three fold training

Embrace your full potential by living skillfully

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

The Buddha’s cousin, Ananda, once asked him what the benefit of living skillfully was. The Buddha answered that skillful living leads to freedom from remorse, which in turn leads to joy. Joy then allows the mind to settle into concentration, and concentration leads to the arising of insight. That’s the path we’re following in Buddhist practice. And it all starts with learning to live skillfully.

The word “skillful” (that’s kusala in Pali, for those who are interested) is a fascinating vocabulary choice on the Buddha’s part. He didn’t generally talk about “good” and “bad” actions, although that terminology was, of course, available to him. Instead, he talked about us acting skillfully or unskillfully. Since this may seem like odd language for talking about morality or ethics, as if we’re being asked to perform some kind of trick, let’s take a closer look at what he might have meant by it.

You can think about “skill” as meaning, “actions that can accomplish an aim.” A skilled writer is one who aims to persuade or create pleasure, or whatever her aim might be, and can actually do so. Merely having the intent isn’t enough, or we’d all be good writers! Writing well is a craft, and has to be learned by the intelligent application of trial and error and well as by studying the works of other writers who are themselves recognized as having skill. An unskilled writer may have the same aim as a more skilled one but isn’t able to put those aims into action.

What’s the relevance of this to spirituality? We all have the aim, deep down, of finding peace of mind, happiness, and wellbeing. But do we have the skill to create them? Here too, just as with our example of a skilled writer, accomplishing this aim is a matter of intelligently approaching life in a trial-and-error way, while also learning from the life, example, and sometimes personal guidance of those who seem to be skilled at living well.

What stops us from finding peace of mind? We do! We contain skillful tendencies (compassion, kindness, mindfulness, etc) and unskillful tendencies (such as self-centeredness, aversion to discomfort. Both sets of impulses aim to keep us secure and happy, but all too often our unskillful tendencies create suffering for ourselves. We react, and these reactions cause suffering.

Our unskillful instincts advertise themselves as helpful when most of the time they’re not. So our trial and error process consists of observing that unskillful, reactive impulses do not bring happiness and that only a creative life based on living with mindfulness and kindness can achieve that aim.

This is something that we have to work at learning because our unskillful impulses have evolved to protect us. For example, being unpleasant to someone who annoys us is an instinct that evolved hundreds of millions of years ago. If you’re a lizard, and you make a threatening display to another lizard who comes too close to you, you can chase the intruder away, protecting yourself and your food supply. But when the person we’re annoyed with is a colleague or close family member, we can’t simply remove them from our lives! Our aversion binds us in a conflicted and painful relationship. And so, in many ways, our “protective” instincts end up harming us.

Our more skillful attributes are rooted in our evolutionary biology as well. As mammals, we’ve evolved to value love and connection; a newborn baby’s first need is to be held, monkeys create social binds by grooming each other. We’ve evolved to have empathy. Even mice show distress when they see one of their fellows suffering. Scientists have observed rats trying to free each other from traps. Empathy is built into the structure of mammalian brains.

Another part of our mammalian conditioning, however, is the need to establish our position in a social “pecking order.” This can result in us competing, even with friends and family. This kind of conditioning goes against our need for connection, warmth, and intimacy.

But we also have a more distinctively human part of our brains — the most recently evolved part of our brains, the neocortex. This is the seat of reason, reflection, and self-awareness. The neocortex allows us to look at our reactive instincts and our more creative and skillful instincts. It helps us to see the disadvantages of the former compared to the latter. It also allows us to change our behavior, so that we choose to let go of unskillful impulses, and instead to think, speak, and act skillfully. In choosing to live skillfully, we’re choosing to live a more authentically human, happier, and meaningful life.

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Fourth reminder: The defects of samsara

ocean

Samsara
Is an ocean of suffering,
Unendurable,
Unbearably intense.

Vidyadhara Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

So what is Samsara? Most of us have heard of Nirvana. And assume Samsara is the exact opposite. Nirvana is more the juxtaposition of Samsara that can give a feeling of balance. Nirvana and Samsara are here, in this present moment. Both of them right here, right now. If we have suffered from an addiction we would have experienced a taste of what Samsara could be.

I’m not sure it is helpful to define either concept. Though of course Samsara is some of what I have alluded to before. Our lack of recognizing that we have had a precious birth, our denial of our own death, the karma of taking a human body, all this is Samsara. It is the cycle of life, and it’s consequence of decay and death.

All beings have suffered for eons, and will continue to do so until Nirvana is attained. Nirvana is more than a state of bliss or peace. It is indefinable. But I would say that we are moving towards it if we can cultivate, equanimity, simplicity, stillness and contentment in our lives.

The Four Reminders

I’m aware of having spoken much about the finality of life, or the part of the cycle of life which is death. But there are many of us who will get sick for a prolonged time before we die. Many of us who will age, and loose much of our mobility and even our faculties before we die. Samsara is right in this moment of not accepting, old age and sickness. It is possible to be happy in sickness, happy in old age, and happy at the point of death.

How can this be? The Buddhist path offers a path of liberation, a path of ethics, meditation and wisdom. This threefold path can lead us to the point of seeing that there is an end of suffering, and if we take this path it will lead us away from suffering. It will point us in the direction of Nirvana.

There is much hope in life, if we take the opportunity and invite the full cycle of life into our hearts and minds. I find myself reflecting on the following questions often.

  • How do we hold death lightly?
  • How do I hold lightly that I may be diagnosed with a terminal illness tomorrow?
  • How do I hold lightly that I may live to an old age with little mobility?
  • How do I hold lightly that I may live to be a 100, be well, but have no friends or family alive around me?
  • How do I live?

I must live in the now. Moment by moment without the distraction of the past or the future.

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Happy New Year

Vimalasara

Many of us in the world use the new year as an opportunity to let go of the past and make new beginnings. I thought I would acknowledge the new year as one of those GIFTS — a Great Indicator For Throwing Stuff Out.

We are the fortunate ones to be reading this right now, because for some people the world did end on December 21st or thereafter. So here we are, having survived another end of the world date. There have been many such apocalypses predicted in the past and none, of course, have come true. We could spend the rest of our lives worrying about predictions of the end of the world, or we could begin to think about how we truly want to live our life.

  1. What direction do you want your life to be heading towards? Aspirations?
  2. What conditions need to be cultivated to make your aspirations true?
  3. What is holding you back? Externally? Internally?
  4. What are the steps you need to take to help support your aspirations?

If we are wanting to live a more mindful life, more in sync with Buddhist teachings, we would be placing every efforts to transform our body, speech and mind. We would be aware of our actions having consequences and would apply mindfulness to recreate actions that only promote kindness.

The Four Reminders

Perhaps go back to the four questions and see how many of your aspirations are to do with body, speech and mind? Ask yourself, will your aspirations lead you in the direction of moderation? A direction that is free of self indulgence or denial and self mortification? The Buddha taught us the middle way – the path of ethics, meditation and wisdom to free us from our suffering. Perhaps that could be an aspiration to investigate the middle way in 2013.

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Meditation Is Not Enough (Beliefnet)

Ask the Lama: Lama Surya Das

Dear Lama Surya Das,

I recently listened to one of your “Natural Perfection” tapes and liked what you said about people NOT having to meditate. I think some of us are suffering under a perceived (or projected) meditation culture that virtually stigmatizes those who do not sit well or practice consistently. Everybody doesn’t have to sit a whole weekend, or morning, or hour. Right?

Signed,
Sitting Some But Not Too Often

Dearest Sitting Some,

This is a very interesting and fairly common question. So let me answer by getting right to the point. Yes, that’s right. The truth is that there’s a lot more to authentically liberating and transformative spirituality–and even to the path of Buddhism– than just meditating. “Sitting some” is fine. The real question is: What else are you doing with your life? People occasionally ask me in public forums, “Why do I have to meditate?” And I always reply, “Who said you have to?” Who says we have to get enlightened? What is our motivation? What are we looking for or even lacking, for that matter?

Sometimes I think there’s too much tight-lipped silence, grim sitting and bowing going down in the Buddhist ghetto, and that we could all use a little more Dharma stand-up! If the Buddha lived today, I suspect he’d add a few extra innings to his famous Eight-fold Path to Enlightenment, such as Good Exercise, Good Parenting and Good Humor. For a man cannot live by serious religiosity alone. Take my word for it, I’ve tried.

To think that Buddhism is all about meditation is to misunderstand it. Westerners attracted to Buddhism and Eastern thought and practice often make the mistake of seeing meditation in the most narrow sense of going into a quiet room and closing your eyes. In fact, there’s a lot more to these things, both externally, internally, and ultimately, as Tibetan commentators describe the process of spiritual development. Mindfulness is not the same as meditation; it can be practiced formally while sitting and while walking, as is done in traditional Buddhist monasteries and retreat centers, or informally in whatever activity in which we may be engaged. Being present, wakeful and showing up fully in our life is more important than any particular posture or set of words.

There’s a renowned Dzogchen teaching called “Buddhahood Without Meditation.” There is even a book by that name, translated from Dudjom Lingpa’s original Tibetan teaching. This startling title points to the fact that we are all Buddhas by nature, we only have to recognize and awaken to that fact. A related teaching is called “Buddhahood in the Palm of One’s Hand.” Both of these simply point to the fact that what we seek, we are; that nirvana is not far away, in future time or in another place, but inseparable from samsara (the cycle of birth and death governed by karma) and found hidden in the here and now. There are numerous stories and teaching tales in the classical enlightenment literature about karmically ripe individuals experiencing awakenings –while engaged in all kinds of ordinary activities.

Meditation is more about being than doing, introducing and unveiling a new way of seeing, far beyond sitting or just keeping still. Yet there inevitably is some appropriate effort, intention, and attention involved. There is no way around this. Meditation is how many Buddhists pray. Yet meditation practice is more of a listening than the usual supplicant’s so-called conversation with God.

Buddha called meditative awareness—or mindfulness– the main ”factor of enlightenment.” However, Buddha outlined seven factors of enlightenment, including also developing the qualities of joy, equanimity, perseverance, concentration, serenity, and analytical investigation; if you are deeply wise, these seven are well balanced. The Buddhist path to enlightenment actually includes not one but three liberating trainings: ethical self discipline, meditation, and wisdom. Without the other two, meditation alone is not enough.

If we ask how to undertake and accomplish the path of enlightenment, and how to implement and practice these three trainings, they are broken out into the renowned Eight-fold Path taught by Buddha himself as the way to accomplish what he accomplished and eventually become just like him. Again, notice that in these traditional eight steps to enlightenment, there are practices such as Wise Livelihood, which are not solitary or contemplative but engage us fully in daily life, although mindfulness and loving kindness at our tasks is recommended and helps in many ways. Love at work, compassion in action, spiritual and social activism, karma yoga as well as devoting ourselves to the welfare of the world are an important part of spiritual practice in all the great traditions. Mother Teresa said that “We can’t all do great things, but doing small things with great love makes them great.”

The heart of every spiritual path without exception is some kind of basic morality and self-discipline. If we wish to live wisely and contribute to a better world, we must try to become better people–authentic people, honest, straightforward, decent and even unselfishly good. Practices such as truth-telling, non-harming, peacemaking, balancing, showing generosity and engaging in selfless service are too often overlooked in the grace race to achieve higher states of blessedness; yet all these are yogas, if you will, that help you connect with the divinity– however you conceive of it–and the inherent beauty and sacredness of life. Yoga means union, that which yokes us to the highest and deepest form of spirit.

In olden days I was like a teenage Buddha statue and used to meditate a lot, often all day, in my teacher’s Tibetan monastery in the East. Now, wherever I am, I meditate, sinking roots deep into the present moment and extracting (thriving on) its essence. But there are innumerable ways to worship and awaken. “There are countless ways to kneel and kiss the ground,” sang the Sufi poet-saint Rumi. Especially in our diverse, multicultural, pluralistic era, I feel we must be respectful and tolerant of the many options people have discovered for pursuing spiritual development, even within each faith, not to mention among the different faiths. Moreover, we must be patient with ourselves and our karmic condition, and avoid indulging in guilt, shame and self-bashing in the name of deep spiritual aspiration.

Of course, to a Buddhist monk or nun or dedicated Buddhist practitioner, meditation is an important part of every day, as it is for me and has been for over thirty years. But I am a slow learner! How long does it take to wake up? Perhaps you can do it your own way. The rich and deep Dharma teachings are all there, freely available, for whoever wants to avail themselves of them. Help yourself. As the Buddha said, “Come and see.”

One of my favorite Christian mystics, Meister Eckhart, wrote: “If the only prayer you ever say is ‘Thank You,’ that is sufficient.”

Here is an instant mini-meditation for you. l bet you can do this every day, without too much stress, anywhere, anytime, with or without closing your eyes.

Breathe, relax, and smile.
Breathe, relax, and smile.
Breathe relax, and smile.
Outdoors or inside,
Enjoy the joy of natural meditation.

Original article no longer available…

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