Saṃsara, Nirvāṇa, and Saṃvega

I would like to discuss three (Pāli) words that I think are often misunderstood in the Buddha’s teachings. These are saṃsara, nirvāṇa, and saṃvega. They are closely related.

Saṃsara is sometimes defined as a place. It literally means “wandering” or “wandering on.” Thus, it is not a place but an activity. According to the Buddha’s teaching, we have been wandering on throughout limitless time, being reborn over and over again. We are reborn in a given realm depending on what karma manifests at the time of rebirth.

Saṃvega is the realization that this wandering on is pointless and futile. Put this life into a bigger space, a much bigger space. Suppose that life is pretty good for you right now. But as the young Buddha-to-be realized, nonetheless, we are all subject to aging, illness, and death. And when you die, who knows where you end up? All living beings have good and bad karma. You may be a good person, someone who has accumulated a lot of good karma in this life. You may have done a lot of good and avoided doing harm.

That still does not mean that bad karma cannot manifest at the time of death and rebirth and that you cannot end up somewhere very unpleasant. And even if you end up with tens of thousands of years of good rebirths, unless you have attained at least the level of stream-entry, all beings eventually fall from grace into very bad places:

Saṃvega was what the young Prince Siddhartha felt on his first exposure to aging, illness, and death. It’s a hard word to translate because it covers such a complex range — at least three clusters of feelings at once: 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. This is a cluster of feelings we’ve all experienced at one time or another in the process of growing up, but I don’t know of a single English term that adequately covers all three. It would be useful to have such a term, and maybe that’s reason enough for simply adopting the word saṃvega into our language.

– [Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu, Affirming the Truths of the Heart, The Buddhist Teachings on Samvega & Pasada]

It is saṃvega that drove Prince Siddhartha to abandon a life of luxury, become a homeless spiritual seeker, and pursue the goal of liberation from the rounds of rebirth, saṃsara. Imagine that happening today. Imagine that someone who is rich and famous, who has a lot of power, a politician or a movie star or a billionaire business leader, giving up that life and ordaining as a monk. In addition, Prince Siddhartha did not even know that liberation was possible. He only postulated that it was. We at least know that a) it is possible and b) how to get there.

This brings us to the third term, and that is nirvāṇa. Nirvāṇa literally means “blowing out,” “quenching,” or “extinguishing.” It is like blowing out the flame of a candle. Once again, nirvāṇa is not a place, but an event.

In general, if you think of all of the Buddha’s activities in terms of processes, activities, or – linguistically – as verbs, you will be on the right track. Our conditioning leads us to think in terms of solid objects and places. But the world that the Buddha described is causes and results, and those results become causes for more results. It is an ocean of activity, and from the standpoint of consciousness, it is ethically conditioned. Wholesome actions have wholesome results, and unwholesome actions have unwholesome results.

Further, the karmic quality of our actions is conditioned by our motivations and our intentions. This is why the Buddha taught us to cultivate wholesome states of mind like compassion, kindness, generosity, love, and wisdom. Sadly, some schools of Buddhism think you can do an “end run” (Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu) around the law of karma. I would not want to be the person to test that hypothesis.

In order to understand nirvāṇa, it is helpful to look at the Second Noble Truth, the Noble Truth of craving. This is the cause of our suffering. The Pāli word that the Buddha used for the Second Noble Truth is taṇha. Taṇha also means “thirst.” We are not just craving in a passive way, but that our senses are constantly looking for something on which to feed. This is one reason that it is so hard to get the mind to quiet down. It has been conditioned throughout limitless time to look for something on which to feed. It is this feeding that keeps us wandering throughout the cosmological realms lifetime after lifetime after lifetime.

Nirvāna is when that feeding stops. It is extinguished.

Notice again that what happens – precisely – is that we stop feeding the addictive, habitual patterns that lead to rebirth and perpetual suffering. Further, we don’t just stop the suffering, we experience boundless joy:

Drinking the nourishment,
the flavor,
of seclusion and calm,
one is freed from evil, devoid
of distress,
refreshed with the nourishment
of rapture in the Dhamma. – [Dhp 205]

These are important but subtle points. Nirvana is the moment when you free yourself from the rounds of rebirth, from “wandering on.” The “cessation” of the Third Noble Truth is the cessation of suffering and the cessation of the feeding. You “awaken” – “bodhi” – to transcendent, ultimate reality, and that reality is “rapture in the Dhamma.”

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The Way in to the Fortress

I have been working my way through all of the books that I have written, reviewing what I wrote, double checking everything with what the Buddha taught, making minor stylistic changes to make everything uniform, and making occasional content changes to reflect a slightly better understanding or to express things in a way that I hope will be clearer. And as I have been doing this, I ran across a passage that quite struck me. The following rendering is from the “Sampasādanīya Sutta: Serene Faith” [DN 28].

The situation is a conversation between the Buddha and one of his chief disciples, Sāriputta. It begins with Sāriputta making this declaration:

“It is clear to me, Lord, that there never has been, never will be and is not now another ascetic or Brahmin who is better or more enlightened than the Lord.”

Sāriputta is trying to pay the Buddha a compliment. Somewhat surprisingly, the Buddha challenges Sāriputta, and he does it quite aggressively. He asks Sāriputta rather pointedly, “How do you know? How can you make such an assertion?”

“You have spoken boldly with a bull’s voice, Sāriputta, you have roared the lion’s roar of certainty. How is this? Have all the Arahant Buddhas of the past appeared to you, and were the minds of all those Lords open to you, so as to say: ‘These Lords were of such virtue, such was their teaching, such their wisdom, such their way, such their liberation?’”

“No, Lord.”

“And have you perceived all the Arahant Buddhas who will appear in the future?”

“No, Lord.”

“Well then, Sāriputta, you know me as the Arahant Buddha, and do you know: ‘The Lord is of such virtue, such his teaching, such his wisdom, such his way, such his liberation?’”

“No, Lord.”

“So, Sāriputta, you do not have knowledge of the minds of the Buddhas of the past, the future or the present. Then, Sāriputta, have you not spoken boldly with a bull’s voice and roared the lion’s roar of certainty with your declaration?”

I mean, wow. Sāriputta was an arahant. He had attained a full awakening. The Buddha named him as one of his two chief disciples. In the sutta “Foremost,” the Buddha declared, “Bhikkhus, the foremost of my bhikkhu disciples with great wisdom is Sāriputta” [AN 1.189]. This seems like pretty harsh treatment for someone who was trying to say something nice.

But Sāriputta was unfazed. Given that he was an arahant, this is not surprising. He gave this poetic, extraordinary reply:

“Lord, the minds of the Arahant Buddhas of the past, future and present are not open to me. But I know the drift of the Dhamma. Lord, it is as if there were a royal frontier city, with mighty bastions and a mighty encircling wall in which was a single gate, at which was a gatekeeper, wise, skilled and clever, who kept out strangers and let in those he knew. And he, constantly patrolling and following along a path, might not see the joins and clefts in the bastion, even such as a cat might creep through. But whatever larger creatures entered or left the city, must all go through this very gate. And it seems to me, Lord, that the drift of the Dhamma is the same. All those Arahant Buddhas of the past attained to supreme enlightenment by abandoning the five hindrances, defilements of mind which weaken understanding, having firmly established the four foundations of mindfulness in their minds, and realized the seven factors of enlightenment as they really are. All the Arahant Buddhas of the future will do likewise, and you, Lord, who are now the Arahant, fully-enlightened Buddha, have done the same.”

There are so many lovely phrases here. He began by saying that he knew “the drift of the Dhamma.” “Drift” indicates “flow.” He knew how and where the Dhamma flows. He understood its properties and characteristics. He knew where it came from and where it goes.

And then he said that understanding the flow of the Dhamma, he knew that anyone who became a Buddha, must become a Buddha by using the same path. His comparison was to a fortress with only one entrance. He knew that anyone who came into the fortress must come that way.

I am pointing out this passage, because as you either know now or may discover, when I write about the Dharma, it is rooted in the Buddha’s original teachings. And that is not because of some ideological approach or scholastic approach or rigid orthodoxy. The Buddha himself would not have a very high opinion of that.

It is because through many years of study and practice, I have come to have a deep faith and trust in what he taught. As the scholars like to say, the Pāli Canon is “coherent and cogent.” It is compelling in its breadth and depth. But it is not just the words, it is when they are put into practice that such powerful and sometimes astonishing results can happen. And the more you read, and the more you understand, and the more you practice, the deeper your understanding grows. And the more that happens, the more you appreciate the priceless gift that is the Buddha’s teachings.

But what this passage in particular says to me is that to gain entry to the fortress, to attain awakening and to be free from stress and suffering, there is only one way to get there, and that is the Dhamma and Discipline that the Buddha taught. Accept no substitutes.

To be sure, the Buddha never told anyone that they had to do anything. But what he did say was that if you want a certain result, this is how to get it. The Mettā Sutta [AN 11.15] famously begins:

This is what should be done
By one who is skilled in goodness
And who knows the path of peace.

I heard a story about a retreat on the Mettā Sutta where they spent the whole morning hung up on the word “should” in this passage. Now, the Buddha didn’t say “you have to do this.” But what he said is that this is what you should do if you want to be “skilled in goodness and know the path of peace.”

If you want to run a marathon, you can’t sit around and watch TV all day. And the Buddha didn’t say that if you do sit around and watch TV all day that you are a bad person, or you will go to hell, or anything like that. He was simply saying that if you want to run a marathon, there are some things you have to do. And in this case, if you want to be happier and more skillful and eventually to become free from stress and suffering, here is what you should do.

But it is also implied in this simile to be wary of con artists and revisionists, of snake oil salesmen (and presumably women as well) who are selling you a cheap facsimile. Sadly there are many of them in the Buddhist world today. If you follow any of them too closely, you are never going to get into the fortress. There is only one way in. You may wander quite happily in the forest for a while, but inevitably some gazelle will have you for lunch. Something will go wrong in your life or in your practice, and it will all fall apart. Or you will realize that you have been going to retreats and spending time and effort and money for years, and you really have not gotten anywhere at all.

The good news is that with diligence and sincerity, the instructons are all there. OK, so it’s a big instruction guide. That just means that you won’t run out of things to do. There is always more to learn. You won’t get bored. And the really, really good news is that there is a way in. The Buddha has gotten in, he knows how to get there, and he left us a map of how to do it for ourselves.

Posted in Buddha's Enlightenment, Buddhist meditation, Buddhist practice, Teachings of the Buddha | Leave a comment

The Allure

It is always amazing to me how nuanced meditation is, and it gets more nuanced the deeper your meditation practice gets. That is why a) you have to keep at it, and b) it is very important, I think, to be fascinated by it. Item b) is the second factor of awakening. It is a curious thing (so to speak) because it is our own mind that is the object that we are examining, understanding, and trying to shape.

I went to a car dealership yesterday and had a typical car dealership type of experience, that is to say, horrible. These kinds of things happen all the time. But then it was very interesting to see what the mind did with that.

One of the keys to overcoming our defilements is to see the way in which the mind latches onto experience, especially bad ones. Our mind latches onto something negative. The obvious question is why? What does the mind get out of that?

The Buddha posed just this question. He called it “the allure.” What are we getting out of it?

One answer is that the allure is a) that we become a victim and b) that reinforces a solid sense of self. “I” am the victim. It’s “me” to whom this is happening. In the chain of dependent co-arising, this is “becoming.”

This is a deeply ingrained habit. “Habit” is a catch-all word for dependent co-arising. Dependent co-arising describes in detail how our habits and conditions dictate our actions of body, speech, and mind.

And it is not just that our mind sits back passively receiving input at the sense doors, and then reacts. Our minds are actively seeking out places to land. The six types of sense consciousness are constantly searching, searching, searching for landing spots. If there is no obvious place to land, it lands on itself. This is the constant inner chatter. It can always create an inner dialog and land on that.

We begin to break this process down by getting the mind still. When it is very still, we enter jhāna. But even during the day we can “gladden the mind,” the practice from the Anāpānāsati Sutta. We consciously uplift the mind. Smiling can help. You proactively smile, and that brightens the mind. Or, if you are skilled at generating a sense of well-being, you can uplift the mind and get some pīti to arise in the body as well. (Pīti is a pleasant tingling sensation in the body.)

The goal here is to replace this reactive, habitual seeking of sense entertainment on which the mind feeds with something more wholesome and skillful. The Pāli word for craving is tanha, and it also means “thirst.” Likewise the Pāli word for clinging is upādāna, which also means “sustenance.” The process has the implication of thirsting and then drinking, or feeding, or “satisfying” the thirst. But the “satisfaction” is dukkha. Sense pleasures are never completely satisfying. That would be like eating once and then never having to eat again. Our mind is never satisfied. So we keep feeding, feeding, feeding. Sights, sounds, smells, tastes, sensations, and mental objects like thoughts and emotions.

Jhāna is also conditioned, but it is a better way to calm and feed the mind. As Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu says, you can’t just deprive the mind of anything on which to feed. You have to give it something better. That better thing is jhāna: calm, stillness, quiet, silence.

Once you can quiet the mind, you can see ever-more subtle ways in which the mind craves, clings, and becomes. This is the fundamental strategy for moving towards stream-entry and awakening.

Another quite different aspect to understanding the allure, which can also be seen simply as dukkha, is to see the allure and then also see the danger in the allure. That can lead to the third step in the Buddha’s analysis, which is to also see the escape:

“Now what, monks, is the allure of sensuality? These five strings of sensuality. Which five? Forms cognizable via the eye — agreeable, pleasing, charming, endearing, fostering desire, enticing. Sounds cognizable via the ear… Aromas cognizable via the nose… Flavors cognizable via the tongue… Tactile sensations cognizable via the body — agreeable, pleasing, charming, endearing, fostering desire, enticing. Now whatever pleasure or joy arises in dependence on these five strands of sensuality, that is the allure of sensuality.”
– [MN 13]

It may seem odd to use the word “sensuality” for negative mind states, but sensuality simply means whatever comes in through the sense doors. This includes mind objects, which in this case is the mind obsessing on negative experiences.

So here we have two quite different and parallel strategies for dealing with bad experiences at a car dealership. On one hand, we can gladden the mind, replacing negative mind states with pleasant ones. We simply do an end run around them. If you are meditating and can get into jhāna, so much the better. By the time the sitting ends, the negative mind state will either not arise again or will be greatly weakened.

The other strategy is analytical. You start by asking the question, “What is the allure? What am I getting out of it?” Or more precisely, what is the mind getting out of it?

If you can see the allure, then you can ask yourself, what is the danger? This should be obvious. It is making you unhappy. But see that and see it deeply.

Step three is to ask yourself, what is the escape? How do I free myself from it? And yes, going to a different car dealership is a perfectly valid response.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

This Just In!

I know someone – in fact, I know quite a few people – who are very upset with the political situation in the United States right now. And that is understandable. I don’t know that I can put that to rest (OK, I can’t), but I thought I would offer a few comments.

I went to a retreat recently where the monk who was teaching started talking about what happened in India at the end of the first millennium CE. India had been a Buddhist country for most of that millennium, but like anything else, the Buddhist influence lost its way, in many cases it became corrupt, and eventually Muslim invaders came and did their very best to wipe out any evidence of Buddhism in India. They destroyed all the Buddhist temples, monasteries, and universities. For reasons that are not clear, the Hindus got off relatively easily, and in some cases actively helped the destruction of Buddhist influence.

But this is not yet-another-story about how terrible Muslims are. I don’t believe that, anyway. Stuff happens. At times Muslim rule has proven, historically, to be quite enlightened. Even in India there was a time when Muslim rule was very benevolent.

This is a story about is how bad things happen. Oh, this just in. First Noble Truth. Bad things happen.

As I write this, 100 years ago the world was reeling under the enormous destruction of World War I. In the First World War, there were 17 million people killed, and 20 million wounded. And all of that senseless destruction led to what? The Second World War.

I am not trying to put a pretty face on what is going on now. That would be pretty hard to do. But lesson one in life and lesson one in our current political situation is the same one that the Buddha told us about 2500 years ago. The First Noble Truth is the Noble Truth of Dukkha. Bad stuff happens.

I don’t know what is going to happen. Things may get much, much worse. Or this may be just a lot of noise, which it mainly has been so far, but very little will actually change. Or this may be hitting bottom, and we will emerge smarter and more diligent about guarding our greatest values. That is what happened in Germany. Germany emerged from the horror of the Second World War to be one of the most civil and civilized countries in the world.

So lesson number one is to remember the First Noble Truth. Bad stuff happens.

Ajahn Brahm says that no matter what happens, he says, “I expected that.” If one of students dies suddenly at the age of 28, he says, “I expected that.” If there is an earthquake… well, you get the idea.

This is life. There are no “get out of jail free” cards. You can’t decide that you are simply immune to all of life’s calamities.

And this is why we practice. Life is very precious, and it is very uncertain. This very life is an extremely rare opportunity to practice the Dharma. Life is not about what is out there. What is out there is pretty much the same as it has always been. Bad stuff happens. Everything is uncertain.

By diligently practicing the Buddha’s way, we create two invaluable results. One is that we become happier people. Even in the midst of calamity, we can smile.

I heard a story about Larry Rosenberg recently. Larry is – to my mind – one of the very best Dharma teachers, although he has not taught in a while. He is well into his 80’s, and recently he had a debilitating stroke.

One day the doctor came in to check on him, and Larry was happily practicing, and he had a smile on his face. Well, the doctor ordered all sorts of tests to see if Larry was brain dead, because the idea that someone who had suffered a serious stroke could still experience serenity and happiness was beyond him.

We can be happy, even under the direst circumstances. No, this is not easy, but it possible to develop the mind in such a way.

The second benefit of our practice is that we are immensely more useful and valuable in the world. I’ll start by pointing out the opposite side of this, and this is people who do not practice and who are not self aware.

I know someone who is one of those people who is upset by the current politics. She spends a lot of time on the Internet getting all fired up about the terrible things that are going on. And as the months have gone by, and she has become angrier and angrier, she has become insufferable to be around.

I know another person who has been chronically depressed since the election. But that same person was not so long ago giving me a hard time about being a vegetarian. Being vegetarian uses a fraction of the resources that eating meat does, and it does not involve killing animals. Maybe she could make a difference by not eating meat.

When we practice, the only way to practice skillfully is for ourselves and others. They are joined at the hip. The Buddha said this, and I have heard many Dharma teachers say this. It has also been my own experience.

Life inevitably contains dukkha. But the Buddha also showed us a way to be happy and useful. Sometimes it is easier to always look outward. It is the easy way out. It’s someone else’s fault, and it is someone else’s problem. “They” (whoever “they” are) have to change. “They” have to fix things.

It is much harder to look inside and say, where do I need work? How am I contributing to suffering? What do I need to do in order to be more beneficial to the world? By cultivating our minds, we can do less damage, we can be happier, and we can make the world a better place in a substantial way. And that is, I think, the proper response to what is happening now, and what happens always.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Dress Rehearsal for Rebirth

I recently went to a short retreat with Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu. The subject of the retreat was “awakening.” At the retreat, Ṭhānissaro described the death and rebirth process. Ṭhānissaro was almost electrocuted when he was 35 years old, so he had a near death experience. Thus, his description was from a first-hand experience, not just something that was handed down to him from the tradition.

Ṭhānissaro described four possible stages. In the first stage we see whatever things we hang on to from this life. For some people, this will be the only stage before they are reborn. If you have a lot of regret, the rebirth is not likely to be auspicious. The texts describe just such an event. Queen Mallika, who was the wife of King Pasenadi of Kosala, was a very virtuous woman, very sweet, kind, and selfless. However, she had committed an act of sexual indiscretion, and then she compounded the act by lying about it. When she died, this weighed on her mind. She was reborn in one of the hell realms.

However, because she was an otherwise virtuous person, she only spent seven days there. Then she was reborn in the Tusita heaven.

This story is reminiscent of the Buddha’s teachings on the Lump of Salt, in which the Buddha described how an otherwise virtuous person will have the occasional indiscretion absorbed like a lump of salt that is thrown into the Ganges. It will not affect the taste of the water. However, for the normally immoral person, it is like putting a lump of salt into a cup of water. That lump of salt will make the water undrinkable.

If you can let go of your earthly attachments, you enter the next stage. Here you think of all the kind and generous things that you did during your life. This may help you overcome any regret, and it prepares the mind for an auspicious rebirth.

The next stage is that you begin to cycle through the heavenly realms, seeing each one in turn. This is all happening very quickly. Think of times in your life when you flashed on something. These experiences are happening like that. Your mind is processing them at lightning speed. And as you cycle through seeing the heavenly realms, if you have an affinity for one of them, that is where you will be reborn. That is not such a bad thing. It is certainly better than being reborn in one of the lower realms.

However, if you can overcome any attachment or affinity for any of the heavenly realms, you may get the ultimate prize, and that is to escape the rounds of rebirth altogether. In that case you will awaken, and enter the realm of Nirvāṇa.

One of the things that struck me was how similar the first stage is to the Buddha’s instructions for meditation, where he says, “Here, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu abides contemplating the body as a body, ardent, fully aware, and mindful, having put away covetousness and grief for the world.”

“Putting away covetousness and grief for the world.”

How many times have you heard a meditation teacher give this instruction, or something like it? When you sit down to meditate, you must put aside any thoughts about worldly affairs. If you are concerned about your job, family, health, etc., you are not going to be able to settle the mind. And when we wish mettā for ourselves, that is akin to the second stage where we establish a mind that is happy and content. Finally, if we can enter jhāna, or at least get the mind quiet and somewhat serene, this is like entering a heavenly realm. The commentaries even tell us that there are heavenly realms that map to the jhānas.

What Ṭhānissaro’s story tells us is that our meditation can be a dress rehearsal for our death and subsequent rebirth. We can use the start of our meditation to let go of all of our earthly thoughts and attachments. We wish mettā for ourselves and then get the mind as quiet and serene as possible. Ultimately this practice may help us gain entry into one of the heavenly realms, or perhaps even attain awakening.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Scholarship and Practice

I have written about this before, but it has come up again, and I think some of the points bear repeating. It has to do with scholarship vs practice in the Buddhist world.

I recently started to read an interview with a very prominent Buddhist monk. He is a self-described scholar. I am quite familiar with his work. For about two years all of my reading and study was with him. I read his books, did an online course with him, and I went to a ten-day retreat with him. He is certainly a nice enough person, and he is intellectually brilliant.

What I remember most about that time is two things. The first is that I learned a very good way to study the discourses. At some point I want to document that process. I am always encouraging people to read the discourses, and his way of analyzing them is, I think, very helpful. So that is on the positive side.

But on the negative side, at the retreat there was a young woman who I got to quite like. She is bright, creative and artistic, and very dedicated to Dharma practice and study. On the first or second day of the retreat, she was asking a lot of questions. And the monk got short-tempered with her and treated her, I thought, quite rudely.

Thich Nhat Hanh, who may be one of the sweetest people in the Buddhist world, says that everything that you do should be a Dharma talk. To be sure, I fall quite short of that. But I have been blessed to have teachers like Thich Nhat Hanh, Larry Rosenberg, and Thanissaro Bhikkhu who don’t just talk the talk. They walk the walk. They embody the Dharma.

Inevitably when you go to a retreat, there will be people who will test your patience. This is exacerbated because of how raw your nerves can get during a silent retreat. But this is when we need to give the gift of patience and forbearance. This is especially true of our teachers.

I have been to so many retreats over the years that I can hardly even remember them all. And to be honest, I hardly remember anything that was said at those retreats. But I certainly remember if a teacher was harsh or mistreated someone.

To be sure, I am very grateful for some of the wonderful scholars who have brought the Dharma to the West. How could I not be? There are some extraordinary people who are a lot smarter than I who have learned how to study and translate the vast gift of Dharma literature that we have.

But to simply be a scholar and not aspire to something greater than that is, I think, terribly misguided. The Buddha was quite clear that he was not creating a philosophy or a religion or a description of ultimate reality. He described a path. It is a training. He defined our dilemma as being inevitably subjected to aging, sickness, and death. Nothing saves you from that fate. He found a way out, and he taught us how to follow that way out.

Think of it this way. Your car breaks down by the side of the road. Some kind person gives you a repair manual. You have two choices. You can read the manual, understand it as best you can, and try to fix the car.

Or you can study the manual. Maybe you will compare it to other manuals. You can write treatises on the manual, how it describes how to fix your car. You can debate alternative ways to describe fixing the car. You might even get a Ph.D. in writing car repair manuals. In any event, the car is still broken. You have not solved your basic problem.

When I talk to people about studying the Dharma, I encourage them not to get too hung up on trying to have a perfect understanding of every word. I think the way to read the discourses is simply to read them and understand them as best you can. But when you sit, keep it simple. Just sit.

One of the things that I found interesting when I researched my biography of the Buddha is that in the last 18 months or so of his life, almost every discourse he gave (except for one) had the same three themes: virtue (ethics and morality), concentration, and wisdom. This is particularly interesting given the emphasis on mindfulness in Buddhist today. But the Buddha emphasized concentration.

The way I have come to understand practice is this. When you read or study a discourse you are planting seeds in your subconscious. Perhaps you have had something like the following happen to you. You read something or you hear something in a talk, and much later, even years later, suddenly you understand it. It just pops into your head like one of those cartoon thought bubbles.

The practice of concentration creates fertile ground in which those seeds grow. The mind gets still, and then the subconscious has a chance to mull things over. This is how the creative mind works. You need to get the conscious, intellectual part of the mind to quiet down so the subconscious can do its work. This is why you can be struggling with a problem, and you put it down and go for a walk, and suddenly the solution appears to you.

When I started my career as a software engineer, I read about a technology called “b-trees.” Almost every database system in the world uses b-trees. And for a long time, I could not make any sense of them. Then suddenly one day it all seemed terribly obvious, and I could not understand why it took me so long to figure them out.

Practicing the Dharma is often like that. You take up a topic like dependent co-arising. That is a particularly tough one. But then over time, pieces of it begin to make sense. One day you catch yourself self-identifying with some mental phenomena, and you think “becoming.” It is a little startling when that happens. It should also be very gratifying. This is the practice working.

So back to the original point. The Dharma has very little meaning if it is not a way of life, a training, a way to become happier and a way to become more skillful. If it is a topic for study, that is missing the point. And if your only goal is to be a scholar, then that is all you will ever be. You will never attain the perfection of being an arahant. You will never be a teacher who can be infinitely patient and loving toward a student who is pestering you with a lot of questions. We only learn through questioning, and we can only learn from teachers who truly manifest the perfection of the Dharma.

Posted in Buddhist practice, Teachings of the Buddha | 1 Comment

Love Trumps Hate

It never ceases to amaze me what a difficult and challenging path the Buddha’s way is. Our habits are so ingrained to look outward. But following the Buddha’s path is like being in a room full of mirrors. Even the ceiling and floor are mirrors. And no matter what direction you look, the reflection is always back to you.

The election this last week has sparked a lot of fear, anxiety and anger. There is a lot of uncertainty about the future. And we have seen a litany of anger, hate and fear mongering. It’s not pretty.

But the Buddha always told us to turn that outward looking back inwards. How do we respond to hate mongering? We do not have any control over what happens “out there.” If we cultivate good qualities, especially wisdom, we may hope to have some influence “out there” by the dignity of our conduct and speech. But that is the best we can hope to do. This is the way of the world.

So again and again we point our fingers out there and the Buddha gently tells us to turn that finger around and point to ourselves. Where is your mind? Is there fear? Why is that? To what are we attached? Are we attached to our sense of self? Are we attached to our opinions and views?

If we have anger, why is that? In one of his many poetic turns of phrase the Buddha advised us that the one time when killing is justified is when we kill anger:

“Having slain anger, one sleeps soundly;
Having slain anger, one does not sorrow;
The killing of anger, O brahmin,
With its poisoned root and honeyed tip:
This is the killing the noble ones praise,
For having slain that, one does not sorrow.”
– [SN 7.7.2]

Anger only leads to more anger. Only love Trumps hate. There was a demonstration against the results of the Presidential election this week in Albuquerque and some of the protestors turned ugly. They defaced and damaged property. Where is the benefit in that?

The future is, of course, uncertain. But it is always uncertain. We just delude ourselves into a false sense of stability. Once again, the problem isn’t out there. It is in our own hearts and minds.

No matter who the President is or how ugly the political and social situation is, our marching orders are the same. Cultivate compassion, love and wisdom. Guard your mind, speech and body. Be kind. Be generous. In times like this we may need a little more courage and strength. But if the Buddha’s way were easy anyone could do it.

Posted in Buddhist ethics, Buddhist practice, Teachings of the Buddha | 2 Comments

More Books

Books 6 & 7 in the Little Books on Buddhism series are now available on the Books tab. Book 6 is on rebirth. It has four sections. One is on whether the Buddha taught rebirth, the second one is on whether there is evidence for the truth of rebirth, the third is on whether it is necessary to believe in rebirth to Awaken, and the fourth is on the Buddhist cosmology.

Book 7 is on Awakening (Enlightenment). This was a very difficult book to write. The Buddha gave different descriptions of what it means to Awaken. And since nirvāṇa lies outside the dimensions of time and space you cannot use conventional language to describe it. In addition, the experience of Awakening is different for everyone. The exact path is not the same, although fundamentally the moment of Awakening is when the meditator sees into the truth of dependent co-arising. It is like the difference between reading about and seeing pictures of Macchu Picchu and going there and experiencing it for yourself. When you Awaken you see into the causal nature of existence. But getting the mind quiet enough and insightful enough to see that is not so easy. And our habits and conditions, which so strongly reinforce the idea of a permanent “self”, resist this insight.

I found myself resorting to the enigmatic language of Zen. If you take Zen Buddhism as described by Dogen and put it on top of a good understanding of the Pali Canon it all fits together. And the descriptions of Awakening from Zen offer some good pointers on the experience. But as the saying goes, even then you are only a finger pointing at the moon. You can only give hints about what it is like.

There will be one final book. Book 8 will be on Daily Living. It was an oversight on my part not to include it earlier. The Buddha said that he taught the Dhamma and Discipline. In the monastic world the Dhamma is the discourses and the study and practice of meditation. The Discipline is the Vinaya, the monastic code. In the lay world we have the Five Precepts. In most Buddhist countries lay people do not practice meditation, but they do follow the precepts. They also practice generosity by supporting the monks and nuns.

But in the West we have a more hybrid practice, and it is not always easy for lay people who meditate to bring the practice from the cushion into their daily lives. Further, we do not practice the Five Precepts and generosity as rigorously as they do in Asia. So Book 8 will try and address our unique Western flavor of lay practice. I am using the Vinaya as a basic source, and trying to see how the monastic code can be used as a basis for lay life. Some of what will be in Book 8 will simply be common sense, skillful ways of living that are consistent with what the Buddha taught. The goal is to bring together elements of monastic life into the sort of lay-monastic practice that we have in the West and to create a lay Vinaya, something that greatly expands on the Five Precepts.

Posted in Buddha's Enlightenment, Buddhist ethics, Buddhist meditation, Buddhist practice, Teachings of the Buddha | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Learned Helplessness

I just got an email from one of my very dearest Dharma sisters. I met her in India and her friendship has been one of the great blessings of my life. I know that I have said this before and I do not mean to beat it to death (well, maybe a little), but other than Enlightenment itself there is nothing more precious in life than “good friendship in the holy life,” as the Buddha put it.

On of the things she wrote me is this:

“So often folks tell me that Buddhism removes people from emotions and ‘real life’, puts them in a sort of happy trance…”

I just had to smile. My first reaction was that there are all these unhappy, stressed out, neurotic people in the world. OK. Got that. But, as the infomercials say, Wait! There’s more! We want you to be unhappy, stressed out and neurotic, too.

Of course, that would be a very unkind thing to say to someone, but that is how it feels. Misery loves company.

There is a phenomenon in psychology called “learned helplessness.” One of the most famous experiments involved dogs who were put into a box from which they could not escape, and given electric shocks. Because there was no way for the dogs to escape from the box, they learned that the shocks were “inevitable.” Then those dogs were put into a box with a low partition. They could escape the shocks simply by jumping over it. But because they had learned from the first box that there was “no escape,” they did not leave the box. They just stayed there and accepted the pain.

The Buddha, through his extraordinary effort and compassion, found a way out of our dilemma. He found a path whereby we can be happier, more useful people, and then he spent 45 years teaching that path. Admittedly the operating manual is, as I like to say, rather long. But if you do not like to suffer and be stressed out, it is all there.

It seems self-evident that no one would want to suffer, be unhappy and stressed out. Then there is the bonus, and that is that by being happier, wiser and more skillful in life you are more useful. You are at least not adding to the world’s misery, and on a good day you can make it a little better.

I suppose one thing to say is, “Do you like being stressed out?”

Then again, there are those dogs who just won’t leave the box.

Posted in Buddha's Enlightenment, Buddhist meditation, Buddhist practice, Teachings of the Buddha | Tagged , | Leave a comment


I recently heard someone use the word “ego” at a meditation group. I had not heard that in a while and it got me to thinking.

It is unfortunate that the word has come into common use in Western Buddhism. My guess is that when Zen and Tibetan Buddhism came to the West, the Buddhist teachers found something in common with Western psychology. So they adapted the use of the word “ego” as a way of expressing the Buddha’s teachings on self and non-self to a Western audience. At the time it probably felt quite skillful. Here was a way in which they could relate the Buddha’s teachings to a new culture.

What makes that unfortunate, however, is that an ego, by definition, is a thing. If we think in terms of an ego, we turn what the Buddha described as a process – a chain of causes and effects – into an object. We are doing exactly what the Buddha told us not to do, and that is to take that chain of causes and effects and turn it into something substantial, a kind of self.

By objectifying this process, we give it life. And by turning it into the bad guy we set up an adversarial relationship with a concept. The concept of an ego is just that, a concept. And as Ajahn Lee says, concepts are just shadows that cross the mind. They are illusions, and further they are illusions that we create. We fabricate this notion of an ego, and create yet another way to suffer.

The Buddha clearly stated that there are no things, just processes:

“Good, bhikkhus. So you say thus, and I also say thus: ‘When this exists, that comes to be; with the arising of this, that arises.’” – [MN 38.19]

This is the Buddha’s simplest expression of dependent co-arising. It applies, in fact, to the whole of existence. Everything that comes to be is the result of causes and conditions. And it is our attachment to the transient processes of body and mind that causes a great deal of suffering. This is the teaching on non-self. And when we relate it to the whole of existence, it is emptiness.

It is actually easier to deal with this attachment if we do not empower it by calling it an “ego.” It is simply an impersonal process of causes and effects. If anger arises and there is a decision to act on it, then the result is likely to be unwholesome. There is no “I” or “me”. There is simply this cause and effect. And if the unskillful cause is seen and there is a choice not to react to it, then the result is wholesome. This is how the mind is trained. And there does not have to be shame or guilt or self-loathing because there is no one to feel the shame, guilt or self-loathing. There is just this.

Posted in Buddhist meditation, Buddhist practice, Teachings of the Buddha | Tagged , , | Leave a comment