Change Within & Without

This is perhaps a different sort of blog today. Usually, I focus on the internal world of meditative experience, sparked off by something in my practice of awareness and right view. Sometimes though, there is a prompt from the world around me and today that is very much the case.

I’ve recently returned from India where I was mostly in Bodhgaya, the place where the Buddha gained Enlightenment. Each day I would visit the Maha Bodhi temple, and sit meditating under the spreading branches of the great Bodhi tree, said to be a relative of the one that sheltered the Buddha 2 and a half thousand years ago, as he went more and more deeply into understanding the nature of his experience and the world around him.

For the Buddha, those two things – his experience and the world – were not different, but he was wise enough to understand that the real world counted. He understood that practice was not just a matter of knowing for himself the illusory nature of sense experience, but also knowing how that understanding could alleviate, and finally extinguish, human suffering. The teaching he offered in the face of suffering was practical and humane as well as wise. Just think of the story of Kisa Gotami, mad with grief from losing her husband and only child.


Modern-day India is a place where suffering hits you in the face. It is plentiful and lived out on the streets, not hidden away in institutions or behind the solid walls of private homes. Poverty, disability, homelessness and starvation were visible every time I made the short walk between the land where our retreat was happening and the temple.

Underpinning all these disadvantages, making life difficult and dangerous for millions of Indians, is Caste-ism. On the retreat and Convention I attended, were many Indian members of our Order, most of them ‘New Buddhists’ who stepped out from beneath the lowest rung of the Caste system with the mass conversions from ‘untouchability’ in1956.

Much of the Indian Buddhist Community is aimed at helping raise the quality of the lives of their fellow ‘Dalits’ (literally ‘oppressed’), through social, educational, legal and ultimately dharma work. With a Right Wing government throwing its weight behind the Hindu Caste system the dangers of this work is hard to over-estimate. Murders by the police are common; threats, intimidation and violence by ‘higher’ castes are the norm. So-called ‘honour’ killings and acid attacks, with little recourse to the law, happen every week.

The courage it takes to persist working towards a greater good in these conditions is huge. And yet people continue to do so. The risks are so high and cannot be minimised by inaction so the attitude is to embrace the danger. As one woman working in a small legal aid organisation said to a western aid worker “life is so dangerous for a woman in this State, so we might as well do something we really believe in to try and affect change.”

All of this brought into sharp relief for me the good conditions for practice most of us have in the West. And it’s very easy for the question ‘what more can I do?’ to arise along with a gamut of feelings including guilt, hopelessness or inertia. Living in Western Europe, as I do, we have so much materially, but we also live with a degree of safety and security unparalleled in most of the world.

There is a gritty edge to practice amongst my Indian Buddhist friends. It’s hard to get too comfortable and settle down in practice when there is suffering on so many fronts. The tough conditions keep one’s spiritual life vibrant, urgent and focused. Your turban really is on fire!

Rather than comparing the conditions for practice, I found myself thinking about what I could learn through seeing more clearly what my Indian brothers and sisters were up against. How could I intensify my practice without denying the relative ease and advantages of my life?


I have 3 bite-sized reflections, no space to flesh them out fully. Maybe they’ll translate to a talk or longer piece of writing some other time.

1. Remembering that anything can happen at any time. I live in a world of a temperate climate, plentiful food and unprecedented peace and stability. There are safety nets through the welfare and health services if I can’t work or I get sick. It is not perfect but it’s there. All this could change very quickly. Two years ago it seemed inconceivable that Britain would be leaving the EU or that a Reality TV businessman would be President of the US. Our good conditions change.

Reflect on just a couple of changes in your life or the world more broadly. How different would your circumstances be then?

2. Form a habit of selflessness. It’s easy to feel entitled to all that we have; we worked hard for it, or our families before us did. We overlook the bedrock of privilege we rest on that is actually quite arbitrary. If we see resources as dependant upon conditions that we didn’t control or make happen, but lucked into, it becomes easier to hold less tightly to ‘my’ time, energy, money or material goods. Resources can be more easily shared. The criteria becomes need not greed.

Where do you notice an extended hand in relation to your ‘resources’? And in what situations is that hand more tight and closed? And how do both feel?

3. Noticing expectations. Watching the mind closely we see what we expect from situations as diverse as our meditation, the weather or our partner. Things don’t happen because we want them to, but because the causes and conditions support them. Expectations are manifestations of craving, and as such they lead to suffering. If we can become aware of them we can be less identified with getting what we want.

Can you get interested in your expectations, your ‘wants’ from a situation? The views underpinning those desires can be very subtle and unravel in surprising ways.

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