Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Pleasure of Practice

Yesterday I was talking with someone who is leaving for a retreat today. She commented "I really need a retreat." As I reflected on this it reminded me of the many times I have thought the same thing. What is it about retreat practice that we would look forward to it? From the outside it certainly doesn't seem like a very pleasant experience, spending days not speaking to anyone, spending hours sitting in the same position hardly moving at all or walking very very slowly, sometimes being confronted by painful memories. My first retreat was extremely painful physically. Yet I and many others are drawn to return to retreats again and again.

This also brought to mind the memory of my early years of meditating. I had minimal instruction in how to practice, was practicing mostly by myself and certainly, in retrospect, didn't seem to experience any significant insights. Yet I was drawn to spending 20-30 minutes of my very limited "free" time sitting silently with attention turned inward day after day. What kept me going during this time?

I think the truth is that spending some time with a concentrated mind is actually a pleasant experience. In a practice that has "insight" in its name, we may get the message that insight or wisdom is all that matters. Yet it is this quality of serenity that comes from concentration that often sustains us and draws us deeper and deeper into the practice. In the Dhammapada, v. 372, the Buddha pointed to the complementary role of wisdom and concentration:
There is no concentration without wisdom,
No wisdom without concentration.
One who has both wisdom and concentration
Is close to peace and freedom.

This experience of serenity is what is called a spiritually pleasant experience, something more refined than the sense pleasures of everyday life. Because it is more refined, it offers a satisfaction that everyday pleasures do not, so it's refreshing. Of course it's important to understand that this serenity associated with a concentrated mind isn't the end of the path. But it's also important to acknowledge how valuable it is, how it nurtures and supports us through the ups and downs of this human life. It may not be the ultimate refuge of peace and freedom that the Buddha pointed to, but it certainly is a comforting refuge nevertheless.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Interdependence and the Delusion of Radical Individualism

After spending the last four weeks in SE Asia, I found myself waiting for five hours in the Seoul-Incheon airport for my flight to Chicago. It's a super-modern and highly efficient airport that offers wonderful amenities for travelers like free wi-fi, free showers and quiet spaces where travelers can rest while in transit. While waiting I reflected on some of the stories I had heard on this trip and also on a trend of American culture over the last thirty years.

During this trip, and our previous one to Cambodia, I heard horrific and sad stories of the "Cultural Revolution" that swept China, Cambodia and to some extent Vietnam during the late 60's to 70's. Stories of the abuse so many experienced. Stories of people who were killed and of families broken apart. Stories of people who couldn't follow their dreams and make use of their educations and training because the government or party ordered them to do something else. Stories of what happens when a society gets unbalanced and emphasizes the "good of the group" (i.e. nation, party, etc.) to an extreme.

But I also found myself wondering, as I sat in Seoul-Incheon, why it is that the great cities of the US don't have an airport like Seoul's? Why is it that Europe and Japan have highly developed networks of superfast trains for transporting people, but the US doesn't? Why does the US have one of the most powerful economies in the world and yet our roads and bridges are crumbling? Why does the US have such a high standard of medical innovations and yet so many people who can't receive the most basic kinds of health care?

I know that there are many causes for each of these differences between the US and other countries, but I can't help but feel that underlying them is the shadow side of what makes the US such a great and vibrant culture. Probably more than any other culture in history we have been able to empower individuals to pursue their dreams. The result has been a high level of individual satisfaction and the innovation and the vibrancy of our culture. But when we only see the individual, when we fail to see the ways that we are interconnected and the ways that we are responsible for each other, we go to the opposite extreme of the Asian countries I mentioned earlier. We neglect the common good for what is only good for me, me, me. It seems to me that this has been a strong trend in the US since the 70's or 80's and the result has been a growing disparity between the richest and the poorest, a distrust of the mechanisms of government that support us and a failure to invest or re-invest in the infrastructure that made us strong.

Some may wonder what these comments have to do with the Dharma, with awakening. But awakening is about seeing things as they are. It is about seeing the views, beliefs and assumptions that are outside of awareness and yet influence our behavior. So it seems to me that it is important for us to notice when our emphasis on the social group or on individualism is out of balance otherwise we'll get caught sacrificing individual welfare or the common good for a perfectionistic ideal.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Many Buddhisms

I'm currently traveling in SE Asia with my wife. On this trip we've visited central Vietnam and Thailand. On previous trips we visited northern Vietnam, Hong Kong, Cambodia and Laos. Each country has a strong Buddhist tradition. As we've traveled and met people, my wife has frequently announced that her husband is a Buddhist. (I'm more reticent about making that statement, but the reasons for that might be another blog entry.)

Usually the initial reaction to Gail's statement is surprise and some curiosity. In Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, the interest seemed to stop there. In Vietnam and in Hong Kong I found some assumptions being made about what it would mean if I were Buddhist. Sometimes there's an assumption that I'm vegetarian even though few of the lay people in these countries seem to be. Actually they often seem to eat a wider ranger of living creatures, and parts of living creatures, than I do. In Vietnam and Hong Kong there's also been an expectation that I will want to visit the temples, pray and perhaps offer incense.

The practices in Cambodia, Laos and Thailand have been closer to my own experience with Insight Meditation and Theravada Buddhism in the US. But in these countries monks and temples are the most obvious expression of Buddhism. Lay people seem to focus on ethical behavior, making merit through generosity and supporting the monks and temples, being protected from evil spirits and making their way in the world.

Although my understanding of the Buddhist practices and beliefs in these different cultures is pretty superficial, getting a little sense of how popular Buddhist practice has been influenced by the history and culture of each country has also given me a little perspective on "American Buddhism." Buddhism in Hong Kong and in Vietnam seems to have been strongly influenced by Confucian beliefs and practices that play such a strong part in Chinese culture, while in Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, areas where Hindu civilizations once ruled, Buddhism seems to retain some of those Hindu influences and along with beliefs in spirits.

So what about American Buddhism? What will it be like? Some people like to spend a lot of time and energy thinking about this, apparently believing that we can consciously control the outcome. I tend to think that the outcome will be influenced by our conscious choices about how to practice — for instance maybe a "stripped down" Buddhism based on the suttas of Early Buddhism — but that our hidden, and not so hidden, cultural values — things like our scientific, materialist orientation, a pragmatic emphasis on what works, a non-hierarchical orientation and gender equality — will more profoundly shape American Buddhism than any conscious choices we might make.

Those influences are already occurring. Though they may not be obvious to us, perhaps they are to visitors from other Buddhist countries. It would be interesting to know.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Freedom in Your Heart

When I read the newspaper or follow the news on tv or the 'net, I'm constantly confronted with the difficulty and suffering of human existence. The awful flooding in Pakistan. The grisly bombings, poisonings and deaths from many other causes in the Middle East, South Asia and Africa. The still looming world-wide economic crisis. The simple difficulty that people all over the world, even in this country, have in getting enough food to eat. Of course the list could go on and on.

And then there is all of the fear, hatred and distrust in this and in many other countries. It often seems that the world is just spinning out of control. It brings to mind the first stanza of William Butler Yeats' poem "The Second Coming":

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

At times of uncertainty and hardship like these, the human mind and heart seem to just naturally move towards more simplistic, black-and-white and fundamentalist views of life, as though security can be found through these. But I've been reminded by two teachings that true security and peace lie elsewhere.

The first teaching has to do with the way so many people are responding to the heightened sense of uncertainty in their lives. It has to do with the response of hatred, and also with how we deal with hatred. In the Dhammapada, the Buddha said:

Hatred never ends through hatred.
By non-hate alone does it end.
This is an ancient truth.

Hatred never ends through hatred. By non-hate alone does it end. We can investigate this in our own experience. I find when I'm caught up in hatred, my heart is contracted, my body is tense, my mind is obsessed with and narrowly focused on the object of my hatred. There's little space for anything else other than my hatred. Then when a little mindfulness kicks in and I'm able to get a little space around the hatred, I can notice that it feels pretty awful to be caught up in it. The mind and heart are agitated, tight, and the body is tense. It certainly isn't a peaceful state of being.

When the mind and heart are filled with non-hatred, another way of saying unconditional love, there is a relaxed and spacious feeling, sometimes with joy, sometimes with equanimity, in the mind, heart and body. There's a simple trust in life and an opening to whatever is in this moment. It is quite a contrast with the inner experience of hate.

Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King both understood this lesson quite well. They understood that the battle for social change and justice has at it's core the hard work of inner transformation, meeting hatred with determined non-hatred rather than with more hatred.

Which brings us to the second teaching on true security and peace. This is a teaching from Thich Nhat Hanh who said:

The amount of happiness that you have depends on the amount of freedom you have in your heart.

Freedom in your heart: what does this mean? What is this freedom like? We've already touched on this in exploring the Buddha's teaching on hatred. One of the characteristics of a free heart would be one that is filled with non-hatred, a heart and mind that is filled with an unconditional receptivity towards whatever is encountered.

Another quality that fills our hearts and minds so that there is no space for anything else is the quality of greed. When this mind and heart are caught up in greed, there is a burning quality of wanting but also a deep feeling of being unsettled, of being agitated. Being caught in greed really isn't a very pleasant experience. There's also a belief that we can escape from the burning and agitation, if only we can get what we want. Sometimes we can be so driven by this that we are willing to run right over other people, other forms of life, just to get what we think will make us happy, what we think will make the burning of greed go away. And if we feel that someone or something is standing in our way of getting what we want, the intensity and passion of the greed can easily flip into hatred.

So another characteristic of a heart filled with freedom, and capable of true happiness, is the quality of non-greed, which we can also call generosity, an attitude of generosity towards oneself and others.

The Buddha was very clear that what keeps us from experiencing the happiness of a free heart is not seeing things as they really are. Not clearly seeing the world of experience and how the mind and heart operate. When we investigate our own experience with this quality of mindfulness, with non-judgmental and receptive kind of awareness or attention, one of the things that we begin to see is that things are always changing. For example, we have an intention to meet life with an open and loving heart, but the next thing we know we're feeling angry about something. Or, we have an intention to keep our attention focused on the sensations of breathing and the next thing we know we're thinking about the vacation we have planned for next year. Or, we still think of ourselves as being relatively young, but then we look in the mirror and see the body of our mother or father with gray hair and wrinkled skin. Or, we think we have our personal finances in good shape and then we discover that the bottom has dropped out of our investments.

It is said that the Buddha's very last words to his disciples were about the reality of change:

Now, monks, I declare to you: all conditioned things are of a nature to decay — strive on untiringly.

All conditioned things are of a nature to decay. If we really got this, do you think there'd be the anger, the fury about the changes that have happened in our society in the last couple of decades? If we really got, deep in our minds and hearts, that everything is in a constant state of flux, would we keep fighting so hard to have or to not have certain experiences? Or would we set goals and strive for them untiringly while also understanding that everything we want and do is subject to change, other than the peace that the Buddha called "the unconditioned", the peace that Christians call "the peace beyond all understanding"?

When we investigate our own hearts and minds and see for ourselves how greed and hatred, grasping and pushing away, lead to agitation and suffering, it becomes easier to let go and let be. This is the opportunity that meditation offers us, whether on the cushion or in daily life.

In two well know verses from the Dhammapada the Buddha said:

Mind precedes all phenomena,
They are led by mind, made by mind.
Speak or act with an impure mind,
and suffering follows
as the cartwheel follows the foot of the ox.

Mind precedes all phenomena,
They are led by mind, made by mind.
Speak or act with a pure mind,
and happiness follows
as a shadow that never departs.

The impure mind and heart that the Buddha speaks of is filled with greed, hatred and confusion about the way things really are. And the pure heart and mind is filled with unconditional love, generosity, compassion, equanimity and a clear seeing how things really are. When we investigate our own experience and find for ourselves whether the words of the Buddha are true or not, then we also have the possibility of finding at least a moment or two of freedom, maybe even more. And through the goodness of these moments, we help to transform this world.

Quotation Sources:
- The Second Coming: Selected Poems and Two Plays of William Butler Yeats, edited by M.L. Rosenthal, Collier Books, The MacMillan Company, 1966, p. 91.
- The Buddha on Hatred: Dhammapada 1.5, Gil Fronsdal trans., Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2005, p. 2
- Thich Nhat Hanh quote: found in the Upaya eNews, August 30, 2010,
- The Buddha's Last Words: Dīgha Nikāya 16.6.7, Mahāparinibbāna Sutta, Maurice Walshe trans., Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1987/1995, p. 270.
- The Buddha on the Role of the Mind: Dhammapada 1.1, 1.2, adapted from translations by and by Gil Fronsdal

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Becoming Human

The Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki Roshi said "The goal of practice is always to keep our beginner's mind. …In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities; in the expert's mind there are few. … The beginner's mind is the mind of compassion. When our mind is compassionate, it is boundless."

Joseph Goldstein has said "There are many different descriptions of awakening, but all Buddhist traditions converge in one understanding of what liberates the mind. The Buddha expressed it clearly and unequivocally: 'Nothing whatsoever is to be clung to as "I" or "mine."' … Our unfolding experience keeps changing—sometimes it is pleasant, sometimes unpleasant—but the practice of freedom is always the same, namely, liberation through nonclinging."

And, Ajahn Sumedho has said "These are the things we can contemplate. We can’t control what arises in the mind, but we can reflect on what we are feeling and learn from it rather than simply being caught helplessly in our impulses and habits. Even though there is a lot in life that we can’t change, we can change our attitude towards it. That’s what so much of meditation is really about—changing our attitude from a self-centered, "get rid of this or get more of that" to one of welcoming life as it is. … Welcoming discomfort, feeling fed up, wanting to run away. This way of welcoming life reflects a deeper understanding. Life is like this. Sometimes it’s very nice, sometimes it’s horrible, and much of the time it’s neither one way nor the other. Life is like this. "

It seems to me that we often approach our lives and our practice from a position of self-improvement. We believe that if we only practiced hard enough, if we only had enough clarity, if our hearts were only a little more compassionate, or maybe a lot more, then we would no longer experience difficulty in our lives. Yet as the Buddha pointed out in his First Noble Truth, human life is inherently dukkha. It can be difficult, problematic, and sometimes filled with suffering and is ultimately unsatisfactory.

We can think we understand this Noble Truth and end up living with a kind of grimness. Gritting our teeth and bearing our way through life. Living with a quality of tension which few of us were seeking when we began this practice. But this grimness is a sign that we aren't quite there yet. There's still some resistance.

Yet really, we don't have to do anything to change things even if there is still this resistance. Can we be curious about resistance? What is it really like to feel resistance for the way our life is? Can we feel it, can we allow it to be known in our hearts as well as our mind?

Suzuki-roshi, Joseph Goldstein and Ajahn Sumedho are all pointing towards this ability to just be curious and open to what it is that we are experiencing in this moment. I've noticed that for me one of the most interesting things that happens when I can really just accept that this is what is right now in my life is that it leads to a real sense of intimacy with life that wasn't there before. Not just an intimacy with my own life, though it most assuredly does that, but also an intimacy and compassion for the life of others.

This practice of non-clinging, of seeing that this is the way life is right now, is really a process of opening up to what it really means to be human, what it means to lead a human life. As the Taoists say there are ten thousand sorrows that we open to, but there's also ten thousands joys. And this quality of intimacy is a surprising joy.

The Buddha said "Ehipassiko" which means "Come and see." It seems to me that each moment of our lives, whether easy or hard, gives us just this opportunity to come and see for ourselves what it means to be truly and fully human.

Goldstein, Joseph. One Dharma. New York: HarperCollins, 2002, p. 134.
Sumedho, Ajahn. "Life is Like This," from Fearless Mountain Newsletter, Summer 1999, Vol. 4, No. 2.
Suzuki, Shunryu. Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind. New York: Weatherhill, 1970, pp. 21-22.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Tuning In

I was walking upstairs yesterday when my wife asked me to tune in the radio in the kitchen. She was preparing dinner and her hands were covered with food. The radio's tuning seemed to be just a little bit off; sometimes the signal was very clear and at other times there was a lot of static. So I adjusted the dial a bit and when it seemed clear I headed back upstairs only to notice that there was a lot of static once again. I came back down and readjusted it, only to have the same results. Eventually I realized that my body moving up the stairs was actually what was altering the signal and causing the static. The radio was already tuned in.

Practicing with mindfulness is similar to tuning the radio. Initially we turn the dial this way and that trying to locate the signal. Once we find the signal we try to calibrate the dial with very minor turns until the signal is as clear as we can make it. Then we stop adjusting the dial and listen, even if the signal wavers occasionally.

With mindfulness, first we have to locate it, get a sense of what it is. Then we spend a lot of time tuning in and calibrating the dial: recognizing when there is judgment, decision-making or storytelling about a moment of experience and letting go of our identification with those qualities so that what is left is bare attention. Eventually we reach a point where we have to stop doing mindfulness, where we stop trying to be mindful. The effort to keep adjusting the dial, to be mindful, actually begins to interfere with the ability to be mindful. So we begin to trust that the signal is there, though it may waver at times as conditions change. All we have to do is listen without trying to make the signal be any particular way.

As we listen, we notice sensation arising and passing, thoughts coming and going, moods settling in and then evaporating. In time we may recognize that the sense of some one listening is just another song playing on the channel, no different from the other sensations, thoughts or moods that take a spin. Eventually we may even realize that it's not the radio that carries, or knows, the songs. It's the signal. It's the signal that is there whether the radio is turned on and tuned in or not. We may realize that there is something greater than the radio or the song, something that we can't locate but that always is.

Just tune in and relax.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Cup Is Broken

This morning during breakfast my wife grasped her coffee mug for the first sip of the day. Instead of that warm and comforting taste, she received a surprise. As she lifted the mug, the handle rose with her hand while the mug full of coffee stayed on the table. Although she was startled, she burst out laughing at the bizarreness of what had just happened.

We had had that mug for a few years but it certainly didn't seem that far gone or fragile. As I reflected on it, what came to mind was a comment from Ajahn Chah, the 20th century Thai Buddhist teacher. He offered a teaching by holding up a tea cup and commenting that "this cup is already broken." In other words, its very nature is impermanence so don't get attached to it.

In the practice of Insight Meditation we are often encouraged to watch the rise and fall of whatever has our attention in each moment. Over time, as we increasingly see the impermanence of this or that moment of experience, we slowly relax our grip on life. We become more comfortable with life as it is. We don't struggle with life so much and the mind becomes more silent while the heart opens more and more. In time, as we rest in this silent mind-open heart there are longer periods of just seeing rising and falling and knowing the joy that comes with non-grasping.

Although the cup is already broken, the coffee tastes great!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Day by Day

Beginning on January 16 I'll be offering daily meditations on the internet for 38 consecutive days as part of the Winter Feast for the Soul. The meditations will be 40 minute recordings of short talks about meditation followed by meditation instructions and a period of silent time for meditating. The instructions will be progressive, beginning with how to meditate and then gradually progressing to some of the most advanced practices of the Insight Meditation/Theravāda Buddhist tradition.

The Winter Feast for the Soul was begun by Valerie Skonie, a woman in Idaho who was inspired by her own experience and by a verse of Rumi's to support others in developing a daily spiritual practice. The verse is:

What nine months does for the embryo
Forty early mornings
Will do for your growing awareness
—Jelaluddin Rumi

The Winter Feast will be doing one joint meditation session on the first day, Jan. 15, and another one on the last day, Feb. 23. Combined with my 38 meditations that will make 40. There are people from a number of other spiritual traditions also offering meditations for the "middle" 38 days.

I have to admit that offering 38 consecutive days of meditations is a big commitment. I did it last year too and there were days when I wondered if I would be able to complete it. Part of what kept me going was remembering the effect that daily practice has had on me.

I began meditating in 1987, I think, and began doing it on a daily basis shortly after I began. From the beginning there was something about meditation that appealed to me. Maybe it was the quiet time or the opportunity to just listen to my mind and heart for a while. Maybe it was just a peaceful way to begin days that were filled with the demands of a young family and hours of doing psychotherapy. But I also meditated every day because everything I read said that one should do it every day. So I did. I liked it, so it wasn't so hard. But it was hard giving up sleep time so that I could find the time to do it.

Over the years since then daily practice has carried me through the highs and lows of my life. It's been part of learning that Awareness is large enough to hold whatever comes. Daily practice has helped me integrate the insights gained during retreats and has helped me to see the challenges of life that were/are still a struggle for me. And daily practice has sustained me between the periods of intensive retreat practice.

I hope you'll join me in the banquet of daily practice during the Winter Feast for the Soul.