Friday, 6 March 2015

How to be a Bodhisattva

In Mahayana Buddhism, particularly within the lineages most popular in Japan (such as Zen and Nichiren Buddhism) the Lotus Sutra is a core Buddhist teaching. Within this Sutra the following is said:

"Because deep in their minds they think of the Buddha
and practice and uphold the pure precepts,
they are assured they will attain buddhahood ...
If there are living beings
who have encountered ... buddhas,
and if they have listened to the Law, presented alms,
or kept the precepts, shown forbearance,
been assiduous, practiced meditation and wisdom ...
cultivating various kinds of merit and virtue,
then persons such as these
all have attained the buddha way."

This passage makes it clear that adhering to the "pure precepts" is one of the things we should do if we want to attain the Buddha way (i.e., become Bodhisattvas, for elsewhere in the sutra it stately clearly that only Bodhisattvas can become Buddhas), but what are the "pure precepts"?

Sunday, 28 December 2014

The Lotus Sutra

"Jizo Bodhisattva" by Christina Hess. Source:
Recently I have become increasingly fascinated with the Lotus Sutra. When I first encountered it, it felt like a revelation. I read book IV, within which there is a parable about a rich man with a poor son. The son believes he is unworthy of prosperity, and so slowly the rich man uses skillful means to ensure the son accepts the wealth that is his birthright; wealth being a metaphor for Buddhahood. I responded powerfully to this story because it reflected where I was and have been for years – an admirer of Buddhism but more or less convinced that I am incapable of taking up this seemingly long, difficult and austere path. The key message of the Lotus Sutra is that enlightenment is within the reach of us all and Buddhist realisation is ultimately not for the few but the many, whether man or woman, renunciate or lay-person, human or non-human. This profoundly validating message lies at the core of the Lotus Sutra.

Historical context
Scholars agree that a significant portion of the Lotus Sutra represents the earliest Mahayana teachings to have been committed to writing. Coincidentally it was also the first Buddhist Sutra to be translated into a European language (in 1852 it was translated from Sanskrit into French by Orientalist Eugene Burnouf). It was originally written in either Sanskrit or, more likely, in Prakit, a related though more humble Indian dialect, perhaps around the time of the birth of Christ, circa 500 years after the lifetime of the Buddha. Although the earliest date we can give the Sutra with any certainty is 255 CE, when the first Chinese translation was made  the original Lotus Sutra has long been lost. The earliest Sanskrit copies we have date from the 5th or 6th centuries, though several Sanskrit copies, some made as recently as the 11th century or possibly later (when Mahayana Buddhism in south Asia entered a period of severe decline, following Muslim persecution and subsequent absorption into Hinduism), have been discovered in Nepal, Gilgit (north Pakistan) and Xinjiang (NW China). Its name in Sanskrit is the Saddharma PundarikaSaddharma means something like doctrine, truth or good law. Pundarika has a wide range of meanings including white lotus flower. Note that during the lifetime of the Buddha India was not a very literate society – instead of recording the Buddha’s teachings in writing the first Buddhists committed his teachings to memory. The Lotus Sutra purports to be what was originally a secret teaching given by the Gautama Buddha at the end of his life. The Sutra is widely accepted as authentic amongst contemporary Mahayana Buddhists (over half of the world’s Buddhists are Mahayana), but is disregarded by Theravada Buddhists, which is unsurprising, given that it is a foundational Mahayana Sutra.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Salicylate Sensitivity

"Pancakes" by
Pancakes with maple syrup are low in salicylates
According to the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital Allergy Unit:
“Some people are born with a sensitive constitution and react more readily to food chemicals than others. The tendency is probably inherited, but environmental triggers — a sudden change of diet, a bad food or drug reaction, a nasty viral infection (for example, gastroenteritis, glandular fever) — can bring on symptoms at any age by altering the way the body reacts to food chemicals … the natural chemicals in many ‘healthy’ foods can be just as much of a problem for sensitive people as the ‘artificial’ ones used as food additives. Foods vary tremendously in chemical composition. The natural substances most likely to upset sensitive individuals — salicylates, amines and glutamate — are the ones common to many different foods … 
Symptoms triggered by food chemical intolerances vary from person to person. The commonest ones are recurrent hives and swellings, headaches, sinus trouble, mouth ulcers, nausea, stomach pains and bowel irritation. Some people feel vaguely unwell, with flu-like aches and pains, or get unusually tired, run-down or moody, often for no apparent reason. Children can become irritable and restless, and behavioural problems can be aggravated in those with nervous system disorders such as ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) [].”
This topic interests me because salicylate sensitivity runs in my family. However, as far as I am aware there is little evidence to suggest that food intolerance can cause or exacerbate bipolar, and as a low salicylate diet is quite restrictive I would not recommend it to any but the desperate and/or the diagnosed.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Please Like Me

Just a quick post to help raise awareness of the best television series I know of dealing with bipolar (amongst other topics) - Please Like Me. Note that series one deals mostly with the principle character's coming out story, with some mention of his mother's mental health woes. Series two (2014) deals with mental illness, especially bipolar, with more depth - it is hilarious, insightful and touching. I highly recommend.

While on the topic, there are a couple of Doctor Who episodes that also deal with mental illness in a sympathetic light. First, Vincent and the Doctor (2010) and, second, In the Forest of the Night (2014). Stephen Fry's much more serious documentary, The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive, is also well worth a watch.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Diabetes and Bipolar

"My Conspiracy" by
On the official Seroquel website the following concession is made:
“High blood sugar and diabetes have been reported with SEROQUEL XR and medicines like it. If you have diabetes or risk factors such as obesity or a family history of diabetes, your doctor should check your blood sugar before you start taking SEROQUEL XR and also during therapy. If you develop symptoms of high blood sugar or diabetes, such as excessive thirst or hunger, increased urination, or weakness, contact your doctor. Complications from diabetes can be serious and even life threatening [].”
However the makers of Seroquel (AstraZeneca) do not accept that Seroquel (known generically as quetiapine) causes diabetes, although there is plenty of online speculation that this may be the case. Similar speculation abounds regarding other atypical/second generation antipsychotics (especially olanzapine, clozapine and risperidone) used to treat bipolar, possibly because of the associated weight gain that can come with these medications – for it is well established that there really is a link between being overweight and type 2 diabetes. It is also well established that for many people certain lifestyle choices will beckon the disease and that to some extent the onset of type 2 diabetes is preventable. So, given that anyone on atypical/second generation antipsychotics should probably do what they can to avoid getting diabetes, what do we need to do?

Sunday, 13 July 2014

The Bodhisattva Aspiration

Statue of a Bodhisattva from Ghandara
Lately I have been deepening my understanding of what Bodhisattvas are, including the aspiration to attain this state. Loosely put, Bodhisattvas can be described as Buddhist deities, or if one comes from a Christian background one might understand them to be like saints. Bodhisattvas are particularly important within the Mahayana tradition and practitioners are encouraged to aspire to become Bodhisattvas themselves. The history of the Bodhisattva concept is described thus:
“The term ‘bodhisattva’ appears first as the title the Buddha used to refer to himself before he realised nirvana. The Jataka Tales, popular scriptures of Theravada Buddhism, extend the concept of bodhisattva to include previous lives of the Buddha before he was born as Siddhattha Gotama [Skt. Siddhartha Gautama] … Already on the path to Buddhahood, the bodhisatta (Skt. Bodhisattva) in these stories exhibits many of the qualities of a Buddha, most notably a selfless desire to serve others regardless of the consequences for himself.   
… Mahayana Buddhism … seized upon the concept of the bodhisattva as one of its most important spiritual ideals. Followers of Mahayana Buddhism are expected to take and repeatedly reiterate the ‘bodhisattva vow’, a promise to dedicate one’s life to the welfare of other beings and to forgo final realisation of nirvana until all beings have been led to release. In essence, the bodhisattva vow replaces nirvana, the supreme goal of Theravada Buddhism, with the supreme goal of Mahayana Buddhism: Buddhahood [Reat, Buddhism: A History at 50-51].”

Saturday, 14 June 2014

The Ketogenic Diet and Bipolar

"Cheese paradise" by dreamcatcher-hina
In 2012 Phelps, Siemers and El-Mallakh published a study with the following findings:
“Successful mood stabilizing treatments reduce intracellular sodium in an activity-dependent manner. This can also be achieved with acidification of the blood, as is the case with the ketogenic diet. Two women with type II bipolar disorder were able to maintain ketosis for prolonged periods of time (2 and 3 years, respectively). Both experienced mood stabilization that exceeded that achieved with medication; experienced a significant subjective improvement that was distinctly related to ketosis; and tolerated the diet well. There were no significant adverse effects in either case. These cases demonstrate that the ketogenic diet is a potentially sustainable option for mood stabilization in type II bipolar illness [The Ketogenic Diet for Type II Bipolar Disorder].”