Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Making It A Thankful New year

Think “Thank You”

This is the time of year when we traditionally think “Thank you.” Often, though not exclusively, these thank you’s are for the material things we have gained. But there is a traditional kindness chant that can extend our thank you’s in profound ways, extend our thank you’s so that we ourselves, those around us, and the world in which we live feel our thank you’s in each and every moment.

For this practice to be effective, we must first believe that the chant is true and then chant it often enough so that it arises spontaneously when unwholesome impulses and temptations arise as well as when wholesome and beneficial events and conditions arise.

If we chant it enough times, it will arise spontaneously and seemingly of its own accord. But first we need to develop an airtight logical explanation for the chant. Actually, several lines of reasoning is better.

Here’s the chant:

Each and every living being is supreme kind to me.

This will only work if you believe it. No exceptions. This isn’t about an act being kind or not, it is about our perspective on that act. If someone gives me something I want, I can see it as kind in that it gives me the opportunity to be grateful and generous in receiving it. If someone does something mean to me, I can see it as kind in that it gives me the opportunity to be patient and to see beyond the superficiality of the act to the underlying suffering that motivated the person to act in that way.

Contemplating this, we discover several lines of reasoning we can use. One, regardless of what someone does to me, I can consider it kind because it is an opportunity for me to strengthen my practice and grow spiritually. If someone does something nasty to me, for example, I can see it as kind because it gives me an opportunity to practice patience. If someone does something particularly nice to me, I can see it as a kindness because it gives me the opportunity to practice humility and modesty.

A second line of reasoning suggests that our basic nature, everything that we think, say and do, is an attempt to end some level of suffering we perceive in ourselves. Understanding that everything we do is about ending some level of discomfort or suffering in us, we soon come to realize that everything everyone does is an act to end their suffering–not necessarily wise or well-reasoned–but an attempt to end their suffering nonetheless.

If all that “they” are doing is attempting to end their suffering, why would I view this as anything but an opportunity for me to practice compassion toward them. Nothing else would seem reasonable. This doesn’t mean I necessarily condone the act, just that my perspective is to see that they are trying, even if unwisely, trying through what they have done to relieve suffering and so it is kind insofar as it allow me to be compassionate under duress.

On a deeply spiritual level, being everything is inherently empty of meaning and value from its own side, I get to decide whether something done to me is good or bad by the way I choose to perceive it. Therfore, if I get to define “duress” in my life, then why don’t I stopped defining things as stressful find another perspective that makes them all as kindnesses?

Believing this chant gives me an outlook that prevents me from getting anxious or angry, fearful or threatened. And that outlook is the framework that my mind can use to stay stable in the face of difficulties, even very great difficulties.

If I can know deeply and understand the chant Each and every living being is supreme kind to me, my intention in each moment will have me do the very best I can with the conditions in front of me. Knowing that I always do the very best I can with what’s happening, I can remain calm with any event or outcome. I can stay positive and without recrimination and guilt when the outcome is other than anticipated. If the outcomes aren’t appropriate, then I can course correct, finding better and new strategies for dealing with the same or similar situations in the future.

Realizing this, that I had, and do always do my best, I remain patient, compassionate and generous, to myself and others. My self-image stays clean and clear and positive without arrogance or conceit. Further, when I generalize this to all other beings, when I realize that no matter how unreasonable or terribly someone may act, they are doing the best they can, my intention will reset me to being kind, patient and compassionate and generous.

Assuming I believe this chant, then I will interpret and filter new information from my senses though intentional structures that lead me to positive wholesome thoughts, speech and action. In fact, they lead me to see the world as a kind place, supportive of me who is making his best effort. The more I practice, the more grateful I become, the more thankful I am for being here, now, connected to everyone and everything.

When I realize that each and every living being is supremely kind to me, I become one with the cooperative underpinnings of the universe. I have no regrets. I have nothing but thank you’s. And the world has nothing but thank you’s.

For all of your readership, practice, and support this year, a deep bow of gratitude and a thank you.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

No Regrets, Part 3

Living with No Regrets, Final Part of the Series

I have no regrets and the world has no regrets.

This is the third in an ongoing series

From part two of this series: First, we learn to understand that the information our mind is sending us is false and foolish, mostly pre-cognitive nonsense. Second, we learn to act in ways that make us mindful and aware instead of reflexive and reactive. And third, we commit ourselves to a regular meditation practice so that we can off-load four millions years of false stories (sankharas) that are driving us and the world to regret.

First, we learn to understand that the information our mind is sending us is false and foolish, mostly pre-cognitive impressions. Second, we learn to act in ways that make us mindful and aware instead of reflexive and reactive. And third, we commit ourselves to a regular meditation practice so that we can off-load four millions years of false stories (sankharas) that are driving us and the world to regret.

Our first step to a life without regrets is to not believe the story I tell myself that if I get more of those things that my amygdala likes and less of those it doesn’t like, I will be happy and all will be well in the world. Especially since we can readily see that (1) this doesn’t work–if it did, we’d already have succeeded, and (2) if it were true for me, then I would need to concede it as true for everyone else, which would leave us in such conceit and self-centered anarchy and chaos that we and the world would become nonfunctional nonfunctional.

We do this first step, the learning step, through study, contemplation, and meditation. Those three combine to send signals back to the parasympathetic nervous system to tell it to adjust and change. What do we study? We study sutras and commentaries, most especially on emptiness. There is a vast Buddhist literature on emptiness. If you have specific questions about how or where to access these, or where to find a teacher to guide you, please email me.

Second step, the interconnectedness step, we learn that there is a deep connection between what we do, between how we think about things and behave and whether or not we live in regret. The Noble Eightfold Path is the big picture. It provides the world view and understanding that leads to a life without regrets (right view and right intention); it provides the behavior guidelines, our main concern in this second step (right effort, right speech, right livelihood, right action); and then it enhances those with meditation (right mindfulness and right concentration) which leads to the wisdom that keeps our practice stable and alive.

One some levels, this is just learning the big picture, or the bigger picture, depending on our karma. On other levels, it is about developing the discipline to actuate these understandings and beliefs, which in my own practice usually is the more difficult task.

Step three, which is very closely related to step two, is developing a daily, lifelong mindfulness meditation practice. The single more effective tool for changing to a life without regrets is mindfulness meditation. Mindful alternate nostril breathing, which many students find to be the easier and most effective entry into mindfulness meditation, is also one of the most effective and fast-working tools we have for reversing the signal and telling the primitive brains centers that are controlling us to slow down and become aware of what’s really happening.

To be candid here, this needs to be more than a three-minute centering with a few deep breathe now and then when you’re feeling off kilter. It needs to be a daily practice; such as 10 or 15 minutes twice daily. It needs to be as part of the daily routine as brushing our teeth.

Just following one’s breath is the most common form of mindfulness meditation, but there are many others, and there are variations and modulations for each that can be explored so that your meditation leads you to a concentrated mind. Again, if you have specific questions about how to meditate or how to modulate your meditation to compensate for different levels or activity and stress in your life, or where to find a teacher to guide you, please email me.

Having lead a responsible and compassionate life with no regrets, when death approaches, as it does unfailingly in each moment and each life, we know how to respond–kindly and peacefully. 

Sunday, December 2, 2012

No Regrets. Part 2

I have no regrets and the world has no regrets.

This is the second in a series on living without regret

The way the mind processes and allots information to us leaves us, and the world as we see it, filled with regrets–the “I should have done thats” “It would have been better ifs,” etc. The goal of our spiritual path is for us to have no regrets and for the world to have no regrets, not blindly surrender to the directions of the amygdala, that almond shaped mass in the center of our brain which makes us stressed and full of regrets. 

Our goal is to learn how not to be forced to surrender to the neuropeptides that the amygdala releases into our mind and body ramping up our stress and anxiety in a variety of physical responses and psychological responses and reflexes, all of which leave us with regrets. Our goal is to train our mind to process and allot information to us in ways that leave us settled and peaceful, with no regrets.

Understanding that this is what happens, and then learning how to stop it has been the work of Buddhist monks almost 3000 years. The most prominent monks who wrote and codified the workings of the mind so that we could understand it and retrain it for the benefit of all beings were Asanga and Vasubandhu, brothers in the fourth century. 

Today neuroscientists are starting to unpack how all this happens, “empirically” to use their word, to test what Asanga and his brother observed “subjectively” It is abundantly clear from both the “empirical” and the “subjective” sides here that our mind doesn’t function to make us happier and healthier, which is the way it presents itself to us, but rather to leave us regretting either not having enough of some things (the ones the amygdala attached an affinity to) or regretting getting too much of others (the ones to which an aversion was assigned). The question is no longer about the validity of the teachings; the questions is simply one of experiencing them in a way that allows acceptance: acceptance of the Two Truths, acceptance of the Five Aggregates, acceptance of the Four Dharma Seals, acceptance of Dependent Arising.

The goal of our path and our practice, which comes from this acceptance, is to live a life without regrets, to live a life in which the world too has no regrets. We do this in three ways. First, we learn to understand that the information our mind is sending us is false and foolish, mostly pre-cognitive nonsense. Second, we learn to act in ways that make us mindful and aware instead of reflexive and reactive. And third, we commit ourselves to a regular meditation practice so that we can off-load four millions years of fictional beliefs and stories (sankharas) that are driving us and the world to regret.

In a phrase, this is “changing our karma.” As we become practiced and successful at this in the short term, we gradually become more and more peaceful and less and less regretful. As we succeed in the long term, we end our karma, the negative and nonsensical thrust that pushes us forward. Although we don’t usually write in such traditional and blunt phrasing, the goal of our practice is to end regrets by ending our karma. Ending our karma simply means ending the ability of our sankharas to drive our behavior. Without the amygdala in charge we become present to what is really happening, fully engaged with the world as it is. We become open to whatever arises, with a warm and respectful heart. We are awake, mindful and aware, which is our true nature, and then it’s over.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A "No Regrets" Thanksgiving and New Year

I Have No Regrets, and the World Too Has No Regrets

As we give thanks and approach the New Year, consider this as a contemplative meditation: “I have no regrets and the world has no regrets.”

These words indicate the essence of the way we should practice and view the world.

As we go through in life we notice very very very little is as we might wish it to be, and this applies equally to individuals, to any particular social groups or organizations, to society and even to the world as a whole. Moreover, throughout history, human beings have always been embroiled in the profound dilemmas of impermanence: birth, old age, sickness and death; and of desires that lead us to ceaselessly harm others!

Although many heroes and saints and prophets have arisen to alleviate human suffering, still, in comparison to the vastness of human sorrow their efforts really amount to no more than a cupful of water poured on a burning building. Strictly speaking, our heroes and saints end up "dying before their ambition is fulfilled."

Rather than filling ourselves with ambitions and resolutions, consider instead committing to a year of contemplating: I have no regrets, and the world too has no regrets.

How so? Set a timer for 10 minutes. Sit down in a comfortable chair and quiet your mind with a few long deep but gentle breaths. Make the inhalation shorter than the exhalation. Allow your body to settle down and your back and bottom to become one with the chair. Then address yourself to the meaning of the contemplation: I have no regrets, and the world too has no regret.

Find a pattern in which you can think analytically about the contemplation. You might, for example, consider the meaning of the two clauses separately [“I have no regrets” and “the world has no regrets], then together. Or you might choose to parse the words: what are regrets, what does it mean to have no regrets; no regrets for me, for the world, what are the synonyms and antonyms for “no regrets,” etc.? Alternatively, you can parse by contemplating the meanings of the subjects of the clauses [ “I” and “world”] relative to the no-regret-statement.

Another perspective for the contemplation is through impermanence. Since we know that everything, even us ourselves, is impermanence and ever changing; since we know that nothing is autonomous or permanent or existing independently from its own side; since we know that, at the very least, stuff is simply not as it appears to us. Therefore, while there are conditions to which we need to respond, with wisdom and right action, there really are no problems! Since there are no problems, how can we have any regrets?

Familiarizing yourself with the five aggregates (skandhas) is another way of contemplating this: familiarize yourself with what each of the five is and does, how they sequence, and which are pre-cognitive and which are cognitive. This practice that can open up your heart with gratitude and welcome in the New Year with a roadmap for a better and more peaceful life, for you and for the world.

As the New Year approaches, consider committing to a practice, to a thoughtful and studied life, in which you can say, moment after moment, day after day, “I have no regrets!” and simultaneously and intuitively feel that the world is in the same boat as you: it too has no regrets.

Email if you have any questions or want more information on this practice.

Happy Thanksgiving and Happy New Year.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Two Truths

The Two Truths
A Brief Philosophic Introduction

Regard all dharma as dreams….

The Two Truths is one of the most fundamental teachings in Buddhism today, and yet it is barely even mentioned in the early scriptures (the Pali Canon or the Agamas). It wasn’t until Nagarjuna’s writing in the 4th century, a thousand years after the Buddha’s death, that the idea took hold. This is, perhaps, because The Two Truths is more an understanding about reality than it is a “teaching.” Or perhaps it was just that a thousand years was needed for Buddhism to develop so that conditions allowed it this teaching to arise. Whatever the reason, the more we learn about The Two Truths, the more we practice with and them realize them experientially, the less dukkha we create and the less suffering there is in our life.

The Two Truths explain that there are two levels of reality: the conventional and the ultimate. The conventional is the everyday world, full of objects and beings and ideas that all seem “true,” autonomous, and separate from us. This is the way our senses feed us information: I see the plant, I am here, it is there, I am independent and existent and substantial, it is independent and existent and substantial, we are each separate and autonomous and, at least at this moment, permanent. What I believe about the plant is true: if I think it is a good plant, it is a good plant. If I think it is too big for where it is placed in the hall, it is too big; if I then move it to the corner of the living room, it becomes too small. I don’t see that it can’t be too big and a moment later too small unless it is not really permanent and substantial.

The ultimate truth is the more profound (deeper philosophic) understanding that all things are things are impermanent, interconnected (dependently originated), non-self (empty of any inherent nature). The ultimate nature of things, in a word, is emptiness. It is things as they are, before we reify them, before we impute them with a concrete, independent, material existence; before we assign them meaning and value–good/bad, too big/too small.

You can’t have one without the other, ultimate without conventional, though it often seems that way when we begin to learn about these two truths. In fact, the learning process takes us from thinking each of these two truths is independent to understanding the two operate together, to finally realizing that they are one.

Philosophically, by positing that there are two levels of reality, we are suggesting that there is something which is sub-dividable, something that can be categorized in two ways.

So you can ask yourself, "What are we sub-dividing?" and the answer is “a knowable object.” Here, a knowable is simply something that is existing. To exist means to be knowable, and to be knowable means to exist. But not everything that “is known” exists.

In fact, just because it is “known” doesn’t mean it exists. I could fabricate the idea a rabbit with antlers, a jackalope. Taxidermists in the West often create these trophy animals for the amusement of their customers and to poke fun at “city folk.” I could fabricate this awareness, and in that sense rabbit's antlers are something known, but they certainly don't exist. And to someone caught in the joke, jackalopes are just as real as if they did in fact exist in the prairie.

When we equate things that exist with things that are known, we mean that they are known by a valid awareness, a valid conventional consciousness. Obviously, this can be tricky. Our obligation, therefore, is to see as clearly as we can so that our awareness is as valid an awareness and as correct a conventional consciousness as possible. We should also note that validity is not determined by the number of individuals who might believe something or claim an awareness of it: even though the Greeks and later the Alexandrians has accurately measured the circumference of the earth, from the time of Christ until Columbus, Europeans chose to believe the world was flat.

So if a person makes a statement that mirrors reality, then that statement is true. If it does not mirror reality, it is a lie. “Lie” is a very strong word. One could instead say it is a “fiction.” But “lie” is important to use because lying to ourselves about the nature of reality is the source of all our suffering.

Our biggest baddest lie is that we and other things are permanent, autonomous, and exist inherently; that we are independent and separate from everything else, which is independent and separate from us. When I look at a tree, I say to myself: “I see the tree.” The way the mind processes that sense contact, it presents the information to me as if there is a me that is separate and autonomous and a tree that is separate and autonomous. Believing that, believing that we are separate and autonomous, believing that there is Someone or Something, is the big lie, and the source of all our suffering.

In fact nobody or nothing, anywhere, has anything that inherently makes it what it is. Nothing has its own personal mark. Everything exists simply through language, through ideas.
 The absence of something, the total absence, the total not-being, non-existence of anything that is not there through the power of language and thought is, emptiness, the ultimate truth.

So far this has been a serious, if partial and introductory look at the meaning of The Two Truths. So why is this concept so important? What does it mean on an everyday level?

1. Not understanding The Two Truths means we believe the information that is coming at us is complete and true. We believe that our perception of the world is correct; we believe our stories about these experiences are true. So we act from that place with confidence causing ourselves more and more suffering.

2. When we act from a wrong perception, and invalid conventional consciousness, or a limited perception; when we don’t see clearly that there is a conventional world and an ultimate reality, we cause a vast network of interrelated problems to arise, we cause ourselves to suffer.

Practicing with The Two Truths

Not Believing What Our Mind Tells Us

The simplest and easiest tool to apply The Two Truths to our everyday life is to simply remember not to believe anything our minds tell us. If my mind tells me I should be upset because there is a ding in the door of “my car,” I need to recognize that there is simply a chip in the paint on a piece of plastic and that it might need to be repaired, but not believe stories I have created about it: “This always happens to me,” as though some force of the universe conspires against me and my car to make me upset, or “I hate it when people are so dishonest that they don’t even leave a note when they ding your car door,” which assumes they even knew they had dinged the door, which might not be true, and assumes that they planned to do it to me, which is nonsense, they don’t even know me; or “The door is ruined; I’ll never be able to afford to get it fixed,” etc.

These stories appear to be known, but in fact are lies because they do not mirror reality.

Yes, there’s a chip in the paint; yes, it might need to be repaired at some point. But we don’t need to define it as a personal problem or as an assault against us personally.

Simpler said than done? Not really; not once you have practiced it for a while. In fact; it is easier done than said.

Laughing At Our Stories

Another perspective on this practice is simply to notice when you are getting irritated or annoyed or upset or angry or depressed and to ask yourself, what story is causing me this dukkha now? In the example of the ding in the car door, the story is: my car door should never get a ding, it should always be as pristine as it was the moment I bought it. Other people can get dings and scratches, that’s ok, but not me. All our stories, if we are seeing what is really happening in our minds, as silly and self-centered. Seeing this, we can laugh at the story, and that laugh takes all the sting out of it.

Monday, October 15, 2012

What Is Our Practice?

A Brief Overview

Our own plight, in everything we do, is to reduce our discomfort and to gain a sense of happiness. It’s omnipresent; it’s why we scratch an itch and why we have children and why we start wars. On more nuanced levels, it is why we love, and why we grieve.

Once we understand this we can begin the real spiritual work that will free us from suffering. Once we fully realize this, we see clearly that everyone everywhere is trying, virtually always unsuccessfully and often very unwisely, to do the same thing: to avoid dukkha–to avoid the discreet discomfort of minor situations–little dukkha–to avoid the deep physical and psychological pain of intense situations–big dukkha–over and over, time and again and again, moment after moment. Deeply understanding this, we realize that our suffering and the suffering of all beings is linked, interdependent and interrelated, directly and indirectly.

The more deeply we believe this, the less self-centered we can be and the more other-centered we become; the more patient, compassionate and generous we allow ourselves to be. Eventually, our primary goal becomes one of being of benefit to others because nothing else makes sense. As we move in this direction, our self-centered mindstates weaken and fall away. Anger in its myriad forms from irritation to rage, and even depression, all self-centered mindstates, weaken and fall away.

To make this sift, we must overcome the three poisons: (1) our predisposition to want more of what we like and less of what we don’t, (2) the frustration at never being able to get and keep–or remove and keep away–enough, and (3) our understanding of ourselves as separate and autonomous. To overcome these poisons (greed, anger and delusion), we must overcome our sense of Self, for it is the stories of who we are, which are our Self–our ego–that poison us.

One way to do this is to get a handle on emptiness and to stay with it. The more deeply we understand, contemplate, and study emptiness, the more the three poisons and their corollaries (fetters) and stories just drop away.

The most fundamental and essential way to learn about emptiness is to study the relationship between dependent origination and emptiness. The study is aimed at learning that dependent origination and emptiness aren’t different, but neither are they the same; that one implies the other yet they are not two and not one. For many, learning about no-self or non-self is a useful first step in this direction.

Emptiness allows us to understand that things do not inherently exist, which is the way they appear to us, but rather exist only nominally as we impute them. Ultimately this allows us to see that everything is interdependent, imputed by the mind but not from the mind only.

This means we need to combine both right ethical behavior (like giving, morality, patience, diligent effort, compassion, etc.) and wisdom (the realization of the emptiness of self, other and action, and of their inseparability) so that the inseparability of the Two Truths becomes clear: the affirmation that everything is not existent, not non-existent, not both, and not neither.

The Buddha never taught emptiness. The word “emptiness” barely even appears in 11,000 or so early scriptures of the Agamas or Pali Canon. Yet this teaching has become, as the Venerable Master Yin Shun writes: “perhaps the most profound and important theory of the entire Buddhadharma.” Approach it gently and it will open itself up for you revealing the wonders of the Middle Path.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Understanding Kindness, Really Really Understanding Kindness

The Kindness of All Living Beings

If I want no more or less than what I am given,
Then whatever I am given, by any living being, is supreme kindness.

What the tenets of Buddhism, and emptiness in particular, are suggesting is that until we understand that each and every living being is supremely kind to us, we cannot really understand how to relate to others (see previous blog on Relationships Without Attachment). Until we understand this in our hearts and minds–without hesitation, without reservation, without exception–the compassion which is at our core is unable to arise spontaneously and so we suffer unnecessarily.

It’s not that the belief “each and every living being is supremely kind to me” is true or not true. It is, from the Buddhist point of view, simply a perspective we need to work from.

For the sake of this blog and its exercises, just take the statement “Each and every living being is supremely kind to me” at its surface value. (1) Don’t think about changing any of the words; consider them non-negotiable. (2) Don’t try parsing the words into a meaning you like better. (3) Don’t think about connotations and denotations: whether spiders and trees are living beings, for example; whether each and every has to mean all, without even a single exception. (4) And don’t don’t get hung up on the act or action that another might do, simply sidestep that issue for now–eventually it will become clear why it is unimportant.

Consideration One

Consider that all our day-to-day needs are provided through the kindness of others. We brought nothing into this life, yet, the moment we were born, we were given what we needed–all provided through the kindness of others. Don’t drift off message here into thinking the it-would-have-been-better-ifs. Don’t drift off into the how it-should-have-beens. Simply consider how kind the universe is to have provided us with an infrastructure.

Seriously contemplate this understanding: Everything we now enjoy has been provided through the kindness of other beings, past or present.

Consider all the ways that is true. Consider how we are able live and move about in this life with very little effort on our own part. If we consider facilities such as roads, cars, trains, airplanes, ships, houses, restaurants, hotels, libraries, hospitals, shops, money and so on, it is clear that many people worked very hard to provide these things. Even though we make little or no contribution towards the provision of these facilities, they are all available to us and for us through the great kindness of others.

Consider how our general education, even the language or languages in learn, and our spiritual training were and continue to be provided by others. All of our realizations and insights into how to live are and were attained in dependence upon the kindness of others. Even our ability to learn to be more peaceful, to practice meditation and Buddhism, is available to use through the kindness of others.*

This supreme kindness of each and every living being is the gateway through which we see the unmitigated need to feel and realize compassion for all living beings. It is the gateway through which we develop this compassion by relying upon the understanding that because of the supreme kindness of all living beings, each and every living being is and should be an object of our compassion.

It is through the great kindness of all living beings that we have the opportunity to live better and more peacefully, and to make our family and friends and the world a better, more peaceful place, and to attain the supreme happiness that comes from enlightenment. Keeping ourselves in this perspective, it is clear that for us all living beings are supremely kind and precious.

From the depths of our hearts, then, we should contemplate Consideration Two (below). To do this, write out the contemplation so you can have it with you. Often during contemplations, the words morph into another meaning. Having it in writing with you will prevent this. Go for a half-hour walk, preferably outside in a park or field. Why outside? Because that’s where you will encounter other living beings whose presence will strengthen your contemplation. During the walk, let you body settle into the earth, feel your feet grounding you, develop a mindful awareness of your surroundings, and think about Consideration Two: validate it from every angle you can; consider its deeper meanings, and sense who you would become if indeed you unquestionably and wholeheartedly cherished every living being. Also, think about what effect this would have on you and your family and friends and your colleagues and the planet.

Consideration Two

Each and every living being is supremely kind to me. I cherish each and every living being.

Understanding and thinking in this way, we generate a warm heart and a feeling of being equally close to all living beings without exception. By continually contemplating and meditating on these two considerations, we maintain an open and warm heart and a feeling of being close to each and every living being, all the time, in every situation, without exceptions.

This is our practice, to continuously maintain an open and warm heart and a feeling of being close to each and every living being, all the time, in every situation, without exception. To maintain this open heart, this mind of universal compassion and love, we train ourselves in this new perspective through contemplation. The more we see all living beings as supremely kind to us the more we will spontaneously cherish them all. The deeper our understanding of this becomes, the broader our definition of “all livings beings” becomes, and the more and more peaceful and happy we find ourselves.

To continuously maintain an open and warm heart and a feeling of being close to each and every living being, all the time, in every situation, without exception, is the answer to the question: how do I relate to others without attachment? We relate to each and every one of them with compassion. We simply cherish each and every one of them.

There are others ways to reason the validity of this every-living-being-is-supremely-kind-to-me practice. Two of the most common are (1) understanding that everything I do is to relieve my suffering, then everything everyone else does is to relieve their suffering, therefore, regardless of the act, then whatever anyone is doing is an act of kindness so I must respond compassionately; and (2) if we see the actions of others, regardless of what they are, as simple opportunities for us to practice being unconditionally compassionate, then we can understand any action as an act of kindness.

This does not mean that all acts are to be condoned or approved. Obviously many acts are unwise and unskillful, like lying and stealing, and at the extremes, like child abuse and killing. What these contemplations suggest is that we can see past the specific acts and our labeling and judging of them, and when we do, a profound new level of peacefulness arises from within and anger and depression fall away.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Relationships with Attachments

Relationships Without Attachment

Understanding personal relationships in a spiritual system that asserts non-attachment is difficult, though essentially it is neither complicated nor obtuse. Stated concisely, emptiness tells us to relate to all beings in the same way–with an open heart filled with compassion and love. But which beings we relate to and the intensity and commitment with which we do this is often much less clear.

Interpersonal relationships fall on a spectrum:


This runs from the unconditionally loved, such as children, to those we like, those to whom we are indifferent, those we dislike, and at the far end, to those we hate.

Who falls where on the spectrum is the result of our karmic connection to them. These are not static placements. For example, during a divorce, a once loved spouse can become hated and later one can be indifferent and perhaps even develop a liking for her again.

Speaking literally and metaphorically, we start at our own doorstep. Our most intense commitments are to our nuclear families, then our more extended families, then to friends and colleagues, and so on to those toward whom we are indifferent. How much you are able and willing to do for an individual is a reflection of their closeness to your karmic doorstep.

Unfortunately, as we move from indifferent at the midpoint toward those we dislike, feel anger toward, or perhaps even hate, the intensity increases because we have a story that places them front-and-center, on our doorstep. So where we choose to put someone on the spectrum is very consequential.

Regardless of whether they are loved or hated, emptiness tells us to treat everyone the same–with the vast open compassionate heart that arises from our Buddhanature. To do this, we must realize that regardless of where we place someone on the love-to-hate scale, our spiritual practice remains the same: we respond to them with universal love, with patience, compassion and generosity.

This is not to dismiss the love-to-hate scale as unimportant. We do need to know the different between our daughter and the neighbor’s kid, our business partner and our jogging buddy. Relationships, which are in large part reflected by the scale, establish the karmic responsibilities and obligations we have to others and in dong so establish the intensity and extent to which we respond. I might save to pay for my daughter’s college education, for example, but I am not likely to do that for the neighbor’s child. Although I always want to be dependable with both, to use another example, I am much more likely to take a call from my partner at the office when I am on vacation than from the neighbor with whom I jog on Sunday mornings. A married woman with three children has very different karmic responsibilities than a novice nun at a monastery, and so on.

These are simply karmic parameters within which we function in the everyday world. They are the conditions of our life. They determine the extent of our internal and external energies, of the emotional and material resources we devote to other living beings.

Our spiritual path tells us not to attach to these roles, however. To be a good mother, we don’t need to attach to being a mother, to define ourselves in a spiritually unhealthy way by some permanent understanding of me-as-mother. That’s not about relating to our children, that’s about me and my needs. Instead, we need to look at the karmic conditions of our relationship with our children, seeing clearly where our responsibilities lie. Noting that they are constantly changing, we fulfill those obligations as best we can, with an open loving heart that arises from a profound sense of compassion, from our Buddhanature, from bodhichitta. This is about being of benefit to our children, not about attaching to self; this is about compassion and love, not self-cherishing. This is about responding to conditions without attachments.

Our karmic responsibilities to our children modulate as they grow older, as they leave the house, as do our obligations and responsibilities to them. We need to love them without attaching to our old stories about who we are.

We need to see karmic obligations and responsibilities as conditions, conditions as conditions, not as attachments. Then we are able to respond appropriately to each and every living being, regardless of where they are on the love-to hate scale, appropriately.

No living being deserves us to be self-cherishing and arrogant, which comes from the love side of the scale, nor does any living being deserve our anger or scorn, which comes from the hate end of the scale, nor our indifference, which comes from the middle. The scale reminds us of our responsibilities, emptiness shows us how to act. These must be understood and practiced together, as one.

For further study: The monks who composed the Diamond Sutra looked back from nirvana at how they had created their idea of who they were and described it as having four aspects: Self, Person, Being, and Soul. Self is the self-cherishing/attachment aspect, Person is the roles and responsibilities aspect, Being is the deluded perception aspect; we don’t need to concern ourselves much with Soul here. Studying the first three of these will deepen your understanding of how to achieve a mind of universal compassion and love and further you along the path to right relationships.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Spiritual Materialism

You'll Never Find The Answer
By Shopping Around

Once people discover that sense of something missing in their lives, in themselves, there is a tendency is to shop in the spiritual marketplace and to pickup pieces from here and there that  “feel right.” It’s much like shopping for a shirt and tie, or a blouse and skirt. We pickup colors and patterns that we like. Which means that the new ideas we are seeking have to agree with what we already know. And therein lies the first problem of spiritual materialism. We want something new, but only if it confirms the old ideas. Being that’s not possible, we are fundamentally doomed from the beginning. Longterm we won’t get anywhere, although perhaps in the short-term we will feel a little better.

What we are confronted with, in the vast marketplace of spiritual literature and religious institutions today, are beliefs and belief systems that are confusing and contradictory, even when it appears they saying the same thing. The idea of “no killing” in the Abrahamic faiths, for example, is very different from “no killing” in Buddhism. In the Abrahamic faiths, there are exceptions to the rule and different interpretations of its meaning, in Buddhism it is not so.

The eclectic approach to solving our spiritual dilemma by picking and choosing from various faiths whatever seems amenable to our needs and then forcing those pieces into a whole that is personally satisfying, in the end, never solves the problem. What we end up with is not a cohesive whole, not a path that leads us to peacefulness, but a road to nowhere, albeit in place nicely paved.

Bhikkhu Bodhi writes: “There are two interrelated flaws in eclecticism that account for its ultimate inadequacy. One is that eclecticism compromises the very traditions it draws upon. The great spiritual traditions themselves do not propose their disciplines as independent techniques that may be excised from their setting and freely recombined to enhance the felt quality of our lives. They present them, rather, as parts of an integral whole, of a coherent vision regarding the fundamental nature of reality and the final goal of the spiritual quest. A spiritual tradition is not a shallow stream in which one can wet one's feet and then beat a quick retreat to the shore. It is a mighty, tumultuous river which would rush through the entire landscape of one's life, and if one truly wishes to travel on it, one must be courageous enough to launch one's boat and head out for the depths.

“The second defect in eclecticism follows from the first. As spiritual practices are built upon visions regarding the nature of reality and the final good, these visions are not mutually compatible. When we honestly examine the teachings of these traditions, we will find that major differences in perspective reveal themselves to our sight, differences which cannot be easily dismissed as alternative ways of saying the same thing. Rather, they point to very different experiences constituting the supreme goal and the path that must be trodden to reach that goal.”

To give peacefulness a chance, we need to find a system with a proven track record of producing peacefulness in its followers and we need then to walk its path, period. The search for a spiritual path is born out of suffering. We cannot end our suffering, or even reduce it significantly, by creating our own special system from an eclectic assemblage of others’ ideas.

For a deeper look into this topic, consider reading Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism by Chögyam Trungpa. Rinpoche is the late 20th century Tibetan monk who coined the phrase “spiritual materialism.”

Monday, July 9, 2012

Achieving Happiness

To Seek Or Not To Seek Happiness

Want to be really happy? Start by realizing that it cannot come from externals. That it must arise from within you, without you seeking it.

Unhappiness is a feeling that arises when we make a sense contact to which we have an aversion. Happiness, in the conventional use of the term, is a change in feeling from a sense contact for which we are aversive to one for which we have an affinity.

Looking closely at our mind, we see that conventional happiness is a reduction in suffering based on a shift in attention from one external object to another. Because we have an affinity for the contact and its attendant external object, this type of happiness must by its very nature leave us with some degree of uneasiness. The uneasiness (dukkha) is based on a fear of not being able to sustain the feeling or of not knowing if we will be able to get more of the object. Anger arises when we fail in our desire for more.

The illusion of being happy, ironically, is the source of fear and anger in our lives.

The happiness that arises from within when we develop a mind of compassion, when our views and intentions are right, when our actions are pure, and when we are mindful and concentrated, is real happiness. Real happiness needs no defending and no protecting, and is not based on desire or change. Real happiness arises in its own from a life lived right.

A key practice that will allow happiness to arise from within, from our factory or default setting, is the practice of mudita–sympathetic or unselfish joy. Mudita, the happiness born of shared love, shared satisfactions, shared delights in another's success, and shared delight in other’s spiritual progress, surpasses in every way the meager selfish conventional happiness that arises from the momentary affinities. Further, unselfish joy multiplies exponentially the more it is used, so quite apart from its purifying effect on our own lives, it moves us further along the path to real happiness.

As Venerable Nyanaponika Thera wrote: If our potential for unselfish joy is widely and methodically encouraged and developed…the seed of mudita can grow into a strong plant that will blossom forth and find fruition in many other virtues as a kind of beneficial "chain reaction": magnanimity, patience, generosity (of both heart and purse), friendliness, and compassion. When unselfish joy grows, many noxious weeds in the human heart will die a natural death (or will, at least, shrink): jealousy and envy, ill will in various degrees and manifestations, cold-heartedness, miserliness (also in one's concern for others), and so forth. Unselfish joy acts as a powerful agent in releasing dormant forces of the good and wholesome in the human heart.

We know very well how envy and jealousy–the chief opponents of unselfish joy–can poison a person’s life. Therefore, isn’t it obvious that we should cultivate their antidote, which is mudita?

While compassion is the inspiration for charitable and social work, for being of benefit to others, acts that free us from our self-centeredness and allow happiness to arise, mudita vitalizes and ennobles those acts and serves as their boon companion. In those who practice acts of altruism, of selfless giving, the joy they find in such acts enhances and supports the doing of more and more of those acts, and this self-perpetuating ethical unselfishness naturally guides us to a better appreciation and realization of the Buddha's central doctrine of No-self or Non-Self, which the foundations of real happiness.

Children readily respond by their own smiles and happy mood to smiling faces and happiness around them. If we are to realize real happiness, we must learn to do exactly that.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Soul Question

Do We Have A Soul?

When Western students first learn about Buddhism, the “Soul Question” inevitably arises from their backgrounds in the Abrahamic faiths. The short answer to this question, “No. Buddhists don’t believe there is a soul.

That answer is predicated on a particular definition, a particular understanding of what the word “soul” means. What Buddhism means by soul is something that is static and never changes, an essence that is eternal; an essence that is not effected by anything else.

Also, a soul is “partless,” meaning that it is not made-up of a bunch of pieces, like a car or a dog.

Another characteristic is that a soul can exist separately from body and mind. It can comes and go from place to place, and of course, life to after life. It lives inside a person like an occupant lives a house.

Buddhist philosophy says that there is no such thing. Nothing is permanent, nothing is in and of itself. How it posits this is complicated, but simply put the Buddhist understanding arises from a fundamental believe that all things are impermanent and conditioned by other things.

What Buddhism posits in place of a soul is an ever-changing Self that has no beginning and no end. It has many parts, so it is not something findable. It cannot exist separately. With our moment to moment to moment mental activity, that “me,” that conventional Buddhist “Self,” is just an imputation. It is not something that you can find solidly inside each moment. Nonetheless we have a conventional way of putting together all these moments and labeling it “Me.”

Buddhism emphasizes over and over that we are a conditioned phenomenon. What moves from one moment to another is a subtle Self that is described by the Five Aggregates, not a soul.

On investigation, the soul turns out to be a simple fiction. Unfortunately, is it a fiction that leads to believing in a large, complex false reality that has been the source of suffering for vast numbers of people since ancient times. Why this is so is addressed in a variety of teachings–chiefly, The Four Characteristics of All Phenomena, Dependent Co-Arising, and Emptiness.

Believing in a soul requires a vast network of speculative ideas about other permanent things and places–gods and heavens and hells, for example–in order to form a moral code. What we learn from simple personal observation of our impermanent and ever-changing Self is that the meaning of life is found in our impermanent and therefore interconnected nature: in being of benefit to others. And the first rule of being of benefit is “Do not harm.”

How do we do no harm? We can start with this simple exercise: Every time you approach someone with whom you expect to interact, ask yourself (in your head, no out loud): “What can I do to be of benefit to this person, here, now.” If you’re alone, ask it of yourself.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

What Really Matters

Practicing with Emptiness

Once we pass the point of being novices in our practice, we see that emptiness is at the core of the dharma. For many students, the word itself is problematic. It is only later in their practice that they realize the reason they struggle with the word is that it too is empty. For now, let’s not make the word an obstacle to understanding this critically important Mahayana teaching.

Let’s start by looking at what emptiness means. Emptiness means that the things around us (animal, vegetable and mineral; people, places and events; thoughts, ideas and concepts) don’t have any set definition or value, don’t have any inherent meaning in and off themselves. Whatever meaning they do have is because we have assigned it to them.

We know this, at least on the most basic level, because we know that we can change the meaning of something: sometimes it is good to sleep in late, other times not (sleeping is empty); sometimes I think I look great, other times not (my appearance is empty). In fact, because things are empty we can change the story, the description we have of that thing. Empty means anyone can assign whatever definition or meaning or value they want to what’s happening. And that means we can learn to rewrite our stories in ways that reduce and end our pain and suffering.

What about stories that everyone agrees on, aren’t they true? In the 6th century BC the Greeks determined that the world was round and measured the circumference of the earth pretty accurately, yet Europeans as a whole continued to believe that the world was flat until the 17th century. The Alexandrians had measured the circumference of the earth with remarkable accuracy in the 1st century BC, yet with the burning the great library and the beginning of the Christian era, the world became flat, flat, flat, again. Even if everyone seems to agree on a single story, that doesn’t make it true or permanent; it is still empty. It is still just a story. However, “accurate” understandings of the everyday world from stories are important and useful, as we’ll see.

Emptiness is empty of story, empty of inherent and always-the-same meaning and value. It does not suggest that the object doesn’t exist. My car isn’t a good car or a bad car, it just depends on how I view it. When it is running well, it’s a good car; when it breaks down, it’s a bad car. The knowledge that on an ultimate, empty level, it’s not even “a car” until I call it that, doesn’t mean, however, that it doesn’t exist. Of course it exists. “Car,” though is just a label, a story.

So being “empty” isn’t a denial that things exist. Rather it is an understanding that we superimpose upon ourselves–and on things around us–a false existence, a self-existence or essential reality that actually does not exist at all–a story about who we are and about the definitions, meaning of values of the things around us.

What is emptiness? Emptiness is the way things really are, in an absolute sense. It is the way things exist as opposed to the conventional way they appear. We naturally believe that the things we see around us, such as tables, chairs and houses are truly existent, because we believe that they exist in exactly the way that they appear.

However, the way things appear to our senses is deceptive and completely contradictory to the way in which they ultimately exist. Things appear to exist from their own side, without depending upon our mind. This computer, for example, seems to have its own independent, objective existence. It seems to be “outside” whereas our mind seems to be “inside.” We feel that the computer can exist without our mind; we do not feel that our mind is in any way involved in bringing the book into existence.

Although things that appear directly to our senses to be truly existent, in reality all phenomena lack, or are empty of, true existence. This computer, our body, our friends, and the entire universe are in reality just appearances to mind, like things seen in a dream.

On another level, though, we know that things are empty because we know that everything is impermanent, and being impermanent, everything is therefore interconnected. [How we know this will be the topic of a future blog.]

So why do we care? For two crucial reasons: Until we understand that there are two truths, a conventional truth, which is our understanding of things from our everyday perspective, our story-telling, and that there is also an ultimate truth, that things really don’t exist on their own as we seem to perceive them, that things really aren’t separate and solid as our senses imply, that in fact everything is ultimately interrelated and interconnected, we cannot (1) develop a moral code that allows us to distinguish between right and wrong, and (2) we cannot meaningfully learn to reduce and finally end our suffering. [Look for a further explanation of this in a future blog.]

Before explaining a simple way to practice with emptiness to reduce our suffering, even when we are experiencing “big dukkha,” even with events as intense as the death of a child or a terminal cancer diagnosis, I would like to offer Guy Newland’s analogy from Introduction to Emptiness. If this blog has at all wetted your appetite for more about emptiness, go to Newland’s book. He writes:

I concocted for my students the analogy of two radio stations. Channel A is "all things considered radio." This is our regular, conventional channel, and on it we get all kinds of information about the diversity and complexity of the world. Perhaps today they are airing a fierce debate: the proponents of red cars are angry, in a raging controversy with the proponents of blue cars. Normally we listen only to this station, so we take it all at face value and without deeper scrutiny. We are unaware that there is or could be any other channel. But in fact there is a second station, broadcast on channel B, the ultimate perspective. Channel B's programming is "all emptiness, all the time radio." Every phenomenon is presented only from the point of view of its ultimate nature. But when we tune into this channel, all of the detailed information from the other channel is unavailable. From the perspective of ultimate reality, red cars and blue cars are equally and exclusively empty [they are not even “cars.”].

Channel B, emptiness radio, adds new information and a deeper perspective on what is being discussed on the conventional channel. It shows that the things discussed on channel A definitely do not exist in the way that they are ordinarily presented [as solid, separate, and having an essential nature].

When we come back to channel A after tuning in to B, we now understand just how it is that channel A is merely conventional; it is not the only or final perspective. But this new information does not, of course, prove that red cars are in all ways identical to blue cars. [Nor does channel B tell us of the nonexistence of an essentially existent car, that there are no cars]. We still have to make distinctions and make choices about what, if anything, to drive. Channel B alone does not allow us to make practical distinctions, so we still need the information from channel A.

Each gives correct information about its domain.

Conventional realities are not wiped out by…emptiness. The problem of knowing which car to drive is the general problem of how to choose between possible courses of action. It is the question of how empty persons can make distinctions between right and wrong. [The great 14th century Tibetan lama] Tsong-kha-pa shows that answering this question requires distinguishing between two types of knowledge about persons, as well as cars and other things.

Practicing with Emptiness

Most of us live rather exclusively listening to channel A. We see the world as seemingly permanent and separate. When my eyes make contact with the plant in my office, I say to myself, “I see the plant.” Pure channel A–me here, plant there, separate and each solid and existent on its own. When I don’t get what I want, when things don’t go my way, I get mad. Again, pure channel A.

This leads us to unending and unendable dukkha, to problems with everything. As Newland points out, when we listen to channel A we become unaware of channel B. To move significantly along the path toward peacefulness, we must develop an awareness of channel B running in the background, behind the information from channel A that we need to live everyday lives, make distinctions (we need to be able to distinguish between a son and a husband, for example), and we need these distinctions to be of value and benefit to our families, friends, communities, and so on.

And therein lies the practice. Instead of locking into and listening exclusively to channel A, which even when “accurate” is black-and-white, rigid and problematic, say to yourself–whenever you notice there is dukkha, whenever you notice that you are getting upset or angry: “Where is channel B here?”

Whether it is big dukkha: the death of a child or parent, a terminal illness, the loss of a job or house, or little dukkha, noticing a ding on the car door, the moment your body sends you a signal that dukkha is arising (and it is often easier to notice it in the body than the mind), just ask yourself, “Where’s Channel B here?” and you regain your footing on the Middle Path and the dukkha dissolves.

In these examples, the wisdom of emptiness on channel B lets us see beyond our sense of loss to a greater understanding that aging and death are part of every process. This lessons our attachment to “my” loss and allows for grieving rather than self-indulgence. With a terminal illness, channel B redirects our attention from wanting things to be otherwise to being present and doing what is most beneficial, allowing us to see clearly and feel peaceful as we pick wellness strategies. Similarly, a ding, channel B tells us, is simply a chip in the paint on a piece of plastic–I can get it fixed, or not, as is appropriate, without making it personal, without attaching and suffering.

“Where’s channel B here?” That’s the practice. Having the wisdom to keep an awareness of channel B while going about our lives in a channel A world.

If you would like more information about practicing with emptiness, please email.