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Frequently Asked Questions

These questions come from readers like you. Go ahead and ask. You’ll help build the Naked Monk community and remain anonymous, though you’ll also get a direct reply by email.

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What should I believe?

As little as possible. If you really have to believe something, ask yourself why. We flatter ourselves that we believe for a reason, though it’s often just to make us feel comfortable. Always believe in your own capacity for change.

How do I critically approach sangha?

Exactly the same way you critically approach the world. Sangha is a community of like-minded people, and you should pick and choose judiciously, not just because they wear robes or espouse similar beliefs. Sangha is not holy.
      Many people have not heard of Siddhattha and are not particularly interested in Buddhism, and yet when you encounter them you find that they’ve embraced the spirit of his teachings as well as, and sometimes better, than many ‘good’ Buddhists. Gotama the historical buddha is only one of many.
      Remember that the essence of his teaching is to attain independence of thought and spirit. Self-reliance is key to everything.

How do I know whether I’m being guided properly?

At some time or another in our lives, we all wish to be guided. No matter how hard we try to relinquish control, however, we are the ones who make the decisions. You are trying to decide how much to rely on the advice of your teacher, and that decision is yours. Ideally, the guru is a mirror, but no matter how ethical or unethical the guru may be, your side of the equation colours everything and makes any interpretation possible.
      I have made progress even with abusive teachers, but in the end, I gained the greatest insight by breaking away from the abuse, seeing the human side of the teacher and acknowledging that ultimately, we’re in the same boat. Unfortunately, there’s no easy rule for how to conduct this relationship. Most important of all is to assure yourself that the guru is kind-hearted and modest, and that you are not starry-eyed. Then you have to play it by ear, one encounter at a time.
      Remember that the vajra path depends on the mahayana, and that the mahayana depends on the early path of the sutras. The Buddha’s great message was to understand the fourfold task (a.k.a. four noble truths) and gain stream-entry (a synonym for self-reliance).
      In other words, everything—the entire path, the teacher and the fruit—all depend on, and lead to, self-reliance.

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is an alert state of mind focused in real-time — the present moment. It is intent, non-judgemental and curious. Whereas the inner chatter is preoccupied with mental images of past and future, mindfulness stays with what’s going on here and now – in your world and especially in your body and mind.
      Mindfulness is all about attention. It’s usually associated with formal meditation – sitting quietly with legs crossed. However, this isn’t necessarily the best way to cultivate mindfulness. You must find what works best for you. Repetitive tasks are an excellent opportunity to practice: washing dishes, ironing clothes, weeding the garden, running or exercising require little thought. Instead of letting the mind run free, focus on what’s happening. As you pick up a dirty dish, watch the movements of your hand and wrist. While you iron a blouse, notice the shifting balance of your body. When you run, pay attention to the placement of your feet and the rhythm of your breath.
      We tend to judge these tasks as boring or menial. This is not just negative, it also takes you away from real time. Don’t get caught up in it. Resist judgement and watch your mental state without attempting to change it. Be aware as if your life depended on it. It does. This is your life and to not pay attention to this minute is to lose it forever.
      Cultivating mindfulness begins as a simple mental exercise but evolves into a powerful tool of self-knowledge. If you also have the tenacity and courage to apply it to your own mental states, it is the most useful skill you will ever develop.

What is a Buddhist?

Someone who holds that all things are:
      i) in flux,
      ii) ultimately disappointing, and
      iii) without inherent existence.
Buddhists look into their own minds in search of buddha (awakening);

Is Enlightenment real?

There’s no word in Pali, Sanskrit or Tibetan for ‘Enlightenment.’ There’s also no grammatical convention in any of those languages for capitalizing a word to make it special. The word that’s usually rendered as Enlightenment is ‘bodhi.’ It means ‘awake.’ Enlightenment suggests a transcendental goal that the Buddha never advocated and appears to be a prejudice of Western translators who saw in the Buddha’s teachings what they wanted to see.

What do you mean there’s no enlightenment?

Enlightenment (especially with the capital E) is a Western construct. The original word bodhi simply means awakened (small a). What sort of person interprets the word when a literal translation does the job perfectly? Someone with an agenda. That agenda may be well-meaning, but it’s patronizing and misguided.

Can anyone awaken?

Yes, being awake is available to you whenever you want it. However, it’s not permanent. You will fall back into semi-conscious automaticity, also not permanently. You will want to awaken again. The more you experience it, the stronger grows your wish to awaken. It’s a positive-feedback loop.

What is ‘ego? Who am I?

Ego is a fiction, though a useful one. Without it, we can’t tell the story of who we are, or communicate with any intimacy.
   Newcomers to Buddhism often make the mistake of thinking that ego is the enemy and should be overcome, but the Buddha was more subtle than that. First, the practices of ethics and mindfulness make you into a more authentic person, with less disparity between who you are and how you perceive yourself. In this way, you obviously exist. However, when you try to put your finger on the something that is specifically ‘you,’ your perceptions dissolve like a mirage. These two perceptions are known as the two extremes of existence and non-existence. The Buddha taught the middle way between them.

So who makes the effort?

You do. The Buddha did not deny the existence of self, but he did draw attention to the fact that we act as if some managing soul lies behind the body and mind. There is no separate controller but there is a visceral conviction of one being there. The Buddha described this subconscious conviction as unfounded, and also the source of all dissatisfaction, stress and suffering.

What sort of effort?

The effort required is not hard, sweaty work; it’s more like a simple determination to stay on track. It requires a light touch, enabling you to integrate it into all aspects of your everyday life.

What is meditation?

As with ‘enlightenment,’ there’s no word in Pali, Sanskrit, Tibetan for ‘meditation.’ Several different terms are rendered in English as meditation. The two main ones are, a) dhyāna: inner concentrative absorption (a relatively uncommon practice among Asian Buddhists), and the other is bhāvanā: cultivation. This effort is consistently required, and refers to the threefold cultivation of ethics, concentration and insight. It’s a whole-life thing that includes — but goes much further than — what we know in the West as sitting meditation.

Is there a systematic path to ‘awakening?’

The cultivation of awakening is not nearly as tidy as the highly organized Buddhist teachings make it seem. I find the process chaotic, though over time there is progress. It’s like learning a language. You can divide up parts of speech, list grammatical rules, explain colloquialisms and practice drills, but in the end the process is one of persistent trial and error. For a while it’s frustrating and bottomless, but one day you find yourself speaking with some sort of fluency.

Buddhists say ‘Life is suffering.’ Really?

If this life, Mahāli, were exclusively steeped in suffering, and if it were not also steeped in pleasure, then beings would not become enamoured of it.” The Buddha [S. 22:60]

The Buddha didn’t say “Life is suffering,” but “There is suffering.” Obviously, there is happiness too; each exists relative to the other. I think he’s asking us not to believe something but to do something: pay attention and not turn away. The illusions we create about life are attempts to escape what we don’t want and get what we do. By turning frankly towards suffering when it’s there, we see the expectations we bring to life and reveal our own dysfunctional defense mechanisms. That’s when change becomes possible.

Stephen Batchelor has firmly recast the Four Truths as the Four Tasks, as we discussed in our recent podcast: to know dukkha (suffering), to let go of samudaya (arising), to experience nirodha (cessation), to cultivate magga (the path). From a practical point of view, it appeals to common sense. From a textual point of view Stephen explains:

“In a 1992 paper entitled ‘The Four Noble Truths,’ (The British philologist K.R.) Norman offers a detailed, philological analysis of The First Sermon, and arrives at the startling conclusion that ‘the earliest form of this sutta did not include the word ariya-saccaṃ (Noble Truth).’ On grammatical and syntactical grounds, he shows how the expression ‘Noble Truth’ was inexpertly interpolated into the text at a later date than its original composition. But since no such original text has come down to us, we cannot know what it did say.  All that can reasonably be deduced is that instead of talking of Four Noble Truths, the text merely spoke of ‘Four.’”

Stephen’s insights in his Pali studies are opening doors and presening a clearer vista for many of us. Here on The Naked Monk I endeavour to recast these insights in plain language, without recourse to ‘Buddhist’ terminology.

How important is formal meditation, prayer & ritual?

QUESTION: “I am curious about where ‘meditative’ practices such as, metta, karuna, mudita (loving-kindness, sympathy, joy) and equanimity fit into the formal practice, i.e. daily sitting. Since it would seem to me that the Buddha was encouraging us to develop these bramhaviharas (immeasurables) in tandem with mindfulness.”

ANSWER: I’ve always felt ambivalent about formulas. Reciting beautiful prayers, visualizing compassionate waves of energy and rationalizing universal love certainly give the semblance of spiritual activity. Sometimes we’re trying to change ourselves, sometimes others — hopefully to make them happy, safe or well. That’s nice, but what’s the actual outcome of these practices?
   That’s a deeply personal question. When you’re engaged in inner work you’re completely on your own. Only you can know what bears fruit. Empty ritual is a constant danger: it leads to complacency, a sense of false accomplishment and, at worst, hypocrisy.
   The task at hand is to transform the mind. What that means is changing the way you react in ordinary situations. The ideal is to travel through life with no residue: to take each step and make each decision with the least possible baggage. For me, accepting this goal as unachievable even as I pursue it is the essence of the spiritual path. It takes courage and real faith in yourself. It’s no small thing.
   Attention is everything. Sitting meditation at prescribed times is good practice, but it’s only practice. No matter how good it feels or makes you feel about yourself, if your attention is not subsequently heightened during the course of the day, then you’re getting nowhere. There must come a time when the everyday becomes your primary field of practice, and formal sitting becomes secondary. Similarly, formal practices of loving-kindness and imperturbability must eventually take a back seat to keeping your balance through life. That balance is yours to find.

Should conceptual thinking be abandoned?

This is a modern myth arising from an over-emphasis on non-conceptual states of mind, i.e., staying in real time (the present moment). Life balance is impossible without the discernment of skillful and unskillful states of mind — both conceptual and non-conceptual. This takes both mindfulness and clear thinking.
   For example, believing that someone else can ‘enlighten’ us is inept; deciding to take responsibility for your own mind is useful. Both are concepts.
   Nevertheless, we tend to dwell in thought far too much of the time. The problem isn’t that it’s bad but that it’s out of balance. Awakening engages all of your mind, not just selected parts.

What you think of sexual chastity?

Chastity seems to work well for some people, but only a miniscule number. Enforced chastity, and especially the idea that chastity is spiritually pure, is demented. The Buddha needed his beggars to be uninvolved and give up their entire life to his community without having to provide for a family. Those were the times. That’s beyond impractical or desirable for us today. Our goal is to live well in our conditions here and now.What else could it be?

How do we know what’s right?

There’s so much information available today about Buddhism. For those of us in the ‘investigative’ stages, as opposed to those practicing, what are the reliable sources of information to draw from, especially for those of us that likely will not live life as a monk or nun but as an everyday person?

There is no ‘other’ stage to Buddhist practice — the investigation never stops. If you’re looking for reliable authority, you’re the one. When the Buddha was asked to name a successor he declined, offering only the body of practice that he’d taught for forty-five years.
   That stands in sharp contrast to the agenda of ‘Buddhist’ groups. All organizations require structure, and structures by necessity consolidate their own power in political ways, no matter how benignly. Authority is thus said to originate from age-old authority, holy scripture, ‘fully-enlightened’ gurus (i.e., other human beings) or unbroken lineage, none of which can really tell you when you’re seeing straight and when you’re in denial.
   People settle for such assurances because they’re daunted by the prospect of judging for themselves. However, when you accept the possibility of being wrong without letting it stop you, you learn all sorts of unexpected and counter-intuitive things about your own mind; changes that were once unimaginable become possible.
   Only you are witness to what goes on in your mind; only you can change it. What the Buddha taught was not a religion, philosophy or belief system. It is a practice. Try it out.
   There are translations of the Buddha’ original teachings at accesstoinsight.org, where you can read and compare different interpretations. However, you have to get used to the style. It’s repetitive, long-winded and full of jargon. It’s designed more for easy memorization by scholastic monks than for easy reading for busy people.
   Buddhist groups based on Tibetan, Vietnamese, Sri Lankan and other traditions are an easier place to start, as long as you feel comfortable with them. In most cases teachers and students are happy to share freely but they have a cultural agenda and you have to stay alert. The sense of belonging – a sort of spiritual safety in numbers – can be beguiling.