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 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.
By Marcia Rose
December 21, 2019 – Winter Solstice: Japanese Tea Ceremony
6 a.m. – 30 minute sitting in silent meditation with 70 people in a dark candle-lit room
6:30 a.m. – 20 minute slow walking meditation
6:50 a.m. – Japanese sweet & a cup of freshly made green tea, silently served to each person with a bow
7:10 a.m. – Clear morning light beginning to fill the room & our hearts
7:15 a.m. – spontaneous sharing/poetic words invited…
And so goes our annual Solstice Tea Ceremony here in Taos, New Mexico.
Taking cues from the overt & more subtle rhythms of the natural world, we mark a repeating cycle… darkness to light… the ending & the beginning of a new year/new cycle within this fluid frame of a year’s time.
For many of us, this is time for reflection. What am I grateful for? What heart/mind qualities do I want to strengthen & cultivate? What would I like to let go of, relinquish? What has been particularly challenging this year? What has been especially beautiful, illuminating & uplifting?
Our year-end/year-beginning reflections may bring forth personal, intimate recollections as well as thoughts & images related to broader themes & particular happenings in the world beyond our intimately experienced personal memories.
As our complex human heart/mind quite naturally sorts through & sifts out much of what we have encountered & experienced physically, intellectually, emotionally & spiritually through a year, we are left with ‘just a handful of leaves’ of all the billions of experiences that have passed through our body, mind & heart during this fluid frame of a past year. Trusting what shows up & then simply taking what is offered is just what we need for our practice. With heartfelt interest & care for our well-being, along with a non-judgmental, non-clinging awareness, we mindfully notice, ‘What is my relationship in this very moment to this remembered experience?’
Our reflective practice can bring a clear, caring & non-manipulative interest to what comes up, without editorial commentary. This is the ground, the quality of heart/mind ambiance needed for intuitive understanding & illumination to arise. In this context, our heart is able to release from the swirling eddies of contraction that we can get caught in.
Within our practice, we learn to be truly caring & patient with ourselves as this new cycle/new year blossoms. We can learn to be heartfully, wisely responsive in relationship with ourselves & others, rather than contracting in reactivity. This allows spaciousness, understanding & intuitive wisdom to naturally blossom. This is how we learn to receive the light that we yearn for to fill our heart & mind… the clear light that is always available, forever nearby. This is our practice.
May this new year be filled with friendship, love, a growing intuitive
understanding & a deepening sense of well-being & ease for you.
with metta, Marcia Rose
“The fool who knows he is a fool
Is that much wiser.
The fool who thinks he is wise
Is a fool indeed.”
The Buddha from the Dhammapada
There was a mighty elephant with a strong trunk and long tusks, trained by a good master, and willing and serviceable. This elephant, led by his trainer, came to the land of the blind. Very soon the rumors went in the land of the blind that an elephant had come to their country. So the wise men and teachers of the blind came up to the elephant and began to investigate him. And when the elephant was gone, they met and discussed the animal among themselves.
There were some who said he was like a great thick snake; others said he was like a snake of medium size. The former had felt the trunk, the latter the tail.
Further, there were some who claimed that his figure was like a high column, others declared he was large and bulky like a big barrel, still others maintained he was smooth and hard but tapering. Some of the blind had taken hold of one of the legs, others had reached the main body, and still others had touched the tusks.
In the end they abused and scolded one another over their disagreements, and finally every one of them swore that everyone else was a liar and was cursed on account of his heresies.
Everyone of these blind men was honest in his contentions, sure of having the truth and relying on his own experience. But the elephant trainer knows that every one of them has a parcel of the truth, that every one is right in his way, but wrong in believing his outlook to be the whole truth.
The master of the elephant was an Enlightened One. He brought the elephant of truth into the land of the blind, and those who listen to him well will understand that all the claimants have parcels of the truth. Those who takes refuge in his doctrine will cease to bicker and quarrel.
Sutta Pitaka – Khuddaka Nikaya
The Buddha taught that every human birth is precious & worthy of gratitude. In one of his well-known analogies, he said that receiving a human birth is more rare than the chance that a blind turtle floating in the ocean would stick its head through a small hoop. He would often instruct a monk to take his ground cloth into the forest, sit at the base of a tree, and begin “gladdening the heart” by reflecting on the series of fortunate circumstances that had given the monk the motivation & ability to seek freedom through understanding the dharma.
Practicing mindfulness of gratitude consistently leads to a direct experience of being connected to life & the realization that there is a larger context in which your personal story is unfolding. Being relieved of the endless wants & worries of your life’s drama, even temporarily, is liberating. Cultivating thankfulness for being part of life blossoms into a feeling of being blessed, not in the sense of winning the lottery, but in a more refined appreciation for the interdependent nature of life. It also elicits feelings of generosity, which create further joy. Gratitude can soften a heart that has become too guarded, and it builds the capacity for forgiveness, which creates the clarity of mind that is ideal for spiritual development.
Let me be clear: The practice of gratitude is not in any way a denial of life’s difficulties. We live in troubling times, and no doubt you’ve experienced many challenges, uncertainties, and disappointments in your own life. Nor does the practice of gratitude deny the Buddha’s teaching on death: Death is certain; your death is certain; the time of death is unknown; the time of your death is unknown. Rather, gratitude practice is useful because it turns the mind in such a way that it enables you to live into life or, more accurately, to die into life. Having access to the joy & wonderment of life is the antidote to feelings of scarcity & loss. It allows you to meet life’s difficulties with an open heart. The understanding you gain from practicing gratitude frees you from being lost or identified with either the negative or the positive aspects of life, letting you simply meet life in each moment as it rises.
Gratitude for the grace of conscious embodiment evolves into the practice of selfless gratitude, in which your concerns slowly but surely shift from being mostly about yourself & those close to you to being about all living beings. As this occurs, you need less & less in the way of good fortune. It becomes enough that there are those who are happy, who are receiving love, who are safe, and who have a promising future. It is not that you would not prefer good things for yourself, but your sense of well-being is no longer contingent on external circumstances. You are able to rejoice that amidst all life’s suffering there exists joy. You realize that pain & joy are part of a mysterious whole. When this state of selfless gratitude starts to blossom, your mind becomes more spacious, quieter, and your heart receives its first taste of the long-sought release from fear & wanting. This is grace.
View full article on Phillip’s website: dharmawisdom.org/
Phillip Moffitt has been teaching Vipasanna meditation throughout the U.S. since completing teacher training at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in 1998. A former publishing executive, Phillip is founder of the Life Balance Institute, dedicated to study & practice of spiritual values in daily life. He also founded the Marin Sangha in San Rafael CA & is a teacher & member of the Guiding Teachers Council at Spirit Rock. His books include “Dancing with Life.”
Depending on your quality of mind,
the object may be perceived
differently & the view changes.
Your watching mind must be strong & purified, with less defilement. If your mind is ready, understanding arises. So take care of your mind, take care of your practice & take care of your watching mind. Cultivate it so that it is stronger & stronger.
Our duty is to make the quality of awareness stronger. Stronger awareness means awareness & wisdom are working together continuously. This is awareness with the right view, right attitude, right idea, and right thought. If this is continuous, then the mind is stronger & stronger. We only need to do this. If the mind becomes stronger it can do its job. Dhamma does its job & nature does its job.
We are not trying to see the object. We are not trying to look for something. We are trying to make the meditating mind stronger & stronger.
How do we make the mind stronger? When we are aware, with the right attitude & right understanding, then the mind has wisdom & it becomes stronger. This is not because we are putting in a lot of energy; if we use too much energy the mind will become tired. If we try to see something, the mind becomes tenser. We are cultivating the quality of awareness to make the mind stronger & stronger. If we have awareness with wisdom & continuity, then the mind becomes stronger & stronger. When the mind becomes stronger it can do its job.
There is more understanding. It should be like this. When we have more understanding, we have less resistance & fewer reactions. Because of reactions, we suffer. Because of learning, we understand. With understanding comes confidence.
For someone who has been meditating or practicing for a long time,
the mind must be of a better & better quality. The mind is more aware,
more stable & more peaceful.
Excerpt from Sayadaw’s book “Dhamma everywhere: Welcoming each moment with Awareness & Wisdom.” [Entire book available on-line]
Sayadaw U Tejaniya began his Buddhist training as a young teenager in Burma under the late Shwe Oo Min Sayadaw. After a career in business & life as a householder, he has been a permanent monk since 1996. He feels that his experience developing his practice while living as a householder helps him understands both the challenges yogis face in integrating their meditation practice with their everyday lives & how to overcome them.
By Marcia Rose
At the age of 16, I discovered the Buddha Dharma because of a paper I was required to write in high school on a religion other than Judeo-Christian. As I reflected on what I was reading about Buddhism, I felt like I had found ‘home‘. My heartfelt thought was, “This makes such great sense.”
During much of my life, until I first discovered & then eventually deeply connected with the Buddha Dharma, I often experienced various degrees of alienation, separateness, feeling different, alone, lonely & not part of the ‘weave‘/the culture of ‘ordinary‘ American life. Because of the family that I grew up in & the cultural, non-competitive, social, political, religious & deeply compassionate values that I was raised with, I never felt like I ‘fit in‘. When I began pursuing the Buddha Dharma, over time I found ‘home‘ in the midst of it all.
Of course, I spent years trying out various Dharma ‘shoes‘ – learning a great deal & being well fed with each step, with each bite taken – before eventually finding that the Theravada shoes & food fit the best & were the most nourishing. And so I dropped more fully & deeply into the exquisite garden of Theravada Buddhism. As the years have rolled on & blossomed, I have never had any doubt that the Buddha Dharma is ‘home‘ no matter where I am, what I’m engaged in, who I’m with… in any situation, in any place in the world.
Seventeen years ago – after four & a half years spent as resident teacher for staff at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA, as well as many years teaching the Buddha Dharma in the U.S. & internationally – I & a small group of dedicated Dharma students founded The Mountain Hermitage in Taos, New Mexico. I have been the founding & guiding teacher since our beginning. Over all these years, we have offered many wonderful retreats for a full house of sixteen students, with incredibly fine teachers & with many of our retreats oriented for more experienced students. A successful & gratifying aspect of our Mountain Hermitage offerings has been our vision & mission of offering substantial scholarship support for those who would not be able to attend a Mountain Hermitage retreat without this help, including monastics who are welcomed to attend any TMH retreat for free. I am also filled with joy & gratitude that promotion & support of diversity among our teachers & retreat participants – another primary aspect of our TMH vision – continues to blossom & manifest.
Being part of the unfolding & flowering of The Mountain Hermitage has been & continues to be a gift of boundless benefit & value over the years for those who have come to learn & practice at TMH retreats, for each & every teacher who has offered teachings, for everyone who has been & is on the Hermitage staff, and for myself as guiding teacher.
And so here I am now, soon stepping into my 80th year of life. This year, I have stopped teaching residential retreats at The Mountain Hermitage or anywhere else. Going forward, TMH will continue offering retreats with a wonderful array of teachers, and I will continue as The Mountain Hermitage guiding teacher for as long as I’m able. I’ll also continue to meet one-on-one with a limited number of students for practice meetings, in-person or via telephone or Zoom, and I will continue to offer a mini-residency with the Santa Fe Vipassana Sangha once or twice each year. I may also offer occasional one-month study & practice classes on a weekly basis in Taos. And I look forward to spending time in my clay studio making pottery & sculpture, and outside gardening when that is in season.
The Buddha Dharma in its timelessness & its continuing relevancy in today’s challenging & beautiful world will always be ‘home‘ no matter where I am, what I’m engaged in or who I’m with… in any situation, any place in the world.
With metta & a deep bow of gratitude,
All flower photos from Marcia’s garden.
By Annie Nugent
The beauty of the dharma is worth reflecting on from time to time. It helps to remind us of the power of the practice and where it can take us in any moment. Another way to express this could be “gladdening the mind.”
It is said in the texts that a gladdened mind is important because it supports the necessary qualities coming together in the mind that ultimately bring about wisdom and true happiness, which is what we are seeking when we come to the dharma.
The Buddha uses an example to portray two kinds of practitioners – one who does not engage the practice and one who does engage – using a simile of two kinds of cowherds: The first cowherd is incapable of rearing his herd as he doesn’t know where the watering hole is, how to remove the fly eggs, and how to supply food to the cattle.
The second cowherd understands the job well – is able to feed, water and keep the cattle free of flies, and happy.
By reflecting on our practice, we can feel gladdened by the fact that we are like the second cowherd when we engage the teachings. We know how to practice; we know how to keep strengthening our practice by coming to the “watering hole” to drink of the dharma any time that we check what’s happening in the mind by means of mindful awareness.
In these moments, we are not feeding the defilements by being caught in greed, hatred and delusion – which is “letting the flies eggs grow.”
Rather, we are in touch with the beauty of the dharma – it’s power to free the mind – and experiencing that freedom of mind. We simply need to frequently remind ourselves of this, and by so doing, our confidence in our ability grows, too. This is how we know what it is to have drunk from the watering hole. When we do, as the Buddha says, we gain gladness in the mind connected with the dharma.
It’s a strange phenomenon how difficult people find it to love themselves. One would think it is the easiest thing in the world, because we’re constantly concerned with ourselves. We’re always interested in how much we can get, how well we can perform, how comfortable we can be. The Buddha mentioned in a discourse that “oneself is dearest to oneself.” So with all that, why is it so difficult to actually love oneself?
Loving oneself certainly doesn’t mean indulging oneself. Really loving is an attitude towards oneself that most people don’t have, because they know quite a few things about themselves which are not desirable. Everybody has innumerable attitudes, reactions, likes & dislikes which they’d be better off without. Judgment is made & while one likes one’s positive attitudes, one dislikes the others. With that comes suppression of those aspects of oneself that one is not pleased with. One doesn’t want to know about them & doesn’t acknowledge them. That’s one way of dealing with oneself, which is detrimental to growth…
The only thing that is real is that we have six roots within us. Three roots of good & three roots of evil. The latter are greed, hate & delusion, but we also have their opposites: generosity, loving-kindness & wisdom. Take an interest in this matter. If one investigates this & doesn’t get anxious about it, then one can easily accept these six roots in everybody. No difficulty at all, when one has seen them in oneself. They are the underlying roots of everyone’s behavior. Then we can look at ourselves a little more realistically, namely not blaming ourselves for the unwholesome roots, not patting ourselves on the back for the wholesome ones, but rather accepting their existence within us. We can also accept others more clear-sightedly & have a much easier time relating to them…
Clarity of thinking comes from purification of one’s emotions, which is a difficult job that needs to be done. But it can only be done successfully when it isn’t an emotional upheaval, but clearcut, straightforward work that one does on oneself. When it is considered to be just that, it takes the sting out of it. The charge of “I’m so wonderful” or “I’m so terrible” is defused. We are neither wonderful nor terrible. Everyone is a human being with all the potential & all the obstructions. If one can love that human being, the one that is “me” with all its faculties & tendencies, then one can love others realistically, usefully & helpfully. But if one makes a break in the middle & loves the part which is nice & dislikes the part which isn’t nice enough, one’s never going to come to grips with reality. One day we’ll have to see it, for what it is. It’s a “working ground,” a kammatthana. It’s a straightforward & interesting affair of one’s own heart.
Excerpted from “All of Us Beset by birth, decay, and death”
Ayya Khema (1923-1997), the first Western woman to become a Theravadin Buddhist nun, served as a model & inspiration for women from all the Buddhist traditions who have sought to revive the practice of women’s monasticism in modern times. In 1987, she co-ordinated the first international conference of Buddhist nuns in the history of Buddhism, which resulted in creation of Sakyadhita, a world-wide Buddhist women’s organization. https://www.buddhanet.net/khema.htm
For one just starting the practice of meditation, there is often hope for a cure.
Sometimes what one wants to be cured of is quite specific. States of mind like anxiety, or grief, or stress can be powerful motivators to practice. Or there may be mental or physical health issues which one wishes to heal.
In other cases, spiritual search might be powered by something less tangible, like a general hope there might something to learn or develop which could create meaning which is currently lacking.
Thus it is generally true that some kind of discontent is present at the beginning of practice. There is an itch to scratch – emotional, physical, or existential. In some cases, all three! Thus it has been since the time of the Buddha. He himself says that suffering/distress ripens into either despair or search. People who go on meditation retreats are taking the route of search, having set aside despair, at least for now.
Of course, its a healthy and wise thing to seek healing from suffering. There are many ways humans attempt to do this. Some of these methods might be helpful. Some strategies might not be useful at all, causing addition suffering and deepening of despair. Particular methods for finding relief might seek elimination of symptoms, or to create an entirely new replacement experience.
The Buddha’s own way of addressing suffering is generic. The teachings directly target the way the human heart/mind causes and intensifies its own distress via resistance to experience. The training seeks less to control how things are in the immediate sense than to find wise relationship to any situation which is present. Like a whole system tonic, mindfulness and other trainings of the heart/mind strengthen us in all dimensions of our being.
Ajahn Brahm, a monk in the Thai Forest Tradition, clarifies that skillful motivation for meditation is not to focus upon directly curing anything in particular. Instead, the training is to develop a being (ourselves) that cares, that is compassionate and wise with whatever is present. The process of developing this stability of heart/mind is the training of vipassana meditation.
Paradoxically, it is from this place of grounded, balanced acceptance of experience that literal healing sometimes arises. By addressing the main conceptual problem which is within our power to heal – deluded craving – we shift our entire system in the direction of health and balance. Whether our conditions change or not, we are better able to find equanimity and happiness in the actual unfolding of our lives.
Every now & again we get irritated – just a little bit. It is nothing major, and it does not throw us out of balance. But there is this little contraction when a meditator comes into the meditation hall & is noisier than we think she or he should be. “Can’t you sit down more quietly? Don’t you see that I am deeply meditating?” Then we take a deep breath, realising how silly it is to get upset about this triviality & settle back into our practice. Concentration is getting better & deeper – and then somebody coughs. “How inconsiderate!” the mind comments. Then back to the experience of the breath. Now mindfulness is really picking up, the mind is sharp & clear – and somebody blows the nose. And this blows the mind, “Don’t you know that I was just about to have a really deep experience?!”
Such little disturbances happen all day long & without mindfulness we are very quick to blame these disturbances or the people who caused the disturbance. But we need to remember that nothing & nobody else can make us irritated or upset. Actually, we should be very grateful for these disturbances because they show us where we are stuck: stuck in the idea that insights can only arise when there are no ‘disturbances‘ at all. We assume that the mind & the environment must be in a certain state – whatever this might be – for understanding & insights to happen. With this, we become very selective & exclude many experiences because they do not fit into our idea.
But actually, in vipassana meditation we establish mindfulness in regard to all of the four foundations of mindfulness. In other words, we are aware of bodily sensations, of feeling tones, of thoughts, of mind states or emotions & of everything that presents itself at one of the six sense doors. If we are doing the practice properly, nothing can ‘disturb‘ us. Whenever we get irritated because something has ‘disturbed‘ our meditation, we should immediately detect that holding on is taking place. We hold on to the idea of how the practice should be, how meditators should behave, or how the yogi jobs should be organized. Whenever we think in terms of ‘should‘ or ‘should not,’ a little red light should blink. ‘Should‘ points to the fact that we have formed an idea around something, that we want things to be a certain way – of course, our way! We need to loosen the tight grip around these ideas. The real disturbance is not the cough or the lawn mower. The real disturbance is our attitude to these happenings. The attitude of “this should not be happening” or “this should be done in such & such a way.”
When we notice another little contraction because the carrots are overcooked, then we can lighten up & smile at ourselves. There is no need to blame ourselves for this irritation. If we do so, we would only reinforce our wrong attitude to phenomena that are naturally happening, to phenomena over which we have no absolute control. The art of vipassana meditation is to deal with all experiences in the same way. One object is not better than another. Mindfulness is not discriminating. A so-called ‘disturbance‘ is mind-made: sound is just sound, pain is just pain, heat is just heat, cold is just cold, smell is just smell, silence is just silence …..
Ariya Baumann will be teaching the Three-Week Summer Hermitage Retreat in July 2020.