Saturday, July 31, 2010

Zero Circle

By Mewlana Jalaluddin Rumi

Be helpless, dumbfounded,
Unable to say yes or no.
Then a stretcher will come from grace
To gather us up.

We are too dull-eyed to see that beauty.
If we say "we can," we’re lying.
If we say "No," we don’t see it,
That No will behead us
And shut tight our window onto spirit.

So let us rather not be sure of anything,
Besides ourselves, and only that, so
Miraculous beings come running to help.
Crazed, lying in a zero circle, mute,
We shall be saying finally,
With tremendous eloquence, "Lead us."
When we have totally surrendered to that beauty,
We shall be a mighty kindness.


Friday, July 30, 2010

The Eightfold Path (Addendum)

I've been doing a lot of reflection on the Knowable Eightfold Path lately, and I've been given some interesting, and potentially useful, insights.

The Path sometimes seems to be an "add-on" to the other three Knowable Truths (see blogs from the week of July 19 for more background into these Truths). However, when we look at the Path as a continuation out of the first three Truths, and also as categories of suffering that we can use for practice, we might be able to see them with a little more clarity.

As I have mentioned, the first step on the Path is usually considered to be Wise Understanding. When discussing the Path in the context of practice, however, I prefer to start from Wise Effort, because this is what brings us to the cushion and guides our practice so that we can know the Path more clearly.

Wise Effort (or wholehearted diligence) leads us to Mindfulness, the next step on the path, which in turn cultivates Wise Concentration. Now we are ready to contemplate and reflect upon the Path during practice. The first two steps on the Path, Wise Understanding and Wise Thought (or Intention) help us cultivate wisdom. The next three steps, Wise Speech, Wise Action, and Wise Livelihood, help us cultivate wholesome moral and ethical conduct.

These five steps are also areas in which we can experience suffering, and then have them be objects of practice as we utilize the first three Knowable Truths to come to our rescue. Here's what I mean:

When we misunderstand the nature of things by thinking that something will actually bring us lasting satisfaction, we are opening ourselves up to suffering. When we don't know about, or misunderstand the first three Knowable Truths, we have no way out of the suffering. So when we find ourselves caught in the monkey trap of clinging or aversion, we have a perfect object for practicing using the first three Knowable Truths to release us.

If we do not recognize that our thoughts are the cause of our suffering, then this suffering will continue. When we have thoughts that cause us suffering, and we understand that these thoughts are not facts, then we have another object for practice as we release attachment to these suffering-inducing thoughts.

When we speak unwisely or injuriously, we will suffer. For example, if we tell a lie, we will eventually suffer, if not from exposure of the lie then from our own inner guilt. Therefore, unwise speech becomes a category that can be a realm of suffering. Likewise, if we act heedlessly, this unwise action will also lead to suffering. Finally, many people are suffering because their livelihood is either unwholesome or not aligned with their core values. Because they want the present moment to be other than the way it is, they will suffer.

All of this suffering, in all of these categories, feeds back into the first three Knowable Truths. By applying these Truths to each experience of suffering in these categories, we can then learn how to deal more skillfully with the suffering of every day life.

To apply the first Three Truths, you simply need to know 1) that you are suffering, 2) that the cause of the suffering is clinging to something, or aversion toward something else, and 3) that you are releasing the clinging and disengaging from the object of the suffering.


Thursday, July 29, 2010

Arising, Abiding, and Subsiding

The practice of vipassana serves as an observation post for noticing the arising, abiding, and subsiding of all phenomena. The sensations in the body arise, abide, and subside on their own, coming and going as they will, and are simply events that arise out of stillness, and then go back into stillness. The breath follows the same pattern, as do all other sense objects, including sounds, thoughts, and emotions.

So we just sit with these events, noting their presence, and allowing them to take their course. What we realize from this kind of practice is that we don't need to cling to any of these experiences, nor do we need to try to stop any of them from taking place; they will all simply pass through in time.

Not needing to cling to or push away these events helps us in daily life to "be with" the difficult situations that present themselves, and also helps us see how to hold the pleasant situations in a way that does not lead to so much suffering.


Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Wedding Dharma

Last week, Kathy and I took a short vacation to the Pacific Northwest on what she dubbed "the wedding tour." By coincidence, a colleague of mine at the University of Washington was getting married in Seattle, and a cousin was doing the same in Anchorage, Alaska a few days later.

The ceremonies themselves were quite different in content and style, and yet very similar at the same time. The Seattle wedding was officiated by a Tibetan Buddhist priest, the Anchorage ceremony by my uncle, the Reverend David Fison (Retired). In Seattle, the priest brought up impermanence and dependent origination. It was held by a Lake near the city where it was sunny and warm. The Anchorage ceremony looked at impermanence through a different lens, that of the Christian faith, which holds some things as being permanent and eternal, but at the same time recognizes that life itself is ephemeral. The ceremony took place on the side of a mountain with low-hanging clouds and rain threatening.

In both cases, we were asked to look inward to investigate our own experiences of love and relationship. What were all the causes and conditions that brought us to these places with these people? What is the meaning of love and commitment in relationship, and why do we take these public steps of giving and receiving promises of love and devotion "for as long as we both shall live?"

In a traditional Jewish wedding ritual, there is a moment when a glass is broken. This symbolizes the fact that, someday, this marriage will end (if for no other reason, than because of the death of a spouse). Marriage, like all things, is constantly in a state of change, and this act of breaking the glass brings this fact directly into the ceremony itself. A marriage, like the partners involved, is a living thing that inhales and exhales, changes and evolves, lives and eventually, dies.

That's the whole point, as far as I can see, and the main reason why we should get married in the first place: to evolve. To paraphrase Adolph Guggenbuel-Craig, when we have our spouse to "rub up against" on a daily basis, our rough edges gradually smooth away. This only happens, however, if we are willing to move through the relationship with consciousness. Marriage allows us to come face-to-face with our own shadow material and reintegrate it into conscious awareness. In this way, we are no longer held prisoner by our reactive mind and we can make more effective choices, thus reducing our measure of suffering.

So marriage may not be a place of peace and harmony all the time, simply because growth means that there will be stressors on the individuals as old habits are recognized and new choices made. I was never happier than the moment I saw Kathy coming down the aisle toward me on our wedding day. That ritual is still a thing of magic and wonder for both of us. I would also be lying if I said that it has been that way for the entire thirteen months of our marriage. Yet, the difficult times indicate that growth is at hand. We face the Shadow as best we can, and help each other toward consciousness with loving kindness and compassion.

So, to all those readers who are in committed relationships, married or otherwise, I send loads of loving kindness and compassion to you, also. To those of you desiring a relationship, I send more of the same. If finding a partner is truly a desire, write down specifically what you want out of the that person and the imagined relationship, then release attachment to the outcome. Let the Universe handle the details, and when the season is right, the love you seek will find you.


Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Sangha Endures

This morning one of the regular members of the weekend sangha (meditation group) mentioned to me that out of all the different places the sangha has been held over the years, our home at Mission Street Yoga was, to him, the sweetest one of all. We both agree that we really enjoy the small town feeling of being on Mission Street in South Pasadena. I particularly like stepping outside before the sangha begins and just to look around. I feel that we are a living component of the goings on around me, and that we are contributing to the life of this town.

Indeed, the sangha has moved around quite a bit since I started leading it in early 2002. By my count, we have been in seven different physical locations. We have moved because of remodeling, studio closings, loss of support from management, and in one case, because a swing and salsa dancing class was scheduled at the same time in the room below us.

In all of these cases, the sangha endured. The participants have shown amazing loyalty. They simply wanted to share the experience of vipassana, and to share the wisdom of the Dharma. It has been a struggle, sometimes, and there have been moments where it seemed like too much work to make things continue. I am always reminded, however, that the Buddha considered the sangha, the community of meditators, to be the most important component of the Three Jewels of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. To remind me, Kathy had these Three Jewels engraved on the inside of my wedding ring.

Of course, it is all impermanent, and this little sangha now residing in South Pasadena will eventually move on again, or change form in some way, or even cease to be. No matter what its course in the coming years, it is my hope that this sangha has contributed a small drop of wisdom into the river of the Dharma.


Monday, July 26, 2010

Tao Teh Ching #1 & 2

Tao, as the absolute Way of the universe,
     cannot be conveyed with words.
That which can be conveyed with words is
     merely relative conception.
Although names have been applied to it,
     the absolute Truth is indescribable.
One may designate Nothingness* as the 
     origin of the universe,
And Beingness* as the mother of the 
     myriad things.

From the perspective of Nothingness,
     one may perceive the subtle operation
     of the universe.
From the perspective of Beingness, one
     may distinguish individual things.
Although differently named, Nothingness
     and Beingness are one indivisible
This truth is so subtle.
As the ultimate subtlety, it is the Gate
     of all Wonders.
As soon as the world regards something
     as beautiful, ugliness simultaneously
     becomes apparent.
As soon as the world regards something
     as good, evil simultaneously beomes
In exactly the same manner, existence
     and non-existence give birth to each 
Long and short form each other.
High and low make each other distinguishable.
Tone and voice make each other conspicuous.
Front and back connect each other.

Realizing this, one does not separate
     his being from the absolute nature
     of the universe
Holds no preconceptions and does things
He guides people by practicing the precept
     of silence.
He brings things about but has no desire
     to possess them.
He performs his work but does not rely
     on any form of force.
And when his task is accomplished, he
     lets go of it and seeks no reward
     or recognition.
Because he does not claim credit for 
     himself, his virtuous influence will
* "Nothingness" and "Beingness" refer to the insubstantial and the substantial, the immaterial and the material, spirit and matter.

From The Complete Works of Lao Tzu: Tao Teh Ching & Hua Hu Ching, Translation and Elucidation by Ni Hua-Ching.


Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Dharma of Family

Kathy and I returned today from visiting my family in Alaska. There is so much to say about this journey that I'm not really sure where to begin, so I will let the blog "dictate" itself...

Yesterday, my 56th birthday, I was surrounded by about thirty beings with whom I share ancestry or relationship: my dear aunt and uncle David and Aleen Fison, their children who are my five cousins, their spouses, partners, children and their partners and children. Don't let the family name confuse you. My father was born a Fison, and he was David's full brother. Dad took the family name of my grandmother's second husband after his own father, my grandfather Percy L. Fison, abandoned the family. So, by right of blood, I am a Fison as well.

David, an Emeritus Minister in the United Methodist Church, led a short prayer before eating dinner in his hand-built geodesic dome house. He spoke for all of us when he declared, "our hearts are full." After the meal, there was a birthday cake for me, and much laughter as I was officially inducted into the clan.

It has been a long time since I have felt the presence of my own family in my life. I have been with other people and their families, joining in on the shared familial vibe, but not being a real part of it. My parents and one of my two sisters have died, and the rest of my immediate family are spread across several states. The experience of being present with my own people in this way was a new and powerful experience. And at the same time, as natural as breathing.

It is my intention over the course of the rest of my life to connect more fully with my family and old friends, especially during joyous events, such as the weddings Kathy and I attended this past week; first for friends in Seattle, and then for my cousin's daughter in Anchorage. For as we know, it is all impermanent, and the gatherings that are not pleasant are sure to follow in the years to come.

For now, I will hold the people and events of this past week in my very full heart.


Saturday, July 24, 2010

In Praise of Loving Kindness Meditation

Vipassana is sometimes a very hard path to follow. It requires being present with what is happening moment to moment, and sometimes what is present is not pleasant. Physical, mental, or emotional pain of one kind or another often present themselves and must be honored and felt. In this way, vipassana is not what you would call a "feel good" practice.

On the other hand, loving kindness meditation, or metta practice, is meant to help us cultivate feelings and qualities that are quite pleasant and easy to live with. When we repeat the phrases of loving kindness practice, such as "May my heart be filled with loving kindness for myself and all beings," or "May I know the peace and ease which is always present in my life," we are inclining the heart toward ourselves or others. We are essentially wishing these things for ourselves or others.

Over time we will come to know the positive, wholesome feelings we are putting voice to, and we actually do feel good.

I enjoy metta practice all the time, while I'm working, driving, dealing with difficult situations or people in my life, or during my formal meditation practice. I find that it can make a real difference in how things unfold for me in that moment. Here are some of the phrases I have developed that have made a difference in my life. I invite you to use these phrases by repeating them to yourself, or to create your own.
May I be filled with loving kindness for myself and all beings.

May I know the peace and ease which is always present in my life.

May I know the happiness which is always present in my life.

May I be released from fear and worry.

May I be released from anger and ill will.

May I be safe from inner and outer harm.

May I know the health and wholeness which is always present in my life.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Knowable Truths, Part 5

The Knowable Path

The final component of the Four Knowable Truths is what is often referred to as the Eightfold Path. The eight steps on this path, in the order in which they are usually taught, are:
Wise Understanding
Wise Thought (or Intention)
Wise Speech
Wise Action
Wise Livelihood
Wise Effort
Wise Mindfulness
Wise Concentration
For our purposes, I would like to commit what some in the world of Buddha Dharma might consider heresy, and start the path at Wise Effort. The effort needed in the realization and eventual actualization and utilization of the Knowable Path is exerted in our meditation practice. This is the doorway that most people enter through in the beginning, and therefore, this is why I have decided to use Wise Effort as the embarkation point.

Wise Effort is often defined as "diligent wholeheartedness." This definition helps to differentiate this kind of effort from the grunting, sweating kind of exertion that we often associate with effortfulness. We want to bring to our meditation practice a sense of wholehearted diligence, but also a sense of peace and ease.

If we look at the Path as a series of naturally arising events, rather than eight more things that need to be attained, then this kind of wholehearted diligence will spontaneously give rise to Wise Mindfulness, the next step on the path. Wise Mindfulness is the ability to know life as it is happening, both in meditation practice, and in daily living. We can know more fully what we need to be paying attention to moment-by-moment, and this will help us in reducing our suffering. This is especially the case in regards to knowing the truth of the present moment through the senses, rather than through the colorations of the mind.

Through moment-to-moment mindful attention, we begin to cultivate Wise Concentration. Concentration in this sense does not connote a "bearing down," headache-inducing concentrating, but rather (through Wise Effort and mindful attention) an experience that the mind is "becoming concentrated." In other words, the mind can concentrate itself; it has no choice. When, through our diligent, wholehearted effort we pay attention to the present moment, the mind has no choice but to gather and collect around the object of concentration, thus becoming concentrated. One analogous definition of the word that I like to use is that of separating gold from worthless ore. This is the kind of Wise Concentration we are looking for.

Wise Understanding (which, as noted above is usually termed the starting point on the Path) means that we understand the previous three Knowable Truths (see 7/19 to 7/21 blogs for more details). Through the insights cultivated from reflection and practice with these Truths in our meditation practice, we come to penetrate them, and then utilize them in daily living to reduce our suffering.

When we understand the nature of things more clearly, then we can develop new relationships with the way our mind works. Wise Thought (or Wise Intention) is the natural outgrowth of this. We see our thoughts more clearly as thoughts, not as facts, and we can begin to see and experience how the mind creates our suffering. Then our bright and wholesome intentions in the world can shine forth and lead us away from even more suffering by helping us make more skillful and effective choices.

One skillful choice that we make through Wise Thought/Intention is Wise Speech. When our thoughts are seen more clearly, we might not act out as automatically and use harmful words toward others, or toward ourselves. We might refrain from idle gossip, or saying bad things about others when they are not present. Likewise, bright intentions will also help us to speak truthfully about all things, because we have nothing to hide. In other words, unwise speech merely leads to more suffering.

Wise Action is directly related to how we understand the world (based on our wholehearted meditation practice), knowing our thoughts more clearly, and speaking more skillfully. Along with speaking truthfully, Wise Action includes not harming others or ourselves, not stealing (e.g., taking things that have not been freely offered), avoiding the use of sexuality in ways that cause harm, and avoiding the use of intoxicants in ways that lead to harmful action.

When we act responsibly, we then want to find more skillful ways in which to make our living. Wise Livelihood is the final step on the path, and it basically means earning money in conscious ways that are aligned with our deepest beliefs and core values. When we make a living in this way, we suffer less, and we are providing another positive force in the world that will lead to a reduction of suffering of all.

Of course, our livelihood must also be imbued with a quality of wholehearted diligence, and so we find ourselves back where we started at Wise Effort. In this way, we see that the Knowable Path is circular, and is not leading so some supreme attainment, or even toward an end. It is a continuing, ongoing process for the rest of our life.

I hope that this exploration of the Four Knowable Truths has been insightful and useful for you. I welcome your comments, questions, confusions, or concerns.


Thursday, July 22, 2010

Searching For Denali

There will be more about the Four Knowable Truths, but now, a brief travelogue.

In my posting on July 11th, I mentioned that Kathy and I would be taking a trip to Alaska, mainly to visit my 87 year-young uncle David and aunt Aileen in Anchorage. Well, we are here. For the past three days, we have been traveling around a bit, and getting used to the idea that the sun doesn't set until well after 11:00 pm (it's now nearly midnight and it is still light outside).

One of our destinations was Denali National Park. The showpiece, of course, is Denali, aka Mt. McKinley, rising some 18,000 feet from the surrounding valley to an impressive total height of 20,320 feet. However, for three days, the mountain has eluded us. Rain, fog, clouds have all obscured the view of the mountain's face. Of course, as I mentioned in the July 11th blog, Denali does not care if we can see her or not.

However, I must now say that I disagree with that proposition. Kathy and I have been feeling that the mountain is evading us on purpose. It is as though she is saying, "You are mortal and must earn the privilege of seeing my beauty!" We stopped at what was supposedly the best vantage point on the way back down from the park, and sat for more than an hour waiting for the clouds that shielded her to lift or part. To no avail.

After a family gathering tonight, however, we went back to uncle David's hand-built geodesic dome house, went to the top floor "sky room," and there she was. Even though she was some 150 miles away, she was magnificent. As the sun SLOWLY set, the background behind Denali grew brighter, causing the mountain to come into greater relief and detail. The clouds that obscured our vision earlier in the day were simply decorations at the foot of the edifice, like tiny orange brush strokes on an ever-changing canvas.

It took releasing attachment to ever seeing this magnificent landmark for us to be able to see it. And then the seeing of it was effortless.

Well, it's nearly twelve midnight here, and the blog must be published today and Kathy and I must get some rest, even though the rest of the house is alive with activity (do these Alaskans never sleep?). Until tomorrow (which will be in five minutes)...


Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Knowable Truths, Part 4

The Truth of the Cessation of Suffering

Okay, so now that you know when suffering arises, and that the origins of suffering have something to do with clinging to something, we are ready to look briefly at the Third Knowable Truth: The Truth of the Cessation of Suffering.

Actually, the Buddha realized that stopping suffering itself would probably be too difficult, if not impossible. Therefore, he taught that the the way to stop suffering is to "abandon the origins of suffering." Since we now know that the origin of suffering is clinging, then we now also know that clinging is the thing that needs to be abandoned.

It is as simple as imagining your hand actually clinging tightly to something, and then imagining that you are letting go of that thing. While you do this, you say to yourself, "There is suffering, and the knowing of it. There is clinging, and the knowing of it. There is the release of clinging, and the knowing of it." When you open your imaginary fist and release attachment to this object of desire (or aversion) that has led to your suffering, the suffering itself will cease, at least for a moment. This cessation of suffering is called "nibbana" in the Pali language (as spoken by the Buddha), and "nirvana" in Sansrkit.

There used to be a television advertisement for Craftmatic Adjustable Beds, whose slogan was: "A lifetime of temporary relief from low back pain." Obviously this was dreamed up by some corporate attorney who was limiting their liability exposure, but it seems true enough about the experience of nibbana. You may have to release your grip to something many times before the hand stops habitually closing around it again. Chances are, you will be revisiting the same object of desire and clinging in the future, as well.

Remember that releasing attachment to an object of desire does not mean that we are trying to get rid of the desire. We can still desire something, we just don't cling so tightly to it. When this happens, the object has more space in which to move and it doesn't hold onto us as tightly, either. For a moment at least, there is some freedom from suffering.

My first conscious experience of nibbana took place during a retreat in Joshua Tree, California. I awoke very early, perhaps two o'clock, with a strong desire to go to the meditation hall and sit. Early morning sits like this are particularly sweet for me. The hall is usually deserted (or maybe there are one or two other yogis there), and the world is at its most quiet and peaceful. Strange and wonderful psychic creatures come out at that time of night, as well, so I get to experience something quite apart from daytime meditations. So as you can see, I was really coveting this experience, and I was setting myself up to suffer.

The meditation hall at this particular retreat center was located about a quarter of a mile from where we were housed, so getting there meant trekking across the desert, in the dark (there were no lights out there), with only the moon to guide me. And it was cold. Bone-chilling, no matter how many layers I wore. So I got up, dressed quietly so as not to awaken my roommates, and took off toward my desired experience.

When I got to the hall, the door was locked! Suffering began. I want to get inside to meditate, I was saying to myself. I was really looking forward to this. After searching in vain for the key, and trying every other door I could find to no avail, I finally trudged back disconsolately back to my room. Lying in bed, I suddenly realized I was suffering, and that I knew it. I also knew that I was suffering because I was clinging to my desire to be in the meditation hall. Then I tried releasing the clinging fist, and knowing that experience.

Almost immediately I was at peace. I still wanted to be meditating, but it was a more spacious and easy feeling, not the desperate, struggling experience of a few moments before. Very soon, I had drifted into a deep and peaceful sleep.

So now we have learned how to utilize the first three Knowable Truths as practice, both during meditation, and in daily life. It will take much repetition for this to become your habit, and you will probably forget to employ these strategies much more often than you will remember. Any time you can use this practice of knowing suffering, the origin of it, and the release of the clinging, you will decrease your suffering. Enjoy.


Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Knowable Truths, Part 3

The Truth of the Origin of Suffering

Now that you are able to know when you are suffering (and if you aren't able to know, see yesterday's blog for help), you can begin to utilize the Second Knowable Truth: The Truth of the Origin Of Suffering. Remembering that suffering is "wanting things to be other than the way they are," and that this definition means that we must be clinging to something, we can begin to investigate the origins of our suffering.

I have heard that my Grandteacher, The Venerable Ajahn Cha, used to sidle up to the monks in his monastery while they were working or doing walking meditation, and ask them, "Are you suffering, today?" If they told him they were, he would answer, "Hmmm... Then you must be very attached," and then he would just walk away, leaving the monk to investigate the origins of his or her suffering on their own.

It's really very simple: If you know you are suffering, you can know you are clinging to something (or in aversion toward something else). During your vipassana practice and in your daily life, when you encounter these feelings of dissatisfaction or the sense of self arising as thoughts of "I, me, or mine," say to yourself, "There is suffering, and the knowing of it, and there is clinging, and the knowing of it."

Stay tuned for the good news of the Third Knowable Truth: The Truth of the Cessation of Suffering.



Monday, July 19, 2010

The Knowable Truths, Part 2

The Knowable Truth of Suffering

Here's the bad news: If you take human birth, at some point you will experience suffering. When I say "suffering" I don't mean pain. Pain is a physical event, but suffering is the mental experience that arises because of the pain when the mind colors the experience. (For more details, see my 10/31/09 and 1/16/10 blogs on the Parable of the Second Arrow.)

I also do not mean to imply that all of life is suffering. That would be too much to bear. There are natural moments of cessation from suffering, and many extended periods of neutral experiences, which are neither pleasant nor unpleasant. But at some point, you will suffer.

What is suffering? For me, suffering can be defined very simply as "wanting things to be other than the way they are." Sound familiar? When we are doing one thing but wishing we were doing something else, we are suffering. When we want something but don't yet have it, we are suffering. When we get that thing we want but then lose it, we suffer. When we are with people we don't want to be with, or not with people we want to be with... you get the idea.

In the Pali language (as spoken by the Buddha), the word used to denote suffering is "dukkha." Dukkha has a much more subtle meaning, however. It also means "unsatisfying." Nothing that we can ever achieve or possess will give us lasting satisfaction. Eventually, we will lose it, or it will prove unsatisfactory in some way. Then we experience dukkha. An even more subtle association with this word is "an off-centered wheel." If the axle hole for a wheel is off-centered, the result will be a very bumpy and painful ride. As I mentioned in a previous blog (1/3/10), the sound that this kind of wheel would make would be "dukkha...dukkha...dukkha...dukkha!"

Suffering is often defined as being synonymous with "desire." To a certain extent this may be true. However, wholesome desires do not always lead to suffering. If you have a desire to read this blog, for example, that is good thing (at least as far as I'm concerned). In the context of the Four Knowable Truths, it is desire that "gives rise to a sense of self" that is a more accurate definition. My wanting to write this is a wholesome desire, I think. However, if I am clinging to the desire that it be read by a certain number of people, then "I, me, and mine" have arisen, and I will suffer if my blog is not as widely seen as I want it to be.

Wanting things to be other than the way they are, and the resultant desire that gives rise to a sense of self, imply that we are clinging to something, or in aversion toward something else (really just two sides of the same coin). So the operative functions that lead to suffering are clinging and aversion. These are the origins of suffering, and more will be said about them when we get to the Second Knowable Truth.

In order to realize the Knowable Truths and then utilize them in our daily life, we first have to know that we are suffering. After all, these are the Knowable Truths. We come to know suffering quite clearly during vipassana practice. When an itch arises on the nose, we suffer for a moment with it without trying to scratch it. When a sound we don't want to hear arises, we let the sound be known, and then watch as the mind creates preferences and stories that are chock full of "I, me and mine," even though the sound is a neutral event that has nothing to do with us at all. 

In fact, though the realization of even this First Knowable Truth, we can begin to see that there is no "me" in anything, even the thoughts that my mind creates about a situation. Eventually, this awareness of No Self will come in quite handy in relieving our suffering, but for now, it is enough just to know that suffering is present.

So in your practice, and in your daily life, turn toward the experience of dissatisfaction when it arises. Notice how the mind wants things to be other than the way they are, and notice all the ways the mind colors the situation out of habit. Say to yourself, "There is suffering, and the knowing of it" as you allow the experience to move through you moment-by-moment. Now that you know you are suffering, you have a chance to begin to make some skillful and effective choices to diminish the suffering, but the first step is always to know it.


Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Four "Knowable" Truths, Part 1

The first teaching that the Buddha gave after his awakening was what has become known as "The Four Noble Truths." Many people have some difficulty with that title. Why "noble?" What does this mean? How does the word "noble" relate to the teachings themselves? It can be so confusing that once, at a Spirit Rock retreat, Phillip Moffitt half-jokingly polled the retreatants to see if we could come up with a better word.

In the Pali language (as spoken by the Buddha), this teaching is entitled cattāri ariyasaccāni, which literally translates as "The Four Aryan Truths," and refers, apparently, to the Indo-Aryan race of people. Arya, in Sanskrit, translates as meaning "civilized," so in that way "noble" has some credence.

As I often do, however, I got out my trusty dictionary and looked up the etymology of "noble." It turns out that the word comes from the Latin "nobilis" meaning "well known," and from an earlier version, "gnobilis," meaning "knowable." Therefore, whoever came up with "noble" as the title of this teaching may have been on the right track, albeit inadvertently.

I have two primary reasons for renaming this teaching. The first is that these truths are knowable. They are not ancient writings that have nothing to do with how we can operate more effectively in the world. On the contrary, these are living, relevant teachings that we can know and apply in modern daily life. Secondly, and perhaps more to the point of the teachings, there is a component to these truths that insists on the knowing of them.

When we apply these Knowable Truths, either in our meditation practice or in daily life, we go through two stages: 1) the recognition of the Truth as being present, and 2) the knowing that the Truth is present. For example, we can work our way through the first three Knowable Truths (the Truth of Suffering, the Truth of the Cause of Suffering, and the Truth of the Cessation of Suffering) this way: "There is suffering, and the knowing of it; there is a cause of suffering, and the knowing of it; there is the abandonment of the suffering, and the knowing of it."

Such is the genius of this teaching that, taken together, these three Truths provide the entire foundation of the Dharma, or the teachings of the Buddha. They are all the teachings we need to help us diminish or even eliminate suffering (at least temporarily) in our daily life. We can realize these three Truths during our meditation practice, and we can then take what we learn in practice and actualize it in our daily life.

In a series of postings to follow, I will be examining each of the Four Knowable Truths in order, including a new perspective on the Fourth Knowable Truth: the Knowable Eightfold Path. Stay tuned...




Saturday, July 17, 2010

Traveling Alone

A Poem By Billy Collins.
At the hotel coffee shop that morning,
the waitress was wearing a pink uniform
with "Florence" written in script over her heart.

And the man who checked my bag
had a badge that said "Ben."
Behind him was a long row of royal palms.

On the plane, two women poured drinks
from a cart they rolled down the narrow aisle -
"Debbie" and "Lynn" according to their winged tags.

And such was my company
as I arced from coast to coast,
and so I seldom spoke, and then only

of the coffee, the bag, the tiny bottles of vodka.
I said little more than "Thank you"
and "Can you take this from me, please?"

Yet I began to sense that all of them
were ready to open up,
to get to know me better, perhaps begin a friendship.

Florence looked irritated
as she shuffled from table to table,
but was she just hiding her need

to know about my early years -
the ball I would toss and catch in my hands
the times I hid behind my mother's dress?

And was I so wrong in catching in Ben's eyes
a glimmer of interest in my theories
and habits - my view of the Enlightenment,

my love of cards, the hours I tended to keep?
And what about Debbie and Lynn?
Did they not look eager to ask about my writing process,

my way of composing in the morning
by a window, which I would have admitted
if they had just had the courage to ask.

And strangely enough - I would have continued,
as they stopped pouring drinks
and the other passengers turned to listen -

the only emotion I ever feel, Debbie and Lynn,
is what the beaver must feel,
as he bears each stick to his hidden construction,

which creates the tranquil pond
and gives the mallards somewhere to paddle,
the pair of swans a place to conceal their young.


Friday, July 16, 2010

Awareness Is The Key

The main objective of vipassana meditation practice is to know what is happening, while it is happening. It is a practice in service of becoming aware. We do not practice meditation in order to become good meditators. Vipassana is not a practice that is all about feeling good or escaping our problems. It is a practice that requires being with whatever arises, moment by moment, so that as many experiences of the body, mind, and senses, can be known as fully as possible.

This allows us to be more attuned to our present-moment experiences after we get up off the cushion and go back into our daily life. These day-to-day experiences are what really matter, of course. The way the mind habitually reacts toward one situation or another, for example. When we see this event clearly during our meditation practice, and then allow it to continue in awareness, we can begin to catch this experience more adroitly in daily life. In this way, the habitual patterns of the mind no longer control us, and we have a chance to make more skillful and effective choices, thus reducing our suffering.


Thursday, July 15, 2010

Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy

Tonight is the final session of the 8-week Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy course that I have been leading in Pasadena. In this group, we learn how to either prevent or diminish depressive relapse. The following is taken from Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression: A New Approach to Preventing Relapse by Zindel Segal, Mark Williams, and John Teasdale:
The task becomes that of holding whatever thoughts, feelings, or sensations we become aware of in mindfulness along with the breath. As we have seen before, we never know what we might find! In due course, people may come to understand, and to experience at a very deep level that the mind has a way of processing the "stuff of everyday life" in a way that is wiser than they might have imagined. Learning to trust that this process will occur without interference from other, more problem-solving modes of mind is difficult...

Not all situations call for action or efforts to make changes. In the realm of emotions, things often don't follow logically. It might be that in some areas of our lives, the harder we try, the more we can achieve. But this rule seldom applies when we are dealing with feelings that we don't want to have or aspects of ourselves of which we are critical.

It may be a paradox, but if we cope with our unpleasant feelings by pushing them away or trying to control them, we actually end up maintaining them. This is the last thing we would expect; yet it remains true. In avoiding or "pushing away" our experience, we remain limited in understanding its wider context. Yet as soon as we accept that we feel sad or anxious, in that moment, it is already different. Accepting that we feel a certain way doesn't mean that we have to approve of it, nor does it meant that we are finally defeated by it and might just as well give up. Quite the contrary, by accepting how we feel, we are just telling ourselves that this is our starting point. We are actually in a better position to decide what to do.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

We Are What We Think

We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.
Speak or act with an impure mind
And trouble will follow you
As the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart.

We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.
Speak or act with a pure mind
And happiness will follow you
As your shadow, unshakable.
How can a troubled mind
Understand the way?

Your worst enemy cannot harm you
As much as your own thoughts, unguarded.

But once mastered,
No one can help you as much,
Not even your father or your mother.
From the Dhammapada, translated by Thomas Byrom.


Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Meditation Dreams

During my years of teaching, many students have related to me experiences during meditation that seem akin to dreaming. I have personally had many dreamlike images arise during my own practice, some amusing, and some disturbing.

I would suggest that this is because, during meditation practices, there is a decrease in what C.G. Jung called the "threshold intensity" of the conscious mind - that energy force that keeps unconscious material held at bay. Once the energy tension of the conscious mind is allowed to relax, the threshold intensity becomes less active, allowing unconscious material to be released into awareness.

When this happens, a hypnogogic feeling of being in that twilight region between sleeping and waking can occur. Time begins to alter dramatically, often seeming to slow down, and unconscious thoughts, images, and other events can be seen more clearly. These events often take on the same quality as dreams.

It is also entirely possible that we simply fall asleep for short periods of time while in sitting meditation. At these times, of course, the threshold intensity of the conscious mind decreases naturally, unconscious material arises, and the awareness of the unconscious material takes on the quality of pure dreaming.

Dream: A poem by Sukasah Syadan:
last night I dreamed
that I dreamed that I awoke
a sleepless man writing about what
I dreamed last night 

Monday, July 12, 2010

A Lamp Unto Yourself

From Old Path, White Clouds: Walking in the Footsteps of the Buddha by Thich Nhat Hanh.
It was the forty-fifth retreat season since the Buddha attained Awakening...

Halfway through the retreat season, the Buddha fell gravely ill. Though he was in extreme pain, he did not utter any sound. Lying down, he continued to mindfully follow his breath. At first, his disciples feared he would not survive his illness, but to their joy, he slowly regained his strength. After many days, he was able to sit on a chair outside his hut.

Venerable Ananda sat down next to the Buddha and spoke in a soft voice, "I never saw you so sick in all the years we have been together. I felt paralyzed. I couldn't think clearly or carry out my duties. The others did not think you would pull through, but I said to myself, the Lord Buddha has not yet given us his last testament. Surely he cannot enter nirvana yet. That thought kept me from the brink of despair."

The Buddha said, "Ananda, what else can you and the sangha expect from me? I have taught the Dharma fully and deeply. Do you think I have concealed anything from the bhikkhus? Ananda, the teaching is the true refuge. Every person must make the teaching his own refuge. Live according to the teaching. Every person should be a lamp unto himself. Ananda, the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha are present in everyone. The capacity for enlightenment is the Buddha, the teaching is the Dharma, the community of support is the Sangha. No one can take away the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha within you. Though heaven and earth may crumble, the Three Gems will remain intact with every person. They are the true refuge. When a bhikkhu dwells in mindfulness and contemplates his body, feelings, mind, and objects of mind, he is like an island unto himself. He possesses the truest refuge of all. No person, not even a great Master, can ever be a more stable refuge than your own island of mindfulness, the Three Gems within you."

By the end of the retreat, the Buddha's health was greatly restored.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Mountain Doesn't Care If It's Cloudy

In a couple of weeks, Kathy and I will be in Alaska for the wedding of a cousin (whom I've never met), and a reunion with my dear uncle David, my aunt Aileen, and my cousins Debbie, Susan, and Paul (for more about uncle David, see the 5/15/10 blog). 

It will be our first time in the Forty-Ninth State, and we are also taking a side trip to Denali National Park. The centerpiece of this area is Denali (aka, Mt. McKinley). With the summit towering to 20,320 feet, Denali (meaning "The High One" in the Athabaskan language) is the tallest peak in North America. It is also notorious for being shrouded in fog and clouds a good part of the time. Since we are flying into the park, we are certainly hoping for good weather, not just because we'd like to see the mountain, but also because we'd like to avoid danger.

Jon Kabat-Zinn has a guided imagery meditation in which he asks participants to embody the qualities of a mountain: its steadfast strength, its stillness, its dignity. He describes various weather conditions in all of the seasons, and the fact that tourists come to look at the mountain. Sometimes, he says, the tourists are disappointed when they can't see the mountain. Through it all, the mountain just sits. It doesn't care if it's day or night, cloudy or sunny, warm or cold, and it certainly doesn't care if people go away unsatisfied.

In the same way, the weather of our own lives is impersonal. We, like the mountain, don't have to react negatively toward every storm, or to cling to the pleasant days. We can just sit, allowing the weather and the seasons of our lives to pass over us. While the weather must be acknowledged and not denied, we also don't have to take it all so personally.

So I still hope to get a postcard shot of Denali to bring back with me, and if it happens to be a day when the view is obscured, I hope to remember that Denali doesn't care if we can see it or not, and maybe I can embody some of its qualities.


Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Constantly Arising Self

In your meditation practice, and in your daily life, you can be aware of the sense of "self," or "I, me, and mine," arising almost continuously. The self is noticed in a number of ways, most obviously when we are suffering under the weight of a strong unpleasant or upsetting emotion. The presence of these emotional sensations in the body are merely signals that somewhere we are clinging to something. Once this experience becomes known through awareness, we can do something about it.

What we do, of course, is release the tight grasping fist and hold the experience in an open hand, allowing the sense of self and any accompanying emotions float freely in a spacious awareness. The longer we cling tightly to something by calling it I, me, or mine, the deeper we will sink into the quicksand of self. Disengaging from, and dis-identifying with the sense of self is as easy as returning to the feeling of the body breathing. The hard part is remembering to do this.

The arising self can be clearly seen while we are practicing vipassana meditation. It can sometimes become a very unsettling or frustrating experience as we are constantly noting the attachment to something (signaling the presence of the sense of self), and then releasing the fist. We may have to repeat this process seemingly moment-by-moment for our entire practice. On retreats, I have been beset by so much arising self that whole days were taken up with releasing from its attachment.

The result, however, is a soft and open sense of freedom from being held prisoner by the self that wants to cling to everything and identify it as its own. It takes diligent and wholehearted effort. And the reward? Nothing less than freedom.


Friday, July 9, 2010

Five Steps For Cultivating A Meditation Practice

Beginning and maintaining a meditation practice can appear difficult and daunting. Remember, however, that this is just the mind creating a thought about an imagined future, and that this thought is not a fact. 

My five suggestions to help cultivate a meditation practice would be:

1) Be consistent. It is better to meditate for a short time every day than to sit for longer periods sporadically. Do some sitting practice daily, even if it is only for a few minutes. If you really have aversion to sitting on a particular day, just promise yourself that you will sit for five minutes. This will at least get you to be still and quiet. It will also probably lead to a longer sitting. It's the the same technique dentists use to get their patients to floss by having them commit to flossing just one tooth. It kind of tricks you into practicing longer. You may have to rearrange your life a little bit to make room for your meditation practice, but as Jon Kabat-Zinn tells us, "[Meditation] needs to become part of your life, in the same way that eating or working is. We keep the practice alive by making time for being, for non-doing, no matter how much rearranging it takes."

2) Be patient with yourself. Treat yourself with compassion, and bring wisdom and understanding to your efforts. You are not pursuing this practice to become the "World's Greatest Meditator," but merely to offer this gift of silence and introspection to yourself. Be careful of attachment to goals and outcomes. This kind of attachment can lead to becoming disheartened and will only serve as an obstacle in the way of your practice cultivation.

3) Find a practice that "speaks" to you and stay with it. In my many years as both a practitioner and teacher, I have seen students who flit from one practice to another, or even engage in multiple styles of practice all at once. This kind of "smorgasbord" style of practicing leads to confusion, and ultimately to disillusion, since pursuing multiple practices tends to dilute them. This style of practicing also indicates a mind that is desiring of some ultimate outcome, which as we noted above, is actually a hindrance. When you find a practice that interests you, or has merit in your life, stick with it and explore it deeply. Avoid the temptation to add more practices in the mistaken notion that more will be better.

4) Seek the guidance of a teacher. All wisdom traditions stress the importance of finding a teacher, someone who has experience on the path you are also taking, and who can keep you from taking wrong turns, or just be there when you have questions or problems. If you cannot find a teacher in your area, the internet now offers many options. For example, you can download Dharma Talks given by many great teachers at websites such as Dharma Seed - There are now dozens of other recordings and scores of books available on the subject, as well. I also strongly urge any meditation student to go on extended silent retreats with good teachers.

4) Find others with whom to share the journey. The Buddha said that the "sangha," the community of meditators, is one of the most important components of the entire practice. Find a sitting group in your area and go practice with them. Even if you are only sitting with two or three people, this kind of contact with other practitioners is very helpful in supporting your own practice. Several students of mine have started informal sitting groups that meet in parks or living rooms, and they report that it has helped them immensely.


Thursday, July 8, 2010

Words of Wisdom

From the Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw (Burmese master who brought Buddha Dharma out of the monasteries to lay people):
Those who practice mindfulness of this body and mind will understand the nature of the six senses and gain progressive insight into the process of arising and passing of all phenomena. They will finally come to see the Dharma, attain the Dharma, penetrate the Dharma, pass beyond doubt, free themselves from uncertainty, obtain liberation in the way taught by the Buddha.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Zen Humor

A Zen student decided to live in a monastery that was known for its particularly tough standards. Among other austerities, a student can only have an interview with the Roshi once per year. On top of that, the student is only allowed to say two words during the interview.

So the end of the first year came, and the student went to see the Roshi. After bowing respectfully, the student said his two words: "Bad food." He then bowed again, and left the room.

After another year, the student went in for his second visit with the Roshi. He bowed, and then said his two words: "Hard bed." After bowing again, he left as before.

Then, at the end of the third year, the student had his next interview. This time he bowed and said simply: "I quit."

The Roshi looked at him in silence for a moment, and then said, "Well, I'm not surprised. You've done nothing but complain since you got here!"


Tuesday, July 6, 2010


By Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you
But make allowance for their doubting too,
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream--and not make dreams your master,
If you can think--and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"


Monday, July 5, 2010

Holidays and Friends

For me, one of the nicest dividends about being present is when I am with my friends and family on holidays. I find that I really appreciate the experience of our love and camaraderie while it is happening, and this adds to the sweetness of the moment. 

Yesterday was Independence Day, and after hosting an open house from about 2:00 until fireworks time, Kathy and I were pretty tired today, but neither of us had to go into work. We spent most of the day with our dear friends, Tom and Jill who were visiting from Mill Valley, California, and New York City, respectively.

We took time for a leisurely lunch, that included some leftovers from yesterday's party, and just talked about our lives, our work, and various dimensions of Buddha Dharma, including attachment, aversion, and the Parable of the Second Arrow. I found myself feeling at peace and ease, and it was a lovely afternoon.

Now, of course, I must release attachment to them both as Tom drives back up north and Jill catches a plane back east. The pleasantness, lightness, and contentment continues on, however. And the backyard and the kitchen all got cleaned up without much trouble. What a glorious little holiday.


Sunday, July 4, 2010


The practice of vipassana meditation, leading to realization and eventually actualization in daily life, is a path toward freedom. The practice offers us the opportunity over and over again to learn how to release attachment (to thoughts), abandon aversion (toward unwanted experiences), and then move our attention back to a present-moment sensory reality (the breath). This practice/realization process then gives us the training to begin to actualize these strategies in our day-to-day life.

As Jack Kornfield once said:
It is the truth of what is, the Dharma, that sets us free; that lets us loose from our cage of old beliefs and habit patterns. To know what is, and to experience the knowing of it, is truly liberating.
The Peace of Wild Things, by Wendell Berry:
When despair grows in me
and I wake in the middle of the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Blessings and Happy Independence Day,

Saturday, July 3, 2010

What Is Wrong? vs. What Is This?

A few years ago, a three-panel Jules Feiffer cartoon was published in Wes Nisker's "Inquiring Mind" magazine that seems to sum up what we are up against in the practice of vipassana meditation. As best as I can remember it (and you can never do a Jules Feiffer justice by describing it), the first panel shows a man's face with a look of horror, mouth open as if screaming, and holding his head in his hands. The caption of this panel was something like, "My life was out of control. The stresses of every day living were too much for me to handle." In the second panel, we see the same man's face, only it is now calm and tranquil, with eyes closed. Under this panel it reads, "So I decided to try the ancient art of meditation. Maybe by looking within, I could calm my mind and ease my body." Then in the third drawing, we see a repeat of the expression of horror from the first panel.

Last week, in the sixth session of an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy class, one of the participants asked, quite seriously, "Do you ever have any pleasant experiences in this kind of practice? Because I haven't had one yet." Good question. However, as one of my teachers once said, this kind of practice is not "feel good" meditation. Nor is it always "feel bad" meditation." It is always a practice of knowing what is happening while it is happening, and then, as best we can, just allowing it all to happen in a state of mindful awareness. 

Labels like "good" and "bad" are geat places for inquiry, since these labels are merely objects of mind. If a loud car drives past your window while you are meditating, the mind might consider it a "bad sound," unless you are a NASCAR enthusiast, in which case it may be music to your ears. 

So instead of asking "what is wrong?" perhaps the better question would be "what is this?" Be curious about any experience you have and investigate all of the effects the event has on the body and mind. In this way, we can deepen into things that we consider "bad" or "good," and see that they are just preferences produced by a mind that is attached to some things and aversive toward other things. By dwelling mindfully in all of our experiences with equanimity, we take a big step toward eventually liberating ourselves from the habitual tendencies of the mind, and thus toward reducing our suffering.


Friday, July 2, 2010

For The Anniversary of My Death

By W.S. Merwin (America's newest Poet Laureate)
Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveler
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what 

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Practice, Realization, and Actualization

There is Zen koan (a teaching story or question that cannot be understood by rational thinking) that describes a student who has attained enough power to sit atop a one-hundred foot tall pole. Yet, implies the koan, this ability is not enough. The student must now step forward off of the pole into "the Universe in all directions."

What this koan intends to teach us is that we can cultivate mighty attainments of concentration, mindfulness, and insight while on our cushion, but these attainments are meaningless without the ability to utilize them in the world. In the Zen tradition specifically, there are considered three main pillars of Buddha Dharma (the way of the Buddha): practice, realization (through practice), and actualization (bringing the practice to daily life).

The practice of meditation is merely that: practice. Not practice so that we can get good at being a meditator, but practice that allows us facility and skillfulness to move from the cushion to daily life with less suffering. The realization that arises from such practice is that we are almost constantly in a state of clinging and aversion toward the world. All the insights in the world will not lead us to true liberation from suffering until we can release the tight fist of grasping. The take away insight that must be actualized is that we must release attachment to everything, including our one-hundred foot pole.

In studying ourselves,
we find the harmony
that is our total existence.
We do not make harmony.
We do not achieve it or gain it.
It is there all the time.
Here we are, in the midst of this perfect way,
and our practice is simply to realize it and then
to actualize it
in our everyday life.
~  Maezumi Roshi