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Releasing your mind
Let go the past. Let go the future. Let go the present. Crossing to the farther shove of existence, with mind released from anything and everything, do not again undergo birth and decay.
(Tanha Vagga - The Dhammapada)

Living with pain, not with suffering

As long as we have bodies, we will have physical pain. Buddhism promises no escape from that. What we can change is how we experience pain.

Bhikkhu Bodhi offers a technique to lessen mental suffering of pain, look at its true nature and learn its valuable lessons.

SUFFERING: When I write about living with pain, I don’t have to use my imagination. Since 1976 I have been afflicted with chronic head pain that has grown worse over the decades.

This condition has thrown a granite boulder across the tracks of my meditation practice. Pain often wipes a day and night off my calendar, and sometimes more at a stretch.

The condition has cost me a total of several years of productive activity. Because intense head pain makes reading difficult, it has at times even threatened my vocation as a scholar and translator of Buddhist texts.

In search of a cure, I have consulted not only practitioners of Western medicine but also herbal physicians in remote Sri Lankan villages. I’ve been pierced countless times by acupuncture needles.

I’ve subjected my body to the hands of a Chinese massage therapist in Singapore, consumed Tibetan medicine pills in Dharamasala and sought help from exorcists and chakra healers in Bali. With only moderate success, I currently depend on several medications to keep the pain under control. They cannot extricate it by the root.

I know firsthand that chronic bodily pain can eat deeply into the entrails of the spirit. It can cast dark shadows over the chambers of the heart and pull one down into moods of dejection and despair. I cannot claim to have triumphed over pain, but in the course of our long relationship, I’ve discovered some guidelines that have helped me to endure the experience.

First of all, it is useful to recognize the distinction between physical pain and the mental reaction to it. Although body and mind are closely intertwined, the mind does not have to share the same fate as the body. When the body feels pain, the mind can stand back from it.

Instead of allowing itself to be dragged down, the mind can simply observe the pain. Indeed, the mind can even turn the pain around and transform it into a means of inner growth.

The Buddha compares being afflicted with bodily pain to being struck by an arrow. Adding mental pain (aversion, displeasure, depression, or self-pity) to physical pain is like being hit by a second arrow. The wise person stops with the first arrow.

Simply by calling the pain by its true name, one can keep it from extending beyond the physical and thereby stop it from inflicting deep and penetrating wounds upon the spirit.

Pain can be regarded as a teacher - a stern one that can also be eloquent. My head pain has often felt like a built-in buddha who constantly reminds me of the first noble truth.

With such a teacher, I hardly need to consult the sermon in Deer Park at Benares. In order to hear the reverberations of the Buddha’s voice declaring that whatever is felt is included in suffering, all I have to do is attend to the sensations in my head.

As a follower of the dharma, I place complete trust in the law of karma. Therefore, I accept this painful condition as a present-life reflection of some unwholesome karma I created in the past.

Not that I would advise someone who develops a painful illness to immediately resign themselves to it. Although it may be the inevitable fruit of some past karma, it might also be the result of a present cause that can be effectively eliminated by proper medical treatment.

However, when various types of treatment fail to help with an obstinate and defiant condition, one can be pretty sure there is a karmic factor. Personally, I don’t lose sleep trying to figure out what this past karma might have been, and I would advise others against succumbing to such obsessive concerns.

They can easily lead to self-deluding fantasies and superstitious practices. In any case, by trusting the law of karma, one can understand that the key to future good health lies in one’s hands. It is a reminder to refrain from harmful deeds motivated by ill-will and to engage in deeds aimed at promoting the welfare and happiness of others.

Chronic pain can be an incentive for developing qualities that give greater depth and strength to one’s character. In this way, it can be seen as a blessing rather than as a burden, though of course we shouldn’t abandon the effort to discover a remedy for it.

My own effort to deal with chronic pain has helped me to develop patience, courage, determination, equanimity, and compassion. At times, when the pain has almost incapacitated me, I’ve been tempted to cast off all responsibilities and just submit passively to this fate.

But I’ve found that when I put aside the worries connected with the pain and simply bear it patiently, it eventually subsides to a more tolerable level. From there I can make more realistic decisions and function effectively.

The experience of chronic pain has enabled me to understand how inseparable pain is from the human condition.

This is something that we in America, habituated as we are to comfort and convince, tend to forget. Chronic pain has helped me to empathize with the billions living daily with the gnawing pain of hunger; with the millions of women walking miles each day to fetch water for their families; with those in Third World countries who lie on beds in poorly equipped, understaffed hospitals, staring blankly at the wall.

Even during the most unremitting pain - when reading, writing, and speaking are difficult - I try not to let it ruffle my spirits and to maintain my vows, especially my vow to follow the monastic path until this life is over.

When pain breaks over my head and down my shoulders, I use contemplation to examine the feelings. This helps me see them as mere impersonal events, as processes that occur at gross and subtle levels through the force of conditions, as sensations with their own distinct tones, textures, and flavours.

The most powerful tool I’ve found for mitigating pain’s impact is a short meditative formula repeated many times in the Buddha’s discourses: “Whatever feelings there may be-past, present, or future- all feeling is not mine, not I, not myself.”

Benefiting from this technique does not require deep samadhi or a breakthrough to profound insight. Even using this formula during periods of reflective contemplation helps to create a distance between oneself and one’s experience of pain.

Such contemplation deprives the pain of its power to create nodes of personal identification within the mind, and thus builds equanimity and fortitude.

Although the technique takes time and effort, when the three terms of contemplation - “not mine, not I, not myself” - gain momentum, pain loses its sting and cracks opens the door to the end of pain, the door to ultimate freedom.

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Teaching for everybody

UNIVERSAL TEACHING: The teaching of the Buddha is for everybody. Whoever you are, wherever you are, understanding the meaning of what the Buddha teaches is rewarding. Let me explain.

Consider human emotions. What one feels, that one perceives. What one perceives, that one intends. Would you like know and understand their origin and nature? Would you like to know their benefits and danger? Would you like to know how to use them best, direct and control them? The Buddha teaches all this. Nothing else like it has been ever taught.

Let us make a compendium. There is happiness, liking, fulfillment, delight, lust, joy, ecstasy, rapture; and their opposites of sadness, sorrow, lamentation, disappointment, pain, grief, despair and helplessness.

There is eagerness, anticipation, attachment, craving, addiction, covetousness, passion and conflict on the one hand; disinterest, indifference, dispassion, serenity, equanimity, intrepidity and peace on the other.

There is also apathy, indolence, torpor, anxiety, agitation, restlessness, fear, worry, doubt, frustration, obstinacy, anger, spite, arrogance, conceit and impetuosity.

We experience love, kindness, sympathy, empathy, caring, pity; and sometimes have feelings of hate, aversion, disgust, vanity, contempt and jealousy.

There is a smorgasbord of things heard, smelled, tasted and touched described as delicious, fantastic and incredible.

In speech we are gentle, calm, polite and truthful or rude, malicious, harsh, venomous, false and provoking.

Our minds conjecture a frequent play of wonder, titillation, and excitement as of boredom, sameness, depression and disgust. The Buddha discussed them all. His analysis and logic has nothing to do with believing, accepting or rejecting what he says. He described all human feeling with remarkable aplomb.

No one has done it before or after him. There is nothing to add or anything to take away. He described them as they actually are. The entire Teaching is about feeling - setting it uniquely apart from the mode of thinking, description and explanation such as in physics, chemistry, mathematics and philosophy.

The genius of the Buddha is not in describing the cornucopia of feeling.

His genius is in describing every possible feeling in one word: Dukkha.

He described how feeling arises in human consciousness - in eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind-consciousness - also in one word: Desire.

He described their underlying nature also in one word: Impermanence. He described the way to end feeling, in one word: Abandonment.

He described the end of feeling in one word: Nibbana. This is the gist of his supreme Teaching.

Our lives are made and broken, enriched and warped, governed and entrapped, directed and controlled, endured and suffused by perceptions and feelings of all kinds. All living beings search only for one feeling - of continuous happiness.

But alas! It is not to be. Feelings arise, fade, change, are impermanent and disappear. They tatter and fragment to mere memories, like dying embers of fires lit and warmed by once upon a time. But we never give up.

Yet no one abandons pursuit of happiness.

From time immemorial it is the nature of living beings to seek pleasure, to desire and yearn. Without this primordial urge, life would not have evolved and survived the millennia past, and would not in the future. So what is wrong in that?

The Buddha examines this existential situation in another way, in an exclusive special way, not in terms of right and wrong, divine or revealed.

By describing the arising and cessation of feeling, he seeks to instill in us personal skill, enthuse private preference, want and choice from understanding the underlying nature of feeling, as it actually is, and thereby experience escape and freedom from all feeling, at least partly, here and now, not after death in a limbo beyond but in this life.

That is the beauty and the enchantment and the relevance of his teaching. It gives hope and confidence to anybody and everybody that there is freedom from dukkha. But as in achieving anything, it requires personal commitment, endeavour, attention and relentless effort.

Nothing Buddha teaches is mandatory. Take it or leave it. What is at issue is your own life.

This essay would be incomplete if it ends here.

The best is to let the Buddha speak.

A haughty Brahmin once asked him, disrespectfully leaning on his golden walking stick: What does the recluse Gotama teach? What are his views? The Buddha answered: ‘I teach that perceptions do not harass and obsess a Brahmin who dwells detached from sensual pleasures, without anxiety and worry, free from craving of any kind.

I have no quarrel with the world. The world quarrels with me.’

[[email protected]]

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Share your precious wealth with the world: American Buddhist Stephen Long

“Sri Lanka has the most precious wealth which you should share with the world. It is nothing but Theravada Buddhism” says Stephen Long, who is in the island on an invitation of Ven. Dr. Walpola Piyananda Thera, Chief Sangha Nayaka of America.

Fifty-seven-year-old American Buddhist who is here on a goodwill visit is planning to launch a programme to make our temples ecologically clean places. With two other young Bhikkhus from Sri Maha Vihara, Pamankada Ven. Dhammajothi Thera and Ven. Piyarathana Thera, the programme entitled “Sundara Lanka” is aimed at keeping the temples and their environs clean.

A Buddhist Upsasaka, Upasika or Bhikkhu is expected to have a clean mind which needs a clean space - a clean quiet environment. A Buddhist temple, however modest it may be, should be a clean place for the dweller in it”, he believes.

Under the “Sundara Lanka” programme steps will be taken to keep every temple in the island clean; doing away with plastic and polythene in and around temple premises. Growing more and more flowering and fruit bearing trees in the temple yard, producing organic manure in the temple yard itself too will subsequently follow”, he says.

When Stephen Long arrived in Sri Lanka, last Vesak Full Moon night, it was yet another upward journey in his search ‘within’; he knew he had come to the right place - the centre of Theravada Buddhism.

Though Asia has been a frequent haunt in his sojourns as part of his career in tourism, this is his first visit to the ‘precious’ island. He stresses the word ‘precious’ with bearing eyes. “I’m so happy to be here.”

The Vesak Moon in the sky, the pandals, lanterns along the streets, the alms halls (Dana Sala) inviting passers-by for meals, recitation and devotional songs in the air have snatched away the jet-lag of 27 hour-long-flight from Los Angelese from him. “I started visiting a couple of temples in the night”, he said.

Stephen Long has been on a truth seeking mission from the age 19. His mission has taken him from Christianity to Hinduism and to Zen Buddhism; from one spiritual Guru to another.

His association with Buddhism starts at the beautiful Hawaiiyan island of Oahu. At the Oahu Zen Monastery he practised meditation - it was more meditation - “looking inward” than learning Buddhist scriptures.

Numerous journeys to Bangkok in connection with his career as an executive in Hawaiian Tourism Industry brought him closer to Theravada Buddhism. Since then he has been an active participant in Buddhist activities in Bangkok.

Since 2004, he has been closely working with Maha Chulalongkorn University in Thailand in organising United Nations International Buddhist Conference held in Bangkok.

A disciple of Ven. Dr. Walpola Piyananada Thera, Incumbent Bhikkhu of Dharma Vijaya Buddhist Vihara, Los Angeles, now he is a ‘Bodicari’.

Which means an observer of 10 precepts in Buddhist parlance among American Buddhists. He has already passed the levels of ‘Upasaka’ (observer of 5 precepts) and Dhammacari (8 precepts). His Buddhist name is Bodicari Dharmapala.

“Many Americans are embracing Buddhism as the beacon of their spiritual journey”, he reveals. “English Buddhist publications have a big market in Europe and America today”, he said.

“Though Buddhist publications from other Buddhist countries are available in American bookshelves, rarely a Sri Lankan Buddhist publication is found among them. It is high time steps are taken to make Sri Lankan Buddhist publications available abroad”, he said.

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Suneetha - the scavenger

I was the lowest of the low,
The poorest, the most degraded
Drawer of night soil,
I was Suneetha.

One day, a pingo load of night soil
Resting on my shoulders,
I met the Buddha on the street.
He, escorted by the Sangha
Was on his way to Maghada.
Men threw flowers in his path,
They ran to worship him as he passed.

And, the untouchable,
The smelly one, the one whom people shunned,
Slipped the pingo from my shoulders
And worshipped too.

Lips quivering, I found the courage
To ask the Lord
“Can I not be one too?
Your disciple in yellow robes
Like the ones who follow you?”

The Buddha in his compassion
Said “Bhikkhu, come hither,”
And behold, my smelly rags
Had changed to yellow robes,
My hair shorn close,
There I stood
A disciple in his order,
I chose a lonely forest close
As my retreat,
To dwell upon the advice.
The Buddha gave to me.
And by the first night’s watch
I knew my previous births.
In the middle watch
I gained the divine eye,
And with the dawn
There dawned on me
The way of conditioned things.

With the sun’s bright rays
Came sakra, king of gods
And Brahma, the cosmic lord
To worship me,
Saying “We salute you, noble One,
Who hath ceased to bear defilement.”

Then I went before the Buddha
Who smiled his welcome and said -
“Suneetha” -
By control of senses, by discipline, by wisdom,
You have become taintless.
You are a Brahmin,
You are a non-returner, a noble one.

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Buddha statue to be carved out of Balungala

A large Buddha statue is going to be carved out of the Balungala, a large slab of stone in Kadugannawa. ‘The Balana Buddha Statue Associates’, an organisation formed to fulfil the task comprises a team of nine persons headed by Ven. Dr. Kumburugamuwe Vajira, former Professor of History and Buddhism at the University of Kelaniya.

The others in the team are: Prof. L. Premathilleke, (Archaeology) L. K. Seneviratne, (Geologist) Dr. Wilbert Kehelpannala (Geologist) Dr. Ranjith Cabraal (Consultant) Mr. Mohan Panabokke (Basnayake Nilame -Maha Vishnu Devala, Kandy). Prof. (Emeritus) Chandra Wickremagamage (Prof. Art and Archaeology) Dr. I. Ratnayake, H. Hapugoda.

The colossal statue after completion will be 75 feet high. Local stone masons will be hired to do the carving.

The project expected to cost thirty million rupees started last month. Contributions to this project could be credited to the Balana Buddha statue associates’ C/A, No. 6095631.

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