Thursday, 6 December 2012

9 dicembre: giornata di meditazione a Trieste

Aperto a chiunque vorrebe praticare la meditazione in gruppo per una giornata. Sarà guidata, ma c'è spazio per chi potrebbe desidare di seguire la loro pratica. Mandami un email se ti interessa participare. Inizia alle 9.30 e finsce alle 17.30 con pausa pranzo. 

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Post-Traditional Buddhism, Part 2

Here it is, the second part of my article for Elephant Journal on Post-Traditional Buddhism; a term/concept I borrowed from Hokai Sobol, an intelligent Shingon teacher. The article actually covers a few thoughts on what a new shape of Buddhism might include as part of its emerging form. Again, I’m no expert, just exploring thoughts and allowing thoughts to lead me to, at least for me, new territory. This second part should annoy a few souls and rile a few others, but that’s okay.

Here’s the link to part one in case you missed it.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

The Eightfold Path: Concentration

              (Cute cat, or a display of serious concentration in progress?)

Concentration is the last element of the Eightfold Path. Practising all of the eight factors of the path pretty much guarantees us a powerful and transformative journey of discovery, growth and change. If we go far enough down this path, it ought to lead to some sort of liberation from suffering and confusion and awakening to authentic being. This is what the label on the packet suggests, you will have to make your own way and sample the goods to find out whether the claims are true, or not. 

The Eightfold Path does not exist out there somewhere and I hope I have made that clear to some degree in these blog posts. It cannot be perfected in any absolute sense and there is no committee to measure your progress, and, most likely, no one will pat you on the back and say well done if you make notable progress on it, and, well, what is ‘it’ anyway?  Many followers of Buddhism mistake the external forms, teachings and practises as ‘the’ path. This is a mistake. The Eightfold Path is simply an effective model to inspire, guide and prompt us to action that has been reliable enough to warrant its survival and continued propagation for a couple of thousand years. The path though is ‘our’ actual-personal-experience of putting these practices and concepts into action. We need to start and gain some first-hand experience before we can relate experientially to what is alluded to in the many books out there. The path then is created through the raw elements of our own actions, choices and intent. As we gain first-hand experience we can start to relate to what teachers and teachings are hinting at and decide for ourselves what works and what doesn't, whether a given teacher or form of Buddhism has its head in a dark place, or if it/they might be worth investing time and energy into. There are many Buddhisms out there and most of them believe they have the final say on what Buddhism is. Outside of institutions and organisations, authoritative figures, leaders and followers is the simple matter of an individual, or a group exploring the consequences of dedicated practise on this human life, in this time and place. 

A path that journeys into new territory is always going to provide surprises, the unexpected and new experiences in unfamiliar surroundings. A one-to-one teaching situation should support us in making our own way, rather than impose a set of rules and instructions which we ought to adhere to religiously. In such a dynamic, negotiation and exchange are a more useful relationship dynamic than superior and subordinate roles. I personally have always preferred the idea of spiritual friend to guru or master for this reason and been highly suspicious of powerful, aloof, all-knowing men sat on high thrones. Institutionalised Buddhism often has the most authoritative sounding say on Buddhist matters, but to accept dogmatic, doctrinal view as the most authoritative would be a mistake. Relying on impersonal, external authority to determine the validity of your own first-hand experience in practise and in life is likely to lead to blind faith, group think and a lack of self-authority and imagination. Negotiating authority successfully entails levelling the field. The same seductive ease which convinces individuals to vote for ‘strong leaders’ plays out in spiritual communities. 

The path is your own personal-direct-firsthand experience of putting meditation and new concepts into practise and exploring the results and consequences as they evolve in an ongoing discipline. The rest is an add-on that may or may not help you on your way. At the end of the day it is good to be able to trust yourself to know what works for you and what doesn't, and stand on your own two feet.  It takes courage to do so, but it is well worth it. It is certainly better than ending up in bed with a wrinkly, 70-year-old,guru…or maybe not, if that's your thing.

Now, on with the last element of the Eightfold Path.

Let’s talk about sex...Buddhism Meet Shamanism (pt.5, Part.2)

'Without sexual union, there would be no one born capable of experiencing the great bliss of enlightenment.' 

(I highly recommend reading Part.1 first. Click here)  Certainly my ideas about sexuality are limited and have been impacted by the same forces as any other, but in attempting to write this closer to the Buddhism Meet Shamanism series, which hasn’t been easy, I have come to the conclusion that two essential points are at the heart of anything useful I might have to share. They are;

1.      Sex is perfectly natural
2.      Freedom of sexual expression is something we must be willing to own and explore

These two points require explanation, so here goes. Being sexual and making love are perfectly natural expressions of our basic humanity. This simple statement means more than it might seem at first glance. Because our sexual aspect sits in the middle of the wheel, it is impacted enormously by our relationship with the other four aspects. This means that our relationship with ourselves as a sexual being is deeply affected and condition by; our ability to express our emotions and be intimate, our ability to be connected to our body and therefore to pleasure, our ability to be open and receptive to a partner and let go of separating thoughts, and the ability to connect in a deeply human, expansive and naturally creative manner. When we engage sexually we bring in our other four aspects and the richness of the experience, outside of simply ‘getting off’, is determined in great part by how capable we are of doing this.
Because most of us have issues and because most of us are blocked to some degree in our four aspects, our ability to experience open, natural sexuality and achieve depths of pleasure and connection that so many of us deeply desire, is limited and restricted. Add onto this the challenges and trials of relationships and we can start to see that sexuality and sex are often highly complicated arenas. This complication can lead us down avenues in our relationship to sexuality that are difficult to exit from.
Many of the preconceptions we have with regards to sex come to us from popular culture. One of the most obvious and heavily recycled is that romantic love and sex are ideally inseparable. This is a highly annoying idea that is certainly supported and backed up by the religious brigade and is repeated again and again by the modern day myth making industry of Hollywood and by most of the standard soap operas and TV series which still dominate our screens.
I for one have found eastern attitudes towards sex to be quite refreshing. The romanticisation of sex can be found all over the globe but in eastern countries, which have been much more successful at avoiding biblical definitions of what constitutes right sexual behaviour, much more pragmatic and freer attitudes towards sex can be found, especially in Tibet, Japan and China. Certainly in the West it is unlikely that a family doctor would prescribe twice-daily sex in order to heal a liver complaint as can happen in China. As John Stevens illustrates in great detail, in Tibet polygamy and polyandry were widely practised and in Japan the visiting of brothels was fairly typical and accepted behaviour by Zen priests. This is hardly something we would expect from Catholic priests in the West, or Imams in the Middle-East. 

'It would seem by the size of your buttocks, that your nature is exceedingly lustful.' Drukpa Kunley, a revered Tibetan yogi and Mahamudra master

Saturday, 15 September 2012

The Eightfold Path: Right Effort (part.1)

Getting started
Getting away from the computer screen, unplugging our ears from an iPad, putting the beer back in the fridge, and settling in for twenty or thirty minutes meditation requires effort. There’s no getting away from it. Modern technology, and in particular the internet, promises instant gratification, satisfaction and stimulation. Meditation does not. Perhaps meditation is the antithesis of the internet? Meditation brings us to where we are and slows everything down so we can see clearly, so we can feel deeply, and gain insight into our human condition. It provides a space where we let go of indulging the impulsive desire to absorb more and more data, to open a browser for the umpteenth time, to track down the latest video on YouTube, the latest track on iTunes and surf ever onwards to further, new stimulation. And effort? How unfashionable. Why pay when you can download for free, why leave the house to go to the bookshop when almost everything is freely available within that dark screen of limitless magical images.  
I have always been interested in the world as mirror, as macrocosm of our microcosm, and in this regard the internet is a wonderful manifestation of our collective ability to constantly distract ourselves with busyness and with seemingly important and vital tasks, which simply cannot wait. The internet has given rise to an obsession with instant updating, and a new form of anxiety at the thought of not being in touch and digitally connected. But what are we connecting to and how real is it? How does this new relationship with data, bits and bytes absorb our energies and efforts? We have created a new experience of reality based on immediacy where waiting and delay have vanished. The internet and computer technology may increasingly give rise to artificial experiences that provide instant gratification of desires that would otherwise be complex and perhaps impossible to meet in the world outside the confines of digital screens.
In the world of flesh and blood, of earth and stone, effort is almost always required to create or achieve anything meaningful and worthwhile. Long-term investment and commitment produces results and rewards that cannot be rushed. Whiskey and fine wine are aged and better for being so and the best of human qualities are the same. Maturity and wisdom require long-term commitment to growth and a concerted investment in entering the depths of human experience. The culture of instant gratification and access will undoubtedly change younger generations’ relationship with knowledge, entertainment and stimulation of the five senses in unforeseen ways and it is likely that many will indeed be positive. Will the pendulum swing and the value of real flesh and bones experience becomes equally attractive again as a counter-balance to noses glued to screens? Who can tell? Much of this new wave of being is caught up in a great deal of physical separation and isolation; cinema attendance is in decline and book shops are closing down on a monthly basis. It is quicker and easier to watch a film at home and order books from Amazon. The raw meat and bones experience of dynamic tension that marks a more complete approach to living in the world can only take form in relationship with the phenomenal world with all its messiness and paradox, and progress in engaged practice can only come about through a concerted and dedicated effort to transform our experience with matter. A digital version is simply not enough.

So, what is Right Effort and why bother?
Right effort is defined as the consistent and disciplined application of energy. In this context it applies to the path of practice and the attainment of its results. When we look at Right Effort, we are really looking at a combination of intention, energy and will. In tough times, it may be better viewed as the power or ability to make something happen in spite of the circumstances and difficulties in front of us.
Right Effort is the fuel that drives practice and its necessary change, transformation and realigning of values. It leads us through the challenges and resistance that accompany the path and the letting go of the familiar and comfortable. Without appropriate effort our practice will never develop and we won’t have the necessary resources to let go of the habitual patterns that keep us running in circles, unaware and unable to stop doing the same old thing we’ve always done. Right Effort makes the difference. It determines ultimately how far we go in uprooting the suffering and dissatisfaction in our lives and how capable we become of contributing to the reduction of global suffering.

Looking at the fourfold path: lusty defilements
Within earlier Buddhist teachings Right effort was divided into four pragmatic categories (gotta love those lists). They are;

1.      To prevent the arising of unarisen unwholesome states
2.      To abandon unwholesome states that have already arisen
3.      To arouse wholesome states that have not yet arisen
4.      To maintain and perfect wholesome states already arisen

(Bhikku Bodhi, 2008)

When I read these lines the first time I was rather amused by the author’s choice of words. I actually enjoyed reading Bhikku Bodhi's traditional Theravada take on The Noble Eightfold Path, although to me it reveals much of what is wrong with more traditional representations of Buddhist teachings. In rereading his chapter on Right Effort in preparation for this blog post, I was struck by his use of the terms 'defilements' and 'lust' on repeated occasions. What wonderful words! They seem to come straight out of the bible, or the Koran.
I've written in previous posts of words as suggestive symbols that entice often unintended subjective meaning and interpretation from readers and listeners. Yet, words are also keys that unlock doors of understanding, awareness and consciousness. Like all keys, words also close doors, as well as confuse and misdirect. I would hazard a guess that the words defilement and lust fail to open the appropriate doors intended along the eightfold path for most folk from my generation. Lust just happens to be the name of perfumes by both Sex and the City (I’m not kidding, TV programmes now produce fragrance for the more daring and chic) and Lush, and Defilement inspires, at least for me, thoughts of a dodgy S and M porno. Even the word wholesome is iffy, sounding like something you'd eat, rather than examine on the meditation cushion. Needless to say, I shall avoid using such terms below, or at least have them accompanied by more user-friendly words. 

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Buddhism and Hip Hop?


I am really busy at present with other projects so am left to squeezing out a few short novalties once and a while. If you follow this blog and are waiting for the second part of Right Effort. I'll get there eventually. For now, there's this...

I love Hip Hop. Have done since my teens growing up in a peak period of its development in the 90s. For those who can’t stand it for its violence and glorification of guns, etc, don’t be too quick to judge. Hop Hip just happens to be one of the most creative, and original artistic forms of the last 30 years. Amongst the ego-trippin’ you can find some real gems. You can also find some Buddhists!
Below are two links to interviews conducted by the Shambhala Sun Buddhist Magazine with two rappers, one a Buddhist, named Born I Music, and the other a sort of Buddhist. He’s actually more famous, his name’s Rza and he produced the soundtrack for the film Ghost Dog , quirky film by Jim Jarmusch that interwove the story of a black Samurai in Brooklyn who liked to quote from the Hagakure. He has recently been acting in Californication alongside David Duchovney of X-Files fame, who also has dabbled in meditation himself at a Zen monastery. Buddhism is really getting around!
There are also two links to tracks by Born I Music. The first one is better musically, but not so Buddhist. The second is less rappy and was made in aid of Human Rights and covers some Buddhist themes.  Enjoy.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Six Words of Advice

In celebration of this humble blog having surpassed ten thousand views, I present a rather fine morsel for readers to chew on: the Six words of advice from Tilopa. Translation and comment from Ken McLeod.

Don’t recall.
Don’t imagine.
Don’t think.
Don’t examine.
Don’t control.

This advice consists of only six words in Tibetan. The above translation was developed to capture its brevity and directness. Some years ago, I also developed the translation shown below, which some people prefer:

Let go of what has passed.
Let go of what may come.
Let go of what is happening now.
Don’t try to figure anything out.
Don’t try to make anything happen.
Relax, right now, and rest.

Tilopa’s instruction constitute the heart of Mahamudra; non-dual pristine awareness. Here is a link to additional material: 

These are instructions taken from Ken McLeod's Unfettered Mind site. These teachings are often misconstrued, or taken as instruction to give up doing anything. Like all instruction they are appropriate to an individual when the time and context are right.  Some non-dual practitioners are great at following similar instruction, but do so by avoiding engagement, in a more complete sense, with the messiness of existence. It becomes a sort of refuge from the uglier dimensions of life. This is in part one of the reasons why Mahamudra and Dzogchen teachings are considered the pinnacle of the Indian and Tibetan Buddhist traditions and were given in secret or only in the dynamic of 1:1. To arrive at such simplicity of instruction, one has to have cleared out a whole lot of manure before the experience, as Tilopa intended,  is genuinely met. Below is my own reflection :)

To be is to do.
To do is to be.
To unite the two fully is to live. 
Experience is all we have, and it is only ever found in the immediacy of the here and now, within the great flow of the process of life and death, of pulsing and contraction. Beyond hope and beyond fear.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

The Buddhist Geeks Conference! 9-11 August

Free Live Stream of the Buddhist Geeks Conference!

The Buddhist Geeks are doing great things and are directly responsible for radically improving my understanding of Buddhism, and its place in the contemporary West, and also my hope that Buddhism will manage to evolve into a truly radical form of practise, able to meet the needs of serious, western practitioners.
Living in Europe and having too many commitments of my own, attending their conference in person has been out of the question. This year there sense of generosity has sky rocketed and they are sharing the results of their efforts by broadcasting a live stream of much of the conference content. Many of the talks will be broadcast at a reasonable time for those of us living in Europe, so follow the link below and sign up. It doesn't cost a penny. 

From their site: 
'The Buddhist Geeks conference is almost sold out – but you can attend online, right from the comfort of your own home. To make this historic event even more accessible to our global community, this year we are happy to announce our complimentary live streaming and on demand video feeds, which will give you access to many of the extraordinary talks and moments that make our annual conference so geeky and special. Sign up today to receive access to #bgeeks12 online here!'

Monday, 18 June 2012

Evento Sciamanico a Trieste: 15 luglio

Evento Sciamanico della Dolce Medicina

Giornate sugli elementi
L’elemento Fuoco
15 luglio, 2012

Un lavoro Sciamanico, con cerimonie, insegnamenti, trasformazione, comunità, capanna di purificazione

Un evento Sciamanico avrà luogo ogni mese a quindici minuti, dal cuore di Trieste. Ogni incontro, svilupperemo un rapporto più consapevole e concreto con ciascuno dei cinque elementi in sequenza; acqua, terra, aria, fuoco, e vuoto, nelle loro espressioni energetiche e pratiche. Ciò avverrà attraverso gli insegnamenti e cerimonie sciamaniche, fra cui il viaggio sciamanico, la cerimonia dell’albero fiorito, la capanna di purificazione, visualizzazione creativa, e la condivisione di, e sostegno reciproco, del gruppo.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Evento Sciamanico a Trieste: 17 giugno

Evento Sciamanico della Dolce Medicina

Giornate sugli elementi
L’elemento Terra
17 Giugno, 2012

Un lavoro Sciamanico, con cerimonie, insegnamenti, trasformazione, comunità, capanna di purificazione

Un evento Sciamanico avrà luogo ogni mese a quindici minuti, dal cuore di Trieste. Ogni incontro, svilupperemo un rapporto più consapevole e concreto con ciascuno dei cinque elementi in sequenza; acqua, terra, aria, fuoco, e vuoto, nelle loro espressioni energetiche e pratiche. Ciò avverrà attraverso gli insegnamenti e cerimonie sciamaniche, fra cui il viaggio sciamanico, la cerimonia dell’albero fiorito, la capanna di purificazione, visualizzazione creativa, e la condivisione di, e sostegno reciproco, del gruppo.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

The Eightfold Path: Right Livelihood, Pt.2

Looking at our working lives
This is part two of a two-part post. You'll find part one here. Now, on with it we go. As most of us do not work in the aforementioned unethical trades, the question of right livelihood will primarily concern the way we work. It can be useful to start by looking at whether our relationship to our job, workplace and colleagues contributes to the creation or maintenance of forms of gross and subtle suffering for ourselves and for others. This may be as simple as recognising that a poor attitude affects not only the approach we take to the events of a working day, but contributes to the establishment of an unpleasant working environment and perhaps even a culture of bad attitude that permeates the working establishment. An ethical approach to work is to honour our agreements (contractually, verbally and interpersonally) and be as impeccable as possible. We dedicate ourselves to excellence as a commitment to ongoing development and we align our use of energy with practice. We use the working environment as a sphere of activity in which we firstly learn to recognise patterns of reactivity, or aversion, and how our preferences, attraction, play out. We let go of frenetic reactivity to stressful circumstances and seek to align with the movements of our working day in a way that allows us to maintain internal balance and presence. It is an ongoing art to do so. It is likely not possible in all working environments and this is the point when a change of circumstances may become necessary. If our working environment demands too many hours, too much stress inducing work, excessive aggressivity, or the giving away of our autonomy and individuality, we may need to consider a different career path if we are dedicated to long-term meditation practice.
As we are all too aware, work takes up a considerable amount of our waking life. That may be good news for some, but for many it is not. Work is a must for a great number of people: an obligation that would be preferably avoided. Even though this attitude is being tested by the global economic crisis we are currently going through, once you step outside of job anxiety, the same dissatisfaction that so many have in relationship to work remains. 
So, what can be done about this? A dichotomy seems to emerge between two basic approaches to an unsatisfactory working life. The first is to accept your lot, view experience as experience and let go of any particular preference. In the light, this is taking a sort of Zen approach of accepting what arises, which is easier said than done, but certainly possible. In the dark it’s resigning yourself to circumstances, because to change would either be impossible, or simply not worth it. These two excuses arise as pretence voices with lots of baggage in tow.
The second approach recognises a genuine necessity for change and engages in the search for more meaningful work, and more rewarding circumstances. Both are important to recognise and develop familiarity with and are certainly not mutually exclusive. The basis for working effectively with either is having a sense of the genuine priority in a given period and a sensitivity to timing.
There have been many books written about finding the job of your dreams. Many of them are very good and have certainly helped many people change their lives and find more rewarding work. For many people this is certainly something to look at, even in challenging economic times like the one we are living in. There is no doubt that when we are enthusiastic about the activity we are investing our energy and time into, we work better and we feel better doing it and it is easier usually to remain present and open to experience. In an ideal world we would all have the job of our dreams and dedicate ourselves to doing the best we can whilst at work. 

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

The Eightfold Path: Right livelihood (Part.1)

How is it that I manage to take a fairly straightforward topic and ramble on about it for pages and pages?!? I was pretty convinced that Right livelihood would require half a page and be done. How wrong I was! In this blog post I explore right livelihood in its typical Buddhist format, and then I look at the relationship between affecting change on our lives and dealing with life circumstances as they are, and in particular how this plays out in the world of work. The first part then will cover the Buddhist issues of right livelihood concerning job selection and our contribution to the world through how we make a living. For those of you who've found my take on the world of Buddhism stimulating to some degree, the second part of this blog post will explore the relationship between the self-development field and Buddhist deconstruction of the self.

Let’s get started then
Right livelihood is an extension of right action and right speech. It therefore concerns the way we interact with the world and in this case how we interact with work. In a way this step on the eightfold Path is relatively straightforward. There are two questions that we need to ask ourselves in relationship to the work we do;

Does the way I earn money and make a living contribute to suffering in this world?
Does my work support my practise and provide conditions in which I can actually practise as I need to?

If the answer is yes to the first, your work may fit into one of the following categories. There are the classical definitions found in most traditions for determining wrong livelihood.

1.      Selling arms, or dealing in weapons and instruments of death and torture
2.      Dealing in slavery including prostitution (I would add slave labour too)
3.      Dealing in meat including raising cattle for meat, slaughtering & butchering
4.      Selling alcohol, drugs, or poison (does this include tobacco?)

In looking at these definitions of wrong livelihood, it seems that we can make a clear distinction between the first and the last two. Yet, even in exploring the first two there is ambiguity and I can’t help but feel that a decisive split from associating ourselves with these two potential forms of livelihood seems to be an expression of both excessive idealism and naivete. As general guidelines, they are on point, but as is almost always the case, there will be exceptions to the rule.
It is sometimes said that what you do is determined to be good or bad based on your intention. I think this is a problematic approach that potentially leads to a form of excessive permissiveness. So, as per usual, there is a need to find a healthy middle ground in weighting up facts and options by not just examining our intent for taking on the work that we do, but looking at how the company or organisation we are working for is interacting with the wider world and how we contribute to that, both directly and indirectly.
Many forms of work cause immense suffering and they fall outside these categories. Unscrupulous money lenders have led many an individual to suicide and the banking industry has destroyed the lives and future of millions, if not billions, or people globally through greed. Vulture funds which rip the heart out of businesses that provide a livelihood for many for short term profit are another example.  People who knowingly manufacture and sell harmful products to children are another.
The basic principles of right work are simple and they mirror general ethical behaviour, which is certainly not limited to Buddhism. Not getting wealthy from the misfortune of others, not actively deceiving and lying are really the basic elements of an ethical approach to work.
On a practise level it becomes increasingly difficult to turn a blind eye to the impact our actions make and the recognition that our involvement in wider fields of activity may cause harm. In time a need naturally arises to align our type of work and our behaviour at work with the principles that form the basis of our meditation practise and path.

Weapons & other issues
The manufacture, sell and use of arms is the most likely to contribute either directly or indirectly to suffering globally. Weapons cause death and unimaginable suffering every day in multiple locations around the world. Oppressive regimes use weapons against their citizens on a daily basis and the producing of those weapons and sell of them to dictators and suppressors of human rights is quite clearly highly unethical.
A blanket ban on weapons production is unrealistic though. Nations need to be able to defend themselves from invasion and from attack. When war is justified, the use and production of arms is also justified. In defending yourself, your country, or the weak from tyranny, the use of arms is appropriate when all other means have failed. Of course in an ideal world we may wish to see violence and war eliminated, and yet that world does not exist.
Let’s suppose though that an ethical arms industry could exist; how would it look? For starters it would be vastly smaller than it is now. It would not sell weapons to countries that carry out human rights abuses and to those where torture and indiscriminate murder take place as the US and UK routinely do. It would produce weapons for internal security services that are designed to incapacitate with minimal harm and it would refuse to give space to the production of weapons that can destroy the entire planet like nuclear weapons and atomic bombs. Again, this sounds extremely naive and unrealistic. But, perhaps it's not.
Idealism is a problem when it has no connection to reality. To consider ideals is an important and valuable exercise in thought. Wishful thinking is another kettle of fish entirely and believing that we can somehow live without weapons and without war is frankly ignorant of history. It may happen one day, but the past is replete with war in all parts of the world including such sources of immense spiritual wealth such as Tibet, and North America before the arrival of the white man.
Does that mean we cannot pray for it? Of course not; in fact it is important to do so as we align ourselves with a non-aggressive approach to life. But if we are to look at actual potentials and alternatives to the circumstances that are now present, in order to give space to a more ethical society, holding up an image of a reality in which government-sponsored industries don't sell weapons to torturers and dictators does not seem too much to ask.
For most people involvement with the arms industries is unethical employment. For the rare individual that makes weapons for sports shooting on the range, they will find their work inhabits what I would consider a neutral territory.

“No one shall be held in slavery or servitude: slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.” United Nations: Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Slavery & prostitution
Slavery is the second form of wrong livelihood. The basic behaviour underlying any form of slavery is to treat a human being as an object, devoid of value other than monetary. Modern day slavery is not as rare as you might think. There are multiple forms of modern day slavery taking place all over the world with figures ranging from 12-27 million slaves worldwide. The vast majority are debt slaves. From the shanghaiing of Indian labourers to the Emirates, to forced prostitution of Africans and Eastern Europeans, there are endless horrendous stories of individuals being lied to and tricked into going abroad for phantom jobs and then being forced to work endless hours to pay fictitious debts. The sell of children and young desperate women to predators and pimps is surprisingly commonplace, even in Europe and the US. Migrant workers from Africa into Europe, and from Mexico and many central and southern American countries into the States are forced to work in slave like conditions.
In all of these cases there is a total inability to see the humanity in another individual. It is hard to imagine how inhuman the people have become who can actively and consciously force a fellow human being into slavery. Slavery is an unaddressed global issue that needs more attention.
Prostitution is another form of unethical work. In most cases women (and men) have very little choice about ending up as prostitutes. Many come to it through being enslaved. Others are simply desperate. Some have been sexually abused and carry out this work as a way of self-harming. There are very few prostitutes that take on this job through choice. The illegal nature of prostitution has put it in bed with the illegal drugs trade and organised crime.
Prostitution has always existed it seems, so perhaps legalising it and enforcing regulation on the industry is the wisest step to take in the west and may counter the human trafficking of sex slaves from Eastern Europe and Africa. It would not cancel out the presence of slavery in the world of prostitution, but it would make the whole affair much cleaner here. For some people prostitution is a means for earning enough money to survive. In countries like Denmark it is legal and can provide a very good income. Is it ideal? No, but to rule it out entirely seems to smack of idealism again. We do not live in a Buddhist culture or in an enlightened society, so we must do the best we can with the circumstances we have. Change always starts with realistic and doable steps.
Another form of modern-day slavery is the exploitation of workers. We see many, many stories in newspapers from China and from India about the exceptional conditions in which people are often forced to work for pathetic wages, working very long days with no breaks and no rights. They often have to work in toxic environments and do so in fear of violence or abuse. 
Some economists talk about the great shift in the increase of affluence and the growth of the middle-class in China and India as a reason to excuse such conditions, yet we all know that this is no reason for forcing people to work 18 hour days for less than one dollar in horrendous conditions in which they are treated as less than cattle. Perhaps economists find it easier to view all forms of life as monetary units, or machines defined by their production capacity and value? 
In these conditions people become like machines. They lose touch with their basic humanity and the opportunity to practise a spiritual path becomes greatly reduced, if not eliminated. When humans are treated in this way they become like animals, running on instinct, mindlessly absorbed in mundane and highly repetitive work.
It is easy to argue that modern-day capitalism is a machine for turning humans into objects and increasingly we see that people are losing their livelihoods as well as their lives in order to keep an exceptionally unjust economic system afloat. This is a form of slavery as far as I'm concerned in which democracy and human rights are being eroded in the name of economic progress for the very few. When an entire economic system has shown itself to be deeply unethical at its core, change needs to emerge. The challenge for the next generations will be to leave behind the old dichotomy of capitalism or communism and find alternatives that give rise to ethical government and the return of ethics to the world of work.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Meditazione per il 21° secolo: Trieste

Meditazione Pragmatica, Tecniche di Mindfulness, e Coaching.

La Meditazione Pragmatica, e Secolare, è una forma unica e non-religiosa di meditazione che è basata nel Buddismo Secolare. Tradizione, abiti e rituali sono assenti così come sono  termini non-native o esotiche. Ci si riferisce come una pratica, o un percorso. Si tratta di fornire valide alternative alle forme tradizionali di meditazione e buddismo; il mettere in pratica le varie tecniche ha la priorità. Si tratta di metodologia e la creatività; l'apprendimento non è un insieme di credenze.
Espressioni secolari di meditazione sono quelli che adegua effettivamente al tempo in cui stiamo vivendo, i sistemi di pensiero e pratica preso dalle tradizioni buddiste del mondo. Espressioni secolari di buddismo e meditazione tentano di trovare il modo culturalmente appropriati di praticare i suoi principi nel occidente.

Ogni cultura in cui il Buddismo  è sviluppato ha creato il proprio forma unica di essa. Anche se ha compiuto sforzi per adattarsi, gli insegnamenti buddisti sono ancora in gran parte oscurato da una presentazione che è culturalmente estraneo in apparenza, lingua e formato con lo scopo di offrire al pubblico una forma di meditazione buddista priva di bardature religiose, tradizionali e culturali.
Le forme principali di pratica è la meditazione.  Il Buddhismo Secolare non riconosce una figura suprema, onnisciente autoritaria, quindi il progresso dipende interamente dalla propria diligenza e impegno nella pratica che è diretto proprio alla diminuzione della sofferenza umana. 

Sunday, 20 May 2012

The Eightfold Path: Right Action, P.2

This is the second part of a two-part post on Right Action (Part. 1: click here)
Part two continues by exploring the themes of theft, sexual misconduct, and cruelty as the basic elements of unethical behaviour.
In exploring these three areas of unethical behaviour we might reach the conclusion that actively practising their opposites could be a good idea. Instead of killing, that is taking life, we might see that preserving life and creating the right conditions for healthy life to emerge are the logical counter. If we were to take this logical conclusion on board, then some of the ethical behaviour that I outline in part one would make more sense. With that in mind, let's begin the next phase of our meal together.

Taking what is not given (give me my fork back)
Theft doesn’t require a huge amount of discussion. Outside of stealing and robbery and so on, it is generally an issue of being clearer in our choices. Taking paper from work, or stealing a pen from a shop due to mindlessly placing it in your pocket are both examples of taking what is not given.
There is a need to apply care to the small things. We are asked to be more present in how we are occupying the spaces we move in. Potentially unseen consequences to our actions can be countered by living with integrity and striving for impeccability in our actions coupled with conscious choices. In lateral thinking puzzles there is a classic scenario designed to see if you would return a lost wallet full of cash if you found it with no ID inside. Another concerns helping an old lady up the stairs, even if it entails missing your bus. Right Action is in great part the returning of the wallet, assisting that old lady and basically being willing to help when it’s needed. These are actually forms of generosity.
Greed is the opposite of generosity and a form of theft too. We may have money and feel the right to purchase whatever we desire, ‘I’ve earned it, it’s my money’, you say. But greed is all about taking too much. It is having a lack of dignity in what you consume too. We become like a leech, sucking the life out of the world in order to feed a mindless hunger for more. There are countless manifestations of this. Among the most topical at present are obesity and vulture funds, but perhaps bankers are today’s best example of taking too much. The 1% that has the vast majority of the world’s wealth is a blindingly clear example of why greed is wrong. For that 1% to own all they do, they have to have taken it from the 99%, and even though our economic system congratulates them for it and western society has legalized such behaviour, we all know it is wrong and bad for the 100% in the end.
Generosity counteracts our selfish tendencies and helps us to loosen our small self complex. The small self never has enough. It defends itself from perceived outside enemies and believes that it must barricade itself in, in order to protect its precious wealth. We have a collective blind spot with regards to wealth, failing to see the real value of things. This is mirrored in our economic system which only values growth, failing to give proper value to well-being, the environment, creativity and pretty much anything that cannot produce financial gain. It’s an extremely impoverished view of humanity and the planet that has to be changed ASAP. Bhutan’s happiness index is famously hailed as an alternative, but whether it’s workable or not, a different global index that values quality over quantity must be possible without all out revolution.
Greed on a basic level is perhaps simply recognising those moments when we wish to indulge and noticing what is really going on. Meditation is in great part learning to first resist urges, then to relax with urges, and then to see into what drives urges, in order to create change. Greed is often the impulse to grab at, to possess, to hold onto and cherish. Yet, as many of us will recognise, once you hold onto that thing which was so desired, it starts to lose its appeal. We sort of squeeze the life out of it. The most memorable and attractive of experience is best embraced with a light touch. We can have a similar attitude towards our possessions…and our roles. We will feel all the better for doing so.
Buddhism is not Jainism, so extremes are not welcome. Living in false poverty and denying ourselves life’s pleasures is not the right direction to take. Learning to live within our shared means is however. Finding balance in how we use our resources and how we use the Earth’s resources is surprisingly uncomplicated. Simple questions put us in touch with what ought to be obvious; How much should I take? Do I really need a new car, TV, wife, etc? Could I share some of my earnings with those less fortunate? What's really important here?

Sexual misconduct (What are you doing with that chicken, sir?)
Ethical sexual behaviour is predicated on integrity and honesty. Free sexual expression and exploration should be the right of each adult individual, but doing so without integrity and honesty leads to all manner of mess and confusion. The simple strategy for avoiding such sticky messes is clear communication and the respect for spaces within a relationship that allow such communication to take place.
Personal sexual relationships are cauldrons in which boil the ingredients of our less developed selves. Desire plays out, it waxes and wanes and temptations emerge. Sexual relationships are delicate affairs that require trust, mutual respect, and a whole lot of care. The desire for quick fixes, for a partner to satisfy our needs, for sex to always be perfect, for our partner to never change, or to change faster than they are currently doing, these and many, many other thoughts and forces push at the container that is an intimate relationship. How we address these impulses and forces  determines whether we are able to move forward together in a way that increases mutual understanding. Whether you’re straight, gay, bi, it really doesn’t matter. What engenders mutual care and growth within a relationship where sex is present, is genuine, open communication and clear agreements.
As adults we need to be responsible enough to be extremely clear about what we desire and how we go about feeding those desires. Through clear open dialogue we can avoid harming each other. It’s so simple and yet we mess it up time and time again.
Relationships end, people move in different directions. Honouring your partner, whether of fifteen years, or a single night, is an act of care, whoever and however they might be. This is part of ethical sexual behaviour: not using others for our own needs.
There are countless examples of sexual misconduct instigated by ordained members of the Buddhist community too. The issue though is not usually the sex. The suffering that emerges is almost always due to lies, lack of transparency and betrayal. These events can be highly damaging to a community whose purpose should be to engender understanding, share knowledge and provide a community that supports practice. The roles we inhabit have rules and when those roles involve leadership, we must be doubly attentive to what's important. Satisfying carnal desires at the expense of others is not one of them.
The same is true of a relationship. Breaking agreements, sleeping around, lying and deception create confusion and mistrust. Is it worth indulging in that short-term pleasure for the long-term harm it causes? Perhaps it’s better to reflect on such questions before the occasion arises. 

The Eightfold Path: Right Action, P.1

I want to remind readers that I am not an authority on Buddhist matters. I simply write about my own understanding and the conclusions I have reached after many years of practising a variety of Buddhist traditions and hanging out with all manner of Buddhist organisations, schools and other. Right Action brings us into the field of behavioural adjustments, and is often equated with morality, a touchy topic, which I will freely explore with my own ideas.
When first approaching Right Action as the next blog post, I was not at all motivated as I wanted to avoid repeating the themes covered in Right Speech. Well, the social dimension opened up the topic for me and I found myself having something to say. As far as I am concerned meditation practice must be an eventual avenue to engaging socially, which is essentially the point I make below. That said, let’s eat. 

A little antipasto
Applying awareness and presence changes the dynamic we have with experience, and our interaction with it: is this not obvious? Moments are not enough however; we need to build capacity as Ken McLeod reminds us.
Avoidance of rigid systems of behavioural and therefore social control is highly appropriate for the day and age we live in. But how do we decide whether our actions are appropriate, or inappropriate, integrous or otherwise? Here’s a clue: look at the bigger picture and apply copious amounts of awareness and engagement.
Avoiding excessive moral lecturing on how we should or should not inhabit our bodies and actions, is not only a right, but a must if we are to exhibit any degree of autonomy and make the path our own. But where should we lead our wagons?

Right Action is divided into three areas. It concerns the avoidance, or elimination, of killing, theft and sexual misconduct. That sounds easy enough, right? However, both killing and theft have less explicit aspects that make their total avoidance, well, unavoidable. Sexual misconduct is less ambiguous and easier to respect as a moral code one may choose to adopt, although I would be cautious in laying out non-negotiable moral edicts here and strongly believe religion has no place in our bedrooms.
But what is the motivation for moderating our actions if we do not succumb to holy authority, or guilt? Surely, in this day and age, we should be able to do as we please, as long as it doesn’t harm anybody, right? This is valid, but we need to pay attention to the bigger picture, and for most of us, that is simply not happening enough.
As with Right Speech, Right Action emerges out of Right View and Right Intent. Therefore the underlying motivation for taking care with our actions is to reduce suffering. This is in keeping with the Four Truths. This applies at a local level with regards to our immediate circle of influence and extends to the social impact our choices and actions have on the wider world. With their often unseen consequences, the impact of our daily choices are of real importance. In fact the nature of not seeing is one of the key failings that permits us to avoid assuming responsibility, and therefore authority, for our actions. Yet, once you are aware, what comes next?

Soup arrives
I remember when I first encountered Buddhism in the flesh, years back, at a Tibetan Buddhist centre. I recall studying the Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life by Shantideva and was impressed by the immense depth that was given to describing the precise rules and laws that governed the life and behaviour of a bodhisattva; a Sanskrit term for a person dedicated to leading all beings to the awakened state of freedom. How difficult it must be to achieve such an exalted and super-human condition I thought, and what a memory and what discipline an individual would need in order to put so many rules and so many steps into practice. Although many of the themes that ran through the text were impressive and in part inspirational, I was turned off by the excessive rigidity of it all.
In truth the text was my introduction to the world of super-human Buddhism, which I have written about on several occasions. It was a window onto the world of wishful thinking and non-human aspirations. It was a perspective from religious Buddhism.
I consider myself to be fortunate to have been born into the west, in a modern world, where superstition and religious mores do not dominate our interior mental spaces and collective discourse. In the west applying such a mandate of rigid morality is only really appropriate in its complete form in a monastic setting, and in my experience and observations, produces various psychological responses that tend to manifest in the form of either insecurity and a sense of inferiority, or an obsessive and mindless dedication to a religious identity and code. Each to his or her own however, and if such an approach works for some, great, for the vast majority though, it does not.
The Bodhisattva as an ideal seems to have been an attempt to bridge the often self-absorbed and isolationist practice of an ascetic or renunciate monastic to engagement with the everyday world of regular folk. I am currently reading about the development of Mahayana Buddhism, which is where the ideal of the Bodhisattva first emerges, and so far what I have gathered is that this movement within Buddhism occurred as a response to the separation between the monastics and lay practitioners and as a response to the need to make Buddhism more relevant and accessible to lay practitioners. The Mahayana was also a calling to a higher purpose beyond self-liberation, where individuals who awakened were traditionally given the name of Arahat and defined by their ability to escape the wheel of suffering and incarnation on the earthly plane. That is to say, you’re free, off you go now and don’t come back. In theory at least these guys didn’t have to concern themselves with the unawakened world, which was left behind.
The bodhisattva as a modality implies the willingness to stretch our imagination and subsequent actions (including practice) to include the world at large. There is recognition that within the truth of interdependence, we are all intimately connected to each other, and to the world we inhabit, and therefore it is not enough for us to seek freedom from suffering for ourselves, but it is instead for us to bridge our experience to include all life. This is quite clearly an extremely noble aspiration. But, how does it look realistically and without the hyperbolic religious formulation that we can find in many traditional Mahayana texts, which evolve into ever more extreme and mythological images and ideals?
In a way, Right Action represents a simple modal for extending our personal pursuit of freedom, awakening, and the end of dukkha, to others. I would dare to say that developing bodhisattva aspirations is a natural stage in travelling the path; sooner or later we mature enough to grasp that we must include others in our circle of care. Right Action has been sold as a system for avoiding the accumulation of negative karma, but that seems to point towards a rather selfish, and nowadays, extremely abstract motivation for changing one’s behaviour.
To observe the threefold model of Right Action as disciplines beyond a simple moderation of our behaviour is to develop a deeper understanding of the interdependent relationship between all forms of life. Additionally, it is a call to consider others as having equal importance to ourselves. It is a maturation of empathy to compassion. We evolve the ability to connect to another, to the ability to know that ‘other’ is not separate from ‘me’ and that such boundaries are part of the artificial edifice that surrounds the notion of a separate self. 

 First course
Right Action is not a call to a forced morality then, but a teaching of the fact that murder, theft and sexual misconduct cause suffering to ourselves, others and society. We can talk about karma, but it doesn’t seem necessary because the consequences of such actions are so clear and are condemned openly in all societies.
When Right Action is integrated into our way of being it leads us towards an understanding that rules and laws, morality and do and don’ts are not the stuff of realisation. They are in part about institutionalised and social control. On a practice level a moral code functions as a pointer towards an area of life that requires attention and examination, where we need to initially employ restraint. That is not to say that organisational regulation and the implementation of codes of conduct is a bad thing. Rather I am interested in the individual and not organisations in these blog posts and on an individual level rigid external rules tend to produce conformist or rebellious reaction, which miss the point of why we should choose to moderate or modify our behaviour in the first place.
The motivational force for determining an adjustment in the three arenas of action comes naturally when it emerges from mindful, felt connection to the deepest levels of our own individual human experience; as well as to the richness and immense fragility and interconnection that defines the world around us.
Finally, Right Action is strongly linked to the themes I raised in the post on Right Speech. Thus, our actions should be marked by transparency, honesty and attention. The application of mindful attention, care, and presence to our actions is a core aspect of Right Action. For more on this, see Right Speech, P.2.