Suffering in life? Here’s how to transcend it – Wisdom from a Buddhist Nun.

Suffering in life? Here’s how to transcend it – Wisdom from a Buddhist Nun.

This is an extract of a talk given by Ayya Khema on the topic of Dukkha. Ayya Khema (1923–1997) was an international Buddhist teacher, and the first Western woman to become a Theravada Buddhist nun.

Transcript

Mankind has dukkha. Each one of us has it. But, the wonderful teaching that we have is that there is a way to get beyond it.

There, we have to change our thinking a hundred and eighty degrees.

We are operating on an illusion. It is the illusion of being an individual, an identity.

You can feel it. “That’s me getting up, that’s me being dissatisfied, and it’s me having dukkha.”

The Buddhist great enlightenment explanation was not that dukkha can go away, but this delusion can go away, and then we’re beyond Dukkha.

There are moments when we feel a deep inner peacefulness. When we see a beautiful sunset, a rainbow, we hear exquisite music, watch a happy baby, and we think and immediately make up our minds that the lack of dukkha at that moment is due to the fact that there was a rainbow or a happy baby.

We are externalising. That isn’t that at all. It’s because in those moments, we were totally concentrated on what is happening that we forgot about ourselves. That’s why these moments are without dukkha. But externalising them means that we are in this case, praising the trigger. In other cases, we usually blame the trigger. They are all outside of us. What is happening within us, that’s our life.

We usually try to arrange our outer life so that it is convenient and comfortable, and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t do that. But do we arrange our inner life so that it is convenient and comfortable?

Have we ever given that any thought that it is actually possible to do that?

The promise of the Buddha that we can all get beyond dukkha is something we have to take on (with) faith at this moment because we haven’t got beyond dukkha yet. If we take such a promise, all it means is that we’re willing to try. And that’s all the Buddha asked people to do. Try it out. Try out the methods, Try out the instructions, and see whether they help.

We don’t get pass dukkha immediately. Nothing of the kind. Meditation can take dukkha away temporarily, but how long does anyone sit in meditation?

What we need to know and what we need to experience is the possibility that through seeing things in a different light, seeing ourselves in a different light, seeing dukkha universally instead of individually, we have a chance to have a totally different relationship to everything that happens in our life.

“All things are not-self”when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering.

This is the path to purification.

– Dhammapada Verse 279

Film Review: The Way Out – Mindfulness, Environmentalism & Burnout

Film Review: The Way Out – Mindfulness, Environmentalism & Burnout

Buddhist Film Reviews is a partnership series between HOL & THIS Buddhist Film Festival 2021 (25 Sept – 8 Oct’21). Themed “Open your mind”, THISBFF 2021 features 15 thought-provoking documentaries and feature films from 12 countries. 


TLDR: The journeys of two young men searching for answers converge at  Plum Village. It offers light in a world where we see escape as the only means to happiness.

It often feels that a day barely passes without the media talking about mental well-being or climate change as a subject that demands our attention. However, it is rare for a film to stir your attention and make you sit up to notice these issues.

Director Wouter Verhoeven’s heavy use of first-hand footage, interviews with protagonists and others brings into focus, the plight of Mother Nature and burnout in life.

Wouter masterfully uses mindful pauses in the film (shots of nature and the characters doing mundane activities) to create moments for reflection.

His main message is clear throughout the entire film: The way out of these crises starts when we look inwards.

The film, with momentary commentary by the Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, further enhances the impact of the film’s message.

The founder of Plum Village teaches, “The way out is in. The way out of climate change is inside each of us.” His invitation is to pause: to stop running and observe what is really going on.

The Way Out is Reflection

Wouter’s documentary focuses on two protagonists: Eddie, an environmental activist struggling to prevent fracking in Yorkshire, England; the other, a London banker facing an existential crisis. The banker, upon deeply examining his life, discovers its monotony and emptiness.

The film lays bare their attempts to remedy that despair in both their searches. Eddie searches for environmental protection while the banker searches for meaning. 

As I watched the film, I was moved by the protagonists’ raw, unfiltered examination of their lives. The courage to confront their insecurities and uncertainty struck a chord within me. In a world where social validation of positivity is lauded, this film was a breath of fresh air.

For example, the banker realises that so many peers are depressed, in spite of their material success. He reflects that everyone is living in a fishbowl: one can look outside of the bowl but is incapable of experiencing the ocean outside (real world).

“There is a place for peace to reign, to settle, and you should go there. You know how to do it.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

ds

“There is a place for peace to reign, to settle, and you should go there. You know how to do it.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

The Way Out is Harmony

What makes this film worth sitting up and paying attention to? For me, it was the Director’s elegant weaving of the two stories into one storyline. As I watched the film, I was trying hard to understand how the two protagonists’ stories would meet. Hint: Plum Village is the centre stage.

Within the film, harmony is achieved by the director’s thoughtful mix of tense scenes of confrontations with still nature shots and interviews with a Plum Village monastic.

The monk speaks to Eddie about his confrontations with the fracking industry and how Eddie feels about it.

“Don’t make a front, make a circle, there is no one to fight. We suffer because we don’t know better,” the Buddhist monk counsels Eddie as he faces burnout over his cause. 

Nuggets of wisdom like this sprinkled throughout the film makes it a compelling watch. The film is not alarmist but rather, awakening.

The Way Out is Change

The most beautiful part of the film is watching how these two protagonists transform their mental states, especially after they come into contact with Plum Village, a Zen monastery in France. Seeing their calm faces while meditating, and their serene smiles while doing temple chores brought a smile to my face.

Eddie’s calm focus while making bread for fellow practitioners and the banker’s gaze while being in the monastery garden were my favourite scenes of inner change for these two characters.

Seeing Eddie and the banker find the strength to feel comfortable in their own skin and at peace was a relief. It was akin to witnessing a fish finding its way out of the fishbowl into the greater ocean. Change can be painful but necessary.

Change enables to let go of superficial & lesser happiness for the greater & deeper happiness in life.

Who do I Recommend the Film for?

Friends who find themselves stuck in the grind of the 9-to-5 or those feeling burnout from championing causes close to their hearts. 

This film speaks directly to you and is unafraid to show you the costs of your ideals. It is a great introduction for those new to Buddhism as the film gives a taste of how Dhamma can be applied in real-world situations. How do we approach people who are in direct conflict with our values? How do we face an existential crisis? The film is a perfect illustration of Buddhism in action without requiring deep Buddhist knowledge.

You will be challenged to stop running and to take a pause. To find a mindful and peaceful way out.

A positive post-note to the film: In 2019, the UK government halted fracking in England. This effectively bans fracking in the UK, a watershed moment for activists and the environment. Scientific studies warned it was not possible to rule out unacceptable consequences for those living near fracking sites.


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Film Review: Master Sheng Yen – A Life Story

Film Review: Master Sheng Yen – A Life Story

Buddhist Film Reviews is a partnership series between HOL & THIS Buddhist Film Festival 2021 (25 Sept – 8 Oct’21). Themed “Open your mind”, THISBFF 2021 features 15 thought-provoking documentaries and feature films from 12 countries. 


TLDR: Paying homage to Master Sheng Yen and his movement to revive  Ch’an (禅) Buddhist practice in Taiwan, the United States and around the world, the documentary paints a beautiful portrait of Master’s selfless life a decade after his passing in 2009.

If you had heard of Master Sheng Yen and his teachings, do you know how he came to be?

A saying goes, ‘still water runs deep’. Master Sheng Yen’s life story unfolds into many onerous chapters unknown to most. 

A posthumous biographic documentary, Master Sheng Yen (Chinese title: 本来面目) details his early years of ordination, the peak of his monastic life, its challenges, and his final efforts of serving Buddha’s dispensation. 

The title of the documentary alludes to the quote from The Sixth Patriarch Venerable Hui Neng in The Sixth Patriarch Sutra, 「不思善不思恶,正与么时,那个是明上座本来面目?」 This question was posed to Venerable Hui Ming, who realised enlightenment thereafter. It roughly translates to “without considering the good nor the bad, what is your original face?” Master Sheng Yen has used this ko-an to discuss the true nature of one’s heart in his teaching

To make up for the lack of intimate interviews with Master, the producer reconstructs Master’s personality and demeanour through animation, archival photographs, audio and video recordings, as well as extracts from letters and publications. Interviews of Master Sheng Yen’s disciples and acquaintances help us see Master as a humble teacher and striving monastic from their eyes.

Against the backdrop of socio-political turmoil and modernisation, the documentary tells an impeccable narrative of Master Sheng Yen’s life through the suitable use of black-white historical archives and re-enactments. 

Through the documentary, the audience traces the historical forces that shaped Master’s compassionate outlook and disenchantment towards the world. Notwithstanding the school of life, Master Sheng Yen was apprenticed under a lineage of Ch’an and Zen teachers, who were formidable in their practice. 

The nuggets of wisdom crystallised from Master Sheng Yen’s life experiences were offered together with pastel motifs of impermanence – albeit their screen times as fleeting as snowflakes. The scenes and delivery of content are ever-changing as with life – no one moment can be repeated like a running stream. Aptly, the cinematography takes on a sense of detachment – observing, looking on to the emptiness beneath.

How did the documentary make me feel? 

I felt encouraged about Master Sheng Yen’s tireless efforts to revive Ch’an Buddhism after the purging of religion from the Cultural Revolution. Watching the documentary helped me reflect that I have taken his compassionate teachings for granted.

I was never once bored because of the different types of sources and media used in delivering Master Sheng Yen’s story. At any point in time, I feel immersed in that particular decade with Master Sheng Yen when he was making difficult choices to practice in line with the Dhamma and to benefit sentient beings.

What was the most memorable scene? 

It was an interview snippet when Master Sheng Yen reminisced with the founding president of the Buddhist Society of the United States, Mr Shen. The latter drew an analogy where the Master was a field of merits and Mr Shen merely sowed in that field.

Hearing this, Master Sheng Yen broke down into sobs.

It was then that I realised the extent to which Master Sheng Yen had experienced life’s bitterness was one which no one could fathom, yet he remained such a hopeful pillar of support to his disciples.

What did I like about the documentary? 

It pieces together a Master Sheng Yen I did not know and it helps me to appreciate what he stood for and the contribution he has made for Ch’an Buddhism. 

I grew up learning about Master Sheng Yen’s teachings but I never understood who exactly was the monk who taught them — he was a man of calibre and honourable virtues; and definitely, a man of perseverance.

He was there in front of me throughout the documentary – his presence alive and piercing into my consciousness with light and wisdom.

What did I not like so much about the movie? 

There were a few quotes that flew by quite quickly. At the end, there were some text describing the development of Dharma Drum Mountain but the words may have been small and quick to pass over. Perhaps, I am a slow myopic reader and it is time for me to change my spectacles.

Who would I recommend this for? 

Anyone who knows Master Sheng Yen and who wants to learn from his life and his life’s works. This is a well-researched documentary – both educating and contemplative.


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Film Review: Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (M18: Mature Theme)

Film Review: Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (M18: Mature Theme)

Buddhist Film Reviews is a partnership series between HOL & THIS Buddhist Film Festival 2021 (25 Sept – 8 Oct’21). Themed “Open your mind”, THISBFF 2021 features 15 thought-provoking documentaries and feature films from 12 countries. 


TLDR: Comparing the lives of an old monk and his young apprentice, this film reflects on simplicity, love, and a life’s journey

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring is a beautiful Korean movie that reflects on our life’s journey, the choices we make, and subsequent consequences.  The movie is set in a temple floating upon a tranquil lake in the middle of an untouched forest. It revolves around two main characters: an old monk and his young apprentice.  They sustain themselves by gathering herbs from nature, engaging in simple chores, and recitation of suttas or Buddhist scriptures. 

Watching the young apprentice living his youth in such peaceful surroundings in comparison to our bustling days, I thought surely, he would be much happier than us?  

After all, we are constantly seeking that “peaceful” place, somewhere where we can be one with ourselves, and achieve the happiness that can be so elusive. 

The Four Seasons

Through this movie, director Kim Ki-duk leads us through a comparison between the lives of the old monk and his young apprentice.  As the season changes into years, both individuals are transformed.  The young apprentice experienced various emotions as he grew from a child to a man.  As Kim Ki-duk says, “I think that a human being’s life is very similar to the four seasons. The four seasons all have very different characters”.  

What we see in this film is that in each phase of our lives, or as our mind changes, we also begin to form certain views, emotions, and actions.  An example is a young apprentice who began to develop a physical attraction to a young girl.  As he drew away from monkhood and entered the lay life in pursuit of his “love” subject which he believes would bring him happiness, his desires eventually drove him to commit a crime.  With the police hot on his heels and his heart like burning coal, he decided to return to the temple of his youth.

The World Of Men

Here, we are shown a comparison of the old monk who has lived in simplicity all those years, unperturbed by external distractions.  Despite physical struggles with his ageing body and a solitary life with nothing more than a cat as a company since the young apprentice left, the old monk remains calm throughout the film.  He also dispenses short teachings of wisdom, to cool his apprentice’s feverish heart. 

“Didn’t you know beforehand how the world of men is? Sometimes we have to let go of the things we like. What you like, others will also like.”

Letting go of desires is a key teaching in Buddhism.  And though this film mainly depicts two monks, I doubt the director is sending us a message to leave all our loved ones behind, shave our heads and live in a secluded temple. 

Instead, my understanding of the movie and its simple similes through the scenes is that peace and happiness are not found outside, but are simply a state of mind.  

Stone In Your Heart

If we let our lust and anger dictate our minds, we may make regrettable choices.  These choices do not just affect those around us, but they can become a heavy burden in our hearts. 

“You will carry the stone in your heart for the rest of your life”.  This was one of the old monk’s first wise teachings at the beginning of the film.  As the story nears its closing,  we see that the young apprentice who is now in his middle age has begun to understand an important thing; although he may not be able to undo the wrong he has committed in the past, forgiveness and patience are the key factors to finding peace in his heart again.  This was shown as he hauled a heavy rock up a hill, and when it finally came to a rest, his face was both clear and serene.

With this film, do not expect much drama.  In fact, there are barely any lengthy dialogues.  There are no special effects or tear-jerking moments.

 I expected to be bored, but as the film progressed,  I found to my surprise a spiritual depth to the movie reminding me to let go, forgive and be patient as I find happiness through the four seasons of my life. 


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Are you living life like a hungry ghost?

Are you living life like a hungry ghost?

This teaching is compilation of teachings extracted from talks/interviews with Dr Gabor Mate, Luang Por Sumedho, and Tara Brach.

Hungry ghosts can’t get enough satisfaction

In the Buddhist psychology, there are a number of realms that all beings cycle through.

  1. One is the human realm, which can be described as our ordinary selves.
  2. The second is the hell realm, which contains unbearable rage, fear, and terror; it contains emotions that are difficult to handle.
  3. The third is the animal realm, which is related to our instincts.

In the hungry ghost realm, the creatures are depicted with large empty bellies, small scrawny thin necks. They can never get enough satisfaction. They are always hungry, always empty, always seeking satisfaction from the outside. This speaks to the part of us, isn’t it?

Just watch the desire in your own mind. It’s always looking for something. There’s a kind of restlessness such that when you’re frightened, you look for something certain; and you don’t know what to do, you feel this momentum of desire that looks for anything to do – eat, smoke cigarettes, read books, watch televisions, look around for this and that.

This is just a force of habit.

When you are not mindful, and when you are not wise, you become easily pulled into these things. When you lead life heedlessly, when you lead our lives without any kind of wisdom or understanding of it, you just get caught up in seeking excitement. When you get bored, you seek excitement. But when you get bored with excitement, you seek annihilation.

You get caught up in these habits.

The false refuges in our lives and never arriving

One of the most pervasive false refuges or substitute gratifications is the never ending effort to improve ourselves. It’s not the kind of improvement that leads us to sensing our creativity and the knowledge we long for, but it’s the kind that stems from a place of deficit. It’s the “I need to be a better person” kind of striving, and that wanting to feel like we’re good enough.

This is what goes on in us and is part of the hungry ghost.

If we’re honest with ourselves, are we really content and feel good enough? This sense of wanting to be good enough is not the same as the impulse to manifest our true potential. It’s the kind of internalised standards we have that make us think we should always look better, do more, and be more.

When we are honest, we realise that for many of us live with the kind of dissatisfaction, a disappointment that our lives aren’t turning out the way we want it to be. There’s a sense of never arriving, as though we’re trying to get somewhere, and we’re not there.

Three levels of suffering

Level 1: We are not satisfied

There’s a whole range of how we experience these hungry ghost energy. Along with that, we have chronic patterns on how we are trying to meet our needs and we do so through different substitute gratifications such as consuming sugar or seeking approval or attaching to our possessions.

As we may know, these are temporary fixes. We’re on a roller coaster. We feel better for a little, but then, the need is back there again.

Wanting begets wanting. It’s like drinking salt water to satisfy thirst.

So, that’s one level of suffering – i.e. we don’t get satisfied.

Level 2: The aversion we have towards ourselves for not being satisfied.

In the Buddhist tradition, we call that the second arrow. The first arrow is “I want, I need, I’m not satisfied”. The second arrow is “I am a bad person for wanting, needing, and feeling that I’m not satisfied”. It’s the self version that we pile on that is a very notable part of the addiction cycle. Eat too much, then feel really bad about ourselves. Feel like such as bad person, and then feel so miserable that we eat more, and return to feeling bad about ourselves again. The cycle keeps getting fuelled like this.

Level 3: Never being present and never arriving

The last level is just like in the casino: when we really want to win but are not quite there yet or when we are seeking approval and when we are trying to in some ways get something we don’t have, we’re not present. It’s kind of like we’re leaning forward, wanting the next moment to contain what this moment does not. We’re not present, and we’re always on our way to somewhere else.

Such wanting, addiction, and attachment is the heart of the suffering that comes with the hungry ghosts.

How many moments of our life is there a sense of we’re on our way to something rather than this moment counts?

A comforting perspective

Our attachment and addiction can be a flag to pause, and deepen our attention to what is here. And if we are willing to pause, and deepen our attention, we can begin to discover that rather than hitching to our addicting habits, the star we felt away from is right here. It is in this present moment. Right here.

Whoever is overcome by this wretched and sticky craving, 
his sorrows grow like grass after the rains.

But whoever overcomes this wretched craving, so difficult to overcome, 
from him sorrows fall away like water from a lotus leaf.

– Dhammapada verse 335 & 336