Cabbages and Condoms
The following is a transcript of my contribution for Sunday Sangha on October 24th, 2021
Link to Sangha Live Recording: Cabbages and Condoms
Life is naturally difficult and disappointing. All living creatures are programmed to seek security and safety, and as humans, we also seek certainty. As these things are hard to find in the first place and impermanent and subject to change in the second place, we are prone to live life as unconscious prisoners of fear.
Fear of this world and of a next world, fear of sickness and of death, fear of insecurity and of being defenceless, fear of the unknown and of the unexpected. Fear of the different and fear of failure, in short, fear of life itself.
In today’s talk, I hope to explore some links between fear and craving; and touch on the critical difference between ‘getting ahead’ and ‘getting along’ on the Buddhist path.
I want to offer a perspective on life’s basic necessities and how the craving for safety, security and certainty can lead to a life of isolation, fear and confusion.
Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor and a Stoic philosopher, once said…
“Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact.
Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.”
After our meditation, today, I would like to share with you some of my opinions and perspectives about Cabbages & Condoms, about fish floundering around in puddles, and about getting-along rather than getting-ahead. As Marcus Aurelius rightly says, these are only my opinions and perspectives, they are not necessarily facts or ‘the truth’, but I do hope that today’s session will give you an alternative view on how things might be in your world.
But first, we will sit together for about 30-minutes to practise mindfulness and to cultivate wise-heartedness in a guided meditation that is in two parts. Firstly, we will use mindfulness to calm the breath, to relax the body, and to quiet the mind – as best as we can.
Then we will practise, explore and cultivate – as best as we can – an attitude of wise-heartedness as it might manifest in our lives, particularly in response to difficult situations… in response to difficult times… in response to the ordinary and the mundane of everyday existence.
Either part of this guided meditation could be a stand-alone practice but I am offering them together today particularly aimed at those new to meditation.
For those who are not new to meditation and perhaps have an aversion to guided meditations, please do feel free to tune out for the next half-hour!
SERENITY BREATH BHAVANA (MEDITATION)
|In one of the talks (AN 5.14) in the Pali Canon, the Buddha asks the question:|
“And what is the power of mindfulness?”
And then, as was often his teaching style, he answers the question himself. He said:
“It’s when a practitioner is mindful. They have the utmost mindfulness and alertness and can remember and recall what was said and done long ago.
This is called the power of mindfulness.”
WISE-HEARTEDNESS BHAVANA (MEDITATION)
o May I have stillness… in the midst of chaos.
o May I be at ease… in the midst of discomfort.
o May I be safe & well… in the midst of uncertainty.
o May I live with kindness… in the midst of all that is difficult.
o May I find joy… in the midst of the ordinary and the mundane.
The phrases for the Wise-heartedness Bhavana (Meditation) were greatly influenced and inspired by the teachings of Christina Feldman, to whom, and for which, I am eternally grateful.
My talk today will, I hope, be a gentle meandering exploration of life’s basic necessities, ‘Cabbages & Condoms’ as it were; and how our craving for safety, our craving for security and our craving for certainty can lead to a life filled – to a greater or lesser degree – with fear and confusion. But, as the Buddha, modern psychology, and neuroscience teach us, it doesn’t have to be that way.
I gave a condensed version of this talk to a different online audience in July this year… but it was an unmitigated technical disaster. Even though I had more than a good internet connection, the conference software on this laptop refused to recognise such a good connection, and repeatedly and frustratingly for everyone, kept disconnecting.
I am hoping, for today at least, that lightning doesn’t strike twice in this place!
In the interests of transparency, I feel I should disclose my ever-changing relationship with the Dhamma. Peter Harvey (the Pali scholar) translates the word ‘Dhamma’ as the basic pattern of things and increasingly I find myself exploring this basic pattern of things, or we might say the way things really are, not just through the early Pali Texts of the Theravada Buddhist tradition but through modern psychologies, and neurosciences; particularly focusing on the nature of ‘Relationships’, ‘Self’ and ‘Consciousness’. This wider aspect of ‘Dhamma’ beyond that of traditional ‘Buddhadhamma’, as the basic pattern of things, is reflected in today’s talk which I hope you find both interesting and maybe a little challenging. I don’t know that’s up to you to decide.
Anyway, to begin.
By way of an introduction, you may be aware, I have been – and continue to be – associated with Wat Thamkrabok Buddhist Temple in central Thailand. This famous – or even infamous monastery – nicknamed the ‘vomiting temple’, that has been offering a free herbal detox programme to Thais and to Foreigners alike since 1959.
I first visited Wat Thamkrabok nearly 23-years ago in November 1998 and I was fortunate enough to meet the first Abbot of the monastery, a very kind monk named Luangpor Chamroon Parnchand. He was an ex-policeman who had left the Bangkok drugs squad in 1953 and became a wandering (Tudong) monk. For five years, along with a small group of male and female monks, that included his Aunt (known as Luangpor Yaai) and his younger brother (the monk, Phra Charoen), he walked all over the west, north and north-east of Thailand and into Cambodia and Laos. This small group of wandering monastics settled down to establish the Wat Thamkrabok monastery in response to Thailand’s chronic opium epidemic in the mid-1950s.
Sadly, Loungpor Chamroon passed away in early 1999, just a few months after my first visit. I continued to visit the monastery on a number of occasions around that time, including accompanying addicts from the UK for detox treatment there.
I don’t escort addicts anymore, that is not necessary, but I still like to visit the Temple at least once a year. However, as you might imagine, due to the COVID pandemic, I didn’t get there last year nor is it likely that I will get there this year. But that’s just how things are right now, and by applying a little bit of equanimity, or creative acceptance as it were, I am not going to suffer for my preferences.
When the next opportunity arises and it is safe to do so, I am sure I will be back at Wat Thamkrabok, catching up with the monks and nuns that I have known for more than twenty years now and sharing some Dharma and recovery advice with the non-Thai detoxees.
When I’m at the monastery, I take the opportunity each afternoon to visit the herbal steam-baths where monks, nuns and laypeople spend a lot of time sipping herbal tea and popping in and out of the herbal sauna. The herbal tea that is drunk is actually a by-product from when the monks brew the notorious emetic detox medicine, but the tea is not unpleasant to taste, nor does it make you vomit!
Having said that, I will normally, at least once during any visit, take the herbal emetic remedy, as a sort of cleansing ritual and form of social connection.
I am a creature of habit and in between enjoying the herbal steam bath in the afternoon, and before taking the emetic vomiting potion in the evening, I take the opportunity to join the monks and nuns at evening chanting.
Just as an aside, having previously twice taken temporary ordination at the Temple, I have my own chanting book which is not normally the case for laypeople. There are a total of seventy-two chants in the Thamkrabok Chanting Book, that were composed by Luangpor Yaai, the Abbot’s aunt who was a Bhikkhuni and who actually founded the monastery along with her two nephews, Phra Chamroon (who, as I said, I had met before his untimely death) and his younger brother Phra Charoen, who became the Abbot in turn.
The 72 chants, just like everything else about Wat Thamkrabok, are unique and not to be found anywhere else in Thailand let alone the rest of the world.
Anyway, the chanting takes place in a building known as the Magsaysay Sala (or the Magsaysay Hall) which was built with the prize money that the first Abbot – Luangpor Chamroon – was awarded in 1975 – when he won the Ramon Magsaysay Award for the monastery’s contribution to universal healthcare, in that they were providing a drug detox and rehab programme that was, and still is to this day, freely available to all.
The Magsaysay Award is Asia’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize. This award is named after the famous Philippines President, Ramon Magsaysay and is known formally as the Ramon Magsaysay Award.
This is perhaps a very loose link to the wonderful man known very affectionately in Thailand as Mr Condom, a very enterprising and socially engaged man named Mechai Viravaidya who in 1994, after twenty years of public service, was also awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award for his many contributions to social development and the improvement of people’s quality of life.
Mechai was specifically recognised for his projects that focused on
- Inclusive Education,
- for the creation of an NGO known as the Population and Community Development Association (PDA) that promotes Social Enterprise and Rural Livelihood Initiatives.
- the award was also for his work in Social Justice and Peace Building
- and lastly for Mechai’s contribution to Universal Heathcare that focused on sex education and family planning and for leading Thailand’s battle against HIV/AIDS.
His efforts are said to have prevented more than 7-million unnecessary deaths in Thailand.
As I said, Mechai is known as ‘Mr Condom’, and he even has an entry in Thai dictionaries, because condoms in Thailand are now colloquially known as ‘Mechai’s’.
Since 1974, Mechai has been creating and running innovative family planning and poverty reduction programs throughout Southeast Asia.
When Mechai and a band of volunteers first started distributing condoms to encourage family planning he said that you can go to any shop around Thailand and “you will always find cabbages. Condoms, he reasoned, should be just like cabbages which are ubiquitous and accessible to everyone”.
To raise funds and to promote Family Planning and HIV/AIDS awareness, Mechai opened a small vegetable stand on the PDA office premises where vegetables, along with lace underwear, T-shirts, key chains, condoms, and oral contraceptives were sold to the local residents. Mechai called the shop ‘Cabbages and Condoms’, a very catchy and unconventional name that never failed to elicit chuckles from passersby and draw the curious into the shop.
This talk isn’t an advert for ‘Cabbages and Condoms’ but it has become a chain of respected restaurants across Thailand, and there were even a couple of branches in the UK.
The restaurant’s motto is “Our Food Is Guaranteed NOT to Make You Pregnant”.
All of the profits from the ‘Cabbages & Condoms’ restaurants in Thailand support the PDA work and its ongoing programs in primary health, education, HIV/AIDS assistance, rural development, the environment and water conservation, and laterly tackling the impact of climate change.
The name ‘Cabbages & Condoms’ and the assertion by Mechai “that condoms should not be seen as taboo but as a necessity” got me thinking about life’s basic drives… about life’s basic imperatives… in short ‘Cabbages and Condoms’ got me thinking about ‘food and sex’, and their importance to the experience of being human.
These two primary drives universally define what it is to be human, or any living animal for that matter! The imperative to sustain life and to produce offspring; well that requires food and sex, in some form or another, at the very, very least!
But it is not just our basic search for nourishment and procreation. More crucially, our basic human drive above all others is ‘survival at any cost’.
Dead people don’t have offspring!
As a slight aside, here, I would like to introduce you to a wonderful series of short films by Professor Philip Hanlon and the AfterNow project (of Glasgow University) from 10-years or so ago.
The AfterNow project traces the development of society’s current situation where medical conditions such as Obesity, Depression, Addictions, Loss of well-being are reaching disturbing and unmanageable levels. (Sadly, things haven’t got any better in the last 10-years since these videos were published).
However, in one of the short videos, titled Dis-ease, Professor Hanlon says:
‘…people describe us as basically being obesogenic organisms.
If you think back to the fact that most of our ancestors lived in hunter-gatherer communities.
And there, if you imagine… the kill has been done.
The antelope is cooking on the fire.
And one of your ancestors says, “No thanks, I’ll just have berries tonight”.
That man died!
He didn’t become your great, great, great, great, great grandfather.
And alternatively, the one who came back from the hunt and said “I’m off for a jog tonight.”
He died too!!!
The ones that sat and conserved their energy, the ones that gobbled the food greedily.
They’re the ones that survived to be our ancestors.
So we’re hardwired to eat when we can and to rest at every opportunity.
I won’t go into any more details about the AfterNow project – which disappointingly did not gain enough traction – other than to say that the project falls into the ‘benefit for all’ category of intentions with community health and well-being as its primary objective. But I will post a link for you and I invite you to explore the AfterNow project for yourself.
Also from an evolutionary perspective, we seek places of safety and security, and we seek certainty… we don’t like unexpected surprises.
This drive to survive can manifest and influence our behaviours and relationships in a couple of significantly different ways. The inclination to ‘Get Ahead’ at any cost, or the inclination to ‘Get Along’ for the mutual benefit of all. Over the course of human evolution and history the pendulum between these attitudes has swung both ways. Thousands of years ago, as hunter gatherers, we had to work together as a team in order to overcome and survive.
In the article ‘Is tribalism nature or nurture?’ Tom Oliver, Professor of Applied Ecology at the University of Reading in the UK writes:
In premodern times, it made sense to be fearful of other groups. They might be violent, steal our resources, or introduce new diseases we are not adapted to. Conversely, it was beneficial to trust those who look similar to us — they are more likely to be related. And when we help these kin, our own genes are more likely to be passed to future generations.
Beyond such genetic influences, our human culture strongly influences our attitudes and behaviour, modifying innate human drives – either suppressing them or encouraging them further. Whether we tolerate and trust someone or fear and reject them depends a lot on this culture.
Lisa Feldman Barrett, the distinguished professor of psychology at Northeastern University has written two wonderful books that I can highly recommend. The first is called ‘How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of The Brain’ and the other is called ‘Seven & A Half Lessons About the Brain’.
Both books offer insights into why much of our lives are simply not personal but the construction of the Brain to fulfil the imperative to survive and to reproduce. To paraphrase some of the current insights of psychology and neuroscience:
- The brain is not a thinking machine; it is a prediction machine whose primary purpose is to keep us alive, well and fit for reproduction; so that we can pass our genes on to the next generation.
- The Brain predicts the body’s need and use of water, salt and glucose etc. The Brain predicts and decides whether we should act or not to act; whether to use biological resources or save them; whether we should run-way, stand and fight, or just freeze! We are conditioned to seek safety. [Aversion to danger].
- The brain wants to avoid surprises, almost literally to predict the future, to anticipate what might happen next. This causes us to crave certainty and dislike unexpected surprises.
- From the perspective of ‘survival at any cost’, the brain’s predictions beat physical reactions. We are conditioned to fear.
- The brain’s predictions conditioned by or constructed from past experience repeat what works and avoid what doesn’t; even single cells organisms do this.
- In short, the brain’s primary purpose is not to think but to keep us alive at any cost, mostly without us being aware of that imperative.
- Our evolutionary and cultural heritages lead to the development of what might be considered different types of minds. There are cultures that value getting ahead (“they prioritise the individual over the group”) and there are other cultures that value getting along (“prioritising the group over the individual”).
It is worth looking at our own actions from these perspectives, then seeing how these unconscious imperatives drive our own and other people’s views and opinions, and words and actions.
Some personal, social or cultural mindsets are inclined towards ‘getting ahead’ in direct opposition to ‘getting along’. For example, Nationsionlism, Exceptionalism, Religions traditions, Political parties, sports teams and so on… grasping and clinging to the view, attitude and behaviour of ‘getting ahead’ as a source of safety, refuge, certainty, solace, redemption or success. Generally speaking, ‘getting ahead’ is often at the expense of other people and even at the expense of other species.
There is a set of verses called the Aṭṭhakavagga (or Chapter of Eights) in the Buddhist Pali Canon. The Aṭṭhakavagga is regarded as one of the earliest texts in that collection. In one particular poem, called Taking Up Arms, the Buddha describes his grief and fear at seeing peoples hostility towards each other, contending for resources and the lack of any security in the world. I find these words attributed to the Buddha absolutely striking, particularly the first five verses of this poem which I will paraphrase as:
Fear is born assuming violence –
see how the people fight!
I’ll tell you how I’m deeply moved,
I will tell you how I experienced terror.
Seeing people floundering
like fish in small puddles,
competing with one another—
as I saw this,
fear came into me.
The world is everywhere insecure,
every direction is in turmoil;
desiring an abode for myself
I did not find one uninhabited.
Seeing nothing in the end
I felt discontent.
And then I saw
an arrow here,
so very hard to see,
embedded in the heart.
It’s only when pierced by this arrowBuddha
That one runs in all directions.
So if that arrow is taken out —
one does not run, and settles down.
These verses pose the question for me; what is the wise response to the chaos in the world? What is this arrow in the heart, and how do I remove it?
As a slight aside, but a related perspective, the Prophet Muhammad said:
“In the body there is a morsel of flesh which, if it be sound, all the body is sound and which, if it be diseased, all the body is diseased. This part of the body is the heart.”
With this universality of our craving for safety and certainty in mind, I have been intrigued recently by the Buddha’s ‘Four Summaries’ as recounted by the monk Raṭṭhapāla (in the Raṭṭhapālasutta in the Middle Length Talks of the early Pali Texts). I am surprised that these four summaries don’t get more attention: They go something like this…
(1) The world is unstable and I can be swept away at any moment.
(2) The world has no shelter and no protector; no saviour.
(3) The world has no owner, I must leave everything behind.
(4) The world is lacking, wanting, insatiable, leaving me the slave of craving (Tanhadaso).
For me personally, these four summaries of human existence rank alongside and in some ways are more powerful than the Four Noble Truths. Rather like Mechai Viravaidya dispelling the taboos surrounding condoms and sex, the Four Summaries confront us with the realities of the fragility and fleeting nature of life. I don’t find the Four Summaries nihilistic or depressing, quite the opposite in fact. They state life as it really is, not how I imagine it, or want it to be. Rather like coming across the Four Noble Truths for the first time, stumbling upon the Four Summaries was a little shocking but also very liberating. Just like verse number 6 from the Dhammapada that I mentioned in our meditation:
“There are those who do not realize that one day we all must die.”
Much of our behaviour is impersonal and driven by unconscious imperatives, such as the hunger for food and sex, and other sensual desires; such as the search for security and certainty that all together manifest as the arrow in the heart. The arrow that makes us flounder around like fish in small puddles and has us running about in all directions. This is the arrow – or arrows – of Greed, Hatred and Delusion.
In the Buddha’s famous talk to the Kalamas, he asks them to investigate Greed, Hatred and Delusion… he asks the Kalamas… “do these mind states lead to harm and suffering… or do they lead to your welfare and happiness?”
Then he asks the Kalamas, “Do mind states that are free of Greed, free of Hatred and free of Delusion lead to harm and suffering… or do they lead to your welfare and happiness?”
Then the Buddha goes on “when you know this for yourself” that these qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness… then you should dwell there.”
You should live with a heart full of love, a heart full of compassion, a heart full of rejoicing & a heart full of equanimity in every direction, above, below, across, everywhere, all around. Spreading a heart full of love, a heart full of compassion, a heart full of rejoicing & a heart full of equanimity to the whole world – abundant, expansive, limitless, free of hostility and ill will.
Of course, what the Buddha is talking about here is the practice of the BrahmaViharas: The cultivation of universal friendliness, compassion, joy-gladness and equanimity. A practice that is intended to progressively break down (and remove) the perceived barriers between our ‘self’ and others.
Perhaps, a better example of this instruction are the Buddha’s words on the mindfulness that is universal friendliness or love-and-kindness where he asks us to cultivate friendliness to all living beings regardless of whether they are weak or powerful, regardless of whether they look like us or they look different to us, regardless of whether they are local people we know or foreigners from distant lands. “May all beings everywhere – without any exception – be happy”. We are encouraged to cultivate this mindfulness that is beyond hatred and aversion.
Increasingly, I see the core, foundational, underlying goal of traditional Buddhist practice, particularly through the practice of ‘Mindfulness’ is to ‘get along’ and very specifically not to ‘get ahead’ which is always driven by craving, aversion and confusion and usually at the expense of someone or something else.
The moral and ethical inclination of the Buddha’s teaching is exemplified in the Five Universal Precepts that are inherently for the benefit and welfare of the individual and of the community.
As the Buddha says:
“Now, there are these five gifts, five great gifts — original, long-standing, traditional, ancient, unadulterated, unadulterated from the beginning — that are not open to suspicion, will never be open to suspicion, and are unfaulted by knowledgeable contemplatives & brahmans.”
The Buddha spoke these words in a talk called the Rewards Sutta more than 2,500 years ago, clearly making the point that these suggestions for a peaceful life were already original and long-standing, they were already ancient and traditional. So these precepts shouldn’t be considered ‘Buddhist’ but more correctly, they should be recognised as universal, and as the Buddha says not open to suspicion and irrefutable by intelligent people.
A simple rending of these valuable guidelines might read:
– It is not a good idea to kill people,
– It is not a good idea to take what doesn’t belong to you,
– It is not a good idea to be sexually irresponsible,
– It is not a good idea to lie to people,
– It is not a good idea to take intoxicants that confuse the mind.
What we might now call Basic Human Rights, are both explicit and implicit in the practice of these five simple suggestions:
- Everyone has the right to physical safety.
- Everyone has the right to have their property respected.
- Everyone has the right to have sexual boundaries respected.
- Everyone has the right to be spoken to truthfully.
- Everyone has the right to a life free of intoxicants.
Gotama’s poetic realisation that we are like fish floundering around in ever-shrinking puddles of water, or his Four Summaries of the fragility of human existence might seem shocking at first but as he realised we don’t have to live in fear. We can change our subconscious habitual reactive inclinations. We can remove the arrow of greed, hatred and delusion and heal our hearts.
The only wise response to any situation or experience is the response of the healthy heart; a heart free from craving, free from aversion and free from confusion; a heart that can be cultivated through such practices as the Brahma Viharas where we deliberately break down the barriers between self and other.
We can live life from the wise perspective and intentionality of ‘getting along’, letting go of any misdirected search for Safety, Security and Certainty, that in many ways, is a waste of time and energy.
From a very personal perspective – which is not necessarily a fact or a truth – my only real refuge is in the uncertainty of my life (or the certainty of my death). That is why I value each and every breath.
Making uncertainty my home, not in the sense of uncertainty as fear but transforming uncertainty into possibilities and potentiality for a full experience of life.
Giving up the ‘getting ahead’ mind; giving up the futile search for safety and the drive to survive at any cost is not the end of the world but it is the end of fear and conflict, both internal and external.
Perhaps when we see the truth of the Dhamma, as the basic pattern of things either through the lens of modern psychology and neuroscience, or through the ancient Dhamma of the Buddha, we might evolve to the point that we don’t need to live in a puddle and fight for survival anymore.
“And so, this spiritual life is not lived for the sake of possessions, honour, and popularity, or for accomplishment in ethics, or for accomplishment in concentration, or for knowledge and vision. Rather, the goal, the core, and final end of the spiritual life is the perfect unshakable freedom of heart.”
Like the free detox programme offered at Wat Thamkrabok and Mechai Viravaidya’s many social improvement projects through the PDA, we might individually cultivate an attitude of heart that supports the goal of ‘getting along’ for the benefit of all.
And, maybe then, we can all flourish in this world fearlessly.
Vince’s previous sessions for Sangha Live can be found here: sangha.live/teachers/vince-cullen-bio/
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