Tuesday, 19 May 2009

an Inn for All

Realisation: The Palace that Became an Inn for All

A respected monk arrived at the gates of a King's grand palace. Due to his great fame, none of the guards dared to halt him as he entered the hall where the King was seated on his throne. The following conversation ensued.

King: Dear Venerable Sir, how may I assist you?
Monk: I would like somewhere to spend the night in this inn.

King: You have mistaken! This is no inn - it's my palace!

Monk: Who owned this place before you?

King: My late father.

Monk: And who ruled it before him?

King: My grandfather, who is also deceased.

Monk: If this is where people come to live only for a while before leaving, why is it not an inn?

King: I am so sorry! This is indeed an inn. Your stay is most welcome!

The monk had wanted to remind the King of the irrefutable truth of transience, of all things material and even mental, of the fleeting nature of his life, wealth and status - despite wielding great power. Similar to the King, wherever we live, be it a big house or a small apartment, is like a hotel. Even the most valuable material things within are but items in a hotel, temporally 'loaned' to us for use. As much as we might wish to live in this hotel forever, we can never - unless we realise the path to transcend the cycle of life and death. Even this body that we have, which we think is ours to rule over is a hotel which we live in, for usually less than a hundred more years! If so, may we use 'our' body wisely and share 'our' posessions kindly!
- Shen Shi'an

I received this recently on one of the
Daily Enlightenment weekly emails and it gave me cause for reflection. What I saw was that I really don't treat my own home as well as I would treat an "Inn for All". In fact I pay much much less attention to the cleanliness and tidiness of "my own spaces" than I do to other places. For example, when I stay with my fiancée at her friend's flat, as we often do over weekends, we usually dedicate an hour or even two to cleaning the place before we leave it. We are both very grateful for the weekend loan of the flat and we do our best to leave it in a tidier and cleaner state than how we receive it. And this is not to say it is ever untidy or unclean when we get there! And I really enjoy this cleaning time we have together, it is very meditative and a nice way to offer gratitude.

So what is missing when it comes to treating "my own space" as an "Inn for All" and putting in the extra effort and love to express the respect and gratitude I feel?

I'm not sure yet actually, but I can certainly see it is missing in many areas - "my" (rented) house, "my" garden, "my" car, "my" work space... I keep
all of these relatively tidy and relatively clean, but not to the degree that I can say they are always an expression of my respect and gratitude and ready to hand over to the next (royal?) occupant!

Sunday, 3 May 2009

Strive for higher self-esteem

Excerpt: Should We Strengthen Our Sense of 'Self'

Psychotherapists tell us we should have a healthy sense of self. Should strengthening our sense of self be part of Buddhist practice?

A: People working in the field of psychology often speak of our having a sense of self. But when there is a self, one tends to compare it to other selves. Out of that comparison come the ideas of low self-esteem, high self-esteem, inferiority, superiority, and equality. Low self-esteem is considered to be detrimental. We're told to strive for higher self-esteem. But high self-esteem can also be harmful. The complex of superiority brings unhappiness. It's not a compliment to say, "He's full of himself." The person with high self-esteem can make himself and others suffer. The desire to be equal, to be "just as good as" someone, also brings unhappiness. Only the person who is empty of self is happy; he has no jealousy, no hatred, no anger, because there is no self to compare.

According to the Buddha's teaching, the self is the foundation of sickness. There are many negative mental formations; when they manifest they make us and others suffer. And there are many positive mental formations that can improve our quality of being and increase our concentration and insight. We practice in order to strengthen these positive mental formations, rather than to strengthen our "sense of self." The practice of mindfulness will help these energes to manifest, and you will have a better equality of being... Mindfulness is the energy that helps us to be truly present. When you are truly present, you are more in control of situations, you have more love, patience, understanding, and compassion. That strengthens and improves your quality of being. It can be very healing to touch your true nature of no-self. Psychotherapy can learn a lot from this teaching

Thich Nhat Hanh from Answers from the Heart: Practical Responses to Burning Questions (Parallax Press)

Received in The Daily Enlightenment's weekly Buddhist email newsletter 30.04.09.

When I first read this I was struck by a couple of things that this seemed to contradict.
  • I wasn't entirely in agreement with the apparent definition of "self-esteem" being used, I tend to view "self-esteem" as the view or opinion we hold of our own value, with little reference or comparison to other people. Obviously it will be relative to others to some degree, but not particularly in the sense of feeling we are better or worse than someone else.
  • In teachings I have received through the Western Chan Fellowship, including those of Master Sheng Yen, the instructions have been that we must first gather the mind before we will be able to transcend the mind and a state of no-mind might arise. This is often related to our sense of self in that it is first necessary to gain a clear and strong sense of self ("a healthy sense of self") before we are able to transcend this and a state of no-self might arise. Awareness starts with the self, then the question of what this "self" is follows. (However, to be clear, the underlying motivation is never to gain a stronger sense of self.)
These were first reactions though and on further reflection, the second paragraph really pulls it all together for me and I can see that what TNH is teaching doesn't really contradict the teachings I have received. I appreciate how he distinguishes the ideas of negative and positive mental formations in the Buddha's teaching from the idea of self and I find this has a valuable sense of clarity.

I also re-examined my ideas around "self-esteem" and noticed that my first reaction was a defensive response to the challenge of TNH's words. Actually I am fully in agreement with what he teaches and have in fact reflected on this before. Low self-esteem and high self-esteem are both forms of self-cherishing.

What I take in conclusion from this excerpt is: "
Mindfulness ... strengthens and improves your quality of being."

[I think this is probably also a good reminder that reading an except from a book doesn't necessarily give the whole picture being presented!]