Goodbye Āloka, our teacher; what Buddhism can teach us about the world we have
I have not been able to write much recently. I have been caught in the busy trappings of life; working, renovating a kitchen and spending time with my family over the summer. So it seemed apt to me to take some time to stop and reflect on the death of a very important person and Buddhist teacher; Āloka David Smith.
|Āloka David Smith 1946 - 2015|
Āloka David Smith attained awareness in 1981 and went on to found and lead the Dharmamind Buddhist group. It is through a Dharmamind group in Nailsworth, Stroud, that I came in to contact with Āloka and his teaching; I feel that I owe him a great debt for his teachings. Āloka’s teaching focused on practicing Buddhism ‘in the body’ and reintegrating the body and mind. Āloka advocated a practice that was simple, yet so difficult, in it’s method of ‘just sitting in open awareness’ (with no breathing techniques etc in meditation) and achieving a connection with your true awareness, or Buddha nature, through a process called ‘silent illumination’.
Although I am an atheist, I would also describe myself as a Buddhist and Buddhism is very important in shaping my thoughts about how we should approach the world and how/why to ‘be green’.
I could get in to a long complex debate about how you can be a ‘Buddhist Atheist’ but this isn’t really the space to do that. It is simpler for me to say that most importantly Buddhism is about ‘being in the here and now’ and it does not matter if there is a god or not. Maybe there is and maybe there isn’t. In this context though, what really matters is that you spend your time in the present moment wherever you can. I see Buddhism as being very practical and worldly, whilst at the same time giving a greater sense of interconnectivity with all living things. This interconnectivity, the combination of all things, far outweighs our own significance… some sort of essence that in order to encapsulate it in a word, you might call it ‘God’!
A very brief and very simple breakdown of Buddhism
Buddhism has been about for over 2,600 years and has since its inception purportedly delivered thousands of individuals in to state of peace and wellbeing. The story goes that Siddhartha Gautama, once a wealthy prince, found that he was always unhappy and unsatisfied no matter what he did. Siddhartha Gautama, giving up his unsatisfying worldly riches, went forth to try all manner of different religions and methods to overcome his dissatisfaction.
Eventually Siddhartha Gautama achieved enlightenment whilst sat meditating under a Bodhi tree and became ‘a Buddha’. Notice he became ‘a Buddha’ not ‘the Buddha’. There are many ‘Buddha’s’ and the term means ‘someone who is perfectly enlightened’ or ‘at peace’ could be another way of saying it. The Buddha then, is not a god, he is more like a symbol of what is possible; a reminder to be ‘in the moment’ and to follow the example set in the story.
More recently the same ideas have become incredibly popular, but without the Buddhist trappings, in the form of ‘Mindfulness’. To be mindful is to be in the present moment and it’s most basic level if you are ‘in the present moment’ you can’t be worrying about the future or the past. For this reason, practicing Mindfulness is seen as a great way of improving mental health by combating the causes of depression and anxiety for example.
A central part of the teachings of Buddhism and the skill of mindfulness is the practice of meditation. Meditation essentially means being in the moment and often people will try to firm up this skill by ‘sitting’ in meditation and focusing on the present moment; normally by focusing on breathing or by saying some kind of prayer (mantra) in their heads. The latest research in neuroscience is now demonstrating the importance of meditation for mental wellbeing.
Celebrating the life of Āloka David Smith
“All momentum lost,
I’ve run aground,
I’ve come to rest,
At last I have come home”
A few weeks ago on 13th August 2015 I travelled with my good friend Rob up to Birmingham to attend the funeral of Āloka David Smith. In 2012 Rob and I had arrived late to the ‘Dharmamind’ Buddhist group which Āloka founded in 2007, but the group struck a chord with the both of us at a time when I think we were both looking for answers. At that time, when we were beginning to hear Āloka’s teachings for the first time, it didn’t seem to matter that we had come to the group 5 years after it’s founding; Āloka wasn’t going anywhere we thought.
Death is an important teacher in Buddhism; it reminds us of impermanence. Impermanence, Āloka explained in his teachings, is an impersonal law and if we could fully embrace the truth of this law we would see that all things are in a constant state of change. It is because we fail to understand what impermanence is that we grasp at things, experiences, people, possessions, money. If we faced the truth that these things go in to change we wouldn’t grasp at them and as a result we wouldn’t experience ‘suffering’ (dukkha, to use the Buddhist term).
Understanding ‘suffering’ brings us to the most basic formulation of the teachings of Buddha; ‘The Four Noble Truths’
- 1. All life is suffering, a struggle in which we cannot find happiness
- 2. The cause of suffering is craving or attachment. (To put it another way; it is failing to see that all things are impermanent)
- 3. The cessation of suffering comes with the cessation of craving and grasping
- 4. There is a way out of suffering, a path that every individual can take responsibility for.
The path, as Buddhists would see it, is the path that the Buddha took. But really if Buddha isn’t your thing I would think you could simplify it by saying ‘be nice to all people and all things and the way to do that starts with spending time in the present moment’.
It was this path that Āloka was so skilled at teaching. Not just because of the incredible personal journey he had taken, not simply because he was a very skilled meditator, not just because he was very wise and thoughtful. But because Āloka was normal! He could be grumpy and particular, he could have a joke and be a lot of fun and he could convey a simple and profound teaching by using normal every day words.
Āloka died on 31st July 2015, on the blue moon, on a day known in South East Asia as ‘Guru Purnima’ or ‘Teachers Day’. On the Dharmamind facebook page, his group (Sangha) and friends, left this message;
“Dear Facebook Sangha,
Yesterday (July 31st) at 17.25 our teacher, Aloka David Smith, passed away. I expected that when it came time to send this message, that I would be full of sadness. But the manner of his passing was so gentle we almost didn't notice it had happened. A slow quieting of breath over a ten minute period, then no more movement. It was a teaching for us all about how to enter stillness. So it did not feel sad.
There is no doubt he was in full awareness of what was happening to him. In this regard he got his final wish - to die in full awareness following 40 years of practice, and to fearlessly be present to the dying process. Even death was time for practice for Aloka, and this was his final teaching to us, and one of the most powerful. Aloka - "light". Please bear him in mind in your meditations and pujas over the coming days.”
‘Even death was time to practice for Āloka’. This should not be taken as something strict and severe. On the contrary, in Buddhism to be in awareness, fully committed to the practice, is to be in peace and not suffering.
How frequently do you come to the end of the day and struggle to remember how it has passed? How often do you find yourself bored, trying to distract yourself in some form or another, maybe through reading (or writing!) or watching TV? How difficult do you find it to be still, to be alone with yourself? Even for only a few minutes? Try it now.
How much time do you spend truly living? Truly alive and in the moment? Awake to all that is happening?
Āloka’s funeral was a celebration of his life and teachings. Āloka had written a letter which was read out so that he could address us all from beyond the grave. He had planned his funeral and the readings that would be given. Having embraced death fully aware of what he was facing, Āloka committed himself to making it a continuation of his teachings and making it an important lesson to us all.
If we want to be able to face death as Āloka did we need to live in the ‘here and now’. We need to have full commitment to being alive and having compassion. It is not easy to achieve and Āloka demonstrated again and again that it requires full engagement in the face of frequent ‘failure’. But so long as you are committed and trying, you cannot fail.
When I think of all the things that are happening in the world at the moment I only wish that I could have brought some of our world leaders along to Āloka’s funeral. If I could have sat them beside me and asked them to think about what is truly important in life. To consider how we are all so interconnected. We do not live in isolation. That we will all die, that all things go in to change, and that life is transient.
If we could get some of our world leaders to consider these teachings would we have massive consumption of finite natural resources that damages the planet? If presidents and prime ministers considered these things would they worry about amassing wealth and power for themselves? Would a little boy have washed up on the beach?
When you realise the true nature of awareness, the true experience of life, the concern for all of the other trappings fall away and you become committed to all other life; realising that we are all one.
In his book ‘The World We Have; A Buddhist Approach to Peace and Ecology’ The beautiful Zen master Thich Nhat Hann wrote;
“It’s wonderful to realise that we are all in a family, we are all children of the Earth. We should take care of each other and we should take care of our environment, and this is possible with the practice of being together as a large family. A positive change in individual awareness will bring about a positive change in the collective awareness. Protecting the planet must be given the first priority. I hope you will take the time to sit down with each other, have tea with your friends and your family, and discuss these things. [ ] Then make your decision and act to save our beautiful planet. Changing your way of living will bring you a lot of joy right away and, with your first mindful breath, healing will begin”
Goodbye Āloka David Smith. Thank you for your commitment, your example. Thank you for the Dharma.
Sentient beings are as limitless as the whole of space.
May they each effortlessly realise the nature of their mind
And may every single being in all the six realms,
Attain all together the Ground of Primordial Perfection.
By the merit I have gathered from all acts of virtue done in the this way,
May all the sufferings of every being disappear.
You can visit the Dharmamind website, where you can purchase books by Āloka David Smith and find out about the regular meetings around the UK and the monthly day retreat in Birmingham http://dharmamind.net/