by Carol Russell
A Dharma Talk given October 18, 2022
Gratitude for the inspiration for this talk goes to David Loy, Buddhist scholar, practicing Zen Buddhist and one of the founders of Rocky Mountain Ecodharma Retreat Center, and to Joanna Macy, PhD, Buddhist scholar, systems thinker, activist, and root teacher for the Work That Reconnects.
Philosopher and social commentator Noam Chomsky recently said, "We’re approaching the most dangerous point in human history." He includes the potential for climate catastrophe, the threat of nuclear war, as well as the rise in authoritarian governments and the decline of democracy around the world, as the most pressing and threatening dangers to the world at this time.
What does Buddhism offer us in these times? Are we here to ‘wake up?’ Does that mean our own personal salvation journey or are we here to wake up to what is happening in the world?
Maybe less so now, in Western Buddhism, but historically, there has been an interpretation that the goal of practice is to transcend this world – not being reborn is the ultimate attainment. This can lead to a kind of indifference to and withdrawal from the threats to the world. Why be concerned with fixing the problems of the world if the goal is to get out of here?
Joseph Campbell, author and scholar of religion and mythology said:
Every religion is true one way or another. It is true when understood metaphorically. But when it gets stuck in its own metaphors, interpreting them as facts, then you are in trouble.
Is this true in Buddhism?
The ultimate goal on the Buddhist path is often stated as nibbana.
The samyutta nikaya defines nibbana this way:
Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.
Are we to take this literally?
The story of the Buddha is that when he was young, it was the first sight of an old man, and ill man, and a corpse that sent him on his spiritual journey and led to his eventual awakening. And what we understand is that he taught for many decades, eventually growing old, becoming ill and then dying.
The dhatu-vibhanga sutta says:
Furthermore, a sage at peace is not born, does not age, does not die, is unagitated, and is free from longing. He has nothing whereby he would be born. Not being born, will he age? Not aging, will he die? Not dying, will he be agitated? Not being agitated, for what will he long?
There’s a lot here to tease apart, more than we have time for tonight. But we might ask, what might it mean metaphorically that ‘the sage at peace is not born and does not die?’
David Loy suggests deathlessness is a metaphor for emptiness, anatta, sometimes referred to as non-self. We are not born with a sense of a separate self, but it is naturally created as those around us reinforce this fabricated separate self, made up of habitual ways of reacting, thinking, and feeling. This fabricated self is inherently insecure and unstable. It is the source of suffering. Being entirely constructed, there is nothing to secure. This is what we explore in mindfulness, this sense of lack that we could say our ego, the fabricated self, is trying to fill up by grasping after control, love, and sense pleasure.
As the sutta says:
…a sage at peace is not born, does not age, does not die, is unagitated, and is free from longing. He has nothing whereby he would be born.
This is one of the core teachings, that we have the potential to be free of suffering, of the endless project of making ourselves real, making ourselves feel okay. And we get there, not by striving for that moment in the future when we have finally arranged things so we are totally fine, but by letting go into groundlessness, by realizing our essential interconnection to the all.
Thich Nhat Hanh:
I laugh when I think how I once sought paradise as a realm outside of the world of birth. It is right in the world of birth and death that the miraculous truth is revealed. But this is not the laughter of someone who suddenly acquires a great fortune; neither is it the laughter of one who has won a victory. It is, rather, the laughter of one who; after having painfully searched for something for a long time, finds it one morning in the pocket of his coat.
Right here in the pocket of our coat. That doesn’t strike me as a transcendent state. Rather it is finding paradise right here in the duality of life and death.
To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in no-man's-land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh.
David Loy tells a story of Zen Master Yunmen, who lived 864 – 949 CE. A student asked him, What is the fruit of all this practice? The Master’s answer: cultivating an appropriate response to the circumstances of our lives.
Circling back to Noam Chomsky: If this is the most dangerous point in human history, as practitioners how do we respond appropriately?
On one hand, if we believe in the goal of transcendence, the literal view of freeing ourselves from the cycle of rebirth, as opposed to metaphorical view of attaining deathlessness in this life (found right here in our coat pocket), will we be indifferent to the problems facing our world? How will we respond appropriately?
On the other hand, if the slow dismantling of the fabricated self reveals our inter-connectedness with all of life, how does that guide our response to what is happening to the world?
If awakening is to "experience each moment as completely fresh and new", as Pema writes, isn’t that the state of no birth, no death? Eternity is defined as what is timeless or exists outside time, no beginning and no end. Just here, this moment. Each moment completely new and fresh.
I don’t pretend to understand the latest discoveries of quantum mechanics, but it does seem to be proving some very strange behaviors of interacting particles that show that the universe is organized so that everything in it can potentially influence everything else. All of us are connected. Not in a metaphorical way, but by the fundamental way in which the fabric of our universe is woven. It is measurably true that we all influence one another, and that the matter of which we are made carries the potential for anything.
We are, on a quantum level, not separate. Interconnected.
How does that view influence how we ‘respond appropriately’ to what is going on in this most dangerous time?
For Joanna Macy, the answer of how to respond appropriately to the circumstances in our world is very clear.
I think the most important thing we need to hear is the voice inside us which connects us to all beings and to the whole web of life. That is needed now to counteract the crippling of the modern self, which is cruelly contained, as in a prison cell, by the hyper-individualism of the last five centuries.
When you really pay attention, you see that you are part of the whole web of life. When Thich Nhat Hanh was asked what we most need to do for the sake of our world, he said “to hear within ourselves the sounds of the earth crying.” I believe it’s true. The earth is crying, deep in our consciousness. Sometimes it reaches us.
The starting place of this work is the admonition to choose life. All of us probably aspire to that, but how do we do it in practice?
We can begin by choosing to be present. We can choose to pay attention. That is the essential magic of mindfulness, and of the Buddha’s own life.
When you pay attention to your experience, you realize that you’re not just a separate organism sitting here breathing. You are not only breathing but being breathed. You need an oxygen-producing web of life for you to breathe—you need trees, you need plankton.
So where does the self begin and where does it end? When you really pay attention, you see that you are part of the whole web of life. That leads you to want to know that life and to protect it.
Going back to the beginning of this talk, I proposed the question: Is the spiritual path for my own awakening, or is it to serve the world? In the end, are these even two different paths, or are they the same path? Are they sequential or do they mutually support one another?
Perhaps, simultaneously, we are practicing for our awakening AND we are applying the fruits of our awakening toward the goal of ‘responding appropriately.’ As we act for the benefit of others in these most dangerous times, we more deeply realize our inseparability from all. Realizing our inseparability, we naturally care for the all beings.
This is where the two streams of your life come together—the spiritual and the politically engaged.
I experience them as one river. In early Buddhist scriptures there is a simple and wonderful phrase describing the relation between wisdom and action: they are “like two hands washing each other.” It is a dance of reciprocity. You can’t have one without the other, because they generate each other.
Realizing that there is no separate, independent, permanent self and everything is interconnected in the ever-changing web of life [is] absolutely essential, but it also needs to include being willing to get your hands dirty.
The title for this talk includes this phrase: ‘this burning world.’ Do you think the world is burning? What do you see as the most pressing concern in the world right now?
Responding appropriately to these most dangerous times is a deeply personal call. How are you guided to respond? What tugs at your heart?
As activist Andrew Harvey says, ‘Don’t follow your bliss. Follow your heartbreak.’ What is breaking your heart in these dangerous times?
Please feel free to post your comments!
May all beings be well and happy. May all beings be safe and filled with loving kindness.
By Mark Donovan
A Dharma Talk given November 30, 2021
I wanted to start tonight's talk with a poem:
The Buddha's Last Instruction, by Mary Oliver
“Make of yourself a light,” said the Buddha,
before he died.
I think of this every morning
as the east begins
to tear off its many clouds
of darkness, to send up the first
signal – a white fan
streaked with pink and violet,
An old man, he lay down
between two sala trees,
and he might have said anything,
knowing it was his final hour.
The light burns upward,
It thickens and settles over the fields.
Around him, the villagers gathered
and stretched forward to listen.
Even before the sun itself
hangs, disattached, in the blue air,
I am touched everywhere
by its ocean of yellow waves.
No doubt he thought of everything
that had happened in his difficult life.
And then I feel the sun itself
as it blazes over the hills,
like a million flowers on fire -
Clearly I’m not needed,
yet I feel myself turning
into something of inexplicable value.
Slowly, beneath the branches,
he raised his head.
He looked into the faces of that frightened crowd.
Sunday I worshiped in the tradition of my family at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. The preacher, who was a child during the Cold War, remembered practicing “duck and cover” at school, the fear that arose in her with the loud and shrill ringing of sirens, images that played in her mind of victims from the nuclear bombs dropped in Japan. In 2018 she was visiting Maui when, you may remember, there was a false missile alert. The alert stated that there was an incoming ballistic missile threat, advised residents to seek shelter, and concluded: "This is not a drill". The preacher commented that once again she was paralyzed with fear. She wondered what had become of her faith. And she contrasted standing strong in faith and hope to a state of fearful paralysis. There is a really huge gulf between those states of being, isn’t there? I think this is at the heart of our spiritual practice--the good news that draws us to this practice like a moth to the light. It’s the message of a cross-stitch sampler that hangs on my wall and reads, “Fear knocked on the door, Faith answered. No one was there.”
In a recent dharma talk on Dharma Seed, Brian Lesage described the spiritual journey in the following way: Exploring what can help our hearts to be here fully for this journey--this spiritual journey from birth to death, a journey that I hope this practice brings us more depth, kindness, love and wisdom. So we can have a wholeheartedness to our journey.
Today I want to explore the practice of gratitude as an element in “mak(ing) of ourselves a light,” of cultivating wholeheartedness. We are in the season of harvest and thanksgiving and I hope that each of you enjoyed Thanksgiving Day last Thursday. For me it was a pleasurable and meaningful day as members of my family came together from out-of-town, there was plenty of food on the table, and I gave thanks for both the physical and social and emotional nourishment, for being part of a loving family. Expressing gratitude reminds me that I am not separate, but part of an interconnected web of life that involves both receiving and giving.
Early Influences and Insights
Howie Cohn has been teaching our Prescott Insight Fall Retreat for, I’m not sure, something like 16 years, so he’s an important guiding teacher for our Sangha. So, when I saw a link to this short interview on the registration page for an upcoming in-person retreat, I decided I had to pass it along!
I share it with you here with his permission. No one is sure when or with whom the interview was conducted (it must have been over 12 years ago now – he’s been leading his Mission Dharma sangha for over 35 years).
I think you’ll find this to be an interesting and elucidating read!
Q: What originally drew you to meditation practice and who were your first important teachers? Also, who do you consider your primary teacher these days (if you have one)?
HC: I was a competitive athlete in my younger years, and I was always interested in the mind and body connection. I developed some homespun theories about how to live one’s life in a relaxed way based on what I was learning from sports. I probably irritated a few people with my theories about life when I tried them out. The real spark was meeting my freshman college girlfriend. Her brother was part of the original cadre of teachers that spread Transcendental Meditation in the Western world. I became interested in learning about it. Our romance didn’t last, but my interest in meditation did.
Some years later I went to a Ram Dass retreat and met Stephen Levine, who was offering vipassana practice as part of the retreat. I soon moved to Santa Cruz to sit in Stephen’s weekly sitting group. Within several months, I sat my first 3-month retreat, followed by many more 3-months retreats.
I consider Joseph Goldstein to be my root teacher in vipassana. He was such an inspiring guide for me on those early 3-month retreats. I still carry his depth of wisdom and commitment in my heart. In 1985, I became part of Jack Kornfield’s first teacher training group along with James Baraz, Sylvia Boorstein, Anna Douglas and Sharda Rogell. Jack has been such a wonderful teacher and mentor for me and my gratitude is boundless.
Q: Could you tell us about how your time with H.W.L Poonja in India influenced your vipassana practice or the way you teach?
When I first went to see Poonjaji in India, my vipassana practice had become a little stale. I had unknowingly adopted many views about what practice should look like and my ideas were limiting my experience of freedom. I felt constricted. I knew that what I had been searching for was none other than the natural freedom inherent in my own mind but I still felt dissatisfied. Practice had led me to want an end to struggling more than anything.
My experience with Poonjaji ended my sense of searching and the subtle identity of being a seeker. In my first conversation with him, he asked me why I had come to see him. I said, “I know that the seeker and the sought are one, but I’ve traveled halfway around the world (to India) to see you, so I must want something from you.”
He replied, “Remove the seeker, and remove the sought.”
Upon hearing those words, I experienced a gap in consciousness and the next thing I knew I was laughing a laugh I had never heard. Those simple words had shocked me out of all my identities—the notion of a seeker fell away; the sought fell away; the idea of a teacher fell away; the idea of a man fell away… all of my various identities gone. And this revealed an immaculate presence and freedom that is always available-right here, right now.
I hadn’t realized the extent to which I had subtly clung to the identity of seeker, meditator or person until they were gone. The identities have mostly come back and they are useful for living in a conceptual world but I now know them as limited abstractions or stories, and that they can never capture the depth of our direct experience. So my vipassana practice has become much more about celebrating and enjoying the true gift of being aware in the present moment…the gift that keeps on giving every time I return to awareness. I know that the more conscious I am of being present, the more I notice about myself and my surroundings. I naturally become more clear, loving, altruistic in my motivation and less likely to cause harm in this world.
In my teaching, I try to invoke that ever-available sense of presence. I try to remind meditators that what we are truly searching for is the pure consciousness or pure awareness through which we are already perceiving. I try to show that mindfulness is open heartedness and that practice leads to feeling connected. After all, the ultimate aim and fruit of practice is to unleash our love.
Q: Is there any specific Buddhist teaching that has most influenced your own practice?
My early practice followed the Burmese stream of Theravada Buddhism. It was very technical and intense, with precise attention given to the details of experience. This precision really helped me to see the way my mind embellishes my immediate experience and how the profound dramas that play through our minds form around the six repeating sense experiences (not as much going on in my life as I think). The difference between the stories that my mind created and the simple reality of things came into stark contrast. This period of practice also allowed me to see more clearly the three fundamental aspects of experience—impermanence, the unreliable nature of experience, and the self-less nature of all changing phenomena. Even the most delicious experiences are marked by these aspects. This understanding has had such a liberating influence on my life.
In 1989, just prior to meeting Poonjaji, I became much less drawn to the objects of awareness, and much more drawn to awareness or consciousness itself. The more I practiced and paid attention to changing objects, the brighter and clearer my mind became and my attention naturally shifted away from the objects of awareness and more toward the nature of awareness itself.
At that point I was introduced to the Tibetan Dzogchen teachings that have as one of their central aims the introduction of this intrinsic awareness, called rigpa. My first Dzogchen teacher was Chögyal Namkhai Norbu. Then I had the good fortune of spending time with Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, and now for 16-17 years I’ve joyfully studied with Tsoknyi Rinpoche (Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche’s son). The Dzogchen teachings provide such a beautiful and subtle language to describe our consciousness and practices to enhance our experience and confidence in Awareness.
More recently, the teachings of Ajahn Sumedho seem to synthesize the influences of my original Burmese teaching and the Dzogchen teachings with a very earthy and accessible emphasis on realizing the four noble truths in real time. We can use the struggles of our everyday existence to see through the self illusion and experience the heart’s release. Ajahn Sumedho was actually at my first 3-month retreat at IMS in the late 70’s; he was very inspiring then and he still is.
Q: Please tell us something about your ongoing sitting group in San Francisco. How long have you been leading it now?
I’ve been leading a sitting group in the Mission District of San Francisco every Tuesday night for 23 years. As much as anything in my life it has kept the fire of the dharma burning brightly in my own life. And I would speculate that this is probably true for many of the people who have taken advantage of the group over the years. Because I meet people after the work day and in the midst of their daily lives, their daily stresses, I have more certainty about how important and helpful it can be to align one’s life with awareness and love.
A majority of the meditators show up to the group having been buffeted by the waves of their mind (such as worries about the future, obsessions about the past), and tend to become very identified with distorted views of themselves. They seem palpably relieved to be reminded of and returned to present time and the healing power of awareness.
This interview was shared by British Columbia Insight Meditation Society, courtesy of Howard Cohn. Thank you Howie for sharing this profile with us!
Conflict and Connection
By Carol Russell
A Dharma talk given September 27, 2021
Yesterday morning I was on a hike and I ran into an old acquaintance, a local artist, someone I hadn’t seen in years. I was excited to see him, hear how his life has been, and connect. An interesting, although in retrospect maybe not uncommon, thing happened. He told me how well his life has been going, how the Pandemic hadn’t really changed anything for him; he was still making art. At some point I mentioned I hoped that the Pandemic was teaching us some things about working together to solve bigger problems that are causing suffering in the world. That set him off on a series of thoughts that made it clear that he and I had very different ideas about many things and he was eager to let me know his point of view. In the midst of it all I shared a few of my own contrasting views, which seemed to increased his opposition.
The conversation was friendly enough, but I walked away from the conversation without the experience of ‘connection’ that I had anticipated when I first saw this person on the trail.
What is this experience of connection that can happen between people? And not just people, but also the experience of connection that transcends the person-to-person relationship. Like what we sometimes sense when we are connecting with an animal, or walking in nature, or looking at the starry sky, or deep in meditation.
Buddhist literature abounds with contemporary writings about the illusion of separation that clouds our experience of our true nature of an open, connected, boundless heart. In Sharon Salzberg’s book, Lovingkindness- The Revolutionary Art of Happiness, she writes:
Throughout our lives we long to love ourselves more deeply and to feel connected with others. Instead, we often contract, fear intimacy, and suffer a bewildering sense of separation. We crave love, and yet we are lonely. Our delusion of being separate from one another, of being apart from all that is around us, gives rise of all of this pain. What is the way out of this?
It’s no wonder we lean toward connection; in a sense it is a call to our true nature, the wholeness that exists beyond the constriction, division, judgment, envy, and conflict of our minds and the world we live in. Meditative insight reveals to us the suffering caused by separation and the joy of realizing our connectedness.
Our Buddhist practice slowly unravels the dependence we have on external conditions for our happiness. As Carol Cook taught two weeks ago, we begin to experience ‘self’ as a dynamic process rather than a solid permanent thing. As Thich Nhat Hanh describes: you are empty of a separate self, but you are full of the cosmos. Everything touches everything. There is a freedom from having to defend this separate self as we abandon these separatist beliefs. We don’t do this, Sharon Salzberg tells us, by angrily shoving or pushing away our habits of separation. Rather, it comes as we learn to truly love ourselves and all beings, so that love provides the light by which we bear witness to those burdens, watching them simply fall away.
So perhaps the primary connection is with ourselves, fully integrating and accepting all aspects of our experience, loving the light and the dark, and cultivating kindness, compassion and generosity. This is part of our practice. And through our connection to ourselves, our connection to the world around us reveals itself.
And yet, we are living in a time of opposition, division, and conflict. There seems to be separation between people not just at the national level, or community level, but it is happening right down between family members, and between acquaintances, as I experienced on the trail yesterday.
Recently a friend gave me the book High Conflict by Amanda Ripley, just published this year. The author looks at the difference between healthy conflict and high conflict. Healthy conflict is a force that pushes us to be better people. It’s not the same as forgiveness nor is it surrender. In healthy conflict we remain open to the reality that none of us has all the answers to everything all the time, and that we are all connected together in life. Healthy conflict has humility, fluidity, complexity, and curiosity.
In contrast, high conflict has certainty, rigidity, righteousness, assumptions and zero-sum thinking. It is a force that causes people to lose their minds in ideological disputes; it sees things in terms of good vs evil, us vs them. Our brains behave differently in high conflict. We feel certain of our own superiority and mystified by the other side. We think things like, ‘How could they believe that?’ Some high conflicts explode into violence and can last for years, like gang violence in Chicago or the decades of deadly conflict in Colombia. Can you think of some issues in our country that have escalated into high conflict? It’s not too hard these days. Or in your own life? Probably none of us is spared the lure of high conflict at one time or another. It can become destructive and, weirdly, sometimes people mesmerized by high conflict somehow end up fighting against their own cause.
The book also looks at how people escape high conflict. Not by being defeated or by avoidance (like numbing out to what is going on) or by suddenly agreeing. Not by surrendering their beliefs. No: some people escape high conflict by doing something incredible: they become capable of understanding the other side. That changes everything. They become curious and humane. They become connected. In that connected state it’s not that the conflict ends, but rather conflict becomes healthy again.
Amanda Ripley writes that we are wired to see the world in an us-versus-them binary, but we are also wired to expand our sense of us to include them, given the right conditions. Have you noticed how impossible it is to change anyone’s mind these days? What if we let go of that goal? Being curious about someone else keeps the possibility open that two opposing sides can create a common sense of responsibility.
I have a T-shirt that reads: Radical Enough To Believe We Can End Homelessness that I got from the Coalition for Compassion and Justice. A couple of weeks ago I wore that T-shirt to the Farmers Market and a man came up to me to talk about it. He is a Vietnam veteran and he is going through a hard time because of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. He wanted to know what it meant to be ‘radical’ about homelessness. I said that means ending homelessness by actually getting people into homes.
He said: “I believe no veteran or woman should be without a home in this country. We spend trillions of dollars and you think we could make sure we have houses for people.”
Right there he and I had found agreement. Then he said if he wished he could have been in Washington DC for the national rally that weekend. When he mentioned the rally, that’s when I realized we had very different political viewpoints. But it didn’t matter; I felt a connection with this man. Why? Because we had connected on the level of a value that we shared. We both have a passion for ending homelessness. We had expanded the sense of us to include one another. We shared a sense of responsibility.
Amanda Ripley writes about what some groups have done when they have found themselves entrenched in high conflict. Usually, we think we have three options: Leaving, fighting or censoring ourselves. If we value our own beliefs, if we value healthy conflict and we are seeking to remain connected with one another, none of these options feels quite right. There is the fourth option, which she calls leaning in. This means both sides being willing to have really hard honest conversations and be tolerant of the discomfort of someone else’s opinion. Just like my experience with the veteran at the Farmers Market, sometimes the two sides will find they connect at the deeper levels, like the level of shared values and responsibility. But not always. Gandhi said: Honest disagreement is often a good sign of progress. If we are willing to allow ourselves to cycle through waves of frustration and blame, curiosity and understanding, we are building conflict resilience. Likely we will still disagree, but we are still in the game, and we may even feel connected. Maybe that connection, which reflects the vulnerable open-heartedness of our true nature, can lead to change.
A really important skill is what Ripley calls looping. It is basic reflective listening. It is saying back to someone what you heard them say and asking if you got it right. If people feel they’ve been heard by you, then they stay in complexity and nuance, where they can see different sides. In turn, if you are heard, you can remain curious and fluid as well. When we feel heard we are more likely to be open. There is more connection and less polarization.
Listening doesn’t mean agreeing. We may never change anyone’s mind. Conflict is an unavoidable part of life and can help us be better people.
Our Buddhist practice encourages us to cultivate the good, to align ourselves with a vision of what is possible, to choose to embrace our own innate expansive capacity for love and happiness. And to let go, even as we apply ourselves to those heart qualities of generosity, non-harming, right action and right speech. Diana Winston, a Buddhist teacher, offers reasons not to hate those people who oppose our beliefs and values. I will read a few of those reasons:
HATRED HURTS. It’s suffering. The Buddha taught that hatred is a form of suffering. He said that holding hatred in the mind and heart is like tightly clutching a hot coal in your hand—guess who suffers? You can experience the burning quality of hatred by examining your own mind. What does your mind feel like when it is filled with love? Most likely you feel connection, spaciousness, openness. What does it feel like when your mind is full of hate? Probably you feel disconnection, pain, and separation, all accompanied by some good old self-righteousness. Dharma practice is about the development and cultivation of skillful mind states—no matter what the situation. This is not to say difficult mind states don’t arise unbidden, but which ones do you want to hang on to? What kind of mind do you want?
The acquaintance I met on the trail yesterday and I were not in high conflict; we weren’t dehumanizing one another. But I didn’t have the experience of feeling connected. Maybe we could have been better listeners. Connection between people takes time and patience. But it can be worth our time as a path to connecting with ourselves, to the kind and generous essence of our hearts, and allowing our being to radiate outward, even in the midst of our suffering in and for the world.
By Mark Donovan
A Dharma Talk given March 16, 2021
I’m sorry to report, but last week there was fake news that was shared and spread in our Sangha. It was reported that I would have the last word on “suffering.” Do you want to know the truth? The truth is that as long as we are alive in these particular body-minds, the worldly winds will blow. Like that wind yesterday on the Ides of March; a date that coincided with the first full moon of the Roman calendar and when tributes were paid to gods and goddesses. That wind wore me out. The dogs and I climbed into bed and under the covers at 8:00 last night. I had started the day paying tribute to a 7-year old girl whose grandmother requested that I bake cupcakes for her birthday. The first cupcakes I’d ever made, marbled cake with chocolate buttercream frosting and blue and white sprinkles.
A couple of weeks ago I held up the computer video for you to see the calligraphic sign I taped to the wall for the month with the word, “suffering.” I found that I didn’t really want to look at the sign. Although the calligraphy turned out pretty well, there was something I found aversive, dark and heavy about the word. To suffer, from the Latin sufferre meaning “to bear.” An image that comes to mind is of the god Atlas, on one knee, bearing the weight of the world. In our study of Ajahn Chah, he often used the phrase “patient endurance.” To bear, to endure.
Over the weekend I participated in a Zoom retreat with Brian and Sebene titled Cultural and Spiritual Bypassing. We explored what gets left out, such as the feminine, in Buddhism. The Thai Buddhist tradition, the birthplace of Insight Meditation, will not ordain women. We can bring to mind multiple examples of American cultural dominance and oppression, such as the historical disenfranchisement of African-Americans, Native Americans and people of color. Last week the pope declared that any person who is not cisgendered heterosexual is
a sinner. LGBTQ persons are left out. There is the present scapegoating and violence directed at Asian-Americans, a clear reaction to Trump’s blaming China for the pandemic, calling it the Chinese virus, and his dog whistling to white supremacists. And in all of this there is both personal and collective suffering. Besides the physical blows of violence, such as those we read about weekly now directed at elderly Asian-Americans in our cities, there is the hardening of hearts, the loss of rights and dignity, the pains of poverty. Last night on the PBS Newshour there was a report on Yemen and the millions of people there who are at risk of starvation, 600,000 children who are now dying of starvation. I felt consumed by pain watching the video documentary of their small bodies immobile, limbs shrunken to bones without muscle or flesh, stomachs bloated, huge eyes vacant, hauntingly filled with pain. And their parents and families bearing the pain of losing a young family member -- the impacts of war, climate change, famine.
by Carol Russell
A Dharma Talk given February 23, 2021
We are embarking on an exploration of the core of the Buddha’s teachings, the four noble truths. Our sangha’s founding leader, Carol Cook, had a tradition of beginning each year with an immersion into this subject, because it is utterly central and foundational to our practice. Carol has inspired us to take it up.
Our plan is to take the four truths, one noble truth at a time, and for four weeks each of us will offer an exploration of the truth of the month. This should be especially interesting because of the fact that there are endless ways of examining such a profound teaching: historic, contemporary, esoteric, practical, psychological, experiential, scholarly, and on and on. We are hoping for some interesting conversations amongst all of us in these explorations. Whether it is the first time you are studying these truths or you are circling back for the hundredth time, we know there is always more to understand. We hope you will take the Buddha’s profound teachings into your daily life and share your fresh discoveries and insights when we meet on Tuesday nights.
Simply put, the four noble truths are:
There is suffering.
There is a cause of suffering.
There is an end of suffering.
The remedy is the eight-fold path.
Did you ever wonder why these are called the ‘noble’ truths? Some say it is because these are the truths which cause nobleness. Of course, we are dealing with translations from the Pali language and a great deal of time passing, and the fact that the teachings were oral for some time, but I recently found this explanation: that it may be more accurate to say, the nobles’ truths, or the truths possessed by the noble ones. The dictionary definition of noble is: Having or showing qualities of high moral character, such as courage, generosity, and integrity. So, we are establishing a connection between acknowledging, understanding and freeing ourselves from suffering and these natural and noble qualities of courage, generosity, and integrity.
The First Noble Truth, the truth of suffering. In Pali, the word is dukkha. The truth of dukkha. Sometimes dukkha is translated as ‘dissatisfaction.’ I like that word because it includes more than the overt times of suffering in life, it includes that background feeling that we all have at times that things aren’t reliably satisfying. No matter how great a life you have, this human life is bound to include stress. It may be those underlying existential questions like, what are we doing here? What is it all about? Dukkha is not personal, and it’s ubiquitous in the world of form and incarnation. Everyone has the experience of dissatisfaction.
By Mark Donovan
A Dharma Talk given in August, 2020
Note: This piece is primarily a synthesis of two talks on Dharma Seed with text borrowed directly: Spiritual Hope by Tara Brach and Hope, Hopelessness and Equanimity by Jill Shepherd.
I suppose I wanted to investigate hope to cheer myself up. I felt like I got clobbered over the head last month with a long bout of insomnia that threw me off balance. My mood was unstable with high anxiety related to lack of sleep, personal issues, and the background clamor of the pandemic and politics. I suffered. I was also aware that I wasn’t in this alone, that humanity as a whole is suffering at this time as the pandemic disrupts lives and livelihoods. And I appreciated the expressions from my doctor, and the director of the clinic where I work, who reminded me that many, many people are going through exactly what I was going through. Our suffering is universal.
This time of massive transformation and uncertainty is both scary, with many of our old moorings loosened or lost, and also cause for new hope that a more fair and just world will emerge. Rebecca Solnit, in her essay “The Impossible Has Already Happened: What Coronavirus Can Teach Us About Hope,” writes “I have found over and over that the proximity of death in shared calamity makes many people more urgently alive, less attached to the small things in life and more committed to the big ones, often including civil society or the common good.”
I imagine that some of you watched the televised funeral for John Lewis. Listening to stories from his life I felt great hopefulness. What a remarkable man, known for his “moral clarity,” a conscience backed by tireless action that for 60 years worked for equality and justice. A man who lived by his motto of “making good trouble,” civil disobedience, putting his body on the line as he led 600 people across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 for civil rights. He suffered a fractured skull, but that did not lead him to hate his attackers, but to continue making good trouble through non-violent means. Lewis said, “We must be bold, brave, courageous, and push and pull until we redeem the soul of America and move closer to a community at peace with itself, where no one will be left out because of race, color, or nationality.” He recently expressed pride as he watched his legacy in action: a new generation of activists fighting for equality. Lewis’ example of living into the promise of greater equality gives me inspiration and hope. Tara Brach would call this “spiritual hope”, this growing into a greater potential, the hope of what’s possible.
Inviting Mara to Tea
By Carol Cook
A Dharma Talk delivered February 15, 2020
At Layne and Neera's
So, Mara! Who is this Mara? And why would we invite him/her to tea? I realize, you may already know the stories about Mara from Buddhist, Hindu and other traditions, and Mara may not sound like someone you would want to invite to tea.
I decided to google a bit to see how Mara shows up on the world-wide net, and Mara does appear in many traditions — both spiritual and otherwise.
-Mara is the highest-ranking goddess in Latvian mythology,
-A Hindu goddess of destruction, death, winter, and the moon.
-Of Hebrew origin, the word Mara means is "bitter" or “sorrow.”
-In the Bible, Naomi, mother-in-law of Ruth, claimed the name Mara as
an expression of grief after losing her husband and sons.
-In Gaelic - the sea, seen both as a destructive force and a source of life.
My most surprising discovery was Mara’s appearance in Dr. Who. I couldn’t even remember who Dr. Who was — maybe the name of a band? (And I realize that any sci-fi buff might think I’m illiterate.) But I also learned that the Mara in the Dr. Who episodes seemed to be lifted from Buddhist literature along with two phantoms named “Dukkha” and “Anatta.”
At least two of the writers of these episodes are reported to have had interests in Tibetan and Zen Buddhism.
Mara has also been featured as a demon in a video game series, Megami Tensei.
I decided to stop here — I was supposed to be writing a talk.
So, as for the Mara in Buddhism, among the many supernatural beings found in Buddhist literature, Mara is unique. He/she is one of the earliest non-human beings to appear in Buddhist scriptures.
In traditional Buddhism, Mara is seen in four metaphorical forms:
Mara as the embodiment of all unskillful mind states, such as greed, hate and delusion.
Mara as death.
Mara as metaphor for the entirety of conditioned existence.
Mara as the deva of the sensuous realm, who tried to prevent Siddhartha Gautama (later known as The Buddha) from awaking on the night of the his enlightenment.
Why “Early Buddhism” More Accurately Reflects
Insight Meditation Society’s Roots
From Insight Meditation Center, Barre Mass.
February 2019 Newsletter
Early Buddhism is a living spiritual tradition based on the original teachings of the historical figure known as the Buddha, or Awakened One, who lived in northern India in the fifth century BCE. The term can also refer to the doctrines and practices taught by the Buddha, including understandings such as the Four Noble Truths, guidance on conduct such as the Five Precepts, and meditation practices like insight (vipassana), mindfulness, and lovingkindness. Today in Asia the followers of Early Buddhism are found primarily in Burma, Thailand, and Sri Lanka. Many IMS teachers trained in these countries before bringing the teachings to the West.
Until recently the tradition of Early Buddhism was more commonly known as Theravada, or Way of the Elders. In fact, IMS originally considered itself to be a Theravadan center. However, modern scholarship has revealed that Theravada is just one of some eighteen schools of Early Buddhism, each with its own views and foundational texts. Early Buddhists today agree that the discourses of the Buddha (collectively, the Dhamma) and his monastic code (the Vinaya) are authoritative. The Theravadan school also considers the Pali Abhidhamma and commentaries such as the Visuddhimagga to be authoritative, while other Early Buddhists may not. Hence Early Buddhism and Theravada are not synonymous, although there is much overlap.
Letting Go, the Essence of Generosity
By Kenn Duncan
From a Dharma talk given in December, 2019
“To give is nonattachment, just not to attach to anything is to give.”
— Suzuki Roshi
The essence of generosity is letting go. Feeling greedy or stingy is always a sign that we are holding on to something, usually ourselves. When we feel unhappy, when we feel inadequate, we get "stingy” we hold on tighter. Generosity is an activity that loosens us up. By offering whatever we can, no matter what it is, we are training in letting go. Giving has the characteristic of relinquishing: its function is to dispel greed for things that can be given away; its manifestation is non-attachment.
By holding onto or being with greed, we can talk ourselves out of being generous. The thought of sending a card or flowers to someone, and then thinking, Oh they'll get lots of cards. A friend who admires a jacket we don’t wear, and we think to ourselves, Well someday I might want to wear that jacket. Sharon Salzberg suggests that we become mindful of this tendency and as soon as the thought to be generous arises, we resolve to follow through.
“You cannot do a kindness too soon because you never know how soon it will be too late.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson
Nothing to hold onto can be liberating. We can relax with impermanence. What can we really possess, after all? Our realization that there is nothing we can hold onto can actually cultivate our generosity, which becomes a circle that constantly feeds itself. The Buddha tells us, “The greatest gift is the act of giving itself.”
There are so many ways to practice generosity. The practice isn’t so much what we give but that we unlock our habit of clinging. So this could be things, or money, food, a place in line, your time, a smile. It can start with being mindful of what you are holding onto and looking for a generous way to let it go.
Three Unwholesome Roots - Greed, Hatred and Delusion: Cloudy With a Chance of Delusion
By Kenn Duncan
Delivered as a Dharma talk, September 2019
“It is better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring” - Carl Sagan
Delusion is said to be the most dangerous of the 3 poisons, it’s described as confusion, ignorance, illusion, bewilderment, misperception of reality. Believing something which is not true and acting on this belief, one of the problems with delusion is it believes it’s true. Delusion can lead us to ignore the facts and cling to our views and opinions, it creates a loss of connection with reality. It can take us into the illusion of our thoughts and misperceptions and these inevitably motivate unskillful actions.
Further, we start to build stories around these delusions, you’re by yourself one day = I don’t have any friends, see someone on TV = I think that person is cool, or that person is not cool, I will never get old, never go bald, but the reality is we don’t know, is that person cool? Will I go bald? We don’t really have control. Delusion is trying to have control or fool us into thinking that our beliefs are real and true. We also form ideas about ourselves that limit us, by making stories of ourselves, I can do this, I can’t do this, I’m this way… I’m not that way.
Buddhism gives us a great view of delusion and that is that you shouldn’t take it personally or as a failure when it’s recognized or seen, by yourself or by others. It just comes with being a human being, our mind will work towards delusion, maybe as a protection. So rather than being judgmental about it or embarrassed about it, be willing to be transparent with it, talk about it, recognize it, know it.
By Carol Russell
Delivered as a Dharma talk July 9, 2019
There is a well-known saying: In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.
We admire those who are experts, accomplished in their field, who have spent many years honing a skill or knowledge of their subject, who break new ground in creativity or research or scholarship or athletic ability or spiritual wisdom. And they deserve our admiration. We seek guidance and inspiration from such accomplished people.
Once, a long time ago, there was a wise Zen master. People from far and near would seek his counsel and ask for his wisdom. Many would come and ask him to teach them, enlighten them in the way of Zen. He seldom turned any away. One day an important man, a man used to command and obedience came to visit the master. “I have come today to ask you to teach me about Zen. Open my mind to enlightenment.” The tone of the important man’s voice was of one used to getting his own way. The Zen master smiled and said that they should discuss the matter over a cup of tea. When the tea was served the master poured his visitor a cup. He poured and he poured and the tea rose to the rim and began to spill over the table and finally onto the robes of the wealthy man. Finally the visitor shouted, “Enough. You are spilling the tea all over. Can’t you see the cup is full?” The master stopped pouring and smiled at his guest. “You are like this tea cup, so full that nothing more can be added. Come back to me when the cup is empty. Come back to me with an empty mind.”
Do Not Despair
By Jack Kornfield
Originally published at jackkornfield.com, January 27, 2017.
The problem with the world is that we draw our family circle too small.
— Mother Teresa
Many of us wrestle with our response to the sufferings of the country and the world. What can we do in the face of poverty, disease, war, injustice, and environmental devastation? With the torrent of news, it is easy to despair, to become cynical or numb. Our psychologies tend to treat this as a personal problem, but it is not. We are all affected by the suffering of the world and need to find a way to work with it. This is a pressing problem for psychology. The Buddhist approach to this collective suffering is to turn toward it. We understand that genuine happiness and meaning will come through tending to suffering. We overcome our own despair by helping others to overcome theirs.
We might hear this and become afraid of being overwhelmed. Or our response might be confused with guilt, unworthiness, and our need for personal healing. Still, even though our motivation is mixed, we have to respond. And we can. It is simple. Each of us can contribute to the sanity of the world. We can tend to ourself and we can tend to others. In doing so we discover the role of the bodhisattva.
— Jack Kornfield
A New Year's Teaching:
Dedication and Long-Term Intention
By Jack Kornfield
Originally published at jackkornfield.com, December 28, 2016.
"It is the New Year. We all know about New Year’s resolutions and how short-lived they can be. Consider setting a long-term intention. A long-term intention is also called a vow or dedication. In the forest monastery we would gather before dawn in the candlelit darkness and begin the sonorous morning chanting to dedicate ourselves to loving-kindness and liberation for all. The chants reminded us that awakening is possible whenever we dedicate ourselves to a noble way of life. We would vow to use the support we received as monks for awakening and compassion, for ourselves and for all beings.
Setting a long-term intention is like setting the compass of our heart. No matter how rough the storms, how difficult the terrain, even if we have to backtrack around obstacles, our direction is clear. The fruits of dedication are visible in the best of human endeavors.
As you begin the New Year, take some time to sit and quietly reflect. If today you were to set or reaffirm a long-term intention, a vow, your heart’s direction, what would it be?"
– Jack Kornfield
By Jack Kornfield
Originally published at jackkornfield.com, November 29, 2016
When times are uncertain, difficult, fearful, full of change,
they become the perfect place to deepen the practice of awakening.
After viewing the elections….whatever your point of view,
Take time to quiet the mind and tend to the heart.
Then go out and look at the sky.
Remember vastness, there are seasons to all things,
gain and loss, praise and blame, expansion and contraction.
Learn from the trees.
Practice equanimity and steadiness.
Remember the timeless Dharma amidst it all.
Think of the best of human goodness.
Let yourself become a beacon of integrity, with your thoughts, words and deeds.
Integrity in speech and action, virtue and non harming bring blessings.
Remember the Noble truths, no matter the politics or the season:
Greed, hatred and ignorance cause suffering. Let them go.
Love, generosity and wisdom bring the end of suffering. Foster them.
Remember the Buddha’s counsel,
“Hatred never ends by hatred but by love alone is healed.
This is the ancient and eternal law.”
The human heart has freedom in itself to choose love, dignity and respect.
In every circumstance, embody respect and cultivate compassion for all.
Let yourself become a beacon of Dharma.
Amidst the changes, shine with courage and trust.
Love people and...
This is your world. Plant seeds of goodness
and water them everywhere.
Then blessings will grow for yourself and for all.
I just wanted to make sure that links to these articles by Jack Kornfield are available to you all, and I encourage you to spend some time with them both. May we all have the courage to know and follow our hearts’ truth.
Post-election Wise Action
A Safety Pin Movement to Shrink "The Divide"
...to this resource for our community. Much gratitude goes out to our Dharma Leadership, our entire Sangha – and the numberless causes and conditions – for making this website possible, and for the joy I have experienced in creating it.
Detail of the Great Hall Mural
Courtesy Spirit Rock Meditation Center
Used with permission