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.
It’s said that the Buddha first taught metta to a group of 500 monks who went into a particular and seemingly very congenial forest for their three month rainy season retreat… a forest adjacent to a village of strong supporters, who offered to build 500 huts for the monks to stay in during their rains retreat, and who also were happy to keep the monk’s alms bowls filled during their practice period. And so the monks moved in and began practicing Insight Meditation/ Vipassana.
It’s said that the unseen beings… the forest devas who lived there… became fearful of the monks and felt quite ‘put out‘ of their home when they saw that the monks weren’t just visiting the forest for a day or two. And so these forest dwelling beings began to create frightening sounds and sights and emit some very distasteful odors, hoping that all this would make the monks leave what they considered to be their forest.
And soon enough the monks became quite terrified, which broke their their concentration (samadhi) and disrupted their mindfulness. Some even developed fever and pain and dizziness in conjunction with the fear they were experiencing, and all felt it was impossible to continue practicing where they were. So they went to where the Buddha was staying and related their tale…to which the Buddha responded…” My beloved monks, go back to exactly the same forest, and practice your meditation there.” The monks responded to the Buddha’s words by pleading that they not be sent back to that forest, again saying that it was impossible to practice there. The Buddha’s response to this was, “Dear monks, because you went there to practice meditation without a weapon of protection, you have encouraged many distractions and difficulties. This time however I will give a true weapon of protection.” It’s said that at that point the Buddha offered them the Metta teaching and practice.
Out of their great respect for the Buddha, the monks didn’t dare to contradict his wishes, and so armed with the Metta teaching and practice they went back to the forest… for awhile continuing to experience feelings of fear and anxiety… while at the same time they diligently and virtuously practiced metta. Soon there were no more fearful sights or sounds, and whereas the devas had previously been hostile towards the monks… their anger and resentment disappeared when they began to feel the monk’s metta. And in fact, feelings of respect, welcome, and even reverence began to be the devas‘ experience, along with the sense of being connected, like ‘with family‘ , and the inclination arose to provide an environment of safety… to protect the monks from particular dangers that might be lurking in the forest so that they could practice meditation peacefully.
After recovering, strengthening and deepening their concentration and openhearted presence through practicing metta, it’s said that all 500 monks at some point began practicing Vipassana meditation again with metta as their foundation. And it’s said that because they were able to practice meditation calmly and peacefully, they all became Arahants (fully enlightened beings) during that rainy season retreat.
The story of the historical circumstances which led the Buddha to first expound the Karaniya Metta Sutta originally comes from Acariya Buddhaghosa, a 5th-century Theravada Buddhist scholar, who received it from an unbroken line of elders going back to the days of the Buddha himself. This version of the story is told by The Mountain Hermitage guiding teacher Marcia Rose in her Dhamma talk ‘Metta-The Heart’s Release.’
KARANIYA METTA SUTTA
from the Buddha
This is what should be done
By one who is skilled in goodness,
And who knows the path of peace:
Let them be able and upright,
Straightforward and gentle in speech.
Humble and not conceited,
Contented and easily satisfied.
Unburdened with duties and frugal in their ways..
Peaceful and calm, and wise and skillful,
Not proud and demanding in nature.
Let them not do the slightest thing
That the wise would later reprove.
Wishing: In gladness and in safety,
May all beings be at ease.
Whatever living beings there may be;
Whether they are weak or strong, omitting none,
The great or the mighty, medium, short or small,
The seen and the unseen,
Those living near and far away,
Those born and to-be-born,
May all beings be at ease!
Let none deceive another,
Or despise any being in any state.
Let none through anger or ill-will
Wish harm upon another.
Even as a mother protects with her life
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings;
Radiating kindness over the entire world:
Spreading upwards to the skies,
And downwards to the depths;
Outwards and unbounded,
Freed from hatred and ill-will.
Whether standing or walking, seated or lying down
One should sustain this recollection.
This is said to be the sublime abiding.
By not holding to fixed views,
The pure-hearted one, having clarity of vision,
Being freed from all sense desires,
Is not born again into this world.
Translated from the Pali language by monks from the Amravati Monastery in England.
Below are Ajahn Brahm’s succinct explanations for three seminal terms which constitute the basic structure of the Buddhist path. These concepts also provide structure for a lovely on-line book offered by Ajahn Brahm and Bodhinyana Buddhist Monastery in Perth, Australia, where Ajahn Bram is Abbot. You can view the full version of All You Need Is Kindfulness, complete with inspiring quotes and beautiful photographs, online by CLICKING HERE.
Sila is the Pali term for virtue. It is the cultivation of harmlessness, kindness, generosity and care by body, speech and mind. It could also be translated as character, habit or morality. Your understanding of what is skillful and what is unskillful, and the inspiration you get from your own heart or from seeing living examples, will enable you to let go of unwholesome habits and tendencies and to develop the wholesome qualities in your mind. The practice of morality makes your heart pure, and a pure heart is a happy heart well prepared for the practice of meditation.
Samadhi is the Pali term for deep meditation, or for collectedness and unification of mind. It is not achieved through force or striving, but through restraining and relinquishing unwholesome qualities and through the cultivation and development of wholesome ones. Mindfulness and kindness will allow a positive and happy mind to settle down, and to enter deeper and deeper into stillness and peace. The purification that happens through the practice of meditation will give your mind the strength and clarity required to uncover, to face and to penetrate to the truth.
Pañña is the Pali term for wisdom or insight; seeing the world clearly without distortion. It is the deep understanding of the human condition that emerges out of the pure and peaceful mind. Pañña is always born of silence and stillness, of an open, receptive and unbiased heart. A mind full of thoughts is not ready to listen deeply enough. Insight into the nature of things, whether small or huge and life changing, always sets you free and fills your heart with unconditional love and compassion for all beings.
Our deep gratitude to Ajahn Bram and Bodhinyana Buddhist Monastery for making all this available to students and seekers of the Dhamma.
From the time of the Buddha’s birth in 623 BC, his birthplace Lumbini – now in Nepal – has experienced a variety of natural and human-made dangers: earthquakes, floods, droughts. Today, an additional danger threatens its serenity: industrial and urban development.
Since 1997, the year of Lumbini’s inscription on the United Nation’s World Heritage list, a total of 11 cement plants, 2 steel plants, and about 14 other carbon-emitting industries have been established within the Lumbini Protected Zone. Of these, a number of industries have recently expanded their production capacity, with at least 30 brick kilns operating in the area, creating atmospheric pollution. Urban development and biomass burning are other sources of air pollution. This pollution is the major cause for the degradation of Lumbini’s Ashoka Pillar, erected in the 3rd century BC by the Indian Emperor Ashoka to commemorate his visit to to Buddha’s birthplace. Additionally, increasing numbers of tourists visiting Lumbini have taken their toll on the ancient site.
A rapid transition from agriculture to industrial and urban activities in the vicinity of Lumbini has led to the loss of wildlife and habitats for endangered species. Cement dust accumulating on plants and soil has also affected plant growth and crop yield.
A number of central Buddhist principles can relate to environmental conservation and may help guide our actions in the case of Lumbini and other sites precious to humanity. Influential in defining ethical attitudes toward the natural world are the four Brahma-viharas. Referred to as the “sublime attitudes,” universal love (metta), compassion (karuna), sympathetic joy (mudita), and equanimity (upekkha) foster feelings that lead to the protection of the natural world and ensure its well-being. A truly compassionate and loving human being would find it difficult to reconcile these sentiments with callous environmental damage and cruel sports pursued merely for the sake of enjoyment.
Ahimsa is one of the most basic principles of Buddhist ethics, and one for which it is universally admired. It finds expression in Buddhist ethics in many moral codes, but particularly as the first of the Five Precepts (panca-sila) which prohibits “onslaught on living creatures” (panatipata). Although ahimsa literally means “non-harming” or “non-violence,” it embodies much more than these negative-sounding translations suggest. Ahimsa is not merely the absence of violence, but involves a deeply positive feeling of respect for living beings, a moral position associated in the West with the terms “respect for life” or “the sanctity of life.”
In India, ahimsa seems to have been emphasized most among movements such as Buddhism and Jainism which emphasized concern (daya) and sympathy (anukampa) for living creatures, and an increasing empathy with them based on the awareness that others dislike pain and death just as much as oneself. As the Dhammapada notes, “All tremble at violence, all fear death. Comparing oneself with others one should neither kill nor cause to kill.”
As a result of its association with ahimsa, Buddhism is generally perceived as non-violent and peace loving. While Buddhist countries have not been free from war and conflict, Buddhist teachings constantly praise non-violence and express disapproval of killing or causing injury to living things. In the words of the Dhammapada, “He who has renounced violence towards all living beings, weak or strong, who neither kills nor causes others to kill – him do I call a holy man.”
Though ecology and animal rights were probably not distinct topics in the philosophical agenda of the ancients, under the influence of ahimsa, rules and practices have since developed which concretely aim at avoiding damaging plants and more prominently animals.
Lumbini is a sacred site. But insensitive, rapid and uncontrolled industrial and urban development threatens its very existence. Sacred places need to be safeguarded, as many have been lost throughout history due to the lack of protection. There are strong calls for collective measures to safeguard Lumbini, the sacred environment of the birthplace of the Buddha, so that this precious World Heritage site and its peaceful setting can be passed on to future generations.
The writer has referred to the books Encyclopedia of Buddhism and Contemporary Buddhist Ethics by D.Keown in putting together this article, and had also used his translation of the Dhammapada for the quotes.
By Marcia Rose
Henry David Thoreau from ‘Faith In A Seed’…
”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.”
Recently I received seeds from my favorite gardening catalogue. I’ve been noticing them every day as they sit on the dining room table waiting for the sustaining warmth of spring before I put them into the ground. I’ve been growing vegetables and flowers for many years and still every single year a sense of awe and faith arises as I observe the tiny seeds in my hand and then carefully put them into the ground. AWE in relationship to the mystery that these tiny dots do what they do, and FAITH based in years of experience that at least most of them will eventually burst out of their tiny tight selves and grow into lettuce, beets, carrots, sunflowers…etc.
So, I’ve been considering FAITH recently. 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 and BELIEF…and if so, what is the difference? FAITH in what…in who?
In the Buddha Dhamma, FAITH is a wholesome and beautiful mental factor that develops and blossoms through our practice of concentration and mindfulness. And, it’s the first of the five spiritual powers that feed and strengthen our practice…the other four being: effort/energy, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom.
So one aspect of FAITH is that it’s a wholesome power…a strength.
The literal translation of the Pali word ‘saddha’/FAITH is “to place the heart upon”. Consequently FAITH encompasses trust, confidence, courage, strength, devotion and clarity. My Israeli students tell me that the root of the word FAITH in Hebrew is a verb. They tell me that 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…to connect from the heart…’to place the heart upon’…willingness to embark on the journey, to open to the unknown.
The Buddha Dhamma understands three levels of faith…the first being ’blind faith’ which can happen when we encounter something or someone that inspires us and we feel a degree of brightness, devotion and love. This type of faith is often based in dependence on someone or something outside of ourselves to make us feel good. Thus it’s not sustainable and maybe not rooted in wisdom.
The second level of FAITH is ’Verified Faith’ which is rooted in confidence born of our own wise reflection and discriminating wisdom as we investigate our direct experience. For example, we have FAITH in the truth of impermanence, not because we heard or read about it, but because of our own clear observation, investigation, reflection and the intuitive understanding that arises out of our focused mindful attention to our experience of body, mind, and 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 concentration, clear mindful awareness and 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 and 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 and feelings. This path of awakening asks a very deep and profound willingness of us…willingness to open directly to our experience…to open the heart and mind to the mystery of experience.
Traveling this path, we actually must rely on faith. It’s not a path rooted in belief. Meeting our experience with a set of beliefs is a process of perceiving and interpreting experience so that it conforms with our learned habituated patterns of thinking & acting, which then leads us to re-act these habituated ways of thinking & acting again & again.
So, FAITH as willingness, confidence and trust in our own potential for ‘waking up,’ based on experience not on beliefs…waking up out of ongoing dissatisfaction, out of feeling incomplete, hollow, separate and disappointed. Learning to live our life grounded in an open and kindhearted mindful presence, we access FAITH in the real possibility of waking up into the spaciousness of openhearted presence and ease of being with things as they are…however they are, inside us and outside us.
As we gently and patiently hold the seeds of the Buddha’s teaching in our heart, they develop and blossom into beautiful and liberating fruit through our diligent practice.
An excerpt from ‘Arctic Dreams’ by naturalist & author Barry Lopez:
“I bowed to what knows no deliberating legislature or parliament, no religion, no competing theories of
economics, an expression of allegiance with the mystery of life. I held the bow until my back ached,
and my mind was emptied of its categories and designs, its plans and speculations.”
“When I stood I thought I glimpsed my own desire. The conscious desire is to achieve
a state, even momentarily, that like light is unbounded, nurturing, suffused with wisdom and
creation, a state in which one has absorbed that very darkness which before was the perpetual sign of defeat.”
“Whatever world that is, it lies far ahead. But its outline, its intimation
is clear in the landscape, and upon this, one can actually hope we will find our way. I bowed again,
deeply, toward the north…. I was full of appreciation for all that I had seen.”
What we’ve really come to see is that healing is not limited to the body. The body may live or die, but the healing we took birth for occurs in the heart; if that quality of heart is not there, no matter what happens to the body, healing is absent…
…If we’re speaking of healing as being able to love wholeheartedly that which we think we love, I don’t know what would be a greater aid than a spiritual practice which would encourage seeing the whole and not being limited to the tiny increments of mind that arise and often block the heart. Nothing will do for us what a daily meditation practice will do. It’s not the only way in, but it is a profound access that allows us to go beyond the mind to our true nature. It could simply be said that meditation is just an intensification of awareness. And when there is awareness, there is healing. Awareness of anger heals anger in the sense that it gives anger an opportunity to float, and then we are better able to respond to it instead of having to react automatically to it.
In that sense, a meditation practice is invaluable for deepening the quality of awareness that allows the healing in. But meditation isn’t easy. As one teacher said, meditation is just one insult after another. This also speaks to your earlier question about how the first stages of healing are disorienting. As you go in, you see you aren’t who you think you are; often, we’re confronted with the truth of our grasping, greediness, lustfulness, self-interest, and general ignorance of ourselves and the world. But meditation allows truth to arise, and even if the truth is an unpleasant one for a moment, it is the truth. It is beautiful and feeds us, energizes us, heals us. Meditation takes us beyond the mind to who we really are, the shared heart of being.
Excerpted from an interview with Stephen by Ralph Earle in the October 1989 issue of The Sun
On working for The Mountain Hermitage & Following The Way of Tea…
TMH: We’re speaking today with Kathy Lyons, administrative person for The Mountain Hermitage, and we’re asking her about her work for the Hermitage and about her involvement with the Japanese Way of Tea. What exactly do you do for the Hermitage?
Kathy: As the admin person, I do things like work on the financial end of things, register students, help with scheduling retreats, maintain mailing lists, take minutes during board meetings, work with guiding teacher Marcia Rose on creating magazine ads, flyers, fundraising letters,…
TMH: Wow. That’s a lot. So you really hold together the logistics for the Hermitage. How did you come to the Dharma?
K: My mother is Japanese and so Buddhism was a part of our lives growing up. Just simple things like having a family altar, observing certain Buddhist ceremonies. Because my mother was studying the Japanese Way of Tea or Chado, she introduced me to her teacher at New Years in my senior year in college… and I fell in love with the Way of Tea. That took me into Zen Buddhism because “Tea and Zen are One Flavor (Cha Zen Ichi Mi)“, as they say. I started on that path in 1990 and went to Kyoto on a scholarship to study Chado for a year in the Midorikai program of Urasenke Foundation. I ended up staying for 6 years, studying at a kind of university of Tea and then for a graduate program after that.
TMH: What was it about Chado that drew you?
K: It was a good fit for me at that particular time. I had studied various martial art forms which always seemed to have a strong focus on Zen practice. Tea seemed to be a natural progression in deepening my studies of mindfulness… not just how to sit and meditate, but also to be active and be in a state of mindfulness. Also the Tea sweets were delicious! What else was there? I think because Chado encapsulates almost all Japanese traditional arts and crafts as well as history, architecture, poetry… boy, you name it! I knew this was a path that would continue far into my older age.
TMH: So the essence of Chado is meditation in action. Is that what you would say?
K: In a way it can be called a “soft” martial art. The focus for the first 10 years is on learning and strictly adhering to the forms, and then for the next 10 years or so, you break from the forms, and then for the next 10 years you return to the forms but with a different, deeper understanding. By sticking to the form you lose your sense of individuality, but then you find the freedom within that.
They used to do so-called Tea Ceremonies in China over a 1000 years ago as Tea offerings to the Buddha. About 500 years ago, a Japanese Tea master decided that instead of offering Tea to the Buddha in a Buddhist temple, he would offer Tea to the Buddha nature in his colleagues, to bring it more to a personal level. Chado, which I study, has the element of offering Tea to another person. So we don’t call it Tea ceremony, it’s the Way of Tea or Chado… you know, like Judo or Aikido… Cha is Tea, Do is Dao or The Way.
TMH: And how is it different from Vipassana practice?
K: When we studied Zen, we had to sit a lot and do sesshin, or silent retreats, in Zen temples. Our school of Tea is associated with the Rinzai sect of Zen and our main temple is Daitokuji which is a Zen temple in Kyoto. When we would practice, it was sitting, sitting… sometimes 3 hours, sometimes 1 hour… sitting in silence. Once a week, we’d be able to meet with the roshi or teacher who would sometimes give us a koan, sometimes not. The focus is on the form of sitting and breaking through attachments, working with the pain, working with the sweat dripping down my face… I can’t move… so a lot of working with that edge.
I find Vipassana has more interaction with the teacher than my experience with Zen in Japan, where the focus was on sit sit sit! In Vipassana, there’s sitting, there’s walking, there’s Dhamma talks, meetings with the teacher… it feels different.
TMH: You teach the Way of Tea to people. Would you talk a little bit about that, please?
K: After receiving training, my husband and I were posted to Washington DC for 6 years as official representatives… to run the mid Atlantic branch of Urasenke Foundation. We taught pretty much 6 days a week, from 9 in the morning to 9 at night. On the 7th day, because Washington DC is such a multicultural area, we were often called upon to do Tea presentations. My husband would give a mini lecture with slides, I would make Tea while he explained what I was doing, and then we would serve everybody Tea.
TMH: So like at embassies?
K: Yes, embassies, Smithsonian Freer Gallery, schools, government agencies, women’s groups, men’s groups… we were fully immersed in the dissemination of Tea and the Way of Tea. And that continues today. Obviously, I’m not teaching full time any more, but I teach maybe once a month here in northern New Mexico. We have a Tea association called Chado New Mexico or Urasenke New Mexico, and we are one of 88 Urasenke Tea associations spread over 34 countries around the world.
TMH: Is there anything else that you want to say?
K: Yes! I often tell people that my job with the Hermitage is my sanity. I’m so grateful. Being in this job requires me to work with my own issues… there are constant opportunities to practice. It’s great to have a guiding teacher like Marcia Rose who is very kind and generous and patient.
TMH: Well, that’s all so interesting! Thank you so much for sharing this.
By Marcia Rose
“Early Morning, My Birthday” (excerpt)
The snails on the pink sleds of their bodies are moving
among the morning glories.
The spider is asleep among the red thumbs of the raspberries.
What shall I do, what shall I do?
The rain is slow.
The little birds are alive in it.
Even the beetles.
The green leaves lap it up.
What shall I do, what shall I do?
Just about every human being and culture on this planet marks the passage of cyclical time in various ways. I’ve just recently marked the completion of 75 years of life. And for many of us the closure of one cycle and the opening of a new cycle has just occurred via the ending of one year and the beginning of a new year. These punctuations of time often inspire reflection regarding how we’ve lived our life through the years…how we’ve responded or reacted to what life has offered and the wisdom or folly of the decisions we’ve made. In light of our reflections, we are often inspired to create heartful intentions and resolves towards living with more gratitude along with living more wisely, compassionately and joyfully.
As Dhamma students we may find that our reflections, the murmurings of our heart…often show up as variants of: “How can I be truly happy? Can I forgive and ask to be forgiven? Can I be at ease in this life and live with an abiding sense of well-being? I want to live with more gratitude and grace, with peace, understanding, acceptance and compassion amidst all the challenges and difficulties in this changing world…amidst the challenges and difficulties within me and all around me.”
As we move into new cycles, be it through marking the years of our life via our birthday or by way of the onset of a new year, rather than mulling or stewing over the various occurrences in our personal lives and the happenings in the world, we can let the murmurings of our heart be a motivating force and an inspiration towards connecting to and dropping more and more into making this very life more deeply ‘our practice’.
There’s a wonderful Pali term that comes directly from the Buddha’s teaching …‘Samvega’…that’s often translated into English as ‘Spiritual Urgency’. The blossoming and manifestation of Samvega is directly related to our heartful intentions and resolves towards living life more wisely, peacefully, compassionately and joyfully with gratitude.
As this new year begins, we can respond to and be inspired by the forces, the energies…the various ‘messengers’ that stir us and move towards a heartfelt sense of urgency to practice and to awaken moment by moment in this very life. As our heart takes this turn we recognize again and again that this is what truly steers us towards the fruits of our deepest and most heartfelt wishes, intentions and resolves for
ourselves and in relationship to others.
tears melting into
In Buddhism, people do a lot of bowing at various times. Students often ask, “Why do we bow? What or who are we bowing to?” In this moving excerpt from his classic book “Arctic Dreams,” author and naturalist, Barry Lopez writes about bowing in a very essential way directly from his own experience.
Glaucous gulls fly over. In the shore lead are phalaropes, with their twig like legs. In the distance I can see flocks of oldsquaw against the sky, and a few cormorants. A patch of shadow that could be several thousand crested auklets too far away to know. Out there are whales I have seen … six or eight gray whales as I walked this evening. And the ice, pale as the dove colored sky. The wind raises the surface of the water. Wake of a seal in the shore lead, gone now. I bowed. I bowed to what knows no deliberating legislature or parliament, no religion, no competing theories of economics, an expression of allegiance with the mystery of life.
I looked out over the Bering Sea and brought my hands folded to the breast of my parka and bowed from the waist deeply toward the north, that great strait filled with life, the ice and the water. I held the bow to the pale sulphur sky at the northern rim of the earth. I held the bow until my back ached, and my mind was emptied of its categories and designs, its plans and speculations. I bowed before the simple evidence of the moment in my life in a tangible place on the earth that was beautiful.
When I stood I thought I glimpsed my own desire. The landscape and the animals were like something found at the end of a dream. The edges of the real landscape became one with the edges of something I had dreamed. But what I had dreamed was only a pattern, some beautiful pattern of light. The continuous work of the imagination, I thought, to bring what is actual together with what is dreamed is an expression of human evolution. The conscious desire is to achieve a state, even momentarily, that like light is unbounded, nurturing, suffused with wisdom and creation, a state in which one has absorbed that very darkness which before was the perpetual sign of defeat.
Whatever world that is, it lies far ahead. But its outline, its adumbration (intimation, ed.), is clear in the landscape, and upon this, one can actually hope we will find our way.
I bowed again, deeply, toward the north, and turned south to retrace my steps over the dark cobbles to the home where I was staying. I was full of appreciation for all that I had seen.
By Brian Lesage
One day King Pasenadi went to visit the Buddha in the Sakyan town of Medalumpa. He expressed to the Buddha his delight in seeing the practitioners “smiling and cheerful, sincerely joyful, plainly delighting, their faculties fresh, living at ease, [and] unruffled…”MN89
With all of the talk about suffering in Buddhism, we can often forget the joy, ease, and contentment that provide the foundation and expression of this spiritual path. The Buddha continually encourages us to savor the joy and contentment that arise from such things as ethical conduct, generosity, appreciative joy, and concentration. Even the practice of renunciation is taught from this perspective of joy and happiness. For example, in the Dhammapada the Buddha says:
If by renouncing a lesser happiness
one may realize a greater happiness,
let the wise one renounce the lesser,
having regard for the greater.
And yet I have noticed within the unfolding of my own practice and that of students I have worked with over the years, that it is difficult to open to and truly savor the joys and wholesome pleasures of life. The poet Alison Luterman puts it well in one of her poems, which begins, “I am scared to confess to happiness…” We have difficulty truly opening to happiness and contentment. We are challenged to confess to it. Sometimes this is because of the habitual tendency of our physiology to be in a continual threat response that manifests in a feeling of being on-guard. When we begin to relax into and savor a pleasant experience, the system can feel threatened since it requires us to let down our guard.
This is the reason why it is a training to open to joy and contentment in a skillful way. It is a training to deeply “confess to happiness.” In other words, we are training our physiology to have the capacity to be with happiness and contentment rather than to keep up our guard and react by grasping or pushing away the experience.
This requires a few skills. One is noticing when we engage in something that carries the seeds of our joy and happiness. I remember when I first started teaching, I co-led a retreat with a fellow Dharma teacher. At the end of the retreat, he turned to me and said, “Brian, we did a really good thing.” When I acknowledged his statement in passing but did not truly take it in, he sternly looked at me and said, “We did a really good thing and it’s important to really take that in.” I realized that I had been missing this precious opportunity to savor the deep joy and contentment that arises from sharing the Dharma. From this experience, I began to understand that there were many wholesome acts I was engaging in that carried the seeds of my joy and contentment, and all I needed to do was to notice and begin to savor them.
Another skill involves distinguishing between the reactivity of grasping and aversion, and the simple and direct experience of savoring that which is pleasant. I realize that before having a regular meditation practice, I didn’t know the difference. I remember one vivid experience on a month-long concentration retreat that helped clarify this distinction for me. I was walking in the midst of the beauty of a forest just after a rainstorm. My heart and mind were so stable and receptive and the beauty so pleasant, that my heart opened in a new way. However, after experiencing this for a short while, I could feel my body begin to grasp onto the experience and not want it to go away. Simply noticing grasping as the beauty arose was enough to allow savoring it to re-emerge. The process can be more complex, but nonetheless, the essential skill is mindfulness of knowing the difference between grasping and savoring.
This ability to “confess to our happiness” is an essential foundation for the unfolding of this path. It develops our capacity to be with wholesome pleasure in a way that leads toward the freedom and wisdom that benefits all beings.
Vimala Thakar (1921-2009) was one of the great Indian teacher J. Krishnamurti’s closest & most spiritually evolved students… and a favorite of Hermitage Guiding Teacher Marcia Rose. Vimala Thakar became a powerful and very much sought after spiritual teacher in her own right during her lifetime, and is considered to be a teacher who expressed the understanding and perfect balance between the enlightened heart/mind and social consciousness.
We must become deeply aware of our bondage if we value freedom. We begin to watch our behavior throughout the day; we notice the fear, the anxieties, how much behavior is controlled by acquisitiveness, how we compare ourselves with others and want to become something that we are not. When we watch our own lives, then there is the pain and agony that the awareness of the bondage creates. If we don’t observe this in ourselves, we are only theorizing about freedom. […]
As long as we cling to the idea that this is “my mind, my own personal mind,” we’ll have a strong tendency to want to look as good as possible. But if we observe the mind, from a non-personal viewpoint, from the perspective of non-ownership, simply observe our minds and how they function, we’ll be less trapped by judgments.
To be attentive to the psychological structure doesn’t mean we must disappear somewhere and give up all relationships, responsibilities. The aim is to stay within the movement of relationships, to continue with work, to be a responsible citizen and to be attentive to the play of the mind. But we’ll have to be very alert, for the mind is subtle, wily, full of tricks.
It’s a tremendous thrill to see the beginnings of anger or jealousy or greed, not simply to be caught unawares when the emotion is full-blown and has us in its grasp, but to see the first tiny movements of emotion. Where does it spread, what does it do to our behavior? Just as there is joy in exploring the unknown wildness, there is a delight in exploring the inner territory, in watching the volcanoes explode without any movement of defense, judgment, sense of ownership.
If we have never observed anger in ourselves from subtle beginnings to full explosion, we will always be caught in its force. We may try to suppress the behavior of anger, but still it will do its damage and we will not be free from it.
Attentiveness without any movement of the defense structure has its own intelligence. But the automatic tendency is to bring in defenses, judgments and to move from observation to justification, evaluation. We may say to ourselves, “My mother or my father was an angry person. I can’t help it; I’ve had an unhappy childhood, I am an angry person because of that.” […] All the explanations, justifications may be true, but they prevent direct perception of what it is that anger does to our bodies, to relationships, to the work we do.
— from ‘Ego: Emergence and Merging Back of the “I” Process‘ For an interesting article on Vimala’s life & work, read: Vimala Thakar: Liberation Beyond Gender by Elizabeth Debold