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.
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.
By Marcia Rose
It’s that time of year…. at least here in the Northern Hemisphere. Springtime, this season of replenishment when the natural balance, reciprocity & generosity of spring is a mirror for our own re-flourishment after more than a year of what many people have experienced as a deep or at least a partial drought of the reciprocity of connection, mutual flourishing, replenishment & in-person generosity.
I’m out in my flower & veggie gardens daily, grateful to be witnessing & reaping the gifts of this deep & ongoing connection as I observe these natural laws. We all take care of each other… me, along with all the food & flower plants growing in the garden & the multitude of birds, bunnies & insects that inhabit & are nourished in this bountiful space.
The Buddha’s teachings & our practice constantly invite us to cultivate the heart of giving & receiving… the heart of generosity & gratitude. We learn that our liberation & flourishing are deeply rooted in opening to a culture of gratitude.
Learning to give & learning to receive — letting go of control & receiving what is given, receiving each moment of our life just as it is, whether pleasant or unpleasant, with the trust that it is just right, just enough for our spiritual growth to unfold. We can give ourselves the gift of truly learning to be in the present moment with clear mindful awareness… receiving the present moment with gratitude, appreciation & humility. We can learn to apply the wise attention of mindful awareness in the midst of any exchange, any relationship, any emotional state, any sensation that moves through our body… to the smell of rain, the touch of the wind on our skin, to tending of each & every plant in the garden & filling the bird feeders, to any task we might be engaged in, to the experience of a breath from its birth all the way through to its death.
The Buddhist teachings invite us to practice with dedication & openheartedness as we learn to receive life fully… to be kind, generous & grateful knowing that this very life just as it is, is the path – our path to the deepest ease of a true sense of well-being & joy. We learn that this very life is our path to liberation & that our liberation is intimately & profoundly connected & nourished through our deepening mindful awareness of the natural balance, reciprocity, generosity & mutual flourishing mirrored in the life everywhere all around us.
By Greg Scharf
One useful metaphor for describing insight meditation is to see it as the practice, or process, of developing intimacy. The great 13th century Zen master Dogen was once asked: “What is the awakened mind?” He replied: “The mind that is intimate with all things.” In meditation we spend a lot of time observing both mind & body through the simple process of connecting directly with the ongoing flow, the flow of our experience, and as our practice deepens, so does intimacy.
I often call this a radical intimacy – a deep & radical intimacy with our own body & mind. Of course, sometimes we like what this intimacy reveals, and sometimes we don’t. Occasionally our mind & body do what we want, but far more often they don’t, and much of the time, we find ourselves at odds with some aspect of our experience. For example, we do everything we can to find a suitable arrangement for our sitting posture in mediation, but the body won’t stay comfortable: sooner or later it starts to hurt. Over the course of our life the body ages, gets sick, and eventually dies regardless of our efforts to have it be otherwise. The mind is even worse. It gets up to all kinds of nonsense & won’t stay where we put it but keeps wandering off. Over time it begins to become abundantly clear that we have little if any control over either body or mind. Perhaps there is something for us to investigate in all of this.
One of the hardest things for us to learn in meditation is that this practice is not about having certain kinds of experiences or attaining special, blissful, or peaceful states. Of course, sometimes we do have what we might call special experiences, and there is nothing wrong with having them. They may serve us by bringing energy & interest to meditation but if we focus on them too much they may just get in the way. What we are interested in exploring are the universal characteristics or qualities that apply to all things – to any & every experience whether special or mundane, pleasant or unpleasant. We might call this the essential nature of all experience.
Henry David Thoreau once said: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” The power & beauty of the meditative experience is that it has the potential to bring us to the level of direct non-conceptual experience where we actually do front the essential facts of life – we get to the root, to the heart of things. These essential facts of life, of nature, are an aspect of any & all experience. This means that for our purposes – for the development of insight – it truly doesn’t matter what’s happening.
This is actually a profound & critical understanding that cuts through our tendency to judge certain experiences as wrong or bad, or as in the way. Mindfulness has the power to transform perceived obstacles to meditation into objects of meditation. With mindfulness practice there is the implicit understanding that if it is in the way, it is the way. This understanding is not only a great relief, it is also empowering because it relieves us of the need to spend our time & energy in the futile attempt to control our experience.
If our happiness & freedom are dependent on having certain experiences, or achieving special sublime states, we’ll never find a true, lasting, freedom because states simply don’t last. Conditions are always changing & when they do change, we’re back where we started; there’s no real freedom there. True freedom is not found through gaining some kind of control over life, in order to have things be a certain way, but about coming into alignment & harmony with the way things are. We are not meditating in order to get something we don’t have or to go somewhere other than where we are right now. We are not going from here to there, we’re going deeper into here.
By Brian Lesage
So the Story goes… the Buddha’s journey on the spiritual path begins with him leaving home – exiting the palace gates and setting off into the simple and austere life of a renunciate. When I take a moment to slow down and imagine this kind of radical life change, I think, “Wow, to begin such a journey requires a deep and profound passion.” In this way, I have noticed when I am skillfully passionate about my own spiritual journey, deeper dimensions of the Dharma are revealed. I experience a yearning that carries me out the gates of my own “palace” and leads me onto the path of awakening.
In the Pali canon, the Buddha alludes to this skillful passion or yearning as a key ingredient. As an example, one of the four bases of power (Iddhipada) needed for the spiritual path is chanda, which, in this context, is the wholesome desire we need to move forward on a spiritual journey. This chanda has been an essential factor in my life. When I left the life of being a Zen monk, I was thrown out into the world where I needed to make all kinds of life decisions. I was bewildered. Although by entering the monastery I had stepped onto the path and gained the skill of simply being with the unfolding of experience, I hadn’t developed the skills to keep me from returning to the “palace.” I hadn’t fully developed the skill of yearning that would carry my spiritual practice forward once I’d left the monastery.
I have found that learning to yearn skillfully is a refined art. Passion can easily be confused with craving and clinging, which just leads to more stress rather than more freedom. Learning to yearn skillfully not only provides the wholesome energy to move forward on the path; it also leads to a deepening relationship with the Dharma. Wholesome passion deepens mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom when harnessed skillfully.
How can you distinguish between skillful and unskillful yearning?
First, look at how they are similar. Both wholesome passion and unwholesome craving pull the heart/mind to something that is not here but is over there, to something not present in this moment.
Now, consider how they are different. For wholesome passion, you feel a pull to there in a way that actually opens up what’s here. With unwholesome craving, the pull to there happens in a way that what is here disappears.
Here is an example to help make sense of these similarities and differences: Let’s say I want to get to the top of a mountain….
When the heart is filled with a wholesome passion for reaching the top of the mountain, it infuses each step with a quality of presence and patience. The wholesome passion brings the energy needed to fully be with each step. This opens up depth and dimensionality to the entire journey to the top. The journey is not different from the destination and each mountain top we come to is simply a new vantage point to view the whole path, to steer our course away from the “palace” towards the ripening of our spiritual path.
When the heart is filled with unwholesome craving for reaching the top of the mountain, the mind is consumed with thoughts about the top of the mountain itself. It obsesses over how I am not there yet. Each step is overridden by fantasies about the top of the mountain. Exhaustion, distraction, and discouragement can easily arise and the mountain top recedes. Even if we were to reach the top, it can lead to craving for the next mountain or for a return to the “palace.”
A quote attributed to Antoine de Saint Exupery captures this journey. “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the people to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” Can you learn to yearn skillfully? Can you learn to yearn for this vast and endless sea, this journey out of the ignorance of the palace life and into the heart of the Dharma?
May you learn to yearn skillfully in a way that brings freedom to our world.
Through effort, attention,
Restraint and self-control,
The wise person can become an island
No flood will overwhelm.- Dhammapada 25
Expecting Buddhist practice to entail only joy & ease is naive. More realistic is to expect both joy & sorrow, ease & struggle. If the practice is to engage with our full life, then inevitably we will practice in times of crisis, loss, or painful self- confrontation. Certainly it would be nice to negotiate these times with calm, grace & wisdom. However, if we are hard on ourselves for not doing so, we only add to our suffering & hinder the growth of compassion….
I have known meditators who have congratulated themselves for their meditative proficiency when practice has been easy. And I have known meditators filled with doubt & self-condemnation when the practice has been stormy. Practicing with our best effort during periods of crisis & personal struggle may not bring about spiritual highs. It may, however, bring something more important: a strengthening of the inner qualities that sustain a spiritual life for the long term: mindfulness, persistence, courage, compassion, humility, renunciation, discipline, concentration, faith, acceptance & kindness.
For Buddhist practice, one of the most important inner capacities to develop is awareness of intention. Our intention is like a muscle; following through on our intention to practice- to be mindful & compassionate- during times of difficulty is an important way of strengthening it. The beauty of this is that, even if our efforts are clumsy or if we don’t accomplish a particular task, the “intention muscle” has still been strengthened every time we use it, especially if it is being nourished by faith & clear comprehension. As our core motivations become stronger & we develop more confidence & appreciation in them, they become a resource & refuge in times of difficulty.
Meditators all too often measure their practice by their “meditative experiences.” While a range of such potential experiences can play an important role in Buddhist spirituality, day-to-day practice is more focused on developing our inner faculties & strengths. This includes cultivating awareness & investigation in all circumstances, whether the weather is clear or stormy. A wealth of inner strength follows in the wake of mindfulness & persistence. Such strength is often accompanied by feelings of calm & joy; but, more important, it allows us to remain awake & free under conditions of both joy & sorrow.
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
Hokusai says look carefully.
He says pay attention, notice.
He says keep looking, stay curious.
He says there is no end to seeing.
He says look forward to getting old.
He says keep changing,
you just get more who you really are.
He says get stuck, accept it, repeat
yourself as long as it is interesting.
He says keep doing what you love.
He says keep praying.
He says everyone of us is a child,
everyone of us is ancient,
everyone of us has a body.
He says everyone of us is frightened.
He says everyone of us has to find
a way to live with fear.
He says everything is alive–
shells, buildings, people, fish,
mountains, trees, wood is alive.
Water is alive.
Everything has its own life.
Everything lives inside us.
He says live with the world inside you.
He says it doesn’t matter if you draw,
or write books. It doesn’t matter
if you saw wood, or catch fish.
It doesn’t matter if you sit at home
and stare at the ants on your veranda
or the shadows of the trees
and grasses in your garden.
It matters that you care.
It matters that you feel.
It matters that you notice.
It matters that life lives through you.
Contentment is life living through you.
Joy is life living through you.
Satisfaction and strength
is life living through you.
He says don’t be afraid.
Don’t be afraid.
Love, feel, let life take you by the hand.
Let life live through you.
The poem refers to prolific Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), whose famous wave woodblock print many will recognize. Roger Keyes is an art historian & curator of Japanese art as well as a poet. For almost 50 years, he has devoted himself to study of Hokusai’s prints & ‘translated’ what he read in Hokusai’s paintings into this poem. See more of Hokusai’s wonderful work.
The historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, lived, attained enlightenment & taught in India more than 2,500 years ago. However, I believe that much of what he taught so long ago can be relevant to people’s lives today. The Buddha saw that people can live together freely as individuals, equal in principle & therefore responsible for each other.
He saw that the very purpose of life is to be happy. He talked about suffering in the context of ways to overcome it. He recognized that while ignorance binds beings in endless frustration & suffering, the development of understanding is liberating. The Buddha saw that every member of the human family, man & woman alike, has an equal right to liberty, not just in terms of political or even spiritual freedom, but at a fundamental level of freedom from fear & want. He recognized that each of us is just a human being like everyone else. Not only do we all desire happiness & seek to avoid suffering, but each of us has an equal right to pursue these goals.
Within the monastic community that the Buddha established, individuals were equal, whatever their social class or caste origins. The custom of walking on alms round served to strengthen the monks’ awareness of their dependence on other people. Within the community, decisions were taken by vote & differences were settled by consensus.
The Buddha took a practical approach to creating a happier, more peaceful world. Certainly, he laid out the paths to liberation & enlightenment that Buddhists in many parts of the world continue to follow today, but he also consistently gave advice that anyone may heed to live more happily here & now….
We human beings are social animals. Since our future depends on others, we need friends in order to fulfill our own interests. We do not make friends by being quarrelsome, jealous & angry, but by being sincere in our concern for others, protecting their lives & respecting their rights. Making friends & establishing trust are the basis on which society depends. Like other great teachers the Buddha commended tolerance & forgiveness in restoring trust & resolving disputes that arise because of our tendency to see others in terms of ‘us’ & ‘them.’