Cultivating Faith In Fearful Times

Cultivating Faith In Fearful Times

This is adapted from Sylvia Bay’s bulletin for Buddhist Fellowship written in March 2020. This is a great reminder for us as we greet each new year. This pandemic throws all the curveballs we could never expect. Here is how we can l

TLDR: These are unprecedented times. The past few months have been very hard for us as the world gradually descends into a Covid-19 pandemic and we watch an accustomed way of life slowly disintegrates. Here is how we can develop faith in fearful times

Every new day seems to bring worse news and we are seized by worry and fear for the safety and well-being of ourselves and our loved ones.

It doesn’t help that nobody knows how long this pandemic will drag on. What more damage will it inflict on society and the economy before it passes? Will it even be over? Will ‘normal’ life as we know it ever return?

Why Must We Not Give In To Fear & Worry?

It brings out the worst in us. In our practice, we must learn to recognise racing thoughts driven by worry and fear.

Recognition, seeing rightly, is a necessary first step to breaking away from being trapped in an endless, vicious cycle of anxiety and panic proliferating frightful thoughts which in turn heighten the overall sense of doom.

Fear and worry are powerful akusala (unwholesome) mental states that can and often do bring out the worst in us. We become selfish and self-centred. We do silly and illogical things. We hoard food, masks, sanitisers, washing detergents, toilet papers! Fear and worry drain our goodness and humanity.

Our capacity for metta, compassion, generosity, empathy and so on dissolve under the deluge of worried and fearful thoughts. Even our noble aspirations to be good Buddhists and to do the right thing for ourselves and for others are terminated in mid-stream.

That is why it is critical that we try our utmost not to give in to fear and worry. It is not easy, but it can be done.

When you see those two mental states arising, take a deep breath and acknowledge their presence.

Call them out by name: “That is fear. That is worry.”

But don’t get defensive.

Don’t self-flagellate.

Don’t blame yourself for their presence.

Just be aware of them and other akusala mental states trailing in their wake: greed, anger, resentment and so on. Then consciously and deliberately choose not to give in to all the mental negativities.

We must not because if we are decent people and especially if we want to be good Buddhists, we will regret any unkind word said and selfish action made while caught in the grip of fear and worry.

What Do We Turn Our Minds To?

Turn our minds to Faith

Instead, turn our minds to faith (saddhā). As Buddhists, our faith is in the Triple Gem: the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha.

The stronger our faith, the more we will feel fear and worry dissipate. Faith is so powerful that it can bring up intense joy and immense gratitude.

If you don’t believe, try this: take a deep breath and say slowly, mindfully and with conviction, “My faith in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha will protect me.” Don’t think. Don’t over-analyse. If you do as instructed, you will see faith surge. Joy, gratitude and humility will wash over you.

Like all mental states, faith has to be cultivated. Therefore, set aside quiet time to pay homage to the Triple Gem. More importantly, use that time to reflect on the meaning of the ancient words.

Right reflection is necessary to strengthen faith and protect the kusala (wholesome) in the mind.

Buddha

We start by recalling the Buddha’s virtues as follows but in a language that we understand and can appreciate: “The Blessed One is an Arahant, perfectly enlightened, accomplished in true knowledge and conduct, fortunate, knower of the world, unsurpassed trainer of persons to be tamed, teacher of devas and humans, the Enlightened One, the Blessed One.”

What stands out here is the fact that the Buddha was the epitome of wisdom (vijjā) and goodness (carana).

He had realised entirely on his own how his mind works and how suffering can cease.

And then out of compassion for all sentient beings, Buddha devoted the rest of his life to helping others to the same intuitive realisation. Buddha was an incredible teacher: ingenious and creative, uplifting and inspiring, with boundless compassion, drive and energy.

He taught Dhamma literally to the end.

As he laid dying beneath the Sal trees in Kusinara, Buddha reminded his students to strive on and to realise Nibbāna for themselves.

Buddha’s life was profoundly inspiring.

In these difficult times, we must remind ourselves to bring out that ‘Buddha’ potential in us and not give in to our darker instincts, namely, greed and anger. We must believe that we too are capable of great wisdom and goodness. We only have to stay committed to the practice and not lose faith.

Dhamma

Reflect on the virtues of the Dhamma as follows: “Well expounded is the Dhamma by the Exalted One, directly visible, immediately effective, calling one to come and see, leading on, to be personally realised by the wise.”

This is a reminder to ourselves to not get caught up in the running commentaries in our heads. Thought constructions are often unhelpful but they can be downright destructive if fuelled by fear and worry.

Instead, live in the present moment or as the Buddha had put it: “sandiṭṭhiko” (visible here and now) and “akāliko” (timeless). Learn to enjoy the NOW.

Be aware of how our mind can stay in the present, without chattering, at least for a while before it drifts off again. Be grateful each time you are aware of this present moment where the mind is quietly watchful.

Treasure this moment in the Dhamma. Feel blessed that with the guidance of a 2500-year old teaching, we too are enjoying this wondrous experience

Sangha

To recall the virtues of the Sangha is to remind ourselves that we must stay kusala and not willy-nilly stray into akusala. As the first part of the homage recitation goes, “The order of the Exalted One’s disciples is practising well; … is of upright conduct; … has entered the right path; … is practising correctly.”

Indeed, the noblest of Buddha’s disciples were all paragons of virtues. If we profess to be Buddha’s disciples, the least that we can do is to restrain our akusala instincts and to conscientiously cultivate kusala ones.

We learn to speak kindly and gently. In this trying time, where everyone is anxious and agitated, we should not add to another’s pain.

We shall act with consideration. We take (or buy) only what we need for survival and not clear the shelves because we can. We must be giving (cāga). For those of us with means, this is really a chance to cultivate generosity because there are very real and desperate needs out there. If we find our mind resisting to give, tame that stain of miserliness by giving more.

What must we do?

Be empathic.

We must be empathetic. Covid-19 obviously does not respect national boundaries. There is no one race or religion immune to Covid-19. The entire human race is in this together.

So we will not point fingers and look for convenient scapegoats. Instead, we should embrace all and help all alike. And finally, we will be grateful for our blessings to be living in a country where we have good people and resources to contain Covid-19 outbreak and save lives.

The fact that we remain hopeful despite the body blows to the economy and complete disruption to our social lives, shows that instinctively we trust the people in the forefront know what they are doing.

We must not add to their burden. Instead, we will be humble and wholly support them. We must think positive, stay optimistic and believe that this pandemic will pass.

May we all emerge from this defining challenge of our time, stronger in our faith, kinder in our words and conduct, and wiser in our thoughts. May your faith in the Triple Gem keep you well and at peace

Our Minds Are Always Searching for a Refuge, What Does Yours Seek?

Our Minds Are Always Searching for a Refuge, What Does Yours Seek?

This is a reflection piece as contemplated by the author based on the Buddha’s teachings. As such, it may not contain the truths as taught by the Buddha. The author hopes the reader takes away useful bits that may resonate and discard whatever parts that make no sense without any aversion. 


TLDR: Our minds are seldom at peace. Peace means having lasting contentment and not being piqued by the smallest things. Yet our mind seems to know there is something peaceful beyond our mundane experiences. For this reason, our minds are always searching for a refuge.

For many years my mind searched for a refuge. Refuge means a place of safety and protection from dangers according to the Oxford dictionary. When it comes to the mind, dangers would point to non-acceptance, anger, indifference and insincerity from others. A refuge for the mind would be friendship, acceptance, love and honesty instead. The mind also seeks good repute and wealth, so that it indirectly receives respect, love, admiration and acceptance from others. Observing myself and others, I found there is not a time when our minds are not seeking refuge.

Why does the mind seek refuge?

Looking back into a faraway past, I remembered when my mind first gained consciousness of its senses.

When I was around three or four years old, I remember sitting at the threshold between the living room and the kitchen drinking a bottle of hot milk. Although I do remember glimpses of consciousness, such as being wrapped in a cloth tied to a spring attached to the ceiling. I was being bounced up and down and I think I hit my head and cried.

From the time of ‘waking up’ to the awareness of this life, I remembered being an observer to most events around me. I did not know anything except enjoying playing with the neighbours. A distinct memory of my mother crying and packing to leave home was etched in my mind as my sister tried to stop her. My sister was maybe six years old? I am three years younger than my sister, and I was at the table drinking my hot cup of milo for breakfast. I only observed and felt no emotions.

The time my mind began searching for love and safety was when my father began verbally abusing me.

He would scare me into a corner and cane me too, especially if I fell ill. I was prone to asthmatic cough and was barred from certain foods. My father’s family has a history of asthma. He scolded me because seeing a doctor would eat away his already low pay as a hawker.

My awareness of the lack of approval from my parents and their relatives was the start of the mind seeking refuge from someone or something to balance this suffering. 

Back then, academic ability was highly prized and perhaps they hoped I would do well and bring them pride but I’m not a scholar.

Other reasons for seeking refuge

I was speaking of what I perceive to be my early cause for seeking a refuge for the mind.

The truth is, the mind seeks refuge due to a host of other causes too. Causes such as boredom, loneliness, belonging, disappointment, or just do something to find meaning in life. 

If we look deeply, it seems the mind is incapable of being at rest for long. Action is primed in our system. Our entire system on earth – the weather, the animals and people are all acting upon one another so that not taking action, or not making a choice is not an option at all. Weather changes can disrupt our day, animals can cause us harm – in today’s terms, the harm comes from a virus. Even when nothing is disturbing the mind, it seeks a goal to feel secure.

Be wise about the refuge you seek

In The Noble Search Sutta (MN. 26), the Buddha talked about two types of refuge we seek. He called them the ignoble and noble search.

He said the ignoble search is someone seeking a refuge in what is birth, death, sickness, sorrow, defilement and ageing when he himself is not spared from these things. 

The objects of ignoble refuge for the mind include spouse, children, possessions such as animals, land, the house and slaves. During the time of the Buddha, most laypeople were married with children and they were either kings, farmers, merchants or slaves. Society during that time is not very much different from our time today. We still seek a sense of security in a partner, in our children, our jobs, savings, possessions and friends. 

It is not wrong to seek these things, except don’t expect them to last or be stable for a long time. They are all subject to the ravages of impermanence. What is born, will die. While alive, we inflict upon one another our defilements (greed, ill will, confusion), as what I had experienced from my parents and friends. What we possess will one day decay and become others’ belongings. It is not to despair over the lack of stability in life, but rather to know and be wise about them. Our own body and mind too are insecure things that do not last.

A noble refuge for the mind

The opposite of an ignoble refuge would be a noble refuge for the mind. In the words of the Buddha:

“Suppose that, being myself subject to birth, having understood the danger in what is subject to birth, I seek the unborn supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna. Suppose that, being myself subject to ageing, sickness, death, sorrow, and defilement, having understood the danger in what is subject to ageing, sickness, death, sorrow, and defilement, I seek the unageing, unailing, deathless, sorrowless, and undefiled supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna.” 

– The Buddha, MN. 26

Nibbana is the release of the mind from always wanting (craving). Not wanting something is wanting something else. The mind, in wanting, is never at peace. There is something within us that is unageing, unailing, sorrowless, birthless and deathless. As it already exists, there is no need to crave for it, but to discover it like an archaeologist digging to find a treasure.

What is outside of us, is subject to ageing, ailments, sorrows, birth and death. We crave refuge from what is outside of us because we are ignorant of the gem within us. 

Is the noble search open to lay people?

Since the permanent peace we seek is already within us, it is open to anyone who is curious, who seeks real security and stability whether one is a lay person or a monastic.

Of course, unlike a monastic, a lay person cannot devote 24 hours a day to perceive and experience this unageing, unailing, sorrowless and deathless gem in us. 

What is seen is easy for the mind to believe in its existence. What is subtle and unseen, is difficult for the mind to believe in its existence. Therefore, there are a lot more lay people than monastics. However, being a lay person does not mean we cannot put the practice into our everyday lives.

How to seek the noble refuge as a lay person?

A lay person who wants to experience the peace within learns to tread The Noble Eightfold Path. The path is the practice of reflection, cultivating virtue, tranquility and wisdom. A lay practitioner can have family, possessions and a job. 

Depending on a person’s seriousness in the practice, s/he can reduce outer activities, unnecessary speech and spend time meditating everyday. Also to be mindful of one’s actions and thoughts in daily life. To show patience and love whenever unpleasant experiences arise. Also, to learn not to cling to goals but to enjoy living each moment as it is.

It may sound like a tall order. But fortunately, the practice gets easier and more fun to do each time. We can become bored after attaining worldly skills such as computers, language and technical knowledge. But when it comes to living a virtuous, wise and calm life, there is no end to learning until one reaches lasting contentment, or what the Buddha said, Nibbana, which takes lifetimes.


Wise Steps:

  • Spend time relaxing without needing to do anything
  • To relax, intentionally tell your mind and body to let go and just breathe in and out 
  • Meditate without a goal or intention
  • Go about your daily life relaxed without a goal, being aware that goals can easily be changed so you can flow with it.