Notes about the Dharmapalian site

Aside

Hi Friends:

Since several people have asked, here’s what’s up with this site.  Under Buddha, you will find handouts intended to support meditation practice, including basic instructions, the full metta recitation, and a summary of the Brahmaviharas (metta/lovingkindness, karuna/compassion, mudita/gladness, upekkha/equanimity).  The Dharma page includes material and links to teachings.  The Sangha page has information about classes and practice groups.

Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha are the Three Jewels where we can go for refuge.  Buddha means the awakened mind, all awakened beings, and the (semi)historical Buddha.  Dharma means the body of teachings leading to liberation from suffering.  Sangha means the community– local, global, and cosmic– of practitioners and awakened beings, rather like the Communion of Saints.

Love Song to Late-Night Worriers

O Late-Night Worriers
Wrap your hands in mine. Let us prowl the dark empty rooms;
Let us turn on just enough lights to make the bugs scatter.
Dear Mary, Mother of God, do you still listen to late-night worriers;
Kwan Yin, do you still hear the cries of the world?
In the late night, tired of myself, I ask: Is it possible that anyone else has worries too?
Yes.
Then who are they, my companions? They are mothers and fathers longtime jobless,
Lonely people, diagnosed people, we who never got our act together.

Worriers, let us seek together for mercy
In every corner. I know we will find scraps of it here and there, in the most forgotten places.
Let us be found by mercy.

Going on a Date with the First Noble Truth

I’ve been dating, using an online matching service. I’ve corresponded with and met some people that I’ve liked (most of whom I never heard from again), some that I have not liked (some of whom have wanted a second date), and some that I can’t tell how I feel about them. Intimate relationships, and the quest for them, are perfect examples of the First Noble Truth: there is suffering (dukkha in Pali).
The First Noble Truth does not say that all of life is suffering, but it does call our attention to the fact that life always involves suffering. Being separated from what we want is stressful. The presence of what we do not want is stressful. Things and people that do not arouse strong preferences tend to result in confusion or ignoring, which is stressful. So the three basic responses to situations- liking, disliking, and neutrality- bring a certain amount of suffering with them.
This is not a sign that something is wrong. It is natural and inherent in human incarnation to like, dislike, and not notice, and to experience the stress induced by each of these responses. Getting some perspective on ourselves through compassionate observation of the mind and body brings us to insight into the Second Noble Truth: stress has causes, and the causes are knowable.
In this flesh, liking, disliking, and neutrality will not end, but we can end the additional stress we create when we turn liking into grasping, disliking into rejection, and neutrality into confusion. We can stop the pattern of reinforcing suffering and experience joy instead. This is the Third Noble Truth.
The Fourth Noble Truth says that the way to end suffering, the way to make room for joy, is to treat ourselves and others well, to cultivate wholesome mental states, and to develop insight into the impermanent nature of everything we experience in the flesh and mind. In terms of dating, this means doing my best to be kind and clear when saying “no,” not taking it personally when things don’t go my way, and carefully observing the mind and the body for the lessons they are offering. Dating, for me at least, is a crucible of the Four Noble Truths.
Look around in your relationships for evidence of the Four Noble Truths. Is there stress? Does stress have causes, namely grasping, rejecting, and confusion? Is there joy? Does joy have causes? If you are not dating, you may not have the benefit of the immediacy of these lessons. If you look at whatever relationships you are in, as lover, worker, parent, child, or friend, you may still see evidence of these truths. See for yourself if they bear out.

If I See One More Picture of a Meditator at Sunset…

Do a quick Google Images search for pictures of people meditating. Apparently meditation is for people who are wearing yoga clothes, sitting cross legged on a mountain top beach or at sunset.

MeditationThe irony is that pictures from popular media are used to market an idealized self, the very self that actual meditation will dismantle as practice deepens. When we practice sincerely and with commitment, we let go of the Perfect Meditator in the Perfect Circumstances. Idealized self-image and idealized surroundings cannot perfect the mind. We have all already tried that strategy, and it failed. The mind ripens through treating ourselves and others well (ethics, or sila), concentration (samadhi), and compassionate wisdom (panna).

My house is a mess. Rather than fleeing to the beach, or waiting until my house is tidy before I can meditate, I need to sit down in the mess. Do not be ashamed or aversive to anything that is true about your experience. Part of enlightenment means being transparent, accepting all that we are, including our shadows. Live ethically, concentrate, and develop compassionate wisdom, in whatever body, whatever room, whatever circumstance you have now.

 

Mental Cultivation: Working with Impermanence

If you have been practicing meditation for some time, you may feel you have reached a plateau. In the Theravada tradition, practice has a goal: cessation of suffering. More precisely, cessation of suffering is a result of cultivating the mind. We can move off a habitual plateau toward a more mature relationship with the mind.

Fist, a word about “meditation.” The term evokes images of sitting still and feeling attentive and possibly blissful. However, it is a poor translation. The ancient terms are more accurately rendered “cultivation” or even “work.” The terms come from agriculture and refer to the work involved in cultivating a field. What we refer to as meditation is not supposed to be a passive process. It means working the mind in a skillful way to allow certain crops to grow. Just as a farmer must both labor in the field and allow the crop to grow of its own accord, a meditator must both work the mind and allow the mind to unfold naturally.

We often begin by meditating on the breath. This object of meditation has the benefit of grounding us in the senses (mindfulness) as well as developing stability (concentration). As beneficial as this practice is, it is not the end, just as planting is not the end of cultivation. To move closer to harvesting a ripe, mature freedom from suffering, we need additional skills and tools, as well as the diligence to use them.

A major reason for our suffering is that we object to impermanence, yet impermanence is inherent in all conditions. What we think of as the self changes, and anything conditioned that we cling to will disappoint us. Jesus taught that a foolish person builds his house upon shifting sands, while a wise person builds upon rock. The shifting sands are conditioned, changeable phenomena. The rock is clarity plus love. Clarity about what? About nonself, impermanence, and inability of conditioned things to provide unconditional joy.

To meditate on impermanence, try examining everything that arises in the senses, including in the mind itself, to see whether it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Is this sound permanent? Is this scent permanent? Is this thought permanent? Look for impermanence in everything that happens. Does the bath water stay the same? Are we always pleased or displeased by the same circumstances? When we see impermanence, we see dhamma (dharma), truth of the way things are. We gain clarity. Change is less shocking, and we are less at war with reality. We are less likely to base our hope on things that cannot deliver.

Retreat this Saturday, May 11

There is still time to register for this Saturday, May 11! I’ll be leading a retreat on “Four Freeing Attitudes: Kindness, Compassion, Appreciation, and Equanimity.” The retreat will be held at Hazelbrand Farm in Covington, Georgia, about 40 minutes east of Decatur. The weather should be good for low pollen and enjoying the farm during walking periods. Registration and more information are at http://www.may11retreat.eventbrite.com.

Why Pray?

Contemplative prayer comes fairly naturally to me, but I’ve never been attracted to or felt an aptitude for intercession (prayer for others) or for petition (prayer for self). In recent weeks I asked friends to pray for me, and the result was beautiful. Some responded with kind words or detailed commitments about how they would honor my request, such as by lighting a candle for me, adding me to their daily prayers, or putting something that reminds them of me on their home altar. Others responded with offers of help or ideas for ways I could improve my situation. All of this was most welcome, and I felt seen and loved. My mind became more spacious, and I could see options that were not apparent before.

Would the result have been the same if I asked people to think kind thoughts about me? Maybe, but my feeling is that calling it prayer, calling on the Divine Friend, added a richness to the human friendship being expressed, as divine as that is. We ought not to separate divine and human too finely.

As someone who appreciates science, I am curious about the mechanism of action for prayer. For there to be a causal relationship, scientific method tells us, one event should precede the other: pray first, then watch for effects. There are other criteria in scientific method, but the time relationship is the one I want to look at here. For prayer to be effective, the result should come after the prayer.

The human mind has a certain convention for experiencing time. In fact, we have many conventions that vary across cultures. Not only is there the matter of scale- geologic time as opposed to internet time- there is the matter of how time is felt in the body, how the mind arranges events in relation to each other. Not only is the human experience of time highly varied and complex, the explanation of time given by physicists adds another level of complexity.

We can only know what we know from the perspective of our own individual mind. Our ignorance is therefore infinite, for we cannot hold all data in the mind simultaneously. From a theological point of view, God is infinite, working with time yet not subject to it. Scientific method may not be able to answer the riddle of prayer.

Prayer emerges from the need to pray. It is not a contract with God, not a commodified exchange. Intercession and petition “work” the same way that praise, thanksgiving, adoration, contemplation, or other kinds of prayer “work:” we have a need to lay ourselves before God as nakedly as we can. When I pray for my own needs and those of others, I am learning, it is because I need to call out to the Friend about those needs. It’s not that God does anything differently because of my prayer, nor even that I am changed. I pray for things for myself and others so I can bring my needs into the light and not be so alone with them.

To someone who feels no need to pray, or who is hostile to the idea, this sounds like having an imaginary friend, mere projection of needs and wants onto the sky. I cannot defend against that charge, and I have my own frustration at not knowing how prayer “works.” or even what is meant by prayer “working.” Yet the urge to pray persists, despite the objections of the discursive mind, which has only its own point-of-view and makes its own excessive claims. Praying opens up space for love. That is why I pray now.