We’re hard-wired for happiness but modern life has become adept at getting in the way. That’s where mindfulness meditation is making its mark – and it now counts Hollywood celebrities like Keanu Reeves, Richard Gere and Orlando Bloom among its devotees.
We live in a high-stress, digitally-addicted world where an overflowing diary is an indication of our self-worth and happiness is something measured by spending an inordinate amount of time complaining we have no time.
Perversely, the result is record levels of anxiety and depression, an inability to live “in the moment” and an untold cost to us individually and as societies.
Painting of the annual procession of the Buddha’s Tooth Relic, Sri Lanka, c. 1796 – 1815
The latest available data from the World Health Organisation puts the number of people living with depression globally at 322 million; in addition, a further 264 million are experiencing anxiety disorders. The cost in lost economic output was estimated at between USD2·5–8·5 trillion worldwide in 2010 and is expected to double in the next decade.
There’s plentiful reasons, therefore, why the practice of mindfulness meditation is attracting a growing number of people who are drawn to benefits that include reduced levels of stress, improved sleep, more focused attention and the banishing of negative feelings.
One of the oldest illustrated extant palm leaf manuscripts, Pancharaksha, Nepal, 1130- 1150 CE
For the people of Thailand, Buddhism – and the practices that accompany it such as mindfulness meditation – are interwoven into the fabric of the kingdom; the stripes of the Thai flag represent nation, monarch and Buddhism.
It’s estimated some 95 per cent of Thais practice the country’s official religion – Theravada Buddhism – and it’s an essential component of their identity evidenced in daily life through offerings to spirit houses, the making and gaining of merit (for a longer, happier life), and meditation.
Such is the profound influence of Buddhism and Buddhist culture internationally that the UNESCO General Conference in Paris last November inducted two highly revered (and now deceased) Thai monks into its calendar of eminent personalities and important events for 2020 – 2021.
Chosen for their roles in promoting peace are Phra Archan Man Phuriphatto – a pioneer of the meditation-based Dhamma practice – and Somdet Phra Mahasamanachao Kromphraya Wachiryanawarorot, the 10th Supreme Patriarch (the head of the order of Buddhist monks in Thailand).
The Lotus Sutra (Japanese Myoho-renge-kyo) in Chinese characters. Chapter 8. Japan, 1636
In some form, meditation is found in many religions, but in Buddhism it’s integral to the eight-fold path to enlightenment. It is a practice in which one trains the mind to see the four noble truths as taught by Buddha – suffering, what causes it, the end of suffering, and the path to that end.
It is the two main components of Buddhist meditation (samatha – calmness, concentration; vipassana – insight) that form the basis of mindfulness. They are, no doubt, the reason behind its increasing appeal in the high-stress 21st century. When applied to daily life and practiced correctly, meditation provides focus, peace and calm.
“Being busy is seen as a mark of success; a badge of honour. We ask each other ‘How are you?’ and we automatically answer ‘busy’, which means all is well,” says Buddhist monk and mindfulness meditation practitioner Gelong Thubten who has worked with everyone from surgeons and actors to staff at Google and the United Nations. He’s also author of the Sunday Times bestseller A Monk’s Guide to Happiness.
“We live in a culture of ‘doing’ rather than ‘being’. Keeping busy is somehow seen as glamorous; it defines us,” he adds.
An illustrated manuscript of the Guanyin Sūtra from Dunhuang, China, 9th–10th century
An indication of the increasing interest in Buddhism globally can be seen in a major new exhibition at the British Library in London – a world-renowned institution that is home to more 170 million items from every age of written civilisation. Its collection of Thai manuscripts is the most extensive and important in the United Kingdom and one of the most significant in Europe.
Spanning 20 countries over 2,000 years and more than 120 items, the Buddhism exhibition features rare and colourful scrolls, painted wall hangings and folding books. It also highlights the outstanding art contained within Buddhist manuscripts and early printed works as well as focusing on the theory, practice and art of Buddhism, examining the enduring iconography of Buddha and considering what it means to be Buddhist today.
Jana Igunma, the exhibition’s lead curator, says: “Buddhism is the first show of its kind at the British Library showcasing treasures from one of the world’s richest collections of Asian manuscripts. People will be able to see the range and richness of this beautiful art that spans 2,000 years of Buddhist texts such as illuminated scrolls, painted palm leaves and banner paintings.”
Among the highlights is a 19th-century manuscript with a fine silk brocade cloth believed to have been commissioned by an unnamed queen of Siam who is known for her generosity in giving Pāli scriptures to Buddhist temples abroad as Dhamma gifts (a gift that excels all others).
the Hyakumantō darani or 'One Million Pagoda Dharani,' Japan, 764-770 CE
Elsewhere, there is a manuscript fragment that is part of an extremely rare Yogavacara meditation manual in the Theravada tradition, several collections of extra-canonical Birth Tales of the Buddha composed in the regions of north Thailand and northwest Laos, and the tracing of elements of the Buddha’s long path to entitlement within a rare folding book made in central Thailand in the 18th century.
“People coming to this exhibition will learn about the life of the Buddha and his teachings, and discover what it means to be Buddhist today, bearing in mind the growing contemporary relevance of mindfulness, compassion and loving kindness,” adds Jana Igunma.
Buddhism runs at London’s British Library (bl.uk) until 23 February 2020.
Journeys to enlightenment
More than 500 million people around the world are practicing Buddhists, making it one of the world’s largest religions. No surprise, therefore, that across Asia you’ll find majestic temples, monuments and sacred sites.
Shikoku Temple – Japan
The Shikoku pilgrimage route features 88 “official” temples and numerous other sacred sites where Ku-kai (Kōbō Daishi) is believed to have trained during the ninth century. If you’ve the time -and energy - the entire route is about 1,200 km.
Wat Phra Sing – Thailand
Wat Phra Singh in Chiang Mai houses the revered Phra Phutthasihing Buddha image. During the Songkran festival (13 to 15 April) people lead a procession of this most sacred Buddha image around the city for traditional bathing.
Shwedagon Pagoda – Myanmar
Described by Somerset Maugham as "superb; glistening with its gold – like a sudden hope in the dark night of the soul,” this breathtaking stupa sits atop a hill in the centre of Yangon and is Myanmar’s most sacred religious site.
Borobodur – Indonesia
This gigantic network of temples and stupas is the largest Buddhist temple complex in the world. Surrounded by Javanese rice paddies and rainforest – and with stunning views – its stone terraces are lined with bas-relief carvings, stupas and statues of Buddha.
Wat Pho – Thailand
Wat Pho is a place of superlatives. Not only is it the largest religious site in Bangkok, it’s also the oldest and has been the setting for great events in the kingdom’s history.
Longmen Grottoes – China
The location on both sides of the Yi River near the ancient capital of Lyoyang, Longmen (or Dragon Cave) is where Confucius studied and Buddhism saw its beginnings in China. The site comprises more than 2,300 caves that are home to 110,000 Buddhist statues.