Ask A Buddhist Q&A’s
Some questions answered by Ask a Buddhist panellists.
How can I start to practice Buddhism in my daily life? How did you start to practice?
To practice Buddhism we give up the unwholesome, cultivate the wholesome, and purify our own minds.
In more concrete terms, I went through a journey of attending different temples, finding the ones that suited me, trying to make ethical life choices, meditating and chanting for a short period daily at home, asking questions to monks, nuns and lay teachers, and observing eight precepts on uposatha. After I ordained my life was a bit different though.
We don’t always know what’s wholesome and unwholesome, so asking questions is a good thing.
Gawaine Powell Davies:
I understand that you have a good starting point – meditation and mindfulness practice and a desire to learn more of the dharma. I’m writing this as someone who came to the dharma through meditation about 20 years ago, and who practises in a Western tradition (mixture of Insight and secular Buddhism).
The best starting point is to find a group that you like. The companionship is important, and you learn a lot from each other. You can find many groups on the Buddhist Council website (buddhistcouncil.org). In the Western Insight tradition, Sydney Insight Meditators lists a number of sanghas, most of which are currently meeting online.
There are some excellent books about the Buddha’s teaching. I would refer you to the Buddhist Library, an excellent centre in Camperdown. Sydney Insight Meditators has a list of books and other material that you might like: https://www.sydneyinsightmeditators.org/reading-list.html. What the Buddha Taught by Rahula Walpole is not a bad place to start.
But do look for a group: it can provide you with a stable base from which to make your explorations.
I have a really complex ethical decision I need to make in my life. What should I do?
Here, I want to focus on how Buddhism can help give us tools for decision making. I can’t tell you exactly whether you should or should not do something. If you need specific advice for your particular situation then there may be other services which you can access for support, or good friends you can talk to.
There are actually many, many tools that Buddhism offers to give power back to you in the decision making process.
One way to think about Buddhist ethics is in terms of narrative. Quite often it’s not that something is right or wrong in the abstract as much as that we have to live with the individual, situational consequences that we experience as a result of the decision. I.e., is the decision right for you, in that particular circumstance, at that particular time? (situational decision making).
Thinking this way gives us a chance to “try on” different options. You are free to imagine what life might look like if you chose to step back…one option might just be to take some quiet time and visualise the emotions and consequences that would happen as a result. You could also take a turn at “trying on” what life might look like if you didn’t step back. Buddhism doesn’t say that one way is right or wrong, just that choices have consequences. My experienced teachers (20+ years experience in Buddhist counselling) recommend “feeling it out”…i.e. recognising that our gut instinct has a lot to offer us in finding a choice that is emotionally correct for us. Is there a choice that just “feels better” when you visualise the potential outcomes?
Buddhism also has a concept of “agati”. These are the wrong reasons for making a decision (craving, aversion, delusion, fear). If you could take the worry out of the decision, would there be an ideal outcome?
Decision making is a funny thing… sometimes we’re not even clear to ourselves about why we have made a particular choice, or at what exact point in time a decision occurred. Because of this opaqueness, a process of uncertainty about what to do is actually a normal part of decision making. It’s ok to “still be making a decision”. It might be that in your heart (i.e. the subconscious), you already know what needs to happen, but that decision is just still coming to the surface of conscious-level processing. It’s normal.
You have described a rather complicated situation and I’m not sure I can give you a definite cut-and-dried answer. But the situation you describe is like a lot of things life can throw at us.
Religions, self-help gurus, counsellors, etc. are often ready with good solutions to common problems but as I just said, we sometimes face situations that are complex and seemingly unsolvable. It may even be that not all problems have a solution; and there is no law in the universe that says there should be. Sometimes the only thing we can do is wait them out and hope for the best. But I can suggest one other thing that might help and which pertains to the Dhamma. It usually happens that we confront problems psychologically unprepared. In a sense, Buddhist practice can be seen as preparing oneself now for a problem that might arise in the future. This is what meditation is about (mindfulness of breathing and metta meditation in particular) – helping us build up calm, clarity and kindness now, so that we are more able to address whatever may ambush us further down the road tomorrow. Practicing now so that we are better able to see a situation clearly, have the best possible reaction to it, and emerge from it without too many scars is, I think, one thing we can do. If I understand you correctly, you are in the midst of a difficult situation and if so my words may not be much help to you. But after it’s behind you, and I hope you see your way through them, they may be of use to you.
I have been thinking of becoming Buddhist for a few years and have decided now that it is what I want to do. How do I become Buddhist legally?
Thanks for the inquiry. I’ve never heard of “legally” being a Buddhist before. Belonging to a particular religion is a bit like being politically conservative or liberal – it’s an attitude, a point of view, an outlook. You could join a particular political party and they would accept you as a member but you would not “legally” be liberal or conservative. I would suggest that you start attending a Buddhist group or temple, learn their particular approach to Buddhism and then when you start basing your life on what you have been taught, you’ve become a Buddhist. Just like that! You won’t have to sign any document, register, go before a JP or fill out an affidavit – you’ll just be a Buddhist. Some Buddhist groups have a small ceremony in which marks a person’s entry into Buddhism, but that has no legal standing. Religion is a private and personal matter.
Ajahn Brahm jokes that Buddhism is a religion for tax purposes!
What does Buddhism say about same sex marriage?
As with other religions, there are different ideas between different Buddhists about some matters, including about same sex relationships. ‘Officially’ Buddhism has no rules concerning who one marries. Individual Buddhists may have their own ideas about such matters.
My reading of the Buddha’s teachings is that the Buddha was primarily concerned with the quality of our intimate relationships, not with the gender of our partner. Kindness, mutual sharing, loyalty, genuine love, etc. are far more important than what kind of genitals one’s partner has.
Editor’s note: Anyone who is LGBTQI+, or an LGBTQI+ ally, may be interested to look into Rainbodhi, a LGBTQIA+ Buddhist Community – https://rainbodhi.org/.
What did the Buddha teach regarding Karma? Did the Buddha say that everything that happens to a person was due to karma, or not?
The Buddha is very clear that not everything that happens to someone is due to kamma. To attribute everything to karma is to misunderstand the Buddha’s teachings.
If every single thing was determined by karma, there would be no possibility of changing oneself – we would always be completely determined by our past. Further, murderers or thieves could say that they were simply punishing the murdered or the person stolen from for their past kamma. So do be clear on this matter – not everything that happens to someone is due to kamma.
Is there undeserved suffering in the world? Does karma say that all the suffering one receives is deserved? If there is only deserved suffering then can it be said that the one who inflicts or delivers the suffering is only doing what karma will do anyway, and therefore maybe is not to blame? If there is only deserved suffering then why do we try to get people to behave? Surely all the suffering they deliver is deserved by the receiver and therefore is universally ‘ok’ or justified?
Bhante Dhammika: Thanks for the interesting question. The use of the words ‘deserved’ and ‘undeserved’ are unhelpful here because they imply justice, reward, punishment, a force that is assessing behavior and delivering what is ‘deserved.’ It is more helpful to think of kamma as just cause or causes and effect or effects. So I will reword your question and then answer it. “Is all suffering caused by kamma?” However, even this question is unhelpful because it assumes that kamma is only about doing bad and receiving the result of it. Actually, kamma is about all our conscious, deliberate, intentional actions – positive/ethical and negative/unethical. So I’ll reword this question too. “Do we have any experiences that are not the result of kamma?” And the answer is “Yes.” Dropping a brick on your foot and feeling pain, listening to a baby laugh and being delighted, getting caught in the rain and catching a cold, finding a beautiful sea shell on the beach and experiencing a sense of wonder – would all be examples of experiences that probably have nothing to do with kamma. According to the Buddhist analysis, kamma is only one of several causes of the experiences we have. Some of the others are genetic (bija niyama), natural (dhamma niyama), psychological causes (citta niyama), etc. So we can say that while all affects have a cause, not all causes are kammic. I hope this clarifies things a bit for you.
I struggle to give loving kindness and forgiveness to myself. I find it hard to forgive myself for mistakes I have made. How can I give loving kindness to myself?
My name is Ayya Jitindriya, a nun in the Theravada tradition. I’m just responding to your query to the ‘Ask a Buddhist’ program.
I can really relate to your question and concerns… in fact, it is a very common and human thing to struggle with giving loving kindness and forgiveness towards ourselves. Learning how to do so is a great task on the spiritual path actually. It doesn’t come easily, yet it is imperative that we learn this ability, as not being able to accept ourselves and our experience in the moment is really at the root of much of the dukkha (suffering) we encounter and struggle with in our lives.
For myself, it was a process of many years in learning this lesson, and now I know the importance of it. Yet, I still have to be very mindful every day of the conditioned tendencies to hang on to pain and resist the ‘unpleasant’ emotions and perceptions when they arise, so as not to get caught in that trap of self-inflicting pain. But once you know and see these patterns and learn the knack of letting-go, particularly through kindness and acceptance, it comes more easily, and insight into the process deepens along the way.
We will often get challenged to go deeper with this work, with different stuff arising for us, right up until we’ve really ‘cleared the decks’, so to speak, (i.e. fully awakened!).
Kindness, compassion, gentleness, and making peace with ‘the way things are’ (which includes ourselves and whatever is manifesting in the heart/mind in any given moment), is what the 2nd factor of the eightfold path is all about: right intention/thought/attitude.
So, in the face of feelings and perceptions arising of anger, hatred (including self-hatred), unkindness (towards self or other), vengefulness, sadness, disappointment, etc. (which can all be summed up as ‘resistance’), we learn to first recognise it arising in the heart, (this is apprehending the first noble truth of dukkha), and then enquire how to soften around these feelings/perceptions in the moment. We develop approaches, ‘custom-made techniques’ to do this. We have to do this (enquire, experiment) in our own experience, so as we can see the results arising there (i.e. other aspects of the four noble truths manifesting for us to see and understand). This is the process of awakening – awakening to suffering and its causes, and also the cessation of suffering and the path thereto.
So, the ‘thorns in our side’ become the goad to awakening in our path, and the source of insight. We bring them onto path, and as we work with them, we understand and fulfill the path.
Learning to forgive ourselves for our mistakes… this is a hard one for all of us. Why is it that we keep remembering and repeatedly going over the really painful, embarrassing, and ego-humiliating stuff? Why do we so easily forget the good stuff? This is a kind of self-inflicting mental torture, that we really have to snap out of. Ironically, (especially for spiritual practitioners) because of our desire to be good and true, we can often get really ‘down’ on ourselves when we perceive ourselves to have failed there! But this is all in the past. And what we must drum in to our mind is the fact that the past is past, and there is no changing that! Why we keep going over it in our mind seems to be some kind of confused attempt to get rid of the painful memory by somehow ‘rewriting history’, or if we are in a down mood, sometimes it seems more about underlining to ourselves how ‘bad’ we are! But all of this is untrue. It is a confused attempt of the ego patterning to try to get free of suffering (the thorn in the side) but without knowing how. So we keep going over it, and if there is no awareness, we end up just reinforcing painful mental and emotional patterns, and a sense of ‘me/self’ as ‘that’… (like picking at a wound so it never gets to heal).
By taking refuge in awareness (buddha-mind/wakefulness), we will see these patterns that are productive of suffering more and more clearly as just conditioned patterns of mind. We have to recognise memory as memory, a perception arising in the moment, triggered by a passing thought or feeling – it is not a solid ‘self’ per se, just a memory arising in the moment. If we don’t see this in the moment we tend to latch on to the perception as real, believe it to be ‘me’ and continue rolling with the endless story-making process of the mind (ruminating). And depending on the overall mood in the mind at the time, our perception will pick-up and reinforce either the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ memories and reinforce a sense of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ self.
“The past is a memory, the future is the unknown, now is the knowing”. Ajahn Sumedho
We have to learn to stay with awareness, and with a kindness and acceptance in the heart when we confront painful feelings, whether mental, emotional or physical. We can never do this perfectly but we can do it to the best of our ability. And the truth of the situation and the mind’s processes will show themselves more clearly. This will gradually clear up the confusion in the mind as to what’s real and what’s worth pursuing, giving energy to, and what’s not.
Kindness and compassion are a kind of portal in the heart to seeing more clearly the way things are. The softening of the mind state here undermines habitual resistance and judgement, and allows a natural calm and clarity to emerge.
We also have to remember that we are human, and as humans, we are all working with a mind that is not yet fully awakened. A mind that is still swayed by confusion, greed and hatred at times. This is just the way it is. In the past, we were even more so swayed by these things, so when looking back its far too easy to see where we ‘got it wrong’, in hindsight. But actually, we made whatever choices or actions at the time to the best of our ability, while not yet being awakened, no matter how it turned out. No one knows how our decisions are going to turn out – we are often acting ‘blind’ so to speak. But in the process of things running their course we learn. But we also must learn not to hold grudges against ourselves. To forgive ourselves, and others, for blind mistakes that may have caused pain, is actually progress on the path. While we still can’t forgive, we are hanging on to painful emotions that are just creating more pain for ourselves (and others), unnecessarily so.
One of the reasons why we can find ‘forgiveness’ difficult is that we are yet to fully accept with kindness the ‘hurt feelings’ when they arise in the heart. There is a conditioned resistance to pain that kicks in. Whether it is in relation to the memory of ‘someone else who hurt me’, or me feeling hurt and humiliated by memories of my own actions. For myself, I found that the feeling of ‘shame’ or ‘humiliation’ was very hard to open to and accept in my own heart, (when I really regretted doing something that made me look really ‘bad’). Forgiving myself only came gradually as I was able to look at and accept this feeling in the moment it was arising, and not hang on to it… (i.e. forgive myself – literally, give it up, surrender it!). Then, it is just a feeling that comes and goes. If we don’t grasp it, don’t hang on to it, and don’t keep re-identifying with it, the sense of self around it doesn’t keep getting reinforced. This is what the Buddha is pointing to. None of the feelings, perceptions, thoughts etc. are who and what we are in essence… they are just perpetually changing, conditioned patterns of the mind. We have to give rise to the wise patterning which leads to freedom from patterning, and let go of the conditioned dukkha-causing patterning.
In the end, samsara is just a construction of conditioned thought patterns. It’s not that we have to get rid of and obliterate these patterns, we just have to wake up to them and not believe in them, or get caught in them. Our ‘path’ is alternating between ‘getting caught’ and ‘freeing ourselves’, over and over again, till we just don’t get caught anymore… the mind learns how not to get stuck anymore, and the old glue loses its stickiness!
Here’s one simple technique to practice:
When a painful memory or feeling arises in the heart/mind, ask yourself:
“Where do I feel this in the body?”
And let your mind look for the corresponding physical sensations related to that painful memory or emotion.
Then, when you have that physical sensation/s in your inner mind’s eye, ask yourself:
“Can I just breath with this sensation/ feeling, just as it is, in this moment?”
Don’t make it a demand… let these questions be open questions in the mind, just as I have written them here. This way the mind will enquire of its own, from its own genuine interest. (If you make it a closed question or a command, i.e. “do this… just breath…”, it has a very different affect). So, an open question and genuine enquiry as to what happens when you ask, “can I….?”
If you find you can breathe with the sensation just as it is, without expectation of it to go away or for anything to happen… just stay mindful and open and see if you can breathe in and out with the sensation in mind, and just keep feeling into it this way. No expectations. And see what happens.
If it feels hard to breathe with the sensations, then just know that in the moment, and stay with whatever little movements of breath there may be, even if it feels constricted and unpleasant, just let it be and be as gentle with the process as you can.
Feelings of grief or tenderness may arise or other emotions too. The idea is just to stay with it, as gently and as openly as you can in the moment, allowing the breath to gently come in and out. If it feels ‘too much’ then you can gently let your attention rest elsewhere for a while, somewhere in the body that feels more comfortable and ‘safe’. Your own inner wisdom will start to guide you on in the process.
Well, I’ve written quite a lot here, so it’s best I wrap up. I do hope that some of what I’ve said is helpful for you. As the wise Ajahn Chah used to say: “Take whatever is helpful, and leave the rest behind.”
Sending you all good wishes and encouragement on your path of practice.