John Freese and Nick Meinhardt talk about how they got into Buddhism and meditation, what it was like being a monk with Thich Nhat Hanh, social justice, and the koan “what does it mean to be down?”
The Four Noble Truths Episode of Down with the Dharma: John gives a Dharma talk on The Four Noble Truths from an early Buddhist perspective and from the perspective of Daoist internal alchemy.
The Four Noble Truths
The three aspects: conceptual knowledge, practice, fruition
Suffering, suffering should be understood, suffering has been understood
Cause of suffering is craving, craving should be abandoned, craving has been abandoned
Cessation of suffering, cessation should be realized, cessation has been realized
Path to cessation of suffering, the path should be cultivated, that path has been cultivated
Three kinds of suffering: regular suffering, suffering due to change, suffering due to conditioned states
Consciousness feeding on the five aggregates, I-making and mine-making
The six links of dependent origination:
Body/mind, contact, sensation, craving, grasping, becoming
The three poisons of ignorance, craving, and aversion
Craving/aversion as the only link in the chain where a person has agency
The practice is to develop awareness of and equanimity towards body sensation in order to not be overwhelmed by and identified with a reactive emotion. Short term high, long term crash. Extractivism. Good in the beginning, middle, and end. Regeneration. Example of Daoist alchemy. Small, medium, and large cessation
Eightfold Path: view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, concentration
Threefold training: precepts, concentration, insight
Five precepts: no killing, no stealing, no sexual misconduct, no false or harmful speech, no intoxicants
Right Effort: cultivate wholesome mental formations that are arising, bring up wholesome mental formations that are not arising, abandon unwholesome mental formations that have arisen, do not cultivate unwholesome mental formations that are not arising
Four Foundations of Mindfulness: body, sensation, mind, Dhamma. Three one structure. Body, breath, mind, Buddha Nature. Asana, pranayama, meditation, Samadhi. Jing, qi, shen, Dao.
Cultivate well being in body and mind, become sensitive to disturbance of body and mind, let go of disturbance, enjoy deeper well being of body and mind, become sensitive to disturbance, etc
The four jhanas.
The Four Fruits of Attainment: Stream Entry, Once Returner, Non-Returner, Arahat
The 10 Fetters Belief in rites and rituals, belief in self, doubt
Craving and aversion
Craving for subtle realm rebirth, I-making, ignorance
Blofeld, John. Taoism: The Road to Immortality. Shambhala, 2000.
Bodhi, Bhikkhu, trans. “Setting in Motion the Wheel of the Dhamma—Bhikkhu Bodhi.” SuttaCentral. Accessed September 8, 2019. https://suttacentral.net/sn56.11/en/bodhi.
Buddhadasa, Bhikkhu. Anapanasati: Mindfulness of Breathing. First. Vol. I,II,III. Bangkok: Sublime Life Mission, 1976.
———. Mindfulness With Breathing : A Manual for Serious Beginners. Wisdom Publications, 1988.
SuttaCentral. “English Translation of MN 118, ‘Mindfulness of Breathing.’” Accessed December 5, 2017. https://suttacentral.net/en/mn118.
SuttaCentral. “English Translation of SN 36.6, ‘The Dart.’” Accessed February 27, 2018. https://suttacentral.net/en/sn36.6.
Goenka, S. N. Discourse Summaries. Seattle, WA: Pariyatti Publishing, 2000.
Hanh, Thich Nhat. Path of Emancipation. Full Circle, 2010.
SuttaCentral. “Higher Fetters—Bhikkhu Bodhi.” Accessed February 18, 2019. https://suttacentral.net/sn45.180/en/bodhi.
“Kalaha-Vivada Sutta: Quarrels & Disputes.” Accessed August 7, 2018. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/snp/snp.4.11.than.html.
SuttaCentral. “Lower Fetters—Bhikkhu Bodhi.” Accessed February 18, 2019. https://suttacentral.net/sn45.179/en/bodhi.
Mu, Wang. Foundations of Internal Alchemy: The Taoist Practice of Neidan. Translated by Fabrizio Pregadio. Mountain View, Calif.: Golden Elixir Press, 2011.
Pregadio, Fabrizio. Awakening to Reality: The “Regulated Verses” of the Wuzhen Pian, a Taoist Classic of Internal Alchemy. Mountain View, Calif: Golden Elixir Press, 2009.
SuttaCentral. “Sāriputta—Bhikkhu Bodhi.” Accessed August 10, 2018. https://suttacentral.net/an3.33/en/bodhi.
Sujato, Bhikkhu, trans. “Rolling Forth the Wheel of Dhamma —Bhikkhu Sujato.” SuttaCentral. Accessed September 8, 2019. https://suttacentral.net/sn56.11/en/sujato.
Sumedho, Ajhan. The Four Noble Truths. Hertfordshire: Amaravati, 1992.
Thanissaro, Bhikkhu, trans. “Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion.” Accessed September 8, 2019. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn56/sn56.011.than.html.
Thanissaro, Bhikkhu. The Paradox of Becoming. Valley Center, CA: Thanissaro Bhikkhu, 2008.
It has been years since I posted on this blog. I wanted to write a post to make this a sort of home page for people who are curious about me. Go to my bio page for more details. But basically:
I am a PhD student at Claremont School of Theology, a therapist resident at The Clinebell Institute, and an adjunct professor at University of The West. I am a member of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing. At UWest I teach classes on Contemplative Practice, Buddhist Social Ethics, Service Learning, World Religions, and World Philosophies. Outside of UWest I teach meditation and from time to time give Dharma talks and lead retreats.
My research is focused on developing a Buddhist model of care and counseling that integrates Buddhism, Acceptance Commitment Therapy, Somatic Experiencing, and Critical Theory. My goal is to support the healing of individual and collective moral injury and trauma.
3,000 people risked arrest by sitting on Broadway near the Wall Street bull, blocking traffic from noon until the evening. Here are some words by an activist at 3:30pm.
I am overwhelmed with emotion as I feel the climate march flowing through my body. Over 400,000 people flowing as a river to save the earth from the destruction of extractavism. The front of the march was embodied by people on the front lines of the struggle against climate change: Indigenous communities, people of color communities, people caught in the sacrifice zones of unregulated capitalism. The youth group at the very front had large Sunflower signs in their hands, Sunflowers can grow deep roots and suck up toxic heavy metals out of the soil. The youth were followed by indigenous communities who have powerfully held on to their worldview of nature as sacred and humanity meant to live in a reciprocal relationship with her. Indigenous women who can see extractavism as a continuation of colonialism, who fight against the sexual violence that comes from the man-camps set up near fracking sites. As Lakota elder Faith Spotted Eagle states “All are connected.”
I showed up at 10:00am on a side street where people of faith were gathering for an interfaith service before we marched. At first I was disappointed by the lack of people but by 11:00am we were completely packed in. Standing with my fellow brothers and sisters from the Order of Interbeing, surrounded by other Buddhists, we were standing behind the Jewish group and in front of the Universalist Unitarian Group. I raised up my camera like a periscope to take pictures of the sea of people in front and behind (see below). We were a huge crowd and we were just a small tributary that was to feed into the Ganges of the march. It felt like we were soldiers waiting in an assembly point before we were to go into battle. Like the Lord of the Rings when the Dwarves, Elves, Humans, and Hobbits march from Gondor to the Black Gate of Mordor to confront the Eye of Sauron, the ultimate Extractavist. As we prepared to march different faith leaders led us in chants and prayers. Hindu, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Earth Religions, Humanists. One was “We are marching in the light of God” from the South African anti-apartheid movement. I had to translate the message to a Buddhist one, “we are marching in the Buddha-Nature” and then it did fine. We waited for three hours to march. I kept reminding myself that the longer we had to wait, the more people there must be who came to march so it was good to wait.
From a ritual theory perspective the march was a powerful collective attunement and generation of a worldview that can see the sacredness of nature and our relationship to her. A powerful space that allows us to see and uproot the worldview of extractavism which holds that man is separate from the earth and here to dominate her. To replace that view with one that sees that life is not about free market continual growth and consumption of the earth. It is about relationship to the source, in touch with the regenerative power of the Earth, the regenerative power of Suchness, the source of true happiness that we find in our hearts and in the hearts of others. The march was a ritual to raise awareness about how we treat each other. The same logic that exploits the earth also exploits indigenous people, people of color, women, poor white people, lgbtq people, and disabled people. This exploitive worldview comes from a profound lack of connection to the Source. It comes from a profound alienation. The march was a ritual to reassert the indigenous, pre-patriarchal worldview that has survived. Like my Irish genetic ancestors who had burial sites that were seen wombs, not tombs. Like my Buddhist spiritual ancestors who realized that our true nature is the Ground of Being and that we inter-are with world around us.
Right Mindfulness Continued
The Establishment of Sensations
Now we move to the next establishment of mindfulness which is sensations. Sensations are the physical sensations we experience in our bodies. They can be caused by physical stimulus or mental stimulus. They can be pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. We are still talking about awareness of the body but, by including the level of pain, pleasure, or neutrality in the sensation, we are adding another dimension to our focus than we had in the previous establishment of mindfulness. Also, because sensations can be caused by the mind as well as the body, that adds another dimension to our focus.
We all have habitual responses to pleasure and pain which conditions the way we experience ourselves and the world and the way we act. By becoming aware of sensations we can become aware of this conditioning and be free of it. Then our experience of ourselves and the world will be more open and alive and we can choose more clearly what will bring us happiness and not bring suffering.
I will tell some stories to illustrate my point. One time I was meditating and I had some pain in my leg, a cramp in my calf muscle, so I was experiencing a painful sensation. At first I just noticed it and went back to my breath. Then it started to hurt more. My mind started to react to it saying “oh this hurts, I should move my leg” and there was a little fear and sadness about it. Then the pain got a little worse and my mind became more insistent saying “this is stupid, you’re hurting yourself, you should move” and there was some panic.
So I was aware of that and just came back to my breathing and then I focused on the pain itself. I could distinguish between the pain and my mind’s mental and emotional reaction to it. I asked myself, “Is the pain really that bad? Am I really hurting myself?”. I came back to just focusing on the sensation of the pain. I could experience it as it was and not be caught up in my mind’s reaction to it. It was just a sensation happening in the present moment. I could feel that it was not going to hurt me so I could just stay still. Then my body and mind relaxed more and stopped worrying about it and I could just be with it. It was just a sensation. I felt very present and spacious and free.
So the pain actually helped me be present and went from being an unpleasant sensation to a neutral sensation. There are other times when I feel pain in my body while meditating and when I experience it clearly I can tell that “yes this will hurt me” so I change my posture but this is a clear response to a clear experience of what is going on instead of a habitual reaction to non-clear experience of what is going on.
One time I was driving in the car with my Mom and my niece from Texas to New Mexico. It was the second day of driving and we were all a little tired. We had decided to buy some food at a grocery store and then have a picnic in the car while we continued to drive. I was very hungry and I was driving and my mom was preparing the food in seat next to me. She had had some hand surgery earlier that month and so she was having trouble opening up the cheese dip. At the moment though I could not see her situation clearly. I was just feeling very hungry and tired and there was the food right before me so I had a lot of unpleasant sensations. In my mind I was thinking “Come on Mom! Open the damn dip! You need to be more strong! You need to be more assertive!” So then I said “just hold the dip and I’ll pull of the seal” and I reached over and gave a good manly tug and proceeded to pull the container out of my Mom’s hands and drop it on her lap and spill crackers everywhere. I apologized and then she explained to me about how her hands were fairly numb in the fingertips and how she just had a hard time doing things with her hands.
So my point is that based on my inability to just be with the unpleasant sensations my mind launched into a whole story about the inadequacy of my mom and went and acted in a clumsy and stupid way. I had had been just a little more patient, If I could have just experienced the unpleasant sensations without reacting to them I could have had a nicer lunch and enjoyed my mom’s company. If we can not be with unpleasant sensations then our mind will create all kind of stories about them and get us to act in unskillful ways.
Here is another story. I remember after being a monk for about a year I started to have this feeling of doubt come up. It wasn’t about anything in particular, it was just doubt for doubt’s sake. I could feel it in my belly. It was a shaky, weak, anxious, and tense sensation. An unpleasant sensation. I had to practice being with my breath and the sensation in my belly to keep my mind from reacting to it. If I didn’t practice I would get doubtful about everything from wether I should be a monk to just cleaning and cooking and talking to people. After about a year of being with this unpleasant sensation and not feeding it it gradually changed to a calm, strong, solid sensation and the doubt changed to confidence. I think the sensation came from when I was a baby and because he had been a monk for a year and practicing regularly it came up to be released.
We carry within our bodies all of our past experiences. When we follow the mindfulness trainings and mediate regularly wounds from our past will come up. They may manifest as unpleasant sensations and emotions. We may or may not have a clear memory of what caused the wound but that does not matter. The important thing is just to be with the sensations and not react to them. When we react to them we are just recreating the situation that caused us to be wounded in the first place. Sometimes the sensations and emotions can be very intense and painful. When they come up you should take refuge in your breathing and try and just stay with the physical sensations. That will help you stay grounded and not be overwhelmed. So if you have intense sadness coming up just breathe and focus on how it is manifesting in your body. Just stay with your body. If crying happens naturally then just let it happen. Let whatever emotions or thoughts that manifest come and go freely, try not to get caught up in them because that can leave you going around in circles and not really processing anything at a deeper level.
I read a book once called “Focusing” which was a therapeutic technique developed by a psychologist who did a lot of research on why some people got better with therapy and others didn’t. After looking at a lot of variables he found that the most important factor in wether a person succeeded or not was wether they could tune in physically to their situation. In other words, when they were experiencing some pain from their childhood, if they could tap into a clear felt sense of the experience and be with it that was the main thing that allowed them to heal. How smart they were, how much they talked about their problems, how much they knew about them intellectually, even how good the therapist was were all, were all secondary to being able to have a felt sense of their situation.
So through regular practice we can build our capacity to be with strong sensations and not be overwhelmed by them. This includes pleasant sensations as well as unpleasant sensations. I will talk more about this in next week’s blog.
The Four Establishments of Mindfulness
The next spoke in the noble eight fold path is right Mindfulness. Mindfulness is awareness. To be mindful is to be aware in the present moment of what is going on inside of yourself and in the world around you. The mind has the habit of being lost in thoughts about the past or the future or to be caught up in an obsessive way about something in the present. Right mindfulness is to train the mind so that it is in the habit of being in the present moment and aware of what is going on. In the sutra entitled “The Four Establishments of Mindfulness” the Buddha gave extensive teachings on mindfulness. I like to think of this sutra as providing both a map of what to be mindful of and specific practices to help us cultivate that mindfulness. This sutra is quite substantial so I will not give an exhaustive commentary on it here but I will try and say enough so that a good understanding of right mindfulness can be gained. There are a number of practices offered in the section on the body.
As the title of the sutra suggests, there are four main areas that a practitioner should cultivate mindfulness of, namely:
Mindfulness of the body
Mindfulness of sensations
Mindfulness of mind
Mindfulness of the objects of mind.
These four areas are what it is possible for a human being to be mindful of. In other words, when you are in the present moment, whatever it is that you are experiencing will be within one of these four areas. When you are able to clearly recognize what you are experiencing in the present moment then it is much easier not to identify with it and react to it. So this sutra is to help remove any blind spots that we might have based on our conditioning so that our innate awareness can manifest more fully.
Awareness of Breathing
The Buddha begins the section on mindfulness of the body with the practice of mindful breathing. Awareness of breathing is probably the most fundamental meditation practice that the Buddha taught. It serves as a foundation for all of the other practices. It is in the core of the Zen, Theravada, and Tibetan meditation schools as well. By being aware of the breath we can detach from our thinking and be in the present moment. The breath is a neutral object to be aware of, it does not stimulate craving or aversion so by being aware of it we can cultivate an open and accepting awareness. Once this awareness is established with the breath we can start to include more and more of our experience within our body and mind.
The following is a link to instructions on a specific awareness of breathing practice that I learned at Japanese Zen monastery while I was in college. I still use this practice regularly.
Awareness of the Body
The next practice the Buddha gives in the sutra is awareness of the body. Some commentators interpret this to mean the breath body and others interpret it to mean the physical body. Thich Nhat Hanh took it to mean the physical body so that is the way I learned it and it matches my experience. Basically when you become established in the awareness of your breathing your awareness will naturally spread more and more throughout your body. It is just a natural by-product of being in the present moment. So you are aware of your breathing and your body as one whole. Another natural result of being aware of your body and breath is that they will relax. Without trying to make it so your breath will become slower and deeper and your body will let go more and feel at ease. You will still want to maintain a good posture but you will be more relaxed. In fact the good posture along with the awareness of breathing is what helps you let go and relax more deeply.
Postures and Actions
Next the Buddha talks about awareness of the postures and actions of the body. The practitioner should be aware his/her body while sitting, standing, walking or laying down. In the monastery would there would be a session of walking meditation between two sessions of sitting meditation. We would breathe in and make a step with our left foot and breathe out and make a step with our right foot. We would walk around the meditation hall in a circle one or two times. I would continue counting my breath as we did this. Before we started walking and after we finished we would stand behind our meditation cushions for a few moments practicing awareness of standing. Before lunch each day we would also practice walking meditation as a group outside going at a more normal pace but walking in silence and being aware of our breath and steps. From time to time we would stop and look at a tree or a bird or a nice view. By paying attention to your steps and your breath you can detach from your thinking in the same way that you did while sitting. You can be more fully in the present moment and aware of the world around you. So being aware of your posture, whatever it happens to be, is a good way to be in the present moment and not caught up in your thinking. The Buddha goes on in the sutra to say that whatever action you are doing, be it eating, speaking, or even going to the restroom, you should be aware of your body. So if you are at the bank waiting in line or you are doing your dishes or you are walking in the supermarket you can use that time as a time for practice just by coming back to your breath and being aware of your body. By being aware of you posture you will also see how your posture can affect your mood and will naturally want to straighten up and let go of any tension.
In the next section of the sutra the Buddha gives a practice of going through each part of the body. This is a practice that you can do during sitting meditation or while laying down. Basically you become aware of your breathing and then go part by part from the top of your head to the tips of your toes. The way Thich Nhat Hanh taught it you say silently to yourself “Breathing in I am aware of the top of my head, breathing out I smile to the top of my head.” and then you move to the next part. When I do this practice I just say “top of head, relax.” I have also found it very useful to read a basic anatomy book to get an understanding of where the organs are and what their general function is so when I am saying “aware of spleen” for instance I know where to focus. This practice is very good at relieving tension in the body and for getting in touch with areas that you might not be aware of for one reason or another. In other words you might be desensitized to certain areas of your body and this practice will help open that area up. If this practice interests you and you really want to get into it you can go to a 10 day “Vipassana” course in the tradition of S.N. Goenka where the practice of body scanning is done at a very deep level.
The Four Elements
In the next section of the sutra the Buddha talks about being aware of the four elements in the body. Traditionally this means being aware of the sensations of heat and cold (fire), cohesion and fluidity (water), movement and stillness (air), and solidity and lightness (earth). In other words you are using these ranges of possibility to fine tune your awareness of the sensations of your body.
We know our body is made up of the four elements and this practice is to help us directly experience that as true. By being aware of the earth element within us as a direct experience we also become more aware of the earth element around us. Thich Nhat Hanh teaches a guided meditation where you say silently to yourself “aware of the earth element within me I breath in, aware of the earth element within me I breathe out” etc… for the rest of the elements and then you do the same thing for the four elements outside of you. When you do the fire element you can pay attention to the sensation of sunlight, when you do the earth element you can pay attention to what you are sitting on or a tree near you, when you do the water element you can be aware of the saliva in your mouth and the humidity in the air or sit by a river and look at the river. So by doing this you realize more and more how your body is interdependent with the world around it. The oxygen you breath in is coming from the plants around you and the plants are breathing in the carbon dioxide you breathe out. When you are walking the bones in your body are made up of the the earth you are walking on. This practice can help you be more deeply in touch with the world around you and at the same time let go of identifying with your body as a separate entity from the world around you. We know these things intellectually but doing these practices helps us to actually experience it.
Visualizing the Decomposition of a Body
In this section of the sutra the Buddha gives a practice on visualizing a corpse left in a charnel ground to decompose on its own. He describes nine stages of decay starting with the body being blue and bloated, then being eaten by animals, birds and insects, and gradually being reduced to bones and finally dust. After each of the nine stages the practitioner is to remind him/herself that his/her body will inevitably go through the same process at some point. This of course is a very grim thing to visualize and think about but the Buddha gave this practice to us out of compassion. We are so identified with the body that its immanent decomposition can seem like a far off and unreal thing. Our society has separated the reality of death from us to a large degree so we lose sight of the impermanence of the body and therefore lose sight of what it means to be alive. This practice is a strong medicine to cure us of that. Ideally it should leave one with a greater appreciation for life, a desire to make good use of his or her time, and ultimately help uproot the identification with the body.
At the end of each of these sections in the sutra, wether it is mindfulness of breathing, the body scan, the four elements, etc…, there is a common refrain where the Buddha gives some further points of reflection. First he says we should be aware of the object in the object, so if the object happens to be the breath we should be aware of the breath in the breath. I other words we should open fully to the experience and not separate ourselves from it in any way. Then he says we can be aware of the object inside of ourselves, outside of ourselves, or both inside an outside of ourselves. As I mentioned before for example we can be aware of the four elements within our body and outside of our body. Another example would be awareness of our posture as well as the posture of others. This may sound overly simplistic, why would we care about another person’s posture, but the point is to be aware of what is happening directly without the filter of our conceptual mind so this is encouraging us to practice that. The next point of reflection is to contemplate the origination and dissolution factors of a given object. So when we are aware of the body we can think of the food we have eaten today and try and be in touch with the experience of our body living on that food. The same can be applied to the air we are breathing, the heat of the sun, and the water we have drunk. The point here is to be in touch with the fact that this body is manifesting because of certain factors and if they are not there then this body will cease to manifest . So we are directly experiencing that our body is a conditioned phenomenon. I find this helps me to be more in touch with my body and the world around me and have more compassion for them while at the same time I feel more detached and less identified with my body and the world around me.
So this section on the body has a number of practices in them. I see awareness of the breath, general awareness of the body, and awareness of the postures and activities of the body to be fundamental and something I do all the time. I see the other practices as powerful and useful and definitely worth trying and if you are drawn to one or two of them in particular you should go into them in depth. I don’t think it is necessary to do all of them all of the time though as then you might be digging to many shallow wells and never hit water. I also highly recommend doing some form of yoga or tai chi as another way to increase your awareness of your body. As the title of the sutra suggests, our mindfulness can become more and more established in the body to where it is something that is happening naturally and without effort.
In the next blog I will talk about the second establishment of mindfulness.
The next spoke in the eight fold path is right effort. Right effort has four components to it.
When a negative mental formation arises in your mind consciousness, recognize it, don’t feed it, and let it go back down into the store consciousness.
When there are no negative mental formations arising in your mind consciousness, don’t do anything that will make them arise.
When a positive mental formation arises in your mind consciousness, recognize it and enjoy it for as long as it manifests.
When there are no positive mental formations arising in your mind consciousness, do something to invite one to manifest.
Just to review, the store (or ground) consciousness holds all of the mental formations in the form of seeds. When one of these seeds is watered by something we see, hear, smell, taste, touch, or think, then it manifests as a mental formation in our mind consciousness. For example, think of your mother. Just by reading these words the mental formation of your mother manifests in your body and mind as an image, emotion, thought, etc…
Right effort is to recognize what is manifesting in your mind consciousness and act accordingly. So if anger or craving or some other negative formation is manifesting in your mind consciousness, your job is to recognize it and not feed it. Not feeding it means not acting on it with body speech or mind. Not acting on it with your mind means not identifying with it and actively thinking thoughts based on it. There is a difference between being aware of a thought and actively thinking a thought. There is a difference between experiencing an emotion and identifying with an emotion. When you fully experience something in the present moment there is no identification with it, there is just the experience that comes and goes in awareness. Meditation practice is about training yourself to be able to do just that. You learn how to experience physical sensations, emotions, and thoughts without reacting to them. Some mental formations are very strong and are hard not to react to. Through regular meditation you will increase your capacity to experience strong emotions without reacting to them. You may have deeply ingrained patterns that you are not even aware of. Meditation will help deepen your awareness and reveal this conditioning and allow you to let go of it.
This is a natural and organic process. Just by letting mental formations be in our awareness a process of transformation will take place. Thich Nhat Hanh talks about mindfulness (awareness) being like the sun, the light will penetrate a flower bud without any effort and cause it to open. In the same way negative mental formations will be weakened over time by being exposed to awareness and positive ones will be strengthened. Thich Nhat Hanh goes on to say that in fact, negative mental formations are like the compost with which we make the flowers from. Being present with pain, loneliness, anger, and craving when they arise is how we cultivate a deep peace and happiness that is not bound by any conditions. So we should not judge or suppress any mental formation even though it may be unpleasant. Judging and suppressing is still reacting and feeding.
So right effort is mainly about recognizing and letting go. You can think of a farmer who wants to grow corn. He plows the field, plants the seeds, and waters the field. He has created the conditions for the corn to grow but it is up to the soil itself, the seed and the sunshine to actually grow the corn. You can also think of your own body and how it heals. If you have a cut you clean the wound and put on a band-aid but then it is up to your body to do the actual healing, it is beyond your control. In the same way, by experiencing what is happening in the present moment and not reacting to it, and by following the rest of the eight fold path we are creating the conditions for a process of transformation to take place. A process that naturally results in the increase of wisdom and compassion. To me this is literally the process of evolution.
The previous components of the path dealt with outward behavior, now with right effort we are dealing with the internal work or cultivation. In the next blog I will get into the nuts and bolts of meditation with right mindfulness.
The Four Noble Truths Part 3
The next spoke in the wheel of the noble eight fold path is right livelihood. The main question to ask ourselves here is whether or not the way we earn our living is causing ourselves and or others to suffer. The Buddha taught that a person should not earn their livelihood by selling meat, alcohol or weapons. There may have been some other ones, I can’t remember right now, but we can get the general idea from these examples. It is clear that the Buddha is asking us not to directly cause suffering through our work as well as not to provide the means for other people to cause suffering.
This brings up the issue of karma again. The law of karma is that we reap what we sew. Positive actions bring positive results and negative actions bring negative results. If we get angry at someone that anger is releasing toxins in our body and so even in the act we are suffering. Then, according to the law of karma, we have planted a seed of anger that will come back to us sooner or later. By acting on aversion we are also reinforcing the experience of being a separate self. So for all these reasons, not to mention that negative actions create a negative society, the Buddha is asking us not to generate negative karma.
We all need food clothes and shelter and some basic comforts and so we need a source of income. Depending our background, talents, the economy, and where we live we will have a range of choices to make in regards to our livelihood. So this teaching is asking us to try and choose in the direction of wisdom and compassion and not in the direction of craving and aversion. In other words, if you have the choice between two jobs and one pays a little better but the other one is more positive karma you should take the more positive one if you can afford it. You may have to simplify your life a little but your overall happiness and well being will be greater and you will move towards enlightenment more easily. You will also be helping to create a better world. If you have to take the less positive but better paying job then you you just have to be patient and stay open for a way to simplify your life and or change jobs. If you receive money from investments then you should do your best not to invest in companies that exploit their workers, waste natural resources, or pollute the environment.
So this is a question of priorities. If your goal is spiritual growth and enlightenment then you won’t care so much if you are not driving the fanciest car or wearing the most expensive clothes. The Buddha said that we should not be caught in money, sex, power and fame, too much fancy food, and too much sleep. It is not that any of these things are negative in and of themselves but if our life is about attaining these things and thinking our happiness will come from them then we are going to suffer. If money or fame comes along as a byproduct of our being interested in our work and generating positive karma then O.K. but we should not be fooled into thinking that they are worth pursuing as and end in and of themselves.
I think in America our society has a spiritual vacuum that has been filled with materialism. People don’t have faith in the spiritual path and so they look for comfort in sense pleasures. I think this is largely due to Christianity no longer providing a living spiritual path. By this I mean people not having access to genuine living saints whose presence and touch and inspire people and point out to them what the true purpose of life is. I think another factor is the environmental crisis and the sense that the earth is deteriorating so young people don’t have future that they can look forward to. The then is a pessimism and just looking to get high one way or another.
I think the spiritual vacuum and the environmental crisis are related. If people had faith in the spiritual path then they would not look for happiness through material consumption which is a big cause of the environmental crisis. Our jobs and our society would be based around spiritual development instead of material consumption. I think to a certain degree this was the case in Europe in the middle ages when unprecedented numbers of people became monastics and totally focused on spiritual growth. I think this fell apart however when science and art developed and the church could not adapt and keep up. Instead of a living spiritual tradition we were left with an empty form of rules for rules sake.
When I was in college I went to a Zen monastery near my school for a weekend retreat and the abbot talked to us about the precepts or ethical guidelines in Buddhism. He said that to follow the precepts perfectly is to be enlightened and to be enlightened is to follow the precepts perfectly. What he meant was that the behavior recommended by the precepts are a natural expression of the awakened mind and that someone who is enlightened would just follow them spontaneously without effort. I think this is very important to keep in mind. By following these behavior guidelines we can reduce the craving and aversion us and generate more awareness and equanimity. This will help our meditation grow deeper. Deeper meditation will help us become more aware of what behavior in our lives is causing us to suffer and we can modify our behavior even more. So there is a relationship between our actions and our meditation practice. They should support each other. If you only meditated and didn’t follow these guidelines you would not make much progress. If you only followed the guidelines but didn’t meditate you may not understand as much why you are following the guidelines.
In the next blog I will talk about the last three spokes of the eight fold path.