anicca (impermanence)

Getting to know our feelings

Vimalasara

Buddhist author Vimalasara discusses how we respond to unwanted feelings.

When we are angry a whole host of vulnerable feelings percolates into our hearts. These are so physically uncomfortable they feel as though they are choking us, and all we want to do is move away from them rather than sit with them until we feel something else.

Our aversion to such feelings can be so strong that we believe they need brute force to push them down or purge them. In fact, I have come to realize that, if we can experience all the levels of what we are feeling, and then have the courage to acknowledge and sit with them, our uncomfortable and vulnerable feelings will not get a chance to fester in this way, and in time they disappear of their own accord.

Instead, we often use anger as a distraction from what we are feeling deeper down. Then we end up holding on to those very feelings we fear and avoid — until they become poisonous in our hearts.

So what happens in our bodies when we experience anger? First there is the trigger or the event, then comes the moment when our bodies are invaded by painful, prickly, tense, tearful — even itchy — feelings. These can feel so uncomfortable that we instinctively try to push them away.

The body is a great teacher, so it is important to recognize what is happening in our bodies. Sometimes our bodies become so tense we don’t feel they are ours any more. We can shake, get sweaty armpits, groin, and palms, feel stiff in the neck or shoulders, our hands make fists, our heart beats faster, and so on.

Alternatively, when we are angry we can become so disconnected as to be completely numb to ourselves, our feelings, and everything around us. We can’t hear ourselves think or breathe. Our feelings get lost, and we create a wall around us, not letting anybody in. Our anger keeps everything and everybody out. We can’t listen to anybody, or even consider another point of view. Some people have out of body experiences.

In response to these feelings, a critical voice often steps into our minds and tells us (in our own vernacular) that it’s ridiculous to be feeling so vulnerable, it tells us to grow up, or get a grip. Our bodies become tense during this process of trying to push down the feelings, and we feel tight — most commonly in the throat, jaw, shoulders, fists, stomach, and bowels. Our bodies tense up in order to choke back the feelings that make us feel vulnerable, shaky, and tearful. But instead of becoming lighter, and calmer, our bodies feel heavier and pumped up with adrenaline.

Here is a check list of physical responses to anger. Which ones resonate for you?

  • I feel out of breath or choked
  • my heart beats faster
  • my voice becomes high or shaky
  • I have dangerous thoughts
  • I clench my fists
  • I raise my voice
  • I wave my hands about
  • I make myself bigger
  • I grind my teeth
  • I can’t hear or see anybody else
  • I lose control

Feelings are energy. They evaporate if we trust that they will arise and cease of their own accord. We maintain the lives of our feelings by attaching them to another person, to ourselves, or to objects. Watch yourself the next time feelings of anger arise. See what you do with them and see what you attach them to.

Connecting with the physical sensations in our bodies in this way can be a strong practice. When we pay attention to our bodies, we are beginning to connect with our inner feelings. Anger is energy, and it becomes alive and toxic when we project it internally or externally.

We give our feelings longer life by attaching them to something, including ourselves, and they often turn into toxic stories that poison our hearts. For example, when feelings of anger arise, the anger becomes toxic when we place it on another human being or ourselves in the form of judgmental thoughts and interpretations. If we just sat with the feelings of anger, paying little attention to our thoughts, they would not attach to anything, and the feelings of anger would cease of their own accord. It is a practice of patience.

Learning to sit with our feelings without holding on to them, without pushing them away, without chasing after them, and trusting that they will cease is, I believe, the best teaching of all. By becoming alert early on to the fact that our body is tensing up, or becoming numb, we may be able to take preventative action. We can try to relax physically and see what effect that has on our emotions, take a few deep breaths, and slow down our thoughts. Taking deep breaths has delayed me from acting unskillfully and allowed me to pause, preventing me from saying something I might regret.

Another strong reason to take note of our bodies’ messages in this way is that our anger can manifest in more extreme forms. Most people who work in alternative therapies have found a link between anger and a number of physical illnesses and life-threatening diseases. I realize now that the back and shoulder ache I used to get was connected with my anger. I have no more pain, and when I feel my shoulders tense up I tell myself to let go. Engaging with our anger involves coming into relationship with our bodies.

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Toddler’s dance destroys monks’ intricate sand painting

toddler destroys mandala

Destroyed sand mandala (Inset: security footage of toddler running over the mandala)

Thanks to Dave Csonka for passing this along:

Talk about a test of faith.

Eight Tibetan monks spent two days cross-legged on the floor at Union Station, leaning over to meticulously create an intricate design of colored sand as an expression of their Buddhist faith. They were more than halfway done.

And then, within seconds, their work was destroyed by a toddler.

Monks are bald, so they couldn’t rip their hair out. But were they angry? Did they curse?

No. They simply smiled and started over.

“No problem,” said Geshe Lobsang Sumdup, leader of the group from the Drepung Gomang Monastery in southern India.

The whole story is at KansasCity.com (archived copy).

These sand mandalas are intended to be demonstrations of — and trainings in — impermanence anyway. Monks spend days making very elaborate patterns by pouring sand, and then they ritually destroy the image, often pouring the sand into water. So that Lama Sumdup was unfazed by the artwork’s premature demise was a sign that the practice was working as planned.

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“Exploring Karma and Rebirth,” by Nagapriya

Exploring karma and rebirth, Nagapriya

Available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk

The Dalai Lama, has a great interest in science and believes that both the scientific method and Buddhism are attempts to discover how things really are. He has even gone so far as to say that when science and traditional Buddhist teachings part company, it is Buddhism that has to change.

In some cases these adjustments have already been made: people 2,500 years ago in India may have thought that Mount Meru was the center of the world and that there were four continents, but there are no contemporary Buddhist fundamentalists crying out for school text books to carry disclaimers stating that geography is “only a theory.” We’ve let that one slide.

See also:

It’s relatively easy to recognize in the face of modern scientific findings that a cosmological model has outlived its usefulness, but there are a number of trickier areas where science and traditional Buddhist perspectives do not mesh, and an exploration of these areas is perhaps overdue and important.

Two of those areas are the related fields of karma and rebirth, and an examination of these is important because they are – unlike the Ancients’ conception of geography – central to Buddhist teachings, not just as concepts but as the underpinning for Buddhist practice.

Nagapriya‘s book has, I confess, been languishing on my shelf for too long, and deserves to have been reviewed much earlier because it represents an important step forward in examining the relevance and usefulness of the concepts of karma and rebirth to modern, western Buddhists. It is a text I think all practitioners would benefit from reading.

Nagapriya begins by putting the theory of karma into its historical context, showing that the concept existed prior to Buddhism but was reinvented in a Buddhist way. Karma, for example, moved from being seen by the Brahminical tradition as ritual actions aimed at placating the gods to being seen by Buddhism as ethical or unethical actions: the difference between the two kinds of actions being the state of mind underlying them. He shows how non-Buddhist understandings of karma have crept into the Buddhist tradition and caused confusion, and also how the concept has come to be understood differently at different times.

He also places karma in the wider context of the Buddhist teaching of conditioned coexistence, showing that it is a specific instance of a more general teaching about how phenomena come into being.

To be brief, it’s as important to say what karma is not as it is to say what it is, and Nagapriya does both with a convincing clarity and elegance.

Nagapriya goes on to critically examine the teaching of karma. He teases out what is useful in our specific historical context, drawing on the Buddhist scriptures, examples from fiction, and his own experience. In this examination he manages to express the teaching in a way that is easily comprehensible to the modern mind and also profoundly useful. Consider the following admirably clear way of expressing the essence of the teaching, for example:

Karma rests on two important assumptions about human character. The first assumption is that human character is not fixed, and so it may be modified. The second is that willed actions are the means by which character is modified.

He goes on to take a similar approach to the concept of rebirth, looking at what Buddhism says lies beyond the “undiscovered country” that is death, examining what is said to be reborn, looking at the traditional Buddhist teaching of the six realms of rebirth, and taking us on a quick tour of some differing historical perspectives on what (if anything) lies between death and rebirth.

Nagapriya concludes his examination of rebirth by looking critically at some of the evidence for life after life and by speculating that rebirth may be a less tidy affair – one consciousness dying and then coasting into a new body – than is generally understood. His discussion here is highly stimulating but too detailed for me to recount.

Much of the value of this book comes from the fact that Nagapriya’s approach is critical – meaning not that he is hostile to traditional Buddhist teachings (he’s not) but that he bears in mind at all times (or almost all times) Buddhism’s central purpose of addressing the problem of human suffering, and that he constantly attempts to examine whether traditional teachings are useful in that regard.

He is also very rational, in the sense that he does not gloss over contradictions in the tradition but takes those contradictions as an incentive to think more deeply. For example, he rightly questions a Tibetan Rinpoche’s outrageous assertion that those who were exterminated in the Nazi death camps “must have done something very bad in earlier lives.” This kind of teaching is common in certain Buddhist circles, but Nagapriya strongly questions the spiritual usefulness of this kind of “blame the victim” mentality as well as its validity (it’s a pretty absurd belief when you start to really think about it) and its orthodoxy (it directly contradicts the Buddha’s own teachings).

I had the feeling throughout reading this book that I was in a seminar with a highly intelligent, inquisitive, mind, and one that has above all an abundance of intellectual integrity.

The book is not perfect, but then, none of them are. There are a few minor errors of fact (Leonard Shelby in the movie “Memento” had problems making new long-term memories and hadn’t “lost his short-term memory”) and a number of cases where I thought the wrong word had been used (surely he meant to talk about the “culpability” of the Nazis and not their “liability”). There were also a few times when I wished he’d made connections that were absent (he often fails to connect the Buddha’s teachings on karma with the ultimate purpose of Buddhism, which is to address our suffering), and he dismisses the concept of the dharma-niyama as “not clear” when I think he has the capacity to bring a great deal of clarity to the subject. But often these “flaws” are actually a good sign – Nagapriya’s book has got me thinking and making connections, just as a good seminar should.

Available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk

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“Two Treasures: Buddhist Teachings on Awakening and True Happiness,” by Thich Nhat Hanh

Two Treasures, Thich Nhat Hanh

Available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

Two Treasures is a translation of and commentary on two Buddhist texts by Thich Nhat Hanh, the famous Vietnamese Zen teacher, writer, and activist.

The two texts are a Mahayana Sutra, The Sutra on the Eight Realizations of the Great Beings, and the Pali Mangala Sutta or “Discourse on Happiness.” Both texts are very short — less than 600 words for the “Eight Realizations” and 400 for the Mangala Sutta — and the commentaries are also brief. This makes for a very compact volume, with just under 70 pages in an attractively-packaged pocket-sized format.

Thich Nhat Hanh at his best is simple, eloquent, and fresh in his writing. His words often are uncomplicated and communicate an almost palpable compassion. As a social activist from the time of the Vietnam war he frequently relates Buddhist teachings to social issues in what is known, in a term apparently coined by Nhat Hanh himself, as “engaged Buddhism.” At his worst, Thich Nhat Hanh can be simplistic and vague. We see both those sides — the eloquently engaged and the naïve — in this small volume.

Both texts present pithy instructions for leading a meaningful, mindful, and happy life. The Mahayana text outlines key reflections that help support the motivation of a Bodhisattva — one whose spiritual life is devoted to the welfare of all living beings. These reflections are basic reminders of impermanence, of the origins of our own suffering (which the sutra tells us lie in desire, laziness, and ignorance), of the need for the Bodhisattva to consider other beings non-judgmentally, of the need for simplicity in the Bodhisattva’s life, and of the need to take the Bodhisattva Vow to help liberate all beings from suffering.

The translation is distinguished by Nhat Hanh’s desire to bring a contemporary and socially-engaged twist to this ancient teaching. His attempts are frequently successful, as in John Blofeld’s “The existence of a country [is] but fleeting” being rendered as “All political regimes are subject to fall.”

Also successful is Nhat Hanh’s “More desire brings more suffering” to replace the “Excessive desire causes suffering” found in Tom Graham’s translation. While Graham’s version may more accurately render the literal meaning of the passage, the question naturally arises of how much desire is too much. When the mind is unable to make such an assessment it gives itself leeway to indulge desires. Nhat Hanh’s version does not assume that there is some indeterminate point at which desire crosses from being helpful to being detrimental, and instead points at the spiritual truth that the more desire we have the more suffering we experience. Desire and suffering are seen as directly proportional and the leeway that allows for rationalization is therefore neatly removed. I can’t help but think that the translation in this instance reveals the truth that the original text was trying, imperfectly, to communicate.

While the translation of the Sutra itself is handled with aplomb, the commentary gives the appearance of having been transcribed from an oral presentation that I can only assume was given on one of Nhat Hanh’s off-days. At times the commentary is rambling and imprecise. For example we have “Suffering has to do with the emptiness of all things.” That’s true of course, but then everything has to do with the emptiness of all things, so the question arises, how exactly is suffering related to emptiness? The closest we come to an explanation is the mysterious, “Buddhas and bodhisattvas understand that when there is a harmonious relationship among the four elements, there is peace. When the four elements are not in harmony there is suffering.” Make of that what you will.

Some of the commentary on the Great Beings is considerably clearer than this, however, and there are nuggets of wisdom to be found. I particularly benefited from Nhat Hanh’s reflections on simplicity, which is something he particularly embodies in his life.

With the Mangala Sutta, Nhat Hanh has also made alterations to the original sense of the sutta in order to bring a more contemporary spin, but in this case the changes are more questionable. For example, an injunction to avoid alcohol altogether is watered down so that we’re enjoined merely not to be “caught by alcoholism.” The Buddha’s original message is an uncompromising avoidance of intoxicants, where Nhat Hanh’s translation — while adopting more contemporary terminology — allows for indulgence short of actual addiction. I don’t think this was at all Nhat Hanh’s intention, and that what has happened is that his desire to use modern buzzwords has obscured the true meaning of the text.

Likewise, a passage that in the original Pali advocates living celibately becomes in Nhat Hanh’s version merely an exhortation to live “diligently.” It’s fine to recognize that the Buddha’s teachings — many of which were originally aimed at monks and nuns — may appear too stringent for modern tastes and may at times be inappropriate for householder Buddhists, but the way to make such accommodations is through commentary on the texts, not by distorting the historical message of the texts themselves.

In the commentary Nhat Hanh is often seen at his best — simple, direct, and compassionate. He offers basic but nevertheless profound teachings on the importance of spiritual community, gratitude to one’s family, giving, and other virtues that act as supports to a life that is meaningful, mindful, and satisfying. There are places when the teachings fall into being simplistic — such as the assertion that whenever we acknowledge a fault and recommit ourselves to living by the precepts our guilt from the past will immediately disappear. In my experience the psychology of remorse and personal change is considerably more complex than that! But at the same time we are reminded of simple but profound truths that we can reflect upon and use as guides in our lives.

One translation of the title of the sutta is “happiness” while another is “blessing,” and Nhat Hanh ends this little book by reminding us that blessings and happiness are related. Happiness does not just arrive out of the blue, like a blessing. We are responsible for our own happiness and “The greatest blessing is the happiness that each of us can generate for ourselves.”

Available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

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Milarepa: “When you run after your thoughts, you are like a dog chasing a stick.”

Milarepa said, “When you run after your thoughts, you are like a dog chasing a stick: every time a stick is thrown, you run after it. Instead, be like a lion who, rather than chasing after the stick, turns to face the thrower. One only throws a stick at a lion once.”

Milarepa (1052-1135) was a great Tibetan Yogi who lived an austere life on the bare hillsides of the Himalayas, eking out an existence on donations and the few plants — principally nettles — that grow in that harsh environment. His name means “The Cotton-Clad One,” and he generally wore just a thin sheet, using the heat generated by meditation practices to keep the fierce Tibetan cold at bay.

Despite his remote living situation he attracted many disciples and visitors, and although he belonged to no school he is particularly venerated by the Tibetan Kagyus, who trace their lineage back through him.

Milarepa was a master of Mahamudra, a meditation approach that emphasizes the innate purity of the mind. In his inimitable and playful style, Milarepa compares the unawakened self to a dog running after a stick that has been thrown. When it comes to chasing sticks, many dogs have more enthusiasm than sense: I remember, for example, a friend’s dogs repeatedly charging into a Scottish loch to “fetch” the stones that I was throwing into the depths. Often our own minds are scarcely less silly than those dogs. Anyone who has sat in meditation has observed this and knows exactly what Milarepa is talking about: the mind goes chasing after any and every thought that passes through it, and often doesn’t much mind whether it suffers in so doing. So much for humans being smarter than dogs.

There are many possible alternatives to chasing the sticks of thought like a hapless hound. We can start chasing them and then bring the mind back to a point of focus, rather like calling a dog to heel. We can learn sit still and to watch the sticks fly past without reacting to them. We can even learn to examine the sticks and recognize their impermanence and the fact that they are not intrinsic to the mind. All of these techniques are useful, and even necessary. But Milarepa goes several steps beyond.

Milarepa suggests that we turn, like a lion, and look directly at the mind itself. What can we expect to find? First, we can expect to see thoughts arising and passing away, liberating themselves without us having to exert any effort to rid the mind of them. Second, we can see the space of awareness within which these thoughts arise. That awareness is pure, and unstained by the thoughts that pass through it. That awareness is your Buddha nature, your own potential enlightenment.

All thoughts arise in this stainless awareness and dissolve within it. To see the nature of those thoughts clearly, Milarepa tells us elsewhere, is to see that there never was any arising or passing away: that all thoughts are empty of self-existence and lacking in essence. Thoughts, he tells us are illusory. It’s only our delusion that makes us think of them as real, and so, over and over, we go plunging into the lake to retrieve the unretreievable.

Although we tend to think or spiritual awakening as lying at the end of a long and arduous task, it’s right here, right now, just waiting for us to stop chasing sticks and instead, lion-like, to turn and look deeply into our own mind, and its thought, and to see their nature.

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Anais Nin: “The personal life deeply lived always expands into truths beyond itself”

Anais Nin

It’s easy to think of a spiritual life as trying to escape who we are, or as being something that we can only aspire to in the future. But a true sense of spirituality comes from looking deeply into our present-moment experience and seeing more truly than we currently do.

When we sit to meditate we don’t try to escape who we are, rather we learn to be comfortable with who we are and what is arising within us. All too often we look at our experience and don’t like what we see. We have aversion for what’s there, dislike and even hate it, and crave to be or to experience something else.

Living deeply, in the context of meditation, means unlearning our habits of craving, aversion, and delusion: habits which prevent us from acknowledging our experience fully.

In practical terms, this means opening up to whatever happens to be present in any give moment. We call this acceptance, or in Buddhist terms, equanimity (upekkha).

Fear arises, and we fully acknowledge and experience it. Anger arises, and we don’t indulge it, but neither do we push it away. Instead, we notice it; take an interest in it; even have compassion for the suffering that accompanies it like a shadow. Craving arises, and we appreciate its qualities of aliveness and its tender beauty, until it fades back into the void from where it came.

Ultimately, we learn to appreciate in meditation, by means of this process of mindfully observing phenomena, that all experiences whatsoever are impermanent. All experiences pass; both the painful ones and the pleasant ones. And in time we can come to see not only that they are transient, but that they are not, never were, and never can be a part of us in any real sense. They’re simply experiences that arise and pass. This is a truth, “beyond ourselves,” that we can only realize by living life more fully, not at some distant time or place when conditions will be perfect for living spiritually, but right here, right now, in this very moment.

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Witness to a cremation (National Public Radio)

Announcer: When commentator Ted Rose moved from New York City to the Shambhala Mountain Center, a Buddhist retreat in the Colorado Rockies, people talked about the meditation schedules and the communal eating. No one mentioned the center’s open-air crematorium.

Ted Rose: The invitation I received to watch a corpse burn on a funeral pyre came as a complete surprise. I wasn’t in a foreign country and had no connection to the deceased. I had assumed the unusual ceremony was just for family and friends. In fact, I was told it was open to the public.

I walked by Shambhala Mountain Center’s funeral pyre often. It is located just a few hundred yards away from the beat-up old trailer I’ve lived in for the past year, since trading my New York life for one at this Buddhist retreat in the Colorado Rockies.

The pyre is a simple structure: a concrete slab with room at the bottom for wood and a grate near the top for a body. It looks like an oversized barbecue pit, which is precisely what it is. Despite our religious diversity, we Americans tend to treat our dead bodies quite similarly. When my grandfather died, my family left the details to professionals. I took only about five seconds to commune with my father’s father, lying in his casket at a home. And within a couple hours, I was standing on some AstroTurf at the cemetery, watching a shiny wood box descent into darkness.

The whole idea of an open pyre ceremony made me uncomfortable, so I begged off attending that first one. Then a pioneering Buddhist psychologist and teacher named Ed Podvol succumbed to cancer and his cremation was scheduled. This time I did not have an easy out. The center employed me as its resident shrine keeper. I would witness this cremation on the clock.

The day of the event was windy and cold. The crowd gathered on a meadow. A truck pulled up and six pallbearers reached inside. They emerged with a body wrapped in a white shroud. Ed Podvols’ hips dropped slightly and his knees rose as they moved him. He looked less like a corpse and more like a newborn baby. I wasn’t witnessing as much as gawking.

The scene felt a little like a civil ceremony, but it was also like a car crash where some guilty curiosity was being sated. A teacher introduced the ceremony and led the assembly in some chanting. Five minutes into the service Shambhala‘s head fireman lit the dry wood. The pyre erupted. There was no avoiding the scene. If I closed my eyes I still heard the wood crackling. If I plugged my ears I still smelt the condensed butter fat used to fuel the fire. If I pinched my nose, the cold dry air still pounded my bones.

The scene felt undeniably foreign but I couldn’t figure out why. Americans have plenty of opportunities to see dead bodies. And these days corpses are cremated all the time. I suspect it was the unusually blunt combination: an import from the Indian subcontinent designed to acknowledge the finality of the situation — the end of this human life.

At one point a white stick jutted out from the pyre. It was a remnant of Ed Podvol’s right arm. I experienced a minor freak-out. I was watching a human body burn, I told myself, so of course it is a little messy, just as a human birth is messy. This neat rationalization made some sense, at the time.

I don’t know whether I’ll attend the next cremation. I’m no longer the shrine-keeper so I’ll be free of that obligation. On the other hand I recently joined Shambhala’s fire crew. The next time the center has a body to burn, if the head firefighter needs help, he may end up asking me.

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