How would you introduce ‘Challenging Times’ to those who haven’t yet read the book?
The book is a collection of articles previously published in Dharma Life magazine which ran from 1996 to 2005. All these articles are personal stories about Buddhist responses to a number of different challenging times which had a strong response from the readers of Dharma Life, and they were also the stories that had really stayed with me from editing the magazine.
‘Challenging Times’ deals with issues from murder and rape to the Holocaust and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – it’s definitely a challenging read. Why would you encourage people to pick it up?
The stories are challenging, or at least the subject matter is challenging, but what’s strong about them is that they’re not just talking about Buddhism in the abstract but about what Buddhism means in daily life. These are people’s own personal stories, and that’s what makes them so compelling and resonant. And personal experiences become more vivid, dramatic and sometimes deeper when things get difficult – as we know from our own lives, that’s often when you learn most.
We have a dramatic contribution from the sister of a girl murdered by Fred West, for example. Most of us don’t have to go through such extreme experiences, but we do all have challenging times of our own – we’re stressed, we’re depressed, we experience difficult relationships. Even more fundamental is the experience of dukkha, or ‘unsatisfactoriness’, which we’re working with all the time. This is laid out in the first of the Four Noble Truths, the most familiar of all the Buddhist teachings, and it’s this dukkha that is dramatized when we really experience something very difficult.
One section of the blurb on the back of the book really struck me as drawing together the book’s different themes: you describe the contributors as turning towards difficult experiences, instead of running away from them. So is our aim really to be free from suffering, or simply to be more in touch with it?
The traditional Buddhist way of thinking about it is that you can’t stop certain kinds of suffering from occurring: the classic list cites old age, disease and death, but there are many other ways in which we experience unavoidable suffering. Yet, despite the fact that we can’t escape it, our typical response is to try to make it go away – we flee from difficulty, whether psychologically or through the choices we make to distract ourselves. So the Buddhist teachings are, first of all, asking us to relate to suffering with an element of acceptance and then find alternative, more creative responses.
Vidyamala talks about this very movingly in her article, which is about living with chronic pain. She has used mindfulness in order to come to a different relationship with that pain, and this has been a tremendous insight. You can’t fix chronic pain, so all you’re left with is your response, your mind, and that is what you can influence.
Turning towards difficult experiences might seem quite an abstract – and inconceivable – ideal to some people. Do you have any practical tips on how we can turn towards our sufferings in daily life?
I think meditation is definitely a good place to start, but the point I’d make about meditation in this respect is that it’s important not to regard meditation as a way of escaping from what’s happening – whether that’s by getting in blissful, mystical experiences, or by concentrating on the object of meditation as a distraction. An alternative approach is to get interested in the thoughts and feelings we have while we’re meditating – noticing them, and turning towards them in a mindful way without getting caught up in them. And in that way we can start to explore what our experience actually is, whether we’re meditating or going about our lives.
Once we start doing this, we might notice that we have a tendency to be irritable, for example, and we need to explore this tendency – really acknowledging it before we can learn to respond in a different way. That doesn’t make for a quiet life, but it does make for a life where you become a less irritable person in the long term. This is the nature of Buddhist practice. It grows out of a realistic and truthful sense of what you’re actually experiencing.
In your introduction, you talk about the Buddhist response to suffering as one that is not trying to escape from, or transcend anything. However faith could perhaps be an essential response for those in the midst of pain so intense that no inner strength can be drawn upon. There is no real emphasis on faith in the book. Do you think that faith can be an authentic (and healthy) response to suffering in a Buddhist context?
Yes, faith is important, but we need to ask ourselves: ‘faith in what?’ We can have faith in the fact that things do always change, and this can be a helpful way of not feeling overwhelmed. You can ask yourself, ‘Can I manage the present moment?’ with faith in your capacity to withstand the immediate difficulty and a sense that there’s more to you than your present suffering.
I think there’s a different kind of faith as well, which Palden Gyatso talks about in the introduction to ‘Challenging Times’. Palden Gyatso was a Tibetan monk who was imprisoned and tortured for many years by the Chinese. His response to his guards was informed by his fundamental compassion for other beings, and this is his path, this is his faith. Despite the extreme pain that he experienced, his faith in the Dharma reminded him that a compassionate response was possible, and that this would benefit both himself and others in the long term. For the rest of us, this is easier said than done, of course, but it’s inspiring when you meet someone who actually embodies these ideals. And the real value of ‘Challenging Times’ is that it is full of similar inspirational stories – we have beautifully written accounts of people really reflecting on their experience. Stories like these should never be forgotten.
You can read more writing by Vishvapani on his blog at www.wiseattention.org and find his mindfulness teaching work at www.mindfulnessinaction.co.uk. His most recent book, ‘Gautama Buddha: the Life and Teachings of the Awakened One’ is out in paperback in January 2011