Mindfulness and religion
Oct16

Mindfulness and religion

Except from my forthcoming book: Mindfulness: The Full Works   Mindfulness and religion   At the beginning of Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey a black monolith appears in a prehistoric landscape. An ape picks up a bone of a dead animal (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ypEaGQb6dJk at 6.30) and strikes at the apes of a rival tribe; his companions follow suit, and a new era is born. What was formerly just a bones is now a tool, in this case a weapon. Technology is born, and with it all of its benefits and drawbacks.   To make this move, that ape had to do something specific with his mind. He had to have an idea. He had to make the first ever abstraction. He had to draw out from his multifarious experience the idea ‘tool.’ Once he had the idea, he could look for a tool in the world of concrete experience; he could pick up the bone. But first he had to make that leap: the first abstraction. It was no doubt a similar process when man invented fire. Someone would have had to abstract the idea ‘heat’ from their surroundings. Feeling the warmth of the sun; seeing lightning burn the brushwood on the hillside; the warmth of the body. Between all those things was a common factor: ‘heat.’ This capacity to make abstractions from his experience eventually gave mankind mastery over his environment and technological prowess.   But the evolution of technology does not explain the origin of religion, or how mankind evolved ritual. For some the reason was social. After studying Australian aborigine culture Emile Durkheim deduced that because religion existed everywhere it must have been social useful: in producing collective well-being, cohesion and integration. Roy Rappaport proposes that ritual is the original and primary means of creating systems of meaning that ground and give life to society. (Ritual: A Very Short Introduction) He even thinks it predates language and conceptual ideas. Without what we understand in a common sense way as religion humanity could not have emerged from its proto-human condition. And while it is impossible to prove, he thinks that religions’ origins are closely connected with the origins of humanity. Personally I agree. I think that religion and ritual evolved to make sense of what man could not conceptualize, technologize or master: what was deep in the bowels of the earth or high in the sky beyond his reach. Even with our technology today and the technology we imagine in the future there will always be something it cannot master. The question of how to live.   Emile Durkheim proposed that religion is basically a “social...

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What is a puja?
Jan06

What is a puja?

Despite its reputation as a rational religion, Buddhism has many devotional practices. The word for devotion is puja. Puja literally means ‘worship’ and worship in turn is connected with the word worth, so the most helpful way of seeing puja is that it helps us to remember what is of value to us in the midst of the many other values which compete for our attention. So the aim of devotional practice in Buddhism is to evoke that which is most important in Buddhism: the Buddha; his teachings – called the Dharma; and the community of Buddhists or the Sangha. These three most precious things in Buddhism are called appropriately the Three Jewels. The word ‘devotion’ itself  is connected with the Latin word votum, which means ‘to vow or wish’ and the prefix de– means ‘completely,’ so the sense of devotion is that when we practice it we are trying to align ourselves as fully as we can with the Three Jewels. The word ‘devote’ implies ‘a compelling motive or attachment to an objective’ [Merriam Webster online dictionary] and in that way somebody might devote their evening to studying or looking after their elderly parents, but when we practice devotion in Buddhism the particular motive or objective we are trying to recollect and re-inforce is specific to Buddhist values. Within the Triratna Buddhist Community the standard devotional text is called the Sevenfold Puja, but there are other devotional practices that members of the Triratna Buddhist Order perform towards chosen Buddhas and Bodhisattvas with whom they have a...

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The ‘Twelve-Step’ Bowing Programme
Apr01

The ‘Twelve-Step’ Bowing Programme

Image: Woman prostrating her way around the Mahabodhi temple in Bodh Gaya, India: the site of the Buddha’s Enlightenment. Photo: Mahabodhi.   We might initially think that to bow to an image is to ‘give away our power;’ that it is an act of debasement, or superstition or blind faith that we have come to expect from religions. But in fact the bow is something that can be very useful in opening us up to positive influences outside of ourselves and through that influence we can develop qualities in ourselves that were not there before.   If we break the bow down into a number of rational steps – what I jokingly call the ‘Twelve Step Bowing Programme’ – our rational mind can more easily accept what we are doing and we can then cultivate desired qualities within ourselves.   To try this stand in front of an image of the Buddha, or if you like, an image of someone you really admire – it might be Martin Luther King, or even a real person, and take yourself through this sequence:-     Step one – Reflect that it is very unlikely that you are the kindest / wisest / calmest being in the universe  (pick a quality you wish to develop or that you respect in the person.)   Step two – Therefore another being must be.   Step three – Let the image or person you are bowing to represent that being.   Step four – Be aware of the respective heights of your head and the height of head of the other person / image.  Allow the different head heights to symbolize the person who is more developed in the desired quality, e.g. kindness.   Step five – Mentally acknowledge the others’ greater kindness.   Step six – Feel you need to acknowledge the others’ greater kindness with an action, and do that by symbolically making your head lower than the others’ (bow.) Try to feel conscious during the bowing action that the other person is kinder than you are.   Step seven – Consider how it would feel to be as kind as they are.   Step eight – Think that the best way to become as kind as they are is to let yourself come under their influence.   Step nine – Make a resolve to be open to their influence in this area.   Step ten – Kindness becomes more on the agenda for you.   Step eleven – You gradually become more kind.   Step twelve – You become as kind as they are.       By following this logical sequence...

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‘Poetic Logic’
Feb15

‘Poetic Logic’

All images copyright of Amrta. Individual Buddha images reproduced courtesy of Buddhafield East. To commission Amrta go to www.buddhapixie.com.   An earlier version of this article was published in the February 2011 issue of the Triratna Buddhist Order journal, Shabda.     A Schema for the Imagination and Ritual based upon the Five Buddha Mandala     We are used to thinking of logic as dealing with concepts, but we can think of poetry too as having its own logic. In this short article I will try to explain what I think poetic logic is using an iconic system from Tibetan Buddhism called the Five Buddha Mandala, in which the qualities of Enlightenment – such as wisdom and compassion – are represented by five coloured Buddhas. A mandala is simply a pictorial organisation of symbolic forms. In the centre of the Mandala is the white Buddha Vairocana: the Illuminator. He holds an eight-spoked  wheel called a Dharmachakra, which symbolizes the teaching of the Buddha. Vairocana represents the central principle in Buddhism of personal transformation. The individual is transformed through contact with the teachings of Buddhism. But more importantly transformation happens through contact with any teacher who embodies Enlightened qualities to some degree or other. Surrounding Vairocana is the dark blue Buddha Aksobhya: the Imperturbable, in the eastern direction: the yellow Buddha Ratnasambhava, or ‘Jewel-born, to the south; the dark red Buddha Amitabha: Infinite Light to the west; ; and the dark green Buddha Amoghasiddhi or Unobstructed Success is in the north. Each Buddha has a different hand gesture – called a mudra – and is associated with a particular Enlightened quality. So for instance Aksobhya has the ‘earth-touching’ mudra and he is associated  with Wisdom; Ratnasambhava’s mudra is that of generosity and he is associated with seeing the value in things; Amitabha’s mudra is that of meditation and he is associated with Compassion;  and Amoghasiddhi’s mudra is that of fearlessness and he is associated  with successful activity. The reason why it is helpful to use the schema of the five Buddhas to explain the fields of Imagination and Ritual is that 1) the five Buddhas are themselves symbols of the imagination, and 2) there are five key areas that are pertinent to the fields of Imagination and Ritual and there are five pitfalls that we can fall prey to with each area if we are not careful. The five key areas are whether or not we set out with a poetic sensibility; the quality of the image we are attending to; the question of whether we have faith or confidence in the image, what we then do in terms of ritual and devotion, and finally whether we are helpfully...

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