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.
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 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 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.”
...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