Buddhism and the Natural World: Deep Ecology, Deep Dharma

Kamalashila lives in West Hampstead, London, with Dharmacharini Yashobodhi. In 1974 he was ordained into the Triratna Buddhist Order by Urgyen Sangharakshita who gave him his Dharma name, “Kamalashila” — “He whose conduct (śila, Sanskrit) is like a red lotus (kamala)”. He’s the author of Buddhist Meditation: Tranquillity, Imagination and Insight (Windhorse Publications, 3rd Revised edition edition 2012) and leading this year’s Buddhafield Total Immersion Retreat, a month-long, silent meditation camping retreat in Devon.

He is by temperament rather shy, quiet and thoughtful, but he has been active for forty years teaching meditation, establishing communities, writing and leading Dharma study. In 1976 he founded the West London Buddhist Centre near Earls Court; he moved to Wales in 1979 and became a founder of Vajraloka Meditation Centre and later Vajrakuta, Triratna’s first residential Dharma study centre. He also has longstanding connections with Buddhafield and EcoDharma.

This is a talk he gave to members of the Triratna Buddhist Order (then still known as the Western Buddhist Order) in 2005. Some of the themes he covers are very relevant to Buddhafield’s Green Earth Awakening Camp (May 16–21 2014).

You can find this and many other talks by Kamalashila on Free Buddhist Audio.

1. Parami: introduction (3:15).

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2. Kamalashila: environmentalism in the early days of the FWBO; Vajraloka; reactions in ’80s & ’90s; a contemporary shift (2:47).

3. A personal experience of participation in nature; nature and Buddha Nature; alienation from the natural world (4:52).

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4. Deep ecology as a way to insight; changing our sense of identity and ownership; deep ecology and ethics (4:26).

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5. Aldo Leopold; owning beings and land as unethical; the experience of being in the countryside; meditation and the “Four Great Elements” — “Mahabhutas”; nature and seeing beyond ego (8:40).

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6. Transcending self & other; our limited idea of “all beings” and the experience of other creatures (3:07).

7. Not dismissing non-humans; relative separation from the natural world; anthropocentrism versus ecocentrism; awareness of non-human beings and ethics (5:33).

8. Communal living; single sex; the underside of the development of communities; mixed communities and the benefits of other mixed environments (4:31).

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9. Sangharakshita’s book review on DH Lawrence and the Spiritual Community — four principles of spiritual community; sexual relationships and community living (7:17).

10. A personal vision of mixed communities; deep ecology and community living (2:27).

Festival 2013: Programme Update 1

Dharma Parlour 2013

The Dharma Parlour is an Area of the Festival dedicated to exploring the teachings of the Buddha and how it applies to us in the modern world. It has a full programme of activities over the weekend including a series of talks, study and workshops. You can see the whole Dharma Parlour programme as well as an outline for the Meditation Space on the main Buddhafield Website.

Highlights include:

From the Triratna Buddhist Order we have Lokabandhu, Shgantigarbha, Kulamitra, Maitridevi and Dhivan giving talks on topics from 10 Ways to Misunderstand Buddhism to The Buddha Broke my Heart; Theravadin monk the Venerable Amaranatho will be talking on the topic of The Listening heart and later leading a panel discussion on The Impact of Mindfulness; Dr. Tashi Zangmo and Marie Thesbjerg will be giving their own series of talks around themes arriving from their work with the Buthanese Nuns Foundation.

TBO members Dhivan and Mahabodhi will be leading daily study over the weekend where you can investigate two themes from the Buddha’s teaching, love as a means to Enlightenment and the Buddhist perspective on feelings and emotions.

The Dharma Parlour has it’s own workshop programme, and there’s something for everyone, from meditation for parents with Upayavira, to an introduction to Buddhism with Advayasiddhi, and an exploration of traditional “elements” meditations with Caroline Brazier.

Recordings from the 2012 Dharma Parlour

Lokabandhu giving a talk
Thanks to Free Buddhist Audio for hosting the talks recorded at last year’s Buddhafield Festival. Dharma Doorways and Deadends: not all that glitters is gold. Lokabandhu explores the fascinating Buddhist notion of “near enemies”, those seductive but misleading lookalikes to authentic spiritual qualities. Living in an Illusion … Dying to Escape: Khemasuri talks about everyday experience as virtual reality, focusing on death to turn towards the truth, and “thin moments”. Embracing Love: Vajrasara explores the joys and challenges of love, empathy, passion and compassion on the spiritual journey. Doors to Freedom: the Buddha’s Psychology of Liberation with Dhivan, author of This Being, That Becomes: the Buddha’s Teaching on Conditionality, talks about some of the historical Buddha’s ideas on how conscious awareness can influence unconscious patterns that keep us imprisoned in a fixed sense of self.

Ethical Leather?

Ethical Aspirations and Coping with Consumption

For many, veganism is an ethical decision to protect animals from a gross manipulation. Having been vegan myself, it is a minefield of ethics; to manoeuvre oneself around the array of animal products so imperceptible in many everyday items. Photographic films and papers use gelatine made from the hides and bones of cows and pigs. Most wines and beers use fish swim bladder derivatives to improve clarity and remove impurities. A red food colouring known as carmine is made from ground beetles. Stearic acid made from animal fat is used in baked goods, beverages, car tyres and fireworks. Animal fats are also found in plastic bags, wood glue, bio fuels, shampoos, fabric softener and tooth paste.

Leather is a strong, water resistant material in high demand for use in shoes, bags, coats, hats and gloves. The leather industry is worth £593 billion a year in the UK and most leather brought into the UK and Europe comes from India, China and countries where no laws protect animal welfare. According to PETA, People for Ethical Treatment of Animals:

…In addition to the cattle, sheep, and other animals who are killed for leather in China, an estimated 2 million cats and dogs are killed for their skins each year.

Confined to wire cages in which they can barely move, these animals are routinely skinned alive and hacked apart, piece by piece, until they bleed to death. Many products made from the skins of dogs and cats are bought unknowingly by consumers because the products are often intentionally mislabelled and do not accurately indicate their origins.”

In India cows are revered as holy and thus protected by law in all but two states which forces the leather industry to operate illegally. Bribery and corruption allow a harmful practice to go unregulated. Mrs Ghandi, Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment in 2000 claimed:

There is a huge amount of trafficking of cattle to both West Bengal and Kerala… I’ve seen 900 cows coming out of the wagon of a train, and 400 to 500 of them came out dead.

On the route to Kerala they don’t bother with trucks or trains: they tie them and beat them and take them on foot, 20,000 to 30,000 per day. [All Kerala’s slaughter houses are on the border.] Because they have walked and walked and walked the cattle have lost a lot of weight, so to increase the weight and the amount of money they will receive, the traffickers make them drink water laced with copper sulphate, which destroys their kidneys and makes it impossible for them to pass the water — so when they are weighed they have 15kg of water inside them and are in extreme agony.
How India’s Sacred Cows are Beaten, Abused and Poisoned to Make Leather for High Street Shops, Peter Popham, The Independent, 14 February 2000

So what are the alternatives? Pseudo–leather such as Naugahyde, Durabuck, NuSuede, and Hydrolyte have been created to satisfy the hide consumption but have not replaced the demand. Petro-chemical based materials will take 500 or more years to break down compared to the 25 to 40 years of leather.

Fish skins are now being offered as an ethical alternative to the leather industry. The skins of supposedly non endangered species, sourced sustainably, that would have been discarded as by-products from the food industry are being adapted into a reptilian style leather. The tanning of the fish skins are similar to the process used in the leather industry, minus the polluting effect of harmful chemicals used in hair removal and preservation such as aluminium, chromium sulphide and mercury.

This new leather has been adopted by the fashion industry and is bringing in the “eco” pound for its ethical credentials. The waste skins of salmon, trout, cod, wolf fish, Nile perch, pike-perch, tilapia and grass carp can be transformed into strong, lizard like clothing materials with a reduced environmental impact and the benefits of “recycling”.

This sounds like an ideal solution to the leather industry with no negative impacts, but it is important to consider that when a product becomes popular and industry backed, sooner or later an ethical intention will be pushed aside in favour of money. Fish skin leather is now made from a waste product, but its manufacture may encourage the farming of fish purely for their skins.

So how do we make a choice? We have to weigh up what is the least harmful now. Vegans may argue that any use of an animal product for our own benefit is causing ultimate harm to that creature. We need to curb our consumption of shoes, hats and bags. We need to reduce our waste of discarded materials that could be re used and re cycled. These are ethical aspirations we should work towards, but we need to focus on the here and now. Our consumption of leather is high and industry will continue to meet those demands without consideration of animal welfare. Pseudo-leather materials have been available for some time, but have never become a realistic competitor to animal based products. The use of fish skins have captured the fashion industry and could displace the abuse of farmed animals. While fish leather is making use of waste skins, the balance at present, tips in favour of this seemingly less damaging alternative. Should we put our efforts into cultivating an awareness of these alternatives to limit a destructive industry?

At Buddhafield’s Green Earth Awakening, a tanner and leather worker will be offering workshops on how to make and work with fish leather. The intention of this workshop is to promote a sense of self sufficiency necessary to curb our consumption and reliance on mass industry. For some, this may be limiting in reducing our impact on living beings and the use of leather in any form should be boycotted. For other’s this may serve as an intention to finding alternatives to the damaging industry that is feeding our high consumption here and now. For all of us, perhaps we can unite in recognising our aspirations towards a society whose consumption and desires do not take priority over the welfare of living beings.

Women’s Mitra Study Retreat 2013

I have been asked to write a blog to accompany the photos I sent of the ladies Mitra retreat! Well, I have never written a blog before so here goes…

I have been going on retreat with Buddhafield now for about 6 years and in the last few years I have been doing about 2 a year. I usually have one “for me” and one where I help on the team, this one was for me! I was particularly looking forward to this one as it was in a beautiful medieval farmhouse and had beds! As it turned it the farmhouse was simply amazing! Not only did it have beds but it had a dishwasher too!!! To any hardened camping retreat goer this was an unbelievable luxury that couldn’t quite be taken in!

Women's Study Week

Siddhimala and Lou

Gradually we all started to arrive, 9 wonderful ladies congregated and a community began to form. This was my first “study” retreat and the daily programme was quite full starting with meditation, breakfast, study period, lunch, reflection, led meditation, dinner, study period, evening puja/ritual/meditation. Phew! There were periods of silent reflection amongst this to constructively reflect on the material.

The study material was the four mind turning reflections which are the preciousness of this human life; death and impermanence; karma and its consequences and the defects of samsara. We listened together to the 5 talks by Order members which were an introduction talk and then one on each reflection and then were facilitated in often lively, hilarious discussions about the subject matter. I absolutely loved it! It is a very long time since I have been in a constructive study atmosphere (if ever!) and I found the mental exercise exhilarating, I learned a great deal and each day we had so much to absorb and reflect on. We were all a bit scrambled with overload of information at some stages and Siddhimala (our excellent teacher) was very skilful in directing our thought processes, she was a complete joy to be taught by! Siddhimala was supported by Varabadhri who has a wonderful sense of humour and a keen eye for ritual; she not only supported us all but organised wonderful ritual evenings in true Buddhafield style.

Women's Study Week

The retreatants (minus Lulu!)

After a week I was sad to leave but ready to come home to my busy life. I have brought these daily reflections with me (consciously and sub-consciously) and they have been seeping into my daily practice. The first action for me was to give up Facebook and playing annoyingly addictive computer games. I realised I spent too much of my “precious” time in this life trawling through this medium like a voyeur looking at the lives of others (some I don’t even know!!) and decided this had to stop! I am feeling quite refreshed by this decision and am finding pockets of time already to do things like write this blog which I wouldn’t have had “time” for before.

So from the bottom of my heart, thank you to the Buddhafield team for this wonderful week in Devon, I so hope it continues next year as I will definitely be coming back, if I am still in this precious life!

Lulu Robertson

Buddhism as Ecology

The gate of the Dharma does not close behind us to secure us in a cloistered existence aloof from the turbulence and suffering of samsara, so much as it leads us out into a life of risk for the sake of all beings.
Joanna Macy

I first encountered Buddhism within the flapping canvas of a Buddhafield dome. My first meditations were amongst the damp mist of a frost tipped Devon field. The backdrop to my Buddhist practice has been England, outside, with the green and wind. This context brought me to question our alienation from the delicate play of atom affecting atom within a cooperative environment without name and species and institution. Buddhism has shaped my mental practice, and our current cultural climate has built my assertion that to move beyond an exhausted consumer society, intent on polluting planet and thought, we need the dharma; a philosophical tool to re-integrate a disembodied mind.


Rosie Lancaster, Workshop Co-ordinator at Buddhafield’s Green Earth Awakening

The western mind has, over time become separated from its origins, somehow autonomous from its environment. Sitting like a great head, without body and history, not relating to, but observing its linear relationships. A belief in a mind body duality existed from Plato to Descartes right up until the 19th century when existentialism broke the pedestal on which man had placed himself. Phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty went further to suggest the mind is encased within the body and all experience felt through that vehicle. Western philosophy has evolved towards a rejection of dualism and can be seen to align with certain aspects of eastern philosophies with an underlying oneness or interconnection of organisms.

Though many differences remain between the influences of western and eastern culture, Buddhism’s essential teachings take relevance in modern society as a paradigm shift emerges. We are recognising the damaging effect an affluent, contaminating society has had on its landscapes and inhabitants. The terms ‘green’ and ‘eco’ are marking a cultural move toward a sustainable relationship with the planet. But no amounts of biodegradable nappies are going to save the irrevocable damage caused to our finite resources. We need a revolution in mental processes. We need a break down of the damaging concept of ‘I,’ that enslaves us into craving more to the detriment of others. We need a radical transformation of how we view ourselves and our relationship to the planet.

Part of the fundamental teachings of the Buddha, along with impermanence and un-satisfactoriness, is the anaatman or ‘no self.’ This teaching defines us as a continually fluctuating system of processes; an interconnected web of effect and affect. By allowing the edges of what we perceive as ‘I’ to blur into an endless myriad of interconnected organisation, we cannot uphold a perception of an individual autonomous mind. By recognising our influences on our environment and the simultaneous influences our environment has on us, we can understand a duty to uphold an ethical way of being. This can be known as karma.

The notion of karma can be easily related to the principles of ecology; that all life is a complex interplay of cause and effect. Our karma, or our effect, will bounce on through the web of relationships that so delicately impress one another. Deep ecology and holistic science have grown from an understanding that all systems are comprised of sub systems and an exchange of information happens in a complex non-linear response. This is a step beyond the reductionist interpretation of nature associated with a ‘conventional’ western, scientific mind.

As the Mahayana Buddhist tradition states, we all have a ‘buddha’ nature’; a potential towards enlightenment. Our ignorance and delusion is strongly embedded, but if we cultivate enough self-conscious awareness to break through a rigid sense of identity, we can communally reach an enlightened state of existence. Mahayana is translated as ‘Great Vehicle,’ a means by which all sentient beings can attain enlightenment. One’s own spiritual journey is therefore intrinsically linked with liberation for all.

Find out more about the Green Earth Awakening Camp 2013.

Recommended Read: Wendy Johnson, The BP Oil Spill and the Undersea Realm of Impenetrable Darkness

Buddhafield Mitra Study 2013

We have planned a Mitra study event for March 2013 which we very much hope you will be able to attend. Whether you can come for the whole week or just the family weekend, it would be lovely to see you and a great opportunity to meet as the Buddhafield Mitra Sangha, study and practise together in beautiful surroundings, and enjoy the unfolding of Spring. The dates are:

  • Women’s study, Saturday 9th (arriving for supper) to Friday 15th
  • Family weekend, Friday 15th (arriving for supper) to Sunday 17th
  • Men’s study, Sunday 17th (arriving for supper) to Saturday 23rd

The Venue

We’ll be staying at the Yarner Trust at Welcombe Barton, Welcombe, a mediaeval farmhouse and barns a mile from a stunning bit of the North Devon coast. We have also booked the camping field and roundhouse so that we could have a big celebratory weekend together, with partners and children welcome too. There are warm dry spaces, big sofas and woodburners, and a good well-equipped catering kitchen for communal eating. There are a few beds in the house, and sleeping spaces in the barn plus plenty of space to camp.

The Study

We will be studying the “four mind turning reflections” from the Triratna Buddhist Community Dharma Training Course for Mitras. This is Module 3 from Year Two, Turning the Mind to the Dharma, based on five talks given by Dhammadinna, Ratnadharini,Vajradarshini and Maitreyi. Download the text of the module, available as a PDF file from Free Buddhist Audio, from where the original talks are also available: we can listen to these during the week, but you might want to check them out before coming.

The Cost

By Dana, meaning you pay what you can afford, with a rough guide of £22 — £28 per night to include all food. Children could be half that. If you can afford to be more generous that would help others to come who would otherwise struggle. The more people we can encourage to come, the cheaper it will be.  (We really must at least break even on this event to make it sustainable.)

Looking forward to studying and hanging out together! To book a place visit the event page on the main website. Please pass the word on to any mitras you think might be interested in joining us.

Retreat at TaraLoka: Self on the Page

>From the 19th to the 26th November I attended a writing retreat at the TaraLoka Women’s Retreat Centre near the north border of Wales, about an hour from Manchester. Having been on team retreats with Buddhafield, and a 10 day silent meditation course at the Vipassana Dharma Dhippa centre, experiences at either end of the spectrum – Team Retreats being quite relaxed, while Vipassana was very disciplined – I wasn’t sure what to expect. The retreat was led by Samantabhadhri, who lives at TaraLoka full time, Kavyasiddhi, a writer whose plays are often heard on Radio 4, and Mumukshu, who I live and work with in the Buddhafield Café. This review just scrapes the surface of my experience at TaraLoka, so many things happened which were truly wonderful, that there is no way I could write them all down. This is just an attempt to share my experience.

TaraLoka is a beautiful retreat centre on the Welsh/Shropshire boarder. In 1985, an old farm and its surrounding land was bought and gradually, a team of women converted it into the beautiful centre that is there today. There is a white community house  a way away from the retreat centre in which the retreat team live. The retreat centre itself consists of two buildings, one which contains the shrine room on the ground floor, and above that bedrooms, and the other contains the kitchen, dining room, living room, art room, more bedrooms and a solitary retreat suite. There is a sense of light and space throughout the centre, the room are painted bright colours, there are warm wooden floors and the kitchen is a delight! I wish we had one that size and that well equipped for Trevince! Retreatants all sit together to eat in the large dining room, and there are enough sofas for everyone in the cosy living room. There is a burner at one end which provides a really nice focal point, and we gathered round it every evening for different activities. The centre is surrounded by beautiful gardens which are seen through the windows that seem to be everywhere you look. I feel very privileged to have been there at the time I was, as over the week I was able to watch the change from autumn into winter – the first few days there was no frost, the sun was still really warm and I wandered around outside with no coat. On the third morning I woke to find the world white and silent, the grass was stiff under my feet as I walked to the Tara cabin for morning meditation, and my breath emerged as white smoke.

A typical day on retreat was as follows:
7am. I am woken up by another of the retreatants, Chloe, ringing a bell, outside my door which is above the shrine room. It is still dark so I and the other occupants of my room, slowly and sleepily dress and bumble downstairs, across the walkway, stopping to marvel at the stars that are still out, and into the warm dining room. There I make a cup of tea and sit on a sofa , slowly becoming fully coherent, while other retreatants do the same. Apart from the first morning, we are in silence until the first activity at 11am. I enjoy it, it gives me space to start the day and slowly come back to myself, without feeling guilty for ignoring others.
7.30am Morning meditation. I join the beginners meditation, led by Mumukshu, in the Tara Cabin, a small wooden panelled cabin in the grounds of the retreat centre. There is a beautiful shrine, and full length windows that look out onto fields with sheep and woodland. It is so cold that I run and leap across from the house to the cabin in an attempt to preserve my warmth, my feet leaving darker patches in the frozen grass. The other beginners and I leave our shoes outside, exchanging glances that say ‘Isn’t it cold today!’. Once in, we start the session by doing a quick warm up, tapping our bodies all over and shaking ourselves out to get the blood flowing. We sit, and Mumukshu talks about the day’s meditation, we do Mindfulness of Breathing and Metta Bhavana on alternate days. After spending about 40 minutes meditating we each talk about how the meditation went for us, and Mumukshu offers advice and suggestions. It is really good to speak to other beginners about their experiences and realise that I am not the only one to have the problems I do in meditation! About 8.45 we stop, silence resumes and we go back over to the main house. The sun has fully risen by now, and I, full of energy and joy at my beautiful surroundings, cartwheel back over to the house, to the amusement of the people looking out of windows at the right moment.
9.15am. Breakfast! Porridge is made each morning by a retreatant. For the week that we are on retreat we live as a community, meaning each of us signs up for a job every day to help keep the centre running. There is a volunteer cook, Kathy, who makes lovely food all week, but other jobs like cleaning, setting tables, washing up and making breakfast are our responsibility. People take these tasks on with joy, I am offered toast in silence with wide smiles and glints of laughter, and from the washing up area after lunch and dinner peals of laughter ring out. We are in silence until 11am when the writing workshop starts. I love this hour of silence, when people wander from room to room, looking at books, writing, or just sitting. It is so peaceful.
11am. We all gather, pens and paper in hand, in the living room, where Kavyasiddhi sits on  a chair, ready to tease out of us gems of poems and stories that we didn’t know were hidden inside us. The workshops consist of a number of timed writing exercises, in response to a title or phrase given, a walk outside, or a picture or set of words we choose from a random selection provided by Kavyasiddhi. At first she says we aren’t going to share, which makes it a lot easier to write, I’ve never shared my writing with anyone before, and it was this aspect of the retreat that I was most worried about. Kavyasiddhi works us into it slowly, only asking for volunteers to share after a few preliminary exercises.  At the start only a few of us share, reading out in small voices, heads buried in our papers, but by the end of the week we are all sharing our work, heads up, smiling round at the group that has held us all through the experience. We write on a wide variety of different subjects, yet the thing that surprises me is that, even if while writing I don’t think I’m writing about myself, when I read it back, I see exploration and sometimes resolution, of issues or ideas or problems I have been thinking about. 
1.15pm. Lunch is served, and we sit round the dining tables discussing the writing session, our respective lives outside the centre and a myriad of things in between. Everyone is so open and honest, understanding and supportive. After lunch we have free time until group meetings later on. Now is when closer relationships within the group are formed. The writing sessions and the openness within them serve to cement us as a group, but it is the walks together round the site, the washing up sessions that take all afternoon, the cups of tea shared on a sofa, the secret discovery of biscuits in a tin in the cupboard, that create closer bonds of friendships that will last beyond this retreat.
4.30pm. We each have signed up for one of three groups, each led by a retreat leader. I am in Samantabhadhri’s group, along with Linda, Helen, Janine and Amitashuri. It is a mix of people I know and don‘t know: Amitrashuri was a shift co-ordinator in the pancake tent at Buddhafield Festival 2010, as was I, and Janine worked on my shift at my first Buddhafield festival in 2009. It was a surprise to see her here, we became close at Buddhafield 2009, and then I got off the train at Whitstable to find her in the same taxi as me – what a lovely surprise! It really brought home to me how much everything has changed for me – when I first met her I was very unhappy, working a job I didn’t like, full of worry, closed up and wanting to change but not knowing how. In contrast, in the year and a half since I met her I’ve completely transformed my life and myself and am happier that I ever thought I could be.
In our group we use the time to have an extended check in. A check in is where you sit in a circle, and, after a few minutes of silence, go round the circle, each person saying a little bit about how they are feeling, what has gone on for them that day, if they have any problems that they would like to express, or anything they would like to rejoice in. Each morning at Trevince we do this, and it is a really useful tool when living in a community, it helps you act more compassionately towards yourself and others, and brings you closer together as a group. I really enjoyed our group, it was smaller than the others and I felt this helped us have a really safe, held space. I felt truly listened to and understood.  I am really grateful for the people in the group, for their strength and willingness to listen and accept everything each of us said. It was a really powerful experience for me.
6.30pm. Dinner is served, and again, people sit around after chatting and laughing.
7.45pm. Each night is something different: a couple of sessions consist of us sharing inspiring poetry that we or other have written, and in other sessions each retreat leader speaks. Mumukshu introduces a poem by Charles Bukowski called bluebird, which is about creativity, and suggests that we all use the art room to make a bluebird to use in the closing ritual at the end of the week. Kavyasiddhi tells us how she got into writing, and speaks compellingly about ‘the thread’ that is the path that we follow, that might be unknown and scary but that we can’t help following because we know it’s right. This really resonates with me, I feel really strongly that Buddhafield and Buddhism is my thread, I’ve never felt a pull this strong towards anything, and it has been something I’ve thought a lot about this summer. It’s good to hear someone else talking about it. Samantabhadhri also talks about her relationship with words, speaking about her ambitions to be a writer and sharing some of her writing with us.
8.30pm. Puja time! Having been brought up a Jehovah‘s Witness, and being told from a very early age that worshipping an image and participating in ritual  is completely utterly wrong, and something which will stop you from living forever in paradise on earth, I’ve had quite a struggle to be able to join in puja’s and appreciate them. It’s something I still struggle with. I’ve done very few puja’s before now, and never a seven fold puja every night for a week! It’s a very emotional experience for me, especially when I watch people making offerings, and recite the admittance of faults. The shrine space is really striking, and I felt a connection with the rupa, which I really enjoyed and was grateful for. Something clicked in my head to make it all make sense to me. I realised that the image of the Buddha is not an idol, we are not worshipping the image itself, which is what Jehovah’s Witnesses prohibit, but what it symbolises. It is symbolic of a state to aspire to. I look at the rupa and see someone to look up to, as I would look up to my parents, or a teacher, or someone I respect, I see someone who has set an example that I can strive to follow and be like. It’s so hard to put this all into words!
Hearing 30 or so women all chanting together, and listening to the Heart Sutra being recited was very moving and really affected me, each night it reduced me to tears. After the puja we went into silence over night. This was so good for me too, each puja had such an effect me that I wasn’t really capable of talking, I just needed to be alone with my thoughts, and feel the space inside me that the puja helped create.
On the last night as part of the closing ritual we all gave the blue birds we had made as offerings to the shrine, hanging them from a line draped across the shrine space. It was truly amazing to see this solid symbol of all our efforts to release our inner creativity and to use that in way to benefit ourselves and others.

 Photo with much thanks to Amitashuri

On the last morning, we all meditated together in the shrine room, doing a group Metta Bhavana. This was possibly the most intense experience of the retreat for me. We sat and did the first stage, and then, in turn Samantabhadhri, who led the meditation side of the retreat, named us all in turn, and as each person was named we concentrated our Metta on them. Going into it I felt quite blasé about it, I didn’t think that I would feel much as I find Metta Bhavana the hardest practise, but I really did! I felt so much love and warmth from everyone in the room, it really moved me. Afterwards I felt like Tigger! I had so much energy and love that I literally had to bounce around and do cartwheels to express it. I was sorry to leave, and to see the group of women who I felt such a connection with disperse, but I guess it’s another lesson in being able to let things go, and understanding that I can’t hold onto things because they will always fade and change. I came away from the retreat feeling renewed and refreshed and even more sure that following this thread is what I must, and will continue to do.

I’d like to thank Buddhafield for this chance to go on retreat, there is no way I could have gone on it without their help. I’d also like to thank Abbie for pointing it out to me and persuading me to go after I saw that I’d have to share my writing and immediately ran away from it! I’d like to thank Rosie and Mumukshu  for being there with me and last but not least, I’d like to thank all the wonderful amazing women who were part of the retreat – big sardu to you all guys!!

Love Ruth

Study Night #2, Enlightenment

As Louise said last week, we are both ‘beginner Buddhists’ and these study nights are invaluable to our first steps along the right path. Again, Vidyadasi led this group and held the space really well. I feel like a lot of my questions were answered!

Enlightenment – The Goal of Buddhism

To quote Sangharakshita, ‘Human Enlightenment is the central theme of Buddhism’. All aspects of Buddhism are concerned with it, teaching in order to help others to gain Enlightenment was what the Buddha was fundamentally concerned with. This knowledge causes us to ask three questions:

  1. What is Enlightenment?
  2. How do we know that this is the idea state for man?
  3. Where does the idea of Enlightenment come from?

Traditionally, Enlightenment is said to consist of three main things. Firstly, it is a state of clear, pure awareness. Some schools of Buddhism claim that within Enlightenment the subject/object duality is no longer experienced, that the Enlightened one sees no difference between himself and others, between ‘out there’ and ‘in here’. There is just awareness. This awareness is an awareness of things as they really are, which is seeing all things clearly and truly, without the delusion, obscurity, prejudice and mental conditioning that all humans experience the world through. It is direct spiritual vision of the reality of our existence, also referred to as a state of knowledge, or an awareness of Reality.

Secondly, Enlightenment is referred to as a state of intense, over flowing love and compassion. It is often compared to the love between a mother and child, as in the Metta Sutta, ‘the Discourse of Loving Kindness’, which says ‘Just as a mother protects her only son even at the cost of his own life, so should one develop a mind of all-embracing love towards all other living beings’ . The attitude is one which the WBO endeavors to cultivate, the Metta Bhavana, (Metta meaning lovingkindness and Bhavana, meaning cultivation or development) being one of the two key meditation practices within the movement. This lovingkindness is not just directed towards human beings but towards all ‘living’, that is, sentient beings and also manifests itself in a deep desire that all beings should gain Enlightenment, thus being set free from all their suffering.

Thirdly, Enlightenment is also described as a state or experience of ‘inexhaustible mental and spiritual energy’, and ‘a state of uninterrupted creativity’.  It is an experience of perfect freedom from all the conditioned limitations which humans construct for themselves, such as attachment to the self, hate, expectations, attachment to others and many more!

Through I have attempted to describe Enlightenment in these three aspects, in reality Enlightenment cannot really be put into words or confined into definitions. It is a constantly shifting combination of all of these aspects; knowledge passes into love and compassion, passes into energy, passes into knowledge and so on and so on. This description can only give a hint or explore a tiny fraction of what Enlightenment truly is. In short, Enlightenment is a state of supreme knowledge, love and compassion and energy.

Within us all are the seed of enlightenment; we all have love in our hearts, and feel compassion for others, we all have some experience of Reality, we all have some energy. We already have enlightened qualities within us, and it is this that shows us that Enlightenment is the ideal towards which we should aspire. When we feel love and compassion, when we are tackling a project with creative energy, when we are able to rise above our conditioning and start to see things as they are, we feel a serenity which is missing from our everyday lives. This is our glimpse of Enlightenment. Within Enlightenment these qualities are developed to a degree that we can hardly understand, but it is our possession of these qualities, however slight, that gives us a natural affinity with the idea of Enlightenment, and the ability to achieve it. When Enlightenment is talked about, when love and compassion, energy and Reality are talked about we can feel something, we can feel a connection to them, the seeds are within us already. We can tell that Enlightenment is the natural ideal for us too because nothing else can satisfy us. No matter how many things we own, how much money and material safety we have, how many achievements we obtain, there is something within that is not satisfied, that can only be satisfied by seeing the truth of things. This feeling of unsatisfactoriness is called, in Buddhism, dukkha.

There are three forms of dukkha. The first is ‘the suffering which is suffering’, this is when, for example, we cut our finger, or if someone disappoints us. The next is ‘suffering by way of transformation’. This is when we obtain something, get pleasure from it and then lose it. because we have become attached to it, we suffer when it is gone. This suffering comes about as a result of change and time. Lastly, there is ‘the suffering of conditioned existance itself’, which is the suffering of everything which is not Enlightenment.

The ideal of Enlightenment comes from us from humankind itself, from the ever present struggle to understand ourselves and the suffering we live with and to rise above it. We struggle to grow, to develop, but to do this properly, we need an ideal to consciously aim towards. For us, growth means a growth in awareness, of ourselves and of our surroundings and the ideal of Enlightenment gives us direction.

In the extract from ‘The Ideal of Human Enlightenment’ by Sangharakshita which we used for the study and from which all quotes are taken, he says that ‘if we look back in history we can see various people who have actually achieved Enlightenment.’, however, he doesn’t name any, and after searching the internet I found no concrete names of people who are Enlightened now. This raises some interesting questions for me, such as, if part of being Enlightened is a deep desire for others to gain Enlightenment then surely you would reveal yourself to be Enlightened and try to teach others like the Buddha did? Revealing yourself to be Enlightened would be key to this as it would make teaching people and bringing them closer to Enlightenment easier as they would give more weight to your words knowing you were Enlightened. The fact that I couldn’t find any information about Enlightened people now raises doubts in the rational part of my mind, but I still feel very strongly connected to the ideal of Enlightenment, and do connect with it spiritually as something to aim for. I think that I need more discussion on this part of the subject!

Having been brought up as a Jehovah’s Witness my tendency is to think in theistic terms, that is, in terms of a god who has created the universe and who governs it. This is not so useful when looking at Buddhism, as the Buddha was a man who, through gaining enlightenment, woke up and began to experience reality as it truly is. The very word ‘Buddha’ means ‘he who is awake’. The emphasis on the fact that Buddha started life as an ordinary man really helped me to start to see Enlightenment as something attainable. I began to see that the Buddha was an extra-ordinary man, one who surpassed his conditioning through his own efforts, and thus, becoming a Buddha was something I could do too – I’m not sure about my chances in this lifetime though!

Beginning to see the Buddha in evolutionary terms, as the next stage of man, has helped me feel a deeper connection to Buddhism. Due to my upbringing and subsequent rejection of the Jehovah’s Witnesses Faith I have a unconscious negative reaction to religion and the idea of god, and have found that this has been holding me back somewhat in my learning. Seeing the Buddha as the next stage of evolution of man, along with other things I have learned have helped me start to overcome my resistance.

Study Night #1, The Truth of Cause and Effect by Louise

Trevince House on Wednesday night is Study night for the Devonshire locals of Buddhafield. This is a weekly event and from now on a weekly post on what has been taught. My knowledge of Buddhism is still in its early stages so from my point of view I enjoy these nights as I am learning more about how I am to look at myself and my path. Vidyadasi leads these groups sensitively as she started at the beginning for those of us who are ‘beginner’ Buddhists. I feel very privileged to be a ‘beginner buddhist’ in this environment as there are many minds in the room all at different stages and there is a wealth of wisdom being shared as I listen and take notes (thank you for sharing your wisdom with me!). I may come across parts that I don’t understand as much but I will endeavour to try and be true to what was taught and open it up for discussion as much as possible.

The Truth of Cause and Effect

The Story of the Buddha

The Buddha was a man, he was born into a royal family and his name Siddhartha Gautama. During his childhood a group of astrologers predicted that the young prince would grow up to be either a great emperor or a great spiritual leader. The prince grew up within the palace walls, sheltered from the world outside. He married and fathered a son.

Siddhartha’s father would not allow Siddhartha to leave the palace and see what lay beyond the walls. It took much persuasion and once permission had been granted all Siddhartha saw beyond the palace were young and happy people. His father had previously ordered the streets to be cleaned of the old and sick. He did however come across a weak man laying by the side of the road. This was a sight that Siddhartha had never seen before, he asked why the man was weak and here he learnt about growing old. Struck by this sight Siddhartha visited the city three more times where he encountered a sick man, a dead man and a sage. These sights had a profound effect on his life as he left his wife and son to set out in order to find peace from the suffering of all men. He stripped himself of his princely possessions and wandered through the forests to seek understanding from wise men and ascetics. However, this was not enough. He finally settled under the bodhi tree to meditate. He stayed here for many days and this is where he gained Enlightenment. And these are some of his teachings:

The Four Noble Truths

  1. Human existence just involves suffering
  2. Cause of suffering is that we want things to be other then as they are.
  3. There is an end to suffering
  4. This is to follow the eight fold path (or the three fold way which consists of Ethics, Meditation and Wisdom)

The stages in the eight fold path are:

  1. Perfecting vision
  2. Perfecting emotion
  3. Perfecting speech
  4. Perfecting action
  5. Perfecting livelihood
  6. Perfecting effort
  7. Perfecting mindfulness
  8. Perfecting samadhi (loosely means concentration)

This path is split into two parts, the first half, perfecting vision, emotion, speech and action are to do this being aware of yourself and knowing yourself enough to be able to see, feel, speak and act mindfully. Once these four things are in place then the next four concerns what you have to offer others and how you place yourself within the wider community and the world. If you can get all eight then you are on your way to enlightenment.

At times we chant that we are going for refuge. When a person is ordained into the Buddhist order it is said that they are going for refuge. This is an important part of Buddhism, we all go for refuge all the time and all for different reasons for instance security, comfort, satisfaction, shelter, protection. By going to refuge to the Buddha, the Dharma (spiritual path) and the Sangha (spiritual community) otherwise know as the Three Jewels we also go for refuge to ourselves, we acknowledge these same qualities that exist in each person and set ourselves the task of searching for the truth. In this country there is a culture of Christianity and it is important to understand that The Buddha is not a God, he is an enlightened man, there is no judge in Buddhism, you are a good Buddhist but not to please any higher being but to please yourself. To meditate is to give yourself the stillness and the space to look at your mind and see the building blocks behind it, the conditions that make you up. To see all of the causes and effects is to understand yourself better and to understand yourself better is wisdom. It is not just this, it is important to find the middle way – it is not all in the mind or all in the body, ‘Form is no other than emptiness / Emptiness no other then form / Form is only emptiness / Emptiness only form’ (extracted form the Heart Sutra).

You must put all the conditions in place for enlightenment to arise, enlightenment is not a given and is not guaranteed.

In this particular study night we had an open forum for any questions that anyone had a burning desire to ask. Within this we encountered to large discussion points which I will try and form something cohesive by way of explanation from my badly taken notes!


Renunciation in Buddhism is to break the habits that hold you back, a tool for loosening yourself. Siddhartha renounced his princely possessions in order to gain enlightenment. This is a difficult concept as it has much to do with the letting go of the self which is an important and clear step towards enlightenment. By leaving these deeply ingrained habits behind means that you have more space to explore new thoughts and feelings or just leaving that space clear and enjoying that stillness.

The Soul

Buddhism doesn’t recognise a soul, a soul implies that you do not change. Also there is no reincarnation within Buddhism but there is rebirth, a cycle of life that is a chain of processes. Much like what I mentioned in the above paragraph of renunciation deeply ingrained habits can stay with you from new life to new life. The more work that is put in this life to break these habits the better off the next life will be. As a stream of consciousness that we are throughout the ages we are bundles of knots that need untying.

It is worth noting that much of what is written in Buddhist texts is open to interpretation, I do not know how much I believe in rebirth in that my ‘self’ gets transferred into another body after my death. My interpretation of rebirth is to break the conditioning of generations before me and pass this down to new generations. This is something that is at the forefront of my mind all the time. I believe that renunciation is also an important factor in breaking my conditioning though it is hard. This first study night really helped to put a clear instruction into my mind especially to do with the eight fold path of things that I need to be aware of.

Study night over!

Men’s Study Weekend 29-31 October. Brought to you by Leif!

The weekend started with dinner on Friday night. The women had vacated the premises in order to do a gardening/study event down the hill.

After the meal, Shantikara – who would be leading the study sessions – gave us an introduction to the Sigalovada sutta. In it, the Buddha meets a young man engaged in the practice of venerating the six directions (the compass points plus up and down). He uses this as a framework to deliver a teaching, broadly on social responsibility.

We finished the day with a short dedication ceremony, to help set the focus for the weekend. The shrine room, it has to be said, is not terribly large. Fitting more then eight of us might have become a squeeze. But it was a good end to the day. And so dear reader, to bed – more or less.

The next day started at 7.00am with two 45 minute meditations in the shrine room, led by Satyajit – who facilitated all the meditations sessions. Then breakfast and a session of staring each other out until someone cracked and agreed to cook dinner.

10.30 saw us settling for a couple of hours study –  once we had gotten over Sean’s arrival in slinky lycra (he’d cycled in from home). Having fanned ourselves vigorously, we got down to looking at the sutta.

The first section covers the Buddha meeting Sigalaka while he’s worshipping the six directions and receiving his request to be instructed in the correct way to do it. The immediate point which Shantikara drew out of it was that the sutta is heavily imbued with the cultural context of that time and place (Northern India around 500BCE).

Moving on, the text listed four impure actions to be avoided-

  • Harming living beings
  • Taking what is not given
  • Sexual misconduct
  • False speech

The first four precepts in their traditional form and then another list of four causes of harmful deeds (also to be avoided)-

  • Desire
  • Hatred
  • Delusion
  • Fear

The first three form another traditional list called the three poisons.

A point came up around whether the Buddha was giving this teaching because he had recognised Sigalaka as someone in danger of falling into unskillful conduct. The basic teaching being, act in accordance with where you want to be. All familiar – but slippery – territory around karmic comsequences and conditionality (in its broadest sense, saying that phenomena arise dependent upon conditions). Suck on that.

Next the Buddhaa listed six ways of squandering wealth and then six dangers associated with each. This is where the cultural context really started kicking in – and that the suttas were orginally composed to be passed down orally (lists within lists are a common feature). This section caused a lot of smiles, but also serious questions about whether the Buddha meant only material wealth – and why – and how the lists related to our own experience.

Eventually, we drew the session to a close in order to have a short meditation before lunch.

After some free time in the afternoon, we reconvened for a couple of hours more study. The next section listed four kinds of true friends and four kinds of bad companion, and their characteristics. This had a lot in common with the earlier lists – hardly surprising. bearing in mind conditionality – covering the appropriate use of wealth and an exhortation to “gather wealth in harmless ways”.

Again stuff came up about cultural context, whether this was that actual word of the Buddha – texts were certainly added while passing down the centuries – and what which parts have a bearing on current circumstances. It’s all a bit academic, otherwise.

Another break for meditation, then dinner and a bit more free time. We ended the day with a puja – recitation of traditional verses and mantras in order to encourage devotional feeling (particularly in a group context). No music. Buddhafield is associated with wacky musical pujas but it isn’t par for the course when we are at home. I like them quiet, most of the time, anyway.

The next day followed the same routine. We spent both study sessions on the last part of the sutta. This is where the Buddha gives the teaching on the correct way to worship the six directions. Clearly he is using it to present the teaching which Sigalaka needs.

The Buddha identifies each direction with a particular relationship –

  • Parents
  • Secular teachers
  • Partner and children
  • Friends and colleagues
  • Workers and servants
  • Ascetics and Brahmins

For each, he lists five ways in which respect is shown toward them and five ways in which they respond positively to such treatment. Following this advice is presented as a path to happiness. Again, the material needs to be seen in the context of the time and place in which it was being given. The sutta ends with Sigalaka asking the Buddha to accept him as a lay-follower.

So dinner and a puja, then the weekend officially came to a close. The womenfolk arrived back sometime after I’d gone to bed – hardy souls.

Making time for single sex activities is held to be important within the movement and I have previously found it a helpful space to work with. Possibly because I was doing it at home this time, mostly with a group who also live here, my main impression around it was of the house being half empty. But this is not even a quibble. It was a pleasure to have the opportunity for intensive study – especially with material taken for the Pali canon.

I think we were unanimous in agreeing that we need to do it again. I expect that, next time, we’ll leave the house and the women will have the house for a bit. Camping in January anyone?