By Life Positive
as told to Mansi Agarwal
Shantum Seth, brother of the well-known writer, Vikram Seth, is a Buddhist practitioner and an ordained Zen master.
A day of my life I lead a very transparent life. I wake up at 6 30 in the morning. I often kickstart my day with stretching exercises and yoga. Regular study and practice of dharma is an essential part of my morning. Then I head for my workplace. Every so often I come back home for a late lunch. I return to my workplace and spend time with my colleagues. Thrice a week during the evenings, I have my sangha meetings. We practice various kinds of meditations like the walking meditation, sitting meditation or the tea meditation. We study together and have interactive discussions on various aspects of our practice and our lives.
I gave up non-veg food 25 years ago as I felt that it did not suit my body. I think our body is not meant to digest such heavy food. I do yoga asana for physical well-being. Mental health is even more imperative. I practice meditation to calm my mind. The key focus should be on breath…mindful breathing, in the right posture, with absolute attentiveness. Breathing right has had many salutary repercussions on my wellness. In order to lead a heedful lifestyle, one should repeat to oneself, ‘I am present to what I am doing’ and be attentive at all levels.
The entire universe is my dwelling house and all the humans, plants, birds, animals, even rocks, are members of my family. But if I narrow it down, then I have a wife, Geetanjali, and two young daughters, Nandini and Anamikamaitri. We live with our parents. I have a brother, Vikram, and a sister, Aradhana; she is married, so her immediate family also becomes an eminent part of my family. It simply stretches out.
I feel that matrimony is an important aspect of life. Harmony between two people living together is very important. If you try to understand your partner, he or she becomes your better half. My own experience says that.
I have had many crossroads in my life. Earlier, I lived in England where I worked for a footwear company. At one point, I was sent to India on a project. Here, my hotel bill for a single day exceeded the weekly earnings of the skilled shoe karigars. Even while I was in England I got beaten up several times because of my color. I learnt from these instances and shifted my focus from materialism.
As a youth, I was involved in activist politics. I used to be furious about social issues like nuclear empowerment and racism. Subsequently, I realized that instead of being peaceful, I was fighting for peace and in order to make peace I had to have that peace within my being. Thus my quest began. I took refuge under various Hindu, tribal, and Christian teachers. After meeting them my search intensified. I went wandering, in India as well as in England. As a manager of an acoustic music troupe called ‘Trana’ which used to do ceremonies, chanting and story telling, I went to America with them. It was a three-month tour, but I stayed on for another 18 months. I came across some Buddhist teachers and I liked their overviews on meditation. In 1987 in California, I met Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hahn, who is still my teacher. After a 10-day session with him I realized that all the answers were deep inside my own self; I just had to peep within.
The crux of ‘engaged Buddhism’ that I practice is to take everyday life situations and transform them into expressive meditation methods. Telephone meditation is the practice of being mindful and attentive while one is on the telephone. The phone bell acts like a meditation bell and helps you center your attention. With the first phone bell I stop, as in stopping my mind running wild, just like the Buddha calling me back to my true self. At the next bell I concentrate on my breathing, and with the third bell I smile, smile to life. On the fourth bell, I receive the call. Spoken words can create harmony or disrupt relationships, so it is very important to be alert while talking on the phone.
It is a great gift. Before opening my eyes each day I remind myself that I have a brand new 24 hours. I ponder upon how to make them full of compassion. People think that walking on air is a miracle; I believe that walking on earth is a miracle. Each moment is wondrous, not to be wasted. I take each step with attentiveness as I step out of my bed. I am attentive while eating. If I am eating a carrot, I know it comes from the earth; it consists of the absorbed sunrays, water and the minerals. As I eat the carrot, it becomes a part of me; subsequently the sun, water, minerals all become a part of me. Once you understand the concept of interdependence, you start interpenetrating with the world.
Sometimes, life can be tricky. We all suffer because we try to find the permanent in the impermanent. I can enjoy the beauty of a flower knowing that it will perish in a matter of few days and take birth again; or I can grieve over the fact that it will perish.
Similarly, I try to transform all my negative emotions into something healthy. Don’t try to get rid of emotions like anger, jealousy, and hatred. Recognize the emotion and embrace it. Say to yourself, ‘Hello, anger, I see you coming up again.’ Then it will lose its sting upon you. Take a deeper look at the cause of your anger with a compassionate eye and see your anger dissipating.
I have been very fortunate, as I have always had enough. When I was 22, I was earning more then I ever needed; I even had a sports car. I soon became restless and left my job to go back to university to study social sciences. At that time I had to work part-time to pay for my expenses. That was the first time I encountered financial hardship. I am happy that I did, it made me strong. A few years back, my wife and I sat down and made a chart of how much we really needed and we doubled that figure. I realized that I could earn that much of money from the pilgrimages I organize. I was working with the UN at that time. I decided that I could do without it. One’s scale of materialistic comforts is individual. We create conditions because of the society we live in, but we should not be caught in the vicious circle of the materialistic world.
In 1988 I accompanied Thich Nhat Hanh to the Buddhist sites in India. I had gone there before but under Thich Nhat Hanh’s guidance, for the first time Buddha actually became a human to me. It was only in 1999 that I decided to make it a source of livelihood . The journey is called ‘In the footsteps of the Buddha’.
We might be present physically for 60 or 70 years on an average. Look at it from the point of view of the self. It dies and takes birth over and over again. A wave might have the illusion that it is a big wave or a small wave. As soon as it realizes that its true nature is water, it will lose its fearfulness. There is no birth and death, the spirit is eternal, and once we realize this we will let go of this fear. Once we realize the impermanence of life, we will be attentive at all times and then we won’t have any regrets.
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