A Living Practice

Buddhism - a way of life not a belief. Buddha - an inspiration not an idol.

The word `Buddha’ means `awakened’. Siddhartha Gautama became the Buddha (awakened) by opening his mind to the reality of the present, the here-and-now, and he advised others to do the same. Buddhism therefore is about awakening, waking up for oneself from daydreams, fantasies and the sleep of delusion.

Buddhism is an investigation of oneself, this life, this very moment. To seriously practise Buddhism, therefore, is to become mindful and aware throughout the day, which means becoming conscious of what is going on in one’s mind and what is going on around you. It isn’t a question of trying to become anything, but of impartially watching one’s own intentions and actions and then seeing the results of those actions, seeing how one operates in the world with others and within the situation one finds oneself in. It is a process of learning about our own hidden wishes and ambitions, our own passions and traits, and facing up to fears and anxieties that lurk behind much of what we do. So it is a way of observing, not just ourselves, but the whole of life.

Living mindfully throughout the day, then, is a very important part of Buddhist practice.

Another important part of the Buddhist’s life is to meditate, that is to say to sit quite still, in silence, to concentrate the mind and become aware of this very moment. This is where one practises how to keep the mind on the present, instead of, we soon discover, indulging in our favourite occupation of thinking about the past or the future. Meditation is something that matures over periods of time. It isn’t something we learn how to do and then give up because we’ve done it. It becomes a part of one’s daily life, and insights arise as a result, insights which we can never predict.

Buddhists will often sit in meditation once a day, maybe first thing in the morning before the normal activities of the day begin, or perhaps at night when they can get a quiet moment for themselves.

Some meditators might also sit in front of a small shrine. Maybe there is a Buddha-image on it, and perhaps candles are lit and incense burned. This provides a focal point for the practice and can be an inspiration to keep the mind centred. The Buddha-image is not therefore an object of worship, but of inspiration.

Buddhists will sometimes go on retreat, maybe to a monastery or a retreat centre. For a few days, weeks or even months (years sometimes in the case of monks or nuns or those who have the time), they will be in total silence, sit in formal meditation for many hours a day and mindfully perform every activity they engage in. It is quite common for Buddhists to go on at least one retreat a year.

Buddhism also has a strong moral code. Basic to this are five precepts which every Buddhist is expected to follow. They are intentions: to refrain from harming any living being, to refrain from taking that which is not freely given, to refrain from sexual misconduct, to refrain from false speech or foolish chatter, and to refrain from taking alcohol or drugs (apart from medicines) which cloud the mind. Without at least intending to follow this basic moral code and of regularly reminding oneself of it, one cannot truly say one is a Buddhist. The basis of these precepts is harmlessness towards others and towards oneself. If there is not this backdrop in one’s life, one will find that meditation will not develop because the mind is at odds with itself.

Buddhism, therefore, really is a complete way of life.

Diana St Ruth has been a practising Buddhist since the early 1960s. A director of the Buddhist Publishing Group since 1983, she lived in a Buddhist Community in Devon from 1989-1993 and is the editor of Buddhism Now. She is also the author of several books on Buddhism.
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The NS leader: Cold Britannia

Twenty years after the election of New Labour, for the left, it seems, things can only get worse. 

Twenty years after the election of New Labour, for the left, it seems, things can only get worse. The polls suggest a series of grim election defeats across Britain: Labour is 10 points behind the Conservatives even in Wales, putting Theresa May’s party on course to win a majority of seats there for the first time in a century. Meanwhile, in Scotland, the psephologist John Curtice expects the resurgent Tories, under the “centrist” leadership of Ruth Davidson, to gain seats while Labour struggles to cling on to its single MP.

Where did it all go wrong? In this week’s cover essay, beginning on page 26, John Harris traces the roots of Labour’s present troubles back to the scene of one of its greatest triumphs, on 1 May 1997, when it returned 418 MPs to the Commons and ended 18 years of Conservative rule. “Most pop-culture waves turn out to have been the advance party for a new mutation of capitalism, and so it proved with this one,” Mr Harris, one of the contributors to our New Times series, writes. “If Cool Britannia boiled down to anything, it was the birth of a London that by the early Noughties was becoming stupidly expensive and far too full of itself.”

Jump forward two decades and London is indeed now far too dominant in the British economy, sucking in a disproportionate number of graduates and immigrants and then expecting them to pay £4 for a milky coffee and £636,777 for an average house. Tackling the resentment caused by London’s dominance must be an urgent project for the Labour Party. It is one that Mr Corbyn and his key allies, John McDonnell, Emily Thornberry and Diane Abbott, are not well placed to do (all four are ultra-liberals who represent
London constituencies).

Labour must also find a happy relationship with patriotism, which lies beneath many of the other gripes made against Mr Corbyn: his discomfort with the institutions of the British state, his peacenik tendencies, his dislike of Nato and military alliances, his natural inclination towards transnational or foreign liberation movements, rather than seeking to evolve a popular national politics.

New Labour certainly knew how to wave the flag, even if the results made many on the left uncomfortable: on page 33, we republish our Leader from 2 May 1997, which complained about the “bulldog imagery” of Labour’s election campaign. Yet those heady weeks that followed Labour’s landslide victory were a time of optimism and renewal, when it was possible for people on the left to feel proud of their country and to celebrate its achievements, rather than just apologise for its mistakes. Today, Labour has become too reliant on misty invocations of the NHS to demonstrate that it likes or even understands the country it seeks to govern. A new patriotism, distinct from nationalism, is vital to any Labour revival.

That Tony Blair and his government have many detractors hardly needs to be said. The mistakes were grave: the catastrophic invasion of Iraq, a lax attitude to regulating the financial sector, a too-eager embrace of free-market globalisation, and the failure to impose transitional controls on immigration when eastern European states joined the EU. All contributed to the anger and disillusionment that led to the election as Labour leader of first the hapless Ed Miliband and then Jeremy Corbyn, a long-time rebel backbencher.

However, 20 years after the victory of the New Labour government, we should also acknowledge its successes, not least the minimum wage, education reform, Sure Start, a huge fall in pensioner poverty and investment in public services. Things did get better. They can do so again.

The far right halted

For once, the polls were correct. On 23 April, the centrist Emmanuel Macron triumphed in the first round of the French election with 24 per cent of the vote. The Front National’s Marine Le Pen came second with 21.3 per cent in an election in which the two main parties were routed. The two candidates will now face off on 7 May, and with the mainstream candidates of both left and right falling in behind Mr Macron, he will surely be France’s next president.

“There’s a clear distinction to be made between a political adversary and an enemy of the republic,” said Benoît Hamon, the candidate of the governing Parti Socialiste, who had strongly criticised Mr Macron during the campaign. “This is deadly serious now.” He is correct. Mr Macron may be a centrist rather than of the left but he is a democratic politician. Ms Le Pen is a borderline fascist and a victory for her would herald a dark future not just for France but for all of Europe. It is to Donald Trump’s deep shame that he appeared to endorse her on the eve of the vote.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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