The three marks of conditioned reality

The Buddha taught that conditioned reality has three characteristics: anicca, dukha, and anatta.  Conditioned reality includes the six senses of eye, ear nose, tongue, body, and mind and the world experienced through them.  Anicca is the Pali word for impermanence.  In conditioned reality everything is always changing, nothing stays the same.  The cells of our bodies are constantly being born and dying as we go from being a baby to an adult to an old person to death. Our thoughts and emotions are alway changing, one day we are happy, the next day we are sad, one minute we are thinking about this, the next minute we are thinking about that. Our physical health and material wealth are always changing.  The world around us is always changing as it moves from day to night, month to month, season to season.  Our relationships change, the weather changes, plants animals and humans are born and die, civilizations come and go, species come and go, even the earth and the sun manifested at one point and will disintegrate at one point. So nothing in conditioned reality is permanent.

Dukha is the Pali word that is normally translated as suffering but it also means the inability to satisfy.  In conditioned reality we experience physical pain and disease, emotional pain, and spiritual pain.  For many people it is a struggle just to survive.  For others they may be materially secure but they are not happy in their family, relationships, career etc… Some people may be content with their family, job and relationships but they still feel unfulfilled deep down, they feel that something is missing, perhaps even an existential angst.  Some people may be overall content and free from worry but no matter how good we have it we will one day have to let go and therefore even the things in conditioned reality that bring us happiness contain within them the seeds of suffering.  This is why the Buddha taught that conditioned reality is not able to permanently satisfy us and therefore has the characteristic of dukha.  He said that the only thing that can bring us permanent happiness, satisfaction, and fulfillment is spiritual realization.

Anatta is the Pali word for non-self.  A human being who is not realized (which is the vast vast majority of us) identifies with his or her body and mind as who he or she is.  The Buddha said though that our body and mind are not who we are.  Mind here includes the five sense consciousnesses of eye, ear, nose, tongue, and body, the mind consciousness which perceives thought and emotion, and the ego or the sense of being a distinct individual entity in time and space.  The Buddha said that all of these things are impermanent and subject to birth and death, they are part of conditioned reality and are not self.

In contrast to conditioned reality the Buddha spoke of unconditioned reality.  He said if it were not for the unconditioned there would be no liberation from the conditioned.  The Buddha (whose name literally means “awakened one”) is somebody who woke up from his identification with conditioned reality and realized his true nature which is the unconditioned reality.  He said that our identification with conditioned reality is like a man seeing a rope on the ground and mistakenly seeing it as a snake.  He said that realizing the unconditioned reality is like the the man seeing the rope as it really is and realizing that there never was a snake in the first place.  In other words, based on our ignorance we mistakenly identify with our body and mind as who we are and we experience ourself as a separate entity in a world around us.  Upon awakening to our true nature this ignorance is destroyed.  The Buddha often referred to himself as the Tathagata which means “one coming from suchness”.  This suchness is our true nature, the ground of being.  As I understand it, conditioned reality manifests from and consists of suchness. The subject and object of awareness both manifest from the same ground and when a person realizes this fully then there is no more duality, no more experience of being a separate self in time and space, no more suffering.

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Meditation Instructions

Sit in an upright and comfortable posture.  If you are sitting on a cushion on the floor sit on the front 1/3 of your cushion so that your pelvis can tilt forward.  This will support your lower spine and free your abdomen to breathe more easily.  Ideally both knees are on the ground giving you three points of contact, your two knees and your sits bones.  If your knees don’t touch the ground you can put some cushions underneath to support them.  Another option is to use a meditation bench.  If sitting on the floor does not work for you you can put a cushion on a chair and sit on the front 1/3 of the cushion.  It also helps to roll up a towel and put it under the back legs of the chair to give your pelvis a little more forward tilt.  Whether you are sitting on the floor or in a chair, your hands can be resting on your thighs or in your lap, the main thing is that there is a straight vertical line from your shoulders to your elbows so that your back is not strained.  Your eyes can be closed or half open which ever is more comfortable for you.  Once you have settled in your posture then begin getting in touch with your breath.

Open up to the experience of your breath, the natural rhythm of the in breath and the out breath.  You can imagine you are at the beach watching the waves of the ocean come in and out.  Become aware of the beginning middle and end of the in breath, a slight pause, the beginning middle and end of the out breath, a slight pause, and the beginning of the cycle again.  Don’t try and control the breath in any way, just let it be natural.

To help the mind be more focused you can bring your attention to a point about two inches below the navel and about two inches inside.  In Japanese Zen this point is called the Hara.  It is a natural place to be aware of the rhythm of the breath.  You can feel the movement of the breath initiated here.  Also by focusing here chi or prana is generated in the body helping the body and mind be more energized and clear.  Open up to the sensations you experience here while breathing in and out.

To help the mind keep from wandering off you can practice counting the exhalations as you focus on the hara.  As you breathe out count silently to yourself “one”.  On the next exhale count “two”, the next one count “three”, keep going until you get to ten.  When you get to ten then begin again at one.  As you say the number in your mind let the sound travel the entire length of the exhalation i.e. “oooooooonnnnne” “twoooooooooooo” “threeeeeeeeeeee”.  Count in a very gentle and relaxed way.  Your effort should be gentle yet persistent.  If at some point you lose your count then begin again at one.

As you sit you will experience physical sensations, emotions, thoughts, sounds, etc… coming and going.  Just let these things come and go naturally.  Don’t try and control them or block them.  The point is just to be aware of what is going on without reacting to it.  If you notice that you got carried away just gently come back to hara and counting your exhalations.  If you feel pain in your body but it is not too bad then just let it be there.  If it becomes uncomfortable then change your posture to a more comfortable one.  If at some point you get tired of counting the breath then just take a break for a few breaths and then start again.

At a certain point in your practice you may start to experience a stillness or silence, a sense of presence and clarity.  It may be that the effort of counting the breath actually gets in the way of experiencing this stillness.  Thoughts may still be coming and going but you find focusing on the breath more disturbing than the thoughts.  If this happens then let go of the breath and just rest in open awareness.  If at some point your mind starts getting pulled away too much then come back to the breath.  In other words use the technique of counting the breath as long as it is helpful for you to stabilize the mind and let go of the technique when it is no longer helpful.

Another technique that may be helpful is that when you start to experience the silence or stillness, gently point your mind towards what you experience as the source of that stillness of silence.  Again use this technique as long as it helps and let go when it gets in the way.

It is good to sit 30 minutes a day at a regular time when your stomach is not full.  After sitting you may like to do walking meditation for 5 or 10 minutes.  As you breathe in step with your left foot and as you breathe out step with you right foot.  Pay attention to your feet touching the ground and the breath coming in and going out.  You can say the word “in” as you breathe in and “out” as you breathe out.

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Retreat and Wheeler Peak Hike

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Just finished a 5 day silent retreat. Then I hiked up Wheeler Peak yesterday. Here was the retreat schedule:

  • 5am wake up
  • 530 sitting, walking meditation, chanting
  • 7 breakfast
  • 8 work: chopping and stacking firewood
  • 930 break
  • 10 sitting
  • 11 yoga
  • 1230 lunch
  • 130 rest
  • 330 sitting in forest
  • 430 discussion
  • 630 dinner
  • 745 sitting
  • 845 rest
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Upper Valley in Red River

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Namo Tassa Bhagavato Arahato Samasambuddhasa

May this blog be of benefit to all beings.

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