TLDR: Nature is calling out to us. But are we ready for its gifts? Ophelia muses on the lessons of impermanence inspired by nature. She will walk you through her favourite forest-bathing treks in Singapore.
What about hearing cicadas sing as you pass by trees?
Do you remember those Circuit Breaker days when you can’t go anywhere but the parks? Since the borders have relaxed, we find our friends (or ourselves) heading out abroad for mountains, waterfalls, beaches and forests, as if nature has a certain magnetic pull. Why the allure?
Blue Light & Feeling Blue
These days, our awake moments are steep in constant scrolling, clicking, and typing on our devices. Blue light screams from LED screens. How do our minds grapple with what’s real and what’s not? Our bodies release dopamine from experiencing fleeting sensory bombardments within the virtual “aethers”.
Then, there’s the spinning of reports, rushing of deadlines, chasing numbers. All in the name of productivity and efficiency. Faster. Faster. Faster!
We get anxious. We get annoyed. We get angry.
Harbouring this agitation, we turn towards self-help articles, Netflix, e- gaming and infinite scrolling. None of them seems to cut it. They can’t hit the scratch of calm. The affliction spirals deeper.
Couple the digital dizziness with an overcrowded “air-conditioned nation” and mask-wearing: we need fresh air, literally.
We need a break. Nature’s calling.
Let your eyes rest on the greens, browns and blues.
Let the breeze caress your weary face.
Collectively, we need to slow down and find our grounds, such that the next wave of mind-bending circumstance or emotion doesn’t crash our sanity. Together, we can heal with resilience. Nature has been teaching us how.
Stepping into a forest, we can leave our worries and anxiety at its fringe. The hike leads us to a simple earthly presence. An awareness of what’s around us, of our breathing. Our senses sharpen and so does our observation.
Immediately, nature’s beauty impresses upon us. It lures our thinking mind out to bodily sensations. We feel nature in the sweats of our skin. We hear the leaves rustle with the cooling breeze against our faces. We smell nature from the damp undergrowth. We see green shades and organic shadows, simply existing against the blue skies.
In nature, we are overwhelmed by the solace and solitude wilderness brings, albeit temporarily. We start to notice what moves: insects, unexpected guests like wild boar, monkeys, welcoming birdsongs, and fluttering butterflies. Each organism’s mere existence relies on and supports other organisms.
Soon enough, the mind tunes into a quiet existential background beneath all the cacophony: the sheer fabric of awareness that recognises we are all alone collectively, our interdependent co-existence.
Part of a greater flow we can’t force nor stop
Nature teaches us to grow with the right conditions. There are some things we can’t force. Having been scattered away from its parent, saplings germinate when sunlight pierces through a clearing in the forest canopy. They grow taller with torrential rain but we can’t yank them taller. Flowers bloom only with the season’s liking. Fruits only get born after the right pollinators fertilise their flowers. Vines climb up where branches hang.
Just like humans, each plant species has its season and time zone. When given the right amount of sunlight, water and nutrition, can the plant grow. Apart from ensuring that the conditions are met, we leave the rest to let nature run its course. We learn the pace of nature, patience, and not rushing into wanting the tree to grow overnight.
Nature shows us that there are some things we can’t stop either. Flowers wilt. Leaves brown and fall. Even the sturdiest hardwood falls after an unfortunate lightning strike. Streams flow from higher grounds to lower levels. Tropical thunderstorms pour whenever the clouds are too heavy. Much as we hate deterioration and want to stop it from happening so badly in nature, we can’t.
Yet a dead log and the leaf litter form the fertile ground for fungi to emerge from, for the next sapling to nestle in. What gives way to death, gives way to growth. This circular economy within the forest is a mere microcosm of what’s happening in our urban modern city.
When we observe Nature, we can look inwards better. After all, we are part of Nature ourselves. Earth, wind, water and heat – the four elements of nature return to dust, just as all living beings. In the forest, when the cycle of life and death is littered in every step of our way, every sight we see… we learn to be detached, to see things as they really are, to let go of wanting and not-wanting.
Where can we experience our natural “self”?
With the benefits of ‘natural remedy’ in mind, below are a few parks I have personally trekked, not in any particular order:
1. Singapore Botanical Gardens
If you fancy prim and proper paths with a trimmed landscape, the Evolution Garden in the Singapore Botanical Gardens transports you back in time (NParks’ guide) while the Rain Forest trail introduces a slice of our tropical primary jungle to you without getting your shoes muddy. Perfect for a stroll with your loved ones, especially if you want to pepper the walk with heart-to-heart talk. Most paths in the Gardens are barrier-free.
Who knew Singapore had such alien-looking trees? Evolution Garden, Singapore Botanic Gardens (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Get ready for complete immersion: jungle hat, hiking shoes, dry-fit attire, sunblock, a neat bottle for hydration, and poncho/umbrella if the weather is unkind. Some altitude is expected. What fun is there if the journey is all flat and smooth?
3. Pasir Ris Park & The islands
Fifty shades of green too much to digest? No worries. There are equally scenic routes for restless adventurers, whose attention spans are more engaged with a geographical variation. Fortunately, there remain in Singapore a few of these 3-in-1 natural sanctuaries (forest, mangroves, coastline).
Rounding off the list, we introduce the ultimate forest experience in the Bukit Brown Cemetery. Obviously not for the faint-hearted. Top off the bucket list with death-contemplation meditation (read these links here and here for greater details).
[Warning: Do explore the area in groups, especially after daylight.]
After all these recommendations, jio (invite) your family and friends to dip into the cool shade of Singapore’s forest canopy while it still stands.
For in this land-scarce country, the concrete jungle is taking over our lush natural heritage as our days go unnoticed. When that time comes, perhaps that’s the final lesson of letting go that nature can give us.
Commit a morning and pick a park! Be on your feet – get ready to explore and to discover solo or with a like-minded company;
In nature, notice the sensory contacts – what you see, hear, smell, touch – what is going through your mind?
If there is a quiet spot in nature, meditate on your breathing. Be aware of how inner and external chatter gets in the way of appreciating the gifts nature offers us.
Have fun along the way! Know your Tree and spot the different trees familiar in our Garden City. Learn bird calls as you tune into nature’s ‘symphony FM92.4.’
This challenge was launched after Vesak in Year 2021 and held on Telegram. The following is a compilation of resources and daily prompts that we sent over the 30 days. You may choose to consume them according to what you need, or conduct your mini 30-day challenge with a few friends using these curated contents.
Before you set yourself a goal on how long to meditate daily, first, clarify your purpose.
Why do you want to meditate in the first place? Don’t settle with a generic answer such as “to find peace”. Dig deeper into what is at stake if you do not meditate and paint a vivid picture of how your life would change for the better if you do. Your motivation won’t be 100% the same as others. So, own it.
If ever meditation feels like a chore to you, recollecting why you started in the first place will be incredibly helpful to keep you going. And when you truly internalise and experience the benefits of meditation, it will become an integral habit – just like brushing your teeth.
Challenge for today, fill in the blanks below and paste it at a visible location to remind you daily about your “WHY”.
I’ve chosen to meditate daily even if [ describe potential that can get in the way ]. And I’m doing this because [ describe why it matters to you ].
Meditation is about understanding yourselves and nature, so that you can adopt skilful measures to change your life for the better. Daily experiences interactions have effects on our mind; our formal meditation experiences have effects on our daily experiences.
A moment to reflect:
Did you recognise any patterns?
What are the causes of your peace/restlessness?
How did meditation contribute to your happiness in the day?
Our minds are constantly swinging between these two extremes, with tons of judgements playing in the background. Listen to Jon Kabat-Zinn about the right way to cultivate a non-judging mind in order to not be imprisoned by our thoughts.
Meditation can seem boring after some time, or we might think we know all about meditation already. Jon Kabat-Zinn shares how a beginners’ mind can help us find novelty in every moment to keep the practice interesting and to grow in wisdom.
Brain Research shows the hardest thing for the brain to do, is to let go of thoughts.
“If we find it particularly difficult to let go of something because it has such a strong hold over our mind, we can direct our attention to what “holding on” feels like. Holding on is the opposite of letting go. We can become an expert on our own attachments, whatever they may be, and their consequences in our lives, as well as how it feels in those moments when we finally do let go and what the consequences of that are. Being willing to look at the ways we hold on ultimately shows us a lot about the experience of its opposite. So whether we are “successful” at letting go or not, mindfulness continues to teach us if we are willing to look.” Credit: G Ross Clark
If you’re struggling to keep up with any of the meditation techniques, you may consider a practice of doing nothing. Simply put, just let the mind do its thing and watch it. You might notice that it’s easy for the mind to start to daydream. How do we deal with that?
Not all days are filled with rainbows and sunshine. Do you run away from reality or face it with courage? In this 15-minute clip, Thich Nhat Hahn shares a sustainable way to deal with painful feelings that might be unbearable:
In this short teaching video from the Deer Park Monastery (February 2004), Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) guides us on how to take care of emotions when they come up. Every time a painful feeling is born, we go home and take good care of our feelings with the practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness here is like a mother coming to hold and embrace the pain that is crying out to us. This is the practice of love: telling our painful emotions, “Darling I know you suffer. That is why I am here for you.” Credit: Plum Village
Today, we recommended two guided meditation tracks. You can choose to meditate with either depending on the time you have:
In this journey of life, we all come with different baggage, some heavier than others. We have to acknowledge our own limitations and be open to seeking and receiving help to lighten the load. Sometimes, meditation is just not the right support at the moment.
Day 21: Introduction to Loving-kindness meditation
Does the thought of Loving-kindness make you squirm? You’re not alone. Is it because love and kindness seem to be the polar opposites of courage and success? Dan Harris and Sharon Salzberg discuss this in this 7-minute clip:
Day 23: Sending goodwill to those whom we feel don’t deserve it.
When you’re practising metta meditation, recognise that it is okay to struggle with sending thoughts of goodwill towards some people. Especially to those whom you dislike and those who hurt you. Recognise your emotional capacity and wish yourself well. Then, when you’re ready, set the wholesome intention to free your heart from enmity little by little.
Or have you been looking back at the past with thoughts of “what if?” “I should have”?
Planning and revisiting history are essential for us to lead our lives.
But if we are caught up with too much thinking, we won’t be able to enjoy the present moment.
Staying present is an ongoing practice, explains Eckhart, which can be supported in ways that include following the breath, becoming aware of sensations in the body, and by cultivating “the Observer”. Watch this video:
One more day left to this challenge! You’ve come this far, and what’s most important is to integrate this meditation practice into your working life and personal life.
With the demands of modern times, it can be difficult to live a life that feels truly balanced. Scientist and author Jon Kabat-Zinn says mindfulness can be a vital tool in cutting through the noise of daily life.
Watch: “Mindfulness Ιn Everyday Life” Jon Kabat Zinn with Oprah Winfrey
Last day! As we end this challenge, take a moment to celebrate the efforts you’ve put into cultivating your mind. Even if you did not meditate for all 30 days, meditating for a day is better than none at all. Meditating for 1 minute or just one mindful breath is better than none. So give yourself some credit!
You may continue to keep up with this daily habit or make it a weekly affair. An important note is that meditation is not just when you sit on the cushion. The mind finds itself in all postures and in all activities.
Today, we are closing off with these two recommendations:
The stresses experienced in life are self-afflicted. External circumstances are largely beyond our control. While changing the world is difficult, we can shift our perspective about it. Meditation allows us to look inwards to investigate the causes of stress in order to uproot them and to plant the seeds of peace. Meditation allows us to realise how we can truly be at home with ourselves and the world.
In the last decade, mindfulness meditation has taken the world by storm. There is a rise in meditation teachers, gurus, and techniques.
Meditation is a practice that exists even before the time of the Buddha. In fact, before the Buddha attained enlightenment, in his search for liberation, he learnt meditation under two great masters of his time. However, the practices weren’t adequate in helping him realise the end of suffering, which led him to figure out on his own. After his own successful attainment of the Truth, the Buddha preached Right Mindfulness as one of the factors of the Noble Eightfold Path.
Secular Mindfulness vs Mindfulness in Buddhism
The difference between most secular mindfulness practices and the mindfulness that the Buddha taught is its aim.
Mindfulness generally means the state of being aware. It is not inherently ethical or unethical, and can be used for good or for bad. A thief can have mindfulness and apply it to unwholesome activities. While committing a crime, he or she can be aware of the surrounding movements to avoid being caught red-handed.
On the wholesome side, doctors, schools, and teachers are advocating secular mindfulness practices for the betterment of society’s welfare. One can meditate to improve health and relationships, regulate emotions, and perform better in school and at work.
Having said so, these practices may only provide temporary relief if we are after conditional happiness. What is conditional happiness? Happiness that arises only when conditions are good – good health, good career, good relationship, etc. But once things go south, we become depressed, or we have to be willing to look on the bright side.
(Right) Mindfulness in Buddhism is part of the Noble Eightfold Path, which propels us towards lasting peace and the complete liberation from suffering. We meditate with the intention of understanding the root causes of our dissatisfactions and how to let go of them.
We gain realisations and insights into the truths of nature –
What is conditioned is subject to change (aniccā),
What is subject to change cannot be identified as “self” (anattā),
Wanting what is impermanent to be permanent and attaching a self-identity to what is constantly changing give rise to dissatisfaction (dukkha).
Understanding these truths, we free our minds from states such as greed, hatred, and ignorance, which do not benefit us. This snowballs into how we speak and act in our daily lives. Just like how we know not to touch a hot kettle, we will develop the wisdom to not carry thoughts of ill-will in order to not let them burn us.
Hence, (Right) Mindfulness in Buddhism is practised holistically with other aspects of the path – factors of virtues and wisdom. For example, if a person does not conduct himself virtuously in the day and carries evil thoughts about others, settling his mind during meditation would be difficult. And if a person develops mindfulness, he can become more aware of unwholesome thoughts and prevent them from turning into unskilful actions. Experiencing the benefits of this, he sets the intention to develop his mindfulness even more.
Like a well-oiled machine, the different parts of one’s life work together simultaneously to liberate us from the causes of suffering.
While we differentiate secular mindfulness and mindfulness in Buddhism, the mindfulness meditation that the Buddha preached is not exclusive to Buddhists. Mindfulness in Buddhism can be practised by anyone who wishes to transcend dissatisfactions in life and to attain unconditional happiness.
Don’t be fooled by the motionless warm bodies you see in meditation photos, videos, or in real life. 99% of the time, the default mode of the brain is to think. Rather than constipating yourself by forcing thoughts to go away, embrace them, and befriend them. Your thoughts are clues that reflect your fears, insecurities, attachments, etc. Meditation is about understanding yourselves and nature, so that you can adopt skilful measures to change your life for the better.
Meditation isn’t just about being calm and relaxed
Calm and relaxation are the fringe benefits of meditation and not the main goal. The main goal of Buddhist meditation is to purify the mind from greed, hatred, and delusion. With a still mind, insight can arise to help us see the true nature of things. The moment we gain insight into this, our hearts become cool. The benefits of meditation go beyond the meditation cushion. We begin to respond rather than to react to the ever-changing conditions around us, leading to more joy and happiness.
The 5 hindrances you will experience in meditation and how to overcome them
In meditation, the mind can be clouded by desires, ill-will, laziness, restlessness, and doubt. These, the Buddha taught, are the 5 obstacles that hinder one to experience the ultimate peace.
Sensual desire (kāmacchanda)
Sensual desires arise when our senses come into contact with sights, sound, smell, taste, feeling, and thoughts. These sensual desires can distract us from our meditation object. Hence, we need to learn to let go of them. We can do this by investigating the impermanent nature of these sensual objects in the mind. Watch how thoughts, feelings, sounds, etc come and go. Once we see that they are not real and that they are inconstant, we gradually cease chasing after them and start paying attention to the present moment.
Ill-will commonly arise due to the expectations we have of ourselves, others, or of situations. In meditation, we may feel averse towards the meditation object or berate ourselves when we fail to quiet our minds. We may think of someone who made us angry and play hostile thoughts on repeat. Holding on to ill-will denies us the access to happiness. Loving-kindness meditation can help to put out the fires in our hearts.
Sloth & Torpor(thīna–middha)
Sloth and torpor refer to the dullness of the mind. This is caused by the lack of energy and effort, which leads to boredom and drowsiness. The next thing you know, you might have fallen asleep! Make your meditation interesting by adopting a spirit of curiosity towards every meditation object. You can be awed by the little things – the subtle differences of every breath, how your breath has the powerful ability to relax the body, how easy for your mind to wonder, etc! Put in wholesome effort to sustain your awareness in this present moment. If it doesn’t work, you may wish to get some fresh air, splash water on your face or do walking meditation to raise your energy level and make yourself more awake. If it still doesn’t work, you probably need some well-deserved sleep.
Restlessness and remorse (uddhacca-kukkucca)
Restlessness refers to the monkey mind swinging from one thought to the next. You might be worrying about the future or have concerns about the past. Or you might be fidgeting every few minutes, changing posture with the slightest itch or discomfort. Or there might be a song in your head that you can’t shake off. These are signs that the mind is struggling to find contentment in this present moment. Taking 5 long in and out breaths can help calm the mind. Body scan meditation and mantras can also help to ground your thoughts.
Doubt refers to the questioning of oneself and the meditation experience that hinders one from progressing further. ‘Am I doing this correctly?’, ‘What is this?’, ‘Am I there yet?’, these questions are important to ensure we are on the right track. However, when we asked them at the wrong time during meditation, it can stir the mind and prevent it from going deeper into a still state. To overcome this, save the questions for the end of the meditation as a form of reflection. Before the meditation, set a firm intention to stick to a meditation object of your choice. During the meditation session, place appropriate attention on the meditation object and patiently let the experience unfold. Still unsure if you’re on the right track? Clarify your doubts with a meditation teacher. You may also build trust in the practice by recollecting the fact that many meditators have found a brighter path ahead of them.
These hindrances have the power to take over your mind if you let them. Often, these waves of defilements cause us to feel defeated or even cause us to give up the meditation practice all together.
Here are some helpful tips:
Experiencing these hindrances is absolutely normal. Adopting a curious attitude towards investigating the causes of these hindrances can help you make the meditation more enjoyable. Treat it as an experiment, and you are bound to gain valuable insights along the way.
Each time you recognise that your mind has wandered, it is a moment for celebration. Because at that very moment, you are making what used to be unconscious conscious, thereby strengthening your awareness.
Good things in life may not come easy, but they are worth striving for. Mindfulness and clear comprehension allow you to respond to situations rather than react. Mindfulness is a superpower that will visibly change your happiness quotient and those around you.
Different meditation techniques
Meditation is like medicine for the mind. Just as there are different medicines for different physical ailments, there are different types of meditation techniques for different states of mind and temperaments.
Meditation techniques are commonly categorised into two big buckets:
Samatha (Concentration) Meditation: Stilling of the mind, freeing the mind from the 5 hindrances.
Vipassanā (Insight) Meditation: Giving rise to penetrative insights and clearly seeing things as they truly are. I.e: all conditioned things are impermanent, dissatisfactory, and non-self.
Both Samatha and Vipassanā need to work in harmony in order for the positive benefits of meditation to last (in and beyond our formal meditation practice).
Analogy of a Rock on grass
A still mind temporarily keeps our defilements at bay. Just like covering a grass patch with a rock. In a couple of days, the grass withers. But not long after the rock is lifted, the grass grows again. To ensure that the grass stops regenerating, one has to remove the grass from its roots; Wisdom must be used to uproot the defilements.
Analogy of an Axe
To chop a trunk of a tree with an axe, the axe needs a sharp blade and a weighted handle. In meditation, vipassanā is like the blade while samatha is the handle, and one needs both to complement each other.
Vipassanā practice sharpens one’s mind to prevent the mind from falling in dullness. Samatha practice stabilises one’s mind to prevent the mind from being disoriented.
Of more than a dozen of meditation techniques that fall under Samatha and Vipassanā , these are the popular ones:
1. Mindfulness of breath
This is best for developing focus and stilling the restless monkey mind. Let the breath be the anchor for your mind throughout the meditation. You may start by counting your breath. With every inhale, count one. With every exhale, count two. As your mind gradually relaxes, you may increase the intervals of your counting – inhale and exhale count one, the next inhale and exhale count two. You can count to ten, then count backwards. Repeat this until the breath becomes subtler over time and you may eventually drop the counting. Just be aware that you’re breathing.
When you notice that your mind has wandered into the past or the future, recognise that and gently bring the mind back to the in and out breath.
a. Each time you notice that your mind has drifted away from the anchor point, celebrate the fact that you were aware. If you notice that the frequency of wandering thoughts has reduced over time, celebrate again! This can motivate you to keep going.
b. If counting numbers doesn’t help you to stay focused, you may try counting alphabets in ascending then descending order.
2. Body Scan Meditation
This is best for relaxing the body, especially if you have a stressful day. Scan your body slowly from head to toe with a light smile on your face. While scanning each part of your body, pause to tune in to how it feels. Are your muscles tense or relaxed? Are your eyes dry or moist?
Bring up gratitude towards each part of your body and bring up wholesome intentions. Example: Thank you, ears, for allowing me to listen. May I let in what is beneficial and filter out what is not. Thank you, mouth, for allowing me to speak. May I speak words that are skilful and beneficial.
3. Loving-kindness Meditation
This is best for diffusing anger and soothing an overly critical mind. In this meditation, visualise yourself, your loved ones, those who are neutral, strangers, and those whom you dislike. Radiate Loving-kindness towards these people in respective order.
Acknowledge that all beings in this world wish for happiness and safety. Wish them well. Just like a mother would protect her only child with a boundless heart, should one cherish all living-beings.
Tip: It is okay to struggle with sending thoughts of good will towards those whom you dislike and those who hurt you. Recognise your emotional capacity and wish yourself well. Then, when you’re ready, set the wholesome intention to free your heart from enmity little by little.
4. Meditate on the changing nature
This is great for developing wisdom and insight. You may start your meditation with mindfulness of breath, body, or sounds. Set your mind to be alert about the changes that take place. For example, if you catch your mind wandering, note “wandering”. If you notice a pain in your back, note “pain”. Observe and investigate how the qualities of your mind and body changes.
Tip: Regardless of the changes in thoughts or sensations, embrace rather than judge. Observe the changes as though you’re from the outside looking in and in a non-personal manner.
How do you know if meditation is working for you?
The success of your meditation isn’t how long you can sit on the cushion without moving. If that’s success then hens would have attained enlightenment! True success can be observed in how you conduct yourself in daily life.
Are your thoughts, speech, and action increasing in wholesomeness?
Is your greed, ill-will, and ignorance reducing?
If the answer is ‘yes’, you’re on the right path! Continue to meditate consistently.
Want to get started but too busy to squeeze time?
A few minutes of meditation a day is better than none! One need not sit for long hours to consider it meditation. We already spend a lot of time placing our focus on Netflix or social media, so why not allocate a few minutes to look into our inner world? Taking a 5-minute meditation break daily can make you feel like a new person.
Need guidance in your meditation?
Here are some meditation applications that you can start with:
The Path to Freedom & the light that dispels darkness
ALL TEACHINGS OF THE BUDDHA POINT US TOWARDS LIBERATION
More than 2,600 years ago, the prince of the Sakyan clan, Siddhārtha Gautama left home in search for answers to the causes of sufferings and the escape. Awoken to the true nature of life, he became known as the Buddha, the Enlightened One. Subsequently, the Buddha out of compassion guided countless sentient beings towards the most expansive happiness possible.
His first and core teaching is The Four Noble Truths.
1. Life is Challenging
Life is inherently fraught with challenges, which are not always evident. When we become aware that the nature of day-to-day existence is suffering, we don’t have to be miserable with the thought that suffering is always present.
2. The cause of suffering
The cause of our suffering is our attachment to our desires of our possessions and the way things should or should not be.
3. A non-struggling, peaceful mind is a possibility
With right understanding of life’s true nature and complete acceptance, mind is peaceful. This can’t be done with an act of will. Instead, it is a journey of changing our habits to see and understand the true nature of reality.
4. The process for ending suffering is the Noble Eightfold Path
A consistent awakening through developing the following eight:
Wise Understanding: knowing the causes & cessation of suffering;
Wise Intention: motivation to end suffering;
Wise Speech: speaking in a way that cultivates clarity and peace;
Wise Action: behaving in ways that maintain clarity and peace;
Wise Livelihood: supporting oneself in a wholesome way;
Wise Effort: cultivating skillful (peaceful) mind habits;
Wise Concentration: cultivating a steady, focused ease-filled mind.
The Three-Fold Practice
Wisdom enables us to see reality as it is and not how we would like it to be. It allows us to take time to form opinions and beliefs rather than quickly jumping to conclusions and reacting to our emotions. It provides a window of pause for us to change our mind when facts presented to us contradict our beliefs.
“Wisdom is the understanding where happiness can be found”- Ajahn Brahmali
Wisdom is purified by virtue and virtue is purified by wisdom. The wise try to help when they can, never forgetting that there is no guarantee their efforts will be successful.
As a result, they do not indulge in disappointment when things do not work out. If their efforts to help others are disrupted, they dwell in calmness. They are ready to try again whenever the conditions allow.
The five precepts are the basis of Buddhist virtue for lay practitioners but are not all of it. We start by recognising how our negative behaviour causes us unhappiness. Through understanding, we learn to act skilfully by developing virtues. When we see how skilful actions lead to happiness, we start doing good. For example, the second precept (refraining from taking what is not given) is first upheld before one proceeds to build their skill of generosity and sharing.
“To Avoid evil, Do Good, Purify the Mind”
The Five Precepts:
To refrain from killing living beings
To refrain from stealing/taking what is not given
To refrain from sexual misconduct
To refrain from false speech
To refrain from the consumption of alcohol and intoxicating drugs that lead to heedlessness
The unique feature of Buddhist virtue is that rather than being perceived as a matter of obedience to a list of conducts given by a higher power, virtue is seen as a form of training one’s conduct. Only when precepts are understood and taken voluntarily, they provide a strong basis for more advanced training of the mind taught by the Buddha.
The Buddha taught that voluntarily refraining from harmful actions and speech has a major part to play in creating a society of mutual trust and respect.
Meditation (Samādhi in Pali) is one of the methods used to modify the habitual tendencies of the mind, as does speaking or refraining from acting in certain ways. The training of meditation helps us to un-condition negative habitual tendencies such as obsessive worrying and replace them with positive habitual tendencies such as acceptance & letting go.
“Meditation is a way of cultivating the mind. Cultivating it toward what end? Cultivating it to the point that whatever occurs, the mind no longer gives rise to mental impurities.”
– Ajahn Buddhadasa
Samadhi is a quality of the mind of non-distraction. The Noble Eightfold path provides the path to developing virtue and mindfulness leading to deep concentration. With one applying right effort, one abandons unwholesome mental states and gives rise to wholesome mental states, enabling one to sustain a calm mind that is free from discursive thoughts.
The Different Buddhist Traditions
As Buddhism spread out of India to all corners of the world, many different schools with their own beliefs and practices emerged. Despite these differences, these traditions share a conviction that one can come to understand the meaning of existence by living a skilful life dedicated to spiritual cultivation.
Theravada – The Way of the Elder
This tradition is the representation of early Buddhism. Their doctrine emphasizes self-development and the gradual cultivation towards liberation. The teachings lean towards the lives and teachings of the Buddha and his immediate disciples. These teachings are preserved in the ancient Pali language and stored in a vast canonical compilation called the Tipitaka.
Goal of the practice: The attainment of liberation, freedom from the cycle of rebirth & suffering. One who has successfully extinguish his defilements is known as an Arahant.
Predominant regions: Thailand, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and SEA
Mahayana – The Great Vehicle
This tradition emphasises on aiding the liberation of a large number of sentient beings from the round of rebirth & suffering (Samsara). More prominent sub-schools of Mahayana are the meditative ‘zen’ and the devotional ‘Amitabha’ school. The teachings emerged about 2,000 years ago which was more accommodative to new ideas and regional differences in the Buddhist interpretation.
Goal of the practice: The attainment of liberation is not just for oneself but for all sentient beings. This school espouses the Bodhisattva ideal – to be a great being who encompasses virtue, compassion & wisdom and vows to be reborn again and again for the sake of alleviating other being’s sufferings.
Predominant regions: China, Vietnam, Korea, Japan
Vajrayana – The Diamond Vehicle
Diamond, being one of the toughest material in the world, is used to represent the ability of the Dhamma to cut through all defilements and mental afflictions. Vajrayana first entered Tibet at the invitation of Tibetian King Songstän Gampo in early 7th Century CE India. This sect focuses on the use of elaborated rituals, known as Tantras, and personal root teachers to remove obstacles to the realization of the Dhamma.
Similar to Mahayana, this sect espouses the Bodhisattva view and the belief in the general Mahayana Pantheon of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and deities. There is also a belief in tulku – a teacher that reincarnates and continues the dispensation of Dhamma life after life.
Predominant regions: Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet
With different traditions and different emphasis on the Buddha’s teachings, there are common threads that spread across the traditions. This includes a unified faith in the three jewels – the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha. What differs between the schools is the means to the same goal of enlightenment.
With peace & harmony as a key feature of Buddhism, Buddhist sects have never gone to war over their ideals and have flourished alongside in peaceful coexistence.
The meaning behind Buddhist rituals
In the early years of Buddhism, the teachings of the Buddha were preserved through oral transmission. Chanting is one way for us to connect back with the countless generations of practitioners. The chants include verses that list the qualities of the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. Included are key teachings of the Buddha for wise reflection, as well as verses to remind us to be friendly to ourselves and all those we come into contact with, and sharing our merits with departed relatives.
These verses are recited in the Pali language. Pali is a language used in Theravada Buddhist scriptures. As the scriptures contain the teachings of the Buddha, chanting helps reflect and recollect his words of wisdom. This can aid one in internalising the meaning of the teachings and in realising the truth.
Chanting helps us develop gratitude towards those who have passed down the teachings. It also helps to calm the mind after a long day, and reminds us to develop positive mental qualities that we can work towards.
Offerings are made to the Buddha not because the Buddha needs them or for us to win divine favours. Offerings are made to create positive mental states of generosity and gratitude.
Flowers are one of the most beautiful manifestations of nature, which we often use to beautify our surroundings. We tend to cling to beautiful things. By offering flowers, it reminds us that when they fade, our world also fades. All that we hold onto are impermanent.
Light dispels darkness and lighting candles reminds us of the Buddha’s wisdom, which is like light that dispels the darkness of our ignorance. It reminds us to keep the wisdom of the Buddha within our hearts and minds.
Fruits remind us that when we put in skilful effort to our practice, these efforts will bear fruit eventually. We are heirs to our actions and are born of our actions.
Fragrance emitted from incense reminds us of the fragrance of the Buddha’s teachings that is able to spread far and wide. It reminds us of the fragrance of pure moral conduct that brings happiness when we understand how to act skilfully. The fragrance of our practice brings peace and calm to the mind.
Water symbolises purity and clarity of the mind. We are reminded that our actions, speech and thoughts have an impact on our mind. Hence, the offering of water reminds us to be skilful and avoid the taints of the world.
The best offering?
The best offering we can render is the offering of our own practice to the Buddha. To walk and practice the path as laid out by the Buddha enables us to lead a happier and peaceful life. This approach to life not only benefits ourselves but also others.
In Buddhism, the statue of the Buddha reminds us of the human dimension in Buddhist teachings. Practitioners pay respect by prostrating to the Buddha statue in the same manner we would show respect to someone or something we admire. This gesture of respect reduces our ego and opens up our mind to learning.
Having a Buddha image reminds us of the qualities of the Buddha and serves to inspire us to develop the qualities within ourselves.