Infinite Time

A man falls into a manhole. Whenever he sees someone walk by, he calls for help. Finally someone stops, looks down into the hole, and jumps in. “What did you do that for?” the man asks. “Now we are both stuck down here!” “Yes,” said the other man, “But I have been down here, and I know the way out.”
– [from “The West Wing”]

The Buddha’s teachings on rebirth are fundamental to the path that he taught. They create a sense of urgency about the meaning of our lives and how we should be spending our time and energy. This is serious business.

There is a term in Buddhism that speaks to this. That term is saṃvega:

[saṃvega is] the oppressive sense of shock, dismay, and alienation that come with realizing the futility and meaninglessness of life as It’s normally lived; a chastening sense of our own complacency and foolishness in having let ourselves live so blindly; and an anxious sense of urgency in trying to find a way out of the meaningless cycle.
– [Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu, Noble Strategy, “Affirming the Truths of the Heart: The Buddhist Teachings on Samvega & Pasada”]

I heard a story some years ago about a young man from Thailand. In Thailand almost all young men go into a Buddhist monastery for some period of time. It is a rite of passage. So this young man went into a monastery and took temporary ordination as a monk for six months.

He left behind a young woman with whom he was very much in love, and she was very much in love with him. Everyone assumed that they would get married when he finished his time as a monk. But his time in the monastery changed him, and when he left the monastery he was very conflicted.

Finally he decided to ordain permanently as a monk and devote his life to practice and awakening. When he talked to his young woman she was, of course, very distraught. But he explained to her that he now understood that he had lived this life a million times before. He had fallen in love, gotten married, had children, died, and then done it over and over and over again.

Conjoined with rebirth is the Buddhist (and Hindu) notion of cyclical time. In cyclical time, the universe itself has a lifetime. There is a birth, an expansion, and a contraction. Then there is another big bang, and the process starts all over again. In Buddhism the term for a life of the universe is “kalpa.” (Note that Western scientists only started to believe in a cyclical model of the universe in the 1980’s.) And this cyclical model has enormous implications for how we think and act.

In the West, and I think throughout most of the world, people think of time as being linear. This leads to the idea of a Creator God. The Creator God is who started everything. And when you have a beginning, this also means that there is an end. (No one has ever been able to explain to me how if God created everything then who created God, but so be it.)

Thinking about time as being linear leads to apocalyptic thinking. This is when everything ends. It is judgment day. And whenever you talk about judgment day, it brings up incredible fear, fear that is often used to scare and manipulate people.
But Buddhists and Hindus don’t think like that. Everything is cyclical. Time is “beginningless.” The modern term is “infinite.” Time is not a straight line with a beginning, a middle, and an end. It’s a circle.

There is an entire section in the Saṃyutta Nikāya on this topic. It is saṃyutta number 15, the “Anamataggasaṃyutta,” the “Connected Discourses on Without Discoverable Beginning”:

At Sāvatthı̄.
“Bhikkhus, this saṃsāra is without discoverable beginning. A first point is not discerned of beings roaming and wandering on hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving. What do you think, bhikkhus, which is more: the mother’s milk that you have drunk as you roamed and wandered on through this long course — this or the water in the four great oceans?”
“As we understand the Dhamma taught by the Blessed One, venerable sir, the mother’s milk that we have drunk as we roamed and wandered on through this long course — this alone is more than the water in the four great oceans.”
“Good, good, bhikkhus! It is good that you understand the Dhamma taught by me in such a way. The mother’s milk that you have drunk as you roamed and wandered through this long course — this alone is more than the water in the four great oceans. For what reason? Because, bhikkhus, this saṃsāra is without discoverable beginning…. It is enough to be liberated from them.”
– [SN 15.4]

This puts our dilemma into a much bigger context, indeed.

We have “wandered this long course” throughout infinite time and infinite kalpas. And during that time, we have been in every realm. We have been devas. We have been in the hell realms. We have been animals and hungry ghosts. We have lived in the Brahma realm. Obviously we have been human, whatever that means depending on a particular life of the universe.

We have also lived in every kind of condition. We have been men and women, rich and poor. We have been every race. We have been every species. And we have been related to each other in every way that you can imagine:

“At Sāvatthı̄. “Bhikkhus, this saṃsāra is without discoverable beginning…. It is not easy, bhikkhus, to find a being who in this long course has not previously been your mother … your father … your brother … your sister … your son … your daughter. For what reason? Because, bhikkhus, this saṃsāra is without discoverable beginning…. It is enough to be liberated from them.”
– [SN 15.14-19]

This has enormous implications for how we think about our lives.

Let’s take a couple of obvious examples. The first is someone who commits suicide. They think that they are going to end their suffering. But the fact is that they just carry it into their next life.

Now I want to be clear here. This does not necessarily mean that someone who commits suicide is headed for a bad rebirth. Many people who commit suicide are good people. Something went wrong, and they decided to take their own life. But they very well may have had lots of good karma. In fact, of the people who I have known who have either committed suicide or have struggled with it, all of them have been good people. So let’s not jump to any rash judgments. This is more about how we think about what we are doing and the implications of certain actions. The point is more that people who commit suicide think that there is an end. It’s a linear notion of time.

Also, to be clear, there was an arahant during the Buddha’s time who committed suicide. This was because he suffered physically from a medical condition. He was an arahant, so obviously he did not suffer from mental anguish. So in his case suicide was simply to end the unnecessary physical suffering. He was not going to be reborn anyway, and the Buddha said that his suicide was blameless.

This brings up a related issue, and that is the right to die. A Buddhist would not see any reason to prolong suffering. You have probably seen people who hang onto this physical life in heart-wrenching ways. They want to squeeze every last minute out of this life. But that, too, would not be the Buddhist way. We are going to die. We are probably going to be reborn. That is the way the system works. So unlike almost every other religion, Buddhism is on the side of the right to die. It is more compassionate, and it fits in with the idea of infinite, beginningless time. We’ve already lived an infinite number of times, so let’s not make this one any worse than it has to be.

And this also explains the decision of the young man from Thailand to ordain rather than marry his sweetheart. From a conventional standpoint, that decision does not make any sense. But from a Buddhist standpoint, it is the only rational decision.
This brings us back to that word saṃvega. The Buddha said that there are two reactions to the futility of mundane existence. The first one is dismay, shock, horror, a sense of hopelessness, and even depression.

The other reaction is determination to find a way out. Very fortunately for us the Buddha jumped down into the manhole with us. He has been here and he knows the way out.

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I have not done a post in quite a while. I put most of my energy into my Jātaka book project these days. I am currently working on the final edits for volume 4.

When you do a project like this – at least if you have the kind of mind that I do – you are fully involved in whatever the current story is. But as soon as you move on, you tend to forget about what you last worked on. So when I do the final proof of a book, sometimes it is like I am reading it for the first time.

I just finished proofreading Jātaka 180, which is a lovely story about generosity. And I had forgotten that at the time that I was first working on it that I heard this lovely story from Ajahn Brahm about a kind act of generosity from his time in Thailand.

Ajahn Brahm was responding to a lay follower who asked how could he learn to feel the joy of giving more. Ajahn Brahm answered that one way to do that is to look at the inspiring stories of other people who give. He went on to tell several stories of giving that are very inspirational.

One of them is about a young teenage girl from Thailand. She was very poor and lived in a poor village there. She was also brain damaged from birth, and she could not speak. But the villagers looked after her, and she was very devoted to the temple and the monks.

One day Ajahn Brahm was sweeping the back of the temple, and he sensed that someone had snuck in. He thought maybe the temple was being robbed. So he very quietly peeked around the corner, and there he saw this young girl. She was looking around cautiously to see if anyone was watching. Then she went up to the alter, put something there, and then turned around and ran out the door.

Ajahn Brahm went up to the altar to see what she had put there. What he saw was a very crudely made origami lotus flower. She was probably embarrassed that anyone would know who had made it. But she had made this gift from the goodness of her heart. It was the best that she could do, and it was the most that she could give.

This is the joy that comes from a kind and generous heart. And of course Ajahn Brahm made sure that none of the other monks removed that lotus flower from the altar.

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Killing in Self Defense

“For this cause I am prepared to die. But there is no cause for which I am prepared to kill.” – Mahatma Gandhi

A friend of mine who teaches meditation had a student ask her this past week what the Buddha had to say about killing in self defense. It is great question. It is simple and direct, and those are always the best kinds of questions. And it raises all kinds of issues in the Buddha’s teaching.

One way to look at what the Buddha taught is that he described a universe of causes and conditions. His teachings on ethics and morality lack the punitive, judgmental quality of theism. It is more like the law of gravity. Our karma is determined by a) the intention behind our actions and b) the skillfulness of our actions. The first part of that equation is important in that if, for example, you are walking in the grass and you unknowingly step on and kill an ant, there is no karmic effect because there was no intention. If, on the other hand, you are walking on a sidewalk and you see an ant and step on it, then there is a karmic effect because there was an unskillful intention.

Even if we find a way to rationalize something harmful that we have done, the unskillful act leaves a negative impression on our consciousness. Deep down we know that what we have done is harmful. These actions sometimes come up in our meditation. In the still mind, we suddenly see clearly something that we did that caused pain and suffering. The stillness of the mind cuts through the rationalizations, and we see the karmic effect. But even this can be used in a positive way. It is an incentive to be more careful in how we act in the future. It is a healthy, useful way to look at our past, unskillful actions. We can’t change what we have done, but we can use it as an incentive not to do it again.

There is another aspect to karma that is important to mention, and that is that karma is not deterministic. This is a common misunderstanding. Aṇgulimāla was a serial killer, but he became an Arahat. That was possible because what is most important is the decisions that we make now, in the present moment. When that tsumani occurred in the Pacific, some Buddhists said that all those people died because of their karma. This is a complete misunderstanding of karma. The tsunami happened because tectonic plates moved.

Of course, we are always looking for loopholes. That seems quite human to me. But the Buddha never described any loopholes when it comes to killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, or lying. Despite that, many schools of Buddhism – maybe even most of them – try all sorts of end runs around them. This is especially true of the precept on sexual misconduct. It is disturbingly bazaar how many prominent teachers have used their positions and power to take advantage of their female students. (I am not aware of any cases where a female teacher has done this to a male student.)

Likewise, even some of the most famous Buddhist teachers in the world, some of them even Buddhist monks, have written treatises on when violence is justified. You see this in the politics of Asia where – currently – the Burmese are trying to justify their atrocious treatment of their Muslim minority, and in Sri Lanka where the Tamil/Hindu minority is treated just as badly.

But the Buddha was quite clear that killing is never justified. He gave some pretty extreme examples. There is this famous passage from the Majjhima Nikāya:

“Bhikkhus, even if bandits were to sever you savagely limb by limb with a two-handled saw, he who gave rise to a mind of hate towards them would not be carrying out my teaching. Herein, bhikkhus, you should train thus: ‘Our minds will remain unaffected, and we shall utter no evil words; we shall abide compassionate for their welfare, with a mind of loving-kindness, without inner hate. We shall abide pervading them with a mind imbued with loving-kindness; and starting with them, we shall abide pervading the all-encompassing world with a mind imbued with loving-kindness, abundant, exalted, immeasurable, without hostility and without ill will.’ That is how you should train, bhikkhus.”

– “Kakacūpama Sutta: The Simile of the Saw” [MN 21.20]

There is also a wonderful passage in the Saṃyutta Nikāya about a conversation between a deva and the Buddha. The deva asked the Buddha who can you kill and still sleep soundly? Then she asked who can you kill and not feel sorrow. Finally she asked the Buddha who the Buddha would approve of killing:

“Having slain what does one sleep soundly?

Having slain what does one not sorrow?

What is the one thing, O Gotama,

Whose killing you approve?”

In his usual clever turn of phrase, the Buddha replied that the only thing that he approves killing is anger:

“Having slain anger, one sleeps soundly;

Having slain anger, one does not sorrow;

The killing of anger, O Vatrabhū,

With its poisoned root and honeyed tip:

This is the killing the noble ones praise,

For having slain that, one does not sorrow.”

– “Māgha Sutta” [SN 2.3]

I love that phrase “With its poisoned root and honeyed tip.” The Buddha often described the deadly sweetness of anger. There is something energizing about anger. It is very enticing in that way. It makes us feel powerful in a destructive, malicious sort of way, thus the “poisoned root and honeyed tip.”

But there is another aspect to the notion of “self defense.” It has at its core a basic misunderstanding, and that is that the body is the same as the “self.” It is “me.” The question about “self defense” actually means defending the body, not the “self.” The Buddha was quite clear that the body – being one of the five aggregates – is not “me” at all. It is just, as the famous phrase goes, “the body, in and of itself.” The body dies, but the process that we call “me” continues into the next life.

In fact, I would argue that if we want to practice true “self defense,” we would never consider killing because of the harmful, negative effect it has on our continuing consciousness and our karma. Who cares about this body? It is really only useful in how we can use it to advance in our practice. We care for it, as the analogy goes, in the same way that a cavalryman looks after his horse. The cavalryman depends on his horse for his very life, so he cares for it, trains it, and keeps it healthy. But he never thinks of his horse as being “me.”

Personally, I would give this body up in a heartbeat rather than suffer the misery that would come from killing. That includes animals as well as people. It means any living being. I also think that as our practice deepens, our compassion for others – even someone who kills us – gets so deep, that killing another being simply to keep this body alive a little longer becomes instinctive.

I was at a retreat many years ago where there was a big colony of ants on one of the sidewalks. Someone put up a sign warning people to be careful of the ants. I didn’t think much of it at the time. But then some years ago I realized how carefully I walk so I do not accidentally kill any insects. I think that is just how the practice works. It gets into your bones after a while. This is, after all, what the Buddha’s path is about: abandoning unwholesome conduct and cultivating wholesome conduct.

All living beings want to live, from the ants on the sidewalk to the person trying to kill us. However, we also try to stop another person from killing from compassion, so they do not have to suffer the karmic consequences of their actions. That would not mean killing them, but it would mean trying to stop them.

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Racism and the Dharma

There is an article in today’s Washington Post about a bizarre incident that took place at Lehigh University last year. A student from China was the roommate of a black man from the U.S. During their senior semester, there were a series of disturbing incidents involving their room being vandalized, racist notes being left, and a series of illnesses for the black man.

It turns out that the Chinese student was the culprit. The black student is puzzled as to why this suddenly happened. They had known each other for a number of years, and he thought they got along just fine.

This is a grim reminder that racism, sexism, and prejudice exist everywhere. I was in Silver City, New Mexico last spring, and a woman at the hotel where I was staying told me about racially charged remarks made by an Indian from Jemez Pueblo about the Navajo.

It is so easy to divide the world up in arbitrary ways, into the good guys and the bad guys. I heard a Dharma teacher recently mention multiple times the “patriarchal history of Buddhism.” I think that is quite an overstatement. If you read enough of the Pāli Canon you get a very even-handed view of gender and social status. In the Buddha’s time, then as now, India was a very status driven society. I think that most people know about the caste system in India. It was not quite as deeply divided during the Buddha’s time as it is now, but all of the modern-day divisions were in place.

But the Buddha’s own teaching is free from those divisions. Such is the case with the monk Venerable Upāli. Upāli was a barber, which was one of the lowest level professions in the Buddha’s home country of Sakya. But Upāli not only became a monk, he was one of the ten chief disciples of the Buddha. At the First Buddhist Council, Upāli recited the monastic code, being “foremost in the Vinaya.”

And at a time when women were treated as little more than servants, the Buddha famously ordained women as monastics. This story often gets mistold. The key fact that is often mistold is that when the Buddha’s step-mother, Pajapati, asked to ordain, we are told that the Buddha refused. However, when I read the actual account in the Pāli Canon, I noticed a subtle difference. It is a difference that I later discovered that Buddhist scholars and monks have also noticed. That difference is that the Buddha did not refuse to ordain Pajapati. He asked her to “carefully consider what she was asking.”

In a sexist society such as India, the reality of a woman samaṇa was highly problematical. Samaṇa depend on alms food. It was not clear that people would even give alms food to a woman. A woman who traveled in India at the time who was not under the protection of her father, a brother, or her husband had no legal protection under the law. They were fair game. So the Buddha was simply asking his step-mother to make sure that she understood the implications of what she was asking.

But back to the issue of prejudice. The Buddha’s teaching is a level playing field. It is based on the quality and skill of your actions: your thoughts, words, and deeds. Further, the Buddha taught that through infinite time, we have all been every kind of person that you can imagine. We have all been men and women, every race and sexual preference. We have all been in every kind of relationship that you can imagine. We have been each other’s mothers and daughters, brothers and sisters, fathers and sons. We have hated each other and been best of friends. This is the endless churning of the world of saṃsāra:

At Sāvatthı̄. “Bhikkhus, this saṃsāra is without discoverable beginning…. It is not easy, bhikkhus, to find a being who in this long course has not previously been your mother … your father … your brother … your sister … … your son … your daughter. For what reason? Because, bhikkhus, this saṃsāra is without discoverable beginning…. It is enough to be liberated from them.” – [SN 15.14-19]

The Abhidhamma goes even further. It breaks human experience into specific mind states, 52 of them to be precise. These mind states are experienced by everyone. It is the mind broken down into atomic units. This is the entire realm of human experience.

It has become a convention to look at racism as the domain of white people. There is, of course, a lot of history behind that. But to view racism as a white phenomenon is simple-minded and foolish. This is true for gender bias, as well. The issue is more fundamental than that. We are all capable of all of these feelings.

This is why I am puzzled by so-called Buddhist institutions that have made white racism part of their calling card. It is to deny the existence of all the other forms of racism in the world. It does an end run around a basic tenet of the Dharma that only one thing matters, and that is the quality of a person’s character. No one is denied the opportunity to be loving, compassionate, kind, and generous. And no one automatically gets the moral high ground because they are male or female, white, black or whatever, transgender, gay, or straight:

Whoever does no wrong

in body,



is restrained in these three ways:

he’s what I call

a brahman. – [Dhp 391]

In this lifetime we have manifested in a particular way. But in the next lifetime, who knows how we will be? “Walk a mile in my shoes,” – in everyones’ shoes – because in the next life, those shoes may be yours.

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I heard an extraordinary story today that I would like to share with you. It is a story told by Ajahn Brahm. If you would like to hear the entire Dharma talk, you can find it here. Start at about minute 48 for this story.

You may know that Buddhism has a history with animals. Many monasteries became sanctuaries for animals. The animals seem to know that they are safe there. At Abhayagiri Monastery in California, there are many deer. And in Thailand there is the famous Tiger monk, where even animals that are natural enemies live together in harmony.

Ajahn Brahm’s story is about a monk who went to live alone in the jungle. After a while, even a human being just becomes part of the scenery. Even I have experienced this here in New Mexico. Especially when you are meditating, animals have no reason to fear you. They will simply go about their business. When I was in India I meditated at Jetavana. When I opened my eyes, I was surrounded by monkeys and parrots.

So this monk was living in the jungle in his little hut. Sometimes he would leave a little food for the animals. Probably without even knowing it, he earned their trust. They knew that they were safe around him.

One night he heard a knock on the door. Now, you can imagine that he wondered who could possibly be at his hut in the middle of the night. When he opened the door, he saw a female monkey. She was holding a baby in her arms. She offered the baby to the monk, who saw that it was dead. The grief on her face was obvious. But the mother monkey clearly knew that there was something kind and compassionate about the monk. She was looking for comfort. So he held the baby for a while and then gently gave it back to the mother, who took it and disappeared back into the jungle.

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The Third Recollection

The Yaksa asked, “What is the most wonderful thing?”

Yudhisthira Maharaj replied, “The most wonderful thing is that although everyday innumerable humans and their animals go to the abode of death, still a man thinks he is immortal.”

– [Mahabharata, Meditation 128: The Lake of Death]

There is an old joke that Buddhists spend their whole lives preparing for death, and there is some truth to that. We are constantly being reminded that we are all subject to aging, sickness, and death. In one of the most common Pāli chants, The Five Subjects for Frequent Recollection, the first three recollections are just that. The fourth recollection is that when we die “all that is mine, beloved and pleasing, will become otherwise, will become separated from me.” [AN 5.57]

For most people, that sounds pretty depressing. But in the Buddha’s teaching, death is a natural and normal part of life. It is most definitely not a cause for grief, torment, and anguish. As one Tibetan teacher once told me, “In a certain sense, there is no such thing as death. There is simply the next moment.”

Death for a Buddhist is a simple reality. It is also a tool. While we are living, the recollection of death gives us a healthy sense of urgency. This life is precious. It is an opportunity to do something important. We have this chance to develop the path. When we die, we do not know how we will be reborn. So now, while we can, we need to devote ourselves to the path. And we need to train our minds so when the moment of death does come, we will be prepared, and we will not be subject to the whims and fears of a wild, untrained mind.

That sense of urgency is not limited to Buddhist training. My father died five days before my 18th birthday. It happened suddenly. The night before he died, we had an argument, so my last words to my father were angry ones. It took me a very long time to get over his death, and there was a lot of guilt over the argument. But when I did finally get over it, what I learned was not to put things off. Treat people as if you will never see them again. Never put off telling someone that you love them. Death can come at any time to anyone. It happens every day. Live your life with that thought always in mind.

That lesson came in very handy some years later. Shortly after my father died, I met the man who would become my father-in-law. We were close almost from the very beginning. In retrospect, we had a very unusual relationship. We did things together all the time. It all felt normal and natural.

Then we got the phone call. He was only in his mid-50’s, but he had a heart attack and died just as suddenly as my own father had. I was in shock and upset, of course, but the bigger part of me was grateful. I had been given a second chance, and while I was sad that he was gone, the larger part of me was simply grateful that we had the time together that we did. The glass was more than half full.

When the time of our own death comes, it is very important to have a calm and supportive environment. People who have had near death experiences tell us how sensitive the consciousness is at the moment of death. So it is very important to be around people who will be calm and loving. For many Buddhists, having a monk or a nun in attendance is a wonderful boon. Conversely, being in an emergency room full of frantic nurses and doctors and loudly screaming machines and wailing family members is without doubt a worst-case scenario.

My mother died in 2012, and she was in a coma for the last week of her life. Because I knew about near death experiences and the state of the consciousness, I spent a lot of time with her. And after she died, I spent the entire night with her, thinking thoughts of gentle loving-kindness. It was actually quite wonderful for me. My final hours with my mother were spent in love and gratitude for all of the kind things that she did for me and all the good things that she gave to me. By the end of the night, I was completely at ease with her death, and I never really experienced any grief. What I did experience was love and gratitude.

During our death and after our death, the trained mind gives us a better chance to either escape from the rounds of rebirth completely, or to at least have an auspicious rebirth, one where we can continue the practice. This is not necessarily a human rebirth, as some schools of Buddhism believe. We know from the Buddha’s teachings that there are once returners and non-returners who are reborn in the heavenly realms. And if you don’t have to worry about a fussy human body and all of its relentless demands, and you don’t have to deal with so many cranky people and getting an education and finding a job and paying a mortgage, etc., doing the practice may be quite a bit easier.

Because of the Buddha’s teachings and his transcendent understanding of existence, we are very fortunate to have a rational, sensible way to think about life and death. This is why those of us who are his followers are so deeply grateful to the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Saṇgha. Without the Three Jewels, we are just lost, wandering around in the desert with no way out.

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One of the most fascinating teachings of the Buddha is the one on anatta, non-self. Not surprisingly, it is enormously misunderstood.

The Buddha was focused on one thing, and that is teaching us how to escape from dukkha (suffering/stress/unsatisfactoriness) and to attain the liberation of nirvana. He was relentless in his single-minded devotion to that objective.

What he did not do was to describe the ultimate nature of reality. Rather, he said that if you follow his course of training, you will see it for yourself. He also seems to have been skeptical that if you tried to understand the ultimate nature of reality without seeing it for yourself, that you would not understand it anyway. Nirvana, he said, is “the unconditioned.” It lies beyond time and space. It defies conventional notions.

This is very important to remember when undertaking the Buddha’s system of training. His teaching is designed to help us to become free from dukkha. This is true of the teaching on non-self as well. The Buddha actually abstained from saying whether the self actually exists. In Buddhism the ultimate nature of the self is called one of the “ten indeterminate questions.” (Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta, MN 72). He even went on to say that pondering these questions is a hindrance to awakening:

Therefore, oh monks, do not brood over [any of these views] Such brooding, Oh monks, is senseless, has nothing to do with genuine pure conduct, does not lead to aversion, detachment, extinction, nor to peace, to full comprehension, enlightenment and Nibbāna, etc.– [SN 56]

So the Buddha’s teaching on non-self is not a statement about ultimate reality. It is, as Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu says, a strategy.

This is one reason why the practice of jhāna – meditative absorption – is so important. At some point, when your concentration is very good, you will feel a sense of freedom. It is temporary and conditioned, of course, but it gives you a taste of the possibilities of freedom when you fully awaken.

And when you are very concentrated, you can turn your attention to the feeling of “me.” The deeper your concentration is, the more likely you are to feel the sense of “me” weakening. As Ayya Khema says, the less “me” there is, the more free you feel. There is significantly less stress. And when you attain stream-entry, the sense of “me” disappears completely.

Something else you can see – and this is clearest in the fourth jhāna – is how much energy we put into protecting this sense of “me.” Our discursive thinking – our internal dialog – is all designed to protect that sense of “me.” This is why when the mind starts to quiet down, it will rebel. There may even be a sense of panic. This is because the perception of “me” is dying, and it will fight to survive. This is where patience and persistence are critical. You must gently ease the mind back into quiet, serenity, and stillness.

It can be useful at that stage to tap into the feeling of joy, happiness, and freedom that come with the still mind. In other words, rather than paying attention to the stress and fear of the still mind, turn your attention to the peace of stillness. In that way we focus on the positive aspect of the stillness rather than the negative.

You will hear it said – because it is true – that when you awaken, the issue of whether the self exists or not is irrelevant. What is left is only the sense of ease, peace, tranquility, and freedom. You are simply happy. The mind is clear. Concepts and opinions fall away. There is just this.

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What the Buddha Taught

I remember reading years ago that one problem that Buddhists have is easily explaining what they believe. If you are a Christian or a Muslim or a Jew, this is not so hard. But trying to put the Buddha’s vast system of teachings into a few catch phrases is, well, impossible.

Even different schools of Buddhism disagree on what the Buddha taught. I suppose that is not so strange. The same is true in other religions as well.

For those of us who practice the Buddha’s path, having a framework for his teachings is very important. For example, I have written frequently about acts of sexual misconduct among people who claim to teach the Buddha’s Dharma. But if you understand what the Buddha taught, it is not possible to behave in that way.

So for a while I have wanted to write a paper that outlines what the Buddha taught. And finally, on an unusual rainy day here in New Mexico, I have done this. The result is on the Papers and Projects tab. It is called “What the Buddha Taught.”

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Joy Redux

I want to revisit a topic about which I have written previously, and that is the topic of joy.

I have been listening recently to some of Ayya Khema’s Dharma talks. If you are not familiar with her, Ayya Khema is one of the most remarkable practitioners of the 20thcentury. She died in 1997. But thanks to the miracles of technology, over 400 of her Dharma talks are available at

In this talk, Ayya Khema spends quite a bit of time talking about joy in meditation. This is one of the most important parts of the Buddha’s path. It is one of the factors of awakening. However, in all my years of going to retreats, I hardly ever remember hearing it discussed. But I have heard people talking about how hard it is to meditate – regularly – many times.

This has never made any sense to me. Of course, meditation does not always go smoothly. Some days are harder than others. But think of something that you really enjoy doing. Does that always go perfectly? Of course not. But you do it because the enjoyment you get from it outweighs the time when things do not go as well.

The problem is, I believe, the way in which meditation is mis-taught.

The first step in any meditation practice is to establish a sense of well-being. We learn to enjoy the simple act of breathing. And of course this is not easy because our whole lives we have been taught that what we want is to excite the senses. We want good food, sex, music, luxury, etc. And when the Buddha points out to us that this is inevitably going to be a failed strategy for happiness, we think that he is teaching a doctrine of denial.

But wait, there’s more (!). Much more. While we whittle away at our habitual craving for sense pleasure, we simultaneously cultivate joyful states of mind. We replace the unreliable and addictive sense pleasures with the more reliable pleasure that comes from meditation. We can learn to “gladden the mind,” as the Buddha tells us in the Ānāpānasati Sutta [MN 118]. And since we can learn to do this on demand, it does not require us to produce certain conditions so that we can be happy. And as Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu points out, it is a happiness that causes no harm. We are not taking anything from anyone.

And what eventually happens – naturally, in my view – is that the joy, happiness, contentment, and peace that comes from being able to simply stay with the breath becomes eminently more desirable. Now of course this is not the end of the path. We must then use these wonderful states of mind to gain insight and to develop what Ṭhānissaro likes to translate as “discernment.” It is often translated as “wisdom,” but I think that “discernment” more properly captures the active, in-the-moment quality of the Pāli word “pañña.” And this is the fundamental, three-step process of meditation: well-being, jhāna, and discernment.

Ayya Khema further points out that this discernment can happen through any of the Three Characteristics of dukka (stress/suffering), annica (impermanence), and anatta (non-self), although seeing one of these inevitably leads to the other two. It is just that for different people, one of them may provide a more optimal doorway.

But back to the topic of joy. In the first jhāna, joy is the pre-eminent quality. It may manifest in a number of ways, and it may be stronger or weaker. The first jhāna is usually strongest in people who need its healing power the most. In the second jhāna, the joy gets toned down a little into something closer to happiness and contentment. And in the third jhāna, the calm contentment and happiness is joined by equanimity. In the third jhāna you can – as Sharon Salzberg describes it – “sit in the midst of your own experience.” You can conjure up even painful memories, and they simply float by.

All of this is accompanied by stillness and silence. The mind grows quieter. There is a deep sense of peace.

None of this is very easy. There is nothing in our experience that tells us to cultivate a mind at peace. In worldly affairs, no one will encourage us to be in this way. Even most meditation teachers do not tell us that this is what we are working at, that this is a very important part of the path, that we want to learn to get the mind to settle down and then experience the beauty of a mind at ease.

Ayya Krema also points out in this talk that while everyone knows what it means to be angry, hardly anyone knows what it is like to experience joy, especially joy that is self-generated and does not rely on external sense pleasure. That is an astonishingly simple and true statement.

There are so many benefits to the joy, happiness, and contentment that come with the meditative absorptions. A mind at peace has no ill will. It does not want anything. You can experience true metta, the mind that cannot hate. You can experience true muditā. If you are truly happy, why would you not be happy when others are happy? You are already happy, so there is no reason for jealousy.

The stillness also provides a place of healing. We can look at our own suffering – even our most painful memories – with compassion, patience, kindness, and perspective. And as we get more skilled at looking at our pain, when we can see it and not be overwhelmed by it and learn from it, we also naturally develop compassion for all beings. This is the experience of dukkha that we all share. There is no reason to judge others. We see in them our own foolishness, and in their foolishness, we see ours.

And at the center of it all is the cultivation of joy. This is the hub of the wheel of meditation.

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Jack Kornfield and the Coverup

Apropos of my last blog entry about Lama Surya Das and his acts of sexual misconduct, I ran across this entry from a forum on Surya Das’ sexual abuse at Against the Stream (ATS) Buddhist Society. Most of this entry is about Surya Das himself. But this paragraph about Jack Kornfield really stuck out to me:

In your article you speak of “Kornfield” and his “investigation.” Kornfield is a close friend of Das. One time I rejected Das’ invitation to give me a ride. I guess he finally realized he was never going to get anywhere with me, it took years to convey this message. The next day, Das sicced Kornfield on me during a Dharma event. In fact, Kornfield singled me out to have a talk with me. I’d never met or had spoken to Kornfield. Kornfield tried to intimidate me and tried to force me to leave the Dharma event. When I stood my ground, Kornfield called me a “demon” and referred to Das as his “close friend.” Kornfield is no saint.

You can read the entire entry at

Western Buddhism is full of what I call “celebrity teachers.” They are people who – for the most part – are popular because of their personalities, not their understanding of the Dharma or the depth of their practice. Most Western teachers do not even teach rebirth or jhāna. Very few of them understand dependent co-arising or non-self.

This is not just a modern problem. In the well-known and mostly misunderstood Kālama Sutta [AN 3.65], the Kālama people go to the Buddha and ask him how to know if a teaching or a teacher are authentic:

Come, Kālāmas, do not go by oral tradition, by lineage of teaching, by hearsay, by a collection of scriptures, by logical reasoning, by inferential reasoning, by reasoned cogitation, by the acceptance of a view after pondering it, by the seeming competence [of a speaker], or because you think: ‘The ascetic is our guru.’ But when, Kālāmas, you know for yourselves: ‘These things are unwholesome; these things are blameworthy; these things are censured by the wise; these things, if accepted and undertaken, lead to harm and suffering,’ then you should abandon them. – [AN 3.65]

The passage that stands out to me is the “seeming competence of the speaker.” Some people have dynamic, forceful personalities. They can be very convincing even when trying to sell you a bill of goods. Have you ever had a saleperson sell you something that you did not want or need?

We are particularly vulnerable when it comes to our spiritual practice. Women can be particularly vulnerable to men with dynamic personalities. It is a worst-case scenario.

This is an important issue. When a Buddhist teacher commits an act of sexual misconduct, it reflects badly on the beautiful teachings of the Buddha. I am especially sad that people who could benefit from the Buddha’s teachings turn away from them because they have been sexually mistreated, or simply badly treated in any way. The latter has happened to me many times, and often it was by a celebrity teacher.

The Buddha’s teachings could not be clearer on this topic. The third precept says that a disciple of the Buddha – male or female, lay or monastic – agrees to abstain from sexual misconduct. “Sexual misconduct” is using your sexual energy to harm yourself or others. How much clearer can that be?

As we have learned so many times over the years, first there is the crime, and then there is the coverup. The coverup is always worse. Someone like Jack Kornfield should know better than to engage in juvenile, bullying behavior toward someone who is the victim of sexual assault.

Jack Kornfield… shame on you.


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