Category Archives: Books

Blinded by Thought

Many years ago I taught myself to draw using a book called Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. Her premise is that anyone who can hold a pencil and make a straight line can draw. The problem is that we don’t see what is in front of us because our thinking mind – the left side of the brain – hijacks our perception. The mind thinks it already knows what things look like and that blinds it to the actuality.

Look at a straight-sided mug, for instance. It appears to have straight sides with an ellipse at the top and a partial ellipse at the bottom. But if you draw that you get pointy bits where the sides meet the top and bottom edges, whereas in reality these places are rounded.

The book contains a number of exercises to make you really look at things, such as drawing the irregular spaces between objects that the mind can’t guess at. I was amazed at how quickly my drawing improved once I learned to look.

Just so with our other perceptive faculties, for example listening. Those of us who teach will, I’m sure, have had the experience of explaining something perfectly clearly, and possibly more than once, only to find out later that a student thought we said something completely different because that was what they already had in their mind and so did not hear what we actually said.

Once we know that this is how our mind works we can cultivate the ability to let go of thought and perceive more clearly. Just as I could learn to see and draw more accurately, we can become aware of how our thoughts can prevent us from hearing what is being said, or understanding the reality of a situation. The following quote from Shunryu Suzuki in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind gives us a clue:

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.

P.S. If anyone has a spare copy of either of these books and would like to donate them to the library here at Sitting Buddha Hermitage I would be very grateful. (Please email before sending as I only need one copy of each!)

Right Speech

Campaigning for the general election is in full swing here in the UK and I can’t help being struck by the harshness of speech that has become the norm for politicians. I also feel deeply that it does not have to be this way.

In the Noble Eightfold Path the Buddha set out a complete guide to a compassionate way of living that will bring the most joy and fulfilment to oneself and others and lead to the realisation of our true nature. I believe these steps can be practised by anyone, whatever their walk of life and regardless of the way that their colleagues choose to conduct themselves.

One of the steps on the Path is right speech. In his book Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness, in the summary at the end of the chapter on Skilful Speech, Bhante Henepola Gunaratana lists some key points including this one:

The test of Skilful Speech is to stop and ask yourself before you speak: “Is it true? Is it kind? Is it beneficial? Does it harm anyone? Is this the right time to say something?”

I realise that this is a pretty tall order when in the midst of a lively conversation or debate, but the more one practises skilful speech in everyday life the more it becomes natural to speak in this way and, actually, to feel it keenly when one makes even a slight mistake and speaks in a harmful way.

Trying to put the Buddha’s teachings into practice we will often find ourselves going against the flow of what is considered normal behaviour, and it takes great courage and effort to do so. I am heartened by the few, exceptional, politicians that I have seen or heard of who can express themselves and their policies clearly and effectively without demeaning others. Such a person demonstrates to me a strength of character that is truly inspiring.

Two Books

img_0351I am reading a delightful book called The Book of Joy, by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. These two Nobel Peace Prize Laureates, and old friends, spent a week together in Dharamsala to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday and create this book which explores how to find joy in the face of the inevitable suffering in life. I found out about this book from one of my fellow monks who shares with me an appreciation of the importance of joy in the spiritual life.

The book also contains some brilliant photographs of the two of them together.



The second book I am reading is also, in its way, about joy. Written for those who find themselves caring at home for a family member with dementia, the author’s intention is to provide information that will help carers to let go of their rigidity and fear so that they, and the person they are caring for, can relax and enjoy each other’s companionship. I am finding it a very illuminating book which is having the unexpected benefit of removing some of the fears I have of what life would be like if I developed dementia. If I ever do develop it, I hope that whoever may be caring for me has read this book! The book is called Speaking Dementia, by Frena Gray-Davidson. Thank you to S for recommending it.


SL381007I returned on Sunday from a 10-day solitary retreat at Llannerchwen, a retreat centre in the Brecon Beacons that I visited for the first time last year. Here is the cottage I stayed in and the view across to the Beacons from my window (click to enlarge).

SL381006One of the books I took with me was Care of the Soul by the American psychologist and theologian Thomas Moore. He subscribes, he says, to the Renaissance approach of not separating psychology from religion.

He says of soul:

“Soul” is not a thing, but a quality or a dimension of experiencing life and ourselves. It has to do with depth, value, relatedness, heart and personal substance.

He writes about engaging with the activities of everyday life in a creative way, making something for the soul out of every experience. I wondered what it would be like to replace the term mindfulness with soulfulness? The latter term, to me, has a roundedness to it, a recognition of the depth of human experience, that the former term, mindfulness, perhaps lacks. When I remind myself to engage soulfully I feel more of a relatedness with my task, my environment and the people around me than when I simply try to be mindful. Perhaps it is just the novelty of a new way of looking at things, but I think it can be valuable to challenge one’s understanding and practice of basic Buddhist concepts, such as mindfulness, from time to time.

Introducing The Scripture of Great Wisdom

The Scripture of Great Wisdom, also known as the Heart Sutra, is probably the most well-known and the most frequently recited of all Buddhist scriptures. Its Sanskrit name is Prajnaparamita Hridaya Sutra. Prajnaparamita means the realisation, or the perfection, of wisdom, and hridaya means heart, in the sense of core or essence. It is the shortest and most succinct of a collection of Prajnapramita scriptures of varying lengths.

The author of the scripture is unknown, though it was likely that it was composed during the first century CE in Northern India or thereabouts. In the centuries following the Buddha’s death (he is believed to have died in 483 BCE or, alternatively, around 400 BCE) a body of analytical Buddhist texts known as Abhidharma was written, examining physical and mental phenomena – dharmas – in a systematic and technical way. Around the beginning of the Common Era, Mahayana Buddhism began to appear, emphasising the practice of prajna (wisdom) over jnana (knowledge). In his book The Heart Sutra (see below) Red Pine points out that the sequence of the lines of this scripture follows the exact sequence of conceptual categories used in the Sarvastivadin Abhidharma (the Sarvastivadins were one of the early Buddhist schools), and thus it would appear that the scripture was written as a direct reaction to the emphasis on jnana of these earlier schools.

The narrator of the scripture is the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, the personification of the enlightened quality of compassion, the one who hears the cries of the world and responds to the suffering of sentient beings. Avalokiteshvara is a major figure in the Mahayana tradition and therefore a very appropriate choice to voice this teaching.

The teaching is addressed to Shariputra, one of the Buddha’s actual disciples, who is said to have served as his chief assistant and was considered the foremost of the Buddha’s disciples in knowledge and possibly the founder of the Abhidharma tradition.

The theme of the scripture is the wisdom of emptiness, the word “emptiness” being a popular translation of the Sanskrit word shunyata. Rev. Master Jiyu translates shunyata as “pure” in the version of the scripture that we use in the OBC. Shunyata refers to the emptiness of separate, independent existence; all things are connected, nothing exists in isolation, just as a wave cannot exist apart from the ocean from which it arises. I’ll talk more about this doctrine in the next blog post and go through the scripture line by line. You can see the text of the scripture here: The Scripture of Great Wisdom

SL380964Here are three books on the Heart Sutra:

There Is No Suffering, by Chan Master Sheng Yen
The Heart Sutra, by Red Pine
The Heart Sutra, by Kazuaki Tanahashi

The books by Red Pine and Kazuaki Tanhashi are the source of much of the information in this post. They both contain a large amount of historical detail and scholarship in addition to analysis and commentary on the text of the scripture. The book by Chan Master Sheng Yen, in contrast, is primarily a commentary intended to encourage contemplation of the scripture in order to deepen one’s meditative practice.

Do Not Say That Which is Not True

This is the fourth Great Precept. Why would we deliberately say something that is not true? We do it because we want to avoid the consequences of the truth being known, and/or we think we can create a better outcome for ourselves or others by lying. Avoiding the truth obviously goes completely contrary to the Buddhist practice of seeking the truth, and thinking that we can gain by lying is a delusion built on the fundamental delusion of our separateness from others. If we wish to realise our oneness with all around us it will be obvious that deceit takes us in the opposite direction.

Lying is endemic, even accepted, in everyday speech. We may not even realise we are doing it. We lie when we exaggerate, we lie when we make assumptions, we lie from carelessness with our speech, we lie to save face. We also lie by omission. The Scripture of Brahma’s Net says:

Disciples of the Buddha, should you speak contrary to the truth, wilfully lead another to lie, encourage others to lie or boast, or participate in any way in lying or boasting, should you pretend to have seen what you have not seen or pretend not to have seen what you have seen, or should you express something contrary to the truth by some indication of  your body or mind, you are committing a serious offence…

This precept is the first of four precepts concerning speech, and right speech is one of the steps on the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path. Most of us would do well to pay more attention to what we say. Skilful speech involves not only speaking truthfully, but speaking gently and kindly and at the appropriate time and not indulging in mindless chatter.

Our view is always limited, there is so much more to this business of being a human being than we possibly can ever know, let alone express. This recognition, this humility, rather than silencing us, helps to free us in our endeavour to to be open and honest.

If you would like to read more about right speech, and indeed the whole of the Noble Eightfold Path, I thoroughly recommend the book Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana.

Studying the Precepts


Happy New Year everyone!

Last Wednesday was our first Sangha Evening of the year. We have decided to study the Precepts over the coming weeks and I will start by giving a general introduction next Wednesday. After that we will study one precept a week, which will give us the opportunity to pay particular attention to each precept as we go about our daily life in the week leading up to the discussion of it. I think this is a very effective way of getting a feel for the relevance of the Precepts in our lives and the depth of meaning contained in them.

For those who like to read up on things I recommend two extremely good books on the Precepts of the Soto Zen tradition. The first is The Heart of Being by John Daido Loori. It’s out of print at the moment, but you can buy the Kindle version or get hold of a second-hand copy. The other one is Being Upright by Reb Anderson. (I’m purposely not putting in links so you can go to your own favourite bookseller if you are interested.)

If you are interested in the history of how the Precepts evolved into the form they take in this tradition click on this link to an article on the subject, posted on the Shasta Abbey website and written by the late, and much missed, Rev. Master Daizui MacPhillamy.

A reminder for those of you who live near enough, that we have a day retreat here on Sunday 17th January – let me know a couple of days before if you’d like to come.

Thought Worlds

This morning, sitting in meditation with a headache, I caught myself thinking that I can’t meditate very well with a headache. The thought wasn’t there in words, so much as an attitude, or view, if you like, that I hold. Nevertheless, it is still thought and I realised I had created a thought-world of I can’t meditate properly with a headache, and when I asked myself if that was really true the answer, of course, was no, and immediately my experience of the meditation changed.

SL380938Lama Shenpen Hookham talks about thought-worlds in her book There’s More to Dying than Death. It is a book I often recommend to people who want to know more about the Buddhist perspective on death and dying. I gave away my copy some while back, and having recently recommended the book again I got another copy and am just now re-reading it. Describing meditation Lama Shenpen writes:

We see that each thought that arises is like a gate inviting us to go through into its world, which is like dying to one world and taking birth in another. … That thought-world has its own storyline of the past and future, its own value system, its own flavour and mood. It has its own story of who we are, and we find ourselves identifying with that. We have taken birth in it!

The first paragraph of the Shushogi, a compilation of the teachings of Great Master Dogen, says:

The most important question for all Buddhists is how to understand birth and death completely for then, should you be able to find the Buddha within birth and death, they both vanish. All you have to do is realise that birth and death, as such, should not be avoided and they will cease to exist for then, if you can understand that birth and death are Nirvana itself, there is not only no necessity to avoid them but also nothing to search for that is called Nirvana. The understanding of the above breaks the chains that bind one to birth and death therefore this problem, which is the greatest in all Buddhism, must be completely understood.

So I recommend Lama Shenpen’s book not just for its perspective on death, but for its relevance to the central question of Buddhism.

Reflections on Retreat


On Wednesday I returned from a two-week solitary retreat in a cottage near Snowdonia. The final few hundred yards access is by foot up a steep hillside and there are views across to Snowdonia. It was just me, and the birds and the sheep. So quiet and peaceful.

I had decided before I went that I wanted to use the time for reflection, to make a practice of sitting down with a notebook and a Dharma-related subject in mind and write down my reflections on it. This is not something I normally do and I wanted to see if I would find it helpful.

Reflection, in Buddhism, traditionally consists of three stages (1) hearing (or reading) the Dharma (2) thinking, or reflecting, on what one has heard/read and (3) silent contemplation, which is letting go of thinking and allowing one’s reflections sink in, as it were.

My experience of doing this as a formal practice over the last two weeks has made me want to pursue it further. Not only did I feel that I gained a deeper understanding of the subjects I reflected on, but spending time each day in reflection seemed to condition my mind to settle more readily when I sat to meditate, though of course the conditions I was in were very conducive to meditation.

If you are interested in the subject of reflection I can recommend a book called The Art of Reflection by Ratnaguna and published by Windhorse Publications, a copy of which was fortuitously at the cottage!

Yard Work

SL380897I’ve been out in the courtyard this morning tidying up the plant pots. Thank you T for this beautiful acer which I planted in a lovely big old metal tub that was already in the courtyard.

Earlier in the week I went to the library to pick up a book I had reserved online. The librarian stamped the date, then looked at the page for a few moments and said to me: the last time this book was borrowed was 38 years ago! SL380899

The day retreat on Sunday was well-attended and the next one will be on Sunday 25th October. The day starts at 10am and ends at 4pm and lunch is provided. Let me know at least a couple of days in advance if you’d like to come.