Category: Featured
What does Christmas mean to a Buddhist monk?

What does Christmas mean to a Buddhist monk? Or should I say, what does Christmas mean to this Buddhist monk?

Everything that is good in the world. That’s what.

I don’t simply mean the obvious – spending time with family and friends, eating mum’s famous Christmas cake, the beach! Yes, you read that correctly…the beach. It’s the only way to spend the holiday season.

So what do I mean by all that is good in the world?

Well, it’s perhaps not all that obvious but if one thinks a little about Christmas I am sure you will agree when I say:

Christmas is a chance to practice generosity.

Now, I love this part of Christmas. It’s probably my favorite bit about the holidays. The most enjoyable part…besides mum’s crissy cake that is!

Back in the day, my grandfather used to distribute presents to all the kids. Now, it’s my dad. Both men had/have a knack for clowning around, and so it’s usually through much laughter that we open our pressies. Kids, of course, are simply a joy to watch as they rip and tear at the wrapping paper with an energy that only a child at Christmas can have.

But of course there is usually someone left disappointed.

If it’s not a gift-wrapped soap basket (I got my mother one of these one year…hey! how am I supposed to know this is a terrible gift? Seriously I had no idea.) or a child that gets the same toy for his birthday and Christmas (I got my six year old nephew a toy he got only months before), someone will always enjoy one present more than another. And therefore, this is also a time for patience.

Christmas is also a time where you are good to those close, and those not so close to us. Everyone you meet, whether it is people in line before you while you do your shopping or the cashier at the checkout, everyone is doing the right thing by each other. More or less Christmas is a time for doing the right thing by all people. One might say that Christmas is a time to practice ethics.

But there is no whip crackin going on here. People are on their best behavior and in a joyous way. There is a little bit of effort required but no stress, really. One might say that people are engaging in these virtuous acts with joyful effort.

But, let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves for I don’t know about you but after I’m done eating I find it hard to not go off and find a corner to shut my eyes for a moment or ten. And this is usually around the same time that my two nephews want to play tennis, or cricket, or x-box, or something! And guess whose gotta throw a ball, or be an umpire?

Boy do I ever have to refresh and refocus my attention at this time!

All of this, for me, can be enjoyed without it turning into a hedonistic romp only if I see impermanence, and benefit to others my participation can bring. I don’t mean to suggest I am anything special but there is benefit in my family seeing me being both a Buddhist and normal and it’s not forever.

So I do just that. I enjoy spending time with them over Christmas while it lasts.

Now, the more observant of you might notice that there are indeed six ways in which a “perfect” Christmas can be had.

Oh yes, the six perfections can be practiced while having fun with family and friends — who woulda thunk!

Have a wonderful time however you spend it.


Norbulingka Institute 2011

Last Sunday (20th March 2001) I went to Gyuto monastery to shoot a narrative film with two young monks. On my way home I stopped by Norbulingka Institute. Although the gardens at Norbulingka are quite beautiful, and worthy of their own piece, I ended up shooting just the main temple as I was short on time.


A fundamental theory of Buddhist philosophy related particularly to Buddhist soteriology is the notion that every living being has the potential to become enlightened—”Buddha potential.” This potential is a naturally occurring and innate quality of the mind. It is not something outside of ourselves that must be venerated from afar. Becoming Buddha, in one sense, is simply waking up to who we really are—knowing thyself in the ultimate sense. But what does this mean and how can we, as ordinary people, relate to this potential as our own?

One way to bring this potential into a practical everyday sense is to empower yourself with a confidence born of empirical insight. That is, check it out for yourself. But in order to do so one must understand what it is that is being tested, and how to go about running the experiments.

To answer the more technical “what is” question first:

Buddha potential can be broken into two types: (1) Natural potential, and (2) developed potential. Natural potential in simple terms is the quality of the mind that allows change. More accurately, it is the fact that the mind does not exist inherently that allows change. If it were to exist inherently it would remain as it were, forever.

Examples of developed potential are functional, positive, and constructive minds such as compassion, confidence, friendliness, wisdom, courage etc. Together these two aspects of potential allow contemplatives to proceed along the path to enlightenment by developing compassion and so on.

An enlightened being is therefore someone who has completed the development of these minds, which as stated is only possible because the mind has an natural and innate quality that allows this development to occur. His Holiness the Dalai Lama, to my mind, is one such person and as such is a template for my own practice.

In practical terms I personally draw comfort knowing that if I put these words into action change will happen. But it is action that is really the trick here. In that regard, a close friend and senior Australia monk once remarked, “is your biggest obstacle what you do not know or what you do not do!”

For many people, however, the feeling they are incapable of change, of success, or developing genuine happiness is like a mantra…”I can’t…I can’t…I can’t.” Sometimes this attitude manifest strongly in thoughts such as, “I can’t meditate” “I can’t develop genuine compassion for myself let alone for others!” Say it enough and it will be so.

While at other times this self-defeating attitude manifests subtly (and in such a manner as to be hardly noticeable) whereby one simply assumes that the human condition is the normal working order of things. Moreover, this attitude can manifest with thoughts and assumptions such as the Buddhist path is meant to be difficult, or only people with a non-western cultural background have any chance of developing these qualities.

Relating this to the above short, Buddhist art, be they statues, paintings and whatever, reflect this optimism. Art, in the Buddhist world, serve as reminders of this potential showing us the path home so to speak.

The take-away therefore is that you do not have to look outside of yourself to find genuine flourishing. For you have everything you need right here. All you need to do is begin the process.

Saving Zanskar: A Short Documentary

Saving Zanskar: A Short Documentary is the story of a Tibetan Buddhist monks vision to save his dying culture by providing the children of his region with a modern education.

Shot over the course of a few days (6 hours of total shooting time) in several locations around Northern India, Saving Zanskar is an insight into the problems facing ancient cultures as the younger generation are increasingly influenced by modernity.

The interview for the film was shot in a relatively quiet place behind the Dalai Lama’s residence in Dharamsala. It is one of the few places in Dharamsala (unknown to many) where I could get clear shots without people walking behind, around, or in front of the camera!



Cast: Geshe Lobsang Yonten and the children from Zanskar.
Music: “Edge of my Soul” by Jami Sieber


As for my thoughts on Geshe-la’s vision: I believe he is spot on about saving his culture by educating it’s children. For it is only through an appreciation of the unique qualities of this ancient culture that the children of Zanskar will have any interest in helping to preserve it. To think that we can simply leave them be and everything will be okay is sheer fantasy.

For instance, it is already the case that Westerners go to Zanskar for trekking. Yet, the companies that run these tours are not Zanskari, and as far as I know, no money goes back into the local community. Therefore little benefit is gained by having Westerners come to Zanskar. Western companies selling trekking are making money off the Zanskar region while the local population remain living a life of simple subsistence. This is not something that should continue to my mind.

If we educate Zanskari people then perhaps they could set up their own companies and begin to work with the changing social-economic environment rather than being forced to sit and watch as Westerners use them and their land, or worse still talk about how they must continue to live the same way they have in the past simply because of some strange notion that this is a purer way of life. Let me see you work 18 hours a day and eat just roasted barley.

Moreover, it is only through a modern education that an appreciation for the heart of the Zanskari tradition will grow within the younger generation. The heart being such things as compassion and the development of human values. These are the things worth preserving not the food or the tools used to harvest the them.

Because the world will continue to change around the Zanskari people there is the potential for them to leave them behind—poorly educated and without choices—if we do not educate the younger generation but, what kind of education is needed? This is where Geshe Yonten’s idea of a combined “inner” and “outer” education is important. FYI: Geshe-la is coming to the U.S. for a speaking tour later this year if you would like to hear more about his ideas.

Back to the topic: I recently heard a Westerner suggest that the children should be left in Zanskar rather than receiving a proper education in India if their culture is to survive. This is, in my opinion, simply wrong! For it fails to understand or take into consideration that a “culture” ancient or otherwise is fundamentally a dynamic system. It is a political, economic, and social system with a history, but most importantly a future. This is something that most people fail to see. These things that we call “cultures” are not static artifacts or museum diorama stuck in history to be admired from afar. We have to remember “cultures” house real kids with real hopes and dreams. Do you really want to force the kids to stay in Zanskar poorly educated, and without opportunity?

Perhaps this line of thinking is born, as a friends pointed out to me today, from the fact that sometimes, some Westerners, romanticize poverty—while tweeting about how consumption has corrupted Western culture from their iPhone.

The world is changing so quickly we have to remember that we are dealing with people’s lives, and it is people that matter, not their history.

Karma, Rebirth, and Faith in the Buddhist Tradition

In a recent discussion generated by Alan Wallace’s bold article Distorted Visions of Buddhism: Agnostic and Atheist I put forward a couple claims that some of you might like to read. As my comments were a response to the topic in general, and  not anyone persons thoughts, I pass them on. Not because they are correct, not even because they are useful, but because someone somewhere might get something from them.

photo by:

Couple of points. First, the issue surrounding the development between the time of the Buddha and creation of the canon is perhaps not all that straight forward, as you have suggested. I wish, however, to emphasise the word “perhaps”. For it is my understanding that any evidence that does exist regarding this point is limited and weak at best.

But you are right when you say, Buddhism is a “whole bundle of conditioned and changing phenomena.” I totally agree. We must remember, however, that Buddhism is unlike religion for this very reason. Buddhism is interested in soteriology, not just doctrinal servitude. And we can see evidence for this when the Buddha of the Pali canon says one thing to one person at one time, and something completely different to another. Cognitive transformation is at stake here, not whether this or that historical figure existed or made stuff up. Thus, if a philosophically incorrect answer can effect transformation, so be it. And this gets me to my point: central to soteriology is causation, and karma is a causal thesis. Therefore, karma is fundamental to the Buddhist project. Moreover, the subjects of Buddhist-karma and rebirth have been central to all schools of Buddhism, and evidence for their exposition can be found across the Buddhist world throughout it’s history (I would imagine if these topics were simply “add-ons” there would be evidence of this).

The reason why Buddhist-karma and rebirth are found within all schools, is because karma and rebirth are central to the Buddhist project, as I have said. They are prime to the thrust behind the possibility of developing ones mind into the mind of an enlightened being. It is obvious that if one is to become a Buddha, one needs time to do so. And without the notion of causation and lots of time, this transformation is moot! It might be interesting to know that when reading Parfit recently I was taken by his account of psychological connectedness. It struck me as a nice way to explain rebirth. As you know, for Parfit, “identity is not what matters in survival”. Similarly, an inherently existent self or person is not what matters for rebirth. Relation-R, or psychological connectedness, can give us a cogent thesis for survival. Although, it is important to understand it is not the same “person” that is reborn. But, to explain myself fully here would be to take too much space. So let us move onto the next subject.

Karma is, in the end, a causal thesis—albeit of a particular kind. Should we discount causation simply because it is difficult to understand? Babies and bathtubs notwithstanding, even Hume saw this problem. I feel that people, all too often, react to the language of karma and rebirth, and their traditional usage, rather than the theories themselves. Both are simply a theory of causation, yet many take them to be démodé? These people, being all too quick to speak of karma and rebirth like historical artefacts. As if we, in the modern world, have no need for those silly little ideas. It is for this reason that Buddhism needs to be explained fully, and explained well. And it is for this reason that Batchelor is doing Buddhism a disservice. While it is true that we all bring our own predilections to the discourse, removing, as apposed to delimiting or bracketing out, core features of that discourse is, to use a Garfieldian polemic, stupid!

Moreover, being too quick to dismiss karma, to my mind at least, is a methodological error. For while it is true that one may advance along the path with mere confidence, this will not produce the fruits of the path—to use traditional parlance. Maitreya, as Patrick can attest, made this point in his Ornament for Clear Realization (Abhisamayaalaṅkāra) when he divided students into two types—those of sharp faculty (SF) and those of dull (DF). SF students proceed along the path by first understanding emptiness and dependant-origination. While DF students proceed on the basis of confidence (Śraddhā, dad pa) alone. However, Śraddhā, which is often translated as faith, is a very different beast in Buddhism. This is so, because in the end even those of DF cannot bypass wisdom. Enlightenment will not come via faith alone, yet Buddhist-faith must not be left out of the practice. It is for this reason that Candrakīrti said, “faith is the mother of all qualities.” Meaning, it is faith, ones confidence in the practice, that gives rise to the qualities of the path—including an understanding of emptiness. So even if one does not understand the subtleties of the wisdom aspects at this point, if you have confidence in the practice, and most importantly in yourself, there will be a time when understanding dawns. Candrakīrti’s exhortation is, therefore, important for this two-fold reason. That is because having faith in yourself and faith in the practice is fundamental to moving forward. No one can do it for you. It is in the “palm of your hand”, as Pabongka Rinpoche told us.

On the other hand, by thinking, “it is all too difficult to understand” one will not even try. And by thinking, “I don’t get it, therefore it does not exist” places psychological obstacles to understanding any topic. So while stories of a atheist Buddhism might seem compelling to some, I believe they should be resisted. Even if he did not take his own advice to its proper end, the much maligned Descartes saw the virtue of doubting what he took to be true. The givenness of what appears to us, does not make it so; not understanding, does not make a subject nonsensical. Here we need to draw a distinction between doubting as a dialectic and dismissal viz. denial of a subject. For one, there is a difference between not finding, and finding somethings non-existence. Geshe Jampa Gyatso’s advice might be useful here. He once told me (this was back in Italy 1999 and I am paraphrasing), “it is good to be dissatisfied with ones level of understanding, for this will drive you to a deeper analysis of the topic at hand.” It appears that both an atheist or agnostic approach do the opposite. It appears as if they create a kind of lazy and floored approach to education. And who wants to be lazy and floored!

Finally, you might be interested to know that recently I had an email conversation with Galen Strawson (for those who don’t know, Strawson is a famous Analytic philosopher and a hardcore 2nd generation materialist from Oxford university). Even though we were discussing something entirely different, Galen sent a link to a book on surviving death…suggesting that the arguments found within were “compelling” arguments for rebirth. This shows real philosophical maturity. For aren’t we, like Strawson, interested in knowing the truth regardless of where that takes us? I am.

Does Buddhism Need Science

1. Introduction

Does Buddhism need science? That is to say, does Buddhism need the validation of science? Perhaps not, however, in order to lift the essence of Buddhism out of the cultural setting from which we as practitioners have learnt this science of the mind we call Buddhism, we need to test the claims presented. In this article, I want to explore the possibility that science and Buddhism need each other.

Most would agree I think when I say that calling Buddhism a religion is really a misnomer. For the Buddha himself urged his students not to believe what he taught merely out of respect. Like a philosopher he asked his students to test his claims as a gold smith would test the quality of gold before making a purchase. To put his claims to the blowtorch of empirical inquiry—direct experience. These were not clever tricks employed by a charismatic religious leader. He really did mean it. And it is, therefore, our responsibility as followers of this great philosopher, to do just that: think and investigate these claims for ourselves. It is not as if we have to reinvent the dharma-wheel, however we need to experience it for ourselves. After all, if something is worth believing in—the Four Noble Truths for instance—is it not worthy of critical, objective (in the sense of being free of bias) and rigorous investigation? So, let me ask you the question again: does Buddhism need science?

2. Asking Questions

To me the answer is an unequivocal, yes. For if Buddhism is to make a lasting contribution it must engage the predominate paradigm of its time. This is science. No question; no doubt. Science pervades the minds of ordinary people, so much so that marketers now use the term “scientific fact” to sell their products. Science is the religion of the non-religious. Yet, has anyone seen these magical products marketed under the guise of scientism, solve the problems of the world—stress, anxiety or loneliness? In a recent study, for instance, it was shown that the average age of patients being treated for clinical depression for the first time has dropped to the age of 15. The modern world needs something over and above the current pills it is being administered.

Buddhism as it spread from India engaged each new culture at the highest level of discourse. As it comes to the West, it must engage this culture fully—which of course includes the scientific tradition—if it is to find acceptance. For its part, science could play a role in helping the contemplatives to weed out untenable claims and ineffective practices (Wallace, p.146).

Some Buddhists may think: if science were to test the efficacy of Buddhist practice, there is the chance that the teaching of this ancient and refined tradition may be sullied. I say to those people: you are correct. This in fact is possible. However, most scientists—being well read people—already have some understanding of the Buddhadharma. Often their understanding is based on misinformation or even just plain wrong information, and it is for this very reason that it is vitally important that those trained in Buddhist theory and practice engage scientists and do so fully. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has called such people hybrids. These hybrids are people trained in traditional Buddhist theory and practice, and moreover, have gained—to some extent—rigorous training in one or more of the following Western disciplines: science, philosophy or psychology.

While I cannot speak for His Holiness, I can imagine the reason why it is important for these people to be trained in both traditions. It is because the knowledge garnered from meditation is direct, immediate, perceptual and therefore only accessible via first-person inquiry. This knowledge must then be translated into information readily accessible to science. If it is not, it will remain the domain of those trained in the Buddhist tradition, period. For that reason, we need to learn their language, their theories, and their paradigms in order to accurately articulate the phenomenology of meditation. What’s more as Alan Wallace points out:

Tibetan Buddhism’s own Dalai Lama has stated firmly that if science can prove any Buddhist theory to be false, then that belief should be dropped (Wallace, p.147).

His Holiness is not joking. If science was to prove beyond at doubt that a particular doctrine is false, then we must drop that tenet. I, therefore, fully support this call to action. But it does beg the question: false for whom? If science is working off the wrong page, then this ancient and refined tradition could potentially be refuted without proper investigation. Being refuted is one thing; being refuted by simply believing Buddhist theory of mind and its methodologies of first-person inquiry must be wrong by virtue that it is not the same as current science, then setting out to prove just this, strikes me as rather unscientific. However, I did not become a monk simply to belong to a creed. I can say with certainty that in my case at least it was a search for truth—wherever that led. And it is this same spirit of inquiry, which drives science. In that regard in 1963 the physicists Richard Feynman lecturing on the scientific method had the following to say:

Experimenters search most diligently, and with the greatest effort, in exactly those places where it seems most likely that we can prove our theories wrong. In other words we are trying to prove ourselves wrong as quickly as possible, because only in that way can we find progress.

Anyone who has studied and meditated on the deconstructionist methodologies of such Madhyamaka philosophers as Nāgārjuna, Śāntideva or Candrakīrti, will see striking similarities here. Because our dispositional narratives—the stories we tell ourselves, about ourselves—are such that we naturally reify our own existence, we in fact believe our on theories. Through this reification, the bifurcation of subject and object, us and them, ensues. The effect of which is the First Noble Truth—suffering. By applying the Madhyamaka dialectic, the explication of this root cause of dysfunctional states of mind—mental afflictions—can be stripped from our way of engaging the world. We, therefore, must “search most diligently, and with the greatest effort, in exactly those places where it seems most likely that we can prove our theories wrong”. Simply believing there is no inherently existent self will get you nowhere. It is only through critical analysis, which strips away our naive conceptions of ourselves, our tradition, our way of doing things that we can continue to move forward in our project of understanding the human condition.

Science, on the other hand, is a growing body of knowledge with practical applications. Applications such as quantum bits are so advanced that those working in these fields are the only people able to understand them. Yet, it seems to me that the real discovery of this scientific paradigm remains concealed to the very people who discovered them:

The most revealing characteristic of quantum physics is the role of the observer in measurement: it is the act of observation, intimately wrapped up in the point of view of the scientist—his or her beliefs—that determine outcomes such as wave or particle and other physical states. It seems that at the subatomic level, the level that supposedly underlies all physical reality, the mind acts as a potent, cooperative force in the creation of reality as we know it. Subatomic particles, the instruments that detect them, laws concerning their existence and expression, mathematics, and the mind all exist in dependence upon one another (Wallace, p.115).

Scientists, I believe, are yet to fully appreciate the possibilities their discoveries yield. Because mind is inextricably linked to the “role of the observer” and is a “potent, cooperative force in the creation of reality”, perhaps the question should be rephrased to: does science need Buddhism?

3. Does Buddhism Need Science?

Although physicists understand the observer plays a role in measurement, still they believe in an underlying reality beyond the mind—for them, there is still something out there. The quantum world—even for these scientists—is fuzzy, difficult to understand and has little direct relevance to the world of people, yet it is still really real. The most important discovery of the quantum world—to use Buddhist parlance—all phenomena are merely dependently arisen, existing in dependence on causes and conditions, parts and an imputing consciousness. This shows that the mind is inextricably linked to the creation of our world. Still, this fact remains somewhat in the domain of those working in the field of quantum physics. While these discoveries have provided the modern world with many benefits—I am writing on one such benefit—science has yet to find a way to integrate these discoveries into our own lives. Science has made the modern world an easier place to live; yet life has not become easier. Clearly, there is something lacking to modernity. Something beyond what is currently known to science.

This, I believe, is where contemplative traditions such as Buddhism can lend a guiding hand. By participating in research projects investigating such phenomena as consciousness, contemplatives can provide information that science does not have access to—albeit from a first-person point of view. That is, contemplatives can provide science with qualitative descriptions of various states of consciousness. Not just what is it like to experience non-referential compassion, but perhaps even non-dual awareness, and the cognition of phenomena as merely dependent-arising. Thus providing science with a motherly push in the right direction and perhaps even providing science with methods for integrating often, abstruse scientific findings, back into the lives of ordinary people.

We need a better understanding of the mind. That goes for those of us who follow a spiritual tradition as well as those with no such interest…[for] a mind made clear by self-knowledge will be better able to understand the message than one immersed in confusion (Wallace, p.164).

Such research has in fact already begun. In the 1960’s doctors from Harvard studied the effects of meditation on metabolism—showing that meditation may decrease the consumption of oxygen by up to 18%. In the 1970’s Jon Kabat-Zinn who has a Ph.D in molecular biology studied the effects of meditation on stress—as a result creating the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program. In the 1970’s and 80’s Professor Herbert Benson—again from Harvard—studied tummo meditation—one tummo practitioner studied was able to reduce his oxygen consumption by up to 64%. Studies of the effects of meditation are not new. What is new is the concept of the hybrid. Someone educated in Buddhist theory and practice directly involved in the research project. Being trained in both traditions these hybrids can act as interpreters. By drawing knowledge of phenomenal structures of consciousness directly from their own mind, they can articulate this directly to scientists, and in their own language. Thus giving science—for the first time—ongoing access to new data and from here—new discoveries.

One such discovery is neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the ability for the brain to restructure itself from experience. Previously it was believed that neuron connections were fixed in adult humans, degenerating over time. Now we know through study of meditation that the brain can in fact continue to grow even in later life. It is through mind training that enables these neuronal features to reconnect—all this from collaborative projects between meditators and scientists.

Because research has shown we are capable of changing and improving our cognitive capacities. We can, over time, change the way we relate to ourselves in order to reflect something closer to reality—thus becoming healthier people as a result. This ability to change is something that has been recognized by Buddhists for over two millennium—even if it was not under the label neuroplasticity. Yet it is science, which can help us deliver this message to the general community. Not to convert; simply to help. Perhaps then we can begin to recede the trend of 15 year olds being treated for clinical depression.

4. Conclusion

For these reasons collaborative projects such as the Shamatha Project are vitally important. It is also why I have begun, in affiliation with the Santa Barbra Institute for Consciousness Studies, a project to establish a similar institute in Australia. The aim of the Australian Institute for Consciousness Studies is to:

  1. Establish collaborative research projects between scientists, psychologists, philosophers and contemplatives in order to investigate the nature of consciousness.
  2. Establish facilities for people from around the world to learn meditation and engage in short and long term retreats.
  3. Establish educational programs, which facilitate integration of the findings from the studies conducted by our research teams.

That is to say, the aim of the institute will be to serve others by way of arranging collaborative research projects, where contemplatives and scientists work together, in a combined effort to understand that which is the producer of human flourishing—the mind. As well as develop contemplative observatories for budding hybrids, allowing these people to refine their meditative skills in conducive and supportive environments. And most importantly to create educational programs whereby techniques for integration of this new information are developed.

Thus, we find ourselves on the cusp of a new era of human flourishing. As knowledge of the human condition is, for the first time, studied from the first, second and third person perspectives. This is something, which science and the world’s great contemplative traditions can only benefit. It is my hope, therefore, that institutions such as Australian Institute for Consciousness Studies and the Santa Barbra Institute will become templates for our future, a place for all people to learn to meditation and be well. I leave you to ponder this wonderful quote from one of the world’s great thinkers—Albert Einstein.

A human being is part of a whole, called by us the Universe, a part limited by space and time. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few people nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty (Albert Einstein, 1921).


Wallace, A.B. & Hodel, B., 2008. Embracing Mind: The Common Ground of Science and Spirituality, Shambhala.

The Purpose of Buddhist Meditation

Buddha said more than two and a half millennia ago: all beings want happiness and wish to avoid suffering. At first glance, this may seem a simplistic observation, however a closer examination will reveal an extraordinary implication.

Everyone has an innate wish, the wish for greater happiness—a flourishing life. This is not a selfish wish. However we often employee erroneous methods in our endeavors to find said happiness. Many people believing happiness to be found through external conditions such as physical stimuli or financial security can spend their entire life chasing after money, power and fame, only to be exhausted by their efforts. Buddhism claims that although external conditions, such as, money or a nice car do have a role to play in a good life they are not the real causes of happiness. And you don’t need to look too far to find people who are materially well off yet experience unhappiness, which if left unchecked can lead to depression.

It does not follow from this position we should not have material things or work towards providing for our families. Owning a nice car, a big house or having a highly paid career is not the issue. The issue is how we relate to these things. The real source of life’s problems and their resolutions can be found within our mind.


What I find most compelling about the Buddha’s statement is he hints at our fundamental capacity to expand and develop our experience of happiness. Not the kind of happiness that is generated by forcing yourself to laugh, or the kind of happiness that is sometimes jokingly described as happy happy joy joy. The happiness referred to here is genuine happiness—the feeling of joy that naturally arises due to the cultivation of functional states of mind. It is a feeling of contentment with yourself, your life and the things and events that you encounter. It is not a passive experience. It makes you want to embrace life and the people you encounter through it.

So his statement, all beings want happiness and want to avoid suffering, is not merely an observation but rather a supremely optimistic statement.

This claim also hints at our current situation. For most people experience unwanted problems. Be they big or small, they are problems nonetheless and they are unwanted. No one wakes up in the morning and thinks, “today I hope nothing but problems come my way.” But in fact the opposite is often the case. We wake up thinking about all the good things that might happen. We plan our day, thinking of the things we need to get done. Yet unexpected problems do arise. Isn’t this true? We can find ourselves experiencing the tension of a strained relationship, the stress of deadlines, or even the boredom of work.

The Buddha points this out as a means of motivating us to begin our journey. Don’t live in denial. Face up to the fact that we do, even if just occasionally, experience these problems but, understand there is something we can do about this situation. We have the power to change your life, no one else can do it for you and in this regard the Buddha once said,

You are your own protector, who else will be this protector?

If this is true, and I believe it is, this is great news for we can change our life and it is not that difficult. However, it is a journey, and like all good journeys, it starts with making the decision to go.

To sum up then, the basic framework of the Buddha’s message is: all of us want happiness, yet what happiness we currently experience is fleeting at best. It is possible to experience real and lasting happiness that transcends any experience of happiness or bliss that is generated from external stimuli, and that the methods which enable this can be found within our own mind.

This is the purpose of meditation. And in that sense meditation can be thought of as a tool of liberation—to use Buddhist parlance. That is to say, meditation in all its flavors is a tool to help people becoming mentally (and physically) healthy.

Meditation is a liberative tool used in the path to Enlightenment. It is both a diagnostic and therapeutic tool in this endeavor for meditation introduces us to the world of your mind. A world that for many has remained hidden. It brings the world of your mind to the forefront of life, making it work for you rather than enslaving you. Many people are unaware of the potential of their mind or the role it plays in their life acting out in habitual ways and reacting to events with habitual tendencies. This can, if left unchecked, lead to problems such as stress, anxiety, loneliness or depression.

However, it is wrong to think that meditation is for those who suffer from stress or some kind of mental illness. As we all know by now there is hard-nosed scientific research to show that meditation—even just 15 minutes a day—can help your immune system.

The removal of dysfunctional states of minds—minds such as anger, jealousy or pride and the development of functional minds such as the minds of loving-kindness, compassion and wisdom—constitutes the Enlightenment Project and thus the very purpose of meditation.

The Meaning and Purpose of Buddhist Prayer and Chanting

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Buddhism is not simply a religion. It is a pragmatic description of life that details our very existence and shows methods for eliminating the dissatisfactory nature of many everyday experiences.

The Buddha showed us the true nature of conditioned existence and thus It can be said the teachings of the Buddha are a set of mind training instructions that lead anyone who diligently practices these trainings to a flourishing life.


Not in the sense of the happiness found through good external conditions, or physical stimuli but rather, from the inner conditions of functional states of mind.



The Buddhist Path

Beginning over 2500 years ago the Buddhist path is rich in history and has different methods for training the mind. In fact, the Buddhist canon extends to 84,000 teachings. All these 84,000 teachings are presented with one aim in mind: to eliminate suffering at its source, so that the conditions that give rise to these dissatisfactory experiences will never return again.


The foundational teaching of Buddhism is called:

The Four Noble Truths:
1. True Suffering
2. True Origin
3. True Cessation
4. True Path


(1) Conditioned life bound by karma and delusion is by nature dissatisfactory.

(2) The source of this dissatisfactoriness is a basic belief in a non-existent imaginary – true existence;

(4) and by employing methods

(3) one can permanently eliminate the true source of our problems—delusions such as anger, attachment, pride, jealousy and so forth.


The Buddhist path could be summarized as having two main aspects:

(1) The removal of dysfunctional states of mind—minds such as anger, attachment and ignorance,

(2) and the development of functional minds such as compassion and wisdom.


This wisdom is not an ordinary type of wisdom it is a particular kind of knowledge—knowledge recognizing the ultimate nature of reality.


You may well ask: why are minds such as anger dysfunctional?! Surely at times anger can be useful? Although wishing for happiness the mind of anger, in fact, produces an agitated experience. Often when we get angry we lash out either physically or verbally thinking this will somehow make things better. However, actions born from anger often make a situation worse. For this reason the mind of anger does not function as we intend and is therefore, dysfunctional. In contrast to this the mind of compassion and wisdom are functional because they operate in a manner concordant with our fundamental intentions.


The Purpose of Prayer in Buddhism

Buddhist Prayer and by extension chanting (as chanting is nothing more than rhythmic vocalization of prayer) are guided meditations used to remind the contemplative of the internal knowledge that prayer can render. By reciting these affirmations with heartfelt devotion the spiritual aspirant is reaffirming his or her commitment—not to some deity or another person—but to the development of ideal inherent in the prayer. For instance, the purpose of this prayer composed by Shantideva in his famous text Engaging in the Bodhisattva Deeds

For as long as space endures. For as long as living beings remain.
May I too remain to eliminate the suffering of the world – Shantideva 7th CE.

is the generation of compassion and the universal responsibility that is a prerequisite to the development of Bodhichitta.


Matireya’s Ornament for Clear Realizations defines Bodhichitta as: Bodhichitta means for the sake of others, wishing to achieve complete, perfect enlightenment.


By reciting this prayer the spiritual aspirant is implicitly endorsing compassion and bodhichitta—the mind of enlightenment—and thus reaffirming his or her commitment to the development of these minds.


All art, literature, and music in the Buddhist world has the same intention. Even the folds in a monks robes have symbolic meaning related to the Buddhist path to enlightenment.


So does this mean there is no benefit in praying to the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas? No, there is benefit but, if the Buddha is omniscient and has infinite compassion, they, all Buddhas, are already helping us whether we ask for it or not.



However, by praying to these beings for help and inspiration we are opening ourselves to their influence, even more than if we do not pray. Implicitly we are saying: I think the qualities of the enlightened beings is useful.


I would like to have these qualities myself. Therefore I will practice the methods that are the causes of these qualities.




Philosophy as Practice

Some think: meditators do not need to study; those who teach need to study. Actually, learning is more necessary for the meditator; teachers may just incur the fault of explaining something incorrectly.

It is vital for a meditator to study in order to properly understand what to meditate on. This may sound obvious, however, many people think that studying or the doing of philosophy gets in the way of real practice. However, the great Kadampa masters of old Tibet tell us it is more important for a meditator to study than a teacher, because all a teacher can do is say something wrong. A meditator who has not studied, on the other hand, could potentially waste years meditating on an incorrect object or misunderstanding of the nature of reality.

In this articles, I intend to argue that studying philosophy is a form of dharma practice in and of itself. That there are real and tangible benefits in the practice of studying philosophy. Moreover, studying philosophy is vital, if one is seriously engaging the Buddhist path. Without the ability to think deeply and clearly on subjects such as the nature of conditioned existence or dependent-arising, these subjects cannot be properly understood. Do you really expect to be able to meditate on subjects such as these if you cannot think deeply and clearly? In fact, I would argue that without the ability to analyze and use critical thinking, even the compassion spoken of in Buddhism cannot be fully developed. Therefore the wisdom lineage, as in method and wisdom pervades the method lineage.

A teacher of mine – the late Gelug lama Geshe Jampa Gyatso – a great scholar and meditation master (at the time of his death, Geshe Jampa Gyatso remained in clear light for seven days) once said:

The Kadampa Geshes have a saying:
‘Meditating without having listened to teachings
is like someone without hands trying to climb a snow mountain’.

In order to fully appreciate the benefits of philosophical knowledge we need to draw a distinction between studying philosophy and doing philosophy. Much has been made of the worthiness of Buddhist scholars, that perhaps, they are merely academics with little understanding of the utility of Buddhist thought. Up to a point I agree with this claim. For instance, some say their knowledge of the dharma is merely knowledge for it’s own sake and that they often misunderstand the implicit meaning of the canonical texts. This sentiment has at times, caused me concern, for I feel it can be used by some Buddhist practitioners as an excuse to do no study at all. Although there will be times when a practitioner must focus almost exclusively on meditation, this is only after gaining a proper foundation in Buddhist thought. While it is true that some people think that meditation is all that is needed, and that philosophy is for teachers and academics, upon reflection this can be shown to be incorrect. However for those who may not intuitively see the benefits of doing philosophy, I will attempt to explain the difference.

Studying Philosophy vs Doing Philosophy

Studying is generally thought of as the act of analyzing a given subject as a means of understanding that subject. However, more often than not, we engage this process by merely learning definitions and divisions. We then think we know the material. If we are studying computer programming this method of study is fine. We will find suitable work and earn a living. However, this approach does not work when it comes to the study of dharma. Why? Because the purpose of studying dharma is not merely the collection of information. Understanding the dharma is not merely the ability to repeat the definitions and divisions of a given text.

Philosophical truths are not things that we look up in books; they are truths we acquire by hearing, reading, thinking, contemplation and meditation. If you merely report what someone else says, then you are not doing the thinking for yourself. Moreover, doing philosophy requires analysis and an ability to think critically. As Buddhist practitioners, we need to unearth the wisdom of an ancient tradition for ourselves. Therefore we need to think for ourselves. We are not reinventing the dharma wheel; we are discovering that wheel for ourselves.

Doing philosophy, is therefore, an investigation into the fundamental ideas and concepts we hold as true. We must challenge our everyday assumptions of personal identity, free-will and even if enlightenment is possible! Doing philosophy, for example, is taking the concept that all phenomena are dependent on causes and conditions, parts and an imputing consciousness, and critically and rigorously investigate these assertions to see if, in fact, this is the case. Being able to merely explain dependent-arising is therefore not doing philosophy and therefore I claim it is also not studying philosophy as it is from within the tradition.

However, this rigorous investigation is only part of the process of doing philosophy. Developing responses to these questions is an important component in this process. In the Nalanda tradition of ancient India and in the monastic traditions of Tibet, doing philosophy was engaged through debate. However, this does require the participants be in one place at the same time. Something that for Westerners is not possible. On the other hand, in western philosophy this same conversation of the rigorous questioning of our unchallenged assumptions takes place via a written essay. The essay is the central communication device. It is a tool used to tease out from our subconscious these assumptions. To investigate them and to formulate clear and concise thoughts on them. The written essay speaks our ideas, if you like. There is also the tradition in of other philosophers responding to our claims via their own essays. Bringing points of difference, counter-arguments and objections to the conversation. A conversation of “call and response” takes place, albeit over a longer period of time, that is similar to traditional debates.

I would like to see more of this type of conversation take place between western Buddhists. We, as a tradition , can leverage our own cultural heritage in the form of essay writing, and use it to benefit both Buddhism and our own understanding of it. Lets not leave this conversation to university professors and those from academia that merely engage it because it is interesting. Let us learn how to communicate as they do, and use these tools to forward the project of presenting Buddhism to the west.

There are also other benefits by communicating in this way. The most powerful of which is; writing as a means of learning. When writing in your own words for example, what is meditation, your thoughts on the subject need to be very clear. Writing is therefore a tool for learning and engaging the tradition. The other advantage is that others may also benefit from your efforts. This is something that western university philosophy departments have been acutely aware of for some time. Much emphasis is placed on the ability to think critically and write clearly. Because of the importance of these skills, students of western philosophy in universities are taught how to read and write critically.

Raising Possible Objections

An objection cold be raised here: one might say that knowledge for knowledge sake is a waste of time, as it adds to conceptualization. I would agree. However, this argument assumes that doing philosophy is knowledge for knowledge sake. This argument fails to recognize the distinction between the doing of philosophyand knowing lots of different stuff. As to whether wisdom will naturally arise through meditation: I believe,  even the action of meditation comes from learning it, be that directly from a meditation teacher or even from a book. Therefore, if one needs to hear, read and contemplate about such things, how can the ultimate nature of reality dawn without any guidance?

Another objection might be: those who debate minute details of, for example, the view of emptiness or the meaning of cessation are missing the point. That ultimate reality is beyond conceptualization and therefore, speaking, debating and discussing such things will not bear fruit. This argument might claim: just meditate. However, this fails to understand that discussion is part of the process of hearing, thinking and meditating. While it may be true that the direct cognition of emptiness is beyond words. That does not negate the benefits of investigating. Moreover, I would assert that in order for the direct non-conceptual cognition of emptiness to arise, it must be proceeded by a conceptual cognition, which is a union of calm-abiding and special insight. This union in turn is proceeded by thinking about the meaning of emptiness. So you can see from this, an understanding of the ultimate truth of all phenomena starts by deeply, clearly and critically contemplating the meaning of reality.

Yet another counter-argument might be: combining western and Buddhist philosophy will weaken the Buddhist tradition. However, I would suggest that if something is worth believing, it is worthy of critical analysis. If the basic assertions of Buddhism are true, then, these assertions will be validated when placed under critical analysis. I would also suggest that we are not conflating two traditions but rather, leveraging the tools of one tradition for the betterment of the other.


In this article, I have tried to posit the benefits of rigorous investigation and critical thinking as a means of gaining insights. That is to say, studying philosophy is not merely knowledge for knowledge sake. That it can in fact be an actual dharma practice. As much of the Buddhist path is made up of insights and perspectives. So if we are to achieve the paths to enlightenment, we need to develop these insights and perspectives. In order to do that, we need to challenge our everyday assumptions on how things exist – we must do philosophy.

What is Mindfulness?

Note: below I have described “mindfulness” as it is popularly known in modern cognitive psychology. This is but a small piece of the pie of the Buddhist practice called mindfulness.

Mindfulness is a technique usually spoken of in terms of meditation. However it can be defined as: being intentionally phenomenally aware of cognitive states. That is, being intentionally aware of your thoughts and actions in the present moment without placing values, labels or categories on these mental phenomena. It is a process of observing thoughts, feelings,, sensations, everything around you, and staying right here in the present moment.

Through the fog of conceptualization

Mindfulness meditation has been practiced by many different contemplative traditions for centuries. Its ability to shed insight into perception beyond the senses is well known in these traditions. However, only recently has the Western world, and science in particular, picked up on the role that mind plays in how we view ourselves and the world around us. Because most people are extremely busy these days, being aware of your thoughts and emotions in every moment is not simple. We can get caught up in our daily activities easily, sometimes going on autopilot for hours. Our mind can carry us from one idea to the next, without being truly aware of this process or even the individual thoughts themselves. We can get carried away with memories of the past and projections into the future. Have you ever experienced a train of thought that goes something like this: Remember that pizza from my New York holiday…oh but the seats were very uncomfortable …seats…I need a new chair…chairs…pool chairs…oh my god when I am going to get the pool cleaned…I never have enough time to myself. Does that seem familiar? You can go from having a memory of a lovely holiday to getting stressed by some unfinished work within seconds, and more importantly without even noticing each individual thought.

This mental chatter is a result of a lack of mindfulness. Being mindful, therefore, requires practice in order to master. One of the easiest ways to develop mindfulness is to meditate. It gives you the mental space required to focus on the process of every day normal consciousness. You don’t need to find a mountain retreat to meditate, you can practice mindfulness meditation at work, in a park or garden on your lunch break, on the train to work or even while walking. You don’t need to adopt a certain lifestyle or belief system. Mindfulness meditation can be practiced by anyone at anytime.

Recently, there has been a lot of research published on meditation. This science has shown the effects of mindfulness meditation on the brain, detailing just how the simple process of watching the breath or your thoughts can have remarkable positive effects on your health, blood pressure, improve your sleep, decrease stress levels and even improve your immune system.

We focus on emotion-related brain activity because meditation has been found in numerous studies to reduce anxiety and increase positive affect. In an extensive corpus of work on the functional neuroanatomical substrates of emotion and affective style, we have established that the frontal regions of the brain exhibit a specialization for certain forms of positive and negative emotion. Left-sided activation in several anterior regions is observed during certain forms of positive emotion and in subjects with more dispositional positive affect. – Professor Richard J. Davidson.

What is Mindfulness Meditation?

Mindfulness meditation is simply observing your thoughts through introspection. Bringing your awareness inside to the inner world of the mind, you let go of memories of the past or thoughts of the future. Simply watch your thoughts emerge and dissolve within the space of your mind without judgment. You can start by watching the breath. Watching the breath calms the mind. A meditator will then turn his or her attention to the mind itself. Watching thoughts, analyzing to determine the real nature of those thoughts and their functions. You can do this at any time by closing your eyes and turning your attention inward. Not only does meditation support your present life in terms of health, you will also become more productive and even more creative. Through mindfulness you will get to know who you are and why you do things.

Therefore, mindfulness is key to a flourishing life. Some may object at this point saying, “how can I find time to meditate? I’ve got too much to do to stop and idly watch my thoughts!” However, many studies have shown that mindfulness meditation reduces stress and anxiety. Which in turn, allows you to be more productive with greater efficacy, and with a higher level of satisfaction. So instead of meditation taking up time that could be better served working or “doing something”, meditation helps you get these things done more easily. Thus leaving you with more spare time not less.