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.
By Sean Murphy
Perhaps the most striking thing about doing writing practice – in other words, story-telling – in the context of a meditation retreat is the bearing it has on the understanding of ‘no-self’: the lack of a separate self, a central doctrine of Buddhism. The reason being that the ‘self’ as understood and experienced through meditation practice, is itself a story – one we tell ourselves over and over again until we believe it.
If we wish to see through the illusion of a separate self, one very effective way to do this is by working directly with the stories about who we are (or think we are!) that we’ve been building up and telling ourselves all our lives. Putting words and experience down on the page can be a highly effective way to examine and begin to deconstruct the self-story… and to enjoy the process, because freeing the creative flow through writing practice (also known as free-writing) is finally an enjoyable and liberating experience.
When we begin to let our words flow onto the page without the usual filter of the internal critic/ego self getting in the way, we may discover surprising results. We may find that creativity, wisdom, and compassion can arise naturally from the emptiness of the meditative mind, without our usual thought processes needing to intrude – without the ‘trying’ to create something impressive or profound which so often makes our creative efforts feel stilted and inauthentic. In other words, without the ‘self’ getting in the way. Then perhaps we can feel the joyousness of letting go of the conditioned self-story, and the creative freedom of creating any story we like – or no story at all.
In his book The Art of Happiness and often in his teachings, His Holiness the Dalai Lama likes to point out that an often-overlooked source of happiness and resilience is a sense of self-worth. When I share this with Dharma students, they often draw a blank: What does he mean by “self-worth”? Perhaps this notion is a bit mysterious. Self-worth is not linked to any accomplishments or special qualities a person may have. It has nothing to do with measuring ourselves against others. And it doesn’t come about through our own effort.
Self-worth arises through appreciating our shared humanity: “You can relate to fellow human beings because you are a being, within the human community.” Simply because we ourselves are human beings we share an empathic bond with everyone. This tends to be hard to discern, like trying to point out the presence of water to a fish that is immersed in it.
His Holiness continues, “[T]hat human bond is enough to give rise to a sense of worth and dignity. That bond can become a source of consolation in the event that we lose everything else.” Many of you may be taken by surprise, even stunned. “In the event we lose everything else,” is a strong statement. It conjures images of disaster or the flight of refugees. He is asserting that that human bond can support you by imbuing your suffering with dignity. I hope this stirs in you an intense curiosity about how something so ordinary and overlooked can be the source of unassailable hope and optimism.
Metta bhavana or loving kindness meditation is a way of contemplating this innate and essential human bond until it becomes integrated as a realization. The Buddha called this the mind liberation of metta. As Indian Buddhism matured, this grew into bodhicitta, “the mind of awakening,” the celebrated entrance into the Mahayana.
By Marcia Rose
As our beautiful home planet revolves & we turn again toward the light, the New Year often inspires reflection on what has taken place, changed and passed… in our personal life, our community, our country and in the world at large. We might note how, as life unfolded within us and around us this past year, we experienced beauty, joy, compassion, generosity and love as well as rancor, confusion, anger and misunderstanding… in our own mind and heart as well as coming from others out in the larger world. And especially we discover that nothing seems to stay the same, internally or externally.
A question that often arises is: What is it that is of greatest value? For many of us the answer comes clearly time and again. We recognize that in times of uncertainty, turbulence and stress, the teachings of the Buddha offer us what is actually a radical notion… that when we cultivate an equanimous heart and mind through our practice, even the most extreme external or internal circumstances do not consistently hold strong sway over us.
As we learn and practice with diligence and sincerity on this path that leads to freedom, we discover that more and more often we’re able to meet and respond with some measure of equanimity when facing difficult, disappointing and stressful times. The cultivation of equanimity that naturally happens through our practice brings forth an equilibrium, a fearlessness and balance of heart/mind… thus giving us the clarity and power to experience and respond to every sort of manifestation and change in the realms of internal and external experience. Consequently our heart and mind begin to relax.
We find that we are able to engage responsively more and more often with wholesome and appropriate thoughts, words and actions even in the midst of what might be some hardship in our life or in the larger world. And as our practice continues to take a deeper trajectory, these wholesome thoughts, words and actions become a refuge for us in every circumstance.
We can take inspiration from the just-about-to-be Buddha, sitting under the Bodhi Tree on that now famous night. Sidartha Gotama was protected within the great strength of his mindful presence… a presence enlivened by a determination, keen interest and a penetrating sense of investigation imbued with an uplifting and refreshing joy… all accompanied by clear discernment. We can remember this about-to-be Buddha sitting under the Bo Tree that night, with unshakable stability grounded in the evenness and balance of a receptive, openhearted presence… as though he were an immovable mountain… the mountain of Equanimity.
We are delighted to welcome our new Mountain Hermitage retreat cook Amy Gates by sharing a couple of her excellent healthy recipes for the winter season. Amy traveled here last summer from her home in the Bay Area to cook for the Hermitage’s 5-week retreat with Sayadaw Vivekananda & Marcia Rose…and like so many others, she fell in love with Taos & northern New Mexico. This self-described “fun-loving, travel-obsessed nature junkie, health food enthusiast, natural foods chef & holistic health coach” is now living here full time.
Amy began cooking for the Dharma several years ago at the Insight Retreat Center in Santa Cruz, CA for teachers Gil Fronsdal & Andrea Fella. “It was here,” she says, “that I found a love in cooking for retreats. With my passion for wellness & personal interest in meditation, I find great joy in supporting others’ practice through love & nourishment in food.”
Hermitage students & staff have been enjoying Amy’s positive energy & internationally inspired vegetarian retreat meals. Simple but so delicious. We are grateful to have her as part of our Hermitage community…supporting our practice with nutritious & tasty food!
Find out more about Amy on her website: www.amythekitchenfairy.com
Warm Winter Chai: (Serves 8)
1/2 gallon water
1 cinnamon stick
1/2 c pureed ginger
1/3 c cardamom pods ground
1 tsp whole coriander
2 cloves whole
3 whole peppercorns
1/4 c loose leaf assam or black tea
1 Tbsp vanilla
2-4 Tbsp coconut sugar, or sweetener of choice
1 cup, or more to taste, whole milk, half and half, or non-dairy milk of choice
1. Add the water and spices to a large pot and boil for 1 hour. Let sit on stove overnight.
2. Bring to just a boil. Add 1/4 c loose black tea. Brew for 5 minutes.
3. Strain tea and discard spices.
4. Return to stove and bring to a simmer. Add sugar, vanilla, and milk of choice, stirring until sugar is dissolved. ENJOY!
Garlic Thyme Tempeh: (Serves 4)
8 oz tempeh
2 Tbsp tamari
4 cloves garlic, smashed
1/2 cup veggie broth
2 Tbsp balsalmic vinegar
3 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup fresh thyme, leaves whole, soft stems roughly chopped
2 Tbsp olive oil
1. Set up a steamer basket and pot on the stovetop. Slice the tempeh into two thin squares across the middle, sort of like a clamshell. Now slice each square corner to corner, into triangles.
2. Steam the tempeh for 10 minutes.
3. In the meantime, mix all marinade ingredients together in a big bowl. When tempeh is ready, transfer it directly into the marinade. Let marinate for 1 to 4 hours, flipping occasionally.
Preheat lightly oiled grill on medium high (indoor or outdoor). Cook tempeh for 5 minutes on each side, flipping with a metal spatula, so that it doesn’t stick. Tip: rub thyme and garlic on each side. Some will fall off, but not all of it.
Preheat oven to 400°F. Place marinated tempeh on a greased or parchment lined baking sheet. Bake until crispy and lightly browned on each side, about 15 minutes per side. Flip half way through.
Pumpkin Sage Polenta: (Serves 4-6)
3 cups water
1 cup polenta
2 tsp salt
1/2 cup pumpkin puree (canned is fine if you do not have freshly roasted pumpkin)
1 tsp sage, chopped
1/2 cup parmesan cheese (optional)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cubed (or nondairy alternative)
1. In a medium saucepan, bring water to boil.
2. Whisk in polenta, lower the heat and let the polenta simmer, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon.
3. Add the pumpkin, salt, and sage, and continue stirring for about 15-20 minutes, until the polenta begins to pull away from the sides of the saucepan.
4. Stir in the parmesan cheese and butter. Serve immediately while hot and creamy.
By Brian Lesage
During the Buddha’s time, a group of monks happened upon one of their fellow monastics in the forest, the Venerable Bhaddiya (Ud 2.10). “Ah, what bliss, ah, what bliss…,” they heard him muttering to himself. The monks were worried that Bhaddiya felt disheartened with the spiritual life and was spending all of his time daydreaming about the opulent life he had before being ordained, so they told the Buddha their concerns. When the Buddha met with Bhaddiya, Bhaddiya responded with words to the effect of, “My brother monks completely misunderstood my exclamations. I wasn’t dreaming of the petty happiness of the royal life but, rather, savoring the supreme happiness that arises from the spiritual path!”
I appreciate how this story reveals not only our tendency to make assumptions about other people’s experiences, but, more importantly, shows us that not all forms of happiness are equal in depth. Happiness has always been a popular aspiration both inside and outside of Buddhist circles and I often wonder about the type of happiness we may be craving today. Is it the same happiness that the Buddha was encouraging in early Buddhism?
One big discovery that arose in my own spiritual practice was that I had been searching for the kind of happiness my society, family and culture had conditioned me to seek. It was the happiness of mere well-being. In other words, it was the classic attempt to maximize pleasant experiences and minimize unpleasant experiences. As much as I intellectually knew the folly of this, it took practice to recognize my conditioning and to see that such attempts, in fact, led to a meaningless and hollow life filled with a sense of separateness.
As I continued to practice, I began to discover that this spiritual path opens the door to a deeper sense of happiness and contentment, a happiness that I probably wouldn’t have defined as “happiness” at the beginning of this spiritual journey. This kind of happiness requires me to open my heart to not only my own suffering but to the suffering of others. I think this is why the Buddha broadened his description of happiness to include a heart also filled with the noble quality of compassion and willing to touch into the suffering of the world.
Yes, my mind still prefers pleasant experiences over unpleasant experiences but, like Bhaddiya, this path and practice have widened my heart to include a kind of bliss not confined to the narrow world of my preferences. It is now open to and part of this vast universe of the Dharma which includes everyone and everything, thus allowing me to savor the supreme happiness that arises from the spiritual path.
“The commentaries define samadhi as the centering of the mind and mental factors rightly and evenly on an object. Samadhi, as wholesome concentration, collects together the ordinarily dispersed and dissipated stream of mental states to induce an inner unification. The two salient features of a concentrated mind are unbroken attentiveness to an object and the consequent tranquillity of the mental functions, qualities which distinguish it from the unconcentrated mind. The mind untrained in concentration moves in a scattered manner which the Buddha compares to the flapping about of a fish taken from the water and thrown onto dry land. It cannot stay fixed but rushes from idea to idea, from thought to thought, without inner control.
“Such a distracted mind is also a deluded mind. Overwhelmed by worries and concerns, a constant prey to the defilements, it sees things only in fragments, distorted by the ripples of random thoughts. But the mind that has been trained in concentration, in contrast, can remain focused on its object without distraction. This freedom from distraction further induces a softness and serenity which make the mind an effective instrument for penetration. Like a lake unruffled by any breeze, the concentrated mind is a faithful reflector that mirrors whatever is placed before it exactly as it is.”
The Noble Eightfold Path by Bhikkhu Bodhi
“A clear, relaxed and focused mind feeds itself as our ability to stay present with the object of attention and not attach to other things strengthens. The mind is just where it is…pure, clear, and calm… which can be an energizing, refreshing & beautiful experience.”
Often when people think about “concentration”, they envision someone with a screwed up face straining to do something, or make something happen. There is strong effort, but it’s being made with a kind of tightness and contraction, possibly even desperation.
This is not the kind of effort that will optimally support the development of Wise Concentration. Skillful effort to unify the mind needs to incorporate resolve and energy, it’s true. But this effort cannot be too tight or rigid. There also needs to be a kind of letting go presence, a relaxation of mind as part of the formula. Yang plus yin is needed for skillfully balanced effort and energy. Finding this balance is key to developing Wise Concentration
By Marcia Rose
What is the Dharma of my mid-summer garden? Lately I’ve asked myself and the garden this question many times over. Each morning and early evening, as I slowly walk through and diligently work in the garden, with deep care and interest I also mindfully observe the abundance of growing and constantly changing greenery, vegetables, blossoms, flowers and fruit. This riotous multicolored display spreading through my mid-summer garden here in northern New Mexico offers the perfect laboratory for practice, right in the midst of ‘the way of all things.’
One morning , with deep joy I behold a bursting pink rose bud. A few days later the flower has opened fully and is already wilting and changing color around the edges. I notice a subtle tug in my heart , and then the relaxed receptivity of ‘ Yes, and this too just does what comes naturally to all of us.’
On a slow evening walk through the garden I clearly see that the green tomatoes are half an inch bigger than a few days ago, but there’s still no sign of red on their skin. There are four more green strawberries and the Kabocha squash is a quarter inch larger than the other day. I notice a momentary and very subtle contraction in the heart and mind…quickly followed by the internal Dharma wisdom saying, “Patience, all happens in good time.” The apples are turning red, but still too small to pick. Deep red beets poke up slightly from the ground. “Should I pick beets for dinner? No, not yet. They need more time to grow.” The lettuce and peas are exquisitely ready and waiting…a clear “yes for dinner” comes through this time.
A primary Dharma lesson harvested each day from this garden is ‘patience.’ Repeatedly I learn that patience blossoms in a heart and mind that are rooted in quietude, serenity, openness, care and peace. I and all the growing things in the garden are by nature ‘hastening slowly,’ and I understand more deeply the words ‘patience is the highest form of devotion.’
I imbibe and digest these garden Dharma lessons… into my meditation practice and out in to my relationship with the larger and often challenging current world we live in.
The Buddha used the word ‘forbearance’ as a description of patience…meaning a heart and mind rooted in the qualities of receptivity, unconditional acceptance and softness. This ‘forbearance’ allows us to open to and be fully present in each moment with respect, dignity and humility. We patiently honor the moment…no matter what we are facing in our mind, heart and body…no matter what’s coming to us from the world around us. My mid-summer garden Dharma practice helps me come to know in a deeply experiential way the great advantage of this ‘forbearance.’ It offers great benefit for the whole of our life, as well as great benefit in relationship to our meditation practice, as the heart/mind develops towards deeper and more mature concentration and wisdom.
As we practice and live more patiently, as we become more ‘still and wide’ while at the same time determined and diligent in and with our practice, it is inevitable that we will experience an increase of calm, tranquility, joy, peace, fearlessness and understanding/wisdom within our practice and within our life as a whole. It’s inevitable that there will be a continued blossoming of kind-heartedness and a growing ability to live a compassionate and beneficial life.
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.