Reflections on Practice
This page offers some reflections on practice from various teachers who are associated with The Mountain Hermitage, including Marcia Rose, Sayadaw Vivekananda, Annie Nugent, Venerable Dhammadinna, Andrea Fella, Greg Scharf, Jean Smith, Gina Sharpe, Winnie Nazarko, Sean Murphy, Wynn Fricke, Nikki Mirghafori, Joseph Goldstein, John Stanley, David Loy, Brian Lesage, and Larry Yang.
The practice of the Dharma is learning how to live, and this is both hard and joyful work. Practice makes extraordinary demands of us. It requires that we take nothing for granted, that we accept nothing on faith alone. If we practice with diligence and honesty, then we must question everything about ourselves; we must challenge our most basic beliefs and convictions, even those we may have about the dharma itself…
When you put something to the test, really to the test, don’t you find that it challenges, that it stretches you, too? This has certainly been my experience. Some of these wonderful teachings are inspiring. It can be intellectually satisfying and emotionally nourishing just to hear them. But you can’t stop there. If you want to gain any real benefit from them, you have to let them stretch your own lived experience. For the dharma to become firsthand knowledge — to feel the “ouch” of it — you have to live intimately with it, hold it up to scrutiny, and let it hold you up to scrutiny. In the end, the ball is always thrown back to you: “Be a lamp unto yourself,” says the Buddha. In other words, you must ultimately find the way on your own, by putting your ideas of the truth to the test. Your questions light the way.
So what is the test of truth? The Buddha offers a simple formula: Test things in terms of cause and effect. Whatever is unskillful, leading to harm and ill, should be abandoned; whatever is skillful, leading to happiness and peace, should be pursued. Apply the test of skillfulness to all teachings in all your actions. Where is this teaching taking you? Is it moving you in a direction that is wise and kind? One quick test isn’t enough, you know. You have to keep at it, so that your sensitivity to the results of your actions grows more and more refined with practice. When you’ve done the hard work of asking these questions, then you can decide for yourself whether a teaching, or a teacher, is worth following. And at the same time, you’ve also taught yourself how to live — a learning that can bring with it joy and the energy to go even deeper.
Larry Rosenberg is founder & a guiding teacher at the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center in Cambridge, MA. He is also a senior teacher at the Insight Meditation Society and author of several books, including Breath by Breath: The Liberating Practice of Insight Meditation. You can view an extended version of this article & many other Dharma teachings at the website Access to Insight.
By Annie Nugent
It is said in the texts that the dharma is a safe and sure path to be travelled joyfully. How do these three words: Safe, Sure and Joyful manifest in the practice?
One time the Buddha said this to the monks: “For the most part people have this wish, desire and longing: If only unwished for, undesired, disagreeable things would diminish and wished for, desired, agreeable things would increase. Yet, although beings have this wish, desire and longing, disagreeable things continue to increase for them – and agreeable things continue to diminish!” What is the reason for that? An untaught, ordinary person does not know what things should be developed and what things should not be developed. Because of this, suffering is perpetuated.
The untaught person acts from the wrong view of life: feeding the defilements of greed, hatred and delusion by grasping at the pleasant and pushing away the unpleasant, thinking that this is where happiness lies. When in fact, this is the very thing that keeps us ensnared in suffering, because the nature of experience is to constantly change. There is no resting place. This is the unsafe way to live. It is sure to lead to deeper states of suffering and therefore is not a joyful path to pursue because it is unsatisfying.
Practicing the dharma then, is a deeply compassionate act because we are freeing ourselves from suffering.
When we come to the dharma, we begin with the right view that directly understands the importance of the practice of mindfulness and wisdom as a means to not act on the defilements which bring so much suffering. A great joy and upliftment of heart permeates our lives when we see that the dharma does work, as we experience the results of growing happiness and ease. We know for ourselves that it is a safe path to be travelled joyfully and want to continue to practice. We trust that the path will take us to the highest happiness – that it is a sure way for this to come about.
The beauty of this practice is that we begin with whatever is here, right now, amid the ordinariness of our daily lives. Be it in our relationships, at work, or in the surprising events that might come about in worldly affairs – whatever difficult, dull, boring, fascinating, wonderful, peaceful or hair-raising situations we may find ourselves in – the practice is found within them. They are our practice. With right view, we are able to bring the dharma alive and integrate it into all situations, and because of this we are safe in knowing how not to suffer. We are less reactive and not so liable to fall into the wrong view of feeding the defilements.
Knowing that the path is a safe and sure one, we continue to walk it joyfully, not for ourselves alone, but for the welfare, happiness and freedom of all beings everywhere.
If you are still not convinced of the need to practice with great urgency, without attachment to body or life, the Buddha’s words may be helpful for you.
One should reflect, he said, on the fact that the whole world of beings is made up of nothing but mind & matter which have arisen but do not stay. Mind & matter do not remain still for one single moment; they are in constant flux. Once we find ourselves in this body & mind, there is nothing we can do to prevent growth from taking place. When we are young we like to grow, but when we are old we are stuck in an irreversible process of decline.
We like to be healthy, but our wishes can never be guaranteed. We are plagued by sickness & illness, by pain & discomfort, throughout our existence. Immortal life is beyond our reach. All of us will die. Death is contrary to what we would wish for ourselves, yet we cannot prevent it. The only question is whether death will come sooner or later.
Not a single person on earth can guarantee our wishes regarding growth, health or immortality. People refuse to accept these facts. The old try to look young. Scientists develop all manner of cures & contraptions to delay the process of human decay. When we are sick we take medicines to feel better. But even if we get well, we will get sick again. Nature cannot be deceived. We cannot escape old age & death.
This is the main weakness of beings: beings are devoid of security. There is no safe refuge from old age, disease & death. Look at other beings, look at animals, and most of all, look at yourself.
If you have practiced deeply, these facts will come as no surprise to you. If you can see with intuitive insight how mental & physical phenomena arise endlessly from moment to moment, you know there is no refuge anywhere that you can run to. There is no security. Yet, if your insight has not reached this point, perhaps reflecting on the precariousness of life will cause some urgency to arise in you, and give you a strong impulse to practice. Vipassana meditation can lead to a place beyond these fearsome things.
Excerpted from Sayadaw U Pandita’s book In This Very Life from Wisdom Press,
a collection of talks he gave at Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA. Sayadaw
was a prolific & much respected Buddhist teacher who had an exceptional
influence on American Buddhism.
By David Loy
Ecodharma is a relatively new word, & its meaning is by no means fixed. The term combines the teachings of Buddhism & related spiritual traditions (dharma) with ecological concerns (eco). More specifically, ecodharma can be understood as a new development in contemporary Buddhism that responds to the ecological crisis threatening civilization as we know it.
That is still quite general, of course. So let me say a few words about my understanding of ecodharma & why it is increasingly important to practice.
Three components of ecodharma stand out for me: practicing in nature, clarifying the ecological implications of Buddhism, & using that understanding to engage in the ecoactivism that the survival of our species calls for.
After the future Buddha left home, he lived in the forest, meditated in nature, & awakened under a tree. When Mara (the Buddhist devil) questioned his enlightenment, he touched the earth as witness to his realization. After that, the Buddha mostly lived & taught in the natural world, & when he eventually died, that, too, happened beneath trees.
Today we have largely lost our connection with nature, living & practicing in four-cornered buildings. But there is something special & precious about meditating outside & rediscovering our deep connection with the natural world. When we do, it becomes more evident to us that the world is not a collection of separate things but a confluence of natural processes that include us.
“We are here to overcome the illusion of our separation,” Vietnamese Zen master & poet Thich Nhat Hanh has said. Traditional Buddhist teachings help us to wake up individually & realize that we are not separate from other people & the rest of the world. And while the ecological crisis is a new challenge, many of those classic teachings are relevant to our situation. There seem to be important parallels, for example, between our usual individual predicament—our sense of separation from others—& our collective sense of separation from the natural world today. Is our ecological situation a larger version of the same problem? In both cases the separation between a self “inside” & the world “outside” is uncomfortable: a self that doesn’t really exist can never secure itself. Yet we keep trying, often in ways that just make things worse. We don’t need to “return to nature” but to realize that we’ve always been a part of it, & what that means for how we live. Eihei Dogen, who founded the Soto Zen school in the 13th century, described his own enlightenment as clearly realizing the “mind is nothing other than rivers & mountains & the great wide earth, the sun & the moon & the stars.”
Today we are called upon to live as bodhisattvas (or “ecosattvas”) who realize that activism in defense of the earth is an essential part of the spiritual path. Our now-global civilization has institutionalized greed & exploitation of the natural world, deferring the environmental costs of fossil fuels & unrestrained consumption to the future—a future that is now upon us. We need to plan & work together in order to promote what Joanna Macy & others call “the Great Turning”—a way forward that emphasizes a “life-sustaining civilization” in the wake of industrial, economic, & political destruction.
At different times practitioners may emphasize some of these components of ecodharma more than others, but all three are important. Then we can ask & plan together: what does it mean to be a bodhisattva today? How can we contribute to the healing of the earth, including the healing of our collective relationship with the earth?
By Marcia Rose
“Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up
where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed.
Convince me that you have a seed there,
and I am prepared to expect wonders.”
Henry David Thoreau
I’ve been growing vegetables & flowers for many years, & still every Spring I experience a sense of awe & faith when I observe the tiny seeds in my hand as I carefully put them into the ground… AWE in relationship to the mystery that these tiny dots do what they do & FAITH based in years of experience that at least most of them will eventually burst out of their tiny tight selves & grow into lettuce, squash, tomatoes & sunflowers…etc.
So here I am this spring considering FAITH. What is it? Where does it come from? How does it work? What is its role in relationship to the teachings & practices as taught by the Buddha? Is there a difference between FAITH & BELIEF… & if so, what is the difference? FAITH in what… in who?
FAITH is one of the ‘wholesome & beautiful mental factors‘ that develop & blossom through our Dharma practices of concentration & mindfulness. It is also the first of the five spiritual powers that strengthen & blossom with diligent practice. The other four being: effort/energy, mindfulness, concentration & wisdom.
So one aspect of FAITH is that it’s a wholesome power. It’s a strength.
The Pali word for FAITH is saddha. There’s no one word in English that can render the full meaning of saddha. It encompasses trust, confidence, courage, strength, devotion & clarity. The literal translation of saddha is “to place the heart upon,” connecting from the heart, offering or giving over one’s heart. My Israeli students tell me that the root of the word FAITH in Hebrew is a verb. It’s not something that we have, but rather something that we do.
So, another aspect of FAITH is that it’s a verb, an action. We are willing to take the next step, willing to open to the unknown, to see & know our practice as an adventure… ‘to place one’s heart upon.’
The Buddha Dharma understands three levels of faith…the first being Blind Faith. We encounter something or someone that inspires us & we feel a brightness & maybe also devotion & love in those moments. This faith is often based in dependence on someone or something outside of ourselves to make us feel good. Consequently, it’s not sustainable & may not be rooted in wisdom.
The second level of FAITH is Verified Faith which is rooted in confidence born of our own clear observation, investigation, wise reflection & the discriminating wisdom that arises out of our direct & focused mindful attention in relationship to our experiences of our body, mind & heart.
The third level of FAITH is the great power of Unshakable Faith which is rooted in Verified Faith. As we continue developing a meditation practice that evolves towards the blossoming of deepening concentration, clear mindful awareness & understanding/insight, we begin to touch an unfettered FAITH in the incredibly vast potential of understanding that is available via our spiritual path. Unshakable Faith is rooted in staying open & connected in the experience of the moment… open to the mystery/the truth beyond the realm of our often tightly clung to conditioned habituated ideas, opinions, beliefs, interpretations & feelings.
As we travel this path, we must rely on FAITH, not on BELIEF. In meeting & honing into our experience with a set of beliefs, we will quite likely ‘re-act‘ our learned, habituated patterns of thinking, feeling & acting again & again.
So, FAITH as willingness, confidence & trust in our own potential for ‘waking up,’ based on experience not on beliefs… ‘waking up‘ out of ongoing dissatisfaction, out of feeling incomplete, separate & disappointed… ‘waking up‘ from delusion & craving. Saddha moves us towards learning to live our life grounded in an open & kindhearted mindful presence. FAITH affords us the possibility of ‘waking up‘ into the spaciousness of openhearted presence & ease of being with things as they are, however they are inside us & outside us & being able to respond appropriately with the great vitality of wisdom & compassion.
As we gently & patiently hold the seeds of the Buddha’s teaching in our heart, they develop & blossom into beautiful & liberating fruit through our diligent practice.
By Gina Sharpe
The fourth precept is to refrain from false, harmful & reckless speech. Speech is a primary way in which we relate to & communicate with each other. It can enhance connection, or be the agent of disconnection. In expressing our intentions & aspirations, our words, mindfully spoken, can remind us of what we hold most dear.
This precept is perhaps the most difficult to undertake, as it is truly a moment to moment, constant practice as we navigate & speak into our myriad relationships. It takes presence to notice the impulse to speak & before uttering, to pause, ask whether it is kind, true, necessary, useful & timely. What would the world be like if everyone practiced in this way? Imagine friends, family, even politicians, all practicing together, then decide how you want to speak.
Why do we lie? Perhaps to aggrandize our sense of self-importance, or to avoid the consequences of our actions. Of course, it simply overlays untrustworthiness on a difficult truth. Yet, honest speech without compassion can have the seductive power of self-righteousness & be cruel. We see how subtle & nuanced this practice is.
Implicit in refraining from speech that is untrue, harsh, useless or judgmental, is our ability to see intention. We can pause & consider before we speak, uttering what is based on loving kindness, truth, helpfulness & timeliness. Imagine how this will save energy for other endeavors!
It takes discipline, kindness & mindfulness.
Yes Ma’am, how can I help you?
Well, after much consideration, I’ve decided to install Love. Can you guide me through the process?
Yes I can help you. Are you ready to proceed?
Well, I’m not very technical, but I think I’m ready.
What do I do first?
The first step is to open your heart.
Have you located your heart, Ma’am?
Yes, but there are several other programs running now.
Is it okay to install Love while they are running?
What programs are running Ma’am?
Let’s see, I have past-hurt, low self-esteem, grudge & resentment running right now.
No problem, Love will gradually erase past-hurt from your current operating system. It may remain in your permanent memory, but it will no longer disrupt other programs. Love will eventually override low self-esteem with a module of it’s own called high self-esteem. However, you have to completely turn off grudge & resentment. Those programs prevent Love from being properly installed. Can you turn those off Ma’am?
I don’t know how to turn them off. Can you tell me how?
With pleasure. Go to your start menu & invoke forgiveness. Do this as many times as necessary until grudge & resentment have completely erased.
Okay done, Love has started installing itself. Is that normal?
Yes, but remember that you have only the base program. You need to begin connecting to other hearts in order to get the upgrades.
Oops! I have an error message already. It says, “Error-program not run on external components.”
What should I do?
Don’t worry, Ma’am, It means the Love program is setup to run on internal hearts but has not yet been run on your heart. In nontechnical terms, it means you have to Love yourself before you can Love others.
So what should I do?
Can you pull down Self-acceptance; then click on the following:
Realize your worth;
Acknowledge your limitations.
Now copy them to the “My Heart” directory. The system will overwrite any conflicting files & begin patching faulty programming. Also, you need to delete verbose self-criticism from all directories & empty your recycle bin to make sure it is completely gone & never comes back.
Got it. Hey!!! My Heart is filling up with new files. Smile is playing on my monitor & Peace & Contentment are copying themselves all over My Heart. Is this normal?
Sometimes. For others it takes a while, but eventually everything gets downloaded at the proper time.
So Love is installed & running. One more thing before we hang-up. Love is Freeware. Be sure to give it & its various modules to everyone you meet. They will in turn share it with others & return some cool modules back to you.
I promise to do just that.
“Thus, from the small area of mental activity, we have brought meditation to a vast field of consciousness, where it gets related to the way you sit or stand, the way you gesticulate or articulate throughout the day. Whether you want it or not, the inner state of your being gets expressed in your behaviour…” Vimala Thakar
Several years ago, we shared a another piece by Indian teacher & meditation master Vimala Thakar (1921-2009), a favorite of Hermitage Guiding Teacher Marcia Rose. Vimala was a powerful & very much sought after spiritual teacher during her lifetime. She is considered to be a teacher who expressed understanding & perfect balance between the enlightened heart/mind & social consciousness.
Silence is as much a substantial part of our lives to which we are not introduced. Motionlessness is a state of our being to which we are not introduced, The way we live, we go on collecting things on the material level, knowledge on the intellectual level, experience on the sensual & psychological level. We go on acquiring & the I, the Me, the Ego that goes on acquiring becomes stronger by every experience, with every achievement & we create an enclosure around us by our own knowledge, experience, possessions. In that enclosure we live & we feel secure in that. We live secluded, isolated from the Whole, because of the sense of possessions.
Meditation is a way of living that introduces us to that other part of our life. The silence, the motionlessness, it introduces us to our pure ISNESS which have never been conditioned & shall never be conditioned. […]
Meditation is coming home, to relax, to rest. If that takes place & one finds that though one has withdrawn & retired from activity, the inner movement goes on, thoughts come up, memories come up, then you begin to observe them. Till now you were busy carrying out functional roles, you were either the doer or the experience. From these two roles you have set yourself free voluntarily. You are now the observer. The inner movements come up, the involuntary movement comes up though the voluntary has been discontinued. You sit there quietly, you do not prepare to see, but if thoughts appear, then they are seen by you. It is a lovely state, the state of observation.
from “Meditation In Daily Life” For those who missed it last time, this is an interesting article on
Vimala’s life & work: Vimala Thakar: Liberation Beyond Gender by Elizabeth Debold
By Brian Lesage
Driving west from Winslow, Arizona, I see mountains lightly covered with snow in the distance. These mountains provide the context for my life here in Flagstaff & offer my heart a reminder of the vast & beautiful freedom possible on this Buddhist path. Nuva’tukya’ovi in Hopi & Dook’o’oos?ííd in Diné are just two native names for these mountains held sacred by thirteen different native tribes. Each tribe has its own history & stories interwoven into culture & language. More recent history & narrative of these peaks, however, also include names given by non-native settlers & remind me how far we still have to go to truly taste that vast & beautiful freedom.
While English translations of native names for the Peaks include “the summit which never melts,” “abalone shell mountain,” and “place of snow on the very top,” the English name for the most prominent peak is “Agassiz,” after Louis Agassiz. Agassiz was a zoologist/naturalist whose pseudo experiments promoted a harmful & violent racist narrative of African-Americans as a degenerate race. That naming & how it is still accepted & used in non-native culture, echoes a past fraught with deep impacts of racism & colonization.
These echoes surround me, not only in the political discourse of this country, but in the institutions & societal systems within which I find myself. And they echo even closer, residing within my own heart & mind. This mind of mine has been shaped by this society & culture. This mind’s thoughts & perceptions often unknowingly see the world through the clouded lens of racism & colonization.
How do we skillfully navigate echoes of racism & colonization that reverberate within our hearts & minds? The Buddha describes an activity of the mind which shapes the unfolding of moment-to-moment experience. This activity, called sankhara in Pali, refers to the action of constructing & fabricating, or to that which is constructed or fabricated. Sankaras usually reflect our ignorance of the societal patterns shaping our actions, thoughts & perceptions
We could say that the historical momentum of societal racism & colonization is a sankhara that shapes our thoughts & actions here & now. For example, let’s say that I see a human body which the mind perceives as being old or young, large or thin, and with brown, black or white skin. Societal sankharas, based on ignorance, can then give rise to thoughts about these humans as either appealing & worth noticing or, oppositely, render them invisible & less important. Skillfully working with this dynamic by noticing it with mindfulness & clear comprehension is both simple & complex. First developing the skill to recognize these sankharas as they arise, and to view them, with the light of mindfulness, as just a conditioned fabrication; and then setting the intention of noticing the “liking” or “not liking,” “seeing” or “not-seeing” as it arises, without guilt or critical self-judgement for having such thoughts or propensities, can begin to bring these societal sankharas into awareness & dispel our own tendencies to act on them.
As one of William Faulkner’s characters in his novel Requiem for a Nun famously says, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Mindfulness meditation is not a way to forget or deny the past, but rather to skillfully navigate those echoes of racism & colonization still alive & active in this present moment. Understanding these conditioned propensities for what they are offers a possibility for the heart to truly touch & connect with the person right in front of us. This is the way to allow the vast & beautiful freedom that is embodied by Nuva’tukya’ovi to shine forth.
By Marcia Rose
Today I woke at 4:30 a.m. to attend our annual Solstice Tea Ceremony. We begin in the darkness of early morning with candle-light to help us find our way. Our Solstice celebration ended today, as it does each year, with clear morning light filling the room & our hearts. Sitting this evening, I experience a clear visceral sense that time is absolutely fluid & circular. Years, months, weeks, days, hours, moments, dark & light just keep rolling on no matter what.
In taking our cues from the obvious & more subtle rhythms of the natural world, we humans are now marking a repeating cycle, the ending & the beginning of a new year/a new cycle of this endless ‘rolling on’. Within this fluid frame of a year’s time, in this moment many of us may be engaging in some year-end, year-beginning reflection.
We might ask ourselves, “Has it been a good year? Has it been a difficult, challenging year? What am I grateful for? What do I want to relinquish? What heart/mind qualities do I want to cultivate?” Our reflection brings forth personal, intimate recollections… stories, images, pleasant & unpleasant feelings & various states of mind & body. Our reflection usually also brings to the surface some stories & images with associated pleasant & unpleasant feelings, including states of mind & body, relating to both broad themes & particular happenings in the world beyond our close, intimately experienced personal memories.
I find it quite amazing how, often unbeknownst to us, our heart/mind sorts through then sifts out much of the countless phenomena that we have encountered & experienced physically, intellectually, emotionally & spiritually through a year. This sifting process leaves us with what is ‘just a handful of leaves’ of all the billions of experiences that have passed through our body, mind & heart during this fluid frame of a year in time.
It’s deeply beneficial to recognize, accept & trust what shows up & not waste our energy looking for something else, something better, preferable, more satisfying. What shows up is just what we need for our practice. We take what’s offered & then without manipulation or editorial commentary, but with a heartfelt interest & care for our well-being, we intimately, mindfully notice, ‘What is my relationship in this very moment to this or that reflected experience?’
Our reflective practice is to take an interest & learn to notice without judging ourselves. This is the ground, the ambiance needed for illumination & for our heart’s release from the swirling eddies of contraction that we get caught in.
And so we notice without judgment & without clinging: Am I reacting/re-acting in relationship to this remembered experience? Is there contraction? Is there tightening, resistance, heat, coldness, numbness or stiffness physically & emotionally? Or, am I responding… able to respond/be responsible… with an open heart & mind sensing, clearly seeing & knowing this past remembrance, while at the same time letting the story, the image, the mental & physical states… letting the memory pass on through?
We can learn to be truly caring & patient with ourselves in our reflective practice as this new cycle/this new year unfolds. We can learn to be responsive rather than reactive. This is a most essential & important aspect of our practice. This is what allows spaciousness, understanding & intuitive wisdom to naturally blossom. This is how we learn to receive the light that we yearn for to fill our heart & mind… the light that is always available, forever nearby. This is our practice.
“The birds they sang
at the break of day
I heard them say
Don’t dwell on what
has passed away
or what is yet to be
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”
From “ANTHEM” by Leonard Cohen