Something I’ve seen often in Buddhism, certainly for myself, perhaps it is common in other traditions as well, is an orientation and bias towards ‘supreme’ teachings. If a school teaches methods for just stilling the mind and for Supreme Enlightenment, we’ll go directly to the latter. Four Noble Truths? Kiddie stuff, let’s talk Emptiness!

This was part of the appeal Zen Buddhism had for me. It cuts right to the core of awakening and doesn’t bother with any of the ancillary stuff. In Zen, it’s enlightenment or bust.

Once you get soaked a bit in Buddhist perspectives on liberation and the counterpart to that – “worldly happiness”, it gets easy to adopt a kind of elitist stance about all this. I remember in my earlier Buddhist days, when reading the Mahayana Sutras and there were things in there that didn’t impress me. Stuff like people making offerings to Buddhas or making a noble aspiration that lead to them “being reborn in the presence of Buddhas for numerous lifetimes” and so forth. I saw it as kind of patronising. Why aren’t these Buddhas teaching these ‘fortunate’ ones about awakening in this lifetime? Why are they letting them settle for less when there are higher teachings they could be giving them? How can a good rebirth compare to enlightenment? I thought these sutras were sending the wrong kind of message compared to something like Zen Buddhism.

Not too long ago, I was somewhat surprised to find how much my view has changed. I was reading the Gandhavyuha Sutra wherein the youth Sudhana seeks out 52 different teachers to obtain Buddhahood in this lifetime. As many of those teachers did, one bodhisattva, the night goddess Vasanti, recounted her path towards her current profound stature. Starting one night, “as many eons ago as atoms in the polar mountain” ago, when she was having sex and then fell asleep, a Buddha became fully enlightened that night. Another night goddess back then woke her up her by tingling her jewellery and told her about the event, what a Buddha was and how they became Buddhas. At that time, she resolved to become a Buddha right there and then.

As a result of that aspiration, she then spent the following aeons “as many as atoms in the polar mountain” never “born in a bad state, always achieving human greatness among humans and celestial greatness among celestials, never with defective faculties and with little suffering, never apart from Buddhas and Bodhisattvas” and… not giving a damn about the wisdom of awakening for all this time!

Well, that is how I would have read it formerly. But actually that latter thought never occurred to me this time around. Thought that occurred to me reading this was not one of whether Vasanti should or could have done more or better, or why all these Buddhas she hung out with didn’t spur her on to Buddhahood, but rather: “How wonderful, that she should enjoy such a long string of lifetimes enjoying a good life content with how she lived.” And recounting this, the night goddess does in fact note that she passed all these aeons “happily, peacefully, safely, and rightly” planting roots of goodness, even though after all this time she did never develop the faculties of awakening.

To wrap up the story, eventually, a mere ten thousand aeons ago, she did attain awakening and set forth on the stages of Bodhisattva-hood which is how she ended up capable of instructing Sudhana on some of the way towards the Buddhahood he sought.

But the point in all this is that I don’t think I really believe any more that there is such a Buddhism (or any path) as the highest/best/supreme path for living beings towards happiness.. It’s a supposition that doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny for me any more in terms of how people live their lives. On the ground level where people live out their lives and laugh and cry, having this sort of view doesn’t seem capable of acknowledging and according suitable dignity to the quest for happiness we are all engaged in. Happiness is not a matter of tenet system and it comes in many flavours and forms. And no matter what or how, it is at its core a most noble wish.

Some may be more refined and plentiful than others, but really it seems to me that life is generally about being about as happy as you want to be. If there are beings who aspire to Buddhahood or liberation and making good work towards that, well… That’s wonderful. For where they are in life. If there are people who use this life make just a seed of goodness worth of progress, that is really wonderful too. For where they are in life.

It seems to me more a case of having to fully acknowledge, since this is the case at any rate, that all beings walk their own way in life and find their own way to happiness and then honouring this fact and the dignity of their wish for happiness. There is no universal or inevitable movement or obligation for any ‘supreme’ happiness or path. Any such ‘supreme’ happiness is just one of the offerings on the table we have the option of taking up in our own quest for happiness if we so desire.

When I took Bodhisattva vows (“beings are numberless; I vow to liberate them all”) I didn’t take them just to lead others to liberation alone (I’d have to get there myself first of course). I took them out of a wish to support all beings I can in all good endeavours. My path is just a path of goodness in any shape or form, worldly or otherwise. I practise Buddhism because it strikes me as one the most refined expressions of that. But first and foremost, we are all together on the same path of goodness, albeit perhaps with different ideas of what is good and how much we want of it. But these differences are quite trivial to our shared aspiration for goodness.

The great celestial Bodhisattva of compassion Guanyin is generally portrayed as working tirelessly for the liberation of all beings. I recall someone telling me once how, when walking his dog and caught in the rain large mosquitoes would gather under the same shelter as them. His dog in particular would be greatly annoyed by this. So he prayed to Guanyin for relief and soon after, the mosquitoes would go away. Whether the story is true or not is less important than the morale: For someone who allegedly devotes all her energy to the salvation of all beings, taking time out to relieve a guy and his dog from the annoyance of mosquitoes seems like a pointless use of time and energy. But for someone who simply cares and wishes to see others happy in any way possible, no gift is too small, is it?

I really like 山水 / Shānshuǐ, Chinese landscape painting. It is a style of painting I find very evocative. The maxim of its artists, to capture the spirit moreso than the exact image of a scenery, speaks to me. But one aspect I particularly appreciate is that of the unpainted space. In Western art, blank space is typically considered something to be filled. In Shānshuǐ, it is a part of the image, something deliberately left there to be taken in and appreciated. Its presence, or perhaps more accurately, the void, adds more to the painted parts than what more paint could accomplish.

There are some similarities here I suppose, to the old Daoist concept of 樸 / Pú, the  “uncarved wood”. This is the idea that it is by stripping the mind of all its imprinted ideas, knowledge and impressions, the sage returns to a state of pure receptivity and potential – Union with the Dao. The idea that the uncarved, unpainted, the useless even, is a latent potential that has as much worth, even more, as the space that has already been filled, is one that is deeply embedded in Chinese thought.

Returning for a bit to the idea of the Chinese landscape painting as a metaphor for life, I don’t think it is inaccurate to say that for the most part, human beings tend to focus on the painted parts of their lives. We gravitate towards colour, beauty, sensory stimulation, excitement, joy, love, money, things! And do our best to navigate clear of the ugly parts of the painting.

The unpainted? Down that road lies boredom, restlessness, grey unassuming dullness. At a glance, why would anyone think to look for happiness there?

In a way, we are all drug addicts. We are all well and truly addicted to deriving pleasure from sensory stimulation. It comes in all shapes and sizes: TV and magazines, internet, beautiful people, sex, socialising, natural sceneries. And when we are not indulging our outer senses, we busy ourselves internally, cooking up ideas, fantasies and projects, all to stimulate the mind and keep it sated (in Buddhism, the intellect is considered a sense, on par with the five senses, so would fall under sensory stimulation as well from such a perspective).

A few years ago, I was staying at Cittaviveka Buddhist monastery down in Sussex, England for a while. After about a three weeks, I was asked to accompany a monk into town, as he needed to go to the dentist. We got into town and as he went to the dentist ,I walked around the rather quiet town a bit. I soon  found myself  at a news stand, looking at a scene much like this:

Having spent three weeks in the rather docile environment at the monastery without tv, computers or anything of the sort, and having spent the majority of that time in meditation withdrawing my mind even from those surroundings, looking at the rows of magazines on the shelves felt like a shock to the nervous system. All those covers of glitzed up models, bright colours and overly polished pictures felt like total sensory overload to me after three weeks of withdrawal. It was all a bit much to me and set me wondering just how sated our senses are for us to not even notice how often they are being bombarded in our daily lives.

There is  a school of thought, which I subscribe to, that holds that meditation is the most boring activity in the world. Basically, you just sit still in a quiet, undisturbed and unexciting environment and then do… nothing! No stimulation, no real activity, nothing to see here basically! You’ll likely start out watching the breath, and how boring is that? Breath goes in… breath goes out… Repeat Ad Nauseam  for 20 to 60 minutes. That’s all folks. If you move on to something like Shikantaza, a Zen Buddhist meditation technique, you are not even watching that. Non-abiding is the name of the game. Watching the grass grow is literally more exciting than this.

And yet, as most meditators who stuck with it can attest to, once you pass a certain threshold and the cold turkey of sensory withdrawal abates, this activity of utter boredom reveals itself to be inherently peaceful, joyous, relaxed and luminous. And the best part is, you don’t have to do anything to enjoy this. It’s just there, hidden in the unassuming, unpainted parts of the mindscape. It doesn’t need anything added to it, in fact adding to it tends to cover it up, obscuring it.

It takes patience to allow the dust to settle properly.  For the first long while of my (then more sporadic than consistent) seated meditation practise, sitting was an exercise in patient endurance more so than enduring patience. “have the 15 minutes passed yet so I can get up? … My knee hurts… I need to remember X and Y for tomorrow…” and so forth. And by the end of the 15 minutes I’d get up, rub my hurting knee and wonder if anything really happened.

These days, I usually sit for at least an hour and peacefulness, joy and clarity are a fairly regular experience for me. The mind has passed a certain threshold of withdrawal and settles more easily now. There are still many more thresholds  ahead of me, and as I investigate the mind more and approach these, approaching and passing through each one of them is an experience of frustration and dissatisfaction, just like coming off any other addiction.

The most poignant lesson to draw from this is the realisation that we don’t actually need anything to be happy and at peace. Happiness is right here, accessible at any moment, if you know where to look. In fact, the less we have, the more accessible it becomes.

I haven’t actually been truly bored in many years. I’ve had many an experience of running from boredom through various activities. I’m still recovering, I am far from a fully recovered sensory addict. There are still parts of me that believes I can find fulfilment by having more of… something. Love, money, success, friendship, whatever. We all feel a certain lack in our lives and the gut instinct is to try and fill it up. But the times where my mind has most fortunately been deprived of the luxury of stimulation, I always know where to look for happiness. And if I am not feeling happy, I know I am at least working through the withdrawal process, settling the dust so that happiness will come easier down the line. Either way, there is always purpose and thus it is never boring.

The Chinese have a saying: “Better to have nothing than something.”


I wrote this poem on August 30th back in 2000, when I was 17, during a period of fairly intensive meditational practise. In the ten years since then, I’ve found it re-posted in the most unexpected places on the web since then, so apparently it has struck a cord with some:


After the afternoon meditation,
the mind standing still,
yet unfocused,
At 8 p.m.,
suddenly wanting to go to bed,
I realise, almost surprisingly,
I’m depressed.

I’m standing on a crossroad,
loosing interest in the sensory world,
TV, books, computer, etc.,
all fail to give me pleasure.
Yet, the mind is not ready,
to harvest the true fruits of practise.
Wishing I could find just a little pleasure somewhere,
yet happy that I’m not.

No self.
How brilliant by Siddharta,
sweeping away all contradictions,
giving an answer not even considered by anybody else.
“The condition conditioning itself,
thus creating the self”, said Kierkegaard;
and I find myself yearning for the un-conditioned.

Wondering how my life could have turned out,
had my mind not been deprived of choice;
seeing clearly how this path was inevitable.
For I stand now at crossroad leading only one way,
with no turning back.
And despite my depression,

Ever since I was a kid, I had always found it strange how people were satisfied with just being happy some of the time, or even with being somewhat happy some of the time. I never knew what I wanted to grow up to be, but I knew I wanted to be happy. Not just somewhat happy, but amazingly happy and happy all the time. Why would I let this life go by with less if more happiness was possible?

As I started to enter my teens, I was slowly coming around to what I had been told all my life  in response to these impressions: That when I grow up, I will realise the world doesn’t work the way I think it does and that you can’t always get what you want.

One day when I was about 14, I had to do a book report for school and was scanning the shelves of my local library for anything to capture my interest. The book title that did capture my interest that day was named “The Empty Mirror” by Janwillem van de Wetering. The suggestion of paradox in the title tickled my curiosity and I took it home without knowing what it was about. It turned out to be about the author’s journey to Japan back in the 60s, where he spent a year in a Zen Buddhist monastery, trying to find some answers to fill the longing in his heart neither travels, the good life or philosophy could sate.

It struck an immediate cord with my 14-year-old self at the time. Here was a man who not only had the same yearning to be truly happy as I did, but was going through life not able to be satisfied with not satisfying this yearning and was willing to take radical steps to find his answers, even if he did struggle with the process.

I finished the book the next day and immediately went down to the library to borrow all the books I could find about Buddhism.  As I was reading about the life of the Buddha, I was surprised to find  a sense of kinship with this man who had lived in India 2500 years ago that I couldn’t find from my surroundings in present-day Denmark. The young prince Siddharta had it all. Money, status, career, looks, women, a loving family, intelligence, even morals and a good heart to boot. The full package of everything we are told are ingredients in the formula for happiness in modern society. And yet he still wasn’t happy. Not that he had particular reason to be unhappy. But he was not happy because he had that deep yearning in his heart for a deeper happiness, an unshakeable and profound happiness. And until he found that, there would always be something missing. And he not only found it, he laid out a path for others to follow as well.

The Buddha looked within and found all the happiness in the world inside his own heart and mind.

Reading about his journey towards this unshakeable happiness, a journey that took him through many great kinds of happiness he discarded because they too couldn’t satisfy that yearning in his heart, was a defining moment for me. There were people out there with the same intuitions about happiness as me and people who had pursued that path with great resolve and actually found results with it. I was not only finding re-assurance that my yearning for this kind of happiness was not just a silly kid’s fantasy, but pointers and directions for how to actually go about it from fellow seekers on that path.

What I wanted to grow up to be, careerwise and what not, became secondary from that point on. I was going to be happy, really happy, and I wouldn’t, still won’t, consider this life well lived until that sense of unshakeable and profound happiness is my everyday experience.

To this day, there is an ache and yearning in my heart that won’t let me forget it.

I’ve often found it curious how people, as a matter of course, meticulously brush their teeth and shower every day, wash their hands multiple times a day, floss, wipe themselves and even lay face masks and the like in order to maintain basic bodily hygiene. For most everyone who take care of themselves properly, you probably spend at least 30 minutes a day simply cleaning various parts of your body.

How many minutes a day do you spend cleaning your mind of the dirt and filth accumulated during the day? If you’re not a meditator, chances are: Zero. When you look at it, the mind is really no more insulated from accumulating dirt than the body is during the course of the day. Stressing about the bus being late, that annoying co-worker, relationship worries, financial concerns, family issues, the past, the future. Where does it all go when you’re not thinking about it? Do we imagine these things flow through without leaving traces and dust in our minds? That turning on the TV at the end of the day will flush it all away?

The main reason we don’t pay regular attention to our minds the same way we do our bodies is that we’ve never been taught it was needed, let alone how to go about it. It’s a question we usually have to seek out ourselves when at some point we begin to intuit that we could be happier, more peaceful, in our daily lives and the answer to this doesn’t seem to lie in our career choices or choice of new shoes. It’s unfamiliar and requires effort to start learning.

Meditation is a practise with many purposes and functions. But one function I’ve come to appreciate over the years of maintaining a daily practise is the daily cleansing effect it has on the mind, a quality that really only can be described as mental hygiene. Once you get used to this effect and then start missing it, it really is no different from going a few days without showering or brushing your teeth. The mind feels downright unclean, tattered with flakes of stress and lack of clarity. The mind is something that benefits from daily maintenance in the exact same way as the body. It’s really only because we’re not used to doing it that we fail to notice it, much the same way I imagine people who never shower really take very little notice of the fact that they are quite dirty. Then 10-20-30 years down the line, it all becomes too much and those who still care enough seek therapy to try sort it out and be as happy as they ought to be, like going to the dentist because your teeth are now finally falling out after years of not cleaning them.

I found that as I got into this practise, I began looking after the welfare of my mind in much the same way as the body. I began looking at what kind of stuff I nurtured in my mind on a day-to-day basis and asking whether this was really healthy or not. A Big Mac may be tasty, but if you eat it every day it will impact your bodily health. Some mental foods that are equally unhealthy for us are consumed on a much more regular basis than just once a day!

It doesn’t require much more than your regular hygiene really. Do yourself the favour of setting aside 10-15 minutes in the morning before you start the end and another 10-15 minutes late in the evening before you go to bed and just sit. Try and follow your breath going in and out for that short period, without letting your mind drift to all the things that normally occupies it during the day, but simply staying rooted in the present moment and the experience of the breath within that. It may seem boring, even impossible to do, at first because our minds are so addicted to instant gratification and shifting our attention all the time. Something like following the breath is just too simple, too lacking in sensory or intellectual stimulation, for us to have much success with it at first.

You may not find it very enjoyable at first (I don’t find brushing my teeth to be particularly exhilarating either, but I do it anyway without much fuzz), though with more skill and experience it eventually becomes a very joyous experience, but you will find that after perhaps a week or so of doing it, you gain an experience of clarity in your daily life. The mind simply feels cleaner, more refreshed, less encumbered. Of course, it will get dirtied up again over the course of the day, much like your body does, but the act of cleaning out and maintaining the mind on a daily basis means that you get that experience of clarity and ease on a daily basis.

The more you put into it, the better you get at it, the less encumbered and more refreshed your mind will be throughout the day. You may even want to maintain it during the day, using those extra 10 minutes in the train or waiting for an appointment for watching the breath , just that little bit extra maintenance, like washing your hands or flossing, to keep the grime away during the day.

Don’t neglect your mental health. We look after our bodies because we recognise that we have to live with this for the rest of our lives. But your mind is what actually has to live it. It probably deserves more attention than you’ve given it so far.

Anders Honoré

About the Blogger

My name is Anders Honoré. For at least 27 years, I've been alive and doing my best to comprehend this fact and how to make the most of that.

I've found Buddhism to be the most useful vehicle for this project and practise mainly within the Chinese Mahayana tradition, where I practise Chán (known to most people by its Japanese name: Zen).

As such, a lot of my views are influenced by this, but also by my philosophy studies, other religions and seekers and most of all from my own work of refining the art of being alive.

This blog is aimed at sharing my reflections on this in a way that is hopefully worthwhile sharing with others.

October 2016
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