Reflections on Practice
This page offers some reflections on practice from various teachers who are associated with The Mountain Hermitage, including Marcia Rose, Sayadaw Vivekananda, Annie Nugent, Venerable Dhammadinna, Andrea Fella, Greg Scharf, Jean Smith, Gina Sharpe, Winnie Nazarko, Sean Murphy, Wynn Fricke, Nikki Mirghafori, Joseph Goldstein, John Stanley, David Loy, Brian Lesage, and Larry Yang.
It helps to explore how we can work with fear from the point of view of the path, the student’s journey. How do we walk the path of fear? Fear is not a trivial matter. In many ways, it restricts our lives; it imprisons us. Fear is also a tool of oppression. Because of fear, we do many harmful things, individually & collectively, and people who are hungry for power over others know that & exploit it. We can be made to do things out of fear.
Fear is a very tricky thing. Sometimes we put up a pretense of virtue, but really we’re afraid of being bad. Are our good deeds true virtue or just fear? Fear also stops us from speaking up when we know we should. Fear is often what causes people to leave the path of dharma. When things start to go deep, beyond self-improvement, they encounter fear & say, “This path is not for me.”
The essential cause of our suffering & anxiety is ignorance of the nature of reality, and craving & clinging to something illusory. That is referred to as ego, and the gasoline in the vehicle of ego is fear. Ego thrives on fear, so unless we figure out the problem of fear, we will never understand or embody any sense of egolessness or selflessness.
We have our conscious day-to-day fears—of a close call, an accident, a bad health diagnosis. But then there is an undercurrent of fear, which is very relevant to practitioners. This undercurrent of fear lurks behind a lot of our habits. It is why it is so hard to just sit still or stand still or stand in line—not doing anything in particular — without feeling nervous & fidgety. We have a fear of being still.
There are many stages in the practitioner’s journey of working with fear, but it is very important to know where it begins, so we can get off on the right foot. The starting point is … where you look straightforwardly at your own experience. You examine fear & dissect it into its components. Where does it arise? What is the sensation when you feel afraid? What kind of thoughts race through your mind when you are in a state of fear? What’s your particular pattern? Do you panic? Do you freeze? Do you get really busy & try to fix everything? Do you get angry? At this stage in the path, you try to understand your experience, try to break it down.
To do this, it helps to see things as they arise — before they become full-blown & you are caught in their sway, at which point you can’t do much about them. In meditation practice you slow things down, and that allows you to see the subtle arisings. By slowing things down, you can interrupt the tossing of the match into the pile of leaves. You can say, “I don’t need to go there. I see what’s coming.” You catch things when they’re manageable. Understanding, examining, knowing, slowing down—those are the first steps in working with fear, the beginning of the path to fearlessness.
Excerpted from article that first appeared in May 25, 2017 issue of Lion’s Roar magazine.
Judith Lief is an experienced teacher of Buddhist psychology & meditation who trained under Tibetan meditation master, Ven. Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. She has been a teacher & practitioner for over 35 years, and she continues to teach throughout the world. Judy is known for offering insights & practices stemming from the Buddhist tradition as a support for ordinary people facing the difficulties & challenges of modern life.
(In 1999, when this dharma talk was given in Spirit Rock Meditation Center, the U.S. military was bombing Yugoslavia. We have substituted Ukraine for Yugoslavia in the text here, to make the article more relevant to today’s circumstances.)
Those who live in awakened awareness see the suffering of others—the unhappiness, the misery, the unfairness, the corruption, the horrors of life. We’re not blind to all of this, but we do not create additional sorrow, despair & anguish around our contact with these common human experiences of life’s inevitable suffering.
I have been asked how to relate to the violence in Ukraine where people are performing horrific acts. The questions immediately arise: What can we do about it? How should we regard this? The answer, of course, is mindfulness. With mindfulness, we still feel what is impinging on our mind as unpleasant, ugly, unfair or horrific, because that is simply the way it is. But now we have the opportunity to choose how we respond.
Usually, we just react. When we hear bad news about violence, about brutality & corruption, about the persecution of innocent people, we usually feel indignant or outraged. We want revenge, to punish the tyrants & those perpetuating these indignities on others. This is our conditioned reaction—when we hear bad news, we feel angry; when we hear good news, we feel happy. We don’t have much of a choice in the matter because this is how we are programmed to react.
When we are mindful, we can respond instead of react. With an awakened mind, based in right understanding or right view, we can liberate ourselves from the momentum of habit & reactivity. We can respond to the various experiences we have in life with wisdom & compassion. When we are mindful, we enter the natural state of the mind, which is pure & unconditioned.
The four Brahma-viharas are the natural responses that come from this purity of mind. They are not created. That is, we don’t try to feel compassionate through conjuring up ideas of compassion or sentimental attitudes about love. Compassion, or karuna, is the natural response to the misfortunes, unfairness & atrocities that we see or hear about.
The Brahma-vihara of metta, generally translated as lovingkindness, is our response to the conditioned realm, a patient acceptance of everything, whether good or bad. Accepting the good is not so hard, but it is quite difficult not to hate the bad & seek revenge. Metta is not approval of the bad. It doesn’t mean that we remain ignorant or refuse to look. When we are in that state of pure attention & awareness, then we are not compounding the bad with hatred or the desire for revenge. Metta is responding with kindness & patience, without getting caught up in our habitual emotional reactions to repulsive or unpleasant experiences.
Mudita, or sympathetic joy, is the spontaneous response to the beauty & goodness of the world we live in. Upekkha, or equanimity, is a state of composure & emotional balance. It is the ability to know when it’s time to do something & when there is nothing that can be done. The Brahma-viharas are called the divine abodes. They come from the purity of the mind. They are not personal qualities; they are universal.
American-born Ajahn Sumedho, a monk of over 30 years, was abbot of Amaravati Monastery near London from its consecration in 1984 until his retirement in 2010. Regarded as Ajahn Chah’s most influential Western disciple, Sumedho is considered a seminal figure in the transmission of the Buddha’s teachings to the West.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2000 issue of the magazine “Inquiring Mind.”
READ IT IN FULL
In my seventy-fifth year-
a channel opened
to oceans of space,
where words sparkle
in their sparse delight
calling, calling, calling
Lazy Day at 76
and a first glimpse
into the unknown day,
waiting for that pulse of life
to push through the pale joy
and doing nothing.
Going for a walk
is almost too much
on this day of questionable ease:
is it simply resting up
to save the world
or the faint glimmer of decline?
I’ll decide tomorrow
if I awaken in the morning light.
A high forest stream,
a slip, a fall, a twisted knee
and summer plans asunder.
anything can happen any time.
A night awake
and in the morning
anything can happen any time
opens the heart
The birth canal of death
propels us forward.
Is it love that beckons
or the grappling hook of hope –
towards the first crying breath?
Some knots defy the fingers
struggling to unwind
our complex threads of history –
our minds, like arthritic hands
fumbling in the dark.
Maybe those threads
can never be picked apart
and only the brilliant edge of love
will find the way.
bursts of joy
littering my yard.
easing into a warm bath,
Two long legs
Looking down, I wonder
‘Who do they belong to?’
Ode to Non-being
If now, on top of this, Nonbeing IS, who can comprehend it.
- Chuang Tzu
What if the Matrix
Is Being-ness itself –
Building dreams at water’s edge,
ageing children dig in the sand.
Shovels and spades build castles and caves,
as Shiva plays on breaking waves.
Who will brave the embrace of peace –
that mysterious absence
terrifying at first,
and then release.
By Marcia Rose
It’s been A YEAR again…an unusual (meaning not usual) and challenging year for most all of us sentient beings on this magnificently beautiful planet we all share. The microscope has been turned on to its high power, illuminating the changing & impermanent nature of just about everything that we’ve been used to & so much of what we’ve taken for granted. The truth is that it has always been & will always be this way. There’s never been anything that we can forever depend on to remain the same, or to even remain at all. But we haven’t been called to notice this quite so clearly & intimately on a planetary & personal scale until these last few years.
It’s through our own direct experience via our meditation practice that we truly learn that all sentient beings, including each one of us, and each & every life-form on this planet, are totally interdependent amazing miracles, albeit temporary miraculous manifestations of life.
As awakening beings, we acknowledge that this temporariness with all the unrelenting changes that permeate & stir our lives, can be hard to accept, at least at first. This is the beginning of our transformation towards a greater truth leading into a new way of trusting this constant change we had previously thought to be such a problem.
In my garden, a pair of Chinese ring-necked doves take turns sitting on the eggs in their nest. One morning, the two take a short break together to drink some water. Returning to the nest to take her turn, the female dove finds both eggs broken open & the contents gone. I found her sitting hunkered down, perfectly still & quiet. She stayed that way for over an hour & then flew off. A few days later the pair built a new nest in a new tree & the process of nurturing new life began again.
As we enter into this ‘new year’, we can also practice sitting still, quietly giving our breath a dedicated attention, allowing relaxation & clarity to manifest. We mindfully notice that no two breaths are alike. We notice that the breath gets more & more subtle, soft & light as we relax. We notice that a lightness of being & a quiet joy begin to show up. We’re doing nothing to make this happen. We mindfully notice that a sense of tranquility begins to permeate. We notice that we are experiencing centeredness & a balance of heart & mind. We recognize & learn to simply, mindfully be present within the body, the breath & the heart/mind as it all keeps changing.
We can make a resolve to begin each day sitting in quietude cultivating gratitude, as a clear & powerful way to affirm, inspire & engage a wholesome relationship to change & impermanence. As we spontaneously allow various aspects of our life to appear, we learn to open our heart/mind towards being grateful for whatever shows up.
BREATH…”much gratitude for breath.” SENSATIONS IN THE FEET…”gratitude for feet.” HEARING BIRD SONG & WIND…”gratitude for hearing, for birds, for air”. THOUGHTS OF MY SON…”deep gratitude for my son”. INTERNAL & EXTERNAL DIFFICULTIES…Can we be grateful for difficulties? Difficult internal & external experiences can be some of our most inciteful teachers. MORNING SUNSHINE...”gratitude”. And on it goes without any clinging…JUST GRATITUDE!
Patience, generosity, compassion, loving-kindness, clarity, equanimity & a deep sense of interconnectedness are beautiful & wholesome heart qualities that blossom & flourish from a heart/mind filled with gratitude. We begin to sense, see & know the world as it truly is, and are more & more able to respond to our inner world & the outer world…rather than reacting to how it shows up.
The purifying, crystalline & at times challenging process of our practice eventually strips us clean, creating a balanced & cool brightness… the liberating experiences of equanimity & wisdom. We are learning to trust our practice as we continue moving through all the ebbs & flows…moving through & with the changing nature of this miraculous life.
May this ‘new year’ be filled with light, understanding, ease, friendship, love & a deepening sense of well-being for each of you & for all beings everywhere.
With love, Marcia
These last years, with Covid, isolation & political tensions, we have all been called to cultivate greater levels of compassion. We are facing many forms of suffering both on an individual & a collective level, and we are continuing to expand our hearts to all that is happening in the world. Thankfully we can find support in the Buddhas teaching on the four Brahma Viharas & the balancing potential of equanimity to support the compassionate heart.
Opening to compassion also means opening to the first noble truth – the truth of suffering. We connect with our own personal versions of suffering, as well as the existential, collective layers of suffering. We see our shared inherent vulnerability & the potentially painful experiences that comes along with the realities of sickness, aging & death. The potential medicine of compassion practice is that it can open the door to a deeper sense of interconnection. And through the deepening interconnection, we can release painful self-identification with suffering as personal & somehow “wrong”. Over time compassion can grow to meet the “full catastrophe of life” with warmth, care & steadiness without needing anything to change. Often the relief is not in trying to get rid of suffering, but in meeting it, breathing with it, and caring for it. Caring intimacy with what is painful has its own relief.
A difficulty with compassion practice is that we can easily feel overwhelmed as we start connecting with various forms of suffering. The heart can have a hard time bearing the unpleasantness, without trying to get rid of it – either by turning away from suffering or somehow trying to fix it. It takes a lot of steadiness to simply breath with the unpleasantness of suffering, letting it be, letting it flow through without reactivity.
Equanimity offers a non-reactive & steady heart space – not having an opinion about whether an experience is good or bad. As a support for compassion, equanimity can help the heart open to what is painful & potentially unpleasant, without needing to get rid of the unpleasantness. While equanimity understands that our experience of suffering ultimately is related to our own reactivity around unpleasant, pleasant & neutral experiences, compassion has empathy for all the ways we are afraid, get caught, get entangled & get lost. Together they support the heart to respond to our samsaric existence from a place of balance, steadiness & care.
May we all know steady, unwavering, courageous compassion.
Today we have gathered & when we look upon the faces around us we see that the cycles of life continue. We have been given the duty to live in balance & harmony with each other & all living things. So now let us bring our minds together as one as we give greetings & thanks to each other as People. Now our minds are one.
We are thankful to our Mother the Earth, for she gives us everything that we need for life. She supports our feet as we walk about upon her. It gives us joy that she still continues to care for us, just as she has from the beginning of time. To our Mother, we send thanksgiving, love & respect. Now our minds are one….
We gather our minds to greet & thank the enlightened Teachers who have come to help throughout the ages. When we forget to live in harmony, they remind us of the way we were instructed to live as people. With one mind, we send greetings & thanks to these caring Teachers. Now our minds are one.
We have now arrived at the place where we end our words. Of all the things we named, it is not our intention to leave anything out. If something was forgotten, we leave it to each individual to send such greetings & thanks in their own way. And now our minds are one.
“In Haudenosaunee tradition, being grateful & giving thanks is a regular practice in both everyday life & at special occasions. The Thanksgiving Address, or “The Words that Come Before All Else,” is delivered in Native Haudenosaunee languages at both the beginning & the end of social gatherings, celebrations, and council meetings; and it is recited each morning at the beginning of the school day. The Thanksgiving Address is not a prayer, but rather an offering of greetings & thanks to the natural world. Each part of Creation is acknowledged & thanked for the ways in which it contributes to life on Earth.”
Words from The Skä•noñh – Great Law of Peace Center, a Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Heritage Center focused on the story of the native peoples of central New York, told through the lens of the Onondaga Nation. You can find a complete version of this inspiring & poetic address on the National Museum of the American Indian website. Each element of the natural world is spoken to & thanked for their contributions to all life. A wonderful read or spoken piece!
Knowledge of the Buddhist way should be applied in practice & verified first hand through direct experience. One should make a great vow to tread the way & realize the Dharma for the benefit of all sentient beings.
This is the essence of Buddhist Wisdom… In order to attain Wisdom, we have to practice: 1) Samatha – meditation for the Appeasement of the mind. 2) Vipassana – Insight meditation. According to Buddhist tradition, the Buddha himself used Anapana Sati meditation to attain Enlightenment. This is the most respected meditation in all traditions, both the North & the South. Why? The Buddha himself told, “See it yourself. Do not accept just because I say so.”
The phenomenon of Breath, whether we are aware of it or not, is the basis of living. If we don’t breathe, we don’t live. Both our Mind & Body participates in it till our Life lasts. The process of breathing is dependent on our Body on the one hand & on the other, on our Mind. “Breath” belongs to the element of “Rupa” (Body), but cannot function without the “Nama” (Mind). When the function of the Mind ceases, the Breath will cease too.
The “In – Out Breathing” reflects the condition of the Mind & the Body and its mutual inter-relationship. This is the Buddhist Wisdom. For example, if we use the Body & Mind with effort, it affects the condition of our Breath & vice versa. We have to understand this. In Buddhist scriptures our human body is compared with the “billows” used by goldsmiths. The hand which operates the billows, is our Mind. If we use the billows with much effort, our Breath will be fast. If we use the billows with little effort, our Breath will be slow. Our Breath will depend on our effort.
If you have strong emotions, it will reflect on the quality of your Breath, and you will use much effort for perceptions of your Mind. When you cool down, your feelings, perceptions & Breath changes. What we have to strive for is “Appeased Breath,” especially when we face difficulties in life. So practice this meditation to achieve an appeased mind. Then you will be able to cope with any difficulties/defilements in daily life, with the “Mindfulness of Breath.”
When the Mind is appeased & calm, the Breath will be slow. When the Mind is agitated, the Breath will be fast. Study of the “In – Out Breath” is connected with Wisdom. Watch the Breath with Wisdom. The Breath is a direct reflection of how you use your Mind & Body.
The importance of this method of being “Mindful of the Breath” is that the Breath informs you from birth to death, about the “Conditions of your Mind & Body.” This is the Wisdom of the Breath. The Breath is “Mind created Reality” (an object created by the Mind) So, if our Mind does not exist, our Breath does not exist either. To understand Breath, you have to understand this – that it is a “Mind-Created Reality.”
A rare gem in contemporary Buddhism, Venerable Tomas Dhammadipa was born in Czechoslovakia, where he studied Chinese literature & philosophy. He studied under renowned contemporary masters of Buddhism in Japan, Sri Lanka & Burma, and received ordination in both Theravada & Mahayana traditions. One of his principal teachers was Burmese meditation master Pa Auk Sayadaw, who recognized him as his first Western disciple qualified to teach meditation.
Above excerpted from transcripts of Dhamma talk given by Ven Dhammadipa in Toronto in 2006. See transcript of full talk at: https://ia904509.us.archive.org/16/items/2006anapanasatimeditationstoronto_txt/2006%20Anapanasati%20meditations%20(Toronto).pdf
For many of us in the West, Buddhism first appears on the horizon as a path to inner peace offering relief from the tensions of daily living. This perception is reinforced by popular culture, which pictures the Buddha as a man sitting motionless with crossed legs and closed eyes, seemingly lost to his surroundings. Seldom do we think that Buddhism might hold out practical clues for resolving the complex problems that weigh so heavily on our planet. The problems seem just too big for an ancient system of contemplative spirituality.
Yet, I believe, if we as Buddhists are to adequately respond to the needs of our age, we will have to rise to the challenge. It won’t suffice for us merely to adopt Buddhist teachings as a route to deeper self-fulfillment. A predominantly personal approach to spiritual growth falls short of Buddhism’s ethical ideals and misses half its message. Greed, hatred, and delusion are not only in our mind but in the food we eat, the gas we put into our cars, and the movies we turn to for entertainment.
The Buddha taught the dharma on the basis of a far-reaching vision that pierced the depths of suffering in both its personal and collective dimensions. He offered his teaching not only as a method to tame the mind but also as a standard for ennobling us in all dimensions of our being, including the social, political, and economic. His discourses on lay ethics, communal harmony, and the duties of a king are testimony to his panoramic awareness….
As heirs to the Buddha’s teaching, we are called with compelling urgency to the task of envisaging the new structures needed to protect human life on earth. We have to create communities, both locally and globally, that express wisdom, care, and compassion. The word dharma means not just Buddhism but the whole body of principles that support human beings and draw out our best potentials. To be itself, karuna, “compassion,” must eventuate in karana, “doing.” Our work may begin with transforming our own minds and values but it cannot stop there. We have to go further and manifest these in action—in deeds that will build a safer, kinder, and more just world.
Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi, an American Buddhist monk who received novice ordination in Sri Lanka in 1972 & full ordination in 1973, lives & teaches at Chuang Yen Monastery in New York State. He is a prolific translator from the Pali Canon, the most ancient collection of Buddhist scriptures & is founder of the organization Buddhist Global Relief, which funds projects to fight hunger & to empower women across the world. This piece was excerpted from an article in August 2011 issue of Lion’s Roar magazine.
By Annie Nugent
There is a well-known teaching of the Buddha that we might not give the attention it deserves. It goes something like this: “If transforming the defilements of mind were not possible, I would not ask you to practice towards this end. It is because it is possible that I ask.”
This short teaching is important to take in fully and then check that we understand how the practice unfolds: It is about being mindful of what’s arising in our experience just one moment at a time. In that moment we are not acting on the unskillful habits and this is the way transformation begins to come about. This is good news for us because one moment is perfectly do-able – and then another and another. This becomes our life’s practice.
Yet, if we wrongly think that the unskillful tendencies of mind are going to stop with just a little bit if practice, of course we will be discouraged when we see these old tendencies showing themselves again and again. Remember it is not about getting rid of them but quite simply to repeatedly meet them with mindfulness and this will lead to wisdom.
What is wisdom? We begin to realize that these unskillful tendencies are impermanent arisings in the mind that are not who we are. They don’t belong to anybody, but are known by the mind as they arise and then cease. When we understand this, we don’t attach to them as being “mine”. In this way they are disempowered. The more we are able to meet the moment with mindfulness and wisdom, the less we are feeding these unskillful tendencies. They begin to wither and die in the same way that a plant that is not watered begins to die.
It is important to celebrate the moments when we have not been caught in some unskillful mind state, even for a moment – and feel happy about that. We may even find that we experience the opposites of the defilements more frequently as our practice strengthens – wisdom, kindness, compassion and a generosity of heart are more often the backdrop of the mind.
Now the confidence the Buddha had in our potential becomes ours as we savor these times when we are not suffering. We truly experience the joy and the power of the dharma.
A theme we [want to explore] is “complaining & blaming.” I thought it would be a useful theme because our culture tends toward complaint. If I’m suffering, then the way to the end of suffering is to complain or blame. I’m suffering, therefore it’s somebody else’s fault. I’ve been treated unfairly. This isn’t right. It shouldn’t be this way. This is powerful conditioning in our lives. I remember a New Yorker cartoon with a student asking a monk, “You say life is suffering, but isn’t it also complaining?” It’s useful to take a period of time to reflect on the unconscious or semiconscious way we react to the experience of suffering—to reflect on the urge to be critical, to be negative, to complain, or to find fault in ourselves or in the things around us. While reflecting like that, we can broaden our view by inquiring into the matter. Why do I think I shouldn’t have to experience this illness, this pain, this weather, this food, this person sitting next to me?
Then we can broaden our view further by consciously evoking a sense of appreciation & gratitude for the gifts & opportunities we have in our lives. This is a way to catch the mind’s habitual movement toward criticism or complaint, its movement toward the classic glass-is-half-empty attitude. Evoking gratitude goes directly against that complaining, criticizing, blaming mind. But we need to make sure that this gratitude isn’t based on a “think-pink” attitude—trying to sugarcoat things & pretend that we’re not really feeling critical or negative. It doesn’t help much to paste an artificial expression of gratitude on top of a negative mood or a feeling.
We begin with listening to the critical, blaming, or complaining mind, and hearing what that mind is saying. What’s it coming up with? Is it the feeling of being unfairly treated, slighted, left out, or ignored? Can we hear the mind’s cry of righteous indignation, So what am I, chopped liver? We receptively listen to the affronted, hurt, wounded, abandoned, irritated feelings, and hear the mind coming up with the reactions & thought processes that follow those feelings. We are simply allowing this experience to be known—this narrow, painful, reactionary state of complaining or feeling slighted. By bringing awareness to that, fully knowing its reactive quality, we can recognize & inquire, This is a really painful state. Why would I choose to react like this? Why would I want to carry this around & burden my heart with this? We’re not saying to ourselves, Oh, I’m supposed to be grateful now, I should plant some gratitude in here. Instead we are simply seeing the painfulness of our narrow, self-centered reactions. Once we see this, then the very acknowledgment of that painfulness can enable us to let go & relax. In the broadening of our views & attitudes, what arises is gratitude. We are able to appreciate the bigger picture, the gifts and the lessons we have received, and the potential opportunities we have in the world.
Ajahn Amaro is abbot of the Amaravati Buddhist Monastery in England, a center inspired by the Thai Forest Tradition & the teachings of the late Ajahn Chah. This reflection is from the book Beginning Our Day, Volume 2, published in 2008 when Ajahn Amaro was co-abbot of Abhayagiri Monastery in California. He has written a number of books, including an account of an 830-mile trek across England from Chithurst Monastery to Harnham Monastery called Tudong, the Long Road North.