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Exercise for the Mind

After our first nights sleep we both began to settle in and really enjoy ourselves. The periods of noble silence turned out to be extremely pleasant! In the evenings after a period of mantra recitation, everyone would return to their rooms in a relaxed silence and soon fall asleep. I particularly enjoyed the early mornings; the bell ringer would wake us at 5.45am and in silence I would slowly make my way to the canteen for tea. Not having to engage in the niceties of idle chit-chat, we were free to slowly engage our minds with the activities of the day. It was truly beautiful watching the mist and cloud roll over the Kathmandu valley as the sun began to bring a warm glow to the monastery. At these times it became evident why people come to the Kopan intending to stay a week and end up staying a lot longer. Hazell and I quickly made an intuitive decision not to sit with each other during silent meal times. Knowing that we were prohibited from communicating, every time we made eye contact we inevitably started laughing!

The Kopan is renowned for its English language courses on Tibetan Buddhism, and our course leader was a practiced monk named Venerable Namgyel; an Englishman who now lives in India. His accent suggested he was from Lancashire, and he certainly had the sense of humour which contributed to these suspicions. Not necessarily what one would expect, but he was well practiced in conveying the Dharma to a predominantly non-Tibetan audience. Our meditation teacher was an Israeli monk named Venerable Tingyel with an inviting warmth that made everyone feel at home. Once the introductions were over, it was time to get stuck in, and I will now attempt to briefly outline the history of the form of Buddhist teachings we were being given. If you couldn’t care less, skip this bit!

Buddhism originated with the Buddha’s teachings in northern India and then spread in two principal directions. One school went south through Sri Lanka and on to South East Asia and countries such as Thailand and Cambodia. Another school went north, eventually reaching Tibet, China, Mongolia and Japan. The southern transmission came to be known as the Hinayana teachings, and the northern transmission became known as the Mahayana teachings. A crude translation of these terms leads to the Hinayana being described as the ’lesser vehicle’ and the Mahayana as the ’greater vehicle’. However, these definitions imply a hierarchy, and therefore the Hinayana practitioners prefer the term ‘Theravada’, which roughly translates as ‘teaching of the elders.’

There is a fundamental difference between the two schools. The emphasis in Theravada Buddhism is on personal liberation from the repeating cycle of birth and death, thus reaching ‘Nirvana‘. The Mahayana school introduces the concept of the ’Bodhisattva’, a practitioner who’s goal is to obtain enlightenment for the benefit of others. The vow of the Bodhisattva is to forgo the release from cyclic existence, and to remain on Earth in order to help others free themselves from suffering. Therefore the primary motive within Mahayana Buddhism is always to develop personally in order to benefit others. These are the first two ’turnings of the Dharma wheel’, and within Tibetan Buddhism there is also a ’third turning’, known as the ’Vajrayana’, or ’Tantric’ path. It is the topic of much discussion as to whether the Buddha himself gave all these teachings, with Theravadans claiming the Buddha never taught the Mahayana, and some Mahayana practitioners claiming he never taught the tantric path. To conclude, during our stay at the Kopan we were learning principally from the Mahayana teachings. (Phew! Apologies to all Buddhists for my necessarily stunted history!)

Our morning meditation sessions were generally of the ’calm-abiding’ nature. Here, one focuses the mind on a single object and attempts to keep it there. The object of meditation could be the breath, an external or internal image, or the mind itself. Inevitably the mind wonders off, thoughts arise and it is at this stage that many conclude, ’I can’t meditate’ and become frustrated. This is the nature of mind, and this is the work to be done in calm-abiding meditation; one notices the activity of the mind without attaching to it. If the mind should wonder, awareness is gently brought back to the point of focus, over and over and over and…….Try it – close your eyes and try to focus on the movement of the breath for sixty seconds. It sounds easy, but the mind is notoriously misbehaved! The idea is that with a little more practice we become less attached to the workings of the mind, and therefore less driven by reactivity to it.

In our teaching sessions, Venerable Namgyel covered a large array of the fundamental concepts of Mahayana Buddhism. The teachings of the Buddha are tools with which to investigate the nature of the phenomenal world and of the mind. The mind is used to assess the causes of happiness and suffering and to develop a wisdom free of delusion. Buddhism teaches that we live our lives in various states of mental delusion, (mis)guided principally by our ego. Belief in a separate ’I’ or ’self’ is a fundamental cognitive error which keeps us trapped in the cycle of suffering. Further to this, through philosophical reasoning, it is taught that everything has causes and conditions and are also interdependent, having no permanent, inherent existence of their own. As an example, the computer you are reading this on has been labelled by your mind as ’computer’, however, it is actually a product of causes and conditions and comprised of many constituent elements. The individual parts such as the screen, the keyboard, the drives, were all manufactured somewhere and then assembled in a factory. These parts are made of plastic, which itself had to be produced by a skilled manufacturing process. It also relies on power from either a set of batteries or a mains source; this mains source relies on the national grid…..etc. etc. etc………This logic can be applied to anything including the ’self’. If you can find anything that isn’t a product of causes and conditions and interdependent parts, let me know, because we couldn’t find any!

Buddhist philosophy is completely mind bending at times, but it is a tool to be used in uncovering truth and removing delusion. Over and over again by teachers, monks and nuns, Hazell and I have been told, ’you may understand it intellectually, but this is just the beginning; you must meditate upon the teachings and REALISE them.’ As someone who has suffered from depression, I know all too well how the conceptual mind creates delusion and clings to a sense of ‘self’ which is separate. In Buddhism this is a fundamental cognitive error that can be overcome. While identifying with a ‘self‘, we grasp at pleasure and push away discomforts, and it is this process which ultimately keeps us trapped and unable to find lasting, rather than fleeting, happiness. The energy of depression is a contraction; a closing down and disconnection which makes one painfully aware of the illusion of a separate self. My experiences demonstrated this continuum to me. Disconnection resides at one end and pure awareness at the other; an acknowledgement that the ‘self’ is merely an illusion which keeps us trapped.

Another important topic covered was that of impermanence. Buddhism and modern science agree that all the causes and conditions which combine to create the world we live in are constantly changing and evolving. To believe things are permanent is a cognitive trap, and tantamount to building a house on sand. Therefore on day two we performed a meditation on death. Buddhists love a bit of death, and Venerable Tingyel tittered in an endearing manner as he introduced the evenings activity. He then guided us through a contemplative meditation which involved imagining ourselves on a plane which crashes and we die in the blaze, our body ceases to be ours and is just a bag of bones. It is a slightly morose, but very powerful practice in awakening to our impermanent nature; from this a respectful joy arises in the fact we were born into a human body, but our time in it is limited so we must not waste a moment.

This is a little taster of the what we learnt at the Kopan. It was a fascinating time and very interesting to see people from all over the world wrestle with these philosophies and techniques. One young lady we met, on finishing a course in molecular biology had proclaimed ‘is that it? Is that really all we know?’ and therefore was looking for further wisdom. I was particularly pleased for Hazell, who seemed to get a lot from the week, even though I feared she would hate it. She even stated at the end that she would like to undertake a ’Vipassana’ meditation course. This involves ten days of complete silence and prolonged periods of meditation. Yes, this is Hazell I’m talking about! What has also been satisfying for us both is that we can share in discussing our experiences, and Hazell understands now why I spent so many hours sat on my bum in complete silence back in London! The end of the course was marked by a number of the students taking ‘Refuge’, in a short ceremony with the Abbot of the monastery. This undertaking is recognition that you have chosen to live by the Buddha’s teachings and will continue to do so. I was very close to taking Refuge myself, but I reflected that I have many more cultures to see and many more opportunities to learn Dharma before making the decision.

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