“The Brightened Mind,” by Ajahn Sumano Bhikkhu

The Brightened Mind, Ajahn Sumano

Ajahn Sumano is a Chicagoan who worked in the corporate world before becoming a Buddhist monk and living in a cave in Thailand for 15 years, intensively practicing meditation. You’d therefore expect him to have a deep understanding of meditation, and The Brightened Mind suggests he has.

Unfortunately, just as Sumano had to go through his corporate phase before he hit his meditative years, so do we. Almost the whole first half of the book has a “marketing” feel to, it where you’re constantly told about the benefits meditation will bring, without any meditation actually being taught.

Title: The Brightened Mind
Author: Ajahn Sumano Bhikkhu
Publisher: Quest Books
ISBN: 978-0-8356-0899-2
Available from: Quest Books,, and

The meditation instruction, when it comes, isn’t extensive, but it’s full of precious nuggets of spiritual gold. I’d almost suggest skipping over the first half of the book just to get to this material.

Actually, the meditation teaching doesn’t start in a very promising way. The first direction is “put your mind at ease.” That’s a good aim, although of course it’s one that is easier said than done, and Sumano doesn’t tell us how to accomplish it. Having (somehow) put the mind at ease, we then focus on some neutral object such as the breath, and “just stay with what’s happening right in the moment.” This is a very important suggestion, of course. Then Sumano suggests “holding one inhalation for as long as you can” and tells us that you will “immediately feel the presence of serenity and peace.” I’m unclear what he means by holding the breath for as long as possible. Surely he doesn’t mean that we should hold the breath until we almost pass out? That would seem to lead anywhere but serenity and peace. So up to this point I was becoming increasingly skeptical that I was going to get anything from The Brightened Mind — but then I turned the page and hit the mother-lode.

The second half of The Brightened Mind is solid gold. Sumano’s strength is in emphasizing the “naturalness” of meditation. The second meditation exercise begins with the suggestion, “Allow your eyelids to close gently and begin to think ‘soft.’ That means relaxing the mind and smiling within.” This is beautifully put, and a valuable reminder that meditation can be something we let happen rather than make happen. We don’t try to “do something,” the Ajahn reminds us, but rather meditation is ultimately “a way of undoing and letting go into the smile.” From this point on the instructions are precise and emphasize a profound letting go: “You can just allow gravity to relax the body from the top of the head all the way down to the soles of the feet … when the body has opened and extended fully, the mind will follow and respond accordingly.”

Ajahn Sumano suggests using the evocative power of words, and he says something that I’ve said many times myself: “Every word has power. Every word, even if we do not speak it but simply think of it, emits a vibration in our mind.” And so we breathe in words such as “calm,” “clear,” and (intriguingly) “beyond,” allowing them to work their spells. Sumano explains that we “breathe in” a word by “mentally inclining toward it with a silent whisper as we inhale.” Beautifully put.

The next section, which I thought was highly effective, involves taking meditation into our daily life. Say we are a student listening to a lecture. Sumano suggests that we pay minute detail to everything the lecturer does: every movement, every gesture, the tone of voice, etc. We do this with a “fascinated scrutiny that measures the present moment accurately and precisely.” The net effect of this is that the mind becomes “sensitive, sharp, and focused.” If I may interject an element of my own teaching here, I emphasize a similar quality of total attention in sitting meditation. I find that by paying attention to many sensations simultaneously, in a wide-open field of awareness, there is simply no room for inner chatter (see Meditation and Mental Bandwidth). The effect of that is to bring us rapidly to a state of calmness and happiness. We also become more intimate with and closer to our experience, because as soon as we start to talk to ourselves about our experience we erect a barrier. As Sumano puts it, “In relaxing into this awareness, you are learning how to link the outside world with the inner world.” We are, in fact developing (although Sumano never mentions this term) a non-dual awareness that can lead (and again Sumano doesn’t use this terminology) to what are often called the “formless absorptions.”

In this chapter Sumano also suggests that the attitude with which we approach our lives should be a “resolve to do well in everything we do.” I often find that Buddhists lack this resolve, and are content to just bumble along in an almost haphazard way, with their email inboxes overflowing with hundreds or even thousands of messages, and their minds full of unhelpful stories whose validity and ethical skillfulness they never question. A commitment to excellence is essential. Once we have that resolve, Sumano tells us, “the mind will gather focus and stability and launch itself into the process without conscious effort from you.” That is profoundly true.

Working in this way (letting meditation happen, paying total attention, committing ourselves to excellence) leads to concentration and, eventually, to insight. “This present-moment focus is the key to penetrating the understanding of anything and everything.” What would that look like? “In this state of deep concentration, the contents of the mind (objects, moods, thoughts, memories, feelings, etc.) take on a light and translucent quality, allowing us to investigate these elements without getting stuck in any of them.” And so we begin to realize that we are not our experience.

“With this discerning detachment, we can see [these experiences] for what they are: ever-changing energy patterns that don’t belong to anyone and are not ours to keep.” We thus come to weaken and eventually lose the sense of having a self.

The remainder of the book consists of a summary of the benefits of practice, some reflections on the ultimate goal of practice (enlightenment), and a number of short reflections on lovingkindness, an awareness of impermanence (the better to have a sense of urgency about our practice), and on the value of spiritual friendship (giving it as well as receiving it!). This is all valuable material, although Sumano is pretty much dropping spiritual wisdom into your mind at this point, and leaving you to engage with it. This is fair enough. He’s already given us the tools by which we can radically transform our approach to such material. The extraordinary thing is the very compact way in which he’s done this, by simplifying his presentation of the spiritual path down to those three key activities of letting meditation happen, paying total attention, and committing ourselves to excellence.

Although I think the first half of the book should have been dramatically cut (and I wonder if some editor insisted that the core text on meditation needed to be fleshed out with some “spiritual marketing” to extol the virtues of the goodies to come) the pith instructions themselves are excellent, and I’d highly recommend Sumano’s spiritual manual.

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Sally Kempton: Living from the center

A month after I started meditating, I went home to visit my mother. This was back in the day—only a few years after the Beatles visited Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India, and caused a storm of mostly satirical press commentary. Meditation was still considered an activity for eccentrics and hippies, and my secular humanist mother found my insistence on sitting every morning hilarious at best. In the mornings, while I was sitting in meditation, she would walk past my closed door every few minutes and call out, “Aren’t you done yet?”

I rolled with it on Saturday. But on Sunday, when she knocked on the door for the third time in twenty minutes, I lost it. Bursting with anger, I got up from my seat, opened the door, looked at my mother and said, “Can’t you leave me alone?” And my mother smiled a ‘Gotcha!” kind of smile and said, “I knew you hadn’t become a saint.”

That was the moment when I realized that effective meditation practice is not just what you do when you’re sitting on the mat. It’s also about how you react when your loved ones (and not so loved ones) do all those things that have historically annoyed or frustrated you. It’s not that meditation will turn you into a saint overnight. (The fact that you haven’t turned into a saint is one of the best reasons to keep on meditating!) Yet, one of the gifts that meditation can give you is the ability to use certain inner skills—skills like self-inquiry, substituting a loving thought for an angry one, gentleness, and especially the insight to notice a reactive emotion before you act on it—in difficult moments.

Meditation is for living. The inner practice is meant to radiate outward until your whole life becomes an ongoing training in living from your own center. As the intrinsic alchemy of meditation works…

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its subtle changes in your consciousness and character, it simultaneously challenges you to take action on what you are becoming—to bring your meditative skills, insights, and experiences into the rest of your life.

The strength of your practice is tested in every single moment and interaction. Are you able to bring the love you experienced in meditation into your actions? Are you able to stay in touch with Awareness when you are working, when you are moving into a new house, or when someone you care for disappoints you? Are you speaking and moving from that deeper level of being, or are you on automatic pilot, perhaps even doing the right thing but with no sense of contact with your deeper being, no access to its inspiration and love?

Certainly there will be times when the inner world with its inspiration and broader vision seems to be at your fingertips, moments when love sweeps over you all on its own. You may suddenly find yourself in the state called “flow,” acting unerringly without any apparent effort and with a quiet mind. The witness may rise up in the midst of an argument or crisis, holding you steady and poised in a situation where you would ordinarily go off the emotional deep end.

You might have mornings when the world shimmers with sacredness, when you find meaning in the blown leaves on the sidewalk, when the newspapers in the gutter seem to pulsate with the overflow of your own happiness. You will experience the ongoing magic of synchronicity, when a conversation overheard on the bus or a message seen on a billboard seems to give subtle spiritual teachings. At such times, work is transmuted into worship, and a walk in the woods turns into a processional up the nave of a cathedral.

Yet there will be other moments, many of them, when the gifts of meditation are there only if you work for them. The mere fact that you meditate will not suddenly make you immune to psychological pain. It won’t eliminate mood swings, feelings of inadequacy, or problems with other people. In fact, people who meditate can be just as subject to ups and downs as anyone else. The major differences lie in their attitude toward their mood and tendencies and in the resources they have to deal with them. When sadness, anger, and frustration arise, they have learned how to separate their intrinsic sense of self from their moods and feelings. They know that a core part of them is untouched by the emotional weather. Not only that, they have learned some skills in meditation that can help them through a difficult encounter or a mental traffic jam. They have more choices about how they deal with their feelings, how they work with the desires, fears, and crises, which might otherwise derail them.

Living from our own center takes effort, but it is also exciting. When we see life as an ongoing spiritual training, we live inside a view that lends significance to even the most ordinary interactions. We don’t think so much in terms of winning or losing, success or failure. Instead there is only the training, the consistent effort to come back to the love and lucidity we carry inside and to bring the values of the inner world into our outer actions.

This, then, is the second level of practice: the waking practice of staying in touch with our center, cultivating our character, contemplating and learning from the situations life presents to us, and discovering the techniques, teachings, disciplines, and forms of open-eyed practice that will allow us to live from the developing awareness of the Self.

Maintaining Inner Attention

In the Shaiva yogic tradition of northern India, an enlightened being is said to live in shambhavi mudra, a state in which, even when her eyes are open, her attention is centered in the inner field of unchanging luminous Awareness. This is a powerful depiction of the enlightened state; it is also a key to open-eyed practice. Open-eyed practice is a kind of “as if” game. You are practicing to be an enlightened being by acting and thinking as you would if you were actually in that state. A key practice for this is to maintain inner awareness—a steady current of attentiveness to your own Awareness, to the sense of being or Presence that you tune into when you turn attention back on itself.

Like most essential practices, this one is extremely simple without being at all easy. Inner attentiveness has a frustrating way of dissolving at crucial moments, when you are worried, excited, or under pressure. Even on ordinary days, you naturally move in and out of it, since that essential Awareness tends to be experienced in flashes, in glimpses that come and go. That is why it is helpful to work with different practices at different moments. At times you will face directly into the light of Awareness. At other times you will approach it sideways, through the breath, a positive thought, or even a physical posture.

To maintain inner attention in a steady way demands a threefold effort:

First of all, you need a set of practices for inner focus or remembering the Self. They should be practices that work for you, and you need to do them regularly.

Second, you need to be doing “character work,” examining your motives and attitudes and learning how to express the qualities of the Self—compassion, gentleness, kindness, steady wisdom, truthfulness, and the rest.

Third, you need to develop the habit of checking in with yourself to monitor your state so that you can recognize when you have slipped off center and then discover how to return.

Many meditation practices—practices like mantra repetition, awareness of Awareness, focus on the inner witness, attention to the breath, seeing thoughts as energy—are also meant to be practiced in day-to-day situations. So are the different attitudes you work with when you meditate. Just as you can begin meditation by offering your practice to God, or for the benefit of others, you can also offer your daily actions as service and see how that simple act shifts you out of self-centeredness and unknots the tendency to grasp at outcomes.

Your sitting practice of becoming aware of Awareness, or being the witness of your thoughts, can become an inner baseline that you return to during the day. It helps you move out of heavy emotions, distractions, or neurotic thinking patterns. Remembering oneness, holding the understanding that the seemingly solid world is essentially energy, will let you act in the world with more openness and fluidity, and with a sense of your kinship with others, with nature, and even with inanimate objects like your computer or your car.

Walking-Around Practice

It can be helpful to create set times in your schedule for your practice of mantra repetition, awareness of Awareness, or remembering oneness. You could make offering your actions, thoughts, and feelings a daily ritual at the beginning and end of the workday. You could make a habit of remembering to place your attention in your heart once every hour, or you could set your wrist alarm to ring five minutes before the hour, and then use that five minutes to bring to mind a teaching you are contemplating, or to ask yourself a question like “What would love do now?” or “What would kindness do now?”

You might work with a different practice every day until you find the practice or practices that feel like yours, and then spend some time exploring them deeply. As you practice this open-eyed meditation, you will see its effects. First of all, you should feel more integrated. There will be less of a gap between sitting meditation and the rest of your day. It will be easier to go into meditation when you sit; and you should need to spend less time “deprogramming” yourself from the stresses of the day. Then, during your waking, working hours, there should be a certain sweetness to life, a sense of openness and space in your world. You’ll find yourself feeling closer to others, less afraid, calmer, and more inspired.

During anxious moments, busy days, and periods when life seems to be caving in on you, these practices can become a real refuge. They help you stabilize your state.

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Sacred Sound, coming soon on CD

sacred sound cd coverSacred Sound: Mantra Meditations for Centeredness and Inspiration, the popular audio course on mantra chanting led by Bodhipaksa and Sunada, is coming out as a double CD in January.

Sacred Sound is a complete guide to mantra meditation. In it you’ll find everything you need to get started with a mantra chanting practice, including:

  • The “magical” background and history of mantras
  • How mantras can help us develop centeredness and inspiration
  • Preparatory exercises to open the body and free the breath
  • Seven mantras chanted for listening and learning
  • The meaning and symbolism of each of the seven mantras
  • A print-friendly companion guide with images, pronunciation key, and musical notations

Sacred Sound is led by Bodhipaksa, who has been practicing mantra meditation since 1982, and who is the author of Wildmind: A Step-by-Step Guide to Meditation, and Living as a River: Finding Fearlessness in the Face of Change; and by Sunada, who is a life-long musician, workshop leader, and founder of Mindful Purpose Life Coaching. The running time of the audio program is over two hours.

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Coming soon: Sacred Sound – an audio course on mantra meditation

Sacred Sound: Mantra Meditations for Centeredness and InspirationBodhipaksa and Sunada combine forces to bring you Wildmind’s first audiobook — a complete guide to mantra meditation. In it you’ll find everything you need to get started with a mantra chanting practice, including:

  • The “magical” background and history of mantras
  • How mantras can help us develop centeredness and inspiration
  • Preparatory exercises to open the body and free the breath
  • Seven mantras chanted for listening and learning
  • The meaning and symbolism of each of the seven mantras
  • A print-friendly companion guide with images, pronunciation key, and musical notations

Sacred Sound is led by Bodhipaksa, who has been practicing mantra meditation since 1982, and who is the author of Wildmind: A Step-by-Step Guide to Meditation, and the forthcoming Living as a River: Finding Fearlessness in the Face of Change, and by Sunada, who is a life-long musician, workshop leader, and founder of Mindful Purpose Life Coaching.

The running time of the audio program is over two hours. The audiobook costs $19.95, but is free to all life members. The Companion Guide to Sacred Sound is available as a free PDF download (2.3Mb).

The official publication date is June 7.

For the moment Sacred Sound is only available as a high quality (320kb/s) MP3 download, although a CD version is planned.

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Enchanting mantra

Practitioners of kirtan, a Hindu call-and-response ritual, find it both soothing and uplifting

On a Friday evening, a few dozen people gather in the multi-purpose room of the Westminster Housing Co-op in Winnipeg’s West End. They’ve brought yoga mats and meditation cushions, but they’re not here to work on their backbends or to sit cross-legged in silence.

They’ve come to dip into the same spiritual stream that spawned both those practices, only this time they’ll be doing it by singing in a language that none of them speaks.

At the front of the room, candles flicker and plumes of incense smoke curl toward the ceiling. There is a simple melody, the gentle strumming of a guitar and hand drums offering rhythm as the guitarist sings out a line — “Om namah shivaya shiva namah om” — and the audience echoes it back.

And on it goes, back and forth, gradually building in tempo and intensity until the room is buzzing with energy. Many people have their eyes closed; some sit with their hands on their lap, others sway and/or clap to the beat of the drums. One woman seated on the floor reaches forward and upward with her hands as if kneading the air.

After 20 minutes or so, the music slows down, the singing gets softer and the room falls into a meditative silence.

This is kirtan, the yoga of sound.

Somewhere between a Sanskrit sing-along and a musical meditation, kirtan (KEER-tun) is a devotional call-and-response practice that combines mantras with live music. It has its roots in 15th-century India, but like many Eastern traditions is becoming increasingly popular in North America as spiritual seekers and yoga enthusiasts discover its uplifting and soothing effects.

“This is why I live, to fill rooms with song,” the woman with the guitar tells the crowd before moving on to the next mantra.

She is Beth Martens, a Winnipeg singer-songwriter whose fair colouring, pixie features and Mennonite roots belie her calling as a “kirtan singing yogi” devoted to spreading the Eastern vibe.

“To me, the ultimate purpose of kirtan is to build community around things that genuinely inspire, uplift and give life energy,” says Martens, 41, who has been writing and performing devotional chants for more than a decade. Her first CD, Vijaya: Living Knowledge (1999) was recorded in India, where she studied yoga, meditation and Sanskrit poetry in the ’90s.

Kirtan is a folk form that arose from the Bhakti (devotional) movement of medieval India and involves chanting the names of Hindu deities (Krishna, Shiva, etc.) to connect with the divine. As with meditation, the purpose of chanting is to quiet and focus the mind in order to experience one’s true nature, or essence.

“Mantra just seems to clear the slate so you can tune into the frequency of your being that lies beneath all the artifices that get piled up from everyday life,” says Martens, sitting in the living room of her St. Boniface home. “They pack an unusually powerful punch when the meanings are learned.”

That power was put to the test in 1999 when she was diagnosed with Stage 4 Hodgkin’s lymphoma. At the time, she was only a chanting yogi at night — by day she was the “totally fatigued, burned-out” vice-president of her family’s public relations firm. She practised yoga — power yoga — with the same intensity.

Eleven months of chemotherapy put her in remission — she’d already quit her job, lost her house and moved in with her parents — but 18 months later, the cancer returned and she was given a 50 per cent chance of survival.

“Now it was time to put all this into practice,” Martens recalls thinking. “It’s one thing in theory to sing ‘I am blissful, I am immortal’ (Amaram hum madhuram hum) and quite another to be facing your death and looking at the meaning of those words.”

Eventually she became too weak to pick up her guitar. As her body became immobilized, Martens says, she realized how she’d been using the practices she learned in India to disconnect from it, to the point where she didn’t notice the toll that stress was taking on her health.

It was only after she made the conscious decision to live her life motivated by love rather than fear, Martens says, that things began to improve.

“It was a beautiful thing. Even when my body wasn’t available, the mantras would keep pushing through.”

In 2002, cancer-free, Martens took up music and teaching yoga full time. Her last CD, The Yoga Lullabies (2007), recorded while she was eight months pregnant with her son, is a collection of the mantras that carried her through the darkest days. She’s currently working on her fourth album.

“Now I feel like I can sing into my body, right down to the soles of my feet,” says Martens, who leads community kirtans every couple of months at various venues around town. The next one takes place April 30 at the Yoga Centre Winnipeg (915 Grosvenor Ave.). A fireside kirtan will also be held May 28 at the St. Norbert Arts Centre.

[via Winnipeg Free Press]
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Tiger Woods finds his mantra again: Meditate (and be nice to fans)

Evidently, we’re more like Tiger Woods than we realized. No, not profligate sexual tom cats or historically accomplished athletes or control freaks micromanaging our lives (well, maybe the latter…)

But lots of people, just like Woods, have drifted from the faith of their childhood. In his case, it’s Buddhist meditation. The Ommmm apparently lost its ooomph.

In his pre-Masters tourney press conference today, he reiterated that recent therapy has forced him to see “how far astray from the core morals my mom and dad taught me” he had traveled. Now he has resumed daily meditation, “the roots of Buddhism” as him mom taught him.

But how different is that, really, from what other 34-year-olds might say: They drifted away from their Catholic or Baptist or Methodist or whatever upbringing and now, gee, maybe they’re missing something.

A 2008 study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that among 16% of U.S. adults who now say they have no religious affiliation, most didn’t leave in a huff. Instead, about 70% say they “just gradually drifted away.”

I haven’t found (yet) statistics on people who quit meditation. But from perusing a few sites, it appears fairly common for people to drift in — and out — of spiritual practices.

A site for Tai Chi, a martial art that “encourages a calm mind and composed emotions” and nurtures “tranquility, harmony and balance,” points out that “many people quit. In fact most people quit.” It’s hard. It’s about losing control. And, of course, “A lot of people are just downright lazy…”

Meditation teacher Brenda Stephenson on her web site, acknowledges that a survey of past students found most quitters “simply lost their interest in meditating.”

And commentator John Pappas observed after the last time Woods said the same back-to-meditation line last month that it’s not magic.

It isn’t something that is outside of you that causes your actions and arbitrarily donning a magic bracelet or bemoaning that you didn’t sit facing a wall more will not help you look inward and is not going to solve your problem. It takes striving, faith and doubt. The realization is dawning on Tiger and I hope that he keeps working at it but approaching your practice (or any religion for that matter) as a crutch will never solve the problem.

It isn’t a magic elixir to be swallowed or special words to be chanted or super-mega prayers to be sent to big globular masses in the sky. It is work and it is humility. An extra hour of meditation a day is like a band-aid for a split jugular.

[via USA Today]
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Meditation grows in popularity for both health and spiritual reasons Quakers, Buddhists, agnostics, Hindus – they’re all doing it. Over the last few decades, meditation has evolved from a fringe practice to a mainstream stress-reduction technique that might be recommended by your family doctor.

In Washtenaw County, you have your choice of a wide variety of meditation classes and settings, ranging from the Zen Buddhist Temple in Ann Arbor, to a Quaker center in Chelsea to the Washtenaw Community College Health and Fitness Center.

Nationally, meditation is among top three alternative health methods used by Americans. According to a 2007 survey sponsored by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (a division of the National Institutes of Health), more than 9 percent of Americans say they meditate. Only herbal supplements and deep-breathing exercises are more popular.

Meditation and health benefits

Carol Blotter, a meditation teacher based in Chelsea, brings to the practice both a Quaker perspective and training in techniques based in Eastern spirituality. She has led meditation workshops and retreats at the Michigan Friends Center in Chelsea and at Deep Spring Center in Ann Arbor.

Blotter pointed to author and researcher Jon Kabat-Zinn as a pivotal figure in the mainstreaming of meditation. Kabat-Zinn is the founder of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

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Blotter noted that other scientists had studied meditation, but added, “Zinn really packaged it up… Americans like something with scientific approval.”

“He created a program called mindfulness-based stress reduction,” she said. “And you’ll find it in an awful lot of hospitals these days. Statistically, it’s phenomenal the impact meditation and mindfulness have on an individual’s health.”

Kimberly Michelle Johnson has been teaching meditation at the Washtenaw Community College Health and Fitness center for about a year. Johnson also mentioned improvements in health as a major benefit of meditation.

“Stress reduction has such a big impact on overall health,” she said. “It can aid in lowering blood pressure, assist in chronic pain reduction and help to relieve insomnia.”

The Ann Arbor Zen Buddhist Temple typically attracts up to 50 area residents for meditation meetings on Sunday mornings and as many as 30 on Sunday afternoons, according to the Rev. Haju Sunim (Linda Murray), resident priest.

Haju Sunim, who helped found the local Buddhist temple in 1982, said she sees modern students use meditation as a way to survive the stresses of everyday life rather than as a route to enlightenment. She said that even with that more secular aim, meditation has benefits.

“It can be very helpful as people learn to pay attention to the myriad of things that arise in their body and mind,” she said. “People often judge themselves and say they’re no good at meditation because so many thoughts are coming up, and they can’t calm their minds. My response is that it’s part of the process. Meditation is something that allows us to see and then to work with what comes up.”

Meditation as spiritual practice

Johnson’s Thursday night classes are designed to be accessible to students from a variety of backgrounds. Participants scan the body for areas of discomfort and pay careful attention to deep breathing.

“The meditation and relaxation techniques can be helpful no matter what your religious or spiritual tradition,” Johnson said. “Students are welcome to tailor the practice to incorporate their personal spiritual beliefs.”

For example, she said, the students can express their spirituality through their choice of mantra. The mantra could be an Eastern-style “Ohm,” a Christian phrase like “God is love” or simply “Let go.”

Blotter said that what people get out of meditation depends on their motivations.

“The wording, the practices that are used and the intention are all different because there are so many different kind of people in this world,” she said.

For many who are just discovering meditation, Blotter said, the emphasis is on feeling better immediately. However, for some, meditation might morph into a more spiritual practice over time.

“The modalities of meditation really expand along that whole continuum from ‘just give me something to do to make me feel better in this moment’ to ‘help me live my life with more honesty, clarity and openness from the heart.’ Many people start with the motivation to ‘just fix this one thing right now,’ and, over time, it changes into an awareness of a spiritual nature.”

In September, Blotter helped run a fall weekend meditation retreat at the Michigan Friends Center. Blotter compared the fall retreat to polishing silver and taking away all the tarnish that can build up after time.

“They can relax into nature, relax into spirit, have time to take a breath.”

Haju Sunim said that, in a Buddhist context, meditation is much more than a coping strategy.

“We’re not meditating for the sake of meditating; we’re meditating to have some deep understanding of life and death,” she said.

She said that meditating in the Zen Buddhist Temple is qualitatively different than taking a college course or a meditation class at a recreation center.

“Something very precious about our particular place is that it is a residential temple,” she said. “Residents… keep a schedule in the mornings and evenings so members can come in and practice if they want to.”

She said that in Asia, village life is affected by proximity to Buddhist temples, where morning prayers and bells rung for evening services set the rhythm of life. She said she hopes that the Ann Arbor Temple has a similar influence on its neighbors.

“We try to set up a rhythm of morning and evening practice. I hope that just by virtue of osmosis… our presence here will be a little more helpful day by day.”

Sarah Rigg is a freelance journalist who writes regularly for

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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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New article on Vajrasattva mantra

VajrasattvaDid you know that the most popular section of our site is the Mantra Meditations? In fact, four out of the ten most-visited pages on Wildmind are on mantras!

Just a few months ago we added an extensive article on the Medicine Buddha, and today we added an article on the Bodhisattva of purification, Vajrasattva, and his 100-syllable mantra.

Vajrasattva’s name means “diamond being” and he represents the innate purity of the mind. As the article says,

You can imagine your mind as being like a sky through which clouds pass. The clouds come and they go, but the sky remains untouched. The sky is inherently blue and clear, and although its blueness and clarity can be obscured it can never be destroyed. The clouds are like the greed, hatred, and delusion that pollute the mind. Because of the transient nature of these mental states, they cannot be said to be an inherent part of the mind. They may obscure the mind’s inherent awareness and compassion, but those qualities are never absent.

The 100-syllable mantra is an evocation of the path to full awakening, from the first invocation of Vajrasattva as a protector, to the wish to save all sentient beings.

The article is accompanied by an MP3 recording of the mantra.

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New article on The Medicine Buddha, Bhaisajyaguru

Medicine Buddha, BhaisajyaguruBodhipaksa and Srivandana have posted a new article in our mantra section on the Medicine Buddha, Bhaisajyaguru. The article includes an introduction to the Buddha as well as a recording of his mantra.

The Medicine Buddha, or Bhaiśajyaguru, is as his name suggests connected with healing. His mantra exists in both long and short forms. In its long form it is:

namo bhagavate bhaiśajyaguru vaid?ryaprabharājāya tathāgatāya arhate samyaksambuddhāya tadyathā: oṃ bhaiśajye bhaiśajye bhaiśajya-samudgate svāhā.

The short form is:

(tadyathā:) oṃ bhaiśajye bhaiśajye mahābhaiśajye bhaiśajyarāje samudgate svāhā.

“Bhaisajya” means “curativeness” or “healing efficacy,” while “guru” means “teacher” or “master.” Thus he’s the “master of healing.” He’s also known as Bhaisajyaraja, “raja” meaning “king.”

The short form of the mantra could roughly be translated as “Hail! Appear, O Healer, O Healer, O Great Healer, O King of Healing!” The optional “tadyathā” at the beginning means “thus,” and it’s not really part of the mantra, but more of an introduction.

The long version could be rendered as, “Homage to the Blessed One, The Master of Healing, The King of Lapis Lazuli Radiance, The One Thus-Come, The Worthy One, The Fully and Perfectly Awakened One, thus: ‘Hail! Appear, O Healer, O Healer, O Great Healer, O King of Healing!’ ”

You can read the rest of the article and hear the mantra here.

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