Meditation hindrances and how to work with them

Buddha statue overlooking mountains in Himachal Pradesh

I remember my first weekend retreat at Aryaloka Buddhist Center in the summer of 1993. I took the weekend “off” from family and work obligations to learn how to meditate and take an Introduction to Buddhism class. My first meditation experience in the Meditation Hall at Aryaloka was blissful – even the outdoor birdsong quieted and the stillness was palpable.

During that first meditation class, I was excited to learn the list of hindrances to meditation: sensual desire, ill will, sloth and torpor, restlessness and anxiety and skeptical doubt. I could relate to that list because I experienced those hindrances off the cushion too, to varying degrees, and regularly.

Having the list of hindrances was helpful because when I mediated and watched the antics of my mind, I had a way of working in meditation to move beyond them… sometimes.

The hindrances distract our minds with mundane thoughts that can, and often do, become obsessive. If we are obsessing about mundane issues, we are distracted from our spiritual work and spiritual progress.

Let’s explore the hindrances:

1. Sensual desire (kamacchanda)

Our meditations often reveal what we desire and crave. We sit down to meditate, to still the mind and find calm and tranquility and we start thinking about a person we are attracted to, or the aroma of the bread baking in the oven in our kitchen, or the concert we have tickets for – you know what’s on your list.

When we compulsively crave sensual pleasures (sex, food etc.) we are alienated from the depth of the here and now and from those people, places, thoughts and activities that are in the present moment. So there is nothing wrong with sensual pleasure, but when it becomes compulsive we distract ourselves from being present to the moment, being present to our lives.

When we become aware of  sensual desire we can bring our awareness back to the focus of the meditation. We can look at what we desire and see through our projections and unrealistic expectations. We can look at what discomfort might be beneath the compulsive desire. For instance, when we are distracted by thinking about someone we are attracted to, we may be distracting ourselves from looking at something that is troubling us in our relationships, or disappointment in not achieving a goal, or something we are concerned about. We might ask ourselves “What am I distracting myself from?”

Guarding the doors of the senses is a way of working with sense desire. This involves recognizing what situations, images and thoughts create sensual desire and avoiding them. For instance, when on a retreat or when meditating in a group, avoiding conversations just before the meditation.

2. Ill-will (byapada)

Ill will, or aversion, like sensual desire, obstructs our ability to be mindful and free and alienates us from kindness. We feel constricted and reactive rather than open-hearted and expansive.

Ill will can be sparked by:

  • remembering what we heard a friend say about us that was hurtful
  • going over an angry interchange with a relative
  • wishing we had something that someone else has (a material possession, a relationship, confidence, teaching ability etc.).

We can work with this hindrance by questioning the ill will, noticing the effects on our bodies, how it affects our energy and what it might be covering up such as frustrated ambition, fear, embarrassment or protection from feeling disappointment.

When we are aware of ill will, being attentive to it and stopping ourselves from fanning its flames will help it to dissolve and build confidence in our ability to be present and mindful.

When working with ill will, I realized I have sometimes reacted to someone or a situation, and come to see that the ill will was centered in my own story line or way of interpreting someone’s action or comment. Working with ill will offers the opportunity to have compassion toward myself and other people.

Practicing and cultivating loving kindness, empathy, equanimity and meditating on karma are good antidotes for ill will.

3. Sloth and torpor (thina-middha)

Sloth is a lack of energy and alertness to keep interested in the focus of meditation. We feel drowsy and sleepy and it feels as though our vitality and effort are limited.

Torpor is a lack of mental energy. The mind is dull or easily drifts in thought. This hindrance may be a result of discouragement, frustration, boredom, indifference, hopelessness or resistance.

Sloth and torpor may be overcome by consciously arousing more energy by walking meditation; sitting up with a more erect, energized posture; opening the eyes; washing the face with cool water; opening a window or bringing curiosity and finding interest in the object of meditation.

Bringing curiosity to why we are feeling sloth and torpor, understanding how particular thoughts, beliefs, and evaluations feed into the hindrance can be helpful.

Being mindful of what we eat before meditation and how what we eat affects our energy in meditation, reflection on impermanence and the importance of practicing here and now, reflecting on a dharmic topic that inspires us are all ways to work with this hindrance.

4. Restlessness and worry, anxiety or remorse (uddhacca-kukkucca)

This hindrance manifests as being unable to settle and concentrate due to a physical feeling of wanting to move the body and is accompanied by memories and thoughts about things we are worried about or feel remorseful for.

We may feel agitated and restless, unsettled and uncomfortable. It takes courage, patience and discipline to stay with discomfort and explore our thoughts and actions to understand what triggers them (frustrated desire, pent-up aversion, fear and resentment, or dissatisfaction).

I have found reflection, writing in a journal and talking with spiritual friends helpful in working with this hindrance. Walking meditation, yoga and exercise are also helpful when dealing with restlessness and worry; and confession is beneficial when dealing with regret and remorse.

Remembering how it feels to be still and calm may help. Remembering to consciously breathe or focusing on the ongoing rhythm of breathing, can calm the body. The more attention that is given to breathing, the less attention is available to fuel the restlessness or worry.

Strong opinions about what is or is not supposed to be happening, judgments of what is “good and bad” seldom lead to calm. Attachment to a self-image can be agitating. It can be liberating to realize that we don’t have to believe every thought we have.

5. Skeptical doubt (vicikiccha)

This hindrance manifests as uncertainty about meditation (“Does meditation really work?”) and in one’s ability (“I’m not good at meditating.”) and culminates in a lack of confidence.

Some doubt inspires action and the impulse to understand, encourages deeper investigation and can be healthy.

Doubt that hinders meditation is a doubt in the practice, in the Dharmic teachings, in one’s teachers, and/or in oneself. When doubt involves uncertainty about the practice or the teachings, it is helpful to study and reflect on the Dharma itself.

Questioning deeply held beliefs, attending to unresolved feelings, challenging ingrained convictions about self-identity, remembering something that inspires us in the practice (such as a teaching, a person, or some experience you have had in the practice) can all help to dissipate doubt.

Working with the hindrances can help us to answer the following queries:

  • Where do I put my attention?
  • What thoughts and actions cause my mind to fixate its attention on what I want or don’t want?
  • How can I apply mindfulness rather than allowing this mental activity to continue?
  • How can I work with this impulse of preoccupation and obsessive thinking?
  • How can I bring curiosity and exploration, understanding, kindness and non-reactivity to my meditation practice?

Working with the hindrances can strengthen our faith, our firm conviction in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha and remind us of why we meditate and practice ethics and how much we value our practice.

Faith gladdens the heart, clears away the hindrances and breathes life into our efforts to continue our path to freedom.

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The path of nonviolence: six principles of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr

Sunada drew my attention to this detailed exposition by Dr. King on the principles and practice of nonviolence. I thought it was worth reposting in its entirety, especially given the levels of violence being directed against the Occupy protestors, and the need for the movement to remain nonviolent:

First, it must be emphasized that nonviolent resistance is not a method for cowards; it does resist. If one uses this method because he is afraid or merely because he lacks the instruments of violence, he is not truly nonviolent. This is why Gandhi often said that if cowardice is the only alternative to violence, it is better to fight … The method is passive physically, but strongly active spiritually. It is not passive nonresistance to evil, it is active nonviolent resistance to evil.

A second basic fact that characterizes nonviolence is that it does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding. The nonviolent resister must often express his protest through noncooperation or boycotts, but he realizes that these are not ends themselves; they are merely means to awaken a sense of moral shame in the opponent … The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness.

A third characteristic of this method is that the attack is directed against forces of evil rather than against persons who happen to be doing the evil … We are out to defeat injustice and not white persons who may be unjust.

A fourth point that characterizes nonviolent resistance is a willingness to accept suffering without retaliation, to accept blows from the opponent without striking back. ‘Rivers of blood may have to flow before we gain our freedom, but it must be our blood,’ Gandhi said to his countrymen. The nonviolent resister … does not seek to dodge jail. If going to jail is necessary, he enters it ‘as a bridegroom enters the bride’s chamber…’ “What is the nonviolent resister’s justification for this ordeal to which he invites men, for this mass political application of the ancient doctrine of turning the other cheek?” The answer is found in the realization that unearned suffering is redemptive. Suffering, the nonviolent resister realizes, has tremendous educational and transforming possibilities.

A fifth point concerning nonviolent resistance is that it avoids not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. The nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his opponent but he also refuses to hate him. At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love …

A sixth basic fact about nonviolent resistance is that it is based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice. Consequently, the believer in nonviolence has deep faith in the future. This faith is another reason why the nonviolent resister can accept suffering without retaliation. For he knows that in his struggle for justice he has cosmic companionship… a creative force in this universe that works to bring the disconnected aspects of reality into a harmonious whole.

–Martin Luther King. Jr., in Stride Towards Freedom

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“When In Doubt, Make Belief,” by Jeff Bell

When In Doubt, Make Belief

Have you ever driven away from your house and found yourself wondering whether you’d remembered to close the garage door? Probably.

Have you ever gone back, checked to make sure that the door was closed, driven away, and then had to come back yet again to make doubly sure? And then repeated the entire exercise again? Probably not, but if you have, then you may be one of the millions of people who struggle with obsessive compulsive disorder, or OCD.

Jeff Bell is a well-known author, speaker, and radio news anchor. He’s found himself checking the garage door not once, but twice, or three, or more times, on each occasion driving away with less, not more, reassurance about the security of his garage door. He lives with OCD, which is the topic of his latest book, When In Doubt, Make Belief. If at this point you’re thinking, “Well, I may have gone back to to check the garage door, but I’ve never had to do it repeatedly, so I guess this book isn’t for me,” I suggest you think again.

Title: When In Doubt, Make Belief
Author: Jeff Bell
Publisher: New World Library
ISBN: 9781577316701
Available from: (paperback), (Kindle edition),

When Jeff wrote his first book — an OCD “coming out” memoir, if you will — he was overwhelmed by the interest shown by the public and the media. At first he assumed the interest was due to the “freak factor” — people interested in his bizarre psychological condition — but he soon realized that the fascination was fueled not by the strangeness but by the familiarity of the condition. We all experience irrational doubt. We all experience obsessions and compulsions. At times, each of us has acted irrationally and against our best interests because of fear, anxiety, and other powerful habits that drive our actions. Bell has something to say to each of us.

One universal topic he explores is the tendency to see life in black-and-white terms, with everything appearing as part of a dichotomy: good or bad, right or wrong. Who has not fallen into this way of thinking? Bell introduces examples of black-and-white thinking that will resonate with every reader: e.g. someone accuses us of thoughtlessness, and then black and white thought patterns tell us that if one person thinks we are thoughtless, then that must be so, and therefore everyone must think that we are thoughtless, and therefore no one likes us, and therefore we’re going to be unpopular for the rest of our lives. Sound familiar? We may not think like that all the time, but we’ve all thought like that at some point.

Bell also discusses, in terms that are very familiar to me as a Buddhist, the difference between healthy (intellect-based) and unhealthy (fear-based) doubt. Intellect-based doubt is founded on reason, logic, and rational investigation, and leads us towards a constructive engagement with our experience, to greater awareness, and to growth and learning. Fear-based doubt is supported by irrational assumptions and black-and-white thinking. Rather than leading to clarity, it causes a spike in anxiety, catastrophic thinking (a never-ending series of “what-if” questions), and leads us to engage in actions that are neither appropriate nor helpful. Ultimately, fear-based doubt is a vicious cycle, where doubt creates and perpetuates itself.

Although some of the pathological patterns of OCD are common to us all, Bell takes pains to remind us that OCD is a specific biochemical brain disorder, and not a psychological condition that people slip into and out of.

Fortunately, Bell does much more than simply describe the pathology of doubt. He outlines four general principles — reverence, resolve, investment, and surrender — that contain 10 practical steps by which we can get out of doubt. These 10 steps are deeply grounded in spirituality. He encourages us to:

  1. Choose to see the universe as friendly
  2. Embrace the possibility in every moment
  3. Affirm our universal potential
  4. Put our commitments ahead of our comfort
  5. Keep sight of the big picture and the Greater Good
  6. Claim and exercise our freedom to choose
  7. Picture possibilities and direct our attention [away from destructive thinking and towards constructive thoughts]
  8. Act from abundance in ways that empower
  9. Accept and let go of what we cannot control
  10. Allow for bigger plans than our own to unfold.

For Bell, belief is the opposite of doubt. The 10 strategies outlines above are ways of changing our decision-making from being doubt driven to being belief-driven. It’s important for us to believe in ourselves, to learn to trust, respect, and have compassion for others, and to have faith in life itself. Belief, the way Bell uses the term, seems to encompass what Buddhists would term shraddha (an emotional attitude of confidence and trust) and samyak-drshti (accurate views regarding ourselves and the world we live in). Belief, for Bell, is a choice. It is something we can create (hence the title of the book). The very first step he outlines in “making belief” — choosing to see the universe as friendly — is a conscious choice to see the universe as supporting us to the full extent that we are willing to draw upon it. The universe, then, is seen not as endlessly trying to trip us up, but as an endless series of opportunities for pursuing our own greater good. This is an inherently spiritual outlook, and I believe that any spiritual seeker would benefit from exploring Bell’s plentiful, and hard-won, insights.

Here’s one more example of Bell’s spiritual insight: “The key to living with uncertainty is learning to embrace the discomfort of uncertainty.” When faced with doubt, many of us panic. Gripped by panic, we grasp after this short term palliatives that promise to relieve us from our doubt but simply perpetuate it. These are what Bell calls “false exits” from the vicious cycle of doubt. This perspective will be familiar to anyone who has read the work of the American Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön, or the existentialist-inspired Buddhist writer, and author of “The Faith to Doubt,” Stephen Batchelor.

When In Doubt, Make Belief is a clearly laid out book, full of honest introspection on the part of the author, and bringing in the lived experience of a wide variety of people (some OCD sufferers, some not) as quotations and in the form of interviews with the author. The book contains diagrams neatly summarizing the principles and practical steps that create a belief-based life. Each chapter ends with a handy summary of the main points. For a man who has been crippled by doubt for much of his life, Bell has done a marvelous job of attaining clarity.

Bell honestly acknowledges, however, that he is still working with the issues he raises, and that he is not always able to put into practice his own strategies. In fact, he discusses the kind of internal dialogues he has with his doubt — personified as Director Doubt — dialogues in which Bell is forever being accused of being a fraud for not having completely eliminated OCD from his life. In response to this inner bullying, Bell reminds himself (and us) to concentrate on progress rather than perfection. He explains how he assesses each day in terms of how he has demonstrated his passion for life, how he has demonstrated kindness to others, and how he has demonstrated “grace of self.” I can’t help feeling that all of us would benefit immensely from asking ourselves those three questions at the end of each day.

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Which voice in your head do you trust?

It’s all very well tuning into your inner wisdom, but how do you know it’s reliable? How do you know you are following true guidance and making the right decisions? In this short video, Srimati (Maggie Kay) talks about how to know which of the competing voices in our head to trust. She suggests listening to the inner guidance that leads towards expansiveness and freedom.

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The wisdom of surrender

Woman in front of a sunset lake, in a gesture of awe

Recently I was asked to answer some questions for a book on the topic of surrender. Here are the questions, and the first draft of my responses:

1. How would you define surrender? Who or what is one surrendering to, in your opinion? God, Universe, Self, Soul, What Is, present moment…?

Surrender is an important part of all spiritual practice. Ultimately it’s what we’re aiming to accomplish in practice.

What we’re surrendering to is the reality of impermanence and non-separateness. In reality, everything changes and nothing (including ourselves) is separate or self-contained. But we have deep-rooted assumptions that we exist separately from the rest of the world, that there is something in us (and others) that is permanent and static, and that happiness can be found outside of ourselves. We believe that happiness is to be found in external conditions, rather than in changing our relation to the external conditions in which we live — which is why two people can be in the same situation, with one of them happy and the other miserable. So our view of ourselves and of where happiness comes from is at odds with how things really are.

We’re left with the task of realigning our views with reality, and to do that we have to surrender those views, surrender the desires that those views give rise to, and surrender the actions to which those desires give birth. And we need to accept the reality of change, non-separateness, and that things “out there” can’t bring us lasting happiness.

2. Is there a practice/methodology to surrender that one can follow that does not cause suffering? Is there a joyful methodology?

Paradoxically, we have to put in a lot of effort in order to be able to surrender! The Buddha’s dying words were, “Strive diligently!”

To be able to let go we first need a mind that has enough focus, calm, and concentration to be able to notice the ways in which we presently don’t accept reality — the ways that we currently hold on.

A lot of the time we’re simply caught up in distracted thinking and feeling and not really paying attention to how we’re thinking and feeling. And a lot of the time we are caught up in the delusion that our unhappiness and happiness depend on things out there in the world. So we need to learn to slow down and pay attention. So, for example, when someone says something that pushes your buttons and an angry response arises, we need to become aware that it’s we who are becoming angry, and that the other person is not “making us” be angry. We need to “own” our anger and stop blaming the other person. We need to learn to notice the arising of an angry response at a very early stage — this comes with repeated practice — so that we can find a more creative way to respond to the words we’ve just heard. In this kind of way we can come to realize that there is no “self” to defend, and that defense is an unnecessary and counter-productive strategy for happiness. Instead we can simply acknowledge that we suffered when we heard the words spoken by the other person and communicate authentically with them, acknowledging both their point of view and what we ourselves think and feel.

I develop those qualities of paying attention and noticing what’s really going on by cultivating mindfulness in meditation — mainly by paying attention to the breath, and to investigating what’s going on when I’m not able to pay attention to the breath. The process of developing mindfulness can be challenging, but it’s also ultimately very satisfying. A concentrated mind is a joyful mind. But it does take a lot of work to develop mindfulness.

There are other practices that help us to develop the qualities necessary for surrender. If we have a basic attitude of distrust towards ourselves, others, or the world in general it’s going to be hard to surrender. We need to develop a sense of trust and confidence in ourselves, and in others, and in the wisdom of letting go. There are various meditation practices that can help here, such as the Development of Lovingkindness practice, which helps us to feel more at ease with ourselves, and to develop a sense of other people as beings who are fundamentally struggling to be happy. And there are various insight meditation practices that help us to observe impermanence and the non-separateness of the self. These practices, like mindfulness meditation, are both challenging and nourishing. There’s no escaping the pain of change, but also change brings its rewards.

Lastly, there are some meditation practices where the emphasis is less on doing and more on being receptive. These are practices of surrendering. There is sadhana, where we visualize a representation of reality in the form of a Buddha image, and where we let the compassion of the Buddha flow into us. And there are practices where we simply trust the mind’s basic goodness, letting the light of reality shine from within. In these kinds of practice we don’t do much but remain in a mindful state as best we can and let go into reality. But in order for these practices to be effective we have to have done a fair amount of work preparing the mind by developing mindfulness and lovingkindness, both in meditation and in daily life.

3. What happens when you surrender?

There can be long periods of wanting to surrender, but not being able to. There can be periods where we need to let go of some view or habit that’s holding us back, and when it feels like we’re just unable to change. But then then suddenly something shifts and the old way of being shatters. Sometimes this is temporary and we experience a shift of consciousness that may last for a few minutes or hours. Other times there’s a more long-term (possibly permanent) change in the way we see ourselves and the way we see the world.

In letting go there’s usually a sense of entering a much more profoundly satisfying way of being. We’ve laid down a burden that sometimes we didn’t even realize we were carrying. We’ve broken fetters that were holding us back in ways we couldn’t have known until we were free of them. And there’s a sense of joy and fascination with the new way of seeing things. Again, this can be short-lived or long-term.

4. What is the Ego or mind? What’s holding on?

The ego is a set of strategies for finding happiness. The ego attempts to find happiness by keeping at bay things that we think are sources of unhappiness and by clinging to things that we think are sources of happiness. But this strategy is mistaken. It doesn’t bring us happiness or keep unhappiness at bay because happiness and unhappiness aren’t inherent in the world around us. They are properties of our mind that are produced by our own actions. And the main sources of our own unhappiness are — ironically! — the very aversion and clinging that we think will bring us happiness.

It’s worth noting that our basic desire for happiness is fine. It’s not a problem and is actually a good and wholesome thing. It’s the strategies we adopt in order to find happiness that can be the problem. The question is, do those strategies work? And the ego strategy of clinging and aversion simply doesn’t work.

Clinging, or holding on, is simply the attempt to stay with those things that we think are sources of happiness. Ultimately this is fruitless because everything changes. If I see a new relationship or a material object as sources of happiness, I’ll suffer when that relationship or material object change — as they inevitably will. It’s not that I can’t enjoy these things: in fact I’ll enjoy them more if I don’t cling to them, because I won’t be surprised and disappointed when they change.

Where happiness comes from is accepting impermanence. The mind that lets go is a mind that is at ease. It’s a mind that’s no longer trying to “fight” reality by trying to grasp the ungraspable.

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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase…”

man climbing a cliff face

“Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step,” said Martin Luther King.

Some years ago, two friends took me rock-climbing in Colorado. I’d only ever climbed with ropes once before, and that had been many years before, so really I was a complete beginner. And nervous.

I found myself suspended half-way up a cliff, in a state of panic, with my friends shouting encouragement from below. My breathing was tight, my heart was pounding, and my limbs felt weak and shaky, but I didn’t have time to think much about that. I was holding on to a narrow ledge that ran horizontally across the rock face — really it was more like a crease. The toes of my climbing shoes were precariously holding on to a couple of tiny nubbins that barely projected from the surface. It seemed like a miracle that I was able to hang on at all.

I looked up, and as far as I could see there was nothing but smooth rock all the way to the top. All I could see above me was a featureless expanse of cliff, with no hand- or toe-holds. I was only about a third of the way up, and it didn’t seem as if there was any way forward.

If I hadn’t decided to change something I’d have remained stuck

My pride wouldn’t let me give up. I took a few deep breaths to steady my nerves and give myself time to think. I looked around, and realized that the only way I could move was sideways. That wasn’t going to take me closer to the top, but at least it was movement, and I’d rather move than stay frozen in fear and indecision. I decided to go for it, rather than remain in my paralyzed state. So I found another nubbin to dig my toes into, and began to inch my way to the left, my fingertips barely keeping a grip on the ledge.

See also:

Since moving sideways was all I could do, I did it. And once I moved and took another look at my situation, I could see a handhold above me that hadn’t been visible before. I reached for it, and managed to get a toe-hold so that I could boost myself up. Above me was another hand-hold, and another, and another, and soon there was a clear way to climb to the top of the cliff, which I did, “Like a rat up a drainpipe,” as one friend put it. It was hard to believe that this was the same rock-face that just a few minutes before seemed utterly unscalable.

And here’s the thing: if I hadn’t made that one earlier change in my position, my perspective would never have shifted and I’d never have been able to move forwards. If I hadn’t decided to change something — even though I doubted that what I was doing was going to help in any way — I’d have remained stuck.

Faith, meaning blind faith, meaning to believe in something even in the absence of any supporting evidence, is not part of what I do as a Buddhist.

Sometimes, even if the way isn’t clear, you simply have to change something — almost anything — in order to see things from a different perspective. When we’re experiencing a “stuck” emotion, like despair, hopelessness, fear, or depression — those emotions that freeze us in place, unable to go forwards or back — sometimes we just have to try something new. We need to have the faith to take the first step.

And that means having faith in ourselves. And faith in the possibility that change is possible.

Faith, meaning blind faith, meaning to believe in something even in the absence of any supporting evidence, and often in the face of considerable evidence to the contrary. This is not part of what I do as a Buddhist. And that’s quite proper.

Buddhism is not a “faith” in the sense that you have to assent to various unprovable claims. It’s quite the opposite, in fact. The Buddha suggested that we test his words as a goldsmith would test the purity of his metal. That’s the attitude we should adopt if we are to follow the Buddha — not believe his words but to test the method that his words were attempting to communicate.

Once the Buddha was talking to a clan who were very confused about religious practice. The tribe — called the Kalamas — were in a similar situation to many of us in the West today. They were surrounded by competing religious and philosophical traditions. Due to the discovery of iron, society had been changing. The old religions — which said that the structure of society, with the priests at the top, naturally, was ordained by the gods — were on the defensive because the structure of society had changed, with the emergence of a powerful new class of merchants. Those same merchants had more time for leisure and for asking what life was really all about. And increasingly, new religious movements were taking root, often in the forests, where renunciates would cut themselves off from society in order to explore meditation and other practices (sometimes extreme ascetic ones).

The Buddha suggested that we test his words as a goldsmith would test the purity of his metal.

So the Kalamas were faced with trying to make sense of the competing claims of dozens of religious and philosophical teachings. Some said that adherence to the old ways of the god was the right thing to do — keep paying the priests to mutter mantras and the crops would grow and you’ll be blessed with many children. Others said that all comfort should be renounced. Yet others said that sensory pleasure was the highest good and that no opportunity for gratification should be passed up. And there were many other traditions, advocating ethical codes, worship practices, meditative exercises, and belief systems.

So when the Buddha was passing through, they took the opportunity to ask him some tough questions about how to decide which teachings were true and which false. The Buddha’s answer was extensive and involved some Socratic dialog, but the most important part was this:

Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias toward a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher.’ Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,’ enter on and abide in them.

The Buddha wasn’t saying we should automatically reject tradition, scriptures, intuition, logic, etc. But he was saying that we need to submit these things to two tests:

1. Do teachings, when put into practice, lead to happiness and well-being. This doesn’t mean that we have to try out every teaching, because we can learn by observing others. But the important thing is to see whether or not teachings work in practice as tools for alleviating suffering, and for reducing craving, hatred, and delusion.

2. Are these teachings and practices praised by “the wise.” Now this is a tricky one, because who are the wise? Again, this comes back to experience. Who, in our observation, can generally be relied upon to give good advice? Who, in our experience, is generally reliable, trustworthy, and “walks the talk”?

In this teaching faith isn’t something that comes seems to come first. First is observation, reflection and practice (in short, experience), and then faith follows. We have to take the first step in order to get a sense whether the staircase actually leads anywhere. But in fact we need faith at the very beginning, even before we take the first step. When I was climbing, and found myself stuck, I had to have confidence that there was a possibility of climbing that cliff, and confidence that I could do it. In the absence of a clear way forward, I had to be open to seeing things from a new perspective, and that involved letting go of the handholds I had so that I could move on. In moving into the unknown there’s always a leap of faith.

Enlightenment may seem a long way off when we’re starting out, but it’s not as far as we might think.

I’ve often thought of the Buddha’s teaching as being like a map. He outlines a spiritual journey, and of course without having trodden the path all the way to the end we can’t say for sure whether the map actually matches the territory. But if we’ve explored the lower reaches of the path and found that the map corresponds to our experience, then we start to have some confidence that the rest of the map might be accurate too.

In the beginning we may simply have some trust in the people who are teaching us meditation and speaking from their experience, while at the same time asking ourselves whether what we’re hearing rings true. But then we need to test things out for ourselves. And fairly quickly we can discover for ourselves that, yes, if we pay attention to the breath the mind settles down and we’re happier; yes, Buddhist ethical principles do make daily life more harmonious and satisfying; yes, there are five hindrances and the techniques for overcoming them do work; yes, there are meditative states that are focused, peaceful, and deeply refreshing, just as described in the texts and by our teachers.

And what about Awakening, Enlightenment? That may seem a long way off when we’re starting out, but it’s not as far as we might think. When I had my first experience of non-self I was amazed by how easy and natural it was. There was no struggling for a breakthrough, just the gentle slipping away of a veil of delusion. I think if I’d realized how easy it was going to be it might have happened years earlier.

In many ways we’re conditioned to think of spiritual goals as being far off and almost beyond reach, and some later Buddhist teachings even suggest that it might take countless lifetimes to reach the end of the path. But in the earliest Buddhist scriptures people seemed to get awakened at the drop of a hat. Perhaps they were unburdened by expectations of how hard it was going to be. Perhaps they simply made a small shift in the way they were seeing things and found themselves with a new perspective — one that allowed them to go all the way to the top.

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Faith and discipline

tree growing in rockLong-time meditation practitioner and teacher Vajradaka gives practical suggestions about how we can rekindle faith in our meditation practice.

Many people struggle to keep up a regular meditation practice, even when they really want to. Here are a few practical guidelines.

Most of those who have difficulties are not disciplined enough in the way they work in meditation, and a measured amount of discipline each day can make the process easier and more enjoyable. For example, you can set yourself the task of shortening the time it takes you to notice when your mind wanders off. At the start of each practice form an intention to catch yourself as soon as possible each time your mind wanders.

If you consciously decide to do this every day for a week, a positive inclination to acting in this way will develop. Your skill in noticing your attention wandering will increase and your concentration will benefit. Taking on a task like this is within your ability and if it succeeds it will increase your confidence, interest and engagement. It will make the practice feel more your own.

 Take time outside formal meditation to consider whether you’re recognizing the hindrances accurately  

In the following week you could take on another task for each meditation practice. This time have the general intention to recognize accurately the hindrances underlying your distraction. To call this ‘wandering off’ is not really enough. At this point it is worth mentioning that there is an important relationship between knowledge and discipline. It is helpful, for example, to be familiar with the traditional list of five hindrances — the varieties of distraction — and their antidotes. This kind of knowledge comes partly from reading and being taught by others, and partly from learning through your own experience. For instance, on the basis of knowing the symptoms of ‘restlessness and anxiety’ you can differentiate them from ‘sense desire’. Taking time outside formal meditation to consider whether you’re recognizing the hindrances accurately can be useful. Correct recognition of hindrances allows you to be more effective in countering them.

The next week you might take on building up and applying knowledge of which antidotes are effective in dealing with those hindrances you have recognized. For example, reflecting on the implications of sense desire can create a strong feeling of revulsion to that kind of distraction, (although it can also sometimes exacerbate restlessness and anxiety).

I suggest that you take on the practice of noticing distractions quickly, recognizing hindrances accurately, and applying antidotes effectively, in three-week cycles over three months.

A good habit to establish if you meditate within a busy schedule is to give yourself at least five minutes at the end of the meditation, before plunging into something different. During meditation, if you get even slightly concentrated, there is not much sensory input. You enter into the mind’s own experience of itself. If after meditating you suddenly listen to the news on the radio or even start to plan your day in a determined way, that original subtle experience of concentration will be jarred. Over time an inner rebellion to being put through such jarring can develop. The result may be that you feel resistant to meditating, without knowing why.

Discipline arises from faith — the confidence that if you apply yourself to your meditation it will work. And discipline strengthens our faith. When we engage intelligently with our meditation practice we experience tangible results and gain greater confidence in our ability to work with the mind.

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White magic

In his devotion to White Tara, Jnanagarbha yearns to be filled with her beauty so that he can make the world a better place.

It is a summer evening in the mountains of southern Spain. Above the occasional whir of an insect’s wings, voices drift on the warm breeze from a shrine room 100 meters away. They are raised in unison, chanting a puja: a ritual of Buddhist worship. As I sit quietly on a sun-chair in the dark I conduct a solitary, silent puja. My eyes rest on the point where the steely rocks marking the southern side of the valley meet the deep, deep blue of the Mediterranean night sky. Little by little, the sky begins to lighten above the cliff wall. Patiently, but with a gentle thrill of excitement, I await the appearance of the Buddha with whom I have made a connection. For tonight is the night of the full moon, and I am conducting a puja to White Tara.

Before my ordination retreat I do not recall ever experiencing a moonrise. The moon is just one of many lights in the urban night. Living for four months in the rustic simplicity of Guhyaloka retreat center in Spain brought me closer to nature and its cycles than I had been before, even though I used to work as a conservationist. As I contemplated the junction between earth and sky on those two full moon nights following my ordination, I was filled with a simple delight when the first gleaming sliver of moon broke the horizon, followed by the rest of her silver orb. Near the horizon the moon appears at its largest, and her progress through the night sky seems at once serene and purposeful. Once she is overhead, far from other points of reference, she seems to rest in perpetual equipoise.

During the Buddha’s lifetime the year was measured by the phases of the moon. Key events of the Buddha’s life — his birth, his attainment of Enlightenment, his first communication of the Dharma and his death — are said to have occurred on the full moon. Today many Buddhist traditions continue to use a lunar calendar to mark the liturgical year, and most Buddhist festivals are held on full moon days. Through these associations the full moon has come to symbolize perfect Enlightenment, so that in their peaceful aspects most Buddha and Bodhisattva figures are depicted sitting on a moon-mat. In parts of the tantric tradition the full moon symbolizes the wisdom aspect of Enlightenment.

It is no surprise, therefore, that White Tara is associated with the moon; her wisdom complementing the compassion of her more famous ‘sister’, Green Tara. In Buddhist symbolism, however, whiteness symbolizes the full spectrum of Enlightened consciousness.

Like Green Tara, White Tara is a beautiful young woman. Her skin is the purest white, and is often compared to the radiance of 100 autumn moons. She wears the Bodhisattva’s adornments — beautiful silks and jeweled ornaments — and she is sometimes said to wear a garland of pure white pearls. Her right hand rests on her right knee, open towards us in the mudra (gesture) of generosity. Her left hand faces us at her heart where it holds the stems of three lotuses — sometimes white but often the blue utpala lotus that opens at night. One is a bud, one is partly opened and the third is in full bloom. This hand is in the mudra of bestowing refuge or protection, although it is sometimes described as the gesture of blessing.

In contrast to her sister, whose right leg is stepping down into the world, White Tara is seated in vajrasana, the full-lotus position. Her most mysterious and unusual aspect, however, is her eyes. They are a beautiful blue and are usually described as dark and long; she also has seven of them. In addition to the usual pair, she has an eye in the sole of each of her upturned feet, one in the palm of each hand, while the seventh and most striking is placed vertically in the center of her forehead. Much of her rich, black hair falls around her shoulders, and above her crescent-moon tiara the remainder is piled into a topknot. The tiara contains the jewels of the five Wisdoms, and enthroned in the topknot sits Amitabha, the deep red Buddha of meditation and love, who is the head of the Lotus family with which White Tara is associated.

Tara sits on a brilliant moon-mat, which rests on a pure white eight-petalled lotus. Behind her is the orb of the full moon, and around her radiate moonbeams and rainbows. The moon is also a universal symbol of the feminine, and White Tara expresses femininity in several aspects of her form. She is sometimes described as ‘the mother of the Buddhas’, and her gesture of generosity can be seen as a maternal, compassionate response to beings. Like a princess she wears a crown and is regally adorned, suggesting nobility, dignity and even mindfulness. Her youth suggests energy and joyful spontaneity.

White Tara reflects a paradox in the spiritual path. The Bodhisattva is committed to supporting all beings in their progress towards Enlightenment, so her hands are held in the gestures of generosity and bestowing. But her legs remain folded in the full-lotus position. She does not step down into the world to help all beings as does Green Tara.

White Tara

This paradox reminds me of an important teaching. I used to live in a retreat center in southern England. Sometimes people had a romantic view of retreat center life. It was easy for them to imagine that I spent my time either on retreat or, when no retreat was happening, that I had nothing to do but meditate and reflect. My life wasn’t quite like that. Once a colleague and I were at the local supermarket buying groceries for a retreat. Seeing the large quantities of bread and milk the lady on the checkout asked us what we did. When we told her we ran a Buddhist retreat center she looked wistful and sighed, ‘That must be such a serene life’. This became a catch phrase in the community. When I was struggling with e-mails and phone messages, trying to co-ordinate a year’s program of retreats, hurrying to finish some redecoration before 25 retreatants arrived, or was driving around looking for a replacement for a retreatant’s punctured motorcycle tire, I often found myself ironically muttering, ‘Such a serene life …’

With the practical demands of running a retreat center (or bringing up a family, or even of simply trying to fit meditation, Dharma study, retreats, friendship and so on into one’s life) it is easy to lose sight of the ultimate objective: attaining Insight. With her still and centered posture, and her seven wide-open wise eyes, White Tara brings me back to this fact. Unless I constantly strive to take my Dharma practice deeper, I have nothing substantial to give other people. Without awareness, our attempts at kindness are well-intentioned blunderings. There is no true kindness without awareness, and I am gradually coming to see that there is no true awareness without kindness.

So what does White Tara offer us from the depths of her wisdom? There are clues in her mantra: om tare tuttare ture mama ayur punya jnana pushtim kuru svaha. There are many Tara mantras, and most of them follow the form of the general mantra om tare tuttare ture svaha with various insertions. In White Tara’s case the insertions form a request to increase our life, merit and wisdom. White Tara’s response is to suffuse her devotees (indeed all beings) in a succession of beautiful colored lights imbued with magical qualities. These surround us in concentric spheres of white, yellow, red, blue, green and violet, to form a Mandala of Protection.

The heart of this Mandala (or magic circle) is a sphere of white, the color of Tara herself, of purity and the tantric rite of pacification. The white light purifies us of diseases and unethical actions. In Tibetan culture White Tara is best known for her capacity to bestow long life. There are two sides to prolonging life: avoiding disease and promoting well-being. The next ring of the Mandala is thus a rich yellow color, which extends our life and enriches our wisdom. In the tantra, yellow is associated with the rite of prospering, and it is the color of Ratnasambhava, the jewel-bearing Buddha of abundance and beauty.

Although Tibetan tradition emphasizes White Tara’s capacity to increase life, few of the western devotees of White Tara that I know pay much attention to this. Perhaps this is because we tend to take our human existence for granted. With all the developments in public health, our relative affluence and the extraordinary efficacy of medical science, it seems that we expect to live comfortably to a ripe old age. But Buddhist traditions, particularly in Tibet, have emphasized that we are fortunate to be alive, and particularly lucky to have the liberty and opportunity to develop ourselves through practicing the Dharma.

White Tara’s association with longevity encourages me to reflect on how precarious life is. Tibetan tradition exhorts us to make the most of the precious opportunity of a human birth through wholehearted spiritual practice, working to become more kind, generous and honest while we can. Through developing these qualities, and not getting caught up in the many distractions of 21st-century life, we can allow our minds to settle into the meditative calm that springs from a clear conscience, and find release from the tyrannies of stress.

The Buddha’s earliest recorded teachings offer another perspective on longevity. In the Pali canon a word meaning ‘undying’ or ‘immortal’ was one of the original terms for Enlightenment. In the Dhammapada the Buddha explains that: ‘Awareness is the path to the deathless. Those who are fully aware do not die, those who are not aware are as if already dead’. When I am aware, my life seems rich, vibrant and fulfilling. However, as soon as I lose awareness life appears dull and uninteresting, and I find myself looking for distractions. White Tara’s seven eyes remind me to ‘keep my eyes open’ in all areas of life. They suggest that her awareness has risen to a point where it has become Transcendental Wisdom, and I sometimes think of the seven eyes as including the usual two of the human form, while the remaining five represent the Wisdoms of the five Buddhas.

Returning to the Mandala of Protection we enter the red sphere, the color of the rite of fascination, or love, and of Buddha Amitabha. The red light increases our capacity to communicate with others, especially fellow Dharma practitioners. The spiritual community is represented by a red jewel, and the Buddha famously said that the practice of spiritual friendship (kalyana mitrata) is the whole of the spiritual life. Spending time with others who practice the spiritual life (especially those who are doing so more effectively than we are) can have a dramatically beneficial effect, especially if we are able to connect deeply with them.

We then come to the blue and green spheres. The blue light subdues obstacles, while the green light helps one to achieve one’s aims in the face of such difficulties. The blue light is related to the tantric black rite of destruction, and to the imperturbability of the Buddha Akshobhya. The green light evokes the fearlessness that Green Tara represents in her aspect as consort to the Buddha Amoghasiddhi.

White Tara

Practicing the Dharma will inevitably be difficult at times. Some difficulties are of our own making, some the result of the conditions in which we find ourselves. It is easy to become frustrated with oneself, or with others whom we see as ‘blocking’ us. We can think, ‘I’d be able to feel loving kindness all the time if so-and-so wasn’t so irritating’. We need to address life’s difficulties — whether subjective or objective with determination and initiative, and these must be imbued with awareness and kindness.

The outer ring of the Mandala of Protection is violet, and this is said to make our spiritual achievements firm and unshakable. It suggests to me the need to consolidate the changes. We purify ourselves by replacing unhelpful habits, but new habits of ethical speech, meditation and generosity can be fragile. just one late night can leave me irritable or undermine my morning meditation practice. Like the tender shoots of a seedling we need to protect new habits of skillful activity until our resourcefulness and creativity become unshakable.

In this way Tara’s Mandala of Protection surrounds us with a beautiful sphere of skillful activity. These concentric layers of clarity, generosity, friendliness, determination, resourcefulness and consistency protect us from the buffetings of the world.

At dinner on a recent retreat, somebody asked what purity meant to me. It was one of those occasions when an answer seemed to come to my lips almost magically. ‘Purity is Beauty in action’, I replied. When I sit in meditative contemplation of White Tara it is to her beauty and purity that my heart responds. Meditating on her can be an experience of such incredible beauty that it leaves me in a state of wordless bliss. Such experiences fill me with a yearning to make the world a more beautiful place. They inspire me to purify myself of petty self-interest and free me to act in a way that will illuminate the world with the silvery light of 100 autumn moons.

Suddenly, appearing from emptiness
A snow white. eight-petaled, white lotus
A moon disc clear and shining
And TAM, vividly defined.
Essence of Tara’s wisdom-compassion
Dazzling white and radiating moonbeams
From the midst of which appears Tara.

White as a hundred full autumn moons
Clear and translucent as a crystal gem.
Eyes long and dark, with fine long eyelashes
Seven beautiful smiling eyes of wisdom.

Hair black as onyx, partly bound up,
The rest falling over the shoulders and breasts.
Her neck is round and delicate,
Her earlobes long.

The line of her lips is pure and red.
Her teeth a fine-textured garland.
Tongue fine and soft.
Her breath the sweet scent of lotuses

The right hand stretching out in kindness
Fingers soft like lotus petals
Left hand holding by her heart
The stem of a blue
utpala blossom.

A smiling and passionate youthful manner
With her round breasts
And the slimness of her waist
She gives inexhaustible bliss.

On her head, Wisdom’s five jewels
In a garland of golden lotuses.
She is adorned with finest silks
Precious jewels and celestial blossoms
And surrounded by rainbows and moonbeams.

From a White Tara puja by Pabongka Rinpoche

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A leap of faith

child placing its hand in an adult's hand

Learning and growing as an individual is a do-it-yourself project… up to a point. Sooner or later, there comes a time when we need to take a risk and leap into something new and unknown, beyond our control. Sunada shares a recent experience and how it reinforced her understanding of faith.

One of the things that Westerners tend to find appealing about Buddhism is its emphasis on rationality and self-reliance. A lot of the Buddha’s teachings are very much about taking ownership of our lives. Meditation, study, and living by the ethical principles are all about objective, self-directed efforts that help us grow as individuals.

This is all accurate… up to a point.

To me faith means I don’t need to be so much in the driver’s seat of my life. I can let go of control to something I don’t entirely understand.

Here’s the irony. The more I practice in this self-directed way, the more I’m growing in faith. To me faith means I don’t need to be so much in the driver’s seat of my life. I can let go of control to something I don’t entirely understand. And there are forces greater than me that I can tap into to my benefit. So what’s that all about?

I’d like to share with you something that happened yesterday. I participated in a voice workshop in which I sang a solo in front of a small audience. Many of you know that musical performance anxiety is one of my biggest fears. I’m OK performing with a group, but solos are a completely different matter.

It’s something I’ve struggled with my whole life. On the one hand, music has always been my passion. I’ve been told by many people that I have a lovely voice. I’ve also been told I have a gift for communicating with an audience, and really enjoy doing so in other contexts, like speaking and teaching. But I didn’t get much encouragement as a child to pursue music – in fact got DIScouragement from some key people in my life. So that’s how my “I’m not good enough” demons came into being. Even though I know better in my head, those inner voices still taunt me, decades later.

I can put my boat [in the river] and try to paddle against the current, or I can let go and harness its energy so it carries me where I want to go.

For years, I did all the objectively “right” things. I’ve taken music lessons of one kind or another for my whole life. I studied music in college. I honed my technique by practicing diligently. I figured that if I felt more confident technically, I’d feel more self-assured as a performer.

That was true… up to a point.

But yesterday, I took some leaps. When the nerves started tensing my body up, I breathed more deeply, and lower into my belly. I put my trust in my body — and its ability to calm me down. I focused on the story I wanted to tell, and what emotions they brought up. I put my trust in my feelings — and their ability to connect me with my audience. When a difficult passage came up, I dropped more deeply into my present experience. I put my trust in my breath — and its primary role in supporting and gliding my voice through the tough parts. When my fear threatened to shut me down, I looked it in the face and risked being even more open. I put my trust in my authentic self, flaws and all — and how my willingness to be vulnerable makes me more engaging.

I’d known all these things in my head for years — that they were the best ways to get through an attack of nerves. But this time I really did it. I took a leap of faith.

It’s not a blind faith. I’ve put effort into learning about the nature of the river. I now feel I understand [it] well enough to feel confident in putting my trust in [it].

For me, my faith grew out of the deepening of my awareness. The more I learn about the nature of my body, my breath, my feelings, and the world around me, the more I see how they are not really in my control. They all have a certain energy about them, a way of moving and flowing that I can tap into, but not own. I suppose they’re like the flow of a river. I can put my boat into it and try to paddle against the current, or I can let go and harness its energy so it carries me where I want to go.

Faith is like putting my trust in that river. It’s not a blind faith at all. I’ve put effort into learning about the nature of the river – in this case my body, breath, and so on. I now feel I understand them well enough to feel confident in putting my trust in them.

I also know that they are part of forces in the world far greater than this small self that I think I am. To fight against them is futile and self-defeating. It makes so much more sense to give my trust to those larger energies, and let them carry me along. And what I’m seeing is that by doing so, they take me to places I couldn’t have gotten to on my own. That was certainly the case when I sang my solo yesterday.

It makes so much more sense to give my trust to those larger energies, and let them carry me along… by doing so, they take me to places I couldn’t have gotten to on my own.

I’m sure we all have situations in our lives where we’d like to do more and be more. And it’s likely we’ve taken many of the objectively “right” steps to try and get there. This is all well and good. We need to understand ourselves, our situation, and how to make our way through them. It’s a positive and constructive way to go about it.

This is all good… up to a point.

But then we come to the end of the path. We see that we have a choice. We can either stay stuck there doing what we’ve always done, or take a leap of faith into the river. And those are our only options.

So this is my understanding of where the Buddha’s path leads us. First, take responsibility for ourselves — make our own efforts to understand, to grow in awareness, sharpen our skills, and learn how the river flows. But at some point, take everything we’ve learned and put our boat in the river. Sure, it might be a rough trip. But we understand the river and ourselves well enough to ride it out. The more we do that, the more our confidence in that greater flow grows. With that faith, we’ll go much farther, and faster, than we ever could on our own.

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Adorning your sacred space

Lama Willa MillerIn this extract from her forthcoming book, Everyday Dharma: Seven Weeks to Finding the Buddha in You , Lama Willa Miller shows how the symbolism of a shrine can help connect you with your own deepest values and spiritual potential.

A shrine is a repository for objects of inspiration. It is a material expression of your spiritual quest. It is a physical space housing symbols that remind you of your commitment to humanity, your community, or the earth, in whatever form that takes for you. These symbols can range from very personal to universal. Symbols are powerful. They speak to us in a language beyond words, and they evoke with imagery. Shrine symbols are selected to remind us of the qualities of wisdom-nature and the spiritual journey.

Start with a surface. Almost any elevated surface will do. Here are some improvisations I have made in my life: a small table, a shelf, the top of a dresser, a box covered with a cloth, a fireplace mantle, a smooth stone, and a board across two cinderblocks, covered with a cloth. For a three-year retreat, we were each supplied with a real Tibetan-style shrine with three levels and cabinet doors. This is a nice luxury if you are a carpenter or have the means to purchase a shrine. But if not, there are many options. It should be visible from your seat but does not have to be near it.

 Select what goes on the shrine by how meaningful it feels to you with regard to your spiritual journey.  

The heart of a shrine is the sacred objects that go in or on it. Start simple. Select what goes on the shrine by how meaningful it feels to you with regard to your spiritual journey. In other words, what you put on your shrine should be a symbolic reflection of your intention and aspirations. Shrine objects are there to uplift or inspire you. Anything that moves you to feel loving, content, and peaceful belongs on a shrine. Especially look for whatever reminds you of your wisdom-nature, the innate potential that you carry with you.

To start with, collect things from around your own home, or use natural objects from your yard or other outdoor places. See how creative you can be with what you already have. If that means putting only one object on your shrine, or even visualizing something in front of you, that is enough to start!

In 1959, when the Chinese invaded eastern Tibet, many Tibetans were placed in concentration camps. One friend of mine, a lama, was in a camp for six months before he escaped. They took everything away from him and his fellow prisoners: his monks robes, his rosary, his sacred texts — everything. He had only a Chinese uniform provided by the camp wardens. My friend used visualization and what little he had at his disposal. With no outer supports, he continued to visualize his spiritual mentors above his head, and he put aside small bits of food as symbolic offerings to them. When the guards were not looking, he would dip his finger in his drinking water and flick it into the air as a symbolic offering to the Buddha. When the lights went out at night, he sat up in meditation. He had to be covert about his spiritual practices because the Chinese guards punished any religious expression. He once told me that the period of six months in a concentration camp was the best retreat he ever had! So while objects can be inspiring and supportive, they are never as important as your mindset and intention. Objects are optional, but intention is essential.

 Objects are optional, but intention is essential.  

On a Buddhist shrine, you will typically find representations of the Buddha’s body, speech, and mind: a statue, a book, and a stupa. Body, speech, and mind are sometimes called the “three gates to liberation” in Buddhist sources, because — when you think about it — that is precisely where liberation is going to take place: in your body, speech, and mind (and the bodies, speech, and minds of everyone else). The physical, verbal, and mental aspects of your being are like the clay you have to work with. Awakening can be fashioned out of nothing else. Therefore, it makes sense that the most basic objects on a shrine represent body, speech, and mind, in their awakened or perfected form, because that is where we aspire to go.

The statue — the symbol of awakened body — might be of the Buddha, or it might be of some other enlightened being. It is intended to communicate that enlightenment takes form in the world, through action. The book represents awakened speech, and means that enlightenment can be communicated verbally. A stupa — representing awakened mind — is a small reliquary that comes in a few shapes, usually a carved mound or thick spire with bas-relief designs. When the Buddha died, his ashes were placed in such a reliquary, and it is believed that those relics still survive. So ever after, the shape of the stupa came to be associated with the Buddha’s undying wisdom-mind.

 The question to ask yourself is: What reminds me of the potential of my mind to awaken?   

If you want, you can look for symbolic representations of awakened body, speech, and mind in your own home (or these days, online). Choose objects or images that are personally meaningful. As a representation of awakened body, a statue of the Buddha is not the most meaningful image for everyone. It might be a picture of your spiritual mentor, an image of a person to whom you feel devotion, or something else entirely. On my first shrine, I placed a painting of the Virgin Mary and Jesus that I found at a garage sale as a kid, because it reminded me of the power of motherly love. Later, it was the image of Tara. Then these were joined by a Buddha statue. A shrine can be a work in progress.

The question to ask yourself is: What reminds me of the potential of my body and the bodies of everyone to become sages? The body is the vessel that carries you to awakening. What reminds you that your own body and the bodies of others are precious vessels? What reminds you that your body is an instrument of carrying out your life-intention?

The body is your sacred temple, the most sacred of spaces, where awakening occurs. What reminds you that your body is a crucible for enlightenment? Some examples of representations of body include photos of inspiring people who have used their bodies to inspire and uplift others, statues, body images, or an object that reminds you of your body’s potential. I have seen someone use a small cactus. When I asked her why the cactus, she replied, “It is like me … spiny on the outside, and soft on the inside! It reminds me to look for the softness in myself.”

 You do not have to limit yourself to traditional images.  

For the representation of speech, the question to ask is: what reminds me of the potential of my speech, and the speech of all people, to become enlightened? Your speech is the instrument of communication with the world. It is through speech that the mind’s wisdom and love translates into words that inspire and uplift others. The vehicle of language and speech is the reason we are able to traverse a path at all and is the conduit of teaching and learning. Some traditional representations of awakened speech include sacred books or texts, inspiring poetry, rosaries or prayer beads (symbolizing the repetition of a set of empowering syllables called a mantra), bells, chimes, drums, and conch shells. Almost anything that makes a pleasant sound could be a representation of awakened speech. In the Tibetan Buddhist environment, even the alphabet (and every letter of the alphabet) is considered inherently sacred, because it is the vehicle of the communication of sound and meaning and is sometimes repeated during prayers to bless a person’s speech. These days, a representation of awakened speech could even be a CD.

For the representation of mind, the question to ask yourself is: What reminds me of the potential of my mind — my innermost wisdom-nature — to awaken? Although the wisdom-nature has no form, if you had to give it a form, what would you choose? The Buddhists traditionally use a stupa. You could choose whatever reminds you of your mind’s potential to awaken perfect love and wisdom. Some traditional Tibetan representations of the mind include a crystal, because mind refracts the light of truth as many colors; a mirror, because all sense appearances are reflected in the surface of awareness; a jewel or vajra, because the mind is indestructible; and a sword, as a symbol that a sage’s wisdom cuts through everything else. These are just a few. You should think about what kind of symbol works for you. You do not have to limit yourself to traditional images.

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