“When we begin to breathe mindfully and listen to our bodies, we become aware of feelings of suffering that we’ve been ignoring. We hold these feelings in our bodies as well as our minds. Our suffering has been trying to communicate with us, to let us know it is there, but we have spent a lot of time and energy ignoring it.
When we begin to breathe mindfully, feelings of loneliness, sadness, fear, and anxiety may come up. When that happens, we don’t need to do anything right away. We can just continue to follow our in-breath and our out-breath. We don’t tell our fear to go away; we recognise it. We don’t tell our anger to go away, we acknowledge it. These feelings are like a small child tugging at our sleeves. Pick them up and hold them tenderly. Acknowledging our feelings without judging them or pushing them away, embracing them with mindfulness, is an act of homecoming.
Our suffering reflects the suffering of the world. Discrimination, exploitation, poverty, and fear cause a lot of suffering in those around us. Our suffering also reflects the suffering of others. We may be motivated by the desire to do something to help relieve the suffering in the world. How can we do that without understanding the nature of suffering? If we understand our own suffering, it will become much easier for us to understand the suffering of others and of the world. We may have the intention to do something or be someone that can help the world suffer less, but unless we can listen to and acknowledge our own suffering, we will not really be able to help.
The amount of suffering inside us and around us can be overwhelming. Usually we don’t like to be in touch with it because we believe it’s unpleasant. The marketplace provides us with everything imaginable to help us run away from ourselves. We consume all these products in order to ignore and cover up the suffering in us. Even if we’re not hungry, we eat. When we watch television, even if the program isn’t very good, we don’t have the courage to turn it off, because we know that when we turn it off we may have to go back to ourselves and get in touch with the suffering inside. We consume not because we need to consume but because we’re afraid of encountering the suffering inside us.
But there is a way of getting in touch with the suffering without being overwhelmed by it. We try to avoid suffering, but suffering is useful. We need suffering. Going back to listen and understand our suffering brings about the birth of compassion and love. If we take the time to listen deeply to our own suffering, we will be able to understand it. Any suffering that has not been released and reconciled will continue. Until it has been understood and transformed, we carry with us not just our own suffering but also that of our parents and our ancestors. Getting in touch with suffering that has been passed down to us helps us understand our own suffering. Understanding suffering gives rise to compassion. Love is born, and right away we suffer less. If we understand the nature and the roots of our suffering, the path leading to the cessation of the suffering will appear in front of us. Knowing there is a way out, a path, brings us relief, and we no longer need to be afraid.
Understanding suffering always brings compassion. If we don’t understand suffering, we don’t understand happiness. If we know how to take good care of suffering, we will know how to take good care of happiness. We need suffering to grow happiness. The fact is that suffering and happiness always go together. When we understand suffering, we will understand happiness. If we know how to handle suffering, we will know how to handle happiness and produce happiness.
If a lotus is to grow, it needs to be rooted in the mud. Compassion is born from understanding suffering. We all should learn to embrace our own suffering, to listen to it deeply, and to have a deep look into its nature. In doing so, we allow the energy of love and compassion to be born. When the energy of compassion is born, right away we suffer less. When we suffer less, when we have compassion for ourselves, we can more easily understand the suffering of another person and of the world. Then our communication with others will be based on the desire to understand rather than the desire to prove ourselves right or make ourselves feel better. We will have only the intention to help.”
– Thich Nhat Hanh, “The Art of Communicating”
“I spoke about our relationships as flowers that need watering with love and communication to grow… we all need a friend to remind us…. Nourishing and healing communication is the food of our relationships…. We may not even know what we said or did that started to poison the relationship. But we have the antidote: mindful compassion and loving communication. Love, respect, and friendship all need food to survive. With mindfulness we can produce thoughts, speech, and actions that will feed our relationships and help them grow and thrive.”
– Thich Nhat Hanh, “The Art of Communicating”
I find this guided meditation video helps me to focus on being aware of my breathing.
I learnt from the video that mindfulness can be referred to as heartfulness, which is an awareness or a non-conceptual knowing that goes beyond the five senses of hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting and touching. According to Jon Kabat-Zin, when we hear the sound of a bell, what we hear is not the bell as “bell” is just a name – what we are hearing is the sound in its original spirit, and on the top of the sound, the mind adds the thought to identify the sound as the sound of a bell. He added that instead of experiencing our life in the bare actuality of the senses, we are actually more experiencing life through our thoughts about our experiences, and our preferences, fears, worries, concerns, etc, and in essence, not really inhabiting the full spectrum of our innate capability. He said that it involves a certain kind of discipline, and it is actually remarkable that so many people are now moving to want to cultivate mindfulness in their lives.
And yes, perhaps mindfulness or heartfulness is about living and experiencing the world in a non-conceptual manner that transcends the limitations of language. On one level, we all associate meanings and concepts with sights, sounds, tastes, smells and touches – these concepts have their place as we use them to interpret and communicate to ourselves and one another, which engages the five senses. At the same time, these concepts may well be a finger pointing to the moon, or a boat leading us to the destination, to the direct experience of life or existence itself, and when we touch that ultimate reality, we no longer need the boat. We enter into a wordless realm that can only be experienced and understood with our intuition or sixth sense, so to speak. This somehow reminds me of the flower sermon I came across some time ago, in which Buddha used a flower without words to teach mindfulness. I think I came across this flower sermon in Anthony De Mello’s “The song of the bird“, which I find intriguing and inspiring.
“Toward the end of his life, the Buddha took his disciples to a quiet pond for instruction. As they had done so many times before, the Buddha’s followers sat in a small circle around him, and waited for the teaching.
But this time the Buddha had no words. He reached into the muck and pulled up a lotus flower. And he held it silently before them, its roots dripping mud and water.
The disciples were greatly confused. Buddha quietly displayed the lotus to each of them. In turn, the disciples did their best to expound upon the meaning of the flower: what it symbollized, and how it fit into the body of Buddha’s teaching.
When at last the Buddha came to his follower Mahakasyapa, the disciple suddenly understood. He smiled and began to laugh. Buddha handed the lotus to Mahakasyapa and began to speak.
“What can be said I have said to you,” smiled the Buddha, “and what cannot be said, I have given to Mahakashyapa.”
Mahakashyapa became Buddha’s successor from that day forward.”
(From “Flower Sermon“)
- The Origin of Mindfulness – 1 (mymindfully.wordpress.com)
- What is Mindfulness? (barefootbeginnings.net)
“If we could see the miracle of a single flower clearly, our whole life would change” ~ Buddha
I have read the article on seeing the world through Buddha’s eyes, and it reminds me of some of the things I learnt in Buddhist Studies I took in secondary school, though I have forgotten some of them as well. As the article noted, “Prince Siddhartha left home and became a spiritual seeker for one compelling reason: to understand the needless suffering human beings cause themselves and others and to find a way to assuage it.” From what I remember reading the textbook, Siddhartha grew up in a palace and indeed he had everything he desired for comfort and luxury. He had not known any kind of suffering yet because his father, the king, did not want the sage’s prophecy that his son would become a Buddha to come true, and wanted to keep his son in the palace to succeed the throne. However, one day, as a young man, Siddhartha went out of the palace for a walk in a nearby village, and witnessed reality for himself, such as people suffering from sickness, old age and death. He was deeply saddened by the reality of human sufferings, and decided to renounce his princely life, and decided to seek the truth for himself. In a sense, his situation reminded me of King Solomon who also had everything he desired, yet could not find any meaning in life.
Eventually, after learning from a few ascetic teachers, Siddhartha still could not find satisfactory answers to the question of sufferings in life. He tried extreme asceticism himself, by fasting for days and living on bare minimum, but one day he nearly fainted and drowned in a river while bathing due to prolonged hunger. He then decided to find a middle path – one that avoids the extremes of luxury and pleasure on one hand, and the extreme of hardship and pain on the other hand, in order to find a balance in life. So, as the story goes, he accepted some food offered by a kind woman, and ate, and sat under a Bodhi and began to meditate on the nature of sufferings and life.
As the article noted:
“He came to three core conclusions about the way the world works, called the “three marks of conditioned existence.” These three are radical impermanence (anicca), pervasive suffering (dukkha) and no fixed or permanent personal identity (anatta).”
(From “Right View: Seeing the World through Buddha’s Eyes” by Lewis Richmond)
At this point, I decided to refer to Wikipedia to refresh my memory on the life of Siddhartha and how he became a Buddha when he sat under a Bodhi tree and meditate for many days on the nature of sufferings.
“According to Buddhism, at the time of his awakening he realized complete insight into the cause of suffering, and the steps necessary to eliminate it. These discoveries became known as the “Four Noble Truths”, which are at the heart of Buddhist teaching. Through mastery of these truths, a state of supreme liberation, or Nirvana, is believed to be possible for any being. The Buddha described Nirvana as the perfect peace of a mind that’s free from ignorance, greed, hatred and other afflictive states, or “defilements” (kilesas). Nirvana is also regarded as the “end of the world”, in that no personal identity or boundaries of the mind remain.”
(From Wikipedia on Gautama Buddha)
The first two marks of conditioned existence – “nothing is permanent” and “life is suffering” – as mentioned in the article, are also observed by Peter Rollins in his video message on pyrotheology, when he shared that nothing can give us certainty and satisfaction or make us whole and complete, and that life is difficult and there are no easy answers.
When I first learnt about the impermanence of all things in school, I thought it sounded depressing, even though it is based on a true observation that everything is temporary and will die or disappear one day, whether plants, animals or humans. I haven’t learnt about metaphysics then, though today I would say that impermanence is true in a material sense, but in a non-material sense, there is energy that cannot be created nor destroyed, and can only be transformed from one form to another.
Nevertheless, there is a certain inner peace when one accepts that nothing in the material world is permanent, whether it is health, longevity of life, material possessions, status, power, influence, and so on, and so does not hold tightly onto these things. By accepting the reality of impermanence, one can embrace and overcome the sufferings that arise when these things are no longer in existence. This takes a certain mindset to meditate on regularly.
I think it is remarkable that Buddha received the knowledge and understanding about the nature of sufferings not by formal education but rather through his own personal observations and experiences in life. As the article noted: “In fifth century B.C. India, there were numerous philosophical and metaphysical schools teaching various theories about matter, spirit, soul, causation and the appropriate way to live. Siddhartha studied these theories, but rejected them in favor of a more experiential approach. He was, like the pre-Socratic Greeks, among history’s first empiricists, relying on his own experience and observation to understand the world.”
I think it testifies to the usefulness of meditation and contemplation because oftentimes living in a modern, fast-paced society, many people tend to be caught up with running the rat race, maintaining status quo and indulging in entertainment and so on, to the extent that they forget to take time to slow down and get in touch with themselves and ponder the nature of sufferings in life. This is a reminder for me to slow down and meditate as well, because I am a product of the modern society and formal education that has moulded me to fit into the socio-economic system. I think in this sense, the teachings of Buddha are timeless because his realisation of the three marks of conditional existence – impermanence, sufferings and egolessness – remain unchanged, and they are just as relevant and applicable today as it was thousands of years ago.
Like what the article concluded: “Seeing the world through Buddha’s eyes is the work of a lifetime, one that constantly needs to be renewed at every life stage and in every societal circumstance.” Yes, it is an ongoing process to see the world through Buddha’s eyes, so in this sense, my understanding of “awakening” is not a one-time event but rather a continual and conscious act of practising awareness of the reality that nothing is permanent (at least in the material world), life is suffering and the ego is an illusion.
I was also reflecting recently that whenever I need guidance in life, I would instinctively or intuitively look to Jesus, or sometimes Buddha, for inspiration and guidance, as they have set admirable examples for me to live, as they have inspired me by the way they show compassion, bear sufferings with patience, wanting the best for others, and so on. I am open to the possibility that Jesus might have travelled to India to learn buddhism before returning to Israel because their teachings of love and compassion share a number of similarities, except that they used different terminologies to reach out to difference audiences – Jesus might have used “Father in heaven” to speak the Jewish lingo, for example. Both Jesus and Buddha have tasted various kinds of sufferings in life, such as rejection, hunger, and so on, although Jesus died a painful death as a scapegoat whereas Buddha passed away peacefully at the age of 80. So in this sense, I have a higher regard for Jesus, in view of his self-sacrificial love, than Buddha, comparatively speaking.
Meanwhile, here’s sharing this article below I find interesting about the gospel of Thomas that reveals the influence of Buddhism on Jesus’ teachings.
“Exploring the Gospel of Thomas, we discover that Jesus believed the self and the divine to be identical and one. Furthermore, the Kingdom of Heaven is not in the future but is “right here.” and one only needs to be awakened to this perfection. Jesus, in this gospel, speaks of enlightenment, the same type that is taught by Shakyamuni Buddha, Shin teachers and Zen Masters. In addition, Thomas does not have a narrative story line but just 114 sayings attributed to Jesus, many of which are akin to Zen koans. Here, Jesus is never presented as Lord or Savior, but rather as a spiritual guide who is equal to his students. In addition, the Gospel of Thomas does not contain a supernatural virgin birth or the doctrine of the Virgin Mary. It does not teach of original sin. It does not mention Jesus’ crucifixion or resurrection. It does not teach Jesus’ death as a payment of debt to “atone” for humanity’s sins. It does not include any supernatural healings or miracles. It does not mention the so-called end-times or the wrath of God. It does not mention salvation through faith in Christ. It does not exclude women.
The Exclusion of Thomas
Why was the Gospel of Thomas disqualified from the Christian Bible and eventually outlawed? During the reign of Emperor Constantine around the 4th century C.E., the Roman Empire was looking to reconstitute and solidify its power. The Emperor and the existing power structure chose the Pauline sect of Christianity as the “official” religion, which include the epistles of Paul and the Gospels and books from his disciples that form the present-day New Testament. Teachings from the Gospel of Thomas and other Nag Hammadi texts were seen as a danger to the developing ecclesiastical and political structure because they rejected the authority of the bishops, priests and deacons. Roman Church father Ignatius warned the Christians to “honor and obey the bishop as you would God.” It is quite easy to see why the church councils did not choose the Gospel of Thomas and other similar texts for their Bible. As a result, for political reasons these texts were banned and later destroyed for the good of Empire and Church. After all, bishops and priests would lose their power and influence with the common people, if the common people learned that Jesus taught they did not need such religious authority/intermediaries of the Church, bishops and priests, and that the Kingdom is within all and is directly accessible to everyone without them; we all are sons/daughters of God.
Why Study the Gospel of Thomas?
You might be wondering why Shin Buddhists should even bother to study the early teachings of Jesus? Our interest in learning about the early teachings of Jesus is not to discredit Christianity but because this Gospel shares similar mystical content with the Shin and Zen Buddhist traditions, we 21st century Buddhists can learn a lot from this ancient mystic, called Jesus of Nazareth. So, by studying the teachings of the Gospel of Thomas through the lenses of Buddhist thought and religious experience, we can further deepen our spiritual path and awaken to our True Nature, our universal Buddha-nature, which ultimately has no name but is experienced as faith, compassion and wisdom.”
I have listened to the podcast and I noted that Peter Rollins was sharing about his book on the idolatry of God which may be summarised in one of these train of thoughts, as noted by a reviewer:
“By embracing and participating in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, we give up our desire to find satisfaction and thus find a deeper satisfaction, that can be grasped here and now. “Not one that promises to make us whole…but one that promises joy in the midst of brokenness and new life in the very embrace of pain.””
I have listened to the host of the interview sharing about why he felt the need to ask Pete the question about dealing with a loss because he himself had lost his 25-year -old son last summer, and he broke down and wept as he shared about this sad news with Pete after the interview. He had come to find that Pete’s perspective on coming to terms with one’s loss particularly helpful for him because he felt his experience was validated, which is an important part of the human experience. Yes, the depth of human experience is larger than any religious box, as it involves authenticity and freedom.
I was reflecting that Peter Rollins’ worldview is similar to the buddhist’s worldview about being free from attachments to desires to be happy and satisfied. It reminds me of a video message by Peter Rollins last June, in which he also shared a similar message about how the church system was like a vending machine selling products, telling people to worship this god or pray this way in order to be happy and satisfied, which only results in people using god or religion as a psychological crutch. I remember that during the Q&A session in that particular video, some of the audience could not help but notice the similarities between his worldview of non-attachment and the buddhist worldview of non-attachment, as someone asked him about buddhism, and I think Pete was open to that worldview, if I remember correctly.
After all, some worldviews, such as the importance of being free from attachments to an idol or illusion in order to experience deep joy and peace in the midst of sufferings and uncertainties, share a common truth, which transcends religious boundaries and philosophies. I was listening to his latest interview again earlier, this time without my headphones, so I could catch his accent better, and I could relate to his growing up in a highly religious and divisive environment in which people would fight and kill over differences in belief systems which form their identities, and I agree with him on the need to find commonalities among different belief systems or religions and be open and willing to learn from one another instead of allowing differences in beliefs create strife and divisions over them.
Pete observed that the strong and hostile reactions that conservative evangelicals had over Rob Bell’s book “Love Wins” have gone beyond mere disagreements over doctrines; rather their hostility is merely a reflection of the internal disagreements inside them which they have not dealt with because of their attachments to certainties, and the book happens to stir up or trigger those internal disagreements within them. So the conservative evangelicals are not so much having a personal vendetta against Rob Bell but rather are experiencing an internal conflict within themselves, and Rob Bell’s book happened to challenge the very idol of certainty that the evangelicals had been desperately trying to hold on to, and they see his book as a threat to their self-created security blanket about their faith, not willing to undergo the necessary but painful road of questioning and doubts in order to find true freedom from their attachment to idols/psychological crutches and their addiction to and obsession over certainty and satisfaction.
According to this buddhist worldview, attachment is the root cause of suffering.
‘Attachment is the origin, the root of suffering; hence it is the cause of suffering.’ 
Similarly, this article suggests that by accepting that suffering is part of life, and embracing pains and uncertainties as part of the full and deep human experience, it is possible to liberate oneself from attachment, and even experience a deep and profound sense of peace and acceptance in view of life’s inevitable sorrows and pains.
“Buddhist practice, in this perspective, is oriented away from the world: life is suffering, the world is a place of uncertainty; liberation lies in freeing oneself from attachment to worldly things and concerns, attaining a transcendent enlightenment.”
Like what Pete said, this worldview is not meant to make people depressed even though it sounds depressing, but rather it is meant to remind or awaken people to the fact that they are already depressed, and they only need to acknowledge and accept that sufferings are part of life to be free from depression, which is a paradoxical truth, as he also acknowledges it.
I learnt that there are others who have also noticed the similiarities between Peter Rollins’ worldview and buddhist worldview of practising non-attachment as a way of liberation. This book reviewer noted that Rollins has been sharing a deep spiritual truth in his latest book about how we can welcome doubt and express compassion even in the midst of our suffering, which resonates with Buddhism’s central teachings about living in compassion and appreciation of the world as we find it.
“Contemporary Christianity works well for millions of Americans because America is a successful nation. One reason that Buddhism meshes well with impoverished Asian cultures is that Buddhism’s central teachings urge people to quit striving after human desires and focus, instead, on right living that compassionately helps others and awakens a deeper appreciation of the world as we find it. Buddhism begins by taking into account that life will involve a great deal of suffering—something most American preachers are hesitant to proclaim. Rollins starts with that deep spiritual truth and preaches a Christian hope that, even in the midst of suffering, we can appreciate each other, we can express our compassion and we can appreciate the sacred wonders of the world around us. This survivor’s faith welcomes doubt. This survivor’s faith frees us from striving after typical symbols of success. This is a Christian message that finds hope and a way forward, even as tragedies befall us.”
I myself experienced an existential crisis in my early 20s, and have written poems as a form of catharsis, so I am no stranger to this existential depression, so to speak. I was reflecting that there is a difference between transformation and denial – two persons may be smiling in the midst of sufferings, but for different reasons – one may have learnt through pains and hardship to come to a place of transforming one’s perspectives of life to embrace the inevitability of sufferings, while the other may be simply suppressing and avoiding the reality of sufferings and trying to be happy, which may work in the short run but may not be useful in the long run because reality will always catch up somehow. There comes a time when every person needs to face the reality of sufferings in life, and finds their own way of accepting and embracing life’s pains, struggles, uncertainties and sufferings, in a way that they can handle. I like Thich Nhat Hanh’s perspective on how this transformation of fear and pain into a deep, profound sense of peace and acceptance is carried out.
Nhat Hanh: “So you recognize that fear. You embrace it tenderly and look deeply into it. And as you embrace your pain, you get relief and you find out how to handle that emotion. And if you know how to handle the fear, then you have enough insight in order to solve the problem. The problem is to not allow that anxiety to take over. When these feelings arise, you have to practice in order to use the energy of mindfulness to recognize them, embrace them, look deeply into them. It’s like a mother when the baby is crying. Your anxiety is your baby. You have to take care of it. You have to go back to yourself, recognize the suffering in you, embrace the suffering, and you get relief. And if you continue with your practice of mindfulness, you understand the roots, the nature of the suffering, and you know the way to transform it.”
So to me, buddhism, even though it is commonly seen as a philosophy rather than a religion, is neither theory nor theology, but rather a practical, hands-on and do-able way of living that every person can practise. This is not to say buddhism is the be-all and end-all, as it does not profess to give a definite answer to every question or mystery in life, but rather is based on time-tested wisdom and understanding about the nature of existence. I am still learning myself, and at the same time, I find there are also meaningful truths to learn from other belief systems, such as the concept of grace and true identity from the christian gospel of inclusion and Jung psychology, for example.
- On Peter Rollins, Pt. I – Insurrection (remixedtheology.com)
- Thoughts on “Idolatry of God” Trailer (themysteryofchrist.wordpress.com)
- Thoughts on “Dawkins, Dennett and Hitchens: The New Theists?” (themysteryofchrist.wordpress.com)
- Thoughts on Why Rob Bell Supports Gay Marriage and Marriage Equality (themysteryofchrist.wordpress.com)
- Mindfulness, Compassion & Deep Listening (heartflow2013.wordpress.com)
- Rob Bell Comes Out (realrest.wordpress.com)
- [Book preview] “What We Talk About When We Talk About God” by Rob Bell (themysteryofchrist.wordpress.com)
- Addiction and Buddhism (felinesuchness.wordpress.com)
- To forge your own path (mythoughtsbornfromfire.wordpress.com)
- Peter Rollins’ thoughts on modern Christianity