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.
“If beings knew, as I know, the results of giving & sharing, they would not eat without having given, nor would the stain of selfishness overcome their minds. Even if it were their last bite, their last mouthful, they would not eat without having shared, if there were someone to receive their gift.” —Itivuttaka 26
The practice of giving, or dana in Pali, has a preeminent place in the teachings of the Buddha. When he taught a graduated series of practices for people to engage in as they progress along the path, he always started by talking about the importance & benefits of the practice of generosity. Based on that foundation, he talked about the importance & benefits of the practice of ethics. Then he discussed the practices of calming the mind, and after that he described the insight practices, which, supported by a calm & stable mind, lead to enlightenment. Once a person had awakened, the Buddha often instructed him or her to go out to benefit others, to be of service. Service can be seen as an act of generosity, so the Buddhist path begins & ends with this virtue.
Dana refers to the act of giving & to the donation itself. … An act of generosity entails giving more than is required, customary, or expected relative to one’s resources & circumstances. Certainly it involves relinquishment of stinginess, clinging, and greed. In addition, generosity entails relinquishing some aspects of one’s self-interest, and thus is a giving of one’s self. The Buddha stressed that the spiritual efficacy of a gift is dependent not on the amount given but rather on the attitude with which it is given. A small donation that stretches a person of little means is considered of greater spiritual consequence than a large but personally insignificant donation from a wealthy person.
One way that the giver sees his or her generosity return is found in “instant karma,” the Buddhist idea that acts that you do have direct consequences on the state of your mind & heart, even as you do them. The consequences of giving are quite wonderful in the present moment; if we are present for them, we can receive these wonderful consequences during the act of giving.
The Buddha emphasized the joy of giving. Dana is not meant to be obligatory or done reluctantly. Rather, dana should be performed when the giver is “delighted before, during, and after giving.”
At its most basic level, dana in the Buddhist tradition means giving freely without expecting anything in return. The act of giving is purely out of compassion or goodwill, or the desire for someone else’s well-being. Perhaps dana is more about how we are than what we do. Through generosity, we cultivate a generous spirit. Generosity of spirit will usually lead to generosity of action, but being a generous person is more important than any particular act of giving. After all, it is possible to give without its being a generous act.
Although giving for the purposes of helping others is an important part of the motivation & joy of giving, the Buddha considered giving for the purpose of attaining nibbana as the highest motivation. For this purpose, “one gives gifts to adorn & beautify the mind.” Among these adornments are nonclinging, lovingkindness, and concern for the well-being of others.
By Annie Nugent
“Avoid the unwholesome, cultivate the good and purify the mind – this is the teaching of all the Buddhas.”
This pithy quote from the Dhammapada encapsulates our task when we practice the Buddha’s teachings. It might be a short quote, but it seems like a lot that we have to keep track of when we undertake the practice.
There is a story told during the time of the Buddha of a monk who, like us, wanted to be free from suffering. He was given all the necessary instructions but became disillusioned because there were so many aspects of experience to remember to be mindful of, that he contemplated disrobing.
Fortunately, the Buddha got to hear of the monk’s change of heart, went to him and after listening to how discouraged he was said: “Don’t worry, I will give you only one instruction to follow. If you can keep it, there is nothing more for you to do.” Then the Buddha taught him mindfulness of mind – the third foundation of mindfulness.
“The mind is very hard to perceive, extremely subtle, it flies wherever it likes. Let the wise person guard it, a guarded mind is conducive to happiness.”
Using these instructions, we can bring mindfulness to the moment by repeatedly asking ourselves the question: “What’s happening in the mind now?” Are we meeting experience with the defilements of greed, hatred and delusion – or their opposites: renunciation, kindness or compassion, and wisdom?
By checking the mind in this way, we are on the path to ending suffering by not feeding the defilements. Instead, we are bringing about true happiness as we incline the mind towards goodness and wisdom. In this way we are doing the practice of all the Buddhas.
One of Marcia Rose’s favorite poets…
Look, the trees
their own bodies
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
the long tapers
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders
of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is
I have ever learned
in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it
to let it go.
From her 1983 collection “American Primitive,” which won the Pulitzer Prize.
I meditate because when I was younger it was all the rage.
I meditate because Siddhartha Gautama, Bodhidharma, Marco Polo, the British Raj, Carl Jung, Alan Watts, Jack Kerouac, Alfred E. Neuman, et al.
I meditate because evolution gave me a big brain, but it didn’t come with an instruction manual.
I meditate because I have all the information I need.
I meditate because the largest colonies of living beings, the coral reefs, are dying.
I meditate because I want to touch deep time, where the history of humanity can be seen as just an evolutionary adjustment period.
I meditate because life is too short and sitting slows it down.
I meditate because life is too long and I need an occasional break.
I meditate because I want to experience the world as Rumi did, or Walt Whitman, or Mary Oliver.
I meditate because now I know that enlightenment doesn’t exist, so I can relax.
I meditate because of the Dalai Lama’s laugh.
I meditate because there are too many advertisements in my head, and I’m erasing all but the very best of them.
I meditate because the physicists say there may be eleven dimensions to reality, and I want to get a peek into a few more of them.
I meditate because I’ve discovered that my mind is a great toy and I like to play with it.
I meditate because I want to remember that I’m perfectly human.
Sometimes I meditate because my heart is breaking.
Sometimes I meditate so that my heart will break.
I meditate because a Vedanta master once told me that in Hindi my name, Nis-ker, means “non-doer.”
I meditate because I’m growing old and want to become more comfortable with emptiness.
I meditate because I think Robert Thurman was right to call it an “evolutionary sport,” and I want to be on the home team.
I meditate because I’m composed of 100 trillion cells, and from time to time I need to reassure them that we’re all in this together.
I meditate because it’s such a relief to spend time ignoring myself.
I meditate because my country spends more money on weapons than all other nations in the world combined. If I had more courage, I’d probably immolate myself.
I meditate because I want to discover the fifth Brahma-vihara, the Divine Abode of Awe, and then go down in history as a great spiritual adept.
I meditate because I’m building myself a bigger and better perspective, and occasionally I need to add a new window.
From the Fall 2006 issue of Inquiring Mind (Vol. 23, No. 1)
Wes “Scoop” Nisker is an award-winning broadcast journalist & commentator, Buddhist meditation teacher, bestselling author & standup Dharma comic. Wes has studied Buddhist meditation for over five decades with teachers in Asia & America, and for the past 35 years has been leading his own retreats & workshops. He was the founder & co-editor of the Buddhist journal “Inquiring Mind” & is the author of multiple bestselling books.
By Greg Scharf
One way we might regard the meditative process is as a kind of scientific field work. The field of study for this investigation is the terrain of our own body & mind, and our main research tool is mindfulness. Our objective in doing this investigation is to learn as much as we can about both the world within us & the world around us.
The attitude that we start with when beginning any period of research is absolutely critical. If our mind is filled with unseen assumptions & held prisoner by all that we think we know, our ability to actually open to the reality of each arising moment will be severely limited. We know so much – at least we think we do. Is there a way that we can step beyond the boundaries of all we think we know, all that we believe to be true, and perhaps find what J. Krishnamurti called “freedom from the known”?
Albert Einstein once said: “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.” He also said: “There are two ways to live your life. One, as though nothing is a miracle. The other as though everything is a miracle.” In my mind, the difference between these two attitudes is almost as profound as the difference between being alive & being dead.
Catholic priest & author Henri J.M. Nouwen wrote: “The spiritual life is a life in which we wait, actively present to the moment, trusting that new things will happen to us, new things that are far beyond our own imagination, fantasy, or prediction. That, indeed, is a very radical stance toward life in a world preoccupied with control…. ”
The sense of waiting, actively present to the moment, is a great description of mindfulness practice. Might we possibly adopt this kind of attitude when we sit down to meditate? Can we trust our ability to meet each moment with attitude that some teachers call: “don’t know mind”. Zen master Suzuki Roshi called this “beginner’s mind“. He once said: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”
What if we were to simply settle back & trust that new things will present themselves? New things that are beyond our prediction, perhaps far beyond what we believe to be true or possible? Might we cultivate the attitude that everything is a miracle, and allow a quality of openness & perhaps even a sense of awe inform our life & everything we do – especially our meditation practice? We then have the possibility to engage in the field work of meditation with a fresh mind: a mind that is open to many possibilities & meets life with both interest & a sense of wonder.
By Carol Cano
Going for a walk-in nature calls us to pause & listen to the whispers of our ancestors calling us to remember. I remember our beloved late teacher Thich Nhat Hanh saying,
“Do you love yourself yet? If you don’t respect yourself, it will be difficult to love & respect others or the Earth. When you’re caught in the idea that this body is you, or this mind is you, you underestimate your value. But, when you can free yourself from the notion of self & see your body & mind as a stream of being of all your ancestors, you’ll begin to treat your body & mind with more respect.”
For many of us, the Buddha’s teachings turn us inwards in a real way, where the possibility of an honest moment can be met for the first time. In this honest moment, we encounter a close relative, the element of air, through our breath & an awareness of our body contracting & expanding. In this expansion, we touch into a glimpse of liberation, as we are briefly freed from whatever story or emotions, we may have been caught in. The next moment depends on the conditions that we have set up. Perhaps a mind that is open, receptive, relaxed, and alert. Perhaps a body that is grounded & rested in congruence with this process of meditation. Setting up these conditions through practice is just the beginning of our continuous return.
Each time I take a seat on the cushion, I am called to remember my late beloved teachers & their teachers before them & their teacher before them. I can feel the ancestorial support from their lineages of wisdom. I think of all our ancestors who struggled to face themselves as I have many times. It takes courage to face oneself truthfully & to remember these moments of deep listening & peace, even in the midst of sorrow & grief to return to the cushion over & over again.
For Indigenous people, ancestors are important teachers of detachment because they have faced the great mystery of death. They are the greatest practitioners of letting go & trusting this cycle of life as the greatest teacher of impermanence. Each day, we honor our teachers who have come before us, as we take in Nature’s natural rhythm of letting go through connecting with our elemental relatives. By witnessing this nature’s flow, which remains ever so fleeting, with each drop of rain, or a gust of wind, or touch of sunshine, all transitioning immediately upon noticing.
Spring is upon us, may the seeds of your practice bloom this season.
Carol Cano is Founder & Executive Director of Braided Wisdom, a BIPOC led cross-cultural mindfulness organization. A graduate of the 2017-2020 Spirit Rock Meditation Center’s Teacher Training program, she often teaches at Spirit Rock & is a core teacher & a former board member of East Bay Meditation Center. Her unique teachings are deeply grounded in Basque, Native American & Buddhist influences that braid the Dharma along with indigenous wisdom & Earth-based practices.
An excerpt from the book “Lost & Found” by Kathryn Schulz…
That is all we have, this moment with the world. It will not last, because nothing lasts. Entropy, mortality, extinction: the entire plan of the universe consists of losing, and no matter how much we find along the way, life amounts to a reverse savings account in which we are eventually robbed of everything. Our dreams and plans and jobs and knees and backs and memories; the keys to the house, the keys to the car, the keys to the kingdom, the kingdom itself: sooner or later, all of it drifts into the Valley of Lost Things.
Nothing about that is strange or surprising; it is the fundamental, unalterable nature of things. The astonishment is all in the being here. It is the turtle in the pond, the thought in the mind, the falling star, the stranger on Main Street… To all of this, loss, which seems only to take away, adds its own kind of necessary contribution. No matter what goes missing, the object you need or the person you love, the lessons are always the same. Disappearance reminds us to notice, transience to cherish, fragility to defend. Loss is a kind of external conscience, urging us to make better use of our finite days. Our crossing is a brief one, best spent bearing witness to all that we see: honoring what we find noble, tending what we know needs our care, recognizing that we are inseparably connected to all of it, including what is not yet upon us, including what is already gone. We are here to keep watch, not to keep.
Kathryn Schulz is a journalist & author. She is a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine, where she has written about everything from the legacy of an early Muslim immigrant in Wyoming, to the radical life of a civil rights activist, to Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, to brown marmorated stinkbugs. In 2016, she won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing for her article on the risk of a major earthquake & tsunami in the Pacific Northwest.
In his teachings, the Buddha again & again pointed to the importance of seeing impermanence – the changing nature of all conditioned phenomena. In a well known sutta, he stated that living just one day clearly seeing impermanence, is more important than living a hundred years without seeing impermanence . Deeply recognizing impermanence, in our own lived experience, is described as a potential doorway to liberation – the deepest peace, the unconditioned, nibbana.
Yet many of us automatically brace against this truth. Although we may recognize that seasons change, that days turn to nights, that relationships change, we often have a more difficult time opening to the fleeting nature of all phenomena, including our own bodies & our own minds. On a very deep level we often seek stability & predictability in the way we structure our lives. We may know intellectually that human bodies age, get sick, and die. Yet we often relate to life as if it was meant to last. We often feel that “something is wrong” when aging, sickness & death are happening. Sometimes we even feel that it is a personal failure when it happens to us.
One reason why it’s so hard for us to align with impermanence is that we rarely see into this truth in a deep way. For us to have liberating insights, we need to move from a conceptual knowing of impermanence , to a direct knowing of change as it’s actually happening from moment to moment. It is this type of vipassana seeing that supports a letting go of the deeper habit patterns that cause stress & unhappiness for us.
The Thai Forest master Ajahn Chan is quoted for saying that he was relating to his tea cup as if it was already broken. This may sound depressing at first. Yet, when we contemplate this teaching more deeply, we may intuit the potential freedom that it offers. What would life be like, what would each moment be like, if we deeply acknowledged that it was never meant to last? One possibility is that we would feel depressed & sad about this truth. Another possibility is that we would feel a deeper sense of awe in relationship to all of our experiences, even the difficult ones. Knowing that no moment is meant to last. Realizing that no two moments in time can ever be the same, we may feel the inherent aliveness, the “freshness” of life, as it’s unfolding from moment to moment. A deeper sense of gratitude may start to grow, as we see that because nothing is meant to last, each moment, each breath, each encounter with another being, is a precious event, that will never arise again in exactly the same way.
By Marcia Rose
2023 New Year Greeting
A NEW YEAR… A NEW DAY… A NEW MOMENT. This is our ‘time.’ How we fill our time over the years, days and moments is the ‘story’ – the essence of our life.
So many possible questions and reflections can arise on the cusp of this time frame that so many of us on the planet share and attend to in various ways… the conclusion of one year and the arising of a ‘new year’.
“What am I grateful for?” One of the most essential questions of our lives.
“Have I wholeheartedly loved at least a few beings?”
“Have I lived responsibly in relationship to the amazing and vast array of life forms on this
little blue dot that we all share?”
“Have I learned from what I and maybe others have deemed as my mistakes?”
“What affords/brings me the deepest sense of ease and well-being in my life?”
“What have I done to help bring joy, light and ease into the lives of other living beings?”
This is our time… this time of NOW! This is our time of incredible opportunity… our time of life… THE TIME OF OUR LIFE! We can choose to live it wisely, lovingly and compassionately.
From all of us here at The Mountain Hermitage… we deeply appreciate you and send boundless gratitude for your interest, support of and participation in our various Dharma offerings.
May this ‘new year’ be filled with peace, friendship, love, good health, joy and an abiding sense of ease and well-being for you and for all your dear ones… and for all beings everywhere.
When we attend to our values, we might begin by reflecting on the Buddha’s exhortation: ‘Even as a mother protects with her life her child, her only child, so with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings.’ This is not just because kindness is universal & simple, but because it focuses us directly on the quality of heart that has enabled us to survive & grow. We are born as empathic beings – we’re hard-wired for it with mirror-neurons in our brains – and our success as a species has come from being able to operate as a collective. So a focus on goodwill brings us out of the divisions of nationality, social status, and political systems to connect more directly with a value that can include others. Development of that empathic sense is an aspect of Buddhist ‘mind-cultivation’, and its aim is to develop that sense in a widening field to include all other living beings. The more inclusive the cosmos, the greater its validity. And the awakening fact is that this cultivation is also deeply enjoyable….
Our environment does not just consist of trees & whales; it’s the interwoven world of the biosphere, the economy, society and our bodies & minds. It’s all suffering from the same root problem – a short-term self-interest that supports careless attention. If you see it like this, it reduces the impotence; you see the paradigm of domination & exploitation and you address it wherever you can. Because the one right response, wherever, whenever, is to bring careful attention into the cosmos as you experience it.
What is natural, intrinsic & universal to human beings are not valuables: values issue from the mind & cannot get used up; valuables are materials that come from the Earth & are finite. Given this capacity, our responsibility has to be to develop values that will include & support as much of the cosmos as possible. Values: you name them – how about generosity, goodwill, truthfulness, reliability? It’s not difficult to access the resources of our human nature; putting them into practice takes work, but it is innately fulfilling. On a wider scale, giving value to harmony in our total environment will surely help us to strengthen & enrich our own lives. It will take us out of the sense of being an isolated, competitive self & into the harmony of being part of the cosmos.
Buddhist monk Ajahn Sucitto, currently based at Cittaviveka Monastery in Chithurst, West Sussex, has been part of a number of Theravada monasteries in Britain. The passages above are excerpted from his book “Buddha Nature, Human Nature,” which is available on-line in PDF form at no charge.