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 UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder