The Buddha Was Here
by Andrea Miller

The National Museum in New Delhi doesn’t usually welcome visitors until 10 a.m., but on the first morning of the 2018 International Buddhist Conclave, they open their doors early for us. This, the sixth edition of the conclave, is attended by nearly three hundred people from twenty-nine countries. We are journalists and monastics, travel agents and scholars. We are Buddhists from many traditions and non-Buddhists. Our purpose is to connect with each other and explore the potential of Buddhist pilgrimage in India.

As I’m filing through security, I have no idea what treasures the National Museum houses. So as far as I know, this museum visit doesn’t have a direct connection to the conclave’s mission. It’s just a nice add-on for those of us who are interested. And I am interested — in everything. This is my first time in India, a place I have always longed to visit.

I marvel at an elegant bronze figurine of a dancer from the Indus Valley, circa 2500 BCE. I laugh when Shantum Seth, an Indian dharma teacher in Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village tradition, quips that the ancient dinnerware on display looks as if it could have come from Ikea. (He’s right!) But most memorable of all, I feel a quiet thrill when I come to the Buddhist artefacts and, though I’m being hurried along, I pause for as long as I can in front of a depiction of the Buddha’s birth. As was the artistic custom in the early centuries of Buddhism, the Buddha himself is not shown — just his footprints.

Along with the other delegates, I’m ushered into a room that’s been prepared for us for meditation and I quietly take a seat on the floor. We sit facing an intricate pavilion, gleaming with gold, that was crafted from teak by Thai artists. This pavilion is roped off and behind glass, and I don’t know what it holds until someone whispers in my ear: they’re bone fragments from the Buddha.

But are they really? The Buddha died so long ago. How can we know that these bits of skull belonged to him and not to someone else? This is a valid question. Yet as Shantum Seth rings the bell and a clutch of Theravadin monks in saffron robes begins to drone their Pali chants, it’s not a question that concerns me. What’s touching me is the fact that the Buddha had bones — and flesh — at all.

So often we talk about the Buddha as if he were a figure from mythology, not a human being like you and me. Generation after generation, for thousands of years, we’ve revered his wisdom so much that in our imagination he has become more of a deity than a person, and his life story has been embellished with fantastical flourishes — the stuff of legends. Maybe it’s because we want there to be someone who is more than human to save us. Maybe it’s because it’s so hard to grasp a time like 500 BCE, which is around when the Buddha lived. It sounds so far in the past that maybe it was never.

But now I’m meditating in front of ancient bone and, for a moment, it feels as if the Buddha has reached through the centuries and tapped me on the shoulder. I was real, he seems to say. I was here.

This is how the story goes. Twenty-six centuries ago, in the foothills of the Himalayas, Queen Mahamaya dreamed of a white elephant with a lotus in its trunk. The elephant circled her three times and then entered her womb. Since elephants were considered a symbol of greatness, this dream was taken as a sign that Mahamaya would have an extraordinary child.

In those days it was customary for a woman to return to her parents’ house to give birth. So when Mahamaya felt the time had come, she set out for her ancestral home. Along the way they stopped to rest in Lumbini, a garden in what is now Nepal, and there she delivered her child. It is said that heavenly beings showered down flower petals and the newborn — shining like the sun — took seven paces in each direction and wherever he stepped, a lotus sprang up.

It was prophesied that the boy, named Siddhartha, would grow up to become either a great king or a great spiritual leader. His father — hoping that Siddhartha would dedicate himself to the political realm — tried to guide him in that direction by sheltering Siddhartha within the luxurious confines of his palaces. When Siddhartha was sixteen years old, he married Yasodhara, who was also of his clan, and the couple eventually had a son.

But then, at age twenty-nine, Siddhartha got a glimpse of the troubled world his father had protected him from. Out driving with his charioteer, he saw — for the very first time — old age, disease, and death, and he learned that this degeneration was the inescapable human condition. The prince was shocked. How could everyone just go about their lives, seeking silly pleasures, as if this shadow weren’t hanging over them?

While mired in this thought, Siddhartha saw a holy man. Dressed simply, this man had such a peaceful look on his face that Siddhartha knew what he needed to do. In the middle of the night he slipped away, leaving his family and royal life behind. This is how he took his first step on the spiritual path.

Siddhartha found a holy man and mastered his teachings; then he found another and mastered his. Yet Siddhartha still felt that something was missing in his understanding. So, following the suggestion of the great Jain teacher Mahavira, he decided to follow the path of asceticism. Siddhartha’s approach was extreme and left him skeletal and weak. Rigidly practising meditation, he held his breath for long, dangerous periods of time and each day ate only what fit into the hollow of his palm.

Eventually, Siddhartha realised that this self-mortification was going to kill him, not lead him to enlightenment. What he actually needed to advance spiritually was a middle way, neither worldly indulgence nor harsh austerities. On Siddhartha’s thirty-fifth birthday, he broke his fast when a young village woman named Sujata made him an offering: a bowl of sweetened rice cooked in milk.

Sujata’s gift gave Siddhartha the strength to cross the Nairanjana River, and on the other side, on a sandy bank, he came to a large tree with heart-shaped leaves. Siddhartha sat beneath it and, in full lotus facing east, vowed that he’d stay there until he reached enlightenment. This type of tree became known as a ficus religiosa — a Bodhi tree.

Since I was a kid, I’ve always thought of large trees as generous, stable grandfathers, quietly offering shade and support. But the tree the Buddha sat under was more like an old teacher — kind and venerable. I imagine Siddhartha contemplating the heart-shaped leaves and seeing in them the sunshine and rain, the earth and clouds, and in that way, I imagine the tree teaching him dependent arising: if this exists, that exists; if this ceases to exist, that also ceases to exist.

Though the original Bodhi tree is long gone, its place has been taken by what’s believed to be a direct descendent. In the Buddha’s time, the tree was rooted in a rural setting, but over the centuries a town by the name of Bodhgaya has grown up around it. Bodhgaya is located in the modern Indian state of Bihar — the poorest in India — and the nearest airport is in Gaya, intense and busy like all Indian cities.

I arrive on a chartered flight with the other delegates of the International Buddhist Conclave, which is sponsored by the government of India. We’re given an exuberant, flower-filled welcome and herded onto eight buses festooned with marigold garlands, long stemmed red roses, and ribbons. Driving to Bodhgaya, the buses stick together as if they are a train. A police escort leads us, and children wave as we pass by.

Finally, we get to the site of the Buddha’s awakening, and there, silhouetted against the sky, is the Mahabodhi temple, a tall, graceful pyramid rising from a square platform. Everywhere I look people are meditating. They’re monastic and lay; in robes and in jeans; doing traditional practice or their own thing. One man has his eyes covered and a bottle of water balanced in each hand, as if they were Chinese meditation balls. There’s also the odd stray dog.

Bodhgaya is the most important pilgrimage site in the Buddhist world, and it’s believed that even in the Buddha’s time there was a shrine here. At first, the Bodhi tree was marked simply by a two-story wooden structure and stone throne. Then in the third century, Ashoka, the Mauryan king who was instrumental in spreading Buddhism in India, ordered the construction of a commemorative temple. Mahabodhi was originally built in the sixth century and over the years has been destroyed and rebuilt several times.

Along with the rest of the delegates, I take my place under the Bodhi tree, which is right beside the temple. Sitting on oriental rugs that have been laid out for us, we face an altar laden with dragon fruit, pomegranates, pink roses, and a statue of the Buddha. A Theravadin monk lights a lamp, and the chanting begins, then builds, and finally stops. Slowly, I let go of my rushing and grasping and find my breath.

Shantum Seth, who sits facing me and the other delegates, rings a bell. “Our teacher, the Buddha, sat under the Bodhi tree for forty-nine days and nights and then continued to be with the Bodhi tree for another forty-nine days,” he says. “So, we look at the Bodhi tree as our spiritual ancestor and we sit with her in the same way the Buddha did — in the present moment.”

Seth holds a yellow Bodhi leaf in his hand and glances down at it occasionally. Focusing on our breath, he continues, our body and mind come together. Often our body is here but our mind is elsewhere. Meditation trains the mind to come back to the present and gives us a way to look more deeply into what’s going on both inside of us and outside.

Seth rings the bell again and guides us to straighten our backs, relax our shoulders, and feel the gentle rise and fall of our bellies. He has a soothing voice, which eventually dissolves into silence. Now, we are hundreds of people, all together, listening to nothing but our breathing and the chorus of birds calling from the branches above our heads.

Later, I talk about our experience under the Bodhi tree with one of the non-Buddhist delegates, a journalist from Poland. Something about it touched her so deeply, she says, that it brought tears to her eyes. It was like she could feel the collective energy of generation after generation of people coming to this spot and finding stillness and quiet. It didn’t matter that she wasn’t a Buddhist.

Shantum Seth, in addition to being a dharma teacher, is also a longtime leader of Buddhist pilgrimage tours with his company Buddhapath. Under the Bodhi tree, he says, people often find they have a deep sense of concentration and gratitude. “There are magical memories you can have,” he continues. “You’re sitting there meditating and then maybe a leaf falls onto your lap. You can take that leaf with you to your meditation space back home and put it on your alter to be reminded of this beautiful space where the Buddha — and you — practised.”

Siddhartha took his seat under the Bodhi tree on a full moon just before the rainy season. As our train of buses pulls away from Bodhgaya, I understand a little more about what it must have been like for him. We were also there when the moon was a perfect circle. While I was sitting under the Bodhi tree, a few cooling raindrops fell on my back, and they felt like a gift.

After the Buddha achieved enlightenment, he pondered how he could share his realisations with others. The truth he had realised was difficult to grasp and ran hard against the grain of human desires. Most people, the Buddha knew, would turn away from his teachings, but he would try to teach those who could truly listen and understand.

The Buddha contemplated who he should teach first. He thought of the two holy men he’d studied with, but he knew they had passed away. Then he thought of the five men he’d practised asceticism with. They’d shunned him when he started to practice the middle way, but he knew they were sincere seekers and might listen.

The five ascetics were residing in a park where deer roamed freely, in a place now called Sarnath, located in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. So, taking his leave of the Bodhi tree, the Buddha walked more than 160 miles to find his old companions. When they saw him coming, they resolved to ignore him, but there was something new and remarkable about his bearing and, despite themselves, they were drawn to him.

This, says Shantum Seth, is when “the Buddha became the buddhadharma.” On that day in Deer Park, the Buddha taught for the very first time. In this, his first sermon, he taught the four noble truths, and in doing so laid the foundation of the world religion we know today as Buddhism. He taught the truths of suffering, the cause of suffering, the end of suffering, and the path.

An ascetic named Kaundinya was the first to realise the truth of the Buddha’s teachings. Then soon after, the other four ascetics in the Deer Park came to the same realisation. They were the first Buddhist monks, and the Buddhist sangha — the world’s oldest continuous human institution — was born.

The Buddha went on to teach for forty-five years. He and his growing number of followers crisscrossed the plains of northern India, going everywhere on foot. He often returned to Sarnath and the surrounding area.

Today, the most iconic feature of Sarnath is the massive Dhamek Stupa, built in 500 CE. Stupas are Buddhist mound-like structures that often contain relics, but Dhamek is solid and relic-less. Other notable sites in this historical city include additional stupas and the Archaeological Museum Sarnath, which houses such antiquities as a lustrously polished sculpture of four lions, each facing a different direction. These four united felines were crafted under the auspices of King Ashoka and originally topped a pillar in Sarnath. Today they’re recognised around the world as the official symbol of the Republic of India.

As I wander Sarnath, I linger near the Dhamek Stupa, feeling small next to its girth of more than ninety feet. From a distance, it looks unornamented but up close I can see that it’s delicately chiselled with floral and geometric designs, human figures, and even geese. Geese, I’m told, symbolise the sangha because they’re birds that live in community, taking turns leading and caring for each other. This reminds me of two Theravadin monastics — one elderly, one young — who are participating in the conclave. The young monk takes such tender care of his teacher.

Near the Dhamek Stupa stands the Mulagandhakuti Vihara, a temple established in 1931 with an interesting — and international — backstory. In 1891, Anagarika Dharmapala, a Buddhist revivalist from Ceylon, went on pilgrimage to India. At that time, the Mahabodhi Temple had recently been restored but — since Buddhism was no longer practised in India — the temple had been converted into a place of worship of the Hindu deity Shiva.

When Dharmapala saw this, he resolved to help bring Buddhism back to India and, as part of his efforts, he spoke about Buddhism at the 1893 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago. On the way back, his ship docked in Hawaii and, there, Mary Foster, a friend of a friend, went to meet him. She was a wealthy American woman in emotional turmoil, and Dharmapala consoled her with Buddhist teachings. After that, Foster gave him a substantial donation, and he used that money to build Mulagandhakuti Vihara, marking where the Buddha meditated during his first rainy season retreat after awakening.

On the Mulagandhakuti grounds, there is a tree that, like the one in Bodhgaya, is said to be a descendent of the original Bodhi tree. Its spreading branches are said to symbolise the new growth of Buddhism in India. The temple exterior is embellished with spires, and the interior is graced by a golden statue of the Buddha and frescos depicting his life that were poignantly painted in soft hues by a Japanese artist. There, in front of me on the wall, is an image of the newly born Siddhartha taking his first steps. And there he is under the Bodhi tree, with Sujata presenting him with her food offering. Finally, there he is stretched out on his side in death — his final resting posture.

According to the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the Buddha said it is of great benefit for practitioners to go on pilgrimage to the four places associated with the most pivotal moments in his life: his birth, his enlightenment, his first teaching, and his death. But bear in mind that the point of pilgrimage isn’t just veneration. As Shantum Seth explains, it “teaches us a healthy disregard for comfort. It helps us look at our own mind in an unhabituated way, and teaches patience and humility. You get to know yourself better.”

When we go to these Buddhist pilgrimage sites, we gain new insight into the Buddha’s teachings because we have a deeper understanding of his life and circumstances. Despite all the cars, cellphones, and skyscrapers, you can still connect with the India the Buddha lived in 2,600 years ago. Village life is cut from same ancient cloth, and you can meet a modern-day Sujata, serving something sweet and energising. The rivers and caves you read about in the sutras are still there, too. Farmers still plough their fields behind water buffalo the same way they did in the Buddha’s time. On pilgrimage, says Seth, “The Buddha’s story becomes real. You’re seeing the whole context of his life. You’re breathing the same air he did.”

In the Mulagandhakuti temple, I take another long look at the fresco of the Buddha stretched out in death. He died from food poisoning in Kushinagar, in present-day Uttar Pradesh. He was in his eighties and, like every other human being, he’d experienced various mundane ailments his whole life. Sickness, age, fatigue, death — these are the realities of a human body, even the body of the Buddha.

Now, in this place where the Buddha is said to have spent a rainy season meditating, I feel as if he just whispered in my ear, then slipped out the temple door. He seemed to say to me that although he was not eternal, his teachings are, and the beautiful, inspiring thing about his being human is that it means there’s hope for all of us. We — just like the Buddha — have the potential to awaken.

I stand in front of the golden Buddha at the altar and light a candle. Then, following my breath, I watch the flame dance and burn.

Andrea Miller 2.

The Five Protections Against Sorrow

In Buddhism it is taught that everything that happens to us, good or bad, is the result of our previous actions — it is our karma. Refraining from five kinds of unskilful action will result in peace of mind and true happiness. In order to be protected against sorrow, therefore, one should:

* refrain from harming anything;
* refrain from taking that which is not freely given;
* refrain from all forms of immorality or any action which is subject to blame;
* refrain from speaking falsely, harshly, or unkindly;
* refrain from indulging in anything which causes the mind to lose its natural clarity, such as drugs or alcohol.

By refraining from these unskilful actions, one will experience the peace and happiness of one’s true nature, one’s Buddha-nature.

The Great Way starts beneath one’s feet.




















Before you think good or evil, who are you?

— Venerable Hui Neng

Three Steps to Making Friends with Yourself
by Judy Lief

What do we really know about ourselves? Sometimes it feels as if all day long we are switching between various masks. It’s as though we are always trying to be someone. We do a lot of pretending.

We might put on the mask of the hard worker, or the slacker. We might switch to our sociable mask, or the “I am an interesting person” one. Perhaps we then go to the “I look intelligent” one, or the “I am pretending to be interested” one. There are so many choices. We are expected — or expect ourselves — to be a certain way and that is the mask we put on. We need to look the part.

Our participation in this game of appearances can become so second nature to us that we hardly notice it. But occasionally we ask ourselves, which of these is the real me? Apart from all these appearances, who am I really? Do I actually know? We might wonder, do I really want to know? We are afraid of what we might find out.

According to my teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, making friends with ourselves is at the very core of meditation practice, from beginning to end and all the way through. It is both the basis and the goal of the path.

But aren’t we already too full of ourselves, you might ask? Don’t we need to cut down our self-focus instead of building it up? Aren’t we already friends with ourselves? After all, thoughts about I, me, and mine are pretty much all that occupies our minds.

The path of friendship Trungpa Rinpoche referred to is very different from this. It is a journey to truly knowing ourselves, rather than building ourselves up.

Many of us suffer from a kind of low-grade fever of self-doubt. We feel that apart from all those roles we play, we are of little value. We feel that deep down we are unworthy, so we engage in a constant game of trying to convince ourselves otherwise. We try to look the right way, say the right words, be with the right people, do the right things.

Because of our inner poverty mentality and self-doubt, we need constant reassurance. People like me, so I must be worthy. I am a good student, so I must be okay. I have a lot of success, so I must be worthy, even special. But our feeling of hollowness doesn’t go away.

Some people think the answer to this is to build people up, praising them for every little thing, and trying to convince them that they are good. The idea is that if we keep hearing that we are okay, we will begin to believe it.

This approach is a good starting point, and it is certainly better than always hearing about how bad we are. The problem is that it can lead to a situation where on top of feeling bad about ourselves, we also have the pressure of trying to feel good, or at least pretending to.

Basically, no matter how skillful we are at juggling our various masks, the juggling act is fundamentally dissatisfying. There are masks we like and those we don’t, but as to the mask wearer — who we are beneath all that — we are clueless.

Strangely, although you are your most intimate companion, you are in some ways the most hidden from yourself. So the process of making friends with yourself goes hand in hand with getting to know yourself at a deeper level. To truly make friends with yourself, you need to go through a process of getting to know this mask wearer — the one without any mask.

The journey of truly making friends with yourself is quite a radical one. It goes beyond simply feeling good about yourself, and it is not based on convincing yourself of anything or being convinced of anything by others.

This journey of deep friendship does not rely on credentials or affirmations, but on a tender step-by-step process of opening. It’s not as if you finally figure yourself out and that’s it. This deepening of self-knowledge and friendship continues. It is a natural unfolding. Here is how it happens on the path of meditation.

As Trungpa Rinpoche said, friendship with yourself is both the basis and goal of meditation practice. Here is how it unfolds according to the traditional Buddhist logic of ground, path, and fruition.


You start your journey to this kind of friendship the moment you first decide to meditate. Something has inspired you to remove yourself for periods of time from the everyday world, where there is so much pressure to constantly prove yourself to others and yourself. You have made the choice to see what it is like to sit simply and alone with nothing to do and no one to impress.

This step is all about curiosity, inquisitiveness, and the longing to meet yourself at a deeper level. It is based on a suspicion — or even a glimpse of inner knowing — that what you discover will be reliable, true, genuine, and worthy.

In meditation practice, we pare everything down to our immediate, moment-to-moment experience. We learn how to rest simply and be open to whatever arises in our minds. We are given just a few basic guidelines. We are told to observe whatever arises without judgement, not clinging to what we prefer or pushing away what we dislike. We are taught how our thoughts capture us, and how we can simply let them come and go like clouds in the sky. We are encouraged to be steady as our emotional states rise and fall, rather than being jerked up and down by every passing mood.

In short, we are encouraged to take a fresh look at our experience. In the context of making friends with yourself, starting fresh means that you drop your ideas of who you are or who you should be and just look. (You could also try this approach when you meet a new acquaintance — pause for a moment, instead of instantly sizing them up, and try to see that person with fresh eyes.)

There is a quality of tenderness in meditation practice. It is as though a mental window opens and you catch a glimpse of something trustworthy and good within yourself. That glimpse awakens a longing within you. You know you have discovered something valuable and you want to figure out how to go further with it. You realise that you have tapped into an inner dynamism or force for growth.

Although you might have many such glimpses, they usually are not all that stable. They tend to be not only brief but subtle, and because such glimpses are not all that graspable, self-doubt easily creeps back in. You are pretty sure you are onto something good, but maybe it’s too good to be true. At the same time, without your familiar masks and credentials, you feel a bit naked and groundless.


We began with a sense of our potential. Something very positive has provided our initial inspiration and gotten us started. It has awakened our innate instinct to grow.

That positive vision has provided the ground, but it has also shaken things up. That glimpse of our potential has made it painfully evident how much we have shortchanged ourselves. The way our minds work is by opposites and contrast — good-bad, up-down, in-out, etc.— so glimpses of wholesomeness simultaneously provide glimpses of the opposite. They heighten our feelings of self-doubt, confusion, and lack of genuineness. That poignant contrast is where the real work of friendship begins.

As we practice, we uncover our layers and layers of ideas about ourselves. We uncover memories and hidden corners of our experience. We begin to come up against the limits of our love and friendship for ourselves, and for others as well. It is clear that we habitually compartmentalise ourselves, accepting some aspects of our experience and rejecting others. Some parts of us are so well hidden away that we can pretend they are not there at all.

What friendship we have at this level is quite feeble. It relies on keeping up firewalls to prevent what we dislike or even hate about ourselves from creeping in. Friendship is reduced to a matter of like and dislike.

As we see this in ourselves, we also begin to see the limited nature of our friendship with others. It might seem as if the way to cultivate greater friendship with ourselves, and in turn with others, would be to get rid of as many bad parts as possible. What is left is acceptable and good — it is friend-worthy. We think that if we edit out all our unworthy parts, it will solve the problem. But the real friendship we cultivate in meditation practice is not a matter of like or dislike, and it is not based on getting rid of anything.

Halfhearted friendship is quite fragile. We need to be on the defensive all the time. When we place all sorts of conditions on what or who is worthy of our love and friendship, our love easily flips into disappointment — or even hate — when those conditions are not met.

The challenge of the path of meditation is to continually expand the bounds of our heart, the bounds of our love and friendship. We start with ourselves. By resting simply and looking inside, we touch in with what we actually feel about ourselves.

We come up against our fear of opening up to the whole of our experience. We come up against our embarrassment and feelings of unworthiness or inadequacy. We also come up against our incredible arrogance, which is another manifestation of our fear. And by taking an honest look at the kinds of thoughts and feelings we have, we learn a lot about the limits we place on our friendship with others.

All along the way, the meditative path is one of greater opening and acceptance. We are learning to accept and befriend not just the parts we like, but the parts of ourselves we dislike as well. Sometimes we identify with only our acceptable side, with our successes, and at other times we identify with our flaws and failures. We buy into our thoughts of the moment. But as our meditation practice progresses, we start to touch in more with the mind that sees both sides. We begin to identify with the seeing itself, the observer of our stream of thoughts and opinions. Rather than latching onto one part of us as an identity to cling to, we find we do not need to fixate on either extreme. We learn not to fixate on being one way or another. We are all those things, and our experience is constantly in flux.

Of course, there will always be aspects of ourselves we like and those we dislike, aspects we are proud of and other aspects we are ashamed of. But the more clearly we come to know all these aspects, the more we are able to relax a bit. Instead of seeing so much of who we are as a threat to who we think we should be, we begin to see all of it simply as what we have to work with.

It is as if we are coming out of battle mode and declaring a truce, or signing a peace treaty. We don’t have to fight with ourselves anymore. As we continue with meditation practice and become more familiar with our extremes of thought and feeling, we begin to appreciate the whole spectrum. In fact, we may discover that our failures and flaws are more powerful teachers than our successes.

The benefit of sitting practice is that the more we stay with our experience, without overthinking it or trying to fix anything, the clearer we become about our strengths and weaknesses, our accomplishments and failures, our obstacles and our breakthroughs. Both aspects are challenging. As we begin to sense the extent of our potential as human beings, and how far we could go with our practice and our life, it is almost overwhelming. At the same time, we begin to feel in our guts the terrible burden we carry because of our fixed views and habits.

As we get more familiar with our patterns, we see that we can’t just sweep them all under the rug. The process works like this: we begin to accept the way things are, and as soon as we do that, we take one step further, from mere acceptance to profound appreciation. The more aspects of ourselves we know and accept, the freer we feel. The more that is out in the open, the less threatened we feel. The less we have to hide, the more relaxed and loving we become.

Coming to appreciate ourselves in this way doesn’t mean we become complacent or lackadaisical. Accepting our extremes doesn’t mean that we can’t make decisions about what is beneficial and what is harmful. In fact, we become less fuzzy about what uplifts us and what drags us down. But we don’t take it all that personally. It is just information. It can help us decide what to avoid and what to cultivate on the path and in our life altogether. Now, when we act, we do so from a realistic perspective and from a feeling of warmth and friendship.

Meditation practice is almost like a courtship with ourselves. Through sitting practice, we learn to relax and become less defensive. Every so often, we forget to maintain our facade for a moment, and to our surprise our world does not fall apart. Instead, we make discoveries and experience breakthroughs. It is hard to cut through our fantasies and take a realistic look at ourselves, but it is also a big relief. There is something very enjoyable about the whole process. We find that the more aspects of ourselves we welcome and invite in, the lighter we feel. The burden of self-protection is a heavy one, and it feels good to let it go. We are more likeable without it.


There is no particular end point to the process of making friends with yourself. But there is spillover: each time you accept and open your heart to yourself in all your flawed glory, you become a bit more open to those around you. As you develop a base of friendship with yourself, the quality of your meditation practice, as well as of your daily life, changes for the better. Your mindfulness practice begins to be warmed by tenderness.

It is as though a deeper quality of love is out there, just waiting for an opening, and as soon as you extend even a tiny invitation, it comes streaming in. In meditation practice, you are simultaneously taming the mind and opening the heart. It is so simple and natural: from interest comes knowing, from knowing comes acceptance, and from acceptance comes love.

Judy Lief 1.

The sole cause of peace is loving-kindness, the sole cause of suffering is self-grasping.

— Garchen Rinpoche

Garchen Rinpoche 14.










Every person whose heart is moved by love and compassion, who deeply and sincerely acts for the benefit of others without concern for fame, profit, social position, or recognition expresses the activity of Chenrezig.

— Bokar Rinpoche

Hidden Reefs – Recognising the Intricacy of our Mind Patterns
by Rob Nairn

So far we have covered a few basic areas such as why we meditate, what meditation is, and the motivation for meditating. In the first chapter we looked at the method and the effect of meditating and I focused quite a bit on the importance of being clear about the attitude we bring to the meditation and the importance of learning to accept ourselves and come to terms with what is there. I made the point that meditation isn’t technique because if we get into the mindset of thinking of it in that way then we expect to achieve results and to have success, and then we fear failure.

Another problem arises if we work with technique: we work with something which is manipulating the mind, whereas the purpose of meditation is to release the grasping action of the mind so that the inherently enlightened qualities can manifest. That can’t be done through the application of a technique. All technique does is rearrange the existing mind patterns. Although it is not difficult to understand the method in meditation, it is difficult to understand what we need to bring to it in terms of attitude. The basis of that is complete openness. An open acceptance of ourselves the way we are.

That’s easy to say and we hear it a lot in life but what it means is recognising the intricacy of our mind patterns. The extent to which we are continually judging and evaluating the contents of our own inner environment. How the thoughts, the feelings, the sensations, the moods, whatever they are that arise and pass within the mind, are under continual surveillance. That surveillance is there because we want to check it out and know whether it’s what we want or what we don’t want. If it is what we want, we grasp it. We try and hold it. For example, if a mood, or a mind state arises that we like, we want that to stay. We want to be like that all the time. And the mind says, This is how it should be.’ So we try and grasp that but the very act of grasping destroys it. So the joyful clarity of the mind, which is inherent within the non-grasping mind is continually lost through the egocentric grasping action.

Conversely, if mind states arise which we don’t like, we try and push them out. We want to get rid of them. We don’t want to feel them. We don’t want to know them. So repression, suppression, projection, denial, all those psychological mechanisms come into play. These are the means by which we keep ourselves in a continual state of unrest, tension and dissatisfaction. While those non-accepting mind states are present, the mind cannot rest because it is in conflict with itself all the time. If a thought or a feeling arises that we don’t like, then we try and push it out. We then not only have the negative emotional state, but we have the conflict of trying to be rid of it. If, in meditation, we are not aware of this — which most people aren’t — instead of meditating, what we will do is engage in a semi-conscious unseen war against our own mind states. We’ll try and use the meditation as a means of continually avoiding what we don’t want to be with and continually trying to nudge thoughts and feelings out of the mind that we don’t like.

What that will produce, in the initial stages, is tension. A sense of not achieving or of failing. A sense of struggle. If it goes on a bit longer it produces a rigid mind. If it still goes on after that it produces a paranoid mind. So our meditation goes into reverse. We aren’t meditating; we’re just tightening the bolts. Making the mind tighter and tighter.

This is why it is so important to look at this issue of attitude right at the outset. We say to ourselves, This is it. This is what I have to work with. Let’s find out about it. Let’s be clear about it and come to terms with it. A full, unqualified acceptance of the way I am.

We are told that what a growing infant needs most is unconditional love. If we develop this attitude of acceptance, we develop unconditional love towards ourselves. We let go of all the conditions where we accept ourselves if this, or we don’t accept ourselves if that. This then is the basis of compassion. Acceptance produces an extremely resilient mind because inwardly the mind is relaxed and OK about itself. Then whatever arises in the way of thought or emotion can be accepted and worked with comfortably without fear or reactivity. That is why the first issue we always focus on is our attitude.

Motivation then is the next big important thing. Within the Buddhist system, the fundamental motivation is to transform our own minds in order to be able to help others. That is the primary concern. If we can sort out our own minds and develop the inner qualities, then we will be able to help others. Although meditation is often seen as a selfish activity, because we are continually working with ourselves, it is the most altruistic thing we can do. This is because, what is within the mind is what we will express in the environment around us. If our mind is loaded with secretly oppressed negativity, that is what we will inevitably express in the environment around us. There is no option. If however we learn to come to terms with all the negativity and learn to transform it, then what will automatically be projected into the environment will be love, compassion, clarity and wisdom.

The basis of meditation, then, is the method of mindfulness. Bringing the mind into the moment. The first consequence of training in mindfulness will be tranquillity, when the mind begins to settle while being released from the causes of inner turbulence. In Sanskrit, tranquillity is called samatha. Out of the tranquillity arises the capacity to see what is really going on within the mind and this is called penetrating insight. The Sanskrit word is vipassana. This is where the mind, through its clarity which comes about due to tranquillity, develops its inherent power to see and know and understand exactly what is happening within it. Through this we begin to gain true understanding about ourselves.

The big distinction between meditation and learning is that meditation leads to wisdom and compassion because there is a process of true understanding through direct experience and observation of our own mind states. Learning is acquiring information and adding it to the mind. Learning will never penetrate to the depth of meditation because it is simply acquiring new concepts. The more we meditate, the more we realise that concepts are superficial. They only have to do with the rational, conscious, logical intellectual mind. There is a very definite point in meditation where we have to let go of all that. So it’s a case of moving from fixation on the conceptual, rational mind and learning to move inward and trust ourselves and our own instinctive understanding that arises through insight and self-perception.

Ignorant ones believe that “emptiness” is nihilism. The extreme of nihilism undermines the accumulation of virtue. Those who desire flowers in the sky destroy the harvest of virtue with the hail of perverted views.

— Marpa