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 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.
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.