Saturday, February 4, 2012

Meditation and stress

One of the most common reasons that people cite for wanting to learn meditation is to reduce stress.

Stress is of course unavoidable, and the point of stress reduction and stress management programs is not to eliminate stress from our lives entirely. Life is always going to be full of challenges, and a life without some turmoil is not only impossible but is also undesirable.

Many stress therapists, of course, recognize that regular meditation and relaxation can be of significant help in reducing stress to manageable and healthy levels, and relaxation and meditation exercises are now widely taught. Many therapists and psychiatrists are taking up meditation themselves, not only so that they can teach it more effectively to others but in order to deal with the very stressful demands of their own jobs, which can result in burnout.

A considerable amount of research has shown that meditation has benefits on mental health, including a reduction in proneness to depression, an increase in emotional positivity, and an increased ability to deal with life’s inevitable stresses.

People often think of meditation as being nothing more than relaxation, and there is a famous book on meditation and health entitled “The Relaxation Response.” Meditation, however, not only involves relaxation (the cessation of unnecessary effort) but promotes mindfulness, which helps the stress-sufferer to recognize unhelpful patterns of thought that give rise to the stress response, and also involves the active cultivation of positive mental states such as lovingkindness, compassion, patience, and energy.

There are a number of books available that explore how meditation can help you to deal with your stress, and give information on “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction”, or MBSR, a program developed at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, which uses the principles of mindfulness meditation to help long-term pain sufferers learn to deal with their afflictions.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Thich Nhat Hanh

One of the best known and most respected Zen masters in the world today, poet, and peace and human rights activist, Thich Nhat Hanh (called Thây by his students) has led an extraordinary life. Born in central Vietnam in 1926 he joined the monkshood at the age of sixteen.

The Vietnam War confronted the monasteries with the question of whether to adhere to the contemplative life and remain meditating in the monasteries, or to help the villagers suffering under bombings and other devastation of the war. Nhat Hanh was one of those who chose to do both, helping to found the "engaged Buddhism" movement. His life has since been dedicated to the work of inner transformation for the benefit of individuals and society.

In Saigon in the early 60s, Thich Nhat Hanh founded the School of Youth Social Service, a grass-roots relief organization that rebuilt bombed villages, set up schools and medical centers, resettled homeless families, and organized agricultural cooperatives. Rallying some 10,000 student volunteers, the SYSS based its work on the Buddhist principles of non-violence and compassionate action. Despite government denunciation of his activity, Nhat Hanh also founded a Buddhist University, a publishing house, and an influential peace activist magazine in Vietnam.

After visiting the U.S. and Europe in 1966 on a peace mission, he was banned from returning to Vietnam in 1966. On subsequent travels to the U.S., he made the case for peace to federal and Pentagon officials including Robert McNamara. He may have changed the course of U.S. history when he persuaded Martin Luther King, Jr. to oppose the Vietnam War publicly, and so helped to galvanize the peace movement. The following year, King nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize. Subsequently, Nhat Hanh led the Buddhist delegation to the Paris Peace Talks.

In 1982 he founded Plum Village, a Buddhist community in exile in France, where he continues his work to alleviate suffering of refugees, boat people, political prisoners, and hungry families in Vietnam and throughout the Third World. He has also received recognition for his work with Vietnam veterans, meditation retreats, and his prolific writings on meditation, mindfulness, and peace.

He has published some 85 titles of accessible poems, prose, and prayers, with more than 40 in English, including the best selling Call Me by My True Names, Peace Is Every Step, Being Peace, Touching Peace, Living Buddha Living Christ, Teachings on Love, The Path of Emancipation, and Anger. In September 2001, just a few days after the suicide terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, he addressed the issues of non-violence and forgiveness in a memorable speech at Riverside Church in New York City. In September of 2003 he addressed members of the US Congress, leading them through a two-day retreat.

Thich Nhat Hanh continues to live in Plum Village in the meditation community he founded, where he teaches, writes, and gardens; and he leads retreats worldwide on "the art of mindful living."

Thich Nhat Hanh's key teaching is that, through mindfulness, we can learn to live in the present moment instead of in the past and in the future. Dwelling in the present moment is, according to Nhat Hanh, the only way to truly develop peace, both in one's self and in the world.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Dhammapada

The Dhammapada, an anthology of 423 verses, has long been recognised as one of the masterpieces of early Buddhist literature. From ancient times to the present, the Dhammapada has been regarded as the most succinct expression of the Buddha's teaching found in the Theravada Pali Canon of scriptures known as the Khuddaka Nikaya ("Minor Collection") of the Sutta Pitaka.

Buddhist tradition has it that shortly after the passing of the Buddha his disciples met in council for the purpose of recalling to mind the truths they had received from their beloved Teacher during the forty-five years of his ministry. Their hope was to implant the principles of his message so firmly in memory that they would become a lasting impetus to moral and spiritual conduct, for themselves, their disciples, and for all future disciples who would seek to follow in the footsteps of the Awakened One.

With the Teacher no longer among them, the monks found themselves with the responsibility of handing on the teaching as faithfully as possible. Having no written texts to rely on, they did as their ancestors had before them and prepared their discourses for recitation, that is, basic themes were repeated with variations in order to impress the ideas on their hearers. At that time, according to the Sinhalese, the Dhammapada was orally assembled from the sayings of Gautama Buddha given on some three hundred different occasions.

Subsequently, several renditions of the Dhammapada in the Sanskrit and Chinese languages came into circulation. Likewise, a number of stanzas are to be found almost verbatim in other texts of the canonical literature, testifying to the esteem in which its content was anciently held. Since first collated, the Dhammapada has become one of the best loved of Buddhist scriptures, recited daily by millions of devotees who chant its verses in Pali or in their native dialect.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Symbol of Zen

The classic symbol for Zen is the enso. It is known as the circle of enlightenment. In the sixth century a text named the Shinhinmei refers to the way of Zen as a circle of vast space, lacking nothing, and nothing in excess. At first glance the ancient enso zen symbol appears to be nothing more than a circle. But it's symbolism referrs to the beginning and end of all things, the circle of life, and the connectedness of existense.

It is said that in the hands of a Zen master the power of the enso symbol for Zen is released, helping those who meditate upon it to reach a higher level of consciousness. It is used as a symbol of enlightenment. Zen masters often brush paint an enso for their student to meditate upon. The quality of the brushwork is said to reveal the depth of the master's enlightenment.

There are two common symbol for zen enso's. One is a brushstroke of a closed circle. The closed circle represents the totality of experience and life. The other is a brushstroke of a circle with one small opening. The open circle represents the imperfection found in all things, and suggests to the student to stop striving for perfection and instead to allow the universe to be as it is.

The open circle is a concept that reflects closely with Japanese Zen Buddhism. The Japanese concept of wabi sabi is that all things are perfect as they are. An analogy is a peasant's jar, mishapen, chipped and worn through years of daily use. Although it may not be as pleasing visually as a pristine carefully crafted jar, it is said to stimulate the mind and emotions, stimulate the spirit of a person to contemplate the essence of reality. As with everything related to Zen, there is a beautiful simplicity to the traditional enso, both the open and closed versions.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Taoist Canon

Taoism remains the only major religion whose canonical texts have not been systematically arranged and made available for study. This long-awaited work, a milestone in Chinese studies, catalogs and describes all existing texts within the Taoist canon. The result will not only make the entire range of existing Taoist texts accessible to scholars of religion, it will open up a crucial resource in the study of the history of China.

The vast literature of the Taoist canon, or Daozang, survives in a Ming Dynasty edition of some fifteen hundred different texts. Compiled under imperial auspices and completed in 1445—with a supplement added in 1607—many of the books in the Daozang concern the history, organization, and liturgy of China's indigenous religion. A large number of works deal with medicine, alchemy, and divination.

If scholars have long neglected this unique storehouse of China's religious traditions, it is largely because it was so difficult to find one's way within it. Not only was the rationale of its medieval classification system inoperable for the many new texts that later entered the Daozang, but the system itself was no longer understood by the Ming editors; hence the haphazard arrangement of the canon as it has come down to us.

This new work sets out the contents of the Daozang chronologically, allowing the reader to follow the long evolution of Taoist literature. Lavishly illustrated, the first volume ranges from antiquity through the Middle Ages, while the second spans the modern period. Within this frame, texts are grouped by theme and subject. Each one is the subject of a historical abstract that identifies the text's contents, date of origin, and author. Throughout the first two volumes, introductions outline the evolution of Taoism and its spiritual heritage. A third volume offering biographical sketches of frequently mentioned Taoists, multiple indexes, and an extensive bibliography provides critical tools for navigating this guide to one of the fundamental aspects of Chinese culture.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Wei Wu Wei

Between the years 1958 and 1974 a series of eight books appeared attributed to the mysterious 'Wei Wu Wei'. In addition to these texts there were pieces contributed to various periodicals during the 1960's, including 'The Mountain Path', a periodical dedicated to the teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi, 'The Middle Way', the U.K. Buddhist Society's journal, and 'Etre Libre', a French-language periodical published in Brussels. These works draw on a variety of sources, including Taoism, specifically the texts attributed to Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu, Buddhism, especially The Heart, Diamond and Lankavatara Sutras, and Chan Buddhism as taught by Hui Neng, Huang Po, Hui Hai, etc., as well as the teachings of Padma Sambhava and Sri Ramana Maharshi, among others.

The identity of 'Wei Wu Wei' was not revealed at the time of publication for reasons outlined in the Preface to the first book 'Fingers Pointing Towards the Moon' (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1958). This well-considered anonymity will be respected here, though a few background details may help to put the writings into context. 'Wei Wu Wei' was born in 1895 into a well-established Irish family, was raised on an estate outside Cambridge, England, and received a thorough education, including studies at Oxford University. Early in life he pursued an interest in Egyptology which culminated in the publication of two books on ancient Egyptian history and culture in 1923. This was followed by a period of involvement in the arts in Britain in the 20's and 30's as a theorist, theatrical producer, creator of radical 'dance-dramas', publisher of several related magazines and author of two related books. He was a major influence on many noted dramatists, poets and dancers of the day, including his cousin Ninette de Valois, founder of the Royal Ballet (which in fact had its origin's in his own dance troupe at the Cambridge Festival Theatre which he leased from 1926-33).

After he had apparently exhausted his interest in this field to a large extent, his thoughts turned towards philosophy and metaphysics. This led to a period of travel throughout Asia, including time spent at Sri Ramana Maharshi's ashram in Tiruvannamalai, India. In 1958, at the age of 63, he saw the first of the 'Wei Wu Wei' titles published. The next 16 years saw the appearance of seven subsequent books, including his final work under the further pseudonym 'O.O.O.' in 1974. During most of this later period he maintained a residence with his wife in Monaco. He is believed to have known, among others, Lama Anagarika Govinda, Dr. Hubert Benoit, John Blofeld, Douglas Harding, Robert Linssen, Arthur Osborne, Robert Powell and Dr. D. T. Suzuki. He died in 1986 at the age of 90.

'Wei Wu Wei's influence, while never widespread, has been profound upon many of those who knew him personally, upon those with whom he corresponded, among them British mathematician and author G. Spencer-Brown and Galen Sharp (see 'Links'), as well as upon many who have read his works, including Ramesh Balsekar.

It is apparent from his writings that 'Wei Wu Wei' had studied in some depth both Eastern and Western philosophy and metaphysics, as well as the more esoteric teachings of all the great religions. It can also be understood from the writings that he regarded himself as merely one of many seeking so-called 'liberation', the works themselves being seen in part as a record of this quest.

The attitude adopted towards the writings is perhaps best indicated by the following quote from an introductory note to 'Open Secret' (Hong Kong University Press, 1965):

'The writer of these lines has nothing whatsoever to teach anyone; his words are just his contribution to our common discussion of what must inevitably be for us the most important subject which could be discussed by sentient beings.'

Wednesday, January 11, 2012


Tao (pronounced "dao") means literally "the path" or "the way." It is a universal principle that underlies everything from the creation of galaxies to the interaction of human beings. The workings of Tao are vast and often beyond human logic. In order to understand Tao, reasoning alone will not suffice. One must also apply intuition.

In the study of Tao, the most well known source material is Tao Te Ching (pronounced "Dao De Jing") by the ancient sage Laozi, a.k.a. Lao Tzu. Other influential writers were: Zhuangzi and Liezi.

Some of Lao Tzu's most significant teachings are as follows:
  • Non-contention. Lao Tzu noted that violence and conflict, no matter how tightly controlled, could not help but cause negative side effects. The Tao ideal is to solve problems through peaceful means.
  • Non-action. The foolish expend a great deal of energy and time trying to do everything and end up achieving nothing. On the other end of the spectrum, the truly wise don't seem to do much at all and yet achieve whatever they want. This magic is possible, indeed unavoidable, when one is in tune with the Tao and acts without attachments.
  • Non-intention. So often we perform virtuous deeds hoping to receive praise or recognition. That's no virtue at all. True virtue is a state where such actions flow forth naturally, requiring no conscious effort or thought.
  • Simplicity. The basis for our reality and our existence is elemental and uncomplicated. Human beings create a lot of trouble for themselves by making everything more complex than they need to be. If we learn to simplify our lives, we can experience a profound satisfaction that is infinitely more meaningful than the rewards of the material world.
  • Wisdom. Logic has its place in human affairs but isn't everything. There is a limit to what we can understand through rationality and reasoning. To transcend that limit, we need to engage our intuition fully. This is the key to insights as opposed to knowledge, and the difference between living the Tao and reading all about it.
  • Humility. The more you learn, the more you realize there's still so much more to learn. This tends to make you humble. Arrogance and egotism come from ignorance - knowing a little bit and assuming you know a lot.
  • Duality. Lao Tzu pointed out that all qualities in the world possess meaning only by the existence of their opposites. Something can only be big if there is something else that is small by comparison. "Good" exists in the world so long as "evil" exists as well. One cannot do without the other.

Is Taoism a Religion?
Taoism certainly has a religious aspect. However, in this web site we concentrate on the philosophical aspect, which can be compatible with other religions. Many Christians, for instance, freely explore the concepts of Taoism and add whatever they think is useful to their own beliefs. The idea is to explore and learn the correct way or the better way to live and to conduct our personal affairs by understanding some of the principles that govern our lives.