Sunday, 21 May 2017


Park Kunsunim: highly trusted teacher
Ideally you need a meditation teacher, but not any teacher, a knowledgeable teacher and one you trust also. A tall order especially as many who set themselves up as teachers are ego-driven with little or no insight creating an epistemic catch-22.

This catch-22 is a problem since to assess a potential teacher you need to find someone who knows a lot more than you, is more spiritually advanced then you,  with much to offer, but to know this you need to be closer to enlightenment than they are. This is analogous to the advice paradox: in order to know who to go to for advice, you practically have to already know what kind of advice you'll get and that it is the right type, in which case you already know what advice you will hear.
Legendary teacher:
Taego Kunsunim

One thing that we should ask ourselves is, "What is in it for Buddhist teachers?" Why do they want pupils so badly? Is wanting students counter-evidence to their suitability?  If so, when, and how can you tell?

This being so, and given how rare it will be that an individual will have just enough spiritual knowledge to be able to identify a teacher that is good enough to thoroughly and reliably trust, it is doubtful that beginners are best served by being told to not proceed along the path without teachers. Better advice, perhaps, for beginners would be to be wary of teachers, of those who profess to know the way, but to consider the potential benefits of a trustworthy teacher as one advances enough to be able to recognize one.

Perhaps even better advice is to make sure as you practice and evolve yourself you are surrounded by a variety of teachers who identify with solid traditions which contain a core of people who have gained enlightenment. Lone wolfs are usually alone for a reason and there's much benefit in organizations with deep roots and solid foundations.

This article was co-authored by BupSahn Sunim and Professor Rick Repetti after a private conversation about the difficulty of finding a suitable teacher.  Professor Repetti is professor at New York City University and Kingsborough Community College and has professional interests in the areas of agency, ethics, philosophy of religion, Buddhism, and contemplative practices.

Saturday, 20 May 2017


The Buddhist version of the Dark Night of the Soul is little advertised (for obvious reasons) but universally experienced by advanced meditators. In Buddhist terminology the Dark Night is called the dukkha-nana (dukkha meaning suffering, and nana, pronounced "yah-nuh," meaning knowledge.)

In the tradition, there have been many formulations of this process found in both the Theravada and Mahayana. The experience of the Dark Night is a process where the mediator becomes inconsolable where nothing in life feels worthwhile, and everything seems pointless to an intensity that seems bottomless. It’s an experience of the fundamental suffering of duality causing a crisis of identity. The duration of this process varies from days to years and “some may get run over by it on one retreat, fall back, and then pass through it with no great difficulties sometime later. Others may struggle for years to learn its lessons” (Ingram, 2007). In the Zen tradition this stage is called 'rolling up the mat' because the yogin finds they can no longer meditate and wants to quit the whole process.

The Vimuttimagga (解脫道論) is an early meditation manual by the arahant Upatissa (Sayadaw, 1994) and describes the stage of ‘misery’ thus:

[T]he "knowledge of misery" will arise in him before long. [Then all] objects noticed, or ...states of consciousness engaged in noticing, or in any kind of life or existence ...will appear insipid, ...and unsatisfying. So he sees, at that time, only suffering, only unsatisfactoriness, only misery. Therefore this state is called "knowledge of misery."

Another stage is described as the knowledge of misery:

“Seeing thus the misery in conditioned things (formations), his mind finds no delight in those miserable things but is entirely disgusted with them. [H]is mind becomes, as it were, discontented and listless. [He] spends his time continuously engaging in it. He therefore should know that this state of mind is not dissatisfaction with meditation, but is precisely the "knowledge of disgust" that has the aspect of being disgusted with the formations. Even if he directs his thought to the happiest sort of life and existence, or to the most pleasant and desirable objects, his mind will not take delight in them, will find no satisfaction in them.”

When in this state it is pretty bad with pains, sickness and unbelievable suffering and it is impossible to even to meditate which is exactly what you need to keep doing. In the Zen tradition, this part of the path is called the “rolling up of the mat” for just that reason because there is a great desire to quit the whole process and for me I really did resign from the sangha, and quit being Buddhist for about one year only later to rejoin. Again from the Vimuttimagga:

“[T]here will usually arise in his body various kinds of pains which are severe, sharp, and of growing intensity. Hence his whole bodily and mental system will seem to him like an unbearable mass of sickness or a conglomeration of suffering. And a state of restlessness will usually manifest itself, making him incapable of keeping to one particular posture for any length of time. For then he will not be able to hold any one position long, but will soon want to change it.” 

This can be considered “the entrance to the third vipassana jhana, or perhaps its the entrance to the fourth vipassana jhana” (Ingram, 2007). The worst thing is the Dark Night begins after a period of profound clarity, equanimity, bliss, focus and mystical style experiences.

For people practising in a monastic setting the dukkha-nana would be recognized and worked through but in a secular setting it is not always so easy and hence one reason why a teacher with knowledge and experience is so needed on the path answering common questions about mediation and the necessity of a teacher. Well, look at it like this: you can lift heavy weights by yourself and that works until the day that something goes wrong such as pulling a muscle and finding there’s no-one around who can help you up or call an ambulance. Well, there are dips in meditation and without a knowledgable teacher to help you though it it can be extremly difficult and it is not recommended.


Mahasi Sayadaw, 1994, The Progress of Insight (Visuddhiñana-katha),, accessed 4/2/2017
Ingram, Daniel, 2007, THE CORE TEACHINGS OF THE BUDDHA: An Unusually Hardcore Dharma Book,



"Boycott the news" would be my paraphrase of Buddha's advice to serious meditators. This is, I contend, good advice since 'right-intention' means renunciation from those things that poison your brain including drink, drugs, TV, politics and so on.  

More specifically, Buddha said that monks and serious mediators should not get involved in politics [1] and only talk of the Dharma or keep silent [2].  Elsewhere Buddha outlined that one should not even get involved in talk of worldly things ranging from politics to food [3]. 

Buddha says among the conversations one should avoid are about "kings, robbers, & ministers of state; armies, alarms, & battles; food & drink; clothing, furniture, garlands, & scents; relatives; vehicles; villages, towns, cities, the countryside; women & heroes; the gossip of the street & the well; tales of the dead; tales of diversity, the creation of the world & of the sea; talk of whether things exist or not."  [3]  In fact, what Buddha said monks and serious mediators should talk about is "modesty, contentment, seclusion, non-entanglement, arousing persistence, virtue, concentration, discernment, release, and the knowledge & vision of release."   [3] 
 Now clearly one piece of advice will not fit every situation but generally right-intention means maximising ones ability to practice concentration and mindfulness and it seems to me that more often than not the news is as detremental to ones mental wellbeing as a crack-pipe or sordid love afair.   After all, in the media bad news far outweighs good news by as much as seventeen negative news reports for every good report (Williams, 2014).  Despite our draw to bad news (see appendix 1) it is actually harmful to our health through stress (Dobelli, 2013) or the nocebo effect (see Appendix 2).  Research has shown that negative news makes people think and talk more about their worries (Graham C.L. Davey, 2012) (Davey*, 1997) and triggers persisting negative psychological effects (Szabo A, 2007). In addition, it offers no explanatory power, is misleading and helps confirm our biases and prejudices (Enny Dasa, 2009) (Network, n.d.) (Xiang, 2007) and makes us passive, kills creativity, increases cognitive errors (McGrail, 1992) and wastes time (Dobelli, 2013).
[1] A Fistful of Sand by Ajaan Suwat Suvaco
[2} SN 21.1
[3} AN 10.69
Center, B. W. (2013, 09 13). Berkley University. Retrieved from power-negative thinking: 
Davey*, W. M. (1997, 02). The psychological impact of negative TV news bulletins: The catastrophizing of personal worries. British Journal of Psychology, 88(1), 85-91. 
Dobelli, R. (2013, 04 12). The Guardian. Retrieved from News Is Bad: 
Enny Dasa, B. J. (2009). How terrorism news reports increase prejudice against outgroups: A terror management account. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45(3), 453–459. 
Graham C.L. Davey, P. (2012, 06 19). the-psychological-effects-tv-news. Retrieved from Psychology Today: 
McGrail, M. A. (1992). Political Psychology. International Society of Political Psychology, 13(4), 613-632. Stafford, T. (2014, 07 29). why-is-all-the-news-bad. Retrieved from BBC: 
Szabo A, H. K. (2007). Negative psychological effects of watching the news on the television: relaxation or another intervention may be needed to buffer them! International Journal of Behaviour, 14(2), 57-62. 
Williams, R. B. (2014, 09 19). why-we-love-bad-news. Retrieved from Psychology Today: 
APPENDIX ONE (Stafford, 2014) – we like negative news! 
One study by Trussler and Soroka invited participants from their university to come to the lab for "a study of eye tracking".  The volunteers were first asked to select some stories about politics to read from a news website so that a camera could make some baseline eye-tracking measures. It was important, they were told, that they actually read the articles, so the right measurements could be prepared, but it didn't matter what they read. After this ‘preparation’ phase, they watched a short video (the main purpose of the experiment as far as the subjects were concerned, but it was in fact just a filler task), and then they answered questions on the kind of political news they would like to read. 
The results of the experiment, as well as the stories that were read most, were somewhat depressing. Participants often chose stories with a negative tone – corruption, set-backs, hypocrisy and so on – rather than neutral or positive stories. People who were more interested in current affairs and politics were particularly likely to choose the bad news. 
And yet when asked, these people said they preferred good news. On average, they said that the media was too focussed on negative stories. 
APPENDIX TWO (Center, 2013) – Nocebo effect 
Expectation and belief can be powerful forces in sickness and health. This is the basis of the placebo effect, which occurs when people experience an improvement in symptoms after they take a placebo (a dummy pill or sham treatment). But what if your expectations are negative? That’s when the placebo’s dark twin—the nocebo effect—can come into play. Negative expectations, fears and anxiety can actually make people feel ill.  
The nocebo effect explains why media reports about health risks, however unfounded, can themselves cause some people to experience adverse effects. This was seen in a recent German study in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research, which looked at “electromagnetic hypersensitivity,” a highly questionable condition in which people report experiencing vague symptoms when exposed to low-energy electromagnetic fields (EMFs) emitted by cell phones, power lines, Wi-Fi and appliances.  
The study involved 147 participants, half of whom watched a documentary about the potential harms of EMFs; the other half, the control group, watched an unrelated film. Then they were all fitted with a headband with a mounted antenna that, they were told, was connected to a Wi-Fi router and would “bring the signal as close to your body as possible.” But, in fact, there was no Wi-Fi and no EMF exposure. Still, people who watched the EMF documentary, especially those who rated high on an anxiety scale beforehand, were much more likely to report symptoms such as agitation, loss of concentration and tingling in their limbs and to attribute them to EMFs. Two participants left the study because their symptoms were so severe. Over the years there have been concerns that EMFs may cause cancer, but research results have for the most part been reassuring. EMF hypersensitivity, on the other hand, is without merit. When studied, people who claim to have the condition react similarly to genuine and sham fields.  
It’s hard to avoid the nocebo effect, because everyone is suggestible to some extent, and it occurs unconsciously. It’s important to know about potential health risks, of course, but try to watch out for your negative expectations, particularly if you’re prone to worrying. And beware of sensationalized media reports of new purported health hazards.

Saturday, 13 May 2017


The Mahayana Buddhist tradition is as authentic as any other Buddhist tradition is the argument set out in this short but compact essay. This essay argues that the sharp split between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism is a modern invention brought about by political power struggles between competing dynasties in 10th century Asia and anti-colonial activities in the 19th and 20th centuries and for millennia the practices coexisted, intermingled and have a common origin. Further, the Mahayana sutras were written down before the Pali-canon and furthermore, we actually do not have any record of the real words and deeds of the historical Shakyamuni and what we have instead are ideas preserved from multi-faceted and authentic Buddhist traditions.

The Theravada tradition has long held that their version of Buddhism is the original type but this is more about advertising and self-image rather than a true representation and our earliest records of ancient India show that monks and nuns of the Theravada and Mahayana traditions worked, lived, studied, prayed and coexisted together and “there is no evidence that there was any kind of Buddhist monk other than one associated with a Sectarian [i.e., nikāya] ordination lineage” (Silk, 2002) in the early tradition.

This process of monks, nuns and laymen practising a mixture of Theravada and Mahayana proceeded throughout all Asia until the tenth century where a reform movement in Southern Asia attempted to establish Theravada as a movement that was avowedly non-Mahayana (Walters 1997a) despite Southern Asia often having been previously prominently Mahayana including the entire Mahayana gambit including Tantrayana practices (Preach, 2003.) Even after the 10th century reform movements Mahayana practices continued in South Asia and as late as 19th-century visitors to Theravada countries recounted monks still using Mahayana practices (Skilton, 2004, p141.)

There is an abundance of archaeological evidence of the large scale of the Mahayana in Sri-Lanka, Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam we can still find Mahayana stupas, statues, monasteries, mantras, and Mahayana texts deposited in stupas. And although it is difficult to summarize the history of several countries in a single sentence I think it’s fair to say that the modern-day emphasis of Theravada in South Asia is largely an outcome of anti-colonial struggles in the 19th and 20th centuries and the efforts to establish strong monarchies in these countries which gave the impression of historical continuity with the ancient past and a sense of ideological purity

It is also worth remembering that texts that identify themselves as Mahayana were written down as early as the second century BCE (Williams, 2000, p21) (Guthin, 1989 p255) much earlier than the Pali-canon which was written down in 29 BCE. Modern scholars have even sometimes described the Mahayana as the ‘cult of the book’ for their enthusiasm for writing down their sutras, but despite this difference for centuries both Mahayana and non-Mahayana monks studied and worked side-by-side in the same monasteries (Williams, 2000, p71) (Harvey, 2013, p112) and there was not really any schism, conflict or antagonism between the different types of practice.

All of the most ancient Mahayana sutra manuscripts that have come to light were discovered in collections in which most of the manuscripts contain non-Mahayana texts (Allon, 2010) and as late as the seventh century Chinese pilgrims visiting Indian temples noted that Mahayanists were people who worship Bodhisattvas and read Mahayana sutras, and specifically stated that the nikāyas cannot be classified as Hinayana or Mahayana (cf, I Ching).

Just like the original words of Socrates, Jesus or other historical figures we do not have the original words of Buddha anywhere. And while it is the fashionable scholarly opinion that the jist of the Pali-canon originates from the Buddha there were clearly many additions and redactions. At the very most we can say that only the main ideas that are repeated often are really the ideas expressed by the Buddha. Even apologists admit that “the texts bear all the marks of redaction and editing”, and there are “cases where the editorial hand seems to have added interpretations to existing ideas” (Brahmali) and thus even the keenest defenders admit redactions and additions. 
 So great is the historical problem that scholarly guesses as to when the Buddha alive span a time period of six hundred years (from the 5th to 11th centuries BCE) with many scholars concluding that ‘it is impossible to construct an original form of Buddhism from modern-day examples because the change that has occurred has been too great’ since the Buddhist Canon is full of "discrepancies and contradictions" (Crabtree, 2011.) To make matters worse after more than two centuries of scholarship have failed to establish anything about the historical Buddha who has not been linked to any historical facts, an idea that would seem decidedly unempirical, and only dubiously coherent.

What should also be clear is that most of what is contained in the Pali-cannon show all the hallmarks of being added at a later date and this is not surprising as it was written down hundreds of years after the life of the Buddha in a foreign country and in a foreign language (the Buddha did not speak Pali but something quite different probably something related to the language of Kosala or Magadhi). In a way it is completely wrong to assume that the Pali-cannon is any more original than the Mahayana cannon as both traditions did not think they were preserving historical events but an idea or philosophy. It did not seem strange to them to add saying and events to explain what they understood Buddha said and what he was.

In addition the Pali-cannon there is a rival cannon from the Sarvastivada School of early Buddhism that still exists and thus rival stories of the Buddha can be compared. In fact, since the Sarvastivada School wrote down the sutras earlier than the Pali-canon in a language closer to what the Buddha taught it has a claim to be more original. Even in the Sarvastivada sour,ces, we do not have the real words of the Buddha but it’s interesting to compare them and we find large differences such as the Buddha not allowing monks to eat meat as the Pali-tradition held. Furthermore, it is interesting to compare the Chinese version of the Pali-canon and when we do we find it sometimes agrees with the Sarvastivadian version which of course further calls into question the authenticity of the Pali-sutras which some still assume are more authentic than the Mahayana.

The best we can hope for is that the early cannon (Pali, Sarvastivada, etc) contains the jist of what the Buddha said but we must admit that it is not a historical document and does not contain the real words or stories of the Buddha. It is very easy to find stuff that has been made up such as Buddha being alone talking to gods and devils or his meetings with local kings and so on. For example, there is every reason to think that the stories of King Pasenadi were later additions since the Jakarta (J.ii.15) claim that he built a monastery called the Rājakārāma, and that the Buddha sometimes stayed there whereas there are no signs of these monasteries. In fact, if King Pasenadi did build a monastery for the Buddha it would have almost certainly have become a place of reverence after Buddha's death but there is no evidence of any such place. Furthermore, it is also thought monasteries (Viharas) were not built until well after the Buddha’s death and perhaps as late as the 3rd century BCE. Furthermore, despite being ample historic evidence about King Pasenadi there is no confirmation outside the Buddhist scriptures that he was Buddhist at all. There is independent historical confirmation of King Pasenadi where it is said that he was from the Aikhsvaka dynasty and he lost his crown to his cousin and died trying to raise an army to retake it (Ramesh Chandra Majumdar, 1972, pp. 88-90) but no evidence he was actually Buddhist or built any great monasteries as the Pali-canon maintains. All things considered the story of King Pasenadi does not ring true.

Furthermore, attributing Kings as Buddhist seems to a repeating theme in the sutras and other Kings are also recorded as getting advice on affairs of state from the Buddha but are equally doubtful. There are stories in the sutras of King Seniya Bimbisara getting advice about affairs of state and impending conflicts which is equally dubious with no historic confirmation and yet rival reports that he was a devout Jain with high realisation in Jain meditation. Someone is lying here (it could be the Jains of course, but could be the Buddhists or both).

Another apparent devotee of the Buddha who was also a powerful King was Ajatasatru who again is claimed by both Buddhists and Jains as devotees. How feasible that in ancient India only Jains were dubious historians? Besides, it is even said that using contextual evidence and textual analysis it is thought that the Buddhist tradition is the one lying.

n conclusion, then it is wrong to say we know what the Buddha said or did and also wrong to claim that the Mahayana sutras are less authentic as they contain the same ideas other Buddhist traditions and were often written down at the same time or before the Pali-canon. Furthermore, most Mahayana sutras originated in India amongst the Monks and Nuns that lived and worked with devotees of the Theravada tradition. We must not fall into the trap of thinking there is an original Buddhism and a later corruption or addition. And further, the Mahayana tradition developed from the words and ideas of Master Gautama but do not contain a transcript of his actual words or deeds, but it is worth remembering is that the Theravada sutras are also not the words of Gautama but were also the basis of them and the kind of things that he did teach. The Mahayana tradition did not, in my view, develop out of or from the older tradition but side by side with the Theravada tradition.


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