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Living with Awareness
Retreat Talks in Fa Yim Kok, Lantau Island, Hong Kong
Day 4 - 7: 18th - 22nd October 1998
Days 4-7: Sharing Experiences and Insights
[Editor's Note: At this stage in the retreat Godwin very purposefully encouraged the retreatants to reflect on and share what they had experienced and learned through their practice. I have restructured the resulting free-flowing discussion by grouping together sharings and teachings on particular themes for greater coherence and comprehensibility.]
Using Thoughts Creatively
Today the object of meditation will be our thoughts. This is a very important area. In simple terms, it is because of thoughts that we have suffering. Another thing is that from morning, from the time we wake up, to the time we go to sleep we have thoughts going through our mind continuously. So we should learn how to use our thoughts. We should learn to make discoveries about our thoughts. We should learn the important connection, relationship, between thoughts and emotions, because it is mostly a thought that creates an emotion. And when the emotion is there it is again the thought that makes it worse. Then sometimes these negative thoughts can be a very strong habit with some people. I know meditators who have this strong habit to give themselves minuses, and they give minuses to others also. So one can create a hell where only minuses exist.
Another very interesting and important area for us to discover is how we can create stories from our thoughts. Now from what happened to S. this morning, being locked in the toilet, she could have created a big story. She had one hour to create a big story. She could have started by saying it is someone who doesn't like my yoga who did this to me, and for one hour she could have been imagining who the person might be who did this to her. Then she might have thought: Maybe it is that person; the way that person looks at me, it seems that person doesn't like me. It is possible that she did it. We are laughing, but this is exactly how we create our stories.
We can use our thoughts in a very destructive way in creating such stories. Most of our suffering comes from this kind of imagination, using thoughts to create stories. And what is unfortunate is that we take the stories as real. It is funny how we give reality to something unreal and then we become victims of the stories that we create ourselves. And with such a story S. could have had anger. Or she could have had fear. Or anxiety that whenever she goes to the toilet someone is going to lock the door on her! So in this way she could have had all these emotions: anger, fear, insecurity, perhaps sadness. Do you see how the story and these emotions are related? Do you realise how important it is for us to be aware and to understand the nature of thoughts?
I would suggest that we can use thoughts destructively in the way that I have been describing and we can also use thoughts creatively to free ourselves from our suffering. So it is important in our practice to see the difference.
Using thoughts creatively is using reflection. So perhaps on the last day I would like you to reflect on the Four Noble Truths in everyday life. This can be a very important reflection: How do I create my own suffering in everyday life? Because being in a place like this you can get some sort of distance from what is happening in daily life. To see the different situations in life where you suffer. Then to reflect: Now in what way do I create my own suffering in this situation? From that you can realise the third and fourth Noble Truths: this is the way I should work with my suffering. So when you do this reflection, I would like to get you to reflect very deeply. And then what is important is whether you are really clear how to find a way out of suffering. This is how we can use thoughts creatively.
So today our object of meditation will be our thoughts. And then from these thoughts I would like you to make your own discoveries about yourself. Our thoughts, our pre-occupations, tell us a lot about ourselves.
Does anyone have any questions?
Retreatant: Before the questions, on behalf of everyone, I just want to say sorry to S. because until now I did not know we had locked her in the toilet.
Godwin: I think it has not been done intentionally! And what is interesting is that what can be considered as a negative experience, we can make it positive by meditating on it. So this is a very important principle. In any situation in life we can create stories and suffer, or we can use the same situation not to suffer but to learn from that situation. So S. should be thankful to the person who gave her this opportunity, and hope tomorrow the person will give her another opportunity!
Anyway it is nice that we can have a very light-hearted discussion. Dhamma discussions need not always be so very serious and intense. Sometimes this lightness and humour can be very relaxing for our practice, to be able to laugh at life.
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Retreatant: My question is about working with thoughts. I had a walk in the forest and I saw a bee and automatically my heart vibrated a bit. So I think when we are not engrossed in thoughts we can see much more.
Godwin: When we have strong pre-occupations, when our mind is full of thoughts, we can hardly see anything externally. You might be passing through the most beautiful place but you hardly notice the beauty because your mind is full of these pre-occupations and thoughts.
In the same way we can't see what is in our own mind when there is no space and no clarity. This is why, on the first or second day, I gave an exercise to awaken the senses by seeing things very sharply and hearing things very clearly. Then that can create more space and clarity in your mind, and you'll be able to feel things very clearly also.
However much these things are told, they may not make any sense until you have a glimpse, a small experience of these matters. So this is the beauty of meditation, that you can see for yourself, not because someone says so, or because something is mentioned in the books. So the whole emphasis in meditation is for you to see it, for you to experience it for yourself.
Retreatant: One thing you always stressed throughout your talks is the need to create space in our minds. Actually I never really thoroughly understood how to create space in my mind. But today when I was doing my work during working meditation, I had no idea what thoughts I had in my mind throughout the period of working meditation, probably because I was pre-occupied with my work. I was busy and so I did not know at all what thoughts went through my mind, there was no clarity at all. But when I came here for sitting meditation after that session, I settled down and listened to the sounds in the room. And then later on I began to notice that thoughts were going through my mind and what they were. So that experience enabled me to taste and know for myself what creating space in our mind really means. This is very important.
Godwin: So it is interesting that when we do working meditation, there could be thoughts in the mind, but if your attention is only on the work that you are doing, then as you said, it creates space in the mind. And once that space is created one can really use that space for feeling things. Or as happened in your case, for hearing things very sharply and very clearly.
So in everyday life when we work, can we see work as working meditation? In whatever work you do in everyday life, maybe related to your job, is it possible at the time of doing something to be completely present in doing that? This is a very practical way of integrating meditation with the way we are living. To see work as not something different from meditation.
Meditation with the Body
Retreatant: Very interestingly today I looked into who is the body. The body is just a feeling but my thought is that this is my body. I was just thinking about the sutta where the Buddha said that everybody sees the body as a valuable thing, but the Buddha said the body of an arahant is just a burden. In a small part I had this feeling.
Godwin: That it is a burden?
Retreatant: Yes, because we are just these things, nothing there, nothing valuable; and yet we attach to it, it is a burden, lots of worries, some sort of suffering.
Godwin: I know of a text in which it says the body is a burden, feelings are a burden, what are called the five aggregates are burdens. Here the idea is they become a burden if we identify ourselves with them. A burden is something that we have to carry. So to put down the burden that we are carrying we have to learn not to identify with these five aggregates. Then they do not become a burden because, as you rightly said, in the case of an arahant, an enlightened person, this is how he or she sees the five aggregates. To put it in another way, these five aggregates when we are identifying ourselves with them become a source of suffering, and if we can let go of identification with these five aggregates, then the burden goes away and there is no suffering.
Would anyone else like to share something?
Retreatant: This is another point connected with this feeling. While the feeling of the body and the ego becomes less and less yet I feel that there is still something there, sensations in the body, like stray cats or dogs that have come. They just come around so you have to take care of them even though you don't identify yourself with them.
Godwin: Yes, certainly. That is why the arahants eat.
Retreatant: So in this respect loving-kindness is very useful, loving-kindness towards our body although our own body is like stray cats and dogs. It seems as though it is loving-kindness to oneself.
Godwin: That's useful. This reminds me of one of the stories in the Buddhist texts. The Buddha emphasised to a group of monks to develop a feeling of foulness towards the body. And some of the monks who meditated on foulness in a very serious and intense way committed suicide because they started hating their bodies. Then the Buddha immediately emphasised the importance of developing loving-kindness. So maybe with loving-kindness you learn to detach yourself not by hating the body but with friendliness, learning to dis-identify yourself.
Retreatant: I would like to add one comment to the other gentleman's experience. That is, I have heard from another Buddhist teacher who said something about our body which really struck me. He said that although we may find our body a burden sometimes we have to understand that our body is the total result of our past actions. And as the body is the result of our past actions, so we are responsible for it, because Buddhism teaches us not only to put down things or ignore them, but it also tells us to discharge our duties responsibly. So even though this body is going to get old, get sick and die, and more and more problems may come, we have to understand that this is the result of our past actions. So we have to take good care of this body in order to discharge the responsibilities which we created in our past, and also make use of our body as a vehicle to carry on with our practice.
Godwin: Yes. That's the area which I want to emphasise. I'm happy you touched on that aspect. In fact this is related to one of the reflections meditating monks do in Sri Lanka and maybe also in other countries where there are serious meditators. Before they start to eat they say that I am eating the food not to make this body beautiful but so that the body can survive and so that I can use the body as a vehicle for the practice.
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Retreatant: I enjoy the yoga sessions led by S. very much and two points mentioned by her especially. The first point is she always emphasises that we should have a smile when doing yoga so that we can really relax ourselves. And the second point is that she emphasises we should try to enjoy doing simple actions. I think this is very important. And after practising yoga I remind myself to smile when I practise walking meditation or standing meditation outdoors, and I find that a smile can help me to relax my body and my mind.
Godwin: In fact that reminds there is a famous meditation master from Vietnam, Thich Nhat Hanh, who emphasises very much that when you are sitting also, just to smile while sitting. He says that when you have a Buddha-like smile the face can relax and the meditation can be relaxed, there can be a lightness to the practice. And he also emphasises very much the need to smile at others. The only thing is that it must come naturally.
Retreatant: I want to ask her, when she practises toilet meditation, does she smile or not?
Retreatant S: I don't think so, but I will try!
Godwin: It is interesting that the Buddha said in one text, called the Satipatthana Sutta, the sutta which describes how one should develop awareness, that even when we are in the toilet we should make an effort to be mindful, to be aware. So it's interesting that in whatever you do, even when you are in the toilet, you can use meditation.
Discussion on Eating
Retreatant: I went downstairs for lunch after you suggested we focus on greed. By the time I got downstairs the food was on the table. But before my eyes even made contact with it my nose did, and it's amazing how greed just blew up and I felt like an animal. It is quite clear when you really stop and, to use that expression that someone used last night, if you look at greed from a third person's perspective, it just comes up and just goes away. I'm an animal, with very strong volition.
And then after I had my first bowl of food, what really brought things into perspective was that for me it's virtually like crossing the stream, to not have that second bowl. For me it was like going against the stream. I really had to use will-power and say: no, that's enough.
Godwin: I appreciate your honesty in sharing your experience in this way.
Retreatant: Were you a little more hungry than you were yesterday since you only had the one bowlful?
Retreatant: Since lunchtime I didn't notice any difference at all.
Godwin: So it shows that the hunger is mostly in our head, our concepts, rather than what you really feel in the stomach.
Retreatant: Thinking of the banquets that I have been to in Hong Kong, the food that has been presented and how much can be consumed, it's flabbergasting.
Godwin: For the poor Sri Lankan there is sadly no such thing.
Retreatant: Eating is guided by our concepts. I do not eat something because it tastes good or bad but rather because it is healthy. I love drinking soups, particularly the ones prepared by our kind lady chef here. At home I normally drink about two or three bowls of soup because I love soup which I consider to be healthy, whether it tastes good or not. And today when I had already had my first bowl of soup and I was going to have some more, I hesitated because I remembered what you said: that we should mind whether other people would need to drink the soup as well, people who have not yet had any. So I thought: should I forgo this extra bowl of soup? But in the end I had a second bowl because I was concerned for myself.
When it came to the food placed on the table, again I did not choose by what tastes good or what tastes bad, I aimed for the green vegetables because to me, guided by my concepts, this is healthy food. So I went first for the green vegetables and continued eating green vegetables only, until later on when I tried another dish which was the diced vegetables. Then I found out that it tasted very good. And then I realised that all the while I have been eating without wanting to know whether things tasted good or bad, but only what is important for me, and that is a new discovery for me.
When J. came to scoop up the diced vegetables I thrust my bowl in front of him and indicated he should scoop some for me. That was not because I had a desire to eat more of the diced vegetables but I felt that I wanted to be pampered. I knew I was a bit naughty but I wanted to be pampered as well, just like the way we pamper you.
Godwin: Just a brief comment about living in a country like Hong Kong where there are lots of things that are available and plenty of them. An interesting exercise would be to discriminate between your real needs and your greed. I suppose this is how a meditator can function in a country where there is such consumerism.
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Retreatant: You gave us certain directions as to how we should eat. For example, we should feel grateful before we eat, how to watch for the taste, etc. At that time a thought arose in my mind, that is: It is suffering to do so many things before one eats. Then another thought arose, that you only told us to observe, not to stop from eating, so I became happy again. When I actually tasted the food and ate I began to understand that this is meditation. Meditation is part of our daily life. Meditation is to bring our attention to the present moment, the tasting, whether it is good or bad, whether it is pleasant or unpleasant. I realised that suffering and happiness can exist at the same time. There is a Chinese saying: When the suffering ends, some form of good will come. Then I reflected that after the experience of suffering, when you look back, then you can really say that you've learnt something.
Godwin: That is real wisdom!
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Godwin: I would like to share what a meditator shared with me. She said that before she was having the meal, before she started to eat, she felt grateful. And when she felt grateful she had what is called sympathetic joy, the quality of Mudita. It touched me deeply how this small quality, this little quality of feeling grateful before eating a meal can generate the feeling of sympathetic joy.
In all these experiences presented so far, each person saw something, realised something, experienced something, so that it really became a part of themselves. This is why on the first day I said that what will be attempted here is to develop some insights, some tools, so that when you discover them here and when you experience them for yourself, then it is just a matter of continuing with that in everyday life.
Now you are free to present any negative or unpleasant experiences because they can be equally important.
Experiences with Emotions
Retreatant: During working meditation I went to cut the firewood. Whilst I was doing that I had an image of something that happened when I was young, because when I was young I lived in a place where we also had to use firewood for cooking. And then I thought about my mother. That also brought up a memory of the past and this was the most regrettable thing in my life. Once this image came to my mind, all the emotions like sadness and remorse arose. The emotions were so great that almost immediately tears welled up in my eyes. Now the connection between a thought and an emotion is clear to me, how the thought gives rise to emotion. It is very clear.
Godwin: Thank you very much for sharing that experience. I'm happy that you made a discovery through that experience.
Retreatant: The emotion was still with me when we came back from working meditation to this hall to meditate. I was still remembering this particular incident of the past. The tears continued to come during the meditation. As to how this emotion was eventually resolved: when I was still having this emotion and was still meditating, a bee came in and buzzed around me, and the bee somehow touched me and I was very scared. I was so scared that I got very nervous, my muscles tensed up, my heart beat increased, and then I discovered that this strong emotion overcame the other emotion of sadness. So I discovered that one emotion can be overcome by another, especially if they are both strong emotions. The strong emotion of the fear of being stung by the bee overcame the sadness.
Godwin: Maybe one comment arising from this is that sometimes experiences which we consider as negative, like the bee coming, can have positive effects. In a way the bee helped you to recover from the earlier emotion.
Maybe a further comment is that when we are affected by what we consider as a problem, as in this case, then as you rightly said, when another problem comes along the earlier problem dissolves.
Anyway, thank you, very interesting.
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Retreatant: Yesterday you told us to dig out our unpleasant memories, unpleasant recollections. After that meditation was over we all went out to do walking meditation and I observed that everyone who was doing walking meditation was looking very forlorn as though they were bankrupt, including myself. Then I recalled a very unhappy incident I had a while ago. Whilst this feeling of unhappiness continued I thought of the sensation of pain, and you had told us to treat pain just as a sensation and to be friendly towards negative feelings. But when I am really in pain, how can I be friendly to the pain?
Whilst I was still pondering on this question, I somehow resolved it myself. Pain is there because we have certain attachments. Once there is pain one must deal with it, and if we observe the pain from a third person's point of view, as though one is not the person concerned, then the pain would lessen. When I tried this method, observing the pain as though I was a third person, I realised the pain does decrease and then I tried to catch hold of the pain again but I could not find it.
Godwin: I'm so happy that you have been making this very important and deep discovery. This is exactly what I am trying to do - to create a kind of atmosphere and to give some suggestions so you make your own discoveries. And when you make your own discoveries, then you'll realise you have lots of self-confidence in handling such situations. And then when the same situations arise in everyday life you can use the same tools.
So what you have discovered is that when you identify yourself with pain then the pain becomes a problem, but when you dis-identify yourself, and as you put it so nicely, see it as a third person, then the pain is no longer such an intense problem.
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Retreatant: Yesterday you said we can allow both pleasant and unpleasant emotions to arise. On other days I tried this type of meditation as well and I found it really very helpful. When I practised this type of meditation yesterday, I waited the whole morning but not even one visitor came to my mind. Even by the afternoon when I had prepared tea for the visitors still the visitors did not come. For the whole day yesterday I found that I did not have any pleasant or unpleasant emotions. The only thing was waiting.
Godwin: Your experience yesterday was very important. This is one of the very interesting and important tools for working with unpleasant emotions, or even pleasant emotions. Not to fear them, but sometimes to wait for them to arise. And as it happened in your experience, when you are waiting, preparing for them to come, they don't come. On the other hand, if we fear that they will come then they are bound to come. But here when you are waiting for them to come, or even invite them, they don't come. That's a very important realisation.
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Retreatant: I had an unpleasant emotion, experience this morning. It was something that was very unpleasant for me but afterwards, when it was over, I was able to breathe for a moment and then I felt very calm instead. The point I would like to make is that now it is very clear to me how when I practise meditation I can feel so low one minute and then it is over; not that it never happened but there is not a trace left and I can feel joyous.
Godwin: So it shows that even if you have been meditating for a long time you cannot prevent such unpleasant experiences from arising. So please remember that. Please realise that. It is a very important point. What is important when such an unpleasant experience arises, is to learn not to be surprised by it, but to work with it and realise that it can go away. To use the simile of the sickness and the medicine, we are bound to fall sick in the sense of suffering. But what is important is that if you have discovered the medicine, then when the sickness arises you take the medicine.
The Mirror-like Mind
Today I hope some of you discovered some tools for working with unpleasant emotions, and that you also discovered that there are times during the day when these emotions are absent, which is also very important. In this connection, a meditation master said something very interesting. He said we look for only what is wrong in us, we never look for what is right in us. So we should learn to be more and more positive and to be aware of our positive states of mind rather than only be concerned about negative states of mind.
Ideally, we can then go beyond the positive and the negative, which means we are open to both states of mind. This is related to the meditation technique that I presented which can be described as having a mirror-like mind, where we learn to reflect things just as they are. When something that is considered beautiful comes before a mirror it reflects that beautiful object just as it is. When something that is considered ugly comes before the mirror, again the mirror reflects it just as it is.
Vipassana meditation, that is insight or wisdom meditation, is developing such a mind where you learn to reflect things just as they are; and meditation of Samatha, calm and tranquillity, can be seen as polishing away the dust that is on the mirror. So when the mirror is polished very clear, applying this simile to our mind, then we can see very sharply and very clearly what arises in our mind, and hopefully learn to see things just as they are.
So this technique I presented today is extremely important, and what is also important is that it can be practised in everyday life. You don't have to have a particular posture, you don't have to close your eyes. You are merely aware of what is happening in your mind and body. Then in such situations in everyday life, if you are reacting, if you are having emotions, physical pain or mental pain you realise it and you see it just as it is, no minus. And in everyday life we can also have pleasant experiences and when we have pleasant experiences, positive experiences, just know it with awareness and reflect it just as it is.
Nature and the Dhamma
Retreatant: During the individual meditation session I was down by the sea near here and I was enjoying the scenery, the sea and the trees around, and then I noticed some rotten vines, and I thought to myself, this is spoiling the scene, because it was not pretty when all the other trees were green and pretty. Then I noticed discrimination arose in my mind. I was judging what was pretty, what was not. When I noticed how this liking and disliking arose, I thought to myself, what if there were no green and beautiful trees around me, but only rotten and dead trees? If that happened, would I be very unhappy? Would my inner world be dictated by external factors? Then I realised that this is all part of nature: as the Buddha said, everything that is formed has to die and this is just a natural cycle. The trees die and they sprout up again.
If we really understand this principle, if we really understand the Dhamma, then even though there are scenes that we do not like it would really not affect us. And then I realised that just like those trees, my body will die one day as well. If we really understand this teaching, if we really accept it, there would be no such thing as suffering at all. When I got to this stage of reflection I suddenly felt very relaxed, very happy.
Also just like J., while I was in the midst of reflection, a buzzing bee came around. I did not panic. Normally I am very afraid of bees but this time I did not react and the bee was very close to me so we were staring at each other eye to eye. And because I did not have fear, this time I looked the bee in the eye and noticed very clearly the colours of the bee. I could see its big round eyes and wings. That was a very interesting incident for me.
Because of this joyous feeling that arose in me during my reflection, I found that when I was in a state of joy little things that I used to be afraid of did not affect me. And if we accept nature as it is, we might understand the law of nature. Then even if everything around me has rotted and died, it should not affect me at all. I should still have this joyous state.
Godwin: I would like to make a few comments.
The first thing is, what a lot we can learn from nature. So this point was brought out very well in your account about nature. The second point is how reflection, this reflecting kind of meditation, using thoughts creatively, can be extremely helpful to us. And the third point is, as you rightly said, depending on our state of mind, then we are in a position to handle whatever negative or unpleasant experience that we are faced with.
And maybe a fourth point is, when we have fear in relation to bees or anything else, we can never see their beauty. So because you did not have any fear you were able to see the beauty in a bee at that time.
And about the point of death and impermanence, I would like to mention that this is a very important topic to reflect on sometimes. In Buddhist meditation this reflection on death plays a very important role in the practice. In Sri Lanka, in forest meditation centres, when you visit such places you see skeletons being used by meditating monks to remind them of the fact of impermanence and the fact of death.
Death is the most certain thing in life, and what is unfortunate is that we forget the most certain thing in life and get involved in other things that are uncertain. But if you can be with this most certain thing in life, then when we encounter it, either in ourselves or in others, it doesn't affect us in the same way.
And as you rightly realised, in nature you get death and life existing together. They are not separate. They are inter-related, inter-connected. This is how we should see life and death. Not to see them as separate but to see how they are connected, inter-related. Then ideally, whether you live or die it makes no difference. Then you know the way to live and you know the way to die.
Worries and Fears
Retreatant: I want to talk about the things that can be brought about by worrying. At 6 p.m. this evening I went over to the temple just in front of this place to visit a monk who is a friend of mine and I did not get back here until 6:30. Then a thought arose because it was getting darker and darker very quickly at that time, and I was a bit worried because I did not have a torch and there were no street lamps, and what if something happened? It was not really totally dark, I could still see the road at that time, but there was this protracted worry: What if something happens? Then I realised that the best thing to do was to walk more quickly and get back to this place rather than worry about something that might happen in the future.
Godwin: Very good.
Retreatant: Actually I had a similar experience yesterday when I went for a walk during the outdoor meditation not far from here, because I never go too far by myself. When I went a bit further from the nunnery here, there were rustling noises behind the trees. They sounded like human footsteps running towards me, running very fast towards me. I was dead scared because I thought it was some illegal immigrants or whatever, somebody was aiming at me and I was on my own. But I stood still and looked because I could not run away faster than a man anyway, if it was a man. So I stood still and looked through the trees to try to find out whether it was a man or just falling leaves. I could not see anything, but the footsteps kept running towards me and then they stopped but I could not see anything. Then I stood still and eventually saw a dog coming out! And there I was having all sorts of thoughts of being hurt by someone else.
Retreatant: A lot of suffering and worries are created by the imagination.
Retreatant: By thoughts, because I was thinking of a human being. A human being who will do some harm to me.
Retreatant: I think her fear had some foundation. It could be that somebody was trying to do her harm. It's possible.
Godwin: But in this particular incident she found it was not so. I think there can be rational fear and irrational fear. So it is very important to know the difference. Supposing you knew very well that there were people around at that time, having such a fear could be considered rational because it has an actual basis. But irrational fear is, as we have been discussing, related to the imagination and thoughts creating the fear. It has no basis whatsoever.
There is an interesting text in which the Buddha describes how he worked with fear before he became enlightened. So he was meditating in the forest. And then when he would do walking meditation in the night, because of the sounds he heard, he would have certain fears arising in his mind. And it says in the text that whatever posture he was meditating in when fear arose, he would not change the posture. So if he was doing walking meditation, while walking, without running, he would watch, observe and confront that fear, try to understand that fear and work it through.
In the experience that you presented, supposing you had started to run, you would have imagined the footsteps following you and you would have got more and more fear and you might have even panicked. So as the Bodhisatta did, what you did was also the same. And not panicking, not running, staying there and exploring and investigating, you made a profound discovery.
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Retreatant: I want to know about how to deal with fear. In the case of a bee, should we just stand there and work with the fear or walk away, since there are two possibilities? It might really sting you or it might not. So how do we distinguish between the rational fear and imaginative fear?
Godwin: Very good question. So in the case of Prince Siddhattha, as there was not something objectively apparent one can pause and try to find out whether this fear is imaginary or whether it is a factual fear. But in the case of the bee, it is a fact that there is a bee buzzing around you; it is not imagination. So as it is a fact, then we have to act.
Sometimes I think it is helpful to draw this distinction. In parts of Sri Lanka there is a war going on. And when travelling in places where there is a war naturally the fear has a basis. But if a person does not face that kind of situation and yet starts to imagine that walking in the streets of Kandy he might get killed, even though in Kandy there is no war, such a person will never go out of his or her house.
Another difference is that in the case of irrational fear we have a chance to work with it. This is the important thing for us as meditators. We can see very clearly, as it was mentioned, how thoughts can create stories. A very important discovery to make. So sometimes it is just an innocent thought that comes and then you start imagining; and how this can even result in your panicking is a very important realisation. It is important to see how from one condition arising there is a vicious circle activated in the creation of fear. In the case of rational fear you know that there is an objective fact and that is the end of it, that is it. But in a way, S. is right. The impact it has on the person, whether it is rational or irrational is the same.
So with meditation, with awareness, we might be able to make these discoveries. And what is also important is to work with our fear in this way.
The Four Noble Truths
Godwin: I would like to suggest that we will try to use what the Buddha discovered when he became enlightened. What he discovered for suffering humanity is the Four Noble Truths. And what is very powerful in this is that we can use it in any situation: we can use it when we are meditating and we can use it in everyday life.
In talking about the Four Noble Truths sometimes I like to use the medical model: sickness, cause of the sickness, cure and the medicine. So what I have been hearing about your experiences makes me believe that the medicine is working. In a way meditation can be seen as discovering the medicine for the sickness that we create ourselves. So to use it in a practical way, today when you are meditating or whatever you are doing, whenever there is suffering don't give it a minus, don't feel bad about it but see: I am experiencing what the Buddha called the First NobleTruth. He called it noble because it is only when we suffer that we can find a way out of suffering. It is only when we are sick that we feel the need to find the medicine. So today, in any situation where there is suffering just see it as the First NobleTruth. And I think this is a very interesting way of relating to suffering because we are learning to see the Dhamma in the suffering.
But the Second NobleTruth is more difficult than the First NobleTruth, where you have to see that you are creating the suffering yourself by the images you have, by the models you have, by the expectations you have. This is where one has to see very clearly, to see your own expectations, to see your own models, to see your own images. To see what it is that you are resisting in relation to what is happening. Even while we are meditating we can use this. So when you are meditating and when you are suffering for some reason, then you can investigate immediately what you are expecting, what you are wanting, what you are demanding.
And I would like to suggest a positive way of using the Four Noble Truths, especially the last two. So if you constantly observe what is happening then you will realise: at this moment there is no suffering, there is no reaction, there is nothing that I am resisting. Then it would also be interesting to find out, why is there no suffering now? Then you will realise: Ah, I am accepting things just as they are now and therefore there is no suffering.
So I would like to suggest that today let us really make an effort, in every situation, to use the Buddha's very deep and profound but simple discovery, and then see how these Four Noble Truths can become a part of our life. Then in everyday life we can use the Four Noble Truths in the same way.
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Retreatant: I just want to take this opportunity to add something interesting regarding the Four Noble Truths. I have a short story to tell. I have a female colleague in my office and one day I talked to her about the Four Noble Truths. She has no religion. And after I told her about the Four Noble Truths, what they mean and what I am practising, do you know what her response was? She said it is not necessary for her to practise Buddhism since she really enjoys suffering. She said sometimes life has suffering, but when the suffering is gone the happiness comes. And that life is a wave, sometimes a calm wave, sometimes a down wave, that is the way life is. She said that that is the taste of life so why do I want to get rid of the suffering?
Godwin: So it is interesting that there are people with different philosophies, different views! There is an interesting Buddhist text which speaks about 62 views, 62 suppositions, during the Buddha's time. And when you go through those 62 views, I'm sure some of the views that people have at present can be identified amongst those 62 views. And I think people are entitled to their views, why not? So your colleague takes up that position, but someone else takes up the position that when he or she really feels suffering, he or she wants to find a way out of suffering. That is where the Buddha's teaching is relevant.
A friend of mine was a Professor in a University. He said: I'm always happy, I don't have to practise anything. He had money; he had good health; he had a good family. So in a way he was very happy and contented. Suddenly he had a heart attack and he fell sick. What a difference it made to him! He became so sad, so depressed. He had lots of fear of death and dying. It was so sad, tragic to see that man in that condition. So it's only when one encounters such suffering that one can really see suffering and all its implications.
In such a situation if someone were to go to him and say: Would you like to find a way out of your suffering? naturally he would say: Please, please tell me. So we can be living in a world that we have created which does not correspond to reality, a kind of dream world, and then in real life when that world is shattered, that is when you see reality. And when that happens, sometimes it is too late. So this is the importance of the practice. When we start practising, one aspect of the practice is that we are preparing our minds for any situation in life. Then we will never be taken unawares. So this is my response to people who follow that philosophy.
Opening to Suffering
Retreatant: Why is it that suffering is so difficult to bear, that suffering is so tremendous, that suffering makes us unable to open our mind, thereby resulting in the big wheel of Kamma?
Godwin: So I'll answer that question. The question is very nicely put. Why do we find it difficult to bear suffering? Why aren't we more open to suffering? A simple response is that we are surprised when there is suffering. But we should not be surprised, because we are still not enlightened, and naturally as we are not enlightened we are bound to suffer. We should be surprised if there was no suffering! And when we are surprised what happens? We give it a big minus. Only I suffer. No one else suffers in the way that I am suffering, and I know in my life I will continue to suffer. So we can create a big story out of the suffering that we are having. In this situation how can we be open, how can we not be affected when there is suffering? So this is the beauty of the Buddha's teaching if you can see suffering as a Noble Truth.
I'd like to offer a very interesting tool. You should wait with an open mind thinking: Let me experience the First NobleTruth of the Buddha. So unlike in the past, not being closed to suffering, but waiting for suffering to arise. One thing is, as we found out, that when we are really open to suffering it doesn't arise!
The second point is: when we are being open to suffering, waiting for it to arise, then we are not surprised by it. And when suffering does arise if you can say: Very interesting; I'm very grateful because now that it has come I can work with it. Please try this tool and see what a difference it makes when suffering comes. To put it in another way, now we see it as something extremely negative, but in the way that I am suggesting it is something very positive. And if you can, at that moment ask yourself the question: What can I learn from this suffering? In what way can I use the Buddha's tools? In what way can I use the Buddha's medicine in working with this situation?
And this brings up, as I said, the Second NobleTruth. Here you will see very clearly that suffering is due to this idea you have that something that is happening should not happen. So if you can develop this positive attitude you will be really open to suffering. And then you can really make use of suffering to find a way out of suffering. So it is simply changing your attitude towards suffering. When you change the attitude you see suffering in an entirely different way.
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Retreatant: Can I share an experience about suffering?
Sometimes when I meditate and when pain arises in my legs I get frustrated and agitated also. I would try to escape from the situation by thinking: Shall I release my legs? And the more I think about how to escape from the pain, the more agitated I get. I recall an incident a few years ago when I had an accident and hurt my leg badly. On that particular occasion I accepted the fact that I had hurt my leg and therefore my leg was in pain. So I just allowed the pain to go on for the whole night and I did not suffer from the pain because I accepted the situation as it was. When I look back to this incident, I find that it is the trying to escape from the situation that causes the suffering. And if there is no escape, then pain is just pain, sensation is just sensation.
Godwin: Very good.
Retreatant: I can only do it sometimes.
Godwin: All of us are like that. But what is important in such experiences is that at least you have a glimpse, a realisation, of what can be done when there is physical pain. So this is a very important insight. It's a very important experience. And it shows that the Dhamma, the medicine, really helps. If you can really use the medicine, it always helps us.
Retreatant: And I also want to emphasise that this also applies to mental suffering. If we do not try to escape from mental suffering it is not that painful sometimes.
Godwin: Very important point, because it shows that when there is physical pain, accepting it, working with it as a sensation and so on, you'll realise the physical pain is there but it is not a source of suffering. In fact I was discussing this with P. You can have mental suffering, certain defilements like maybe greed, maybe anger, maybe fear, and all these things. So as with physical pain, if you can learn not to identify yourself with that mental pain, if you can really use the idea of no-self, that there is no-one really owning that state of mind, then those defilements or those negative things will be there but you'll be relating to them in an entirely different way.
In the Buddhist tradition normally it is understood that it is only when these things are completely absent that we can be truly free from suffering. That seems to be a goal that is not easy to reach, but if you can see mental pain and physical pain in this way then it is within the reach of all of us. So this again shows it is not what is happening but how we relate to it that makes all the difference. Maybe that is why in the same tradition it is said the ordinary mind is the enlightened mind.
So I hope that in everyday life when you have physical pain and mental pain, if you have discovered the tools, if you have discovered the medicine, to a great extent you may be experiencing the pain but not suffering as much.
And what is important is that when you have such experiences you develop self-confidence. It also means having trust and confidence in the medicine and the Buddha who discovered the medicine. So when you have this self-confidence, when you have this trust, when you have this self-reliance, then anything can arise but you know what to do about it.
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Retreatant: This afternoon, during the outdoor meditation session, I was practising observation of suffering as you told us to. I was reflecting on the Four Noble Truths and when I thought of suffering I somehow felt helpless because it seems that I am always drawn into the suffering itself. When I felt this rather negative emotion arising, then I remembered that I am my own best friend. So I said, well, if I am my own best friend, I should share my sorrows with my best friend. Then I found my best friend, myself, did not know what to do either! My best friend is also confused! So helplessly I said to myself, let us sit down and have a think. While I sat down with my best friend, I began to laugh at this notion and then I told myself: Well, there is no need to worry about the future. We are always trying to think of how to get out of suffering in the future, why bother thinking about that now?
Anicca and Anatta
Godwin: So then we might try to work on two very important aspects of the Buddha's teaching which some of you have already been experiencing. In discovering the medicine and using the medicine these are two powerful aspects of the Buddha's teaching, which are the fact of change or impermanence, and the fact of no-self. So today we will as far as possible try to work with these two very important aspects of the Buddha's teaching.
We need to be open to any change that may arise physically and mentally and even externally. If we insist that change should only take place according to our own idea, then when there is change which does not correspond to that idea it leads to suffering. But by realising that this is the nature of existence, that it changes and that we have no control over change, then we can be open to change in whatever form it arises, internally or externally, and this will result in freedom.
And according to the Buddha, this fact of change and impermanence and this idea of no-self are very well inter-connected, inter-related. He has a very interesting argument. If we own things, if there really is an ego, a self, then we should be able to order things: Now things should happen in this way, according to my ideas. But as there is no self, no ego, we cannot do that. So therefore we have to see from the fact of change that there is no self-identity, no agent, only the process of change itself.
It is interesting that whenever there is suffering, there is suffering because you want things your way, and this your way or my way is the result of the feeling that you are Somebody. So whenever we are suffering, just find out what is the idea, what is the model that you are holding onto which is now being challenged. It is always some idea of how it should be, how it must be according to the ideas the self has.
Now what happens is that because of this sense of self we have images, models, of how things should be according to my way. It is always my way. Naturally in everyday life things don't always happen according to my way. That is how suffering is created in everyday life, with this idea of my way. So whenever you are suffering in everyday life, you can try to find out: what has been my idea, what has been my view of how things should be? Then you'll realise how this sense of self is directly related to the suffering that you are experiencing. So in this simple, practical way you can work with this idea of my way and then when that my way is not there, when there is emptiness, notice how there is an absence of suffering.
Another way of saying the same thing is that with this sense of self that we have we feel that we are Somebody. Here again suffering and unpleasant emotions arise with this idea, with this concept that you are Somebody. I will give a few practical examples. So with this feeling of Somebody we would like others to behave according to the idea this Somebody has. And then naturally when others don't behave in this way this is why we get angry. So you see the direct connection between this idea of Somebody, this sense of self, and getting angry.
And how does this feeling of Somebody cause fear to arise? What is the connection? So here, when Somebody is threatened, when this Somebody feels that something might happen to me, that I am in danger, that is how fear comes.
How does this feeling of Somebody generate anxiety about the future? So with this feeling of Somebody, you feel that in the future everything should go according to the idea this Somebody has. And if you are uncertain about that, then this is how anxieties arise.
So these are some simple, practical examples, how this idea of Somebody is related to self, and how suffering and these negative emotions arise. No-self or emptiness is when Somebody becomes a Nobody!
And as tomorrow and the day after are the last two days we have, we will try to focus more and more on our everyday practice, our everyday life. So tomorrow and the day after we will discuss all the problems and all the difficulties you have to encounter in everyday life, and let us see how far the tools that we have been discussing, the tools that we have been practising with, can be used in everyday life.
It is easy to take the medicine here while we are on retreat and it is easy to see the benefits of the medicine here. But what is more important is how we can take the medicine back to Hong Kong in our everyday lives.
Living the Dhamma
Godwin: The topic today is how to use the medicine in everyday life. So what are your questions?
Retreatant: I have reflected on how to apply the tools that I have learnt in daily life but there are still one or two things I cannot find a solution to. For example, in the office I have to have expectations regarding what my colleagues do. Just one practical example: I asked one of my colleagues to send a letter to a certain place. My colleague has done that many times, hundreds of times before, so I expected this colleague to do the same this time.
Occasionally people make mistakes, and a mistake is a mistake. But when I found out that this job was not done properly, which is a very simple job, then I found myself immediately getting agitated because when I assigned the job to my colleague I had this expectation that it's a very simple assignment, there should be no problem and my colleague would be able to handle it.
What I find is that after practising all these years I can recover from my agitation very quickly because I quickly understand that every human being makes mistakes. When I make a mistake myself, I really wish that somebody will forgive me. So when somebody else makes a mistake I had better forgive him. But still the expectation is there because it is my job. So in that situation, do you have any suggestion?
Godwin: I like such practical situations. So a few suggestions. One is: it is O.K. to have expectations because it is quite natural to have such expectations, but realise that having expectations is one thing, reality is another thing.
The second suggestion is that when such a thing happens, learn not to be surprised. Because we have to deal with human beings who can be forgetful and we have also to deal with human beings who are not so responsible. We should be surprised only if we find someone who is perfect! But there are no people who never forget and are always responsible. We should remember that we are living in a world of imperfect human beings.
Another suggestion, which is very important, is that you must show that you are a cobra. But you must learn to play it like a game. You must say to yourself: Now I'm going to call this man who has forgotten to attend to this very important letter and I am going to speak to him very firmly, in a very tough way. You should know very well you only pretending; you are consciously doing it but inside you have no hatred towards him. Some people only understand such language. So you can state really firmly that next time you do such a thing I will reduce your salary!
Another interesting suggestion is to try to have a dialogue with that person. It's a very interesting exercise just to raise questions in such a situation. Now tell me: What happened to you? Why did you forget? Is it because you were not really interested, or you had other more important things to remember? Are you normally forgetful? Just get him to reflect on what has happened. So it enables that person to reflect on his own actions. This can sometimes be extremely helpful and it can reveal to him something that he might not have looked at before.
So I wish you the best of luck.
Retreatant: Is it right to say that mindfulness is the secret ingredient, because you have given us the tools, and mindfulness then is the tool that enables us to remember that we have these other tools. Is that accurate?
Godwin: As the Buddha said: Mindfulness or awareness is the only way. So with mindfulness we can investigate, we can explore. And this is how one can use mindfulness for exploration. There is a very interesting text which brings out the connection between mindfulness or awareness and wisdom. So awareness is compared to the surgeon's probe, probing the wound or area the surgeon has to operate on. And the surgeon's scalpel which is used to remove that wound or whatever the surgeon wants removed is compared to insight or wisdom. So with awareness you can probe, and with insight or wisdom, you can cut it out. To take a simple example, when you are angry you can try to explore why you are angry. Then you'll realise: I'm angry because I am demanding how things should be. Then when you see the problem is with you, wisdom or insight arises immediately. This sounds very simple but really this is the teaching.
Retreatant: That was part of the reason why I asked, because I notice from my life that the longer the gaps are between the times I apply mindfulness, the harder it is to do so. So it seems a shame that I have the tools but never use them.
Godwin: It is interesting that one meaning of sati, mindfulness, is recollecting and remembering. So we have to remember. If you are sick and if the medicine bottle is there but you have forgotten to take the medicine, you can't be healed. So you have to remember to take the medicine at the right time. And I must say, sometimes the medicine in this practice is not very sweet. The medicine is not always pleasant, as you know. There are some medicines which are not sweet at all, not tasty at all, but sometimes such medicines can be very powerful. Like an injection: it is very unpleasant but it can work very quickly.
Godwin: Usually in retreats I try to give talks on different themes in the Dhamma. But in this retreat it just happened that I have been inviting people to share their experiences and it has been such an inspiring experience for me and I am sure also for others. And it has been also a learning experience for me, to see what I can learn from these experiences, these insights, these discoveries about the Dhamma. It brings out the beauty of the Buddha's teaching. So we should all be grateful that we have been able to discover the Buddha's teaching, and I think it is also a good practice to feel grateful for the Buddha. One meditation that people in some traditional Buddhist countries practise is to reflect on the Buddha's good qualities. Sometimes this can be a very powerful and inspiring experience: to reflect on the depth and the wisdom and the loving-kindness of the Buddha, and how these come through in the teaching.
So in conclusion I am very happy that you are already discovering the medicine and I really hope that you will continue to make discoveries about the medicine so when sicknesses arise, either here or in everyday life, then you can use the medicine.