The missing Buddhist trick

Updated November 29, 2016


It was 10 days of complete silence last week, a gruelling but rewarding Vipassana course in Kerala. We were some 25 men and women from different parts of India and elsewhere. We lived together but didn’t say a word not even with a sign. Vipassana is Gautama Buddha’s technique for self-awareness, harmonising life with nature’s law of impermanence or anichhya. Life is dynamic and impermanent, and so are the pains and the pleasures that we experience. Hatred is transient. Of this I am now doubly sure.

Being a creature of habit, the first thing I grabbed after coming out of enforced seclusion was a newspaper. Prime Minister Modi was threatening to change the flow of river water from India to Pakistan. I couldn’t help smiling. Modi is as good an example of anichhya as any. Impermanence has been an ingredient of his policy with Pakistan, indeed, as with others. When did he decide that Pakistan’s water supply should be cut off? Did he have this in mind when he invited Prime Minister Sharif to his swearing-in? That town in Russia they met to reset their ties. Was he planning to turn off the taps there? Or was this a bit of bad news he forgot to whisper into Sharif’s attentive ears in Lahore?

If Modi ever becomes familiar with the concept of ‘anichhya’ he would be a calmer person.

Modi can be full of bilious hatred but his targets keep shifting. Pakistan can be a target today and a friend tomorrow. Indian Muslims, whom he called Mian Musharraf ki aulad (Gen Musharraf’s children), were declared his closest brothers at a BJP rally in Kerala recently. Let’s see where his state of impermanence lands him after the elections in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh.

Read: From threatening Pakistan in 2011 to holding hands with Nawaz Sharif, Modi has come a long way

If Modi ever becomes familiar with the concept of anichhya he would be a calmer person. Vipassana trains the mind to liberate itself from all provocations with equanimity. If the knee aches because of prolonged sitting in one position in Vipassana, just learn to observe the pain with equanimity. All pain is transient as all other sensations are. Vipassana thus constitutes the essence of the Buddhist dhamma. The pain would go away without your reacting to the provocation. It is not an easy skill to acquire.

A Hindu businessman brought the technique back to India from Myanmar in 1969. This was centuries after Brahminical hostility to Buddha’s iconoclastic teachings, with his unsparing criticism of gory rituals and obscurantist beliefs, ensured its demise in the country of his birth.

I was in Patna the day Rajiv Gandhi was killed and thus remember the date. The morning papers were replete with pre-poll caste analysis in Bihar. This was where Buddha attained nirvana at the age of 35 and preached till he died at 80. Brahmins so many, Yadavs so many, Bhoomihars so many, Muslims so many, Dalits so many and Buddhists zero per cent, said the Times of India.

Why was there a column for Buddhists if they were reduced to zero per cent centuries ago? Whatever be the reason for the mysterious reference to Buddhism in the caste analysis, be it guilt from history or a mere clerical error, it had its irony. Bihar — once pronounced Vihar — was where Buddhism began its journey. Bhimrao Ambedkar had to make a new beginning for its teachings in India with the mass conversion of Dalits in defiance of the politics of Gandhi and Congress.

In Vipassana one begins by observing the breathing. The sensations you feel in the nostrils and the area above the upper lip is where you concentrate your mind first. Most people would not be able to successfully observe their own breathing sensations — warm, cold, moist and so forth — for more than a minute, if even that much. The mind loves to dwell in the past if it is not carrying the cargo of emotions into the future.

One place the mind seldom finds comfort in is the present. Possibly the prime example of your present is in your breathing. You can’t breathe in the past or in the future, can you? Once settled and trained, in some cases it could be longer than two days of sustained focus, the mind is dispatched to explore the rest of the body from head to toe, to scour and observe sensations, gross and subtle.

Having learnt to observe the gross pain or the subtler elation without reacting to them with aversion or desire, the mind is ready to face the most difficult provocations in life with equanimity. So says the Vipassana method. It must be logical, and so powerful too, that it threatened to topple centuries of entrenched Brahminical practices rooted in myth-making and sacrificial rituals.

Vipassana and its idea of impermanence can be a humbling experience, but the mind is full of tricks to dodge the rigour it requires. For example, among other memories that surfaced in my mind as I struggled to stay focused was the worried phone call from a senior citizen of Pakistan around August. I won’t name the lovely man who commands respect among leftist idealists across South Asia. He was concerned that an estranged scion of a political family, in whom he reposes great hope, was squandering her precious time with a Gandhi family scion from across the border. The secrecy more than their apparent proximity was hampering the political energies of both. I decided to ponder the story carefully, fearing the BJP would exploit it for regressive reasons. However, since I learnt that the young Gandhi had spent time in Vipassana abroad, with or without the friend, I am certain he is better prepared to face the world calmly with the truth. Disapproval like other emotions is impermanent. Life is anichhya.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

Published in Dawn November 29th, 2016