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.
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496