Thursday, May 20, 2010

Do not squander your life!

To end our evening practice at Open Gate,
we recite the following gatha:

Let me respectfully remind you,
Life and death are of supreme importance,
Time passes swiftly and opportunity is lost.
Each of us should strive to awaken,
Awaken, take heed! Do not squander your life.

What exactly does it mean to awaken?
How do we know when we are awakened?
How do we know when someone else is awakened?
Despite all our years of practice;
If we never see ourselves as being awakened,
have we simply "squandered" our lives?


  1. Hi Miles,

    Good, challenging questions!

    Q: What exactly does it mean to awaken?

    A: I would say 'awakening' is that personal aspect of practice where we become free of our habitual thinking and responses and realise that we are not the murky, turbulent brew of thoughts and feelings that we usually habitually identify with as our self.

    Q: How do we know when we are awakened?

    A: We know that we're awakened when everything; thoughts, feelings and perceptions, just come and go smoothly without our grabbing or rejecting them and when we can act and react in our life simply and clearly.

    Q: How do we know when someone else is awakened?

    For myself I can only say that I know when I know (if indeed I know!) But it's usually assisted by qualities such as someone who clearly accepts 'difficult' aspects of their personality and human nature in general and who seems comfortable and independant in the world and in what they do.

    Despite all our years of practice;
    If we never see ourselves as being awakened,
    have we simply "squandered" our lives?

    No, I don't believe so. I see people acting in 'awakened' ways all the time, but they don't see it as something special or extra to their life.

    It seems to me that 'awakening' is a complex process that can flow in every direction, that can be sudden and gradual, an event and a process, and/or both (both 'partical and wave'?) It can be pleasurable or painful, it's different for every different person with their different circumstances even though it's the function of everything...



  2. Hi Miles,

    Let's see:

    a) What exactly does it mean to awaken?
    To release yourself from suffering.

    b)How do we know when we are awakened?
    When we stop suffering :P

    c) How do we know when someone else is awakened?
    I don't.

    d)Despite all our years of practice;
    If we never see ourselves as being awakened,
    have we simply "squandered" our lives?

    Nope, I don't think so. In the Pali canon, you find the Buddha saying "Meditate, monks, don't be heedless!", with the same urgency as you chant "do not squander your life!". But that means you have to put your life into it, do your best. Whether it works or not, it's out of your control sometimes (if I get killed tomorrow, that's it), so we shouldn't worry about wasting our life, just as long as we continue to work on it.


  3. To come to your senses, lose your mind.
    We know someone is awakened when we are awake.
    All our years of practice amount to nothing but This...
    If we never see ourselves as awakened, we have squandered our lives.

  4. Hi Miles,
    I've found Harry's answers to be exactly what I feel about awakening.

    About squandering our life if we never see ourselves as awakened, I don't believe so, but anyway we should practice as if it were true.

  5. Hi Koro Kaisan,

    I found Harry's and Pablo's answers are great. Let me add a bit though.

    What exactly does it mean to awaken? To realize that there is only this.

    How do we know when we are awakened? When we realize there is no "we" to awaken; it just happens.

    How do we know when someone else is awakened? Dunno :p

    Despite all our years of practice;
    If we never see ourselves as being awakened,
    have we simply "squandered" our lives? Nothing is ever, truly, useless :)

  6. What a lot of awakened replies!

    One quibble: I'm not sure the awakened person does not suffer. Suffering is part of life. The awakened person just goes, "Oh, I'm suffering, ok" - and accepts that suffering is appropriate to that combination of circumstances.

  7. Hi Michael,

    Definitely you and I have different defintions for suffering ;).
    I understand suffering as a "bad" reaction to unpleasant conditions. In this view, the awakened person does not suffer. He understands "this is an unpleasant situation", and from that understanding he acts.
    This is what you find in the Pali Suttas (yes, my old bias again :P): the Buddha clearly states that enlightenment means the cessation of suffering. Of course, the Buddha from the suttas may be wrong, but I truly believe that cessation is attainable.

    If, 30 years from now, I haven't got there, then I'll start considering your point!

    Best regards,

  8. When it comes to the experience of suffering, I must agree with Pablo; our suffering is caused by how we react to our situations. When things happen and we take them personally, we suffer. When things happen and we experience them without taking them personally, then we have overcome suffering. This not to say that we do not feel discomfort or have emotional responses to extreme situations, but rather that we don’t internalize them into “woe-is-me” scenarios.

    I experienced this difference strongly when my mother was dying. When I was thinking of my life without her and how much I would miss her, I would suffer grief. When instead, I thought only of her pain and suffering, all I would feel was compassion for her and my own suffering would vanish.

    While I cried for her when she was dying (and suffering), I never felt the need to cry for her after she died.

  9. Do the awakened suffer?

    Harry said, "'awakening' is a complex process that can flow in every direction." Last night something happened to illustrate his point.

    I went to watch someone in a gig: he'd asked me to come and had previously given the impression we were close. However, I've noticed that now he's got the chance to hang out with rock stars he's starting to behave like one: I loyally turned up and he lavished me with no more than a quick hello, as if I were someone he'd once met briefly at a party. There were far more important people to talk to!

    For a couple of hours, I was not just observing my pain, I was in it, i.e. suffering. Clearly "unawakened" behaviour! But after a couple of hours, the mud had settled, I'd accustomed myself (ok,ok!) to the new structure of the universe and ceased suffering - "awakened" behaviour.

    The tide flows in, the tide flows out; living creatures do not attain a state, then remain unchanged: indeed, observe for long enough and you see that not even rocks to do that. Everything is in a state of change. We shouldn't seek to be awakened the whole time. It's unnatural.

    You can do it if you really want: I could have meditated away all emotion in preparation for situations such as arose last night, the spiritual equivalent of permanently jamming one's eyes open with match-sticks - but I don't reckon it's a price worth paying.

    Life is a series of dreams, many of which are delightful. Why miss out on them? And when the nightmares come, that is the time to wake up, have a cup of tea! Oh, it was just a dream, and doesn't this tea taste good!

    The wise man does not jam his eyes open with match-sticks - but he is a light sleeper!

    (p.s. This was written from the perspective of one who prefers having a sense of self - much of it will not apply to those who prefer a state of complete egolessness. That's just a personal preference - I like chilli in my dahl.)

  10. Michael,

    Reminded me of this that I spotted recently (from an original bad-boy of Rock n'Roll...old 'Diamond Shaft' himself!):

    Natural, reckless, correct skill;
    Yesterday's clarity is today's stupidity
    The universe has dark and light, entrust oneself to change
    One time, shade the eyes and gaze afar at the road of heaven.




  11. p.s.

    You heathenish Taoist dog!!!

  12. Hi guys,

    I think of enlightenment as similar to learning how to ride a bike. Once you've learned, whenever you find a bike, you know how to ride it.

    Suffering is like our bike. Once you've truly learned to "ride" it, then you will never fall again. Of course, if you spend 50 years without riding any bikes you won't be so confident, but there's no day that passes without us encountering the bike of suffering.

    From a Theravadan point of view, Nibbana (enlightenment) is the only thing that isn't subject to change, then once you get there, there's no way out! I understand Michael's point, and (although I'm still stubborn enough to keep writing) you have made me reconsider some things I took for granted.

    Thank you all for these conversations ^^

  13. Michael,

    I don’t think we should confuse feeling emotions or living life fully with suffering. As you pointed out, our feelings are perfectly natural and we experience them as part of the experience of being alive. However, the idea here is not to lose our humanity but rather to reduce or eliminate our suffering.

    As I previously stated- it is not that we do not feel discomfort or have emotional responses to extreme situations, but rather that we don’t internalize them into “woe-is-me” scenarios. The “woe-is-me” scenario prolongs this discomfort and turns an emotional response into suffering.

    Now, if you enjoy your suffering, that’s a totally different matter! I’m uncertain if masochism would qualify as suffering. If you are enjoying the experience then it would be difficult to call it suffering. Like you, I enjoy spicy foods and the adrenalin thrill of almost capsizing my sailboat. I enjoy watching movies that make me laugh and cry, but I do not consider any of this suffering. This is simply the joyful participation of life!

  14. Or to put it another way, does the good sailor never capsize?

    You can't predict the gusty winds of life. If you want to make the most of present conditions, you have to carry as much sail as possible - and accept the odd dunking as the price you pay for getting the best out of the boat.

    Is the Buddhist life akin to pottering along, always keeping your sails reefed just in case a gust should come your way?

  15. Not at all! That’s just the point! As someone who has capsized a few boats (only sank two…but no one died), worked as a commercial fisherman and cowhand, broke his back white water rafting and ended up in the hospital on numerous occasions for various acts of monumental stupidity (Yes, my name is Miles and I am a masochist), I most certainly do not advocate avoiding the adventures and/or risks of life to avoid suffering, to me that would exactly be “squandering your life.”

    I believe all of these actions have helped to lead me towards awakening (along with my practice) and I have no regrets (back aches yes, but no regrets). None of this is suffering; it’s just living through the risks and consequences of life. Suffering is when one dwells in woe (sorrow, shame, regret etc…) because life is treating them the same as it treats everyone else.

    It is not the act of taking risks that leads to suffering, it’s the self-pity we generate when things don’t happen or turn out the way we wanted them to. And yes, I have done my share of that as well.

  16. Back to the budding rock star. I took a risk in considering him my friend, just like we all do every time we consider anyone our friend. To consider someone a friend creates expectations which, when not fulfilled, cause pain.

    The above posts seem to be saying that this is natural - but that it's only dwelling on the physical sensation and feeling, "Woe is me!" which turns this pain into suffering. i.e. awakened people live normal lives, thus feel pain, but deal with it so it doesn't turn into suffering.

    In which case, "awakening" is a measurable phenomenon - the time lag between suffering arising and the mental medicine kicking in. I suffered for two hours on Saturday, but then good practice kicked in, and it turned back into a harmless, odd feeling in my stomach - so I'm a bit awakened. In the same situation Miles might have suffered for only 5 minutes before he realised what was going on and dealt with it - more enlightened. And the Buddha would have had suffering-alleviation reflexes like Muhammed Ali!

    But I'm making a serious point here - or rather, asking a serious question: is Buddhist practice about training up one's reflexes to deal with the shit inherent in (normal, healthy, five-precept) life? That's what you all seem to be saying.

    However, most Buddhist books and sutras seem to be saying that it is about cutting off all attachments so that suffering can't arise. This is the path which can lead one to spending 60 years in a quiet room on one's own, as that's really the only way to avoid getting emotionally hurt.

    These are very, very different views with massive practical implications. None of you guys (I think) live in monasteries or on perpetual retreat or float around in society as emotionally detached as a bird treats the air - so do you all go for the former version?

  17. I don't see the difference between the two options: the cause of suffering is strong desire (to be someone, to not be anyone, or to have sensual pleasures, as stated by Gotama). That's clear: once you've let go of that, you don't suffer anymore. But the conditions that would otherwise lead you to create those desires are still there.

    Then your practics leads you to the point where you find yourself in those situations and, because of wisdom or because your mind is so used to do it that it can't do any other thing, you let go and don't suffer (or maybe your mind is so clam that desire doesn't even arise, I don't know cause I've never been there :P).

    So, Buddhist practice is about training your reflexes (or changing your mind patterns, or whatever) to deal with the shit inherent in life, and it is about cutting all attachments so that suffering can't arise. Which massive implications do you see?

    Ajahn Chah (a Thai master) said once: "Don't worry about this. Try to keep your mind in the present. Whatever there is that arises in the mind, just watch it. Let go of it. Don't even wish to be rid of thoughts. Then the mind will reach its natural state. No discriminating between good and bad, hot and cold, fast and slow. No me and no you, no self at all. Just what there is. When you walk on alms-round, no need to do anything special. Simply walk and see what there is. No need to cling to isolation or seclusion. Wherever you are, know yourself by being natural and watching. If doubts arise, watch them come and go. It's very simple. Hold on to nothing. It is as though you are walking down a road. Periodically you will run into obstacles. When you meet defilements, just see them and just overcome them by letting go of them. don't think about the obstacles you have passed already. Don't worry about those you have not yet seen. Stick to the present. Don't be concerned about the length of the road or about the destination. Everything is changing. Whatever you pass, do not cling to it. Eventually the mind will reach its natural balance where practice is automatic. All things will come and go of themselves."

  18. Sometimes I think being Buddhist monk is a lot like being an alcoholic, to keep from drinking an alcoholic has to stay completely away from alcohol. To renounce everything in order to avoid addiction and dependence is the only way some people can do it. But that does not mean that everyone is automatically an alcoholic and must avoid being around alcohol.

    For us to live as Buddhists “in the world” has the inherent risks of constant temptation and it is easy to confuse what the problem actually is. It is not that the alcohol (money, material objects, friendship, sex, love etc...) is the problem, but rather, the problem is our attachment or subsequent addiction (root cause of suffering). Once we become attached to something, we self-identify with the attachment and it becomes something we won’t let go of. Addicts call this “the monkey on their back”

    So there are two fundamental ways to deal with this problem, the first is to physically renounce them and become a monk to avoid exposure. The second is to live “in-the-thick-of-it” with self-discipline whereby we teach ourselves to let go of the attachments rather than the objects. As you phrased it in your question- “…train up one's reflexes to deal with the shit inherent in (normal, healthy, five-precept) life?”

    We must be willing to let go of our expectations. Expectation is a useful tool up to a point, but since we cannot depend on anything (emptiness) we must release our expectations once they become burdens (remember the raft).

    In the case of relationships; it is not because our friends fail to be who they are that they disappoint us, but rather, that they fail to be who we expect them to be. It is our expectations that let us down, but our bruised egos blame our friends.

    What this means is that we have to change our habit of expectance into a practice of acceptance. Renouncing the world as a monk does is a shotgun approach, whereas letting go to attachments is a more focused approach. Shunryu Suzuki put this quite succinctly- “Renunciation is not about giving up the things of this world, but accepting that they go away.”

  19. Miles' message is not only powerful because of its meaning, but because it's been delivered three times! No way to avoid reading that one! :)

    Anyway, great post, Miles, thank you for that.

    "In the case of relationships; it is not because our friends fail to be who they are that disappoints us, but rather, that they fail to be who we expect them to be. It is our expectations that let us down, but our bruised egos blame our friends."

    I've been telling this to my friend and family for years now!

  20. Can one acquire a friend without acquiring attachments?

  21. Miles,

    Have you been drinking?



  22. Michael,

    When you drop your attachments do you loose friends?



  23. Lose or loose, Harry? ;)

    I believe true love comes without attachments, but it's hard to make it true - my girlfriend and I are trying, though :).

  24. Hi Pablo,

    Hee hee... 'lose' I suppose.

    Personally I'd be cautious about idealising 'true love' and things like that: I think relationships with lovers are always based on contracts, on give and take, on the needs of each party. The love for my children seems different.



  25. Hi Harry

    I didn't mean to be cheesy talking about "true love", sorry. I dont know if it's true at all, I just feel that the best way to love a person is to not expect anything back, to give what you what to give without second thoughts. That way, there's no fear of loss, and no "I'm doing more for this relationship than you do" stuff. But then again, it proves very difficult to achieve.

    Of course, relationships are based on give and take, the needs of each party, or, in a word, trade-off (in Spanish, we use the same word for trade-off and compromise, so it's funny). But all of those don't mean that you can't love without fear, right?


  26. "That way, there's no fear of loss, and no "I'm doing more for this relationship than you do" stuff. But then again, it proves very difficult to achieve."

    Hi Pablo,

    I think different people very often have very different needs and expectations and so sometimes they have to come to all sorts of agreements and accept all sorts of things that they may not find ideal. This takes work. Also, if we feel it's worth the effort, we may often be required to 'give' things that maybe we are afraid and/or that don't just come naturally. I don't claim to be very good at this! :-(

    "But all of those don't mean that you can't love without fear, right?"

    I'm glad that I'm afraid of some things... like my long-suffering partner leaving me, or like being hit by buses, or dying by heroin overdose (imagine if I wasn't afraid of that!); or just dying in any way actually... obviously it's not good to live in a state of fear all the time or dwell on things unreasonably though.



  27. As Kaishin says, here's a lot of awakened answers. Thank you for not being squandering your lives.

    When I first read Miles post, Dogen's Genjokoan came to mind:

    When buddhas are truly buddhas they do not necessarily notice that they are buddhas. However, they are actualized buddhas, who go on actualizing buddhas.

    And again, about knowing if we are or not buddhas:

    Those who have great realization of delusion are buddhas; those who are greatly deluded about realization are sentient beings. Further, there are those who continue realizing beyond realization, who are in delusion throughout delusion.

    I'm sitting right now by the window. The wind shakes the bright new leaves in the trees. In the distance the moon finds its way through the passing clouds.

    Taking heed, seven times down, eight times up, I awake to the fact that giving it all completely again and again I cannot squander my life.

    But to be sure, I'll be reborn as a fox in my next life.

  28. Foxes are cool ^^

    Harry, if fear in your relationship doesn't seem as a problem, then it's not a problem. I don't feel right when loving with fear (or whenever I feel fear, for that matter), therefore I train to do it differently. If that gets me to die sooner, then that's ok: I'd rather die happy than live afraid (life is a bit overrated :P).

    It's the same with my life: it doesn't feel quite right now, that's why I meditate and practice. And, by doing that, I believe I'm not squandering my life.

  29. Hi Pablo,

    Good luck with that. It seems to me that fear is an inevitable aspect of existence that I should try to get along with.



  30. Nobody answered the question!
    "If you acquire a friend, do you acquire attachments?"

    Pablo, earlier you said you couldn't "see the difference between the two options".

    It's simple. If the answer to the question is "Yes" then clearly having friends means having attachments; whereas being awakened has been defined above as having no attachments: thus the awakened person has no friends.

    This is very different to what most of us seem to be doing - having friends but having a mechanism to deal with it when they (or we!) let us down.

    So please answer: is it in the nature of "having a friend" to have attachments?

  31. No, what has to do friendship with attachments?

  32. Q: "If you acquire a friend, do you acquire attachments?"

    A: My attachments are none of my friends' business.



  33. This comment has been removed by the author.

  34. p.s.

    ... your 'friend' sounds like an asshole. I have lots of 'friends' like that through music.

    (deleted and editted to employ not-so-bad-bad-language).



  35. Hi Michael,

    "Is it in the nature of "having a friend" to have attachments?"

    I believe it isn't. Of course, as the conversation with Harry about fear and love, it is difficult to achieve, and that's why I still suffer. I expect my awakened "me" to have friends, but that's an expectation, so it could be wrong.

    Anyways, I think that this practice changes the ways you see your relationships, be they partners or friends, and that, by ending your attachments to them, you let these relationships to be truly free. And by attachments I mean all those feelings that make you sad when your friend leaves you to travel the world, or the ones who make you afraid of losing your wife, and so on.

    I'm sure I can love without attachments. I've been able to do it momentaneously, and it felt real good, so I train to do it permanently.

    PS: I agree with Harry about your friend. Maybe I have been like him sometimes with some friends I asked to come to my concerts, I don't know. I mean, it's impossible to say more than "hi!" to everyone who has come to see you, right?

  36. In high school I had very close friends, we were going to be friends forever… I haven’t seen them since we moved away to go to college.

    In college I had very close friends, we were going to be friends forever… I haven’t seen them since we moved away to our careers.

    In California worked with a very close friend we were going to be business partners forever… I haven’t seen him since I moved away to Washington.

    When I lived on the coast, I had very close friends that I went sailing with every summer… I haven’t seen them since I moved to Olympia.

    And then again, I have friends who I see almost every day and even those life-long friends who have always stayed in touch.
    But what happens if I never see them again? What will I say?

    "We were going to be friends forever…
    but I haven’t seen them since they left and went away."

  37. Yes, Pablo, I think our various perceptions of situations like that are very relative.

    It reminds me of a time when I was at an art exibition opening with my partner. Her freind was the artist who had the show. When we walked in I could see straight away that it was a very snooty, contrived scene with all sorts of pecking orders and expectations. I was not comfortable from the beginning. My partner's friend greeted us, but the whole time her eyes were glancing behind us and all around for more profitable introductions. She sort of just dumped us insincerely and moved on, much like Michael reports I think. I was sickened, and hurt for my partner. She was hurt a bit too, even though she's used to a certain amount of that in art openings and the art world in general.

    I'm a musician, and I'm sure I've been the asshole at times to people. But I'm not really good at playing those stupid bloody 'networking' games, so I'm not a very 'successful' artist at all in that sense.



  38. A friend is someone who helps you get free. Some assholes make great friends and lots of friends make great assholes. "Is it in the nature of "having a friend" to have attachments?" Maybe only if we expect them to be who we want them to be as opposed to who they are.

  39. Every day a pigeon lands on my balcony. It takes a few steps, has a peak inside my room, and then flutters off. I love it's visits. I feel awake when I gaze into it's eye. I feel a momentary loss when it departs.. but look forward to it's return.

    Beyond the balcony a tree gently sways in the breeze.

    Beyond that the patterns in the sky enchant my imagination.

    I often feel the presence of the sky, the trees and " bob " the pigeon. Not always.......but when I do I feel I am awake and in the moment.

    So many experiences have passed by my doors, sometimes leaving impressions. of intense joy and pain...

    Some experiences I have embraced fully. Others have not yet received my full attention. Lessons yet to be learned.

    But in taking time to be silent, I become more awake and in touch with my inner world. And my feelings become more acute. It's as if the pain and joy of the world are a part of me.... as if I have become a part of some collective consciousness. Not through choice.... but awakening.

    In sharing in both the burden of it's suffering and the joy of it's wondrous beauty I feel alive.

    Many things large and small move me deeply. .....especially my visits from Bob.

    And I have faith... but in what I am uncertain.

    Life for me is a series of such moments.
    My children visit.