Dukkha

Sharon Salzberg tells this story about her time in India. She was really struggling with her practice, and when all you are doing is practicing, that is quite a struggle. I remember when I was at my first silent retreat I had a panic attack. I wasn’t sure I was even going to make it through the first day. And Sharon was in India. She was very young and thousands of miles away from home. I think most meditators have these kinds of experiences, and they can be brutal.

So she went to her teacher for a private interview and explained what was going on. She expected that he would give her some magical advice on some new meditation practice, some antidote for her condition. But all he said was, “That’s dukkha.”

It is a funny thing that Buddhism is so often characterized as being pessimistic. That is because of the First Noble Truth, the Noble Truth of Dukkha/suffering/stress. But the Buddha never said that life is suffering. He was simply stating a fact about life, that it inevitably has dukkha. He never defined the term, but he did give us examples. Not having what one wants is dukkha. Having what one doesn’t want is dukkha. Clinging to the five aggregates is dukkha. Sickness, old age, and death are dukkha. Even birth is dukkha.

Denying the truth of dukkha not only denies one of the most fundamental realities of life, that denial is a way to make the reality of dukkha worse. I have recently had a number of conversations with dear friends, all of whom are having very difficult times. One friend has a wife with early onset Alzheimer’s. Another has two sisters-in-law who had to go into assisted living. One of them has kidney failure and needs dialysis every three days. Another dear friend is having cancer surgery on Monday. And so it goes. We all have our laundry list of woes. I have mine and I am sure that you have yours.

I suspect that for almost everyone, one reason that we suffer unnecessarily is because there is some part of our brain that says, “It shouldn’t be like this.” “This should not be happening.” “I don’t like this and I don’t want it.” And the extreme form is “Why me?”

But if it really shouldn’t be that way it wouldn’t be. And sometimes it is very helpful to simply acknowledge that this is the way life is. Dukkha is what binds us together in experience. Sometimes it is really good to simply say, “That’s dukkha.”

Of course, the Buddha did not stop there, thank goodness. The first Noble Truth is simply the diagnosis. The cure is the Fourth Noble Truth, the path that leads to the end of suffering. The Buddha said that there are two responses to stress and suffering. The first is confusion and all its related factors: anxiety, anger, fear, depression, and stinginess. The second response is faith that there is a way out.

And my sense and my experience is that if you can recognize that dukkha is just what it is, that you can even learn to smile at it. Dukkha just does what dukkha does. You can acknowledge it and press on. And it certainly is a strong incentive to practice because dukkha is never fun.

But one of the many beauties to Dharma practice is that it is not an all-or-nothing proposition. The path itself is very beautiful. Generosity. Virtue. Serenity. Wisdom. It is noble. It is a gift that you give to yourself and others. Ultimately it is the gift of unshakeable freedom from dukkha.

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More Little Books

Books 4 & 5 of The Little Books on Buddhism are now available on the Books tab. Book 4 is The Little Book on Buddhist Wisdom. It is very similar to the same chapters in The Travel Guide to the Buddha’s Path. It covers the basic wisdom teachings of the Buddha, including The Four Noble Truths, causality (dependent co-arising), karma, and The Four Marks of Existence. The Four Marks are dukkha, impermanence, and non-self.

Book 5 is on mindfulness & concentration. Mindfulness is a particularly mis-taught topic, and the importance of concentration is usually over-looked in meditation practice. The Buddha said a number of times that the first seven parts of the Eightfold Noble Path act as a support for the eighth part, which is concentration.

As usual these books reflect the “coherent and cogent” (not my words) teachings of the Buddha from the Pali canon.

Those of you who frequent this site and these books know that the eBook versions are free, and the print versions are as cheap as the publisher will let me make them. But if anyone wants a print version of the book for free please let me know. My email address is ekvh@usermail.com.

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New Biography of the Buddha

For those of you who are wondering why there is such a long time between my posts it is because I am working on the seven-part series of “Little Books on Buddhism.” I am in the process of releasing book 3, which is a biography of the Buddha. You can now download the eBook version of the Little Book on the Life of the Buddha from the Books page. The print version is still being reviewed. The eBooks will eventually be available from the Apple store and Amazon, but it usually takes between 1 and 3 weeks for the books to work their way through the system. It also takes me a week or so to convince Amazon to distribute it for free. And I am never quite sure what Kindle Direct Publishing does with my files, so I recommend that if you have a Kindle that you download from this site. I have proofed these Kindle versions myself.

This was a very challenging project, unlike anything I have done before. The amount of information you have to work your way through is staggering. But it gave me an opportunity to delve into sections of the Pali canon with which I was not previously familiar. I spent a lot of time in the Vinaya (the monastic code), which surprisingly has some detailed chronologies, and a great deal of other biographical information. I also spent more time in the Jataka tales, a journey that began in The Little Book of Buddhist Virtue. (If you don’t read anything else in that book at least read the last chapter where the paramis are explained by using Jataka tales.)

I have come to love the Jataka tales, and indeed a lot of the mythical stories. Joseph Campbell said that in the West we have lost touch with our mythology. Myths often tell stories that have important messages, and they say them in ways that are more colorful and more memorable.

Now that I live in the southwest I am learning more about the myths of Native Americans. A few posts back I told one of these stories, the Comanche story about feeding the right wolf. It is a curious thing that American Indians, who were misnamed because Columbus thought he was in India, may have a lot in common with India Indians. When I was in India the distinction between myth and reality was very blurred. That is often true with American Indians. And for many generations in Asia lay Buddhists only knew about the Buddha’s teachings through the Jataka tales.

I would also like to give a shout-out to my daughter Rebecca who I hired to be my editor. She is currently in the MFA Writing program at the University of New Hampshire. It is a rare privilege to be able to work with your own daughter. Her writing is much better than anything of which I think I am capable. Of course, whatever problems are in the book are strictly my own fault, but I think it is much better because of her help.

I hope that you will enjoy the story of the Buddha’s life. I came to really love the people in the Buddha’s life and the wonderful stories. There are so many inspiring people from the Buddha’s time. The Pali canon gives us a rich, three-dimensional view of that time. Not everything the Buddha did worked out. That is life. And we are so fortunate to have this rich and detailed account of his life. It is an inspiring tradition, and we are extremely privileged to be a part of it.

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The View from Space

When my grandson was born I did some research into my family’s history. Unfortunately I lost track of that research, but as I recall I actually traced the ship that brought my family to Philadelphia from Germany in 1754. They were members of a pacifist sect during a time of religious wars. You can imagine that the circumstances must have been desparate. They were poor. Very poor. And to this day most of my family is poor. Even in my own direct lineage my grandparents were desperately poor. I have an ancestor who was listed in the U.S. Census as a “rag peddler”. Imagine that.

And now I live in New Mexico. Unlike what many people think, New Mexico is in the United States (!). We share a border with Mexico.  And even if we did not, that I live in the land of the Hispanic was brought home to me recently when I visited my daughter at the University of New Hampshire. “Where,” I thought, “are all the brown faces?” I have quickly become accustomed to the Spanish accents and the faces of the southern Mediterranean. The Hispanic people of New Mexico are uncommonly kind, friendly and generous.

When I lived in Vermont I used to ride my bike past a couple of local farms that were worked by migrant workers. Every few years the local newspaper would send some strong young intern out to work the fields with them. The experience was always the same. They could barely keep up. Typically they could do about half what the migrant workers could do.

And now we live in an age of fear and hatred toward immigrants, especially illegal ones. Donald Trump has been a master at harnessing that fear.

But imagine this. Your situation in life is so desparate that you are willing to risk every possible humiliation – even death – to enter the United States in the remote hope that you can find a better life.

Try doing this. Do an Internet search on the words “help illegal immigrants”. One result will tell you that this is a felony.

But in the world of the transcendent, helping people who have less than nothing, who are desperate beyond most peoples’ comprehension, is the path of the noble. There are no felonies here. There is only love, compassion, and wisdom. Astronauts say that one of the things they most remember from seeing Earth from space is that there are no borders. There are only people.

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Buddhism 101

I recently went out to the University of New Mexico web site to see what they have in the way of resources for teaching Buddhism. The good news is that there are a number of professors who teach various aspects of Buddhism. From an academic standpoint it is a rich environment.

What is lacking, however, is anything related to the practice. There is quite a lot about “Buddhist philosophy”, but nothing about meditation or the training. As far as I can tell no one there teaches meditation.

I was particularly struck by the term “Buddhist philosophy”. The Buddha was clear about what he taught. He taught a training method that leads away from suffering and into greater happiness. The final goal is freedom from suffering, and the rounds of rebirth. To even have something called “Buddhist philosophy” is a little like having a philosophy about playing the piano.

The Buddha did not teach all that he knew. He did not describe everything about the ultimate reality that he found, only how to train the mind to come to an understanding of ultimate reality. In his discourse on the “Simsapa Leaves” [SN 56.31] he held up a handful of leaves and asked his monks, “which is greater, the number of leaves in my hand or the number of leaves in the forest.” The answer is, of course rhetorical. He finished this brief discourse by saying:

“In the same way, monks, those things that I have known with direct knowledge but have not taught are far more numerous [than what I have taught]. And why haven’t I taught them? Because they are not connected with the goal, do not relate to the rudiments of the holy life, and do not lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Unbinding. That is why I have not taught them.”

It can be quite a long and winding road down the path to an academic understanding of a philosophy. But that does not get you very far. Cultivate a good heart. Be kind and generous. Train your mind to be wise, loving, compassionate, and equanimous. This is what the Buddha taught, and putting it into practice will be of great benefit to you and the world around you.

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The Wolf You Feed

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.

“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

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Joy

I recently heard a Dharma talk on the topic of joy, and it got me thinking about the different contexts in which joy occurs in the Pali Canon.

Those of you familiar with the practice of jhāna – meditative absorption – know that the primary factor of the first jhāna is joy. The Pāli word is pīti. This is a specific meditative experience that is associated with rapture/joy/bliss that permeates the whole body. It is a milestone in our practice. We start with the ground of generosity, upon which is a layer of virtue, and then comes concentration. Concentration begins with mundane concentration, followed by “access” or “neighborhood” concentration, and finally the first jhāna. So from the beginning the Buddha is urging us to develop the meditative experience of joy.

Another context in which joy occurs is in the Seven Factors of Awakening. This is not the meditative experience of pīti, but joy in the practice. You may have had this experience, where you simply feel overwhelming joy that a) you have discovered the Buddhadharma and b) you have the opportunity to practice it. Our normal condition is to wander aimlessly through saṃsāra, going from one life to another. It is like being lost in the desert. We suffer, and we don’t know why. This just makes it worse. Not only are we lost, we don’t know how to find our way out.

Then we discover the Buddhadharma. Even if the way out seems like a very long way away, at least we know that we are on the right path. Now we have a map. Finally we have something solid.

The third context in which we find joy is “sympathetic joy”, mudita in Pāli. It is one of the brahma viharas, the noble abidings (love, compassion sympathetic joy, and equanimity). It is the ability to feel the same amount of happiness in someone else’s good fortune as you would in your own. This comes with time, and as your practice ripens. Something good will happen to someone else, and suddenly you feel such joy and happiness, only later realizing what has happened. It is very gratifying. It is a way of cheating. Now you can be happy not only when good things happen to you, you can be happy when they happen to others as well.

This is a topic that is worth remembering, “keeping in mind”. This path can be very challenging, of course. But the Buddha urges us to develop these qualities, and he puts them front and center in the practice.

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Generosity

A friend of mine recently sent me an article by Ken Wilber called “Right Bucks”. It is his defense of asking people to pay for Dharma teachings. He says this:

“…dollars and Dharma are not only not incompatible, monetary exchange is an altogether appropriate, functional manifestation of the Divine in everyday life, just like appropriate food and appropriate sexuality.”

To the extent that I understand what he has written, I would like to address some of the points he makes in this article, mainly 1) he puts Dharma teaching into a historical and social context, 2) he discusses non-duality, particularly as it relates to money, 3) he discusses the notion of “sin” and money, specifically the notion of thinking of money as being “sinful”, and 4) he discusses dana (generosity) and money.

  1. As to the first point, we hear and read so much these days about secular Buddhism, and how to Westernize Buddhism to make it more palatable to a Western audience. Stephen Bachelor has become a champion of this type of thinking, but he is certainly not alone. But culture is a very transient thing. I came of age in the 1960’s and 1970’s, a culture that my children would not recognize. Try reading the PTS (Pali Text Society) editions of the Pali Canon some time. They were writing during the Victorian age in Victorian English. It, too, is barely recognizable. What we think of as “culture” is a snapshot in time. (We now seem to talk about culture as being associated with a particular decade.) There is also place. What is Western? Germany? Mexico? French Canada? The underlying assumption of Westernizing Buddhism is to assume that there is some monolithic thing that can be called “Western culture.”

(My mother used to date a professor at the University of Maryland. He taught a course in the American family. In the first class he would show up with a stack of magazines. The class would break up into groups and each group was given some magazines. They were told to find a picture that they thought best exemplified “the American family”.

Once each group had chosen a picture, the entire class voted on which picture they thought best represented “the American family”. They would find and agree on the picture. Finally, he would ask them how many people in the group had a family like the one in the picture. In all his years of teaching, he never once had a student raise his/her hand. I think the same thing would happen if we did this exercise to determine what “Western culture” is.)

  1. As for the issue of non-duality, the Buddha’s teachings are clear that we live a dual existence. There is the world of the conditioned – saṃsāra – and the world of the unconditioned – nirvāṇa. In Wilber’s article he pins the idea of duality on Theravadan Buddhists, but this is a bit of a smoke screen. The Buddha taught duality, and the Theravadans were simply following his teachings. (Note: You may believe that the universe is non-dual. The error is in saying that this is what the Buddha taught.)
  2. As I wrote in my last blog entry, when the Buddha attained Enlightenment, he saw into the transcendent universal truth of reality. This reality is not religious or secular, Eastern or Western. It doesn’t depend on your time, place, culture, social values, economic system, or any other transient condition. It is either true or it isn’t. (To use the Buddha’s word, it is “unconditioned”.) It isn’t even confined to our planet. The law of gravity isn’t repealed if you go to Alpha Centauri.
  3. There is no notion of sin in Buddhism. Wilber portrays “sin” as existing in both the East and West, but I have never run into it in an Eastern context. Regardless, sin is not a Buddhist notion. There is only cause and effect, actions and the consequences of those actions. As the Buddha says to his son Rahula, examine the consequences of your actions. If they are of benefit to yourself and other now and in the future, then continue to do those things. If they are not, then don’t.

This idea of sin is really problematical in Western Buddhism. It makes conveying the Buddhist sense of virtue very difficult. We always seem to get hung up on the idea that if we do something wrong, we are going to Hell.

This is quite foreign to the Buddha’s teachings. Virtuous actions bring happiness and harmony. They are a gift that we give to the world:

There are, bhikkhus, these five gifts, great gifts, primal, of long standing, traditional, ancient, unadulterated and never before adulterated, which are not being adulterated and will not be adulterated, not repudiated by wise ascetics and brahmins. What five?

Here, a noble disciple, having abandoned the destruction of life, abstains from the destruction of life. By abstaining from the destruction of life, the noble disciple gives to an immeasurable number of beings freedom from fear, enmity, and affliction. He himself in turn enjoys immeasurable freedom from fear, enmity, and affliction. This is the first gift, a great gift, primal, of long standing, traditional, ancient, unadulterated and never before adulterated, which is not being adulterated and will not be adulterated, not repudiated by wise ascetics and brahmins. – [AN 8.39]

Further, karma is not deterministic. In A Lump of Salt (AN 3:100) the Buddha uses the analogy of salt to demonstrate this point. Two people commit the same transgression, but one person is virtuous, while the other is not. For the virtuous person, the transgression is like throwing a lump of salt into the Ganges. It does not change the taste of the water. But for the other person it is like putting the lump of salt into a glass of water. You would not want to drink it.

  1. Wilber says that we equate money as being inherently sinful. Once again, you will not find this in the Buddha’s teachings. One of the most important people in Buddhist history is Anathapindika. He was a wealthy businessperson, a great benefactor, and had attained the fruit of stream entry. He is portrayed as a wise, skillful and compassionate person, and the very embodiment of generosity. One of the implications in the descriptions of Anathapindika is that he was wealthy because he was very skillful in business. There is no negative connotation to his wealth. In fact, wealth is often described as being the fruit of generosity. Money is never described directly or implicitly to be a bad thing.
  1. Finally, there is the connection he makes between dana and money. Dana, as far as I can remember from the Pali Canon, is never connected directly to money. The greatest form of dana is teaching the Dharma. The next greatest form of dana is “practicing the Dharma in accordance with the Dharma”. The practice of meditation is a very important form of dana, much more so than giving money. This is why traditionally at the end of a period of meditation the merit associated with the meditation is dedicated to all beings. (It can also be dedicated to one or more individual people, or a group of people.) The practice of virtue is dana. These are the highest form of dana. Of course money is buried in there somewhere, but not in the way it has come to mean in the West. Your practice of meditation, virtue and wisdom carries a much greater weight than writing a check.

So those are some comments about Wilber’s article.

Framing the discussion around money is to miss some basic, essential points about what the Buddha taught. The Buddha’s teachings are a training. They are a way to make us more skillful, happier, and ultimately lead us to liberation, freedom from stress. They are not a description of reality, and they are not a philosophy. They are not a source of debate topics. They are about what is going on in the mind, and how to make that mind happier and more skilfull.

The practice of dana is not about what you do but what is going on in the mind. You have – I am sure – done something out of kindness that made you smile. It made you feel good. That is dana. The generosity that the Buddha encourages us to cultivate is one that is spontaneous and one that pleases us. It makes us smile.

You have probably had this experience as well. You do something out of kindness. Maybe it is something simple like giving someone a ride home from work. You are pleased that you are in a position to do something nice for someone.

Then they insist on paying you for it. That nice, happy feeling goes away.

Traditionally in Buddhist countries monks and nuns never give thanks for gifts because of the way it cheapens the gift. It isn’t that they are not grateful. I have heard them describe how humbling it is to get alms food or have a monastery built on the generosity of others. Imagine going on alms rounds in Thailand and some family with barely enough to feed themselves gives you a small something to eat. You show your gratitude by practicing diligently, honoring the precepts, and being a noble person.

There is a related word to dana in Pali, and those of you who have read the Travel Guide to the Buddha’s Path will recognize it. The word is caga. It means “the mind bent on giving”. Caga is a mind that has been trained to seamlessly find opportunities to give, and dana is the act of selfless, unprovoked giving that makes you smile.

I don’t know about you, but when I go to a retreat and someone gives the famous dana talk, what arises in me is not a smile, but a feeling that is somewhere between obligation, guilt, and annoyance that I have been deprived of the opportunity to give of my own accord.

My sister likes to be a benefactor on Reddit, where you can send things to teachers for their classrooms. And I am pretty sure that if she started getting emails from Reddit reminding her that it was time to give again, it just wouldn’t be the same.

I am deeply grateful to my teachers – starting with the Buddha – for what they have given me. And it is clear to me that how they want to be repaid is for me to practice diligently, and to Awaken. So when I feel a debt of gratitude towards them, I don’t think about writing a check. Of course I do that, too, sometimes. But what I really think about is how can I practice more diligently? It is what the Buddha himself asked us to do just before he died. Practicing Dhamma in accordance with the Dhamma is both the letter and the spirit of generosity.

For more on this topic, see Thanissaro Bhikku’s article “No Strings Attached“.

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Something Is True

I have been reading up a little on “secular Buddhism” lately because at the Albuquerque Vipassana Sangha someone is running a study group on it. Those of you who read this blog know that I am unabashedly a “religious Buddhist,” and as such I know only peripherally about secular Buddhism. So I have taken this as an opportunity to read up on it.

Ajahn Punnadhammo has written a very clear and intelligent criticism of the book “Buddhism Without Beliefs” that is smarter than anything you are likely to read here. You can find it at http://www.arrowriver.ca/dhamma/woBeliefs.html.

As for me, I will start with three comments. First, upon reading and studying the Pali Canon, I have come to the same conclusion that many others have, that is to say that a) it accurately represents the teachings of the Buddha and b) that it is “consistent and cogent.” The word “cogent” is often used in conjunction with the Buddha’s teaching. It means that there is a “compelling truth.” This does not mean that every word has been transmitted perfectly or that there are not any inconsistencies. It does mean that you can glean from the Pali canon a path of training that will lead to insight into the ultimate truth of life, and that this also leads to freedom from suffering, transcendent happiness, and final liberation.

The second comment is that the Buddha did, indeed, see into the ultimate nature of reality. You can see this in (at least) two ways. The first is from reading (and understanding) the Pali canon. The second is from seeing the many people who, over the centuries, have seen what the Buddha saw. It is a repeatable experiment.

The third comment is that the Buddha – indeed, any Arahant – is incapable of saying something that is not true. The importance of speaking the truth is held in particularly high esteem in the Buddha’s teaching.

If you take these three assertions together, it is impossible to make some of the claims made by secular Buddhists, most notably the denial of the truth of rebirth. The Buddha did teach rebirth, ad nauseum. (I actually heard one teacher at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies say that the Buddha never talked about rebirth!) This is undeniable. So to claim that the Buddha taught rebirth as “skillful means” is to deny any or all of the above assertions. It is to either trivialize the experience of Awakening/Enlightenment, it is to deny the overwhelming evidence that the Buddha taught rebirth, or it is to claim that the Buddha was not speaking the truth.

There is a kind of hubris in looking at the extraordinary accomplishments of the Buddha, the vast quantity of teachings that we have from him, and to start cherry picking what we want to believe. As I am fond of saying, something is true. And it isn’t just true in Asia or Burma or the West. It is true everywhere throughout the universe. The truth isn’t limited to what an infinitesimal number of people on one land mass on one tiny planet at the outer spiral arm of the galaxy believe.

Of course, this is not to say that you believe everything that you hear or read mindlessly. It is to be done – by definition – mindfully. But a better approach is to accept what the Buddha taught as a hypothesis, and to put it into practice. Run the experiment in an honest way. See the results for yourself. It is perhaps the most fundamental teaching of the Buddha to observe your actions and to see the consequences. I suspect that you will find – as I have – that your own opinions about how things are begin to fall away, and that you open up to a way of seeing that is more vast than what you could ever have imagined.

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What I Want for Christmas

I saw an ad this evening that started:

“So… What do you want for Christmas?”

OK. I’m game. Here is what I would like.

I want the United States to be as warm and open-hearted as the Canadians are in welcoming Syrian refugees.

I want hatred and intolerance to go away.

I want Donald Trump to be the main character in “A Christmas Carol.”

I want Buddhists in Burma, Sri Lanka, and Bhutan and elsewhere to be kind and loving to their Hindu and Muslim brothers and sisters.

I want Israel to start a new war on the Palestinians, one that starts with helping them receive high quality health care, a good standard of living, education, and a bright future. In this war, kill your enemy with kindness.

I want the rich people of the world – the “2 percent” – to discover that happiness is in helping those who are less fortunate then they, and that their wealth is a gift and a responsibility.

I want people to realize that happiness comes from being happy with little, that happiness comes from being kind, generous, loving, compassionate and wise.

This is what I want for Christmas.

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