Category Archives: practice

And then, a new experience

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This happens again and again.

A word, a phrase, I have heard hundreds of times, in dharma talks, and so on. Read hundreds of times, in sutras and other texts. This word, today, is “stream.”

Again and again, I have remembered the words of Plato, quoting Heraclitus:

“You could not step twice into the same river.”

Again and again I have heard that life is a stream — the world that is true, all existence, and each sentient being is an ever-flowing stream. We are not the same from one day to the next, from one moment to the next. And I have known, for a long time, that my understanding of this truth is only, was only, an intellectual understanding. I knew I had not attained it, although I believed it, and my mind, my mind understood it.

And then today, thanks to a little text in a magazine (shown above), it entered into me with enormous clarity. I understood it for the first time. It was crazy — I cannot explain exactly how it was different, but it was — so very, very different.

And it lasted only moments. Some moments. I’m left with a kind of vestige of that realization. I am more than I was before, but I am not the same as I was in that moment.

“… I shall liberate them all. And though I thus liberate countless beings, not a single being is liberated.

“And why not? Subhuti, a bodhisattva who creates the perception of a being cannot be called a ‘bodhisattva.’ And why not? Subhuti, no one can be called a bodhisattva who creates the perception of a self or who creates the perception of a being, a life, or a soul.”

— The Diamond Sutra, part 3 (p. 3 — trans. Red Pine, 2001)

I have meditated on this again and again, again and again. Today, for a moment, I attained it.

Now, back to work.

Breathe.

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Mindfulness, meditation, and no-Buddha

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Thanks to this blog post at Tricycle, I was inspired to return to this blog.

A bit more than a year ago, I wrote a series of posts about the Eightfold Path. It started, naturally, with Right View, the first of the eight steps or practices. The series was part of my work (my practice) to study the path more closely. Unfortunately, I let the other parts of my life interfere, and I completed only six of the eight posts.

The seventh step is mindfulness.

That was going to take a lot of study — just to write the blog post.

So back to the Tricycle blog post:

These days when I read about Buddhism in the mainstream media — heck, when I read about Buddhism in the Buddhist media — it’s more like, mindfulness, mindfulness, everywhere, and not a drop of dharma.

That was a great sentence, and it set me to thinking.

I’m still not ready to write that seventh blog post in my Eightfold Path series. (I hope I will write it one day.) For now, I wanted to make some notes that the Tricycle post reminded me of — they are thoughts I have often when I listen to people who are talking (or posting online) about Buddhism. Or something like Buddhism.

Well, what is Buddhism, anyway?

No, I won’t try to answer that. But we know there are many people learning and/or practicing meditation without any Buddhism in it. That is neither good nor bad — it just is. There are many benefits to meditation, and I think it’s possible for a lot of people to realize those benefits without Buddhism. Meditation can be practiced as part of many other religious faiths, and even with no reference to any religious belief.

Mindfulness: Now this is something else. Meditation has helped me discover mindfulness and practice it — both when I am actively meditating, and also when I am walking, sitting, lying down, riding in cars, and so on.

Can you learn to practice mindfulness without ever meditating? It seems very unlikely to me, but I don’t know the answer for sure. Without learning stillness — which I learned by meditating in the traditional sitting form — I don’t know how you could learn mindfulness. So I think this is an important question: Must we meditate so we can learn to be mindful?

I think the answer is yes.

According to the Tricycle post, Thanissaro Bhikkhu says mindfulness is the one Buddhist concept most commonly misunderstood by western Buddhists. The famous bhikkhu has recently published a new book — free, online — about mindfulness. (Download it from the Tricycle page.)

But my final question — and I will sit with this one — concerns whether we can learn mindfulness without Buddhism.

The path is described in Buddhist literature as a process, a journey. The Buddha (Shakyamuni) gave us a model in the way he lived his life in this world. Mindfulness is more than simply being aware, or being “in the moment,” as some people say. When I started my individual study of the eight steps (the Eightfold Path), I began to understand this in ways I never had before. The process loops back to the beginning as you move forward on the path. My understanding of the meaning of all kinds of things has changed — subtly and gradually — the longer I practice.

If you ignore the life of the Buddha, and the teachings of the Buddha, how can you discover the mindfulness that he taught about?

Breathe.

Right Effort: Training Your Mind

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Having discussed the factors of moral discipline, or correct conduct (Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood), Bhikkhu Bodhi moves on to the three factors concerned with concentration — Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.

In a wonderful text about the Noble Eightfold Path, this American-born Buddhist monk and scholar tells us:

Wisdom is the primary tool for deliverance, but the penetrating vision it yields can only open up when the mind has been composed and collected. Right concentration brings the requisite stillness to the mind by unifying it with undistracted focus on a suitable object. To do so, however, the factor of concentration needs the aid of effort and mindfulness.

Underlying and supporting Right Effort is the mental factor of Energy (viriya), which manifests in both wholesome and unwholesome forms.

The same factor fuels desire, aggression, violence, and ambition on the one hand, and generosity, self-discipline, kindness, concentration, and understanding on the other.

For us to direct this special energy toward the end of suffering, it must be guided by Right View and Right Intention — the first two elements on the Noble Eightfold Path. A newcomer to Buddhist thought should not allow this interpenetration of the elements of the path to cause frustration (this is me speaking, not Bhikkhu Bodhi); as each small concept becomes more familiar to us, and as we examine each one closely and patiently, the whole will integrate itself in time.

Bhikkhu Bodhi writes:

The reason why effort is so crucial is that each person has to work out his or her own deliverance. The Buddha does what he can by pointing out the path to liberation; the rest involves putting the path into practice, a task that demands energy. This energy is to be applied to the cultivation of the mind, which forms the focus of the entire path. [My italics.]

Right Effort is divided into four Great Endeavors, which I have paraphrased:

  1. Prevent unwholesome states from arising
  2. Get rid of unwholesome states that have already arisen
  3. Evoke and encourage wholesome states
  4. Maintain and perfect wholesome states that have already arisen

Unwholesome states (akusala dhamma) are the three defilements (sometimes called the three poisons): greed, aversion, and delusion. These are what cause human suffering. Wholesome states (kusala dhamma) are those that contain nothing of the defilements and also lead toward liberation.

Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh helps us to understand the unwholesome states as seeds in our mind-store. He draws a big circle, then divides it into two halves with a wavy line. Now the circle looks like a yin-yang symbol. In the bottom half, he draws some little circles — these are the seeds. The top half is our conscious mind. The bottom half is the storage area of our mind (the subconscious, perhaps, but even more than that: memory, experience, and instinct are there as well).

The seeds in the mind-store are of two kinds: wholesome and unwholesome. Some of these seeds may never sprout (up in the conscious mind) in this lifetime, but many others will. The seed metaphor works beautifully with the idea of mental cultivation. In a garden we pull out weeds when they appear. We care for the good plants with water, light, and nutrients.

I may have overstepped by introducing Thich Nhat Hanh’s illustration, but it made a powerful impression on me. (You can see and hear it for yourself. Start at the 40-minute mark to go straight to this topic. See also a list of the 52 mental formations.)

Back to Bhikkhu Bodhi’s text: He introduces the Five Hindrances (pañcanivarana) that impede concentration:

  • Sensual desire
  • Ill will
  • Dullness and drowsiness
  • Restlessness and worry
  • Doubt

These five mess up our minds — they prevent us from focusing on what is most important.They block our progress on the path. So, naturally, we need to train our mind to overcome these hindrances.

“Sensual desire” sounds like it means sex, but in fact it means all cravings related to any of our senses — sight, sound, smell, taste, touch. If I feel hungry when I am sitting in meditation, I start to think about food. That is sensual desire, interfering with my Right Effort.

About “ill will,” Bhikkhu Bodhi writes:

[It] is a synonym for aversion. It comprises hatred, anger, resentment, repulsion of every shade, whether directed towards other people, towards oneself, towards objects, or towards situations.

This is especially important because while meditating, we often encounter things that are unpleasant. Thoughts and memories about our past will sprout up, and while we must look at these and consider them, what we need to cultivate is the ability to do so without  hatred, anger, resentment, or repulsion. That is part of our mind training.

I would point you to Bhikkhu Bodhi’s text for further explanation of the other three hindrances — all of which are familiar to everyone who has practiced meditation!

We must work diligently to overcome these, because

when the hindrances arise, they disperse attention and darken the quality of awareness, to the detriment of calm and clarity. The hindrances do not come from outside the mind but from within. They appear through the activation of certain tendencies constantly lying dormant in the deep recesses of the mental continuum, awaiting the opportunity to surface. [My italics.]

Contact with “sense objects” — that is, anything our senses can interact with — has a tendency to “stir up unwholesome states.” This is of course not only during meditation but all the time, while we are going about our day-to-day life.

[Sense objects] do this either directly, through their immediate impact, or else indirectly by depositing memory traces which later may swell up as the objects of defiled thoughts, images, and fantasies. As a general rule the defilement that is activated corresponds to the object: attractive objects provoke desire, disagreeable objects provoke ill will, and indeterminate objects provoke the defilements connected with delusion.

Bhikkhu Bodhi discusses how we can apply mindfulness and clear understanding to our encounters with sense objects. He compares an encounter without mindfulness to one in which mindfulness is applied:

One will grasp the sign of the object, explore its details, and thereby give the defilements their opportunity: on account of greed one will become fascinated by an agreeable object, on account of aversion one will be repelled by a disagreeable object. But when one applies mindfulness to the sensory encounter, one nips the cognitive process in the bud before it can evolve into the stages that stimulate the dormant taints.

This level of success is not easy to come by — but this is one of the outcomes of Buddhist practice. I think this description is a good indication of why our practice is called training the mind.

Bhikkhu Bodhi explains the various procedures for getting rid of an unwholesome state once it has arisen. For many such thoughts, this one will do the trick:

Instead of turning away from the unwanted thought, one confronts it directly as an object, scrutinizes its features, and investigates its source. When this is done the thought quiets down and eventually disappears. For an unwholesome thought is like a thief: it only creates trouble when its operation is concealed, but put under observation it becomes tame. [My italics.]

At the end of this section, Bhikkhu Bodhi turns to the wholesome states of mind, which are many, but which need our attention and cultivation to be able to grow and thrive. In particular, he says:

The Buddha lays special stress on a set called the seven factors of enlightenment (satta bojjhanga): mindfulness, investigation of phenomena, energy, rapture, tranquillity, concentration, and equanimity. [Further explanation is here.]

Those seven both lead to enlightenment and constitute enlightenment. Mindfulness, of course, is necessary for any part of this to work — and the next factor in the Noble Eightfold Path is, in fact, Right Mindfulness.

Breathe.

The Noble Eightfold Path: The Way to the End of Suffering, by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Published by Access to Insight, 16 June 2011.

Right Action: What You Do

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Three factors of eight apply to moral discipline, or sila. These are Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood.

In his fine text about the Noble Eightfold Path, Bhikkhu Bodhi notes that sila is a bit challenging to translate into English. It’s a multipurpose word, and one of its meanings is virtue. It is also a word used for the Five Precepts (Panca Sila) that lay Buddhists take in making a formal commitment to practice. Four of those precepts are closely related to Right Action, and the fifth is closely related to Right Speech.

The precepts are worded a bit differently wherever you find them, but they boil down to the same five ideas: no killing, no stealing, no lying, no sexual misconduct, and no intoxication. If we remember the ideas behind Right Intention, the five make good sense.

Sometimes Buddhist teachers explain that we should perform no harmful actions with our body, speech, or mind. That takes the idea of action beyond the purely physical and helps us contemplate how thoughts can become actions in a split second.

In the context of the Noble Eightfold path, Bhikkhu Bodhi writes:

The Buddha mentions three components of right action: abstaining from taking life, abstaining from taking what is not given, and abstaining from sexual misconduct.

He notes the important distinction that these proscribed actions assume intention. If you had no intention to step on that little ant, you have not broken the precept. If you stomp the ant deliberately, then you have broken the precept. He also points out that plants are not included among the beings we must not kill — only sentient beings are so protected.

Bhikkhu Bodhi does not mention indirect killing, such as the killing of animals and fish that we eat, even though someone else did the actual killing. For many Buddhists, this is a motivation for keeping a strict vegetarian diet; other Buddhists disagree. (There’s a good article about Buddhists and vegetarianism here.)

“Taking what is not given” can be broadened beyond theft and robbery to include deceitful actions, such as cheating someone in business. Greed or hatred will often be at the root of the desire to take something that belongs to someone else.

As telling the truth is the positive version of not telling lies, so honest interactions are the positive version of not stealing.

Another related virtue is contentment, being satisfied with what one has without being inclined to increase one’s wealth by unscrupulous means. The most eminent opposite virtue is generosity, giving away one’s own wealth and possessions in order to benefit others. [My italics.]

“Sexual misconduct” is always open to debate — but once again, Bhikkhu Bodhi emphasizes the positive fruits of following this precept: to promote trust and fidelity. If we think of all the ways we might harm others or ourselves (especially emotionally) by acting irresponsibly in sexual matters, this aspect of Right Action fits perfectly into the “big picture” of Buddhism. We must learn how to avoid creating more suffering for ourselves and others. Bhikkhu Bodhi runs down a list of “illicit partners,” but really that’s just common sense.

The principle does not, however, confine sexual relations to the marital union. It is flexible enough to allow for variations depending on social convention. The essential purpose, as was said, is to prevent sexual relations which are hurtful to others. When mature independent people, though unmarried, enter into a sexual relationship through free consent, so long as no other person is intentionally harmed, no breach of the training factor is involved.

Of course there is the expectation of celibacy for Buddhist monks and nuns who have been ordained. For lay people, there is no “bad sex” in Buddhism — there are only incorrect liaisons, which are those that are likely to cause suffering for at least one person.

In his discussion of Right Action, Bhikkhu Bodhi does not mention intoxicants — but they do turn up under the next section, about Right Livelihood.

In Thich Nhat Hanh’s Zen Buddhist order, lay practitioners take the Five Mindfulness Trainings instead of the traditional Five Precepts. Each training is an expanded version of one of the precepts, which adds rather a lot more weight and responsibility. They can be compared with the traditional Five Precepts.

Breathe.

The Noble Eightfold Path: The Way to the End of Suffering, by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Published by Access to Insight, 16 June 2011.

Connecting or separating

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This post at the Progressive Buddhism blog really gave me a lot to think about: Saving the world by sitting on our butts.

Sometimes when a person most needs the support of friends and family, some of those folks desert the person. There are all kinds of reasons why you or I might cut off contact with a friend or family member. Some of the reasons might be correct (from a Buddhist or compassionate point of view). Sometimes we know our action is not correct — but we do it anyway.

Sometimes when we try to support or engage with a person, even with good intentions, we do more harm than good (see The lesson of the cicada for a resonant example).

Some practitioners of Buddhism think it’s best to sit on the cushion, that going out into the world and engaging with other beings is not the ideal practice. (Others such as the Peacemakers think almost the opposite.)

If you were in the middle of a Buddhist retreat and you got word that someone you care about was in the hospital, would you promptly leave the retreat and go to that person?

Sit with that for a bit.

Then look and see whether you had these thoughts:

  • It would depend on who it was.
  • It would depend on why he or she was in the hospital.
  • It would depend on the travel arrangements.

That’s a lot of dependencies, isn’t it?

Breathe.

Learning to be patient

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This morning I was sitting with a situation. I’m not sure how to respond to the situation.

So, first, I just looked at it. I set the situation in front of me, and I looked at it.

I saw that thinking would not actually yield anything except a bunch of scenarios, all of them pretty much equal. So, I quit thinking.

Then this well-known Zen saying appeared in my mind:

Spring comes.
The grass
grows by itself.

After a brief interlude of calm, peaceful feelings, I thought: Geez, you’re turning into someone like one of those well-meaning Christians who go around spouting proverbs at people. “Do unto others …”

As that thought drifted away, and I watched it go, I remembered the full moon, hidden by nighttime clouds. The moon is always there, even when we can’t see it. When the clouds move aside, we can see the moon.

Breathe.

It just keeps on getting better

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Well, just in case anyone is wondering, I’ll provide a little update. I’m almost at the end of my first determined study of the Diamond Sutra, which I started in July. Yesterday I spent about two and a half hours on chapters 27, 28, and 29. There are only three chapters to go, but it’s really blowing my mind now — so I wasn’t quite ready to complete it today!

I am still sitting for 30 minutes every morning. I went through a very restless period for about a week or two when I kept quitting early almost every day (only about five minutes early, but I was in some weird agitated state, and my one leg hurt and I just couldn’t get past it). That was followed by about five days that were so excellent, I told someone that my legs had fallen off (I was thinking both of Dogen saying “Shed body and mind,” and of the legend about Bodhidharma’s legs falling off when he sat for nine years). Since then, I’ve had both kinds of days.

I went to another three-day silent retreat recently; I think it was my fourth one. Maybe my fifth. No, probably my fourth. Anyway, I realized that it’s quite likely that I will gain some new wisdom each time I go to a retreat, and so, even if they are damned inconvenient and very difficult, I will continue to go. When I’m able. I was inspired by the Zen master, who said he attends about one retreat per month. Whoa. That’s a whole lot of distance on the bodhisattva path, I’d say.

I came across a reference to a new book, Ten Zen Questions, not long ago. I had an Amazon gift certificate, so I bought it — and it’s inspired me to take a more active approach to questioning reality. I think a lot of Western Zen people put a big emphasis on a kind of psychotherapy style of practice — you’re looking deep within yourself to discover your true self, after all. But the explorations recounted in this book keep bringing me back to that Bodhidharma quotation about the mind and reality:

If you use your mind to study reality, you won’t understand either your mind or reality. If you study reality without using your mind, you’ll understand both.

Another way it appears:

Using the mind to look for reality is delusion. Not using the mind to look for reality is awareness.

Now, the author, Susan Blackmore, is definitely using her mind — maybe too much! But her accounts about her experiences on the cushion (and off, to some extent) have prompted me to watch more of the things my mind does — more than just my feelings and reactions and impulses, that is. For example, lying in bed this morning, I asked myself what I actually know (knew) at that moment, when my eyes were still closed. I knew I was on a bed and under covers. Did I “know” what bed I was in? I remembered getting into my own bed last night. But did I really know that was the bed I was in when I woke up — without opening my eyes?

The book and its questions have challenged me to look at memory, at perceptions, at my six senses (the 18 domains) from some new angles, which is very interesting. I am finding that more and more of what I consider to be reality is in fact just stuff in my head.

Another thing I noticed concerned vision (and memory). I was sitting on my cushion and asked myself what I knew about the room (where I always sit). I realized I could not see the floor lamp, which was about 18 inches to my right, but a little behind me. How did I know there was a lamp there? Of course, I remembered it. I bought it recently, to replace an old one that stood in the same spot. I remembered the old lamp too. In fact, I remembered both lamps equally well. So how did I know which one was there?

I feel as if I am pushing the edge of something. Give way, something says, pushing. The edge yields a little and springs back. I’m going to go on pushing it.

Breathe.

5,000+ Buddhists in U.S. military

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Air Force Cadets can practice inside a 300-square-foot Buddhist chapel at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., according to National Public Radio.

The chapel was paid for by the Frederick P. Lenz Foundation for American Buddhism.

Out of 1.4 million people in the military, 5,287 identified themselves as Buddhists as of June 2009.

In September, NPR broadcast a story about the first-ever Buddhist chaplain in the U.S. Army.

Breathe.

Leonard Cohen, at the Zen monastery

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A long 1998 article about Leonard Cohen’s Zen practice appears in Utne Reader:

Apart from Cohen’s 26-year-old son, Adam, and his 23-year-old daughter, Lorca, the Japanese roshi, or spiritual teacher, seems to be the one still point in his endlessly turning life, and now he accompanies Sasaki to Zen centers from Vienna to Puerto Rico and endures punishing retreats each month in which he does virtually nothing but sit zazen 24 hours a day for seven days on end.

And later:

… Cohen is telling me that he makes no claims to piety or knowledge; his training here, he says, is just a useful response to the “predicament” of his life. At times, as I listen, I can see the coyote trickster who has been working the press for decades. I feel disconcerted, almost, by his very niceness, his openness, his courtesy, as he keeps thanking me for “being kind enough to come here” and tends to my every need as if I were the celebrity and he the journalist …

And my favorite:

“For me,” he says, his voice soft and beautiful, a trace of Canada still in it, “the process is really more like a bear stumbling into a beehive or a honey cache: I’m stumbling right into it and getting stuck, and it’s delicious and it’s horrible and I’m in it and it’s not very graceful and it’s very awkward and it’s very painful” …

It’s delicious and it’s horrible. Hallelujah.

Breathe.

The Metta sutra and Metta chant

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Only recently was I introduced to the Metta chant. The practice of chanting these words reinforces our aspiration to feel true compassion for all beings — and very specifically, not only the nice ones, but also including the most horrible, awful people we can imagine.

The chant starts with us, ourselves:

Aham avero homi
May I be free from enmity and danger

abyapajjho homi
May I be free from mental suffering

anigha homi
May I be free from physical suffering

Then it continues:

Sabbe satta
May all beings

sabbe pana
all breathing things

sabbe bhutta
all creatures …

avera hontu
be free from enmity and dangers

abyapajjha hontu
be free from mental suffering

anigha hontu
be free from physical suffering

sukhi – attanam pariharantu
may they take care of themselves happily

Dukkha muccantu
May all being be free from suffering

Yattha-laddha-sampattito mavigacchantu
May whatever they have gained not be lost …

You can read the complete chant here, at BuddhaNet.

The Metta Sutra is a different text (read a good English translation here). The teaching is the same:

As a mother would risk her life
to protect her child, her only child,
even so should one cultivate a limitless heart
with regard to all beings.
With good will for the entire cosmos,
cultivate a limitless heart:
Above, below, and all around,
unobstructed, without enmity or hate.

Breathe.