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.
In the usual iconography of the temple or the local Wok
you would never see him doing such a thing,
tossing the dry snow over a mountain
of his bare, round shoulder,
his hair tied in a knot,
a model of concentration.
Sitting is more his speed, if that is the word
for what he does, or does not do.
Even the season is wrong for him.
In all his manifestations, is it not warm or slightly humid?
Is this not implied by his serene expression,
that smile so wide it wraps itself around the waist of the universe?
But here we are, working our way down the driveway,
one shovelful at a time.
We toss the light powder into the clear air.
We feel the cold mist on our faces.
And with every heave we disappear
and become lost to each other
in these sudden clouds of our own making,
these fountain-bursts of snow.
This is so much better than a sermon in church,
I say out loud, but Buddha keeps on shoveling.
This is the true religion, the religion of snow,
and sunlight and winter geese barking in the sky,
I say, but he is too busy to hear me.
He has thrown himself into shoveling snow
as if it were the purpose of existence,
as if the sign of a perfect life were a clear driveway
you could back the car down easily
and drive off into the vanities of the world
with a broken heater fan and a song on the radio.
All morning long we work side by side,
me with my commentary
and he inside his generous pocket of silence,
until the hour is nearly noon
and the snow is piled high all around us;
then, I hear him speak.
After this, he asks,
can we go inside and play cards?
Certainly, I reply, and I will heat some milk
and bring cups of hot chocolate to the table
while you shuffle the deck.
and our boots stand dripping by the door.
Aaah, says the Buddha, lifting his eyes
and leaning for a moment on his shovel
before he drives the thin blade again
deep into the glittering white snow.
Billy Collins, called “the most popular poet in America” by the New York Times, was Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003. He recently retired from 50 yrs teaching at Lehman College of the City University of New York. This poem appeared in his 1998 book “Picnic, Lightning.”
“Utter only speech that neither torments oneself nor harms others.” (SN.8.5)
If we’re serious about liberation, meditation practice doesn’t end when we leave the cushion-it just gets more real. There are countless ways to bring these teachings to life. One of the most powerful (and frequently overlooked) vehicles for transformation is that of “Right Speech.” The Buddha spoke regularly of the power words have to heal or harm, as well as to play an active role in our awakening individually & collectively.
As social creatures, speech holds a crucial place in our lives. Many of our deepest joys & sorrows come from our relationships, where verbal communication can determine the quality of our connection. Internally, thinking & perception continually shapes experience. Externally, language has the potential to bridge the gap between us & connect our inner worlds. What’s more, from the Buddhist perspective, speech is one of the three doors of action by which we create kamma, intentional acts that affect our wellbeing & shape future habits.
The classical definition of Right Speech is clear enough: abstain from false, harsh, divisive & idle speech (SN 45.8). Yet to implement this requires careful attention not only to what we say, but to why we speak, as well as how & when we speak. Practicing with these guidelines shapes our mind for our welfare & steers our conversations towards more harmony & meaning.
The teachings on speech go far beyond this basic definition. At the core, Right Speech means using language in service of awakening. It is to use our words-internally & externally-to cultivate skillful qualities & reduce unskillful qualities of mind. How often do our conversations (& our thoughts) enhance healthy states like patience, generosity, kindness, truthfulness, simplicity? How often do they instead reinforce unhealthy habits or stimulate impulses that only entangle us further?
The more I study these ancient teachings on speech, the more I see them as a dynamic template meant to inform our lives. They provide guidance to orient our intentions & to navigate an increasingly complex world. Where they lack specific instruction on how to implement their wisdom, we can rely on more modern disciplines to fill in the gaps. (E.g., I’ve found great benefit in Nonviolent Communication as an adjunct).
When we take up this practice of Right Speech as a core part of the contemplative path, we gain a tremendous arena for training the mind, and create more opportunities to give voice to our deepest values. As we witness the extreme polarization in the world today, the absence of real dialogue in so many sectors of civil society, we need these tools more than ever.
Oren Jay Sofer teaches meditation & communication retreats & workshops nationally. A member of the Spirit Rock Teachers Council, he is a Certified Trainer of Nonviolent Communication & a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner for the healing of trauma. Oren also holds a degree in Comparative Religion from Columbia University & is the author of a new book, Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication.
free from hostility,
even among those who hate.
free from misery and affliction
even among those who are afflicted.
free from the trouble of busyness
even among those who are busy.
like those who have nothing
feeding on rapture
like the shining ones.
Winning gives birth to hostility.
Losing, one lies down in pain.
The calmed lie down in peace,
having set winning and losing aside.
There’s no fire like lust
no evil like hatred,
no pain like disharmony,
no happiness like the happiness of peace.
Greed, the primary sickness,
Delusion, the primary pain.
Knowing this truth, just as it is,
freedom, the primary joy.
Health, great good fortune,
Contentment, great wealth,
Trust, great kinship,
Freedom, the greatest happiness.
taste the nourishment of seclusion,
of stillness and calm,
freed from fear and attachment,
refreshed with the sweet joy of the Way.
How joyful to see the Awakened,
in the company of the wise.
Endless grief for those
who commune with a fool,
as traveling in company with an enemy.
Joyful is communion with the Awakened,
as with a gathering of kin.
Follow the Awakened, the shining ones,
the discerning, the learned,
dutiful, loving, and wise.
They know to work and forbear.
as the moon follows the path of the stars.
Saying by the Buddha on Joy-Happiness in the Dhammapada. This is from a composite of
various translations compiled by teacher Marcia Rose.
We have received an inestimable gift. To be alive in this beautiful, self-organizing universe—to participate in the dance of life with senses to perceive it, lungs that breathe it, organs that draw nourishment from it—is a wonder beyond words. It is an extraordinary privilege to be accorded a human life, with self-reflexive consciousness that brings awareness of our own actions and the ability to make choices. It lets us choose to take part in the healing of our world.
Gratitude for the gift of life is the primary wellspring of all religions, the hallmark of the mystic, the source of all true art. Yet we so easily take this gift for granted. That is why so many spiritual traditions begin with thanksgiving, to remind us that for all our woes and worries, our existence itself is an unearned benefaction, which we could never of ourselves create….
That our world is in crisis—to the point where survival of conscious life on Earth is in question—in no way diminishes the value of this gift; on the contrary. To us is granted the privilege of being on hand: to take part, if we choose, in the Great Turning to a just and sustainable society. We can let life work through us, enlisting all our strength, wisdom, and courage, so that life itself can continue.
There is so much to be done, and the time is so short. We can proceed, of course, out of grim and angry desperation. But the tasks proceed more easily and productively with a measure of thankfulness for life; it links us to our deeper powers and lets us rest in them. Many of us are braced, psychically and physically, against the signals of distress that continually barrage us in the news, on our streets, in our environment. As if to reduce their impact on us, we contract like a turtle into its shell. But we can choose to turn to the breath, the body, the senses—for they help us to relax and open to wider currents of knowing and feeling….
Thankfulness loosens the grip of the industrial growth society by contradicting its predominant message: that we are insufficient and inadequate… that we need more—more stuff, more money, more approval, more comfort, more entertainment. The dissatisfaction it breeds is profound. It infects people with a compulsion to acquire that delivers them into the cruel, humiliating bondage of debt. So gratitude is liberating. It is subversive. It helps us realize that we are sufficient, and that realization frees us.
By Marcia Rose
Find a comfortable place to sit, on a cushion on the floor or in a chair. Gently close your eyes & bring your attention to the direct sensorial experience of your breath for a few moments. Now visualizing or in some way sensing an enormous jeweled net, a net of boundless proportions, letting this fill your mind & heart. This net is woven of an infinite variety of brilliant crystal gems, each with countless facets. At each point where the strings of the net meet there is a brilliant, highly reflective, multi-faceted gem, with each jewel reflecting within itself every other jewel in the net. At the same time its image is reflected in each of the other gems.
In this vision, each jewel contains all the other jewels. To look at one gem at any point, is to see the reflection of all the gems at all points in the net… a boundless net of beginningless, endless radiating aliveness.
This practice is a metaphor for the intricately interwoven tapestry of life, with everything constantly changing & everything reflecting everything in this many hued & faceted jeweled net of life. This is the relative side of selflessness or ‘not-self’ & is the ground of understanding from which compassion springs.
This understanding that lies at the heart of all the Buddha’s teaching arises from his teaching of Interdependent Co-arising. It’s our growing understanding that no thing spontaneously exists all on its own. All phenomena, including both physical & mental experience, have many, even infinite, contributing factors & conditions of causation. Within each thing are many things.
This sublime teaching is clearly expressed through the following verse from the Buddha:
‘This is, because that is.
This is not, because that is not.
This ceases to be, because that ceases to be.’
An ordinary, everyday way to touch into this truth is seeing that the cup of coffee or tea in our hands could not exist without the person who ordered the bag of beans for her store. Looking deeper, we see the truck that the beans arrived on & its driver. We see the fuel in the truck’s tank & person who pumped it. We see the person who roasted the beans or carefully dried the tea leaves & packaged them. We see the ship the beans or the tea leaves sailed on from Peru or China & all the hands on deck who ensured it’s safe arrival. We see the farmer who cared for the soil & planted the crops & picked the beans or tea leaves. We see the sunshine & the rain that made the plants grow. And of course, each & every one of these conditions had their own complex web of factors that contributed to their unique arising as well. Maybe we see some of the decisions in each of the people’s lives that led to their interaction with the tea leaf or the coffee bean & maybe we see some of the things that influenced each of those decisions as well. It all infinitely goes on. Everything impacts everything else.
Seeing the world in such a way can demystify things greatly for us. It unites us & brings us together. It offers us the wisdom to make ethical decisions with more skill & compassion. It allows us to better see the potential repercussions of our seemingly harmless actions & reactions in relationship to ourselves & to others. It can give us mindful insight into seeing the impact that we have on others & on our environment.
And so importantly, we also learn to have more patience with ourselves & with others. With our practice & the ensuing insight that arises, we better understand the origin of our thoughts, emotions & actions. We learn to sense, see & know the interdependence between our reactions & our moods, between our moods & our decisions, between our decisions & our contracted resistance, and between our resistance & our fears. We truly begin to learn how it all arises interdependently, with each experience flowing into the next.
One of the greatest gifts of our mindfulness-based insight practice is our growing ability to intervene in the process of reactivity. So rather than immediately & ignorantly reacting in a way that causes more suffering for ourselves & others, our practice can give us some breathing space between what may be a strong or subtle unpleasant experience & our habitual reaction to unpleasant experience.
Maybe we still feel angry or upset, but there is now a few second gap in our mind/heart. Over time, this gap will increase to a few more seconds, allowing time for our reactivity to cool off. Consequently, and maybe at first seeming miraculously, we now have a broader range of choices for how to respond internally & externally. It can be quite an incredible change for us when mindfulness intervenes in our habitual conditioned ‘chain of causation’ that leads from ignorance to suffering. There is a wonderful freedom that we experience with this change as it develops, deepens & matures within our life as a whole.
The practice of the Dharma is learning how to live, and this is both hard and joyful work. Practice makes extraordinary demands of us. It requires that we take nothing for granted, that we accept nothing on faith alone. If we practice with diligence and honesty, then we must question everything about ourselves; we must challenge our most basic beliefs and convictions, even those we may have about the dharma itself…
When you put something to the test, really to the test, don’t you find that it challenges, that it stretches you, too? This has certainly been my experience. Some of these wonderful teachings are inspiring. It can be intellectually satisfying and emotionally nourishing just to hear them. But you can’t stop there. If you want to gain any real benefit from them, you have to let them stretch your own lived experience. For the dharma to become firsthand knowledge — to feel the “ouch” of it — you have to live intimately with it, hold it up to scrutiny, and let it hold you up to scrutiny. In the end, the ball is always thrown back to you: “Be a lamp unto yourself,” says the Buddha. In other words, you must ultimately find the way on your own, by putting your ideas of the truth to the test. Your questions light the way.
So what is the test of truth? The Buddha offers a simple formula: Test things in terms of cause and effect. Whatever is unskillful, leading to harm and ill, should be abandoned; whatever is skillful, leading to happiness and peace, should be pursued. Apply the test of skillfulness to all teachings in all your actions. Where is this teaching taking you? Is it moving you in a direction that is wise and kind? One quick test isn’t enough, you know. You have to keep at it, so that your sensitivity to the results of your actions grows more and more refined with practice. When you’ve done the hard work of asking these questions, then you can decide for yourself whether a teaching, or a teacher, is worth following. And at the same time, you’ve also taught yourself how to live — a learning that can bring with it joy and the energy to go even deeper.
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. You can view an extended version of this article & many other Dharma teachings at the website Access to Insight.
By Annie Nugent
It is said in the texts that the dharma is a safe and sure path to be travelled joyfully. How do these three words: Safe, Sure and Joyful manifest in the practice?
One time the Buddha said this to the monks: “For the most part people have this wish, desire and longing: If only unwished for, undesired, disagreeable things would diminish and wished for, desired, agreeable things would increase. Yet, although beings have this wish, desire and longing, disagreeable things continue to increase for them – and agreeable things continue to diminish!” What is the reason for that? An untaught, ordinary person does not know what things should be developed and what things should not be developed. Because of this, suffering is perpetuated.
The untaught person acts from the wrong view of life: feeding the defilements of greed, hatred and delusion by grasping at the pleasant and pushing away the unpleasant, thinking that this is where happiness lies. When in fact, this is the very thing that keeps us ensnared in suffering, because the nature of experience is to constantly change. There is no resting place. This is the unsafe way to live. It is sure to lead to deeper states of suffering and therefore is not a joyful path to pursue because it is unsatisfying.
Practicing the dharma then, is a deeply compassionate act because we are freeing ourselves from suffering.
When we come to the dharma, we begin with the right view that directly understands the importance of the practice of mindfulness and wisdom as a means to not act on the defilements which bring so much suffering. A great joy and upliftment of heart permeates our lives when we see that the dharma does work, as we experience the results of growing happiness and ease. We know for ourselves that it is a safe path to be travelled joyfully and want to continue to practice. We trust that the path will take us to the highest happiness – that it is a sure way for this to come about.
The beauty of this practice is that we begin with whatever is here, right now, amid the ordinariness of our daily lives. Be it in our relationships, at work, or in the surprising events that might come about in worldly affairs – whatever difficult, dull, boring, fascinating, wonderful, peaceful or hair-raising situations we may find ourselves in – the practice is found within them. They are our practice. With right view, we are able to bring the dharma alive and integrate it into all situations, and because of this we are safe in knowing how not to suffer. We are less reactive and not so liable to fall into the wrong view of feeding the defilements.
Knowing that the path is a safe and sure one, we continue to walk it joyfully, not for ourselves alone, but for the welfare, happiness and freedom of all beings everywhere.
If you are still not convinced of the need to practice with great urgency, without attachment to body or life, the Buddha’s words may be helpful for you.
One should reflect, he said, on the fact that the whole world of beings is made up of nothing but mind & matter which have arisen but do not stay. Mind & matter do not remain still for one single moment; they are in constant flux. Once we find ourselves in this body & mind, there is nothing we can do to prevent growth from taking place. When we are young we like to grow, but when we are old we are stuck in an irreversible process of decline.
We like to be healthy, but our wishes can never be guaranteed. We are plagued by sickness & illness, by pain & discomfort, throughout our existence. Immortal life is beyond our reach. All of us will die. Death is contrary to what we would wish for ourselves, yet we cannot prevent it. The only question is whether death will come sooner or later.
Not a single person on earth can guarantee our wishes regarding growth, health or immortality. People refuse to accept these facts. The old try to look young. Scientists develop all manner of cures & contraptions to delay the process of human decay. When we are sick we take medicines to feel better. But even if we get well, we will get sick again. Nature cannot be deceived. We cannot escape old age & death.
This is the main weakness of beings: beings are devoid of security. There is no safe refuge from old age, disease & death. Look at other beings, look at animals, and most of all, look at yourself.
If you have practiced deeply, these facts will come as no surprise to you. If you can see with intuitive insight how mental & physical phenomena arise endlessly from moment to moment, you know there is no refuge anywhere that you can run to. There is no security. Yet, if your insight has not reached this point, perhaps reflecting on the precariousness of life will cause some urgency to arise in you, and give you a strong impulse to practice. Vipassana meditation can lead to a place beyond these fearsome things.
Excerpted from Sayadaw U Pandita’s book In This Very Life from Wisdom Press,
a collection of talks he gave at Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA. Sayadaw
was a prolific & much respected Buddhist teacher who had an exceptional
influence on American Buddhism.
By David Loy
Ecodharma is a relatively new word, & its meaning is by no means fixed. The term combines the teachings of Buddhism & related spiritual traditions (dharma) with ecological concerns (eco). More specifically, ecodharma can be understood as a new development in contemporary Buddhism that responds to the ecological crisis threatening civilization as we know it.
That is still quite general, of course. So let me say a few words about my understanding of ecodharma & why it is increasingly important to practice.
Three components of ecodharma stand out for me: practicing in nature, clarifying the ecological implications of Buddhism, & using that understanding to engage in the ecoactivism that the survival of our species calls for.
After the future Buddha left home, he lived in the forest, meditated in nature, & awakened under a tree. When Mara (the Buddhist devil) questioned his enlightenment, he touched the earth as witness to his realization. After that, the Buddha mostly lived & taught in the natural world, & when he eventually died, that, too, happened beneath trees.
Today we have largely lost our connection with nature, living & practicing in four-cornered buildings. But there is something special & precious about meditating outside & rediscovering our deep connection with the natural world. When we do, it becomes more evident to us that the world is not a collection of separate things but a confluence of natural processes that include us.
“We are here to overcome the illusion of our separation,” Vietnamese Zen master & poet Thich Nhat Hanh has said. Traditional Buddhist teachings help us to wake up individually & realize that we are not separate from other people & the rest of the world. And while the ecological crisis is a new challenge, many of those classic teachings are relevant to our situation. There seem to be important parallels, for example, between our usual individual predicament—our sense of separation from others—& our collective sense of separation from the natural world today. Is our ecological situation a larger version of the same problem? In both cases the separation between a self “inside” & the world “outside” is uncomfortable: a self that doesn’t really exist can never secure itself. Yet we keep trying, often in ways that just make things worse. We don’t need to “return to nature” but to realize that we’ve always been a part of it, & what that means for how we live. Eihei Dogen, who founded the Soto Zen school in the 13th century, described his own enlightenment as clearly realizing the “mind is nothing other than rivers & mountains & the great wide earth, the sun & the moon & the stars.”
Today we are called upon to live as bodhisattvas (or “ecosattvas”) who realize that activism in defense of the earth is an essential part of the spiritual path. Our now-global civilization has institutionalized greed & exploitation of the natural world, deferring the environmental costs of fossil fuels & unrestrained consumption to the future—a future that is now upon us. We need to plan & work together in order to promote what Joanna Macy & others call “the Great Turning”—a way forward that emphasizes a “life-sustaining civilization” in the wake of industrial, economic, & political destruction.
At different times practitioners may emphasize some of these components of ecodharma more than others, but all three are important. Then we can ask & plan together: what does it mean to be a bodhisattva today? How can we contribute to the healing of the earth, including the healing of our collective relationship with the earth?
By Marcia Rose
“Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up
where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed.
Convince me that you have a seed there,
and I am prepared to expect wonders.”
Henry David Thoreau
I’ve been growing vegetables & flowers for many years, & still every Spring I experience a sense of awe & faith when I observe the tiny seeds in my hand as I carefully put them into the ground… AWE in relationship to the mystery that these tiny dots do what they do & FAITH based in years of experience that at least most of them will eventually burst out of their tiny tight selves & grow into lettuce, squash, tomatoes & sunflowers…etc.
So here I am this spring considering FAITH. What is it? Where does it come from? How does it work? What is its role in relationship to the teachings & practices as taught by the Buddha? Is there a difference between FAITH & BELIEF… & if so, what is the difference? FAITH in what… in who?
FAITH is one of the ‘wholesome & beautiful mental factors‘ that develop & blossom through our Dharma practices of concentration & mindfulness. It is also the first of the five spiritual powers that strengthen & blossom with diligent practice. The other four being: effort/energy, mindfulness, concentration & wisdom.
So one aspect of FAITH is that it’s a wholesome power. It’s a strength.
The Pali word for FAITH is saddha. There’s no one word in English that can render the full meaning of saddha. It encompasses trust, confidence, courage, strength, devotion & clarity. The literal translation of saddha is “to place the heart upon,” connecting from the heart, offering or giving over one’s heart. My Israeli students tell me that the root of the word FAITH in Hebrew is a verb. It’s not something that we have, but rather something that we do.
So, another aspect of FAITH is that it’s a verb, an action. We are willing to take the next step, willing to open to the unknown, to see & know our practice as an adventure… ‘to place one’s heart upon.’
The Buddha Dharma understands three levels of faith…the first being Blind Faith. We encounter something or someone that inspires us & we feel a brightness & maybe also devotion & love in those moments. This faith is often based in dependence on someone or something outside of ourselves to make us feel good. Consequently, it’s not sustainable & may not be rooted in wisdom.
The second level of FAITH is Verified Faith which is rooted in confidence born of our own clear observation, investigation, wise reflection & the discriminating wisdom that arises out of our direct & focused mindful attention in relationship to our experiences of our body, mind & heart.
The third level of FAITH is the great power of Unshakable Faith which is rooted in Verified Faith. As we continue developing a meditation practice that evolves towards the blossoming of deepening concentration, clear mindful awareness & understanding/insight, we begin to touch an unfettered FAITH in the incredibly vast potential of understanding that is available via our spiritual path. Unshakable Faith is rooted in staying open & connected in the experience of the moment… open to the mystery/the truth beyond the realm of our often tightly clung to conditioned habituated ideas, opinions, beliefs, interpretations & feelings.
As we travel this path, we must rely on FAITH, not on BELIEF. In meeting & honing into our experience with a set of beliefs, we will quite likely ‘re-act‘ our learned, habituated patterns of thinking, feeling & acting again & again.
So, FAITH as willingness, confidence & trust in our own potential for ‘waking up,’ based on experience not on beliefs… ‘waking up‘ out of ongoing dissatisfaction, out of feeling incomplete, separate & disappointed… ‘waking up‘ from delusion & craving. Saddha moves us towards learning to live our life grounded in an open & kindhearted mindful presence. FAITH affords us the possibility of ‘waking up‘ into the spaciousness of openhearted presence & ease of being with things as they are, however they are inside us & outside us & being able to respond appropriately with the great vitality of wisdom & compassion.
As we gently & patiently hold the seeds of the Buddha’s teaching in our heart, they develop & blossom into beautiful & liberating fruit through our diligent practice.