Wednesday, September 15, 2010

a short reading list

When you study, study everything under the sun.
When you reflect, keep an open mind. 
When you practice, do one practice and go deep.
— Jamgön Kongtrül, 1813-1899

When it comes to practice, advice is ageless. We struggle with the same challenges that practitioners struggled with a thousand or two thousand years ago. Thus, we can read books from any age or any culture and we will find helpful advice.

What to read?
With the plethora of books on Buddhism now available, where do you start? When it comes to practice, it pays to keep things simple and rely on ageless advice. You don't need to read many books, but you do need to learn the ones you do read. Here is a basic reading list that will serve you well. If you really learn these, you will be in very good shape.
All these books are on Unfettered Mind's recommended reading blog. If you purchase them through the blog (it connects directly to Amazon), you will help Unfettered Mind in the process.
Basic Practice
  • Breath by Breath (Larry Rosenberg's very readable commentary on the Anapanasanti Sutra)
  • Mindfulness in Plain English (Gunaratana's excellent instructions in basic mindfulness, basically drawing from the Satipatthana Sutra)
  • Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (Suzuki Roshi)
  • How to Cook Your Life (Dogen and Uchiyama, best description I know of how to live in awareness)
Tibetan Mahayana
  • ONE lamrim text, e.g., Jewel Ornament of Liberation, Words of my Perfect Teacher, Treasury of Precious Qualities, The Three Levels of Spiritual Perception, etc.
    (strongly recommend listening to the 
    TAN series of podcasts as you read)
  • The Way of the Bodhisattva (a solid translation of Shantideva's Bodhicaryavatara)
  • Wake Up to Your Life (a reference manual for meditation practices, Ken McLeod)
  • The Great Path of Awakening (THE basic manual for mind training, Kongtrul, trans. Ken McLeod)
  • The Torch of Certainty (Kongtrul's commentary on ngöndro, trans. July Hanson)
  • Creation and Completion (Kongtrul's summary of vajrayana practice, trans. Sarah Harding)
  • Clarifying the Natural State (excellent practice book for mahamudra, Tashi Namgyal, trans. Erik Kunsang)
  • Heart Lamp (two excellent short books on  mahamudra, Tselek Rangdrol, trans. Erik Kunsang)
Two important sutras
  • The Diamond Sutra (Red Pine)
  • The Heart Sutra (Red Pine)
This may seem like a lot. Except for the lamrim text, Shantideva, and Wake Up to Your Life, the books are not long. All of them, however, are dense and potent. Thus, read them carefully, study them with friends or fellow practitioners, and take them to heart.

Monday, August 30, 2010

happiness and completion

At the end of the last retreat, a student asked, "Why don't you talk much about happiness, as most Tibetan teachers do?"

Why, indeed? Doesn't everyone, in the end, seek happiness?

Perhaps. Perhaps it depends on what happiness means to you.

Happiness, I think, is usually associated with a feeling of pleasure and the absence of pain. As such, I think it is both frivolous and unrealistic: frivolous because pleasure is a transient state, subject to change, and dependent on many conditions, internal and external, and unrealistic because life is unpredictable and pain can arise at anytime. 

The spate of books on happiness are particularly troubling as they lead people to believe that this is a viable objective in life, and, worse, that one should be happy. Big pharma is no doubt delighted with this trend as they can now happily present themselves as fulfilling a cultural need by peddling drugs for SAD (social anxiety disorder), grief (see this article), and related conditions which are increasingly being regarded as medical and mental pathologies instead of part of the ups and downs of the human condition. 

Indeed, the quest for happiness is, in another way, the continuation of the traditional view of religion and spiritual practice, namely, a way of transcending the human condition. Valhalla, paradise, heaven, nirvana all hold out the promise of eternal life, bliss, purity, and union, four basic spiritual longings that are at the heart of all our suffering and struggle.

As Don Cupitt notes in his book The Great Questions of Life, we are at the beginning (possibly in the middle, but definitely not at the end) of a global shift in the concept of religion, a shift away from the view of religion as a way of transcending the human condition  and toward a view that religion is about embracing the human condition. He opens this talk with a description of how the use of the language of life has, over the past century, largely replaced the language of religion.

Thus, for me, spiritual practice is now not so much about happiness as about completion, a way of experiencing life that is as complete as possible in each and every moment. 

This approach to spiritual practice was not what I initially sought. Like most people, I sought some kind of transcendence, if not in God, then in various god surrogates such as mahamudra, pristine awareness, or dzogchen, though, somewhat ironically, dzogchen means "great completion". 

My experience in retreat training was not one of transcendence, but one of descent, a descent into prolonged physical and emotional challenges that left me no option but to experience exactly what was arising. Taking and sending (mahayana mind training) was often the only form of practice I could do, and it worked, not in the sense of easing the pain or finding some transcendent state, but in providing me with a way to be in my experience, not blocking it, nor being consumed by it.

One principle that I learned then, though one I've had to learn and relearn it again and again, is that when we see and accept what is actually happening, even if it is very difficult or painful, mind and body relax, and in that rest, there is an exquisite quality that comes through just experiencing what arises, completely, with no separation. 

Some might call it joy, but it is not a giddy or excited joy. Rather it is a deep and quiet joy, a joy that, in some sense is always there, waiting for us, but usually touched only when some challenge, pain, or tragedy leaves us with no other option.

Others might call it truth, but this is a loaded and misleading word, carrying with it the notion of something that exists apart from experience itself. The notion of truth also sets up an opposition, with what is held to be false, and such duality necessarily leads to hierarchy, authority, and institutional thinking and its associated forms of mind killing.

Again, in the three-year retreat, one of the daily prayers contained the line "Though beings want to be happy, they just create suffering." At first, it seemed to me that these lines referred to a lack of skill, that is, if beings understood and applied the principles of karma, then they would not suffer as much. Better, if they experienced the "true nature of things", then they wouldn't suffer at all. But as time passed and I went through my own struggles, I came to understand these lines in a different way: the desire for happiness itself is a form of suffering as it leads to a struggle with experience, e.g., in the context of relationships, the desire for continual happiness undermines emotional connection.

Thus, for me, the purpose of practice is now to be with whatever arises in this experience we call "life", nothing more, and nothing less. Everything we do in practice is aimed at the development of the willingness, skills, and capacities needed to experience life this way. 

Thursday, July 22, 2010

What are you looking for in a teacher?

Teacher, guru, or spiritual friend, what are you looking for? The spiritual path has many challenges. There are many things we need to learn or develop. A short list would probably include motivation, skills in meditation and prayer, contemplation, etc. Like music and painting, most of us learn spiritual practice better with someone, rather, than, for instance, by reading a book. When we interact with an actual person, we have to give expression to what we have learned. It becomes alive in us in a way that book learning often does not.

In Buddhism we usually think of a teacher. In Catholicism, the comparable term might be spiritual guide. Whatever term we use, this person has a crucial role in our spiritual growth. Role? Actually, it would be more accurate to say "roles". I came up with a list of nine, probably not exhaustive or comprehensive, but perhaps a good starting point. Here are brief descriptions, in no particular order.

A teacher is a person who imparts to you a given body of knowledge, skill or capability. In the spiritual context, this might mean the underlying philosophy, moral principles, and meditation methods. A teacher has to have experience and knowledge to impart and, as a student, your responsibility is to learn from the teacher. The teacher may touch into coach or therapist roles, but only to a limited extent. Change in you comes through your efforts to learn what the teacher is teaching and to put it into practice.

A guru is a special teacher, a person whom you see as an expression of what it means to be awake and present and who also has the ability to elicit such experiences of awakening in you (i.e., transmission). In addition, he or she may provide instruction in methods of practice and guidance in both life and practice. Such a teacher may place significant demands on you to help you work through conceptual, emotional or spiritual blocks that prevent you from deeper levels of experience. Change in you comes through your confidence (or devotion) to your guru. This allows a deep emotional relationship to form which becomes the means by which you open to deeper levels of experience.

A priest is a person who, by virtue of his or her training, symbolizes a relationship with the spiritual, or, if you wish, the divine. Interaction with a priest is frequently highly ritualized, the ritual setting and roles providing an environment in which the patterns and prejudices of daily life are set aside and the priest can function for you as a representative of what you aspire to spiritually or religiously. Change comes through your trust in the ritual forms and using them to access what is in your heart.
While there are many different approaches to therapy, the aim in therapy is to heal. Thus, a therapist helps you to heal from emotional or psychological wounds that you may have incurred in the course of your life. The therapist provides a healing environment, a place where old hurts can be touched, without your being re-wounded. Change comes through the power of the emotional connection you experience with the therapist. He or she supports you, through presence, attention, and caring, in revisiting old hurts so they can heal.

A coach is person who helps you change the way you behave, with the aim of making the way you do things more productive, more satisfying, less problematic, etc. A coach may well overlap with a teacher (teaching specific skills) and with a therapist (addressing to some extent the emotional issues that prevent you from changing your behavior). Change comes from your being willing to experiment with the different behaviors that your coach suggests and to see what works and doesn't work for you.
A consultant is a person who helps you solve a problem by bringing greater depth and breadth of attention, experience and/or knowledge to the problem at hand. The challenge for the consultant is to avoid being relegated to an ineffectual role (the hand-holder) or being held responsible for the problem if it can't be resolved (the scapegoat). Frequently, the consultant seeks to move to the teacher role in order to help his or her client see the problem (and hence the possible solutions) differently. Change comes from your working with a consultant as a partner, combining his or her knowledge and experience about similar problems with your knowledge of the particulars of your problem.
A mentor is a person who has considerable experience, knowledge, and wisdom which he or she makes available to you. Where you learn specific areas of knowledge from a teacher, you learn how to implement that knowledge, how to live it, from a mentor. A mentor may also guide you in your path, in your career, for instance, but more generally, in the area of experience of the mentor. Change in you comes from your listening carefully to your mentor's experience and from the mentor creating opportunities for you to grow and develop.
A preacher is a person who moves you emotionally, evoking such emotions as love, fear, awe, or joy through his or her words and presentation. A preacher typically works with groups, often large groups, speaking to them in such a way that they are moved emotionally, inspiring them to go beyond what they ordinarily think themselves capable of. Change comes about either through faith (opening to new possibilities) or belief (solidifying one's convictions) in the preacher or what he or she is saying.
A guide is a person who knows the territory, is able to find a path, and protects you, as much as possible, from danger on the path. A guide is a good person to be with when you are going into to territory that is unknown or unfamiliar to you. Think of a river guide, or a mountain guide. Change comes from following your guide's directions, not striking out on your own, but absorbing and learning from your guide until you know the territory and its challenges and can be guide yourself.

Now, what are you looking for in a teacher?

Monday, May 3, 2010


"I don't know who I am any more. Nothing makes sense. I don't know how to go on. What do I do?"

A couple of months ago, I was leading an informal question and answer session, and after the meditation period, a young woman posed this question. She was clearly in distress about something, a loss, perhaps, a betrayal - she didn't say. Because it was a public forum I didn't ask for any details. Instead, I talked with her about how to meet experience.
Later, she asked, "Is there a way of out of the bitterness?" "Yes," I replied, "but if you look for it, you won't find it." She sat quietly for a few minutes, and then said, "So I have to experience it." "Yes," I said, "you have to experience it and not believe it."

Whenever a powerful experience arises, whether positive or negative, it triggers associations of all kinds, including deep longings and deep fears. The power of the experience says to us, "This is how things are" and we tend to believe it. If the experience is one of transcendence or insight, we may feel that we are one with the world, that we know the ultimate truth, that everything is love, that our search is over and our longings have come to an end, etc. If the experience is one of darkness or depression, we feel disorientation or despair, that all is hopeless, that we are forever alienated from the world, and we will never know joy, happiness, or love. The experience may even trigger both kinds of reactions at the same time. It's easy to fall into belief here, believing what the stories and feelings are telling us about the experience.
Instead, open to the experience and be where you are. Be aware of your body and your surroundings. Know that what is arising is an experience, nothing more, and nothing less.
A student excitedly told his teacher that he had had a vision of the buddhas of the ten directions gathering in the sky, initiating him into the mystery of life, while countless bodhisattvas and their consorts made offerings, sang songs and filled the sky with rainbows.
"Ah," his teacher sighed, "it's been many years now since I've been fooled by that kind of stuff."
As Rangjung Dorje wrote, in Aspirations for Mahamudra,
Since perception is experience and emptiness is experience,  

Since knowing is experience and delusion is experience,  
Since arising is experience and cessation is experience,  
May all assumptions about experience be eliminated.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Faith and Belief

There are two very different ways to meet what arises in experience.

One is to interpret what arises according to our conditioning. This is a self-reinforcing dynamic and results in a closed system in which everything is explained, the mystery of life is banished, and no new ideas, perspectives, or approaches to life can enter. This I call belief.

The other  is to open to whatever arises, to allow the reactions and stories of our conditioning to arise but not be swallowed by them, to open to the possibility of not knowing, and thus making a place in our experience not only for the mystery of life, but for new ideas and approaches. The willingness to meet experience this way I call faith.

In ordinary English usage, the words "faith" and "belief" are often used interchangeably and the difference between these two ways of meeting experience is confused or lost. One of the results is the pseudo-tension between science and religion, where science is presented as the willingness to open to new information in the form of experimental evidence (i.e., faith) and religion is portrayed as relying on fixed tenets that are held no matter what evidence is offered to the contrary (i.e., belief).

Belief kills both science and religion while faith is necessary for both.

If you try to practice meditation by holding to beliefs, you will inevitably come into conflict with your experience. Beliefs are conditioned ways of interpreting experience. As your capacity in attention deepens, you will see beyond your conditioning, and the beliefs you hold will lead you to dismiss what you experience then, or lead you to shut it down.

Start dev4seasons treeeloping a capacity for faith by being willing to experience whatever arises in your meditation practice. Rather than try to control your mind (i.e., your experience), open to what arises without being swallowed by it. This is a practice. You will fail at it ten thousand times. No matter. Just keep going. Use your breath as an anchor. Gradually, you will forge a different relationship with experience, where you can rest in what arises and be clear and at peace at the same time.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Being an Artist in Today's World

Peter Clothier recently wrote a little book called Persist, which consists of a collection of his reflections on being an artist "in a world gone mad with commerce". His reflections are sprinkled with his experience with meditation and how it has influenced his approach to art and writing.

What I like most here is that Peter sees his meditation practice not as way to heal, nor as a way to live life better or more efficiently, but as a way to appreciate life more deeply.

One example: One Hour/One Painting.

First, choose your picture. It should be preferably an original work of art, but it need not be a masterpiece. This is simply about learning to be available to what's there, not about the finer points of aesthetic discrimination. That can come later, if you wish. This is about allowing the eyes to function, in so far as possible, without interference from the thinking process. You can do this in a gallery, too; all you need it to request the favor of a chair or bring your own folding stool.

Begin, as always, with the breath. Close your eyes, place the feet firmly on the ground with the hands laid gently in your lap. Don't be in a rush to open your eyes: if you take a few minutes to get bodily present, adjust to the breath and empty out the mind of its prejudice and expectations, you'll be astounded by the effect when you open them up to see the painting. It can be as breathtaking as I imagine it would be to step out onto the surface of a newly discovered planet.

From now on, the process will be to simply walk around the surface of the painting. Find a focal point, if that is helpful, and work out from there. Or work from the edges, one at a time, toward the center, simply allowing the eyes to take in what's there. No questions. No commentary. From time to time, allow the eyes to close gently and to rest and refresh for as long as feels comfortable — perhaps until they get hungry again. then feed them. Better if they are greedy!

Keep reminding yourself, when the mind begins to wander, to return the attention to the breath. It's the mind that will keep wanting to ask the questions, or answer them: What in God's name am I doing here, wasting an hour when I could be really working? How is this artist using color, or form, or pattern — and what is he trying to say? And so on. Ignore it. Get back to the breath. Allow the eyes to do the work. Notice how their small muscles change direction and focus.

It's simple but not easy to do if you are not accustomed to sitting for an hour in silence. 

Simple, but not easy.

As you read these pages, it's easy to feel that Peter is in the room talking with you — with you, not to you — in a warm gentle cadence in which the conversation unfolds not as a set of polemics, but his experience and thoughts about art, poetry, and writing, about meeting the creative challenge as captured in Duane Michals' line "While I am not afraid...", working from the hurt or difficult places as in Rumi's "Keep your eye on the bandaged place", or about not being a critic but one who translates, taking a painting or a poem, and expressing it in another medium. His skill with this last is something with which I have personal experience: his review of An Arrow to the Heart shows that he understood exactly what I hoped the book would do for people.

By the end, whether you are a writer, a painter, or one who enjoys art, you feel you have been invited into a different way of appreciating and approaching art, and, possibly, life.