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Introduction to Meditation
Talks in Hong Kong - Day 3, 8th October 1997
The Importance of the Dhamma
Godwin: Most people believe that material things are important, that happiness lies in material things. In fact, the more material things you get, the more dissatisfied you are; and the more dissatisfied you are, the more material things you want to get! Buddha has given a very powerful simile to describe this condition. He compared it to a dog with a bone. So the dog won't let go of the bone and is just holding on to it, and is still hungry and still dissatisfied, and still suffers from fear of losing that bone.
Related to this serious problem of materialism is another aspect, another manifestation of this, called consumerism. It's a real challenge for people to live in consumer societies and yet not be affected by the consumerism around them. Consumerism has many aspects, but I see two dangerous aspects in consumerism. One is that people are not clear about what they actually need and what is just their greed. According to the Dhamma we need certain things: food, clothing, shelter, and medicine - they are called the four requisites. The four necessary things are things that human beings really need. So there's a place for material things, but then when they become our goals and when we are confused between greed and need, this is where they can lead to dissatisfaction and suffering.
Another dangerous aspect of consumerism is that the society that you live in starts manipulating you, and the danger is that you don't know that you are being manipulated. So you become like puppets, puppets in the hands of a society that creates desire, creates greed, and this all leads to more and more frustration. So isn't this a sad situation when human beings have the potentiality of becoming free, of becoming enlightened? We have the Buddha-nature in us, but this aspect is not recognised and instead we become victims of the society that we live in.
The simile that has come to my mind about this situation is that though we are grown up we have become dependent on what I call toys. I'm interested to know what toys human beings go after in this culture, in this country. What I mean by toys are external things where you think you will find happiness, joy, and peace. You start acquiring toys, and then you change one toy for another, and your whole life is spent on getting toys and yet still you are dissatisfied. So can I hear from you some of the toys that you are interested in acquiring?
We Can Become Our Own Toy
Godwin: In a way houses are necessary, but then you are not satisfied with a small house, so the house becomes bigger and bigger, and then that can become a toy and you are still dissatisfied. You have a beautiful new house but you're not happy. Maybe you should move into a bigger house? That can be a problem.
Godwin: Now that toy has even been introduced to Sri Lanka! Anyway we can draw up a long list of toys. An interesting question is: is meditation also a toy? Is there a relationship between these toys and meditation?
Godwin: I would suggest that with meditation you become your own toy. This is the importance of the Dhamma. This is the importance of the Buddha's wonderful teaching. When you become your own toy you can be happy, contented, and peaceful with yourself. So the need for external toys, external things drops away because you find the joy and happiness from within.
A very important aspect of this is learning to enjoy your own company. When meditators come to the centre where I live in Sri Lanka, I tell them to spend some time alone and see what happens when they are alone with themselves. It's interesting. Some of the people who come there have never spent any time completely alone with themselves, without any toys. So what happens? They become lonely, they become bored. What does it show about ourselves? We cannot stay with ourselves for more than 10 or 15 minutes and we want to escape from ourselves!
So the importance of the Dhamma is that you realise that, you work through that, and as I said, you learn to be your own best friend. You learn to be self-contained, contented with yourself. Such a person is described in the Dhamma as someone who is at home wherever he is. So such a person can be happy with himself while being alone, and such a person can be happy with others.
I would like to touch on another aspect which shows the importance of the Dhamma. With the practice of the Dhamma in all the situations you face in life, you come to see the Dhamma in any situation. As I said yesterday, even unpleasant experiences will become learning experiences.
I know in this culture that people are afraid to make mistakes because of the emphasis on wanting to be perfect. With this model of perfection, what happens is that when we make a mistake we beat ourselves, we hate ourselves, we lose our self-confidence, and we see ourselves as worthless. In my language, you see only minuses in yourself; and when you see minuses in yourself, you see minuses in others too, so that you can create a hell with only minuses.
So the importance of the Dhamma is that it enables us not to create suffering in this way because of our mistakes, but instead we learn to ask the question: what can I learn from my mistake? What does it indicate about myself? This kind of inquiry has to be done in a very friendly, gentle, understanding way, without giving any minuses. Then our mistakes themselves help us to grow in the spiritual path. Isn't that a beautiful way of living? Learning from your mistakes; and then when you see mistakes in others you also learn to relate to the mistakes of others in an entirely different way. So we learn to appreciate our humanness, not the idea of perfection. Then we learn to appreciate the humanness of others.
So the importance of the teaching is that we see clearly how we create our own suffering, and through that realisation it becomes clear that only we can free ourselves of the suffering we create ourselves. Then we become self-reliant. Then we learn to have self-confidence that whatever arises: I know how to handle it with the help of the Dhamma. Then you learn to be your own teacher. And as the Buddha said, you learn to be a light unto yourself.
Life Becomes Your Teacher
One last point on this topic. I have had the good fortune to meet many masters, many gurus, many teachers from many traditions. Do you know which master, which guru has most inspired me? It is life itself. Life is our best teacher. So thanks to the Dhamma, when you realise the importance of the Dhamma, life becomes your teacher. And sometimes life can be a very hard teacher, but it is always a good teacher. It can indicate to us what we are really are.
So now I will stop and if you have any questions, please ask them. In the last few days you have been asking very good, practical questions relating to life, so I hope you will do so today also. I touched on some areas which are related to your life here, so please feel free to ask any questions and let us see how the Dhamma, how the Buddha's teachings can help us to work with these problems.
Questions and Answers
Retreatant: I remember in the texts that the Buddha always taught his students to be their own island. Even when he was dying, the last lesson he gave his students was: be your own island. I think this bears a very direct similarity to what you told us. We always have to learn from ourselves.
Godwin: Yes, and also, as I said, to learn from life. So it means that as you live, if you are really sensitive and open, and if you are really practising the teaching, then you learn how to relate everything that happens to you in life and in relation to others to the teaching. So all these experiences we have in life, they can be used for our spiritual growth.
There's a teacher who said that they are compost! Compost contains things which are not considered useful, which are considered as dirty, and which we throw away. So all this rubbish, if we can collect it, it can be used for the growth of vegetables and fruits. So I would say that what we learn from life, even from our mistakes, can be seen as compost, that it can be used for our own spiritual growth. It's only then that, as the Buddha said, you can be an island to yourself, that you can rely on yourself.
But what is important to note is that if you have the conclusion that you know everything, that is the end of learning. So it is very necessary to have this don't-know mind, whereby we can learn from anything and we can learn from anyone. This is something very important in the Buddha's teaching. Any other questions?
Retreatant: How can we be our own toy and be satisfied with ourselves, how can we be our own best friends?
Godwin: It is interesting that for different reasons we become our own enemies - and then we think that the enemy is outside ourselves! So we are trying to find the enemy outside ourselves without realising the biggest enemy is inside ourselves. One aspect of being your enemy is, as I said, seeing only your mistakes, seeing only your shortcomings, seeing only your minuses. This can be a very self-destructive aspect where you become your own worst enemy.
Another aspect related to this point is that when you don't see the good side in yourself you don't see the good things that you have been doing. I meet many good people and they are following the spiritual path, but because of this tendency to be self-destructive they don't see their own worthiness, they don't see their own value, they refuse to see the Buddha-nature in themselves. So when you realise this, that you are your own enemy, then you learn to work on this condition. This is the importance of awareness, which we discussed yesterday. So with awareness you catch yourself, you realise what you are doing to yourself, that you are becoming your own enemy.
And another point is this very beautiful meditation of loving-kindness. I emphasise this meditation very much. It is psychologically very interesting that meditation of loving-kindness begins with oneself. So it shows that we cannot be friendly to others unless we are friendly to ourselves. Meditation on loving-kindness helps us to be our own best friend, it helps us to make a connection with ourselves.
Another thing about meditation on loving-kindness is this: it helps us to forgive ourselves. As I said earlier, to accept our humanness; and when we learn to accept our humanness, then we learn to accept the humanness of others. So it helps us to be friendly with ourselves and friendly to others.
Another aspect of being our own best friend is that we don't realise how we affect ourselves in an unwholesome, unskilful way with our attitudes and behaviour. So when you make this connection with yourself there is a change that takes place, a transformation takes place, so that whatever you do your words and your thoughts will always be related to the skilful, the wholesome, what should be of help to you in your spiritual path. I'll be speaking more about this on Friday, and we will be distributing a very important little booklet on the practice of loving-kindness. Any other question?
Retreatant: You warned us of the dangers of consumerism and materialism. Obviously this requires a certain renunciation of those things. Could you give us some advice on how to begin the renunciation so it's not all at once and such an overpowering obstacle?
Godwin: As I said, this is one of the greatest challenges we have: how to live in a materialistic society where there is such consumerism and still not be affected by it. So I'll try to offer some practical suggestions. One suggestion that I would like to offer is that when you see things which you think you need - again this shows the importance of awareness - to catch yourself and to ask the question: do I really need it? And ask the very profound question: Why do I need this? When this obsession comes to possess something we never ask the question: Do I really need it? Why am I needing it? So when you are living in a consumer society and when you raise this question, you realise that it is because others are using these things, and because others are using them you want to be like them. So without your knowledge you get caught in the rat race. So your whole life becomes a competition, competing with others.
Another practical suggestion I would like to offer is to learn to say Yes to some things; and to learn to say No to certain other things. What happens to us is that due to different reasons we have got used to pampering ourselves. Pampering is always saying Yes to whatever the body or the mind wants. So what is important in the practice is both finding out that you're pampering yourself, and then to say No in a very gentle friendly way. It is very important in life, learning to say No to certain things. This is the only way to work with the things that we have become dependent on.
The third suggestion I would like to offer is in a way an indirect one. So with more and more practice, when you have learnt to be your own best friend, when you have made a connection with yourself, then naturally you don't have to make an effort at renunciation. You can live in a consumer society but you are not affected by the environment.
In this connection there is a beautiful Buddhist symbol. The Buddhist symbol is being like a lotus. Where does the lotus grow? In muddy water. Now the lotus flower is able to grow in that muddy water without being affected by the muddy water around it. So this is the importance of the Buddha's teaching, that when you live within society, within that environment, you will be able to steady your way and not be affected by what is happening externally because a shift has been taking place inside you.
I think there is time for one more question.
Retreatant: I always feel bored when I'm alone. Can you tell us your actual experience of how you enjoy your life alone?
Godwin: To give a brief answer: When we are alone, when we feel lonely, when we feel bored, what we do when these states of mind arise, is that we give in to them, we try to change them by doing something. So the simple answer is, hereafter when you have loneliness, when you have boredom, don't try to escape from it, go through the loneliness, go through the boredom. Yesterday I said a very important aspect of meditation is learning to go through unpleasant experiences, whether physical or mental. So in the beginning it will be very unpleasant, but this shows the importance of the practice. You have to go through the unpleasant experience and then from loneliness you move on to experience what is aloneness, which is entirely different from loneliness, thereby learning to enjoy your own company.
So thank you very much for asking these very useful, practical questions. Now let us take a small break. Today during the break, I would like to suggest that you reflect. Reflection can be a very important part of meditation. So the reflection I would like to suggest is to reflect on the things that we have discussed today. And in that reflection, to see how what was discussed can be relevant to you, how it might relate to yourself. So I would like to suggest that during the break you use reflection in this way. And then after some time I will ring the bell, and when you can come back I will present a very important meditation.
Please sit in a comfortable position, because it is very important not to move while you are meditating. Have your spine erect but relaxed.
Allow the mind to do what it likes. If thoughts are arising, let any thoughts arise: thoughts about the past, thoughts about the future.
Let us learn to make friends with thoughts, and just know from moment to moment what thoughts are arising in our mind. It is very important to be alert and to be awake from moment to moment for this.
Now, can we allow any emotion to arise, especially emotions we don't like, that we push away, that we repress, that we control? Can we allow such emotions to arise? If they are arising, can we just allow them?
If you are having any unpleasant experiences, can you learn to make friends with them, can you learn to relate to them without a minus?
And if there are no unpleasant emotions, just to know there are no unpleasant emotions.
So thoughts, emotions, sensations - learning to see them just as they are, as in a mirror-like mind. No plus, no minus, just being with whatever is happening. Be alert and awake.
Learning to feel friendly towards our thoughts, learning to feel friendly towards our emotions, learning to be friendly towards sensations, whatever the sensations are.
Now please open your eyes slowly and when you change the posture, please do it with awareness. And please do not think the meditation is over.
Let us now do some chanting. It is very nice that a group of spiritual friends can chant together, so please everyone join in the chanting.