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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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.