By Marga Callender
Our theme this month is sympathetic joy. Sympathetic joy is one of the 4 Brahma Vihara or the Divine Abodes. They are: Loving Kindness, Compassion, Sympathetic Joy, and Equanimity.
Last month we talked about compassion. I think of compassion and sympathetic joy as wonderful compliments to each other. In true compassion, we resonate with the suffering of others. We get it. And we can stand with and offer appropriate support. In sympathetic joy we also resonate, this time, in the good fortune of others. We are truly, whole-heartedly, without reservation, happy and supportive.
Expressing compassion and sympathetic joy can sometimes be difficult. It is difficult to feel joyful for someone who has something that we want. This is part of the 2ndNoble Truth. The first noble truth essentially says that there is nothing in this phenomenal world that creates lasting happiness. The 2ndNoble Truth teaches us why. The cause of our unhappiness is Tanha, the Pali word for thirst. Tanha or thirst creates craving and craving can lead to clinging. So, if someone has something we think we lack, something we thirst for and crave, it can be quite difficult to be happy for that person.
So, I’d like us to consider the role of cultivating generosity to help us have a freer relationship with Sympathetic Joy. Generosity is a universal virtue expounded by most religious traditions. The Buddha recognized the important role of generosity. When an individual or a group approached the Buddha for instruction for the very first time, he started with instruction on generosity before launching into any the teachings. Why would that be?
Bhikku Bodhi writes, “The goal of the path is the destruction of greed, hate and delusion, and the cultivation of generosity directly debilitates greed and hate, while facilitating that pliancy of mind that allows for the eradication of delusion.”
Jack Kornfield says it a bit more simply, “Compassionate generosity is the foundation of the spiritual life because it is the practice of letting go.” But what are we letting go of? As Bhikku Bodhi says … actually the Buddha says and Bhikku Bodhi points out … we are letting go of the three unwholesome roots of greed, hatred and delusion. They keep the cycles of birth and death going. We experience myriad births and deaths every day in the cycles that we encounter moment by moment. We train to let go because these unwholesome roots fuel our craving and clinging and they keep us in suffering and dissatisfaction.
Letting go isn’t always easy, especially with a very deep longing we have or when we are asked to let go of something that we believe we must have in order to be happy. Even contemplating letting go of those deep longings or attachments can take our breath away. Training in generosity is a good way to help us let go.
Jack also reflects that for most of us, generosity is a quality that must be developed. I think he is cautioning us not to act out of a place of should, but to examine our lives, and to realize what we crave and how we grasp. Such investigation helps us identify the places of contraction within that are characterized by stinginess, fear, greed, hatred, and attitudes and feelings of separateness.
As we see the places of contraction, we can make a choice. We can open ourselves to sharing. We can share our time, our possessions, our money, our love … or whatever matches the need in the moment. As we open up in generosity, we begin to experience a lightness … a happiness … a freedom … a joy and that encourages us to continue to open in generosity.
Another wholesome outcome of this growth in generosity is that we begin to see just how inextricably connected we all are. We begin to see, deeply, that, as the Buddha pointed out, we all have needs for shelter, nourishment, clothing, and medicines. And we experience the ways in which we can interact in order to support and encourage each other. Jack writes, “An act of generosity opens our body, heart and spirit and brings us close to freedom. Each act of generosity is a recognition of our interdependence, an expression of our Buddha nature.”
So, as we experience our freedom and the recognition of our interdependence, we naturally are more able to embody that Divine Abode of Sympathetic Joy and have that shine through us. We are much more able to freely be joyful about another’s good fortune.
I recently came across a phrase in the book Satipatthana: The Direct Path to Realization by Analayo that blew my socks off. As I sat with that phrase, it brought tears of joy and awe to me. The phrase was: radiating the four divine abodes in all directions. This was a revelation to me. As we do metta meditation on any of the four divine abodes, we send beneficial intentions out to individuals, and groups and eventually to all sentient beings everywhere. Reading that phrase of radiating the four divine abodes in all directions gave it a whole new depth for me. I pictured myself not sending from ‘me,’ but naturally radiating the purity of kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity into all spheres and realms. Cultivating generosity helps us wholeheartedly and unabashedly express and radiate sympathetic joy.
But truth to tell, cultivating generosity also helps cultivate all of the Brahma Viharas or the Divine Abodes. It helps open us to radiate loving-kindness and compassion and it undergirds equanimity. Close your eyes for a moment and imagine yourself radiating loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity to all beings everywhere.
by Dr. Lucinda Green, RMI Founder and Spiritual Director
Sit down. Close your eyes, observe your breath, and do nothing else.
This is the basic instruction for anapana sati, mindfulness of breathing, from the first foundation of mindfulness as taught by the Buddha.
Much ensues from the simple act of observing, from mindful awareness, and in this case observing the breath. When we observe something, we create the time, and the space to be aware of what is occurring.
This is a great departure from our normal way of living and being. We are usually caught up in our thoughts, ideas, beliefs, emotions, opinions, and behaviors. Our minds are moving at the speed of light.
“Here I am sitting, and I could be accomplishing at least one or two of the ten zillion things that I need to be doing. What I need to get done is far more important than just sitting here, and doing nothing. I’m supposed to be observing …what? My breath? My breath will get along without my paying attention to it. And besides, what’s so important about the breath?”
Meditation allows us to step off that train of thought. Picture yourself sitting on a bench near a railway station. You watch for the train, see the train approaching and as it zooms by, you jump on the train and are off and running. You end up in Albuquerque before you know it, and wonder how did I get here?
Meditation allows us to step off that train, take the time, and create the space between what is occurring in our thoughts, emotions, opinions, ideas and habitual behaviors, and see what is occurring. See what is arising, and what is passing away. So too, just as our breath arises and ceases, comes into being and passes away.
Disciplining our attention to stay on the primary object allows the sight and the sounds of the train to go by without jumping on, while remaining alert, aware, calm, concentrated and relaxed. Ahhh… The power comes from the sustained attention to the object, and observation, applying mindful awareness.
In the case of anapana sati, the breath is the primary object. Every meditation requires an object, requires a point of focus, something upon which to pay particular close attention.
Using the breath as a primary object is handy. It accompanies us where ever we go. No special situation, environments, or accoutrements are required. You can pay attention to our breath wherever you are. In and out. Long/short/deep/shallow.
The breath’s immediacy and availability are advantages of using it as an object, for our mindful attention. The breath also sustains our lives.
It is interesting to note a number of beneficial results occurring naturally as a result of meditating regularly for only a few months. Consistency is an important factor for these changes to occur and is not dependent on you feeling successful as you meditate, i.e. being able to concentrate, remain one pointed, be free from monkey mind distraction and restlessness.
Many meditators report feeling more peaceful, feeling less anxious. The most notable reported effect is being less reactive. Some notice a marked shift in volatility, no longer going from zero to a hundred. They may still feel angered easily, but the decibel level allows them to think and be more in charge of their faculties as opposed to explode with unbridled anger.
Others notice they are no longer bothered by conversation or behaviors with coworkers that formerly causing them considerable discomfort.
Many people find they get upset less over things in general and specifically small things, such as their children not putting away all of their toys, or leaving their socks here and there…to more major stressors such as Millie the mother-in-law (no offense to Millie) insisting that every family member be present at the upcoming holiday meal.
In many cases, the only change in people’s lives is meditation. Others may have meditated on and off for decades on a hit or miss basis, and then buckle down establishing a dedicated practice. It is at that time they experience the effects spoken of here.
This shift in non-reactivity is a huge carrot! And keeps people coming back to the cushion, time and time again.
These changes have issued forth from simply observing the breath! And it seems almost magical. Even when our thoughts are running amok during meditation, we’re restless, or the mind is dull or the body sleepy, simply stopping, closing your eyes and watching the breath is transformative. The body does what it is trained to do. So too, the mind. We are training the attention to be aware of the mind and observe itself.
The magic of meditation is now understood by neuroscientists who research the topic. This, from an article by Kristyna Zapletal, in the Observer, in which she quotes a few neuroscientists. “Our brain develops and adapts throughout our whole lives. This phenomenon called neuroplasticity, means that gray matter can thicken or shrink, connections between neurons can be improved, new ones can be created, and old ones degraded or even terminated.
Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School, uses the MRI technology to look at very fine, detailed brain structures and see what is happening to the brain while a person is performing tasks, including yoga and meditation.
According to her own words, Lazar herself used to be skeptical about the lofty claims her yoga teacher had made about the emotional benefits of meditations she should have expected to experience. When after attending several classes, she indeed felt calmer, happier, and more compassionate, she decided to re-focus her research on the changes in the brain’s physical structure as a result of meditation practice.
In one of her studies she engaged people who had never meditated before and put them through a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction training program, where they took a weekly class and were told to perform mindfulness exercises, including body scan, mindful yoga, and sitting meditation, every day for 30 to 40 minutes.
After eight weeks, she found out that the brain volume increased in four regions, from which the most relevant were:
HIPPOCAMPUS: a seahorse-shaped structure responsible for learning, storage of memories, spatial orientation, and regulation of emotions.
TEMPOROPARIETAL JUNCTION: the area where temporal and parietal lobes meet and which is responsible for empathy and compassion.
On the other hand, the one area whose brain volume decreased was:
AMYGDALA: an almond-shaped structure responsible for triggering the fight-or-flight response as a reaction to a threat, whether real or only perceived.
Here, the decrease in gray matter correlated with changes in the levels of stress. The smaller their amygdala became, the less stressed people felt, even though their external environment remained the same. It proved that the change in amygdala reflected the change in the people’s reactions to their environment, not in the environment itself.”
Hence less reactivity as I mentioned above. Less reactivity to the same stimulus.
“Neuroscientist Lara Boyd from the University of British Columbia points out that the human brain changes in three ways to support learning of new things:
It means that the brain regions that are important for specific behaviors may change their structure or enlarge. These changes need more time to take place, which underlines the importance of a consistent practice.
In essence, the more you use a particular brain region, the easier it is to trigger its use again.
“Repeat those behaviors that are healthy for your brain and break those behaviors and habits that are not. Practice… and build the brain you want.” —Lara Boyd, PT, PhD”
This is exciting and wonderful information, and confirms the discovery made by the Buddha some 2,600 years ago.
It helps us to have faith in the meditation practice, as we develop our practice, and build confidence, in the power of the practice. The word for confidence is Saddha, in Pali, Sraddha, in Sanskrit, and refers to the concept of faith, in our Theravada Buddhist tradition. Faith equals confidence in our own direct experience.
By sitting down and training the mind to observe, the mind becomes more observant. The mind sees itself. The mind sees beyond itself. By seeing through and beyond itself the mind is able to recognize and notice that what arises in ourselves, arises in others. The wish for happiness is universal. Others are breathing the air that I breathe, be they in New York, Colombo, Nairobi, or Sao Paolo. Breathing the breath of life is a universal impersonal phenomenon which connects one of us to all of us, through a single breath. This is occurring right now, in this room. Air is a naturally shared common resource. We are all sharing the air in this room with every breath.
We are able to realize too, that the breath is breathing us. We are being breathed. This is the involuntary aspect of the breath.
What happens if we let go of “doing” the breathing, and focus rather on the involuntary aspect, that the breath comes in and goes out, on its own. inhale and exhale. We are being breathed.
Is it possible then to let go, allow and trust, let go of the fight, the struggle, working so hard, stressing so much, to simply live and breathe, be and feel supported in our lives?
Contemplating the nature of breathing, as voluntary and involuntary, allows us to directly experience the interconnection between us all.
Observing creates the time and space for the mind to know itself, and changes the trajectory of our lives, as we become less reactive, see more clearly, and become more compassionate. These changes are reflected in the structure and the functions of the brain.
Who knew that sitting down and observing the breath could yield so much? And yet, it does. And knowing all we know, it still feels magical.
by Marga Callender, RMI Meditation Instructor
Refuge. We humans along the way assigned some wonderful meanings to that combination of letters. Refuge. Take a moment, close your eyes, take a breath and then tune into your own body/mind and take note of what arises for you when you hear that word, refuge. What images arise? How and where does it resonate in the sensations of your body and energy field?
Okay, another breath, open your eyes and widen your awareness back into this room.
One of the first images I have when I consider that word is shelter. Perhaps you’ve seen photos of geese and ducks and owls and other birds sheltering their chicks. Some of the photos show them lined up underneath mom’s … or maybe dad’s … wings. Shelter. Refuge provides safety, warmth, belonging, reassurance.
Other photos may not be so obvious and you have to look and see just how incorporated the chicks are within the feathers of the parent. Refuge is shelter … shelter when storms arise. Shelter as we deal with the intensity in this world of samsara. Shelter in the experience of danger. Shelter when harsh elements arise both internally and externally.
Another association I have when I hear the word refuge is Wildlife Refuges. There are many of them through the USA and the world. I lived for many years in Wisconsin and I have vivid memories of the refuge in Horicon Marsh. Horicon March is the largest freshwater cattail marsh in the US. It is common to see at least 30 different species of birds in the marsh in one visit.
This refuge provides many vital resources. It is a nesting place for waterfowl and a resting place for migratory birds. Its environment supports plant and other animal life that provides a habitat required for their health and safety. There is ample nourishment. The cattails and other vegetation provide shelter. This ecosystem optimizes their ability to live and reproduce and flourish. They have the resources needed to maximize their own true nature.
You and I have the opportunity as Buddhists to take refuge. The refuge we take provides those elements of warmth, safety, belonging, nourishment, and actually so much more. We take refuge in the Triple Gem or the Three Jewels. They are, of course, refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha.
Taking refuge wasn’t a new idea at time of the Buddha. Thanissaro Bhikkhu writes: “In pre-Buddhist India, going for refuge meant proclaiming one’s allegiance to a patron — a powerful person or god — submitting to the patron’s directives in hopes of receiving protection from danger in return.”
The idea of refuge shifted however with the Buddha in some powerful ways. In Buddhism, we take refuge in the Buddha, but not as a god or even as a powerful person. Not as some entity or energy who will personally intervene and protect us from danger. We take refuge because this fully human person, through his own effort, awakened. He trained and developed his mind which allowed him to understand the true nature of all phenomena.
He extinguished, for himself, the unwholesome roots of greed, hatred and delusion. And he invites us … you and me … to that same awakening. In fact, he says, paraphrasing here, ‘don’t believe this because it happened to me or because I say it. Come and see for yourselves. Investigate. Cultivate insight and realize your own true nature … your own awakened-ness.’ I find that absolutely refreshing and wonderful. Don’t you?
It fosters faith, but not faith in something outside of ourselves … in a person or even a dogma. But faith in that inherent nature each of us possesses. Faith that each of us has the ability and opportunity to awaken to what is already present.
As our practice develops, our awareness broadens, and when we take refuge, we take it not even so much in the historical Buddha, but in Buddha nature itself.
What a tremendous recognition that is, right? To see Buddha nature in all beings. To have the eyes to see, the ears to hear, the wisdom to open our hearts to the Buddha nature everywhere.
Jack Kornfield talks about his time in Cambodia during the genocide wrought by the Khmer Rouge which resulted in the deaths of nearly two million Cambodian people in the mid to late 1970s. His friend and teacher, Maha Ghosananda was in Thailand at the time and thus wasn’t killed. He was one of the few Buddhist elders of the country left alive. The Khmer Roughe killed 57,000 out of 60,000 monks and nuns in the country. Maha Ghosananda’s response was to begin teaching forgiveness and reconciliation in the refugee camps. Astounding, isn’t it? Monks and nuns killed. Country men and women murdered in astounding numbers. His own family, killed.
In the sheer face of that kind of evil and violence, it would be so easy to respond with anger and hatred, and if not that, at least a kind of numbness and avoidance just to cope. And there was Maha Ghosananda responding by teaching forgiveness and reconciliation.
Jack tells the story of witnessing him reciting the Buddha’s words from the Dhammapada in a refugee camp in front of 20,000 refugees. Over and over, Maha Ghosananda recited, “Hatred never ceases by hatred, but by love alone is healed. This is an ancient truth.” As he did so, Jack says, the refugees cried. I don’t know exactly why they cried: but perhaps in grief or perhaps from the sheer release of not having to harden their hearts.
And then Maha Ghosananda went on and led thousands of refugees in peace walks through the most war-torn parts of the country. As they walked, they chanted the Buddha’s words, “Hatred never ceases by hatred, but by love alone is healed.”
Talk about the ability to see Buddha nature in all beings. To teach forgiveness and reconciliation rather than revenge and retribution has to arise from Wisdom and not delusion.
And so, we take refuge in the Buddha and ultimately in Buddha Nature itself.
The Buddha recognized that all of us are subject to the three unwholesome roots or the three poisons: greed, hatred, and delusion, also called ignorance. When our views and thoughts and actions arise out of any of these three unwholesome roots, suffering ensues for ourselves and for others. But when our views and thoughts and actions arise out of wholesome roots of generosity, loving-kindness, and wisdom, suffering vanishes for ourselves and others. Generosity, loving-kindness and wisdom are the antidotes to greed, hatred and delusion.
I can’t help but think of Viktor Frankl, a Jewish man, who, along with his parents, wife and brother were arrested and sent to Nazi concentration camps. Prior to that he had earned his MD and Ph.D. at the University of Vienna where he studied Psychiatry, focusing on the areas of suicide and depression.
While interred, he and those with him suffered immense atrocities in a place and a way that led to much depression and despondency among the prisoners. Frankl encouraged others to reflect on positive memories, scenes and thoughts. Frankl, himself, did the same. He focused on his wife, the love they shared, and their life together. This focus on the wholesomeness of loving and the expression of compassion in working with other prisoners kept him from severe depression. It transformed his experience.
We can easily see the results of actions that arise from greed, hatred, delusion. We see it globally. We see it nationally, locally. Within our own institutions and even families and ourselves, too, at times.
And so, we take refuge in the Dhamma. The path, the teachings of the Buddha, not as dogma, not as something we must believe. But as guides, instructions, a path to follow, ways to develop our minds.
In working with the teachings of the Buddha, we develop compassion for ourselves and others. We learn to release fear and ignorance. We find within ourselves those places of clinging to what we think will make us happy for now and forever. We also experience ourselves pushing away those things that are not wanted, are not, we think, able to create harmony and happiness.
As we investigate and apply the teachings of the Buddha, we begin to see that it is in the very clinging and pushing away that we suffer and cause suffering for others. We begin to know this not just intellectually, but we know it in our bones. We know how it shows up in our personal lives. We experience it the events in our world.
Taking refuge in the Dhamma provides the kind of shelter needed not to cushion us or make us childlike and ineffectual. Taking refuge in the Dhamma requires awake, mindful and active participation in our own lives. The shelter it provides is like the ecosystem provided in Horicon Marsh. The Dhamma provides nourishment, vital resources for our growth and development. It gives us understandings and tools needed to train our minds so that we are no longer deluded into thinking that something in this samsaric world can provide permanent, lasting happiness for me … for my concerns and my interests and for all those I claim as mine. And that could be quite extensive, can’t it. It could be MY family, MY town, My opinion, MY profession, MY economic reality, MY country, MY causes, MY race.
Taking refuge in the Dhamma prompts us to develop unbridled compassion for the suffering of all beings and to respond with loving-kindness. It frees us to develop community where differences don’t divide us, but where we can honestly celebrate the goodness and the achievements and the good fortune of others.
Another story from Jack is about a man named Ted who spent years in prison and was part of the Buddhist prison projects. He learned about taking refuge and that became a turning point for Ted. This is Ted’s account, “After I took refuge, I took the way I was living my life more seriously. I had taken vows not to harm, not to abuse, I had to see the Buddha even in the guards. I kept to myself more and meditated and did my refuges early in the morning. I said them over and over and I felt like I was rock solid. Then I was moved to another block. There was a lot of trouble there and I had to keep taking my refuges to stay clean. I was tempted to pay back a couple of men who did me some wrong. But then I would look at them in the eye and take refuge in my heart. It helped me a lot.”
So, refuge in the Dharmma doesn’t prompt us to avoid difficult situations. Instead, it provides opportunities for deep understanding, clear recognition and wisdom enough to know to that hatred only increases hatred. Clinging only increases suffering.
Truly taking refuge in the Dhamma initiates us into a radically transformative process. It shifts and changes our view, our attitudes, our actions. It frees us to choose wholesome thoughts and skillful actions even in the most severe situations … like Maha Ghosanada, Viktor Frankl and Ted chose. Refuge in the Dhamma provides the means and opportunity to completely eradicate the unwholesome roots of greed, hatred and delusion. That is nibbana, freedom. That ends suffering completely.
And finally, we also take refuge in the Sangha. I think of many different pools of sangha to which we go for refuge. We take refuge in all those who have kept the teachings of the Buddha alive, who passed them on all the way to us, through oral and written means. We are so fortunate. At some point in the history, the teachings were not as widely available. But now we have many resources from many teachers, both living and no longer living.
We take refuge in our own local, individual sanghas. These are viharas where we meet noble friends, like-minded individuals on the path with us. We hear the teachings of the Buddha as many times as we need to hear them. We receive instruction and assistance in applying them to our own lives, our own practices. These are places to practice together, to support one another, to engage in noble conversation.
We take refuge in this large Buddhist community in the greater Colorado Springs area. Even within our different traditions, are the essential Buddhist teachings that bind us together and nourish and support us. And personally, I find a sense of refuge in knowing that, world-wide, at any given moment there are Buddhists practicing daily.
We are not alone in this endeavor. We have these communities to help us to understand, to live, and to fully awaken to what the Buddha taught and offered. He said, “I teach one thing, and one thing only. Suffering and the end of suffering.”
We at Rocky Mountain Insight take the Refuges and Precepts each month, on the meeting nearest the full moon. This is in keeping with the Asian tradition and keeps us connected to both the historical sangha and the worldwide sangha. But it actually can be helpful to take the refuges daily, like Ted does. Doing so keeps before us the sense of refuge as shelter and support for ourselves. It keeps us on the Path of eradicating the unwholesome roots, the poisons. Ultimately, taking refuge helps lead us to Wisdom and uncovering what is already present, Buddha nature within ourselves and in all that is.
Dear Noble Sangha,
Right effort is about what we choose to feed in our life. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, we can feed our suffering or we can feed our love and wisdom. Like a fire that requires fuel or food, our suffering, disappointment, and sadness also require fuel to continue and sustain. We can choose, with our Right Effort, to stop feeding these negative forces in our lives. Instead, we can feed the divine fire of our love, compassion, and joy.
The Four Noble Truths tell us that there is a cause of suffering and a cause for awakening. These are mutually exclusive: if we choose the cause or food of enlightenment we will avoid the cause and food of samsara. These causes are the fuels for the fire of Samsara and the fire of Nirvana. We have the choice of which causes we will cultivate in our lives. It may be difficult, it may take time for us to grow skillful at it, but we can make a difference.
What are you feeding in your life?
Dear Yogis and Yoginis,
Our words are, perhaps more than anything else, an expression of our mental state. It isn’t just what we say that is important, but how we say it. Our inflection, our timing, and our audience are all factors that condition our speech to be positive or negative, harmful or helpful, skillful or unskillful. If we can learn to start training and taming our speech, then we are already working at taming our mind.
Training our speech requires the practice of mindfulness. We must know what we are saying. If our mouths are running at a hundred miles an hour then we don’t have a good mindful hold of our words or of our mind. Try speaking slowly and deliberately for a single conversation, taking a moment to reflect on everything you say before you say it. See how this mindfulness transforms both your speech and your mind.
Training in wholesome speech requires an understanding of right view. It requires seeing that, for example, lies are destructive and gossip is toxic. Speech that is true, intentional (directed towards the good), and uplifting is speech worth speaking. Therefore, we should cultivate this kind of speech if we want to promote kindness, goodness, and joy in ourselves and in the world.
Right speech is also deeply connected with right intention. The four types of speech to avoid (lies, divisive speech, harsh or hurtful speech, and idle chatter or gossip) are often distinguished by the intention behind the words spoken. What is the difference between harmful speech and compassionate speech? Sometimes telling the truth can be painful for others to hear, so how do we keep our speech noble? One way to help us do this is to continually reconnect with an intention of good will. And of course, we must constantly cultivate our own wisdom about when, how, and if a thing should be spoken.
How should we know when to speak then? The Buddha gave some advice about when he chose to speak and when he chose to stay silent.
The criteria for deciding what is worth saying:
 “In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial (or: not connected with the goal), unendearing & disagreeable to others, he does not say them.
 “In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, unbeneficial, unendearing & disagreeable to others, he does not say them.
 “In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, but unendearing & disagreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them.
 “In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial, but endearing & agreeable to others, he does not say them.
 “In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, unbeneficial, but endearing & agreeable to others, he does not say them.
 “In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, and endearing & agreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them. Why is that? Because the Tathagata has sympathy for living beings.”
— MN 58
(taken from accesstoinsight.org)
So take some time this month to reflect on what you say, how you say it, and why you say it. You may be surprised what a little mindfulness of speech can do for your life.
Ends are so conclusive. You know when something ends – a job, a relationship, or a contract. Ends are very definitive. Someone dies only once, at a very specific time, hopefully when they are very old.
Beginnings, however, are not so definitive. They are far more wholesome and far more messy. Relationships begin out of a plethora of different factors; the first day on a job feels like a flurry. They are a result of a conglomeration of different factors, all coming together at the right time and the right place.
Sadly, we tend to focus on the end more than the beginnings. We cling to the way things have been and crave for a world where nothing ends – relationships, jobs, lives – where nothing changes. However, the Universe doesn’t listen to us: it just goes on and does it own thing.
The Buddha taught that one of the three truths of reality is anicca, or change. Everything changes. On a very small scale, the stoplight will eventually turn green, we will eventually get to our destination, we may even switch jobs. On a far larger scale, we may move between states or countries, we may get in an accident, our parents will die.
When we cling to the idea that an end will never come, we will experience dukkha – unpleasantness, even suffering. Sometimes that dukkha is frustration, sometimes it is jealousy, sometimes it is sorrow and grief. This is the Buddha’s Second Noble Truth: our craving and desires cause us to experience dukkha. We want the “end” to never come.
Or sometimes, we want the “end” to come as quick as possible. Our craving comes in two forms: wanting things to change and wantings things not to change. Sometimes we want our boss to just go away, our job to end, the stoplight to turn green, the person on the highway never to cut us off again, never experience jealousy. Other times, we don’t want our parents to die.
At a very basic level, the solution to our dukkha, our suffering, our grief, rage, frustration, jealousy, hate, desire, sadness, melancholy, depression, anxiety, is to let go. Stop craving and our dukkha will cease (that’s the Buddha’s 3rd Noble Truth).
But HOW? We find ourselves in so many situations daily where we suffer. They are infinite: sometimes it’s from other people, from places, even from ourselves. The various sources of why we experience dukkha however is negligible; there is a very simple solution for every source.
Become aware that we don’t know what life has in store for us next. Become mindful of our actions now as they will affect our future. Concentrate and remind yourself that this “end” – of a job, a relationship, a family member dying – is simply one step in the long journey of life. It is a new beginning on a new journey, one of the many factors that create new beginnings.
The Buddha taught that the way to cease our craving is through the Noble Eightfold Path:
At it’s very core, the Eightfold Path is about becoming aware of reality, accepting that change (anicca) is inevitable, and being kind to ourselves and other sentient beings in the process.
We are hosting a Noble Eightfold Path Study Group from May 29th to July 24th at 6:00 to 7:00pm. It is a in-depth 9 week study of the Eightfold Path and how we can transform our thinking and actions to work with ends, beginnings, and everything in between. Each week studies a different component of the path with some incorporation of most of the Buddha’s teachings.
If you are interested, please contact Morgan Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org to RSVP to the class by May 22nd.
Dear Noble Sangha
As we move into April we conclude our practice theme cycle on the Four Noble Truths. This month we look at the fourth and final truth: The Truth of the Path. This completes the Buddha’s assessment of the main spiritual problem for human beings: suffering and the end of suffering. The first noble truth identifies the problem and invites us to look clearly at suffering and understand it. The second noble truth points at the origin of the problem, which is essentially craving and grasping. Through craving, tanha, we wish for things to be other than they are. The Buddha does not end his assessment of our predicament here, but points to the truth that he realized under the Bodhi tree: the third noble truth, the truth of the end of suffering, the truth of Nirvana. The Buddha realized that by letting go of tanha we could actually end the cycle of dissatisfaction, disappointment, and suffering. There is suffering, but there is also an end to suffering. This leads us to the fourth noble truth: the truth of the Eightfold Path and the means to end suffering.
So how exactly do we reach this state? How do we go from a confused, grasping mind to one fully illuminated by wisdom and compassion? Is this state attained randomly by a few rare individuals? Is it given as a gift by celestial beings? The Buddha was adamant in his message: it is up to each of us to put the teachings into practice in our life and achieve enlightenment by our own efforts. As Ayya Khema was fond of saying, “Enlightenment is an inside job.”
The Buddha taught the Eightfold Path consisting of Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. These eight divisions were taught to be interdependent rather than sequential, and are therefore represented by a wheel with eight spokes. The Buddha further classified these eight elements into three categories: Sila (ethical conduct), Samadhi (meditation), and Panna (wisdom). This is the general outline of the Buddhist path.
Throughout the remainder of the year we will spend one month investigating each of these elements of the eightfold path. This month though, I would like to explore a number of issues about the spiritual path in general and the Buddhist path specifically. First, I would like to take a moment and ask you to consider what it is that brings a person onto the spiritual path? What brought you or brings you to the path?
The life of the Buddha is an excellent teaching and Buddha’s own path-entering story is very beautiful. First, we should note what did not bring the Buddha to the spiritual path. The Buddha did not leave his comfortable palace to go train as a priest, or to become a great philosopher or professor, or to discover the proper religion. The Buddha did not go out to found a religion or to be a famous teacher or even to be a Buddhist. The Buddha had questions about reality. He had genuine questions about the meaning of life. The Buddha started his journey with questions, not answers. What is suffering? What are its causes? What is the mind? Who am I? These questions propelled the Buddha on his journey. Likewise, as modern spiritual practitioners we should search our own heart for our own questions. This questioning, seeking, searching mind is one of the factors that bring us onto the spiritual path.
Next, we can see very clearly that Buddha’s motivation to enter the path was rooted in compassion. The four sights that the Buddha experienced (a sick person, old person, dead person, and yogi) are traditionally taught as the things which turned the Buddha’s mind towards the spiritual path and away from the luxury of his royal life as a prince. Yet, it wasn’t the case that only the Buddha saw these things. Everyone in the city saw these people at one point or another. It was the Buddha’s response to these sights that was different. The Buddha responded with compassion, with love, with empathy towards those who were suffering. The Buddha wanted to know if there was a path that led to the end of suffering. Was it possible to find lasting peace and joy? His heart was moved by compassion and this inspired him to enter the spiritual path. Therefore, we see that compassion is an important factor in bringing us to the spiritual path.
I think these two together, an inquisitive mind linked with a heart of compassion, are important factors that bring us onto and back to the spiritual path. When we connect with our inquisitive mind we keep our path alive, fresh, and personal. Without this aspect we run the risk of falling into a religious path: we do, say, and think things because this is what the religion says to do, say, and think. But, an authentic path is a path of questioning and seeking. Like the Buddha we start with questions and (hopefully) end with answers. And when we connect with our compassionate heart we remember that our path is not an academic exercise or a quest for far-away spiritual states, but is intimately connected with the daily issues and challenges of our lives. Without compassion we run the risk of making our path about some distant place called “Nirvana” or “awakening” that is completely unrelated to how we deal with our job, our partner, our friends, our neighbor, our world, or ourselves. We can become too busy worrying about enlightenment to be kind to the person in front of us. At least, this is my experience.
Again, I encourage you to explore what it is that brings you to the path. Please take some time to discover your questioning mind. Connect with your heart of compassion. These are teachings I have received from my teachers that have been very helpful for me, and so I share them here that perhaps they may be of benefit to you.
Of all the paths the Eightfold Path is the best; of all the truths the Four Noble Truths are the best; of all things passionlessness is the best: of men the Seeing One (the Buddha) is the best.
This is the only path; there is none other for the purification of insight. Tread this path, and you will bewilder Mara.
Walking upon this path you will make an end of suffering. Having discovered how to pull out the thorn of lust, I make known the path.
The Buddha’s teachings rest on four universal truths:
These are called the Four Noble Truths. Dukkha is a Pali word (an Indian dialect from the Buddha’s time) that doesn’t have an easy English translation. It is most commonly translated as “suffering,” but dukkha encapsulates all of our “bad” feelings – sorrow, pain, anger, hatred, melancholy, depression, anxiety, those days where you just don’t want to get out of bed, etc.
The Fourth Noble Truth – the path to eliminate dukkha – is called the Noble Eightfold Path. It has eight distinct “folds” or factors that should be developed simultaneously to eliminate our dukkha and attain enlightenment.
Each factor develops a certain component of our practice:
Rocky Mountain Insight is hosting an Eightfold Path Study Group. It is an in-depth, 9 week study of the Eightfold Path that investigates and includes the various teachings of the Buddha within the scope of the eight different factors.
Teacher: Morgan Smith
May 29th to July 24th | 6:00 – 7:00 pm
Registration Deadline: May 22nd
Please contact Morgan at email@example.com to register for the class. It’s okay if you can’t make every single week as it is an extensive class, but we ask you attend most as it is most beneficial for your practice!
The Dalai Lama was once asked, “It has been said that laughter is humanity’s special gift. In your opinion, do people laugh too much or not enough?”
He responded: I have been told that certain monkeys have the ability to laugh; I don’t know. Whatever the case, it does seem that laughter is indeed particular to human beings. Some people do not smile enough, that is certain! But I do not think one can laugh too much. Who knows? The problem is not so much with those who laugh too much, because they are quite rare, but with those who don’t laugh enough, for there are far too many of them!
Everyone laughs. Everyone smiles. Everyone can be content and not content. Everyone feels pain, sorrow, melancholy, suffering, dukkha. That is a truth about reality: in life, there are going to be good days and bad days. The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice versa, the bad things don’t always spoil the good things and make them unimportant.
Karuna is a Pali word (an Indian dialect from the Buddha’s time) that means compassion.
When we have compassion for humanity, we understand their bad days, their suffering is just like our own. We have lost friends and family members, been angry, lost our jobs, or simply had days where we don’t want to get out of bed.
At the times when we are at our lowest, we are open to the greatest change. We seek new avenues for happiness and joy and hope to rid ourselves of our suffering.
However, when we are at our high points – when everything in the world seems to align perfectly and we are living a content and happy life, we must not lose sight of reality, of the truth that everyone experiences dukkha. When we open ourselves to help others at their lowest points, we are practicing compassion.
Happiness is not a Western concept, nor an Eastern concept, a Christian nor a Buddhist concept. It is a human experience in which we are free from the ills of the world. There are far too many, as His Holiness said, that don’t laugh enough, who don’t experience happiness.
The following is a prayer for compassion and peace for the whole world.
Over the next week, contemplate the following:
– When have I experienced bad days? How did I overcome them?
– How can I help see the suffering in other’s lives?
– How can I generate karuna on a daily basis?
when I first read
the answer is to stop striving
I thought it meant
I didn’t realize
It meant everything.
-Dr Lucinda Green
Dear Noble Sangha,
The second Noble Truth is our practice theme for February. The Second Noble Truth is about the cause of suffering: Tanha. Tanha means thirst or craving and is the root of suffering. Tanha is the desire to hold onto pleasant experiences and to avoid unpleasant experiences. In regards to Tanha and neutral experiences, at least in my experience, sometimes Tanha craves them and sometimes Tanha wishes to replace them with something more interesting. We could simply say:
Tanha is craving for things to be other than they are.
There are three types of Tanha that the Buddha identified:
1) Sense-craving (kamma-tanha)
2) Craving to be (bhava-tanaha)
3) Craving not to be (vibhava-tanha)
Sense craving is often called sensuality and refers to craving for worldly and sensory pleasures. This could be craving for physical sensations like the taste of chocolate or more subtle experiences like worldly wealth and power. The craving to be is our ego-clinging: we crave to exist as separate, independent, permanent entities (even though no such thing exists). Our ego craves to become something, to establish its kingdom, and to protect its acquisitions. Craving not to be is the thirst for escaping life, escaping experiences we don’t like, and even escaping existence completely. This is the yearning to not experience something, with the extreme being the desire to be dead or nonexistent.
How do we work with our craving? As always in practice, we begin by noticing it. We look directly at Tanha and see it for what it is: This is Tanha. This is thirst. This is craving. We look at it and get to know it. What causes Tanha to arise? When is it strongest? What is its root? Once we have seen Tanha with mindfulness we can apply an element of the path. We can remember any one of the 3 marks of conditioned existence: dukkha, impermanence, or no-self. We can summon some metta for ourselves and for the suffering Tanha creates for us. We can cultivate calm by just coming to the breath and not reacting to Tanha.
All of these techniques, the entire Buddhist path, come down to this essential teaching in Dr. Green’s words:
Drop the wanting.
We invite you to notice Tanha in your life and to do your best to “Drop the wanting.”
Associate Spiritual Director
Rocky Mountain Insight