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 Buddha described five additional, specific benefits of walking meditation. The first is that one who does walking meditation will have the stamina to go on long journeys. This was important in the Buddha’s time, when bhikkhus & bhikkhunis, monks and nuns, had no form of transportation other than their feet & legs. You who are meditating today can consider yourselves to be bhikkhus, and can think of this benefit simply as physical strengthening.
The second benefit is that walking meditation brings stamina for the practice of meditation itself. During walking meditation a double effort is needed. In addition to the ordinary, mechanical effort needed to lift the foot, there is also the mental effort to be aware of the movement — and this is the factor of right effort from the Noble Eightfold Path. If this double effort continues through the movements of lifting, pushing & placing, it strengthens the capacity for that strong, consistent mental effort all yogis know is crucial to vipassana practice.
Thirdly, according to the Buddha, a balance between sitting & walking contributes to good health, which in turn speeds progress in practice. Obviously it is difficult to meditate when we are sick. Too much sitting can cause many physical ailments. But the shift of posture & the movements of walking revive the muscles & stimulate circulation, helping prevent illness.
The fourth benefit is that walking meditation assists digestion. Improper digestion produces a lot of discomfort & is thus a hindrance to practice. Walking keeps the bowels clear, minimizing sloth & torpor. After a meal & before sitting, one should do a good walking meditation to forestall drowsiness. Walking as soon as one gets up in the morning is also a good way to establish mindfulness & to avoid a nodding head in the first sitting of the day.
Last, but not least of the benefits of walking is that it builds durable concentration. As the mind works to focus on each section of the movement during a walking session, concentration becomes continuous. Every step builds the foundation for the sitting that follows, helping the mind stay with the object from moment to moment – eventually to reveal the true nature of reality at the deepest level. This is why I use the simile of a car battery. If a car is never driven, its battery runs down. A yogi who never does walking meditation will have a difficult time getting any where when he or she sits down on the cushion. But one who is diligent in walking will automatically carry strong mindfulness & firm concentration into sitting meditation.
I hope that all of you will be successful in completely carrying out this practice. May you be pure in your precepts, cultivating them in speech & action thus creating the conditions for developing samadhi & wisdom.
May you follow these meditation instructions carefully, noting each moment’s experience with deep, accurate & precise mindfulness, so that you will penetrate into the true nature of reality. May you see how mind & matter constitute all experiences, how these two are interrelated by cause & effect, how all experiences are characterized by impermanence, unsatisfactoriness & absence of self so that you may eventually realize nibbana – the unconditioned state that uproots mental defilements – here & now.
Excerpted from the book In This Very Life: Liberation Teachings of the Buddha
by Sayadaw U Pandita
The Venerable Sayadaw U Pandita died on April 16, 2016. One of the foremost masters of Vipassana, he trained in the Theravada Buddhist tradition of Myanmar & was successor to the late Mahasi Sayadaw. This eminent Dharma master was a key influence on many of the Insight Meditation Society’s teachers & played an important role in IMS’s history.
By Tempel Smith
When we practice mindfulness meditation, we most often start with guiding our attention to our own immediate bodies. Students of mindfulness become aware of the simple sensations of breathing in & out, and then expand mindfulness to include all body sensations. We can also become aware of our bodies in stillness & during daily activities. From a steady foundation of mindfulness of the body, many aspects of the Buddha’s teachings ripen into the experience of true happiness & liberation. Mindfulness of the body becomes a refuge for developing compassion & wisdom.
The Buddha described this in one discourse called “The Six Animals” (SN 35.247). He gave the image of six different wild animals tied to each other by ropes & all struggling to find familiar safety from their own perspective. An alligator wants to run to the swamps, while a monkey wants to run to the trees. These six wild animals are an analogy for our five worldly sense doors (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and somatic sensory) plus the sense door of mental activity (thoughts, images, inner voice, etc.). When there is no central reference point such as our breath, our attention is endlessly pulled in six different directions, only to become fatigued & scattered.
Mindfulness of the body becomes a central pillar or post, like tethering these six wild animals to a column, showing us a different kind of happiness & contentment. Our senses show us the world, yet we don’t need to compulsively chase tastes, sights, sounds, or thoughts, trying to capture them. Instead our well being comes from having our bodies ground us like a pillar. Strangely, as this happens, our senses relax & become clearer. The taste of food, for example, becomes more exquisite as we rest in our bodies & receive the flavors.
When our senses no longer pull us outward, causing us to become ungrounded, we experience a deep turning in mindfulness. We find peace within ourselves & are able to receive the world more fully through our senses.
Illustration by Barry Bruner, Tricyle Magazine Summer 2007
The year 2023 has been difficult for many of us; illness, climate change, political tension and war, have been at the forefront of our minds for many months.
We need to call upon the heart qualities of loving-kindness, compassion and equanimity to help us face this harsh reality. Yet, what is equally important in challenging times, is the factor of mudita, the factor of joy.
Mudita is translated into English as “sympathetic joy,” “empathetic joy” or “altruistic joy.” It is the reverberation of an open heart when in contact with the well being, happiness and good fortune, of other beings.
By celebrating the happiness of beings, we invite our hearts into a place of “enoughness.” We move from an orientation of scarcity, to an orientation of abundance. In celebrating someone else’s good fortune, there is the potential of deeply nourishing ourselves as well. When we find a way to surrender to the experience of abundance in mudita, the source of joy (mine or yours) is no longer so relevant. We are simply nourished by the fact that there are moments of joy in this world, just as there are moments of sorrow.
The inner dimension of mudita is gratitude. With gratitude we remember the big and small things to celebrate in our own lives; the food on the table, a kind friend, the sunlight on our face, the experience of breathing in the here-and-now. The “objects” of our gratitude is less important than the act of remembering the possibility of gratitude. Again we practice lifting our hearts into a state of greater abundance.
The practice of joy is not to deny the challenge of this world. Rather, including joy is needed to keep our hearts balanced. With balance we open to the whole spectrum of this human life more fully, including all that is difficult and all that is beautiful.
In addressing the practice of death awareness, the Buddha left us five contemplations, which he advised us to reflect on frequently.
The Five Contemplations
1. I am subject to aging. Aging is unavoidable.
2. I am subject to illness. Illness is unavoidable.
3. I am subject to death. Death is unavoidable.
4. I will grow different, separate from all that is dear and appealing to me.
5. I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and live dependent on my actions. Whatever I do, for good or for ill, to that will I fall heir.
This isn’t the cheeriest set of reflections in the world, and most people, when they first hear them, feel some resistance. They don’t mind contemplating the Buddhist doctrine of impermanence in the world around them, but this is getting a little close to home. What is being asked of us as meditators is to come face-to-face with the law of impermanence in an intimate way…
But in the Asian countries where Buddhism has been established for centuries, the practice of death awareness is an ancient & venerable tradition, and many meditators work with it. In fact, there are some who regard death awareness as the ultimate practice. The Buddha himself left behind such a statement. “Of all the footprints,” he said, “that of the elephant is supreme. Similarly, of all mindfulness meditation, that on death is supreme.”
Though these contemplations may sound morbid & depressing, working with them can have quite the opposite effect. Students often report—and I have experienced myself—a certain lightheartedness that comes from practicing them, a feeling of calm & ease. Many of us are carrying around a great deal of unacknowledged fear on the subject of death, and like any other fear, it weighs us down. Practicing death awareness helps flush out this fear, enabling us to face it & showing us that it too is an impermanent formation that is empty of self. The fear lingers in our consciousness when we don’t acknowledge it & let it live out its life.
Death is a fact of existence, one that we all must face sometime. And death awareness is a real aid to practice. A deep understanding of mortality can often lead to awakening. Seeing that we don’t have forever becomes a real motivating factor.
In Pali this phenomenon is known as samvega: the urgent need to practice that can grow out of a heightened sense of the perishable nature of life. It can include a real feeling of shock & a sense not only that life doesn’t last forever but also that the way we have been living is wrong. It might turn our world upside down, sending us off to a whole new way of life. Even if it doesn’t have so dramatic an effect, it can light a fire under our practice. We get much less caught up in power, prestige, money, lust, the acquisition of goods. Dharma teachings start to make real sense to us, and we begin to live them instead of just assenting intellectually. Samvega leads to a conversion of the heart, from an egocentric existence to a search for that which is timeless, vast & sacred.
Excerpted from article that appeared in September 2020 issue of Lion’s Roar.
CLICK HERE to read article in full.
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.
By Marcia Rose
Marcia returns to her beloved garden…
What is the Dharma of my early fall 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 a bit in the garden, with my returning energy, stamina, deep care and interest I also mindfully observe the abundance of the growing and constantly changing greenery, vegetables, blossoms and flowers. This riotous multicolored display spreading through my garden here in northern New Mexico offers the perfect laboratory for practice, right in the midst of ‘the way of all things’.
One recent morning, with deep joy I behold a bursting pink and white ‘peace’ 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, on my own without the aid of a ‘walking device’, I clearly see that there are two green strawberries and the zucchini squash is only 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. “Should I pick apples for dessert and snacks? No, not yet. They need more time to grow”. Sweet 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, my slowly healing body, and out into 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, humility and gratitude. 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 early fall 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, kindness, gratitude 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.
As I experience the slow healing of my body – after 2 months of ‘knock, knock, knocking at heaven’s door’ followed by 2 ½ months of gradually improving levels of functioning – I bring fresh appreciation to all the magnificent wonders of this early fall garden, and my heart/mind is filled with boundless patience and gratitude for the nature and the way of all things.
“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.