditate and practice the path are freed from the bonds of destructive emotions.’

There have been many reports of abuse by teachers recently, especially of a sexual nature, so it is clear we must choose our teachers very carefully. I would suggest a good teacher is someone who doesn’t profess to have all the answers because that isn’t possible. Good teachers are themselves simply working on their own practice and are willing to share their experiences with others. They would also be willing to learn from their students’ experiences. Two necessary traits of a good teacher are humility and modesty. For our part, we should realise that teachers are only human; like us, they are flawed and will inevitably make mistakes.

Buddha did not claim any divine status for himself, nor did he say he was a personal saviour. He said he was simply a guide and teacher. If your teachers don’t have any of the characteristics mentioned above but have a title or call themselves a guru or higher being, I would suggest you check them out very carefully.

Here are five qualities we should look for in a teacher:

‘Buddha’s teachings should be taught with the thought, “I will speak step-by-step” … “I will speak explaining the sequence” … “I will speak out of compassion” … “I will speak not for the purpose of material reward” … “I will speak without disparaging others.”’

Let’s look at these five qualities. As we go through them, keep your teacher/mentor in mind and see if he or she embraces these five qualities.

First, the teacher should speak step by step. It is of very little use to learn about emptiness or nonself if you haven’t first understood that there is an unease or discontentment running through your life. When I first started studying Buddhism I had so many teachings on what a Bodhisattva does and doesn’t do, but I didn’t know exactly what I was supposed to be doing myself. I learnt about how Milarepa (a famous Tibetan yogi) became enlightened in one lifetime, but Buddha took three countless aeons. I expect these stories have their place, but it certainly isn’t when one is just starting out on the path.

We need to start at the beginning of the path and slowly work our way along, one step at a time. This will help reduce any confusion. Many students get so confused that they turn away from Buddhism, believing it is not relevant to them, when in fact it could be that they are not being taught step by step. One of the great things about Buddhism is that Buddha’s discourses are numbered—five precepts, ten harmful acts, four truths, five qualities of a teacher—which makes it easier to follow and remember the individual steps of the teachings.

Second, the teacher should explain the sequence. I have had teachings where someone has asked about why are things done in this order, only to be told that it is tradition, which I find very annoying and not very helpful. So, the sequence should be explained. Why in the four truths do we start with ‘there is suffering’ and then go on to ‘the causes of suffering’, followed by ‘there is an end, or at least a way to reduce, suffering’, and finally, ‘the path that leads to the reduction of our suffering’? There is a reason for this sequence and your teacher should explain it clearly. This will ensure there is no confusion or misunderstanding.

Third, the teacher’s motivation for teaching should be one of kindness, caring and compassion. Teachers should see that people are discontented with their lives and need some help to find their way. Teachers should not be motivated by pride, thinking they are better than their students, or arrogant, thinking they know more than their students. Their teachings should be grounded in an overwhelming sense of wanting to help others.

Fourth, the teacher should not teach just to get material gain. How can you sit and listen to a teacher telling you not to get attached to things when the teacher quite clearly is attached to them? This goes back to a point I mentioned earlier: teachers’ words should reflect their actions.

Finally, their teachings should not disparage others. I have to be honest with you and say I have had quite a few teachings that have put other schools of Buddhism down. This, I believe, is done so teachers can gain control over their students. They say that their teachings are the quickest, best, simplest, most powerful way to reach enlightenment—all of this is said without offering any proof.

I have also had teachers make fun of other religions because these don’t believe what Buddhists believe. One ridiculed other religions for believing in god, and then he proceeded to do a protector prayer. This prayer is to ask some mythical being outside of yourself to help you—in other words, a god type figure.

Buddha’s teachings are just one form of help we can use to improve our lives, but they clearly aren’t the only one. We are all different, and so what suits one will not suit another. The teacher should focus on giving you the facts and not spend time disparaging others.

I would like to add another quality that I think is very important, and that is the five precepts. I believe any Buddhist teacher should attempt to follow the precepts. Of course, they are only human and may come up short sometimes, but they should at least try to follow them. I find it hard to take teachings on board when teachers are trying to teach me how to act, and they quite clearly cannot act that way themselves. ‘Do as I say and not as I do’ doesn’t work these days.

Check your teachers carefully and be sure their words and actions match. Also be sure your teachers challenge you and not just make you feel comfortable and safe.

How should the student act? Some people think to show respect to their teachers they have to bow down to them, treat them as higher beings, shower them with gifts and blindly follow every word they say. I do not think this sycophantic way of acting is giving respect. If you truly want to respect your teachers, then listen to their teachings, ask questions to clear up any doubts, reflect and meditate on the teaching and then, finally, put what they have taught into practice. What better way to respect anyone?

The problem with students acting this way is that they sometimes end up lusting after time with teachers, hanging on their every word and doing things they wouldn’t usually do just to please this higher being. They totally forget that this is about the student, not the teacher. They project special powers onto teachers, which they don’t have. I have a friend who thinks his teacher can hear and see everything that is happening to his students. If the teacher looks at him in an angry way, he will look back over the last few days and imagine it is for something he did. This way of thinking is not just irrational, it is also dangerous, as it is leaving you wide open for abuse.

Once you start seeing this human being as someone higher, better, and more worthy than yourself, you start along that slippery slope of being taken for a ride. This is how cults are formed. You think the teacher is a godlike figure who knows what is good for you, so you surrender. He gets you doing irrational and quite often immoral things, but you blindly follow because he is the chosen one, he knows best. This can lead you to act in an unethical way, do things you would never have dreamed of doing until you met your teacher, and it can also lead to psychological problems. What it definitely won’t do is help alleviate your suffering.

I think you have to look carefully at what you want out of your relationship with your teacher. Do you want a guide to help you reduce your suffering, or do you want someone to take responsibility for your life? ‘Are you wanting to learn from them or lean on them?’

Buddha’s teachings are an inward journey where we look at the human condition and try to tweak it to make life more bearable. It isn’t about handing over your life to someone else and letting them do whatever they want with it. I believe it is a journey of discovery about what makes us who we are, why we act in a certain way and how we can reduce the suffering in our life. For me it is not about mythical figures or realms; I see those as the outside world. It is about trying to make myself the best possible person I can be in this life, and that is why I need a teacher, or teachers, to help me explore my inner world. I don’t want to lean on them—I have my friends for that—I want to learn from them.

On a positive note, there are without doubt some wonderful teachers out there who are compassionate, grounded, and informed; we just have to find them. I will reiterate what I said at the start: it is extremely important to have a teacher/mentor to guide us along our chosen path, so please do not be put off by bad teachers—good teachers by far outweigh the bad ones.

Once we have found a teacher and have has their teachings, it is good to discuss those teachings. The main reasons for discussing the teachings is to clear up any doubts you may have, prevent you from just blindly following what has been said and to help you with your understanding of the teaching.

Doubt can totally take you off course, stop you from implementing the teaching and cause you to walk away thinking this teaching is not for you. I know in many traditional texts it is stated that you should not have doubt. But how is that possible? If you have doubt, then you have doubt. Doubts are not going to be cleared up by saying you shouldn’t have them.

What many traditional texts want you to do is blindly follow the teachings and the teachers. In my experience, this doesn’t work. If I have doubts, I discuss them and try to clear them up. I don’t suppress them or pretend I don’t have them. Buddha told a story about a blind man and a piece of white cloth, which shows how unhelpful blind faith is.

There was this man who was blind from birth who had heard from people with good eyesight that a piece of white cloth was beautiful, spotless, and clean. So, he went in search of a piece of white cloth. He came upon a man who said he had a beautiful, spotless, clean piece of white cloth, but what he actually had was a grimy, oil-stained rag. The blind man took the rag and put it on. He thought he had a piece of white cloth, so he was gratified. Buddha asked the assembly if the blind man had taken the cloth out of faith or through knowing and seeing. Of course, they proclaimed it was out of faith, and Buddha said we should never accept things out of faith alone. We should only accept things from knowing and seeing, which means from our experience.

So, don’t blindly believe things; check to see if they fit your experiences. We have to listen to, or read, teachings with a critical mind. It doesn’t matter if the book you are reading is a hundred-or-so years old, or your teacher has a wonderful title; we still need to check out what is being said. That goes for what I am saying here as well. Check my words out and see if it fits with your experiences, please don’t blindly believe it.

The final point here is that we need to discuss the teachings in order to help with our understanding. It is great to have a group of like-minded people to bounce things off or a friend that is also following the teachings of Buddha. It is funny, but once you start to articulate things they can seem different to how you imagined them in your head.

If you are studying in a group, don’t be afraid to raise any doubts you may have. When I first started studying Buddha’s teachings, I found it hard to believe in rebirth—I think a lot of Westerners struggle with this concept. As I was in a group, I didn’t want to bring it up because I thought everyone else believed it. It became quite an obstacle for me and was starting to prevent me from moving forward with my studies. One day I brought it up in a question-and-answer session. To my surprise, over eighty percent of the group were also struggling with it. It was such a weight off my shoulders.

My teacher at the time was quite forward thinking and told us not to worry about it, leave it to one side and move on. He advised us to revisit the issue now and again and see if it had started to fit into place. I have to say that it never has with me, but it hasn’t stopped my studies or, more important, my practice. As I have previously stated, I don’t know if I have been here before or if I will visit again, but what I do know is that I am here now, and that is what is most important to me. We have to understand that sometimes issues, such as rebirth or the traditional understanding of karma, cannot be reconciled, so don’t worry. It is fine to put things on the back burner. What we shouldn’t do is throw Buddha out with the bath water by dismissing the whole of his teachings because of these things.

This blog is based on my book ‘Life’s Meandering Path’- available from Amazon and Kindle.

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