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
2023 New Year Greeting
A NEW YEAR… A NEW DAY… A NEW MOMENT. This is our ‘time.’ How we fill our time over the years, days and moments is the ‘story’ – the essence of our life.
So many possible questions and reflections can arise on the cusp of this time frame that so many of us on the planet share and attend to in various ways… the conclusion of one year and the arising of a ‘new year’.
“What am I grateful for?” One of the most essential questions of our lives.
“Have I wholeheartedly loved at least a few beings?”
“Have I lived responsibly in relationship to the amazing and vast array of life forms on this
little blue dot that we all share?”
“Have I learned from what I and maybe others have deemed as my mistakes?”
“What affords/brings me the deepest sense of ease and well-being in my life?”
“What have I done to help bring joy, light and ease into the lives of other living beings?”
This is our time… this time of NOW! This is our time of incredible opportunity… our time of life… THE TIME OF OUR LIFE! We can choose to live it wisely, lovingly and compassionately.
From all of us here at The Mountain Hermitage… we deeply appreciate you and send boundless gratitude for your interest, support of and participation in our various Dharma offerings.
May this ‘new year’ be filled with peace, friendship, love, good health, joy and an abiding sense of ease and well-being for you and for all your dear ones… and for all beings everywhere.
When we attend to our values, we might begin by reflecting on the Buddha’s exhortation: ‘Even as a mother protects with her life her child, her only child, so with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings.’ This is not just because kindness is universal & simple, but because it focuses us directly on the quality of heart that has enabled us to survive & grow. We are born as empathic beings – we’re hard-wired for it with mirror-neurons in our brains – and our success as a species has come from being able to operate as a collective. So a focus on goodwill brings us out of the divisions of nationality, social status, and political systems to connect more directly with a value that can include others. Development of that empathic sense is an aspect of Buddhist ‘mind-cultivation’, and its aim is to develop that sense in a widening field to include all other living beings. The more inclusive the cosmos, the greater its validity. And the awakening fact is that this cultivation is also deeply enjoyable….
Our environment does not just consist of trees & whales; it’s the interwoven world of the biosphere, the economy, society and our bodies & minds. It’s all suffering from the same root problem – a short-term self-interest that supports careless attention. If you see it like this, it reduces the impotence; you see the paradigm of domination & exploitation and you address it wherever you can. Because the one right response, wherever, whenever, is to bring careful attention into the cosmos as you experience it.
What is natural, intrinsic & universal to human beings are not valuables: values issue from the mind & cannot get used up; valuables are materials that come from the Earth & are finite. Given this capacity, our responsibility has to be to develop values that will include & support as much of the cosmos as possible. Values: you name them – how about generosity, goodwill, truthfulness, reliability? It’s not difficult to access the resources of our human nature; putting them into practice takes work, but it is innately fulfilling. On a wider scale, giving value to harmony in our total environment will surely help us to strengthen & enrich our own lives. It will take us out of the sense of being an isolated, competitive self & into the harmony of being part of the cosmos.
Buddhist monk Ajahn Sucitto, currently based at Cittaviveka Monastery in Chithurst, West Sussex, has been part of a number of Theravada monasteries in Britain. The passages above are excerpted from his book “Buddha Nature, Human Nature,” which is available on-line in PDF form at no charge.
Indian Vipassana meditation teacher Anagarika Munindra (1915-2003) played a pivotal role in transmission of Buddhism from East to West. He was a significant teacher for many notable meditation teachers, including Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg, Dipa Ma, Kamala Masters & Surya Das. Munindra highlighted simplicity & ease. Joseph Goldstein says he must have repeated thousands of times, “Be simple & easy. Take things as they come.”
Quotes here from Munindra come from LIVING THIS LIFE FULLY, by Mirka Knaster.
“Everything is meditation in this practice, even while eating, drinking, dressing, seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, thinking. Whatever you are doing, everything should be done mindfully, dynamically, with totality, completeness, thoroughness. Then it becomes meditation, meaningful, purposeful. It is not thinking, but experiencing from moment to moment, living from moment to moment, without clinging, without condemning, without judging, without evaluating, without comparing, without selecting, without criticizing—choiceless awareness.
“Meditation is not only sitting; it is a way of living. It should be integrated with our whole life. It is actually an education in how to see, how to hear, how to smell, how to eat, how to drink, how to walk with full awareness. To develop mindfulness is the most important factor in the process of awakening.”
* * * * *
“Death I don’t mind. Every moment we are dying. Everything is impermanent. Who is dying? There is nobody dying. It is just a process. This is merely a law of nature… everything in nature is arising & vanishing. There is nothing to be afraid of. In death also, smiling you can go. Every moment we are dying. Once you are acquainted with this, then it is simple.”
* * * * *
“Unpleasant feelings are most prominent to us because, when we experience pleasant feelings, we don’t mind. But when we experience the unpleasant feeling, we don’t like it & we condemn. We have to observe it. We have to penetrate it. We have to pierce through it. We have to understand it. When you keep the mind there, then you will see that it is not static; it is a process, and afterward, it disappears. But don’t expect it to come or to go. If you expect, then you have to be aware of the expecting mind. Not clinging, not condemning, not hoping. Whatever comes up, see the thing as it is, at this moment, without liking or disliking. If you like it, you feed it with greed; if you dislike it, you feed it with hatred. Both ways, the mind is unbalanced, unhealthy, unsound. [The] object itself is neither good nor bad. It is our mind which attributes the color—it is good or it is bad. We are influenced by that & then reaction comes. Be gentle with everything that comes up. Keep the mind in a balanced state. We are following the middle path. Be fully alert.”
* * * * *
“Mind by nature has no color. When it is colored with greed, we call it “greedy mind.” When anger arises, at that moment, it is called “angry mind.” If there is no mindfulness, mind is influenced by this anger. Anger has the nature to pollute the mind; it creates poison. But mind is not anger; anger is not mind. Mind is not greed; greed is not mind. Please remember this. Mind has no nature of liking or disliking. “Mind” means “knowing faculty,” “cognizing faculty.” …Mindfulness is a different thing: alertness, awareness, remembering, heedfulness. It means not to forget, just to be aware, to be mindful of what is going on. When you are asked to walk on a one-bamboo bridge over the river, you have to be so careful on every step. Once you forget, there is every possibility of falling down. If you lose your mindfulness, you will hurt yourself or kill yourself. So, in reality, mindfulness means not to forget what is going on at the present moment – in thought, in word, in deed.”
* * * * *
‘If we know how to live at this present moment, mindfully & with virtue (sila), then the next moment comes all right & we build our future. Working in this way, walking on the middle path, leads you toward liberation, total freedom from the cycle of birth & death.”
Listen to some of his recorded Dharma talks on Dharma Seed
Barre Center for Buddhist Studies interview with Mirka Knaster, author of Living this Life Fully
Once upon a time, the Enlightenment Being was born as a tiny quail. Although he had little feet & wings, he could not yet walk or fly. His parents worked hard bringing food to the nest, feeding him from their beaks.
In that part of the world, there were usually forest fires every year. So it happened that a fire began in that particular year. All the birds who were able, flew away at the first sign of smoke. As the fire spread, and got closer & closer to the nest of the baby quail, his parents remained with him. Finally the fire got so close, that they too had to fly away to save their lives.
All the trees, big & small, were burning & crackling with a loud noise. The little one saw that everything was being destroyed by the fire that raged out of control. He could do nothing to save himself. At that moment, his mind was overwhelmed by a feeling of helplessness.
Then it occurred to him, “My parents loved me very much. Unselfishly they built a nest for me, & then fed me without greed. When the fire came, they remained with me until the last moment. All the other birds who could, had flown away a long time before.
“So great was the loving-kindness of my parents, that they stayed & risked their lives, but still they were helpless to save me. Since they could not carry me, they were forced to fly away alone. I thank them, wherever they are, for loving me so. I hope with all my heart they will be safe & well & happy.
“Now I am all alone. There is no one I can go to for help. I have wings, but I cannot fly away. I have feet, but I cannot run away. But I can still think. All I have left to use is my mind – a mind that remains pure. The only beings I have known in my short life were my parents, and my mind has been filled with loving-kindness towards them. I have done nothing unwholesome to anyone. I am filled with new-born innocent truthfulness.”
Then an amazing miracle took place. This innocent truthfulness grew & grew until it became larger than the little baby bird. The knowledge of truth spread beyond that one lifetime, and many previous births became known. One such previous birth had led to knowing a Buddha, a fully enlightened knower of Truth – one who had the power of Truth, the purity of wholesomeness, and the purpose of compassion.
Then the Great Being within the tiny baby quail thought, “May this very young innocent truthfulness be united with that ancient purity of wholesomeness & power of Truth. May all birds & other beings, who are still trapped by the fire, be saved. And may this spot be safe from fire for a million years!”
And so it was.
The moral is: Truth, wholesomeness and compassion can save the world.
The Jataka Tales is a body of literature which mainly concern previous births of Guatama Buddha in both human & animal form. In these, the future Buddha may appear as a king, an outcast, a deva, an animal – but, in whatever form, he exhibits some virtue that the tale thereby inculcates. For the Buddhist traditions, the jatakas illustrate the many lives, acts & spiritual practices which are required on the long path to Buddhahood. They also illustrate the great qualities or perfections of the Buddha & teach Buddhist moral lessons, particularly within the framework of karma & rebirth.
Interpreted from the Pali by Kurunegoda Piyatissa.
By Annie Nugent
So many of us live in our heads. When we are caught up in the world of thoughts, emotions and fantasies, believing their content and taking them personally, we experience the corresponding suffering that they bring.
One way to support ourselves not to suffer in this arena is to remind ourselves – as it says in the Buddha’s teachings – that “there is a body, just to the extent necessary for mindfulness and clear understanding to arise.” The Buddha said that, without mindfulness of the body, there is no possibility of freedom from suffering. This doesn’t mean that freedom from suffering is in the body; it means that the mind is attending to something that is grounding, something tangible which helps us to disengage from the story in the mind that had swept us away.
Once this simple acknowledgement that “there is a body” is established, we have redirected our attention from the mental activity that we were caught in. We actually get in touch with the experience of the body, which will support a growing steadiness of mind to bring about the understanding of the changing nature of sensations and breath. The understanding following from this is that the thoughts and emotions that had caused us so much suffering prior, are also impermanent.
We are told that when the Buddha’s attendant, Ananda, was grieving the loss of his dear friend Sariputta, he described his emotions in this way: “When the noble friend Sariputta had gone, the world was plunged into darkness for me…” Then he added that after the Buddha had also passed away, “there was no friend like mindfulness directed to the body”.
This is good advice for us too. Can we take our cue from Ananda, especially during times when we are troubled by thoughts and emotions, and make mindfulness of the body our friend?
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 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, muti-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 of the 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 understanding that lies at the heart of all of the Buddha’s teaching arises from his teaching of Interdependent Co-Arising. In our growing understanding that no-thing spontaneously exists all on its own, we truly come to know that everything, including all physical & mental experience, have many, even infinite, contributing factors & conditions of causation. Within each ‘thing’ are MANY things.
This sublime teaching was clearly expressed in this verse from the Buddha.
‘This is, because that it.
This is not, because that is not.
This ceases to be, because that ceases to be.’
Seeing/knowing the world in this way can greatly demystify things for us, along with uniting us…bringing us together…offering us the wisdom to make ethical decisions with more skill & compassion. We are more clearly able to see the potential repercussions of what may have seemed to be harmless actions & reactions in relationship to ourselves & others. Mindful insight arises in seeing the impact that we have on others & in relationship to our environment. And, we find more patience arising in relationship to ourselves & others as we begin to more clearly understand the origin of our thoughts, emotions & actions. We learn to sense, see & know the interdependence between our reactions & moods/emotions…between our emotions/moods & our decisions…between our decisions & our contracted resistance or greed.
A GREAT GIFT of this understanding/ insight is our growing ability to intervene in the process of reactivity. Rather than immediately, habitually reacting in ways that cause suffering for ourselves & others, our practice gives us some ‘breathing space’ between what may be a strong or subtle unpleasant experience & our habitual reaction to unpleasant experience. We might still feel angry, fearful, greedy & upset, but there is now a few second gap in our heart/mind. With our mindfulness-based insight practice this ‘gap’ increases over time to a few more seconds…allowing our agitated mind to ‘cool off’. And seeming miraculous, at least at first, we now have a broader range of choices for how to RESPOND rather than react internally & externally. It can be quite an incredible change for us when mindfulness intervenes in our habitual ‘chain of causation’ that causes suffering for ourselves & for others. We experience a wonderful freedom with this change as it develops, deepens & matures within the whole of our life.
Gratitude is a quality and virtue that is like a hidden treasure. It is a spiritual force that brightens our existence and leads to inner harmony. Gratitude can bring an incredible amount of joy into our lives. It makes us happy.
As a beautifying quality of the heart and mind, gratitude is not as well-known as other qualities such as the Ten Perfections or the Seven Factors of Awakening. However, the Buddha stated very clearly, “The good person is grateful and thankful.”
Those who are grateful remember words, deeds, situations, or events that were beneficial, profitable, or instructive. What is profitable or instructive does not necessarily have to be pleasant or beautiful. Even unpleasant or painful experiences and encounters can be instructive or beneficial. Spiritual maturity is reflected in the understanding that the potential for inner growth can be found in every situation and every moment. Whether pleasant or painful. Those who are grateful recognize that everything is a gift and that nothing should be taken for granted.
When a heartfelt ‘thank you’ goes beyond the conventional mechanical phrase, it creates a connection with the other person and brightens up both lives.The practice of gratitude not only sharpens the awareness of our connection with others but also how we depend on them. Food, clothes, transportation, computer, toothpaste, books, toilet brush – all these things are produced by others. On top of this, there are the social and emotional aspects of our lives that are covered by other people or living beings. In this way, we are always beneficiaries and we owe so much to others.
Gratitude engenders a sense of fullness and causes appreciation for everything we have and for whatever we encounter. And we realize that we have so much! We recognize our ‘wealth’. People often focus on what they are missing, ‘I still need this to be happy. I should have another pair of shoes ….’, and so on. With this perspective, there arises a feeling of never-enough, a sense of lack. This is truly a sorrowful and miserable feeling. I call this the ‘never-enough-syndrome’. Additional to a free-flowing gratitude practice throughout the day, we can take a few moments in the evening and reflect on at least three things for which we are grateful today. We may probably find that it is more and more the simple and ordinary ‘everyday-things’ that we are grateful for.
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.