You mention in the preface to your book that you were originally drawn to the Buddhist approach to life because it was so pragmatic. What is so practical about the Buddhist path?
One of the things that appealed to me about Buddhism was that it didn’t just say ‘this is what you’ve got to do’, it gave me tools to help me to do it – it gave me practices such as meditation to help me develop, change and grow. Sometimes people talk about Buddhism as a way of life, and I think that does capture something of it – it is a practice, it’s a way of learning to live with more awareness and more kindness, and so on.
When I wrote Buddhism: Tools for Living Your Life I was working at the Birmingham Buddhist Centre, and to an extent the book came out of my experience of teaching there. I saw that often people would face very similar issues in their practice – they would say, ‘This sounds great, but how can I actually do it when I’ve got a busy life?’, ‘How can I practise it when I’ve got a family?’ So the aim of my book was to answer some of these questions and show how you really can live an authentic, deeply Buddhist life in the 21st century.
Your book Buddhism: Tools for Living Your Life takes a very pragmatic approach to Buddhist practice. For those who haven’t read the book, can you mention some of the ‘tools’ that it offers?
The book is a broad introduction to Buddhist teachings – there are chapters on things like meditation, mindfulness and ethics, and they all include reflections and exercises so that you can integrate the practices into your own experience. The chapter on ethics, for example, goes into what are called the Five Precepts, and I show that these are not rules but tools, ethical guidelines which help you clarify what values you want to speak and act by.
In your book, there is a chapter on loving-kindness (metta), and metta is also the focus of this year’s Urban Retreat. We often think of love as an abstract ideal, but could you also argue that metta is something very practical?
Yes, although the idea can seem quite abstract and ‘wishy-washy’, in a very practical sense, everything that we do, whether we’re aware of it or not, is motivated and guided by our emotions. So transforming emotion and cultivating positive emotion is essential to our everyday lives, let alone our spiritual lives.
There’s an aphorism by Sangharakshita which goes something like, ‘Spiritual life is all about trying to find emotional equivalents of our intellectual understandings’. We already know what we need to know, but we need emotion to be able to put what we know into effect, and my experience from doing the metta bhavana meditation practice is that it really does change you. It’s a gradual process, but you do learn to have a different perspective on situations and respond to them more creatively.
How will the Urban Retreat help us become more loving and compassionate? What does it offer?
The Urban Retreat is something that is happening for the week of 9th – 16th November in Buddhist centres across the world and also online. The reason it’s called an Urban Retreat is that you’re living your ordinary life – going to work, doing what you usually do – but at the same time you’re really engaging with Buddhist teachings.
So if you live near a Buddhist Centre, it’s really worth going along to see what they have planned for the Urban Retreat week. Each day we’re going to put up some teachings, a led meditation and various talks and resources online that people can listen to, watch and take part in. The main thing that will be happening is we’ll be teaching the metta bhavana meditation practice. Metta bhavana means something like ‘the cultivation of loving-kindness’ and the practice is done in five stages. You begin by cultivating well-wishing towards yourself, then to a good friend, then to someone who you don’t know very well, then to someone who you find difficult, and then expanding the well-wishing out to include more and more people. We’re going to teach the practice from scratch and then go into it stage-by-stage in quite a lot of depth, so it’ll give you a really good grounding in the metta bhavana if you’re new to it and it’ll also be a great refresher if you’ve done it before. We were saying earlier that love and compassion can seem quite abstract, but when you do this practice they stop being abstract. You’re thinking of different people, noticing your responses to them, and working with them creatively.
On top of this meditation teaching, we’re also going to have some daily practice reflections from Subhadramati, taken from her recent book, Not About Being Good. These reflections are all on loving-kindness in action – taking your practice off the meditation cushion and into your daily life.
The Urban Retreat will take place online. To what extent is technology an appropriate channel for metta? Can we really practise Buddhism online?
It’s a good question. I’ll admit that when we first did the Urban Retreat online two years ago I was initially a bit sceptical about it because I thought it could be quite superficial, but I was pleasantly surprised. We had people from all over the world who were reporting in on how they were getting on, asking questions and interacting with each other, and you really did feel some level of connection with them all, a sense that we were all doing it together. That was really inspiring.
Of course the advantage of technology is that it makes things quicker and easier, and that can also be the danger of it – you just respond so quickly to something that your response is thoughtless or you’re not really aware of the other person. But it doesn’t have to be like that, and the Urban Retreat does give me a sense of the positive potential of technology.
This year, for example, we’ve got Vessantara – a fantastic speaker and meditation teacher – who is going to give some short talks for this event, and anyone anywhere in the world can ask him a question. That just couldn’t happen any other way. So although online communication is not a replacement for people practising together and communicating with each other face-to-face, technology can still be a vehicle for accessing and practising the teachings. It is just a tool, but a tool that can be used very skilfully.
You can find out more about Vajragupta’s Buddhism: Tools for Living Your Life on our website, where you can watch a video of Vajragupta talking about his book, and read two excerpts from Buddhism: Tools for Living Your Life: Chapter 3 on loving-kindness, and Chapter 11 on compassion.