Friday, November 11, 2016

“No Mud, No Lotus: A Buddhist Perspective on Suffering”

The Buddha said he taught one thing – suffering and its cessation. And he said that it’s possible to end suffering in this lifetime, that the point of life isn’t to suffer now and celebrate in the after-life. All of his teachings – and of the lists and stories and even all of the thousands of talks and books interpreting his teachings – come down to this: You don’t have to suffer.

That doesn’t mean that an enlightened person exists in some kind of bubble where there’s no pain, no grief, where nothing bad ever happens to them. Because the Buddha distinguished between pain and suffering. Pain is a natural and inevitable part of life, he said. Suffering is optional.

It’s obvious what pain is. Specifically, he said, birth is painful, along with being sick, growing old and losing capabilities, and death. Not getting what you want is painful, as is getting what you don’t want.
Suffering, though, is what we layer on top of pain.

The Buddha told a story about the distinction. If you’re shot with an arrow, he said, that’s painful. Then the thoughts that come after that – who shot me, what was their motive, why me, how can I avenge myself – those are suffering. That mental activity, he said, is like being shot by a second arrow because it causes as much stress and discomfort, if not more, as the actual arrow.

An enlightened person, he said, still feels the physical pain from the arrow, but that’s it. An enlightened person doesn’t add suffering to the pain.

The Buddha also taught that suffering isn’t something we do only in response to being shot – we do it all the time. It pervades our lives.

You may be familiar with the Buddha’s first teachings, the Four Noble Truths. The first is commonly translated as the truth of suffering. Everyone suffers.

For some people, hearing that is liberating. Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg had a difficult childhood -- both of her parents died when she was young and she went to live with grandparents who didn't know how to help her process her grief and confusion. When she took an Asian studies class in college, she heard the Buddha’s First Noble Truth. She says a light came on for her. “I knew it to be true. The circumstances of my own life proclaimed it,” she writes in her book “Faith.”

There's a lot of pressure on us to be happy. Consumer society runs on our unhappiness and the idea that
there are things we can acquire that will make us happy. Not just medications but food, drink, cars, gym memberships, vacations, credit cards, clothes. The list is endless. Pretty much every commercial you see is built on our underlying unease or unhappiness and the desire to find the thing that can make that it go away.

Consider also that our Declaration of Independence enshrines "the pursuit of happiness," along with life and
liberty, as an inalienable right. Our nation is founded on the right to pursue happiness. We have to do it.
That's a lot of weight on our shoulders.

So if we're unhappy, if we're suffering, not only are we uncomfortable personally but we are failures as consumers because we haven't found the right thing to buy to make us happy and we're traitors to the principles on which our country was founded.

Talk about stress!

And let's talk about stress. Because many scholars and teachers now think that "suffering" was a bad translation of what the Buddha was trying to communicate. He used the Pali word "Dukkha," which literally refers to an axle, like on a cart, and how a wheel fits onto it – appropriate for someone in an agrarian society. So rather than saying that everyone suffers, with the heavy connotation we may bring to that word, he was saying that everyone experiences times when things don't go right, when the wheel doesn't turn smoothly, when existence is like pushing a shopping cart with a wobbly wheel. Rather than suffering, a lot of Buddhists now use terms like stress, discomfort, unease.

One popular characterization of dukkha is “wanting things to be different than they are.” Thinking that we’d be happier if … the room were warmer or colder, the chairs were softer, the speaker was more interesting. ... That "if" is a sign of the suffering mind speaking up. Or like the farmer in the reading – My wife is great, but she nags me. My farm is good, but sometimes it’s not. The “but” brings in the suffering.

Call it what you will -- suffering, stress, unhappiness, discomfort -- everyone's life has those moments when things don't go according to plan. The car breaks down. The friend doesn't call. Someone you love is sick. Or you are. Someone you love dies. Things aren’t as good as they could be. The neighbor’s grass is the weed-free green you want for yours.

Life is not always comfortable. It can't be. The Buddha's First Noble Truth acknowledges that. But how we respond to that discomfort determines how much we suffer.

We don’t like to be uncomfortable. We don’t like pain. That’s a kind of biological imperative – pain in the body is a sign that something’s wrong. So when we encounter a painful situation, we try to find a way to reduce or end the pain or something to distract us from it – and that’s where we create suffering.

Suffering is largely a mental experience, although it does manifest in the body, in the tight shoulders, headaches, ramped-up heartbeats that come from the stress, anxiety, and depression we can experience. Sam Harris, the outspoken atheist philosopher, who’s a dedicated meditator, told a friend who was going on a silent Buddhist retreat: “Remember, if you’re suffering, you’re thinking.”

Shinzen Young, a former Buddhist monk who now teaches a secularized version of Buddhist teachings, stripped it down to an equation – suffering equals pain times resistance.

How do we resist pain?

We might get angry when we feel pain and look for a way to get rid of it by discharging that energy onto someone or something else. Say you’re walking through your house in the dark and you step on something, maybe a Lego block – one of those small, hard, sharp plastic bricks. You’re first thought is probably ouch. But you might move quickly into …those darned kids, why can’t they pick up their toys, they’re so lazy, I ought to go into their rooms and throw Legos all over the floor so that when the wake up the can see what it feels like! Pain leads to anger leads to ideas for revenge. Meanwhile, you don’t even notice that your foot no longer hurts.

We can do that in bigger, more complicated ways too – being angry at whole groups or people or societies, creating a climate of hate and fear, threatening wars.

Another way of resisting pain is to look for something to distract us from it. Advertising is happy to help here. Feel dissatisfied or lonely or sad? Here’s a new car or a great beer or a sale on this season’s clothes to make you feel better. And it might work – for a while. But satisfying desires doesn’t get rid of the pain. Eating a piece of fine chocolate makes you happy. But if you continually turn to the chocolate, you’re creating another problem. The extreme case of covering over pain by satisfying desires is addiction.

Or you might ignore or deny the pain. You might convince yourself that everything’s fine, even when it’s not. To do that, you have to shut off certain parts of your experience, stop feeling things, and when you do that you’re closing off other parts of your experience. You feel less pain, but you also feel less joy. You simply feel less, and you’re boxing yourself in, putting up walls that shut out life.

Those three – aggression, passion, and ignorance – were named by the Buddha as the three root poisons. In another list, they’re three of the five kleshas, or afflictive emotional states that cause suffering. That list adds jealousy and pride. You can imagine how those work.

Those reactions become habits. Anger at someone else distracts us from our own discomfort so we turn to it again and again. It becomes our default, our way of responding to the world without even considering whether it’s wise or appropriate. And when we react in the same way over and over, we let that define us –we see ourselves as an angry person or a jealous one, someone who is always craving or someone who’s checked out and spacey. Under it all, we’re discontented and stressed.

So … if our traditional ways of reacting to pain aren’t helping to ease the pain but instead are creating suffering, what can we do instead?

The first step is to recognize the pain. Just that. See pain as pain, whether it’s physical, emotional, or mental. Respond to physical pain – pick your foot up off the Lego, bandage the wound from the arrow – but do it with compassion and without leaping ahead mentally to who you can blame for it and whether you can sue them or how much the doctor’s bill will be and whether that means you won’t be able to afford a vacation. You can deal with that later. Simply take care of your pain.

Similarly, with mental or emotional pain, let it be without elaborating on it. Don’t tell yourself a story about what caused it and who’s responsible or worry about when it might reappear. Just sit with it. Thich Nhat Hahn urges us to welcome suffering, to greet it, by saying, Hello, suffering. I see you.

This is why Buddhists sit in meditation, noting thoughts, letting them arise and move on. This practice is called “Shamata,” a Sanskrit word that means “calm abiding.” Sometimes it’s more about abiding than calm.

This is from Buddhist nun Pema Chodron:

Patience has nothing to do with suppression. In fact, it has everything to do with a gentle, honest relationship with yourself. If you wait and don't fuel the rage with your thoughts, you can be very honest about the fact that you long for revenge; nevertheless you keep interrupting the torturous story line and stay with the underlying vulnerability. That frustration, that uneasiness and vulnerability, is nothing solid. And yet it is painful to experience. Still, just wait and be patient with your anguish and with the discomfort of it. This means relaxing with that restless, hot energy—knowing that it’s the only way to find peace for ourselves or the world.

On the night of his enlightenment, the Buddha sat in meditation under the Bodhi tree and was met by his nemesis, Mara. You can see Mara as an actual being or as a mental state. Mara tried to disrupt his calm abiding by sending armies of archers who shot arrows at the Buddha; he turned the arrows into flowers. Next Mara sent dancing girls, objects of desire. The Buddha responded, “I see you, Mara.” He recognized the temptations were trying to pull him out of his clear, calm state and didn’t succumb.

The next step is to accept the pain. Yes, life hurts. Yes, people get sick, loved ones die. Some days we’re sad or lonely or melancholy. There’s nothing wrong with that – it is the natural response to the circumstances of life. Accept that life is not all fun and games, but remember that sometimes it is. There’s a Zen saying that talks about life as 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows. Life contains both – trying to eliminate sorrow and have only joy is futile.

Note that what you’re accepting here is your pain and your natural response. This doesn’t mean that you should accept circumstances that are causing you pain. Buddhism is not about being a doormat and allowing others to hurt you – it’s about knowing what’s happening and choosing how to respond.

Which leads to the next step, investigate the pain. Does it come from external causes and conditions that you can change? Do you need help from someone else to process this? Is it a mental habit – can you change that? If your response to pain is to blame yourself, to see yourself as inadequate – or if someone tells you that you are – is that true? Or are you actually capable? Buddhism calls for a fearless look at ourselves and our reactions to the world with the idea that we can choose how to respond if we are aware of what we’re doing.

Salzberg says in an interview with Buddhist publication Lion's Roar that meditation practice can help us to regard suffering as a way to see more deeply, to get to know ourselves better, and to discern what really makes us happy. “Why suffer unnecessarily,” she asks, “if it’s distorted thinking that’s bringing forth that feeling?” In seeing our suffering, she says, “we also see that there is always an intact place within us, an open space of awareness where we can hold pain with compassion, without becoming overwhelmed or adding to it.”

And while it’s a very personal process, looking at ourselves and our reactions, this is what connects us with the world. If our life naturally contains pain, all lives naturally contain pain. All people hurt; everyone suffers.

My teacher, Lama TsultrimAllione, was born and raised in New Hampshire and went to India where she was one of the first western women to become a nun in the Tibetan tradition. She later gave back her vows, married, and had children. When one of her twins died from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, in her grief she began to search out the stories of women in the Tibetan tradition – they aren’t well known – and went on to build a lineage focused on the divine feminine. A few years ago, her husband died suddenly. She says that she got through that horrible first year of grief only by seeing herself taking on the grief of all those who had lost loved ones. We’re never alone in our pain, although we feel like we are – which is one of the ways we multiple it into suffering.

If we open to our painful emotions, they connect us to others and to the world. It’s not shameful to feel sad – everyone feels sad sometimes. We don’t have to lash out at others or buy a new car or pretend we’re not sad. We can see it, meet it with compassion and care, and let it pass.

And when we stop trying to attain momentary happiness, we become more connected to true happiness and joy that isn’t dependent on external conditions. The saying “no mud, no lotus” recognizes that the beautiful lotus flower, a prominent Buddhist symbol, grows in cesspools. When we’re willing to see our dirtiest, stickiest pain, we see also our most beautiful nature, our innate kindness and compassion and joy.

Thich Nhat Hahn is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who lived through terrible conditions for many years during the wars there. He writes:

I wouldn’t want to be in a world without any suffering, because then there would be no compassion and understanding either. If you haven’t suffered hunger, you can’t appreciate having something to eat. If you haven’t gone through a war, you don’t know the value of peace. This is why we should not try to run away from one unpleasant thing after another. Holding our suffering, looking deeply into it and transforming it into compassion, we find a way to happiness.With mindfulness, the feelings that have been difficult and painful transform into something beautiful: the wondrous healing balm of understanding and compassion.

Monday, October 17, 2016


May I act as the mighty earth
Or like the free and open skies
To support and provide the space
Whereby I and all others may grow.

Until every being afflicted by pain
Has reached nirvana's shores,
May I serve only as a condition

That encourages progress and joy. 

Friday, July 15, 2016

Look for the Buddhas

When bad things happen -- as they do with blinding regularity these days -- along with the  news of the latest atrocity, a quote from Fred Rogers comes up often on social media: "When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'"

It's good advice. It takes our focus off the pain and suffering, the blame and sadness. It reminds us that while bad things happen, good things also happen. As the Zen saying goes, life contains 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows. Maybe, these days, the number of sorrows seems larger, seems infinite. But that also raises the number of joys. They may be small joys -- wildflowers growing in a random spot, a sunset that stops you in your tracks, rocks on a beach, a kiss from a child, a smile from a stranger, strong coffee -- but they are there. Make your own list of what brings you joy. Please do. It's important to remember that those things, those people exist.

To put it in Buddhist terms, look for the bodhisattvas, the helpers, the ones who've vowed not to attain enlightenment until everyone can come with them. Look for Buddhas, the awakened beings.
You never know where there might  be a bodhisattva ... so just consider anyone who arouses bodhicitta in you as being a real Buddha, whether a deity, teacher, spiritual companion, or any else. -- Patrul Rinpoche
 Examples of bodhisattvas -- helpers -- and Buddhas, or awakened beings, don't exist only in texts and stories. They are all around. Do you know Naomi Shabib Nye's poem "Gate A-4"? It is a lovely story of how a tense, miserable four-hour flight delay became a veritable party, a event celebrating our shared condition.

Maybe that story resonates with me because I had my own experience of finding an unlikely bodhisattva during what turned out to be an overnight flight delay. There was one woman -- who I'd dismissed early on as an aging sweetheart of Sigma Chi due to her impeccable hair, matching outfit, and sorority luggage tag -- who kept the crowd from turning surly, who turned the energy in a positive direction. After the first announced delay, she learned the gate agents' names, and with each subsequent announcement, as people started to groan, she would loudly thank them, by name, for sharing the information they had. When the delay dragged on and the airline bought pizza for the passengers to share in the gate area, she pronounced it lovely. And when we were told we were being bused to a hotel an hour away and would fly out the next day, she made it seem like an adventure. Yes, it was frustrating and inconvenient. But her attitude kept the crowd from falling into the pit of despair, kept reminding us of our resiliency, our own choice to be miserable or cheerful. Sometimes that's what a situation needs -- an outlier to remind us there's another way to see things.

That's what the Buddhas do -- they help us to see our own enlightened nature, the joy of our interdependence. They remind us that everyone loves something, even if it's cookies (or tortillas). And we can build on that.

As Shahib Nye writes:
And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and I thought, Thisis the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in thatgate—once the crying of confusion stopped—seemed apprehensive aboutany other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women, too.
This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.
While the world seems dire, look around. Look for the buddhas. Be a buddha. Do what you can to help others see their true compassionate nature instead of condemning them and shutting them out.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Preliminaries are practice

Two years and 11 months ago, I started ngondro, the preliminary practices in vajrayana Buddhism. A week ago, I reached the required number of accumulations of prostrations, offerings, and mantras.

I didn't know I could do this. In fact, two days into the weeklong retreat where I and others learned the ngondro practices, I went up my lama during a break in teachings and told her tearfully that I didn't think I could. She laughed gently and said, "you don't have to do this," pointing out another path of study that I could follow.

I went through the next few days taking notes and doing practices, all the while thinking that I would not be doing them again, thinking I was good with that. Then I met with my mentor, my kalyanamitra, and immediately burst into tears, telling her that I didn't think I could do this.

She also laughed gently. "You can't do it perfectly," she said. "No one can. ... But you can do it."

And so I did it, imperfectly. One hundred thousand prostrations, 100,000 times to stand, slide, lay my body on the ground, and rise back up. One hundred thousand mandala offerings, more than 1 million mantras, sliding mala beads between my thumb and forefinger.

Along the way, I had to give up the idea that I could not do this. I had to give up a lot of ideas about myself: that I was incapable, that I couldn't take this time for myself, that I was not someone to mumble in a foreign language and perform ancient ritual practices I couldn't always parse out.

Over almost three years, I learned to hold my selves much more loosely, to not expect them to perfectly match my own or others' projections. I learned to let go of the things that I thought defined me, to see them washed away without giving myself time or space to explain or justify why they were there, to just let them go. And that meant forgiving the other players in those stories for their parts -- letting go of their storylines freed them to be new people in our relationships.

I learned to sit, to stay when I wanted to get up, to come back to the focus, to offer the mistakes and the errors as gifts of sincere effort, imperfect but genuine. To see the beauty of the imperfect but genuine, which is deeper than the merely lovely. To trust in the process, the map laid out hundreds of years ago, and to keep moving step by step through the fog of confusion until I found clear views again.

I had to prioritize in order to finish in three years; that was the deadline for the program I'm in to move on to the next practices. I don't know that much about what they involve. I'll find out. I'm more comfortable with uncertainty now.

You can learn more about the program here

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Right speech means speaking up

On the Buddha's Eightfold Path, right speech is followed by right action. So it's no surprise that hate-filled speech is followed by hateful action. If words are used to demonize people, if laws are proposed to separate them out, to enforce their otherness, it follows -- like the cart follows the horse -- that action will take place.

That seems so clear to me in light of the shootings in Orlando, Florida, in which a gunman killed 50 people and wounded 53 more. Hate leads to more hate, not less.  

That's why it's important, especially now, to look at speech, at the charge it carries, the groundwork it lays, and to consider whether we are speaking wisely. Simply put, does our speech ease suffering or increase it, for ourselves or others?

The Buddha laid out standards for what is considered wise speech. Before saying something, it's suggested the speaker consider whether it is true, whether it is kind, whether this is the right time to say it, and whether the speaker is the right person to say it. And if the answer is not yes, then to be silent.

It seems to me that the time is here for those who are trying to break free from hate to make that clear. Not to engage in hateful speech, by responding to hate-filled rants in kind or by name-calling, but to disagree. Politely, maybe. Pointedly, certainly. But to make it clear that we don't stand with hate.

I read an essay, An Open Letter to a Guy at Work, in which a woman shares her private thoughts after a co-worker comments on the Brock Turner case, in which the former Stanford swimmer received a six-month sentence after being found guilty by a jury of raping an unconscious woman, who had been drinking. "Don't you agree the whole thing could have been avoided if she had just been more responsible?" the co-worker says. The essay ends, after detailing the reasons she disagrees, with, "No, I do not agree." But it's not clear whether she said that to the co-worker or whether her silence left the impression that maybe she did agree.

It is not kind to stay quiet when others make untruthful statements about groups of people. And if we know their remarks are untrue and unkind, this is the time to speak up.

No, I don't agree. I don't think transgender people are weird for wanting to use the bathroom. I don't think Muslims are dangerous. I don't agree with you.

Sometimes we cling to a point of view because no one has ever pointed out a different way of looking at things. No one has said they see it differently. Sometimes that crack in the wall of unanimity is what we need to break our hearts open, to let others in.

I heard a sports announcer, talking about the violence around the Euro Cup matches, say that we're sitting in the embers, and that feels true for more than the soccer world. Hate speech adds fuel to the fire, creates a spark that can become a conflagration. Saying nothing allows it smolder. Pour some truth on it and tamp down the flames.

There's a saying: Practice like your hair is on fire. It's meant to communicate urgency and the need to practice now, not put it off, to make use of this precious human life before impermanence takes over.

But now it's time to practice like your world is on fire.

The world needs you to douse the fires of hatred and delusion. Do it kindly, do it wisely, but do it while you can.

Flower thrower by Banksy

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Unbinding from opinions

So what are your thoughts on Trump's latest tweet? Hillary's emails? Bernie's chances? What about the kid who climbed into a gorilla exhibit at the zoo -- whose fault? The zoo? The parents? The kid? Muhammad Ali -- revered icon of empowerment or pathetic victim of aggression? Surely you have thoughts.

Opinions are like assholes, Detective Harry Callahan famously said. Everybody has one.

Even Buddhists, who have vowed to walk a middle way between attraction and aversion without falling into ignorance, have opinions. About political candidates, about animals, about food and movies and music.

There's nothing wrong with having opinions. But they become problematic -- and a cause of suffering -- when we treat them as something solid and unchanging, when we dismiss conflicting opinions without consideration simply because they do not agree with our opinions. And often without consideration for the people who hold those opinions, who may agree with us on most things except this one, overriding, all-important view. I've felt this energy so often in social media in this election cycle that I'm tempted to opt out until the election's over.

The Buddha talks about attachment to opinion in the Yoga Sutta, or the Bondage Sutta:

A person who doesn't see that opinion -- like all things -- stems from causes and conditions and is subject to impermanence will suffer, the Buddha says. The person who does not understand "the arising, the subsiding, the sweetness, the wretchedness, and the leaving behind of modes of opinion; who, with respect to opinion, is obsessed with passion for opinion, delight in opinion, affection for opinion, intoxication with opinion, thirst for opinion, fever for opinion, attachment to opinion, craving for opinion," this person is bound by opinion, he says.

Release from the bondage of opinion is possible, he says, by seeing the arising, the subsiding, the sweetness, the wretchedness, and the leaving behind of those thoughts.

In other words, by holding them more lightly. By opening up, rather than closing down. By knowing them as impermanent and subject to change -- which may come from reconsidering our opinions in a new light, if only we stay open to that.

An essential part of the Buddhist path is accessing wisdom, cultivating the discernment to know what is wise speech and wise action, to see when we're acting out of habit or cultural conditioning or fear -- and on a larger level, to see when institutions are taking actions that are unwise or harmful and to do what we can to counter that.

But that wisdom has to be balanced with compassion. We're all human. We're all just walking each other home -- even if we're carrying different things and in our bags and arguing about the best route to get there. What is "best" after all -- the fastest, the most scenic, the one with the fewest stops, the one with the straightest lines? Who decides best? And do they get to force others to take their route, whether they're wearing the right shoes for the terrain or want to get to the same place?

Maybe what is best for you is only second best or 84th best for someone else.

Maybe the best way now wasn't the best this morning. Or the last time you went that way.

Maybe your opinion has evolved over time. Maybe Leonardo is no longer your favorite Ninja Turtle. Maybe Ninja Turtles are no longer your favorite playthings. Maybe you used to think Pop Tarts were the food of the gods, and now they disgust you. It happens.

Allowing for the possibility that your opinions may change as causes and conditions change, as awareness changes, as more becomes known or seen, doesn't mean that you don't believe in them now.  It just means that you don't use them as a rock to clonk your enemies over the head with. Maybe you don't even see them as enemies, just as humans who see things differently. Which leaves open the possibility of being curious and exploring those differences instead of shutting them out.

Holding tightly to opinions can mean shutting out conflicting information or people. It closes you off. Holding them more lightly frees you from obsession with opinions, passion for opinions, delight in opinions, affection for opinions, intoxication with opinions, thirst for opinions, fever for opinions, attachment to opinions, craving for opinions.

This is the unbinding of the bondage of opinions. This is freedom.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Thoughts about thinking

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.

-- Dhammapada 

We create our world with our thoughts, the Buddha said. So to follow the Buddha's path, we examine those thoughts, considering whether they are true, how they color our reactions, how they create a world.

The thoughts come from our family, our culture, our experience. They help us make sense of the world.  But they also limit how we experience the world.

Consider this, from the book Welcome to Night Vale:

Imagine a fifteen-year-old boy.
Nope that was not right at all. Try again.
OK. Stop.
He is tall. He is skinny with short hair and long teeth that he deliberately hides when he smiles. He smiles more than he thinks he does.
Imagine a fifteen-year-old boy.
No, again.
No. Not close.
When you're told to imagine that boy, you get a picture in your mind based on what you know about 15-year-old boys, personally or from the news or from the media. But there's no one thing that's a 15-year-old boy. So when you meet one who doesn't fit your thoughts, you might think he looks old or young for his age; you might find him threatening or scary; you might think he's silly -- or sweet. You might think he's unacceptable, even if -- or especially -- if he's yours and he doesn't meet your image.

The boy is just a boy. The adjectives are our thoughts or views. The views may affect how we respond to the boy -- and then how he responds to us.

In this way, as the Buddha says, our actions are like the cart that follows the ox of our thoughts. If our thoughts are impure -- based on delusion, aggression, or desire -- we suffer and we act to create more suffering. Actions become habits, which condition us to act in certain ways that become ingrained and repeated.

The problem with thoughts is not that we have them but that we believe them. Because we think things are a certain way, we are discombobulated when they're not, and we suffer about that. The more we believe that our thoughts create a solid reality, the less we're able to respond with acceptance and flexibility to what happens in life. Instead, we create a world and we try to make life fit into it. That leads to what the Buddha called suffering, the dukkha of going through life pushing a shopping cart with a wobbly wheel.

The other problem with thoughts is that they distance us from the present moment. We can become  a brain on a stick, out of touch with our actual experience in the world. We think about our experience rather than simply experiencing it. We narrate it, analyze it, share it on Facebook, Instagram it.

Buddhist practice is about getting back to the original experience.

Suzuki Roshi calls it "beginner's mind," adding that "in the beginner's mind there are many possibilities; in the expert's mind, there are few." In "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind," he writes:
Our original mind includes everything within itself. It is always rich and sufficient within itself. You should not lose your self-sufficient state of mind. This does not mean a closed mind, but actually an empty and ready mind. If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything.
We tend, however, not to believe that we have everything we need within ourselves. We tend to believe -- aided by consumer culture and advertising (although this also was the case 2,500 years ago in the Buddha's day, before there was mass media) -- that what we need is outside of ourselves. And that, the Buddha said, is the problem.

We don't recognize our genuine nature, so we're always grasping outwards, says Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, reaching for happiness in appearances, in things, in indicators of success. That happiness is insecure and impermanent, always destined to fade, leaving us with a sense of unease.

The only true way to happiness is to connect with our inner sufficiency, with the place where we have everything we need to ride the waves of external life with ease and grace. How do we do that?

It starts with meditation, with connecting with the awareness that sees the thoughts, that recognizes them as the mind-creations that they are. Thoughts arise and pass, if we don't grab onto them and elaborate. We see the ephemeral nature of desire, of views, or labels. We begin to meet each moment freshly, without preconceptions about what should happen.

Buddhism offers many styles of meditation to help us get there. In some methods of meditation, you allow thoughts to arise and pass. In others you take a more active role, examining thoughts and considering their veracity. Tantric meditation uses thoughts to invoke the experience of being in the presence of -- or of embodying -- an enlightened being. There also are meditations to cultivate certain qualities, such as kindness and compassion, to align the mind with thoughts that decrease suffering.

Different styles work for different people. All of them aim to help us to see our thoughts and to rest in the awareness that sees the thoughts. We stop trying to control every aspect of a situation because we see that we are OK despite the outer circumstances. We see that we really are enough.
Genuine happiness comes from the heart. It comes from a mind which has become more stable, more clear, more present in the moment; a mind which is open and cares for the happiness of other beings. It is a mind which has that inner security, a knowing that whatever happens can be handled. It is a mind that doesn't hold on so tightly anymore; it is a mind that holds things lightly. It is a happy mind. - Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo

Friday, March 18, 2016

We become the refuge

In Buddhism, we take refuge in the three jewels:
-- the Buddha, the example of the historical person who became enlightened (and the idea that we, too, can become enlightened);
-- the Dharma, the truth of the Buddha's teachings that lead to enlightenment.
-- the Sangha, the community of those who practice the Buddha's teachings.

It's interesting that sangha is given equal importance to the teacher and the teachings. Buddhism is often seen as a solitary, internal thing, with meditators sitting in silence or even in isolation, meeting occasionally with gurus in mountaintop caves.

Why, then, is community so important? Why did the Buddha name it as equal to the teacher and the teachings?

It's said, in fact, that his follower Ananda asked him about that. When Buddha explained the importance of having "admirable people as friends" on the path, Ananda nodded, saying, he understood that admirable friendship "is half of the holy life." "No, Ananda," the Buddha responded, "sangha is the whole of a spiritual life."

Sangha, the third jewel, contains the first two, Buddha and Dharma. It allows us to put the teachings into practice, so see whether we've incorporated them or can merely parrot them -- to know, in the words of a dakini, whether we know the meaning or just the words.

In Tibetan Buddhism, there's a tradition of three-year solitary retreat, which is just what it sounds like -- three years of practicing on your own, while checking in with and getting practices from your guru. My teacher says she's seen people finish three years of solo practice and come out with the same behaviors as when they went in. The practice doesn't manifest in them because they're doing it in isolation.

Noah Levine says sangha is like a rock tumbler. By rubbing up against others, bumping into them, we're wearing off the rough edges. And when our edges are less rough, there's more ease in our lives, for ourselves and others.

The importance of sangha cannot be over-estimated. Trying to achieve enlightenment by yourself and only for yourself is like trying to walk uphill in a mudslide. Opening yourself to others, supporting and being supported, is critical to loosening the fetters or ego and selfishness. -- Barbara O'Brien
Many of the Buddha's teachings are aimed at how we behave in relationship with others. The Five Precepts are all about how we act toward others; we abstain from killing, lying, stealing, intoxication, and sexual misconduct. The Brahma Viharas, the Four Immeasurables, describe how people behave in a heaven on earth: with equanimity, kindness, compassion, and appreciation toward all.

By acting mindfully and virtuously, we create safe space for ourselves and others, space where the inevitable difficulties-- sickness, old age, grief -- are eased.

As O'Brien says, "By taking refuge in the sangha we become the refuge. This is the path of the buddhas."

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Hang gliding in a hurricane

In science, resilience is the ability of a material to return to its original state.

It's different for people, though. When something happens to us, we're changed – however subtly. We become older and wiser. Or maybe we keep doing the same things over and over, expecting them to have different results and being disappointed each time.

A friend, who is a Buddhist teacher and therapist, defines resilience as the capacity to be at ease with things as they are. Which is not to say that things are always comfortable or always to our liking, only that we don't deny it or struggle with it or reject it. We find ease where we are.

In my mind, I keep relating it to buoyancy. We stop sinking and learn to float.

To be resilient requires an understanding (and acceptance) of impermanence; it requires non-attachment to those things that are not permanent – people, possessions, ideas, circumstances. It also requires an understanding of interdependence, or karma, the sense that everything is relative. This terrible, horrible, very bad day has causes and conditions, some under our control and others very much out of our control.

To be resilient sounds a lot like being enlightened. Nirvana is not a place but a state of mind, one that sees suffering as impersonal, as a fact of life, as an opportunity to open our hearts to others who also are suffering and, maybe, to find ways to ease their suffering (and ours).

Resilience also is a state of mind or a habit of thought, one that sees the circumstances that swamp some people as a step on the path, not the end of the path. Life goes on after life-altering events, but it goes on differently. The mind the recognizes that different is just different, not better or worse, not right or wrong, not fair or equal, is the one that returns more quickly to a place of ease.

This is from Tsoknyi Rinpoche's Open Heart, Open Mind:

"Moment by moment, day by day, week by week, year by year, we face a variety of obstacles that test our strength, our faith, our patience. Often, we watch, helplessly and hopelessly, as we become slaves to international corporations, slaves to our bosses, to our friends and family, to time. But we don't have to endure this bondage. We can set out on a path that allows us to reconnect with a tremendous inner potential for openness, warmth, and wisdom. Doing so, however, requires taking a fresh view of whatever circumstances we face, whether that involves chronic illness, childhood pain, relationship difficulties, or the loss of a job or home. Although the message I was taught was inspired by a man who lived 2,500 years ago, it remains as fresh today as it was back then.

"... Look at your life. Look at the ways in which you define who you are and what you're capable of achieving. Look at your goals. Look at the pressures applied by the people around you and the culture in which you were raised. Look again. And again. Keep looking until you realize, within your own experience, that you're so much more than who you believe you are. Keep looking until you discover the wondrous heart, the marvelous mind, that is the very basis of your being."

How do we do this? 

We can start with the breath.

Breath is impermanent, impossible to hold on to for very long. It's impersonal – everybody does it – but it's interdependent. Smog, smoke, perfume, choices you make and that are made for you affect your breath. Impermanence. Non-attachment. Interdependence. Starting with the breath and moving out into the world.

Breath is one thing; life is many things. Maybe I can understand and accept that each breath is impermanent, is a wisp and a whirl of air. But my body? My house? My family and friends? Surely they have more substance.

The Buddha said, in the Prajnaparamita sutras,

So you should view this fleeting world --A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.
Can we really live that way?

What would that look like? How would it feel different from our current state?

Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck writes about experiencing a hurricane when she was living on the Rhode Island shore. The winds roared and the trees bent and cracked. Then the eye passed over, and within minutes things were calm before picking up again. Beck muses about what it's like to be a pilot caught in a hurricane, subject to the terrible stresses from the buffeting wind.

From birth to death, we're caught in this swirling of winds, which is really what life is: an enormous energy moving and changing. … There is this enormously powerful thing we call our life, and we're somewhere sitting in the middle of it in our little plane, hoping to make it through without being hurt,” she writes.

Suppose that instead of being in a plane, we were in a glider in the middle of the hurricane, without the control and power that an engine provides. We're caught in the sweeping winds. If we have any idea that we're going to get out alive, we're foolish. Still as long as we live within that enormous mass of wind, we have a good ride. Even with the fear and terror, it can be exhilarating and joyful – like riding a roller coaster.

We live like the pilot in the plane, focused on the controls, trying to avoid being buffeted by the gale-force winds. In trying to save ourselves, we don't notice anything else, she says.

But the man in the glider can enjoy everything – the lightning, the warm rain, the scream of the wind. He can have a great time. What will happen in the end? Both men die, of course. But which one knows the meaning of life? Who knows joy?

No one can know what life is. But we can experience it directly. Only that is given to us as human beings, But we don't accept the gift; we don't experience life directly. Instead we spend our lives protecting ourselves. When our protective systems break down, then we blame ourselves and others. We have systems to cover up our problems; we're unwilling to face the pain of life directly. In fact, when we face it directly, life is a great ride.

When we try to hold things together, we suffer tremendously when they fall apart. When we accept their impermanence, we can appreciate the glorious, auspicious interdependence that we witness as life.

How do we learn to do this? Taking things not just day by day but breath by breath, watching the inhale and exhale, relaxing into the space that knows what is happening, that feels the wind but is not blown off course by it.

Friday, January 15, 2016

The cause of suffering is attachment, not what you're attached to

As meditation moves away from its Buddhist roots and into the mainstream, with Congressional representatives and news anchors touting its benefits, and tasteful studios serving shamata to the Soulcycle crowd, I seem to be heading the other way. My practice is traditional Tibetan and my interests are more narrowly focused that way.

Over the past two and a half years years and nearly 90,000 prostrations, mandala offerings, purification mantras, and other practices that are part of ngondro, the Tibetan preparatory practices, my attitude has changed. On a mundane, outer-world level, finding time for a two-and-a-half-hour practice every day isn't a problem -- it's just what I do. That puts me at odds with a world where scientists are at work trying to pin down the least amount of time people have to meditate to achieve its benefits so they don't waste an extra moment simply sitting.

Since 2013 I've been part of a seven-year program to learn traditional practices in a particular cycle of teachings. Last week we got word that it actually is a 10-year program, three years longer than expected. This created some internal consternation, bringing to the foreground
something that's a constant question for me: How do I understand spending all this time doing things developed centuries ago in a culture that has so little in common with contemporary life, practices aimed at preparing for death, when all around me there is life and people are suffering? How do I balance the choice to spend my time alone in a room, visualizing, when outside people need help and I might be able to provide that? What good is it anyway?

Usually my answer to myself is that my practice is what enables me to be in the world and be of benefit rather than swamped and struggling by what I find there. I'm calmer, less attached to transient things that I want to be permanent (including my view of myself), more open. I hold things less tightly, leaving room for the world and others to arise and change.

But faced with three more years of practice -- even though my lama has said that the practices we will learn are what we will do for the rest of this life -- I tightened. And in that tightening, I realized that I had been attached to a particular idea of practice, that the space around it had closed in rather than opening up.

But if grasping -- attachment -- is the cause of suffering, grabbing on to a practice isn't the way out of suffering. Doing it, experiencing it as it presents itself, being present for the experience rather than creating a specific experience, is the way out.

While we are alive we are embodied, and desire is in some way our natural state. Though we can choose how we act, whether we follow desire or not, we can’t just shut down our desires inside ourselves, as that cuts us off from our own vital energy. What we can do is embrace our longings without necessarily acting on them. We can rest without the belief that their satisfaction will somehow solve our human dilemma.  -- Beth Lee-Herbert
We can learn to the love the questions themselves, to quote Rainer Maria Rilke. Requiring answers and deadlines closes space down. Loving the questions opens it infinitely.

I lead meditation every Wednesday at a local yoga studio. It's a beautiful space, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to introduce people to the practice, to share its benefits. But how do I relate to people who think they can't find time to meditate every day?

Recently a student came up to me after class and asked how long I've been meditating. Almost 10 years, I told him. His eyes lit up. "You must have seen God then," he said. I waffled and said I've had experiences that have brought more ease into my life. What I thought was: I see you, you potential buddha waiting to wake up.