Monday, October 16, 2023

To visualize or not to visualize

 Today, I am going to consider the word visualize, or visualization. The Tibetan word is (pron. mikpa). I've long suspected that there was a problem with the usual translation of visualize, but it was only when I was writing The Magic of Vajrayana that I was forced to face the fact that there was something seriously wrong with that translation.

After a few conversations with other translators, my doubts were confirmed. The word is used in a number of other contexts and seems to mean "to hold something in mind." It is also used in the phrase, which is usually translated as non-referential compassion, but could be glossed as "compassion that arises when nothing is held in mind."

Okay. That's the background. How does this affect practice?

First, despite all that is written, don't feel that you need to generate a mental image. Some people can do so quite easily, but many of them find that the mental image that they see so clearly in their mind doesn't help them in their meditation.

As I wrote in The Magic of Vajrayana (see pg. 82), forget about visualizing the deity and forget about imagining you are the deity. Instead, be the deity. Don't hold in mind an image of the deity. Instead, hold in mind that you are the deity.

Let's take Chenrezi as an example. Chenrezi is awakened compassion, compassion and emptiness arising together, just as a candle flame arises as both heat and light. Say to yourself, "I am empty compassion. I am Chenrezi." What happens?

You may feel a sudden shift in your body as much as your mind. For many people, that shift is not subtle. The mind goes empty and the body does not know what to do.

Okay. That's a good start.

Now rest in that shift. It will probably feel unfamiliar and, quite possibly, a little uncomfortable. No matter. Rest there. Rest and be empty compassion, be Chenrezi. Let your body and mind absorb the fact that you are empty compassion and that you have all the capabilities and qualities of awakened compassion. Don't think about it. Don't visualize. Don't imagine. Just hold in mind that you are empty, groundless compassion and open to the infinity of possibilities that entails.

Parts of you may arise in rebellion. If they do, remember that you are the deity. What does Chenrezi do with those parts? You know because you are Chenrezi. You don't have to think about what to do or strategize. It's right there. It's a knowing that is right there. It's a muscle that you, the ordinary you, has not flexed before, but it's still right there, ready and waiting.

The feeling of being Chenrezi will, of course, come and go. Whenever it fades, don't try to recover it. Instead, take a short break. Let mind and body rest. And then, be Chenrezi and rest in the shift.

Sunday, July 9, 2023

Practice questions

 Newsletter, Nov. 6, 2007

Nagarjuna said that Buddha nature is empty. 

In the Tibetan Kagyu tradition, Thrangu Rinpoche sees buddha nature as the indivisible oneness of wisdom and emptiness.

The Dalai Lama, representing the Gelukpa School of Tibetan Buddhism, sees buddha nature as the "original clear light of mind" but is at pains to point out that it ultimately does not really exist, as it is emptiness.

The view of Buddha nature varies from school to school. 

Do we just pick one? And what does a practice on buddha nature look like?

The way that can be named

Is not the way

Neither buddha nature or emptiness are things. They are words used to refer to certain experiences. The experiences cannot be expressed in words. Nor can they be understood conceptually. But you can have the experiences, which is to say that buddha nature and emptiness can be known through experience, even though they cannot be understood.

One doesn't "practice" emptiness, or, for that matter, buddha nature. In such practices as mahamudra or dzogchen, one rests in experience, neither entertaining thoughts or emotions, nor suppressing them:

don't be distracted

don't control what arises

don't work at anything

Best to do this in short periods, so mind and heart stay clear and awake. Gradually, as my teacher said, you will come to know you are nothing, and, in being nothing, are everything.

how do I simplify my life

 Practice tip -- how to simplify your life.   (newsletter 29, June 2012)




I wondered if you would ever consider writing on the subject of "how to simplify your life"? I'm thinking of how to use dharma teaching as a way to interact with our daily world -- such as suggestions on how to limit the amount of stuff, engagements, technological distractions, just to name a few.  



It's a matter of inclusion and exclusion, what you include in your life, and what you exclude. 

If you have trouble deciding, you aren't clear about your priorities. If you try to simplify your life before you are clear about your priorities, you usually end up in a mess. Different agendas come into conflict and without an overall vision or direction, you can't make the necessary decisions.

Think of the proverbial starving musician. She knows what is important in her life. She's willing to put up with bad bar gigs and difficult audiences so she can write, play and sing her own songs. Yes, she certainly hopes to win a following, but it's the music that is important to her, and that's that. Music comes first, and as long as she is able to eat and find a place to sleep, she's more than okay with that.

And then there is the young attorney or MBA. He's equally clear about his priorities. Money heads the list. He endures brutal workloads, long hours, demanding and unsympathetic bosses, time away from his wife and children, all to realize his dreams of being rich. You may not agree with his choices, but he knows exactly what to include and exclude.

How do you use dharma teachings as a way to interact with your daily world? Very carefully. 

Buddhist practice, like art, like business, has its own set of priorities and one is to be free of distractions. If you are going to probe what is beyond thought, it's helpful to have less to think about. And that translates directly into a simplified life with relatively few decisions that have to be made.

Do you really want to reduce the number of decisions you have to make each day?

change signpostThen the first practice is reflection on change and death. Why? It leads you to reorder your priorities from top to bottom so that you doradically simplify your life and, as a consequence, have much less to think about.

It's a straightforward practice, but not that easy. It consists of taking in two facts that you already know.

You know you are going to die. And you know you don't know when. 

Imagine you are going to die in ten years. Ten years from today, the lights go out in your world. What would you do with you life? 

Now imagine you are going to die in one year. What would you do

And imagine you are going to die in one month. How would you spend that month?

These are not gentle questions, but they do serve a purpose. They give you a pretty good idea of what's important to you in your life. 

Now go further. You do not know, and cannot know, when you are going to die. What happens to conventional notions of success - happiness, gain, fame or respect? These are important to most people. For many, they form the basis of their lives. 

What about you? How important are happiness, gain, fame and respect to you? Or are you looking for a deeper connection with life itself? 

Think about this. You won't be able to simplify your life until you are clear here.

You are going to die and you don't know when. How do you live in this paradox? There is only one way. Dowhat life calls for now because life calls for it, not because you hope to enjoy the results. Whether its planting a garden, going to school, saving money, building a career, time with friends, a political campaign, a vacation or hobby, you engage it because it is your life calls for it. Forget about being around for the results of your efforts. You have no idea whether you will be or not.

Now you have much less to think about, no?

In letting go of hopes (and fears), you become clearer about what is important and what is not and that makes it much easier to let go of (i.e., exclude) other considerations. 

Stuff? What do you really need in order to pursue what is vitally important to you? 

Engagements? Friends, associates, activities, there is no end to what you can do. Time is one major factor, and energy a second. 

Technological distractions? What use do you have for email, Facebook, an iPad, a car, a refrigerator, or a book? These are all forms of technology, some older than others. For any technology, consider if and how it is useful to you.

Reflection on change isn't the only approach to simplification. There are others, of course. 

In Mahayana Buddhism, it is the ideal of compassion. Compassion, and the cultivation of compassion, inform your every thought and action. This naturally leads to the practice of awakening mind (bodhicitta). 

For others, it is awe, a sense of being intimately connected with something that is infinitely greater or deeper than you. This leads to a path based in faith and devotion.

A little practical advice. Before you start to simplify, tighten up your life a little. Organize your day a bit better and pay more attention to time. As an example, arrive at appointments and meetings on time and end them on time. You soon find that you have more time - to consider the questions suggested above, to reflect on what is vital, important and meaningful to you, to decide what to cultivate and what to let go. 

Once you are clear about that, everything else follows.

Saturday, March 4, 2023

Point 7: Guidelines

The seventh point of Mind Training in Seven Points is called Guidelines. Where commitments (point six) are about avoiding emotional reactions and approaches to life that break your connection with practice, the purpose of these guidelines is to keep you on track. Through these instructions, you develop ways to meet what arises in your life, internally or externally, that enables you to use what arises to deepen your experience of emptiness and compassion.

Because the Tibetan word for guidelines is often translated as precepts, it is good to remember that in Buddhism these instructions are descriptive rather than prescriptive—they describe how a person who has trained deeply in this tradition meets the reactivity that inevitably arises in the course of formal practice and going about his or her life. These behaviors and ways of working arise from within, not exactly naturally, but from training penetrating deep into your system and burning out reactive habituations. If you take these instructions as precepts and, without training deeply, you try to do what they point to, you run the danger of making your body and mind brittle and frangible, and susceptible to unpredictable eruptions of suppressed reactive emotions. 

Before I describe some examples, take a look at the map at the beginning of this practice tip. You can also find it on Unfettered Mind's website: a map of the Mind Training instructions. This map lists all the mind-training instructions, grouped in the seven points. I have added an additional layer of organization with various subgroups in points six and seven. I came up with these subgroups when I observed that the author, Chekawa, clearly had a certain logic in mind when he wrote this text.

General Guidelines

For the first subgroup, a Tibetan saying comes to mind:

In India, practitioners practiced one deity and saw hundreds.

In Tibet, practitioners practice hundreds of deities and see none.

As Jamgön Kongtrul the Great once said:

When you study, learn everything under the sun.

When you reflect, keep an open mind, like the sky.

When you practice, do one practice and go deep like the ocean.

In general, you do better finding one practice that speaks to you, and then devoting yourself to it completely.

Reminder Guidelines

The guidelines in the second subgroup are ways to create an internal environment that nurtures spiritual practice and enables mind-training to go deep. To put it another way, these are ways that you develop to make it possible for the practice to work on you.

Maintenance Guidelines

These guidelines make it possible for the practice to go deep in you. Memorize these four groups of three and take care to ensure their presence in your practice and your life.

Extension Guidelines

The fourth subgroup ensures that you don’t end up in a comfortable practice cocoon. Keep extending and reaching out both internally and externally, letting the practice work more deeply and more broadly.

In reviewing these groupings, I see that it makes more sense for the first two in the last subgroup to be included in the fifth subgroup.

Guidelines for Addressing Imbalances

The fifth subgroup is about practicing in such a way that you don’t inadvertently create imbalances in your practice. 

Sometimes, despite your efforts, imbalances do arise. One of the surest ways to generate imbalances is to try to make something happen. In doing so, you are almost always indulging one or more reactive emotions, and that indulgence causes problems. These same instructions help correct imbalances by pointing you in the direction of balance. The main point here is to practice with a quiet consistency and let the practice work on you, rather than trying to make something happen.

Guidelines for Avoiding Imbalances

The sixth and last subgroup, which I need to rename, is basically about bringing a poverty-stricken attitude to practice, practicing from the hungry ghost realm. Such an approach to practice is always problematic. Boasting reinforces your lack of confidence. Hypersensitivity reinforces a sense of self. Impulsiveness undermines stability. And expecting thanks for practicing means that you regard yourself as special in some way. 


Mahayana mind-training is a complete practice in and of itself. In this series of newsletters, I have tried to convey an understanding of each of these elements of practice—groundwork, formal practice, practice in life, a condensed formulation of practice, what mastery looks like, what commitments are involved, and guidelines for nurturing practice and understanding. Any system of practice includes all of these elements, along with prayers—e.g., lineage prayers, refuge and awakening mind, dedication, aspiration, and good fortune prayers, etc.—that set a context and provide a framework for this practice. By way of conclusion, the prayer Opening a Path to the Sea of Awakening sets out a framework for the practice of taking and sending, covering everything from being a bodhisattva and releasing beings from the six realms to the nitty-gritty of the pain and confusion of daily life.

Point 6: Connection

The sixth point in Mind Training in Seven Points is about maintaining a connection with the practice of Mind Training. This practice element comes into play when a fundamental shift in awareness and experience reveals to you the possibility of living in the union of compassion and emptiness. Such a shift needs to nurtured, not by trying to hold onto it, but by coming into it again and again until its place in your formal practice and in your life has become strong and stable.

For this aspect of practice, Chekawa Yeshe Dorje, the 12th century author of Mind Training in Seven Points, uses the Tibetan term dam tshig (Pron. damtsik, Skt. samaya). Samaya is usually associated with Vajrayana, and it is somewhat unusual to find it in a system of practice based in the sutras. However, in his introduction to The Great Path of Awakening, his own commentary on Mind Training in Seven Points, the 19th century master Jamgön Kongtrul notes that while Mind Training in Seven Points stands firmly in the teachings of the sutras, it partakes of the tantras, that is, of Vajrayana. It is for this reason that I have always regarded Mind Training in Seven Points not only as a potent practice in its own right, but also as a valuable bridge into the practice of Vajrayana.

That being said, let us consider the term samaya. What does it mean? And what does it mean in this context? The term is usually translated as commitment, or as sacred oath. Etymologically speaking, the Tibetan means binding word, that is, a promise. The promise is usually taken to mean the promise to perform certain rituals, to do certain practices, to refrain from certain actions, and to hold certain kinds of awareness or ways of experiencing life. But when I look at the range of these promises, it seems to me that all of them are about maintaining a connection with the kind of shift in awareness and experience I mentioned above, and, to the extent possible, the transformation of experience that comes about through practice. 

It is also helpful to remember that the many lists of do’s and don’t’s in Buddhism are more descriptive than prescriptive. They describe how a person is likely to live and conduct his or her life when awake rather than how you should live and conduct your life now. (See a previous newsletter on this topic:

Many teachers, from Atisha in the 11th century to Paltrul Rinpoche in the 19th, have said that it is impossible to keep samaya and it has to be restored again and again. As an exploration, in the preceding sentence, try replacing the word samaya first with the word commitment, and then with the word connection. How does the sentence sit with you in each instance?

For me, the word connection speaks more to my experience than commitment. I am committed to practice, but I lose connection with it again and again. I renew the connection by coming back to the practice, or recalling the echo of transformation of experience, usually in my body. This feels more accurate than saying I have broken a commitment. 

Why did Chekawa choose this word? He was a notable scholar, and his choice was not arbitrary. He may have wanted this section to carry a certain weight. He may have wanted to emphasize how important it is to keep connecting with the union of compassion and emptiness. 

When you look at the actual instructions in this section, all of them are about avoiding actions and attitudes that break your connection with that union. 

Take “Behave naturally,” for instance. When you behave naturally, you do not act from a sense of self. When you act in a contrived or artificial way, you are acting from a sense of self, and the connection with compassion and emptiness is gone. 

“Give up any hope for results.” That one is pretty straightforward. Whenever you find yourself hoping for something to happen in your practice, something to happen to you, you are deeply enmeshed in a sense of self. 

“Don’t make practice a sham.” This one, too, is about performing. 

Finally, what about “Don’t look to profit from sorrow”? Well, if you are looking to make a buck, literally or figuratively, from someone else’s pain, what can be said about your relationship with compassion?

Once the possibility of living in the union of compassion and emptiness has opened up in you, both your practice and your life change. In your formal practice, let the flower of compassion and emptiness bloom in your heart. In your life, let what you do and how you do it, what you say and how you say it, flow not from yourself, or your self, or even from your Self, but directly from the understanding that has awakened in you.

Sunday, January 1, 2023

Point 5: Mastery

The fifth point in Mind Training in Seven Points is mastery. Whatever the discipline, mastery comes through the blending of two abilities: the ability to move and respond to what arises and the ability to go empty in what arises. The first arises through constant refinement of technique, the second through resting in mind nature.

Issai Chosanshi, in The Demon’s Sermon on Martial Art, writes:

The essence of mind is selfless and without desire, and thus at peace and undisturbed. This leads to moving without moving.

In the midst of ultimate peace and absence of desire, when external phenomena arrive, the mind responds, but is not attached to its function.

The essence of mind does not move. What moves and responds is the function of mind. The essence is at peace and contains the myriad principles and the clarity of spiritual strength. Function follows the laws of the universe and responds to innumerable situations.

You may find Cutting up an Ox, one of the poems in Thomas Merton’s The Way of Chuang Tzu, helpful in understanding the way mastery develops and how it functions. Each of Chekawa’s four instructions on mastery focus finds an echo in this poem. 

First, “All instructions have one aim”, namely, the taming of a sense of self. There is much misunderstanding on what “taming the sense of self” means, and it may be helpful to clarify a few points.

A self isn’t an entity. It is a reactive pattern that presents experience as a world out there and a self in here. As a reactive pattern, it comes and goes. All of us have had moments when we are completely engaged in life. Any sense of a separate self disappears and life is, for a short time, magical and intensely meaningful. On the other hand, we also know how threat, neediness, or shame trigger a strong sense of self, as do many other factors. As I explained in Wake Up to Your Life, Chapters 5 and 6, when triggered, sense-of-self reactive patterns give rise to reaction chains associated with the five elements. Those reaction chains in turn coalesce into the reactive patterns of the six reactive emotions, giving rise to the experience of the six realms, i.e., samsara. Thus, as my teacher always said, if you cut the reactive pattern of the sense of self, you cut the root of samsara.

Classical presentations of Buddhism are often understood to mean that the aim of practice is to eliminate any sense of self. Good luck! This pattern is biologically, genetically, emotionally, psychologically, culturally, and even spiritually conditioned. It is basic to our functioning in our lives. 

The point in Buddhist practice is to come to know experientially that a self is not an entity, that a sense of self is a reactive pattern. When you train deeply in attention and insight, you first see that there is no self as such. There is nothing there, that is, there is no thing that you can point to and say, “This is what I am.”

When the mind moves, you usually fall into confusion and the world of experience splits in two, self and other. In the experience of a world out there and self in here, you take both the self and the world to be real—I am here and there is a world out there.

Here is where the instruction “experience what arises as like a dream” comes into play. When you can stay in the knowing that all experience, the experience of the world out there, the experience of the self in here, is groundless, you cut the sense-of-self pattern. You experience it all as movement of mind, as if you were dreaming, and that changes how you function. 

The cook in Cutting up the Ox puts it this way:

But now I see nothing 

With the eye. My whole being


My senses are idle. The spirit

Free to work without plan

Follows its own instinct…,

It is, however, important to note that the spirit can follow its own instinct only because the cook has trained in cutting up oxen for years. The how of cutting up an ox is deeply instilled in mind and body. If there is no training in the functioning of mind and body, there is no technique to blend with the essence of mind, and this is a mistake that many people make. A master therapist is unlikely to be a good surgeon. A master horseman is unlikely to make a good lawyer.

There is another wrinkle in here that is often overlooked. Later, the cook says:

True, there are sometimes 

Tough joints. I feel them coming,

I slow down, I watch closely,

Hold back, barely move the blade, 

And whump! the part falls away...

When we encounter difficult situations, we may then move into the world of I and other, but we do so in a different way. We listen, we feel, and we do with full attention.What we are experiencing tells us how to move and respond. In doing so, we are not confused by the “I” here and the world there. Instead, we make use of them, to listen, to feel (these are other ways of knowing) what to do. When the difficulty passes, so does any sense of I and other as separate.

If you are of the view that no sense of “I” should ever arise, I suggest you read The Mysterious Technique of the Cat in The Demon’s Sermon on Martial Arts.

The second of Chekawa’s instructions is about the two witnesses to what you do, other people and your own awareness, or, to put it another way, the external reference of social norms and the internal reference of awareness itself. When you are no longer deluded by a sense of self, you have nothing to defend. Awareness operates freely. Imbalance in what you are doing is sensed as soon as it arises. A master musician knows when a note isn’t quite right even if no one in the audience picks it up.

Thus, in Cutting up the Ox:

Method? said the cook

Laying aside his cleaver,

“What I follow is Tao (the way)

Beyond all methods!”

Needless to say, this instruction is susceptible to corruption, and the history of Buddhism is littered with the (figuratively speaking) corpses of those who were deluded about their own understanding, who thought they were following the Tao, but were really being led by the mechanisms of their own reactive patterns.

The third instruction is about a joyous state of mind. On this point, the cook says:

“Then I withdraw the blade,

I stand still

And let the joy of the work

Sink in.

I clean the blade

And put it away.”

Whenever the sense of self subsides and you act, a deep and quiet joy pervades your being. But action in harmony with the world, clean, and appropriate, does not elevate you above others. You do what needs to be done—no more, and no less. Then, whatever the task, cleaning up afterwards is part of it, and you do so with the same sense of joy.

The last of Chekawa’s instructions on mastery is that your practice is set in motion whenever the situation warrants it. The habits of practice are so deeply instilled in you that your body, or other parts of you, may know before anything has registered consciously that a certain word, a certain gesture, a certain action is called for, and it happens. Again, you see this principal operating in every discipline, from soccer to sculpture, from medicine to metal-working. As I write in The Magic of Vajrayana, “You do not even think about how to apply it to your life, for the moment such a thought arises, you have already separated from your life and from clear empty knowing.”

From all of this, you see that mastery does not come from deciding to be a master. It comes from long and deep practice. It comes from continuous refinement of technique and continuous resting in mind nature. This holds for everyone, even for those who have great natural talents. And this is the point of this fifth point.

Forget about achieving anything and forget about becoming a master or anyone special. Work at practice to develop skills and build capacity. 

In the beginning, most people need to learn how to practice from someone who has solid practice experience. As you learn and become more skilled, you may reach a point where you are able to take feedback from your own practice experience. The critical factor is not how much practice you do, but how much you learn and assimilate in the course of practice. The primary skill to develop is, without relying on the conceptual mind to recognize imbalance and move in the direction of balance.

To build capacity, on the other hand, does take time and repetition. It takes time for capacity to build in the body, in the emotional mind, and in awareness. Capacity is almost always built through repetition. Care needs to be taken not to practice in such a way that you generate imbalances. In spiritual practice, the critical capacity to build is attention, the ability to stand in your experience of reactive patterns and be neither taken over by them or suppress them. 

Devote yourself to practice, develop skills and build capacity, and let the results mature in their own way, in their own time.


The Demon’s Sermon on Martial Arts, by Issai Chozanshi, trans. William Scott Wilson

Losing Ourselves by Jay Garfield.

The Way of Chuang Tzu, by Thomas Merton


Taking a leaf from Jay Garfield’s book, I applied Merton’s Cutting up an Ox to the mastery section of Mind Training in Seven Points.

Saturday, December 24, 2022

Reflections on a Changing World

 So many things are changing so deeply that I and more than a few people I know are at a loss to understand exactly what is happening and why. Some of the factors on my mind:

  • The pandemic, with all its inconveniences large and small, and more importantly, the constant sense of danger despite the vaccines and the very real loss of family, friends, and colleagues who have succumbed to this persistent yet unpredictable disease.
  • Pollution, the results of which now include not only the steady poisoning of our environment but also climate change, with changing weather patterns, floods, wildfires, disease, uncertainties in food and water supplies, and other repercussions, many of which we are only beginning to feel.
  • War. After almost 80 years of relative peace in Europe, the invasion of Ukraine has become a full-scale war of attrition, Europe is rapidly rearming, and hundreds of millions in Africa and the Middle East are threatened with starvation as life-sustaining fertilizer and grain shipments have been severely disrupted.
  • The devastation of existing social, political, and financial orders by technology in general and social media in particular, with whole sections of societies often held hostage by a few bullies who all too easily avoid being held to account.
  • Unprecedented levels of mass violence in the USA, including the repeated slaughter of children in their own schools.
  • Increasing turmoil as corporate, financial, educational, medical, judicial, scientific, and governing institutions struggle to maintain cohesion and remain viable as they come to terms with this chaotic world.
  • Unprecedented levels of burnout and exhaustion as professionals in virtually every arena struggle to provide financial, legal, medical, therapeutic, or other forms of service and guidance.

In an effort to get a clearer picture of what is happening and why, I have found these four sources particularly helpful (among many others):
  • Ray Dalio’s The Principles of Dealing with the Changing World Order (a video synopsis may be found here)
  • Peter Zeihan’s demographic and strategic analyses (many videos, but these two are representative: the collapse of globalization and the changing character of war
  • Jonathan Haidt ( in his books and articles provides thoughtful analyses of the sociological and psychological factors that have contributed to this state of affairs.
  • Brad Gregory’s Rebel in the Ranks, a detailed history of the Reformation and its aftermath, what it bequeathed to the world, and its ramifications (up to 2017, when the book was written).

These sources have not brought me peace of mind, exactly, but they have given me ways of placing these matters in a bigger picture. 

We have entered a period of turmoil in human affairs. It has happened before, but changes of this magnitude usually happen only once in a person’s lifetime. Thus, it is almost always like nothing any of us have experienced before. It typically lasts 10-15 years. A new order eventually emerges. Whether that new order emerges peacefully or through revolution or civil war is hard to say because there are factors in play and their interactions are impossibly complex. What that new order will look like and how much of it I will live to see, I do not know.

What does any of this have to do with Buddhist practice? 

The short answer is not much. The current turmoil in the world belongs to the realm of human affairs, the playing out of cycles that span decades, if not centuries, cycles that are affected and sometimes disrupted by the unpredictable effects of new technologies on the functioning of human society and the dynamics of the planet on which we live.

The world of human affairs is the world of human affairs. It is not samsara. Nor is it nirvana.

Samsara and nirvana do not refer to situations in the world. They are ways that we experience life. This is an important to understand and remember.

Samsara is how we experience life when we do not know what we are. In that unknowing, we take the way life presents itself to us as real—a world out there and a sense of a self in here that perceives the world out there. Clouded by confusion about the nature of experience and clouded by patterns of reaction to what we experience, we struggle. Unfortunately, the way we struggle is self-perpetuating and it is difficult to break that cycle.

The aim of Buddhist practice is to break that cycle, to end that struggle. That is nirvana.

Nirvana is how we experience life when we do know what we are. This knowing is not an ordinary knowing. It is not a conceptual knowing. It is a qualitative different kind of knowing, a direct knowing not mediated by the conceptual mind. In that knowing, we are not presented with a sense of self that perceives a world out there. Instead, knowing and experience arise without separation. We are what arises in experience, all of it. In particular, in this knowing, there is no one thing that makes us what we are. And there is no “other”.

The purpose of Buddhist practice is to develop the skills and capacities that make it possible to develop, uncover, fall into, or be visited by this knowing.

Hence the instruction from countless mystics, from Ajahn Chah to Rumi, from Niguma to Julian of Norwich, from Chuang Tzu to Black Elk, to open and listen to everything that arises in experience. It is all we have and all we ever will have. Through practice we find a way of being with all that we experience, a way in which we don’t react to any part of it and, in doing so, we no longer inflict on others our inability to know and experience what arises in our lives.

Why is there so much Buddhist teaching on practice in difficult times? 
Clearly, it isn’t to help us resolve the difficult times. That is almost always beyond our power. Personally, I think it is because difficult times bring out deeper levels of reactivity, levels that in turn place more demands on our practice. In meeting those demands, we have to move to deeper levels of understanding, insight, clarity, compassion, and peace. When we are able to meet difficult situations and not fall into reaction, struggle and suffering end. That is the purpose of all the practices we do, from basic attention to awakening mind to deity and energy practice to mahamudra. 

If you are making this journey, that is what you are called to do.

More than a few people who know little or nothing of spiritual practice per se also speak to deeper or higher levels of knowing. Two such are Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Hannah Arendt.

From Solzhenitsyn: 

Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts. 

Through my own practice, I also came to understand that good and evil do not exist out there. Evil, whatever form it takes, is the result of deliberate ignoring. Good, then, is the result of paying attention. The dividing line is in me. If I can meet what arises without reacting to it, then, again in Buddhist terminology, the five aspects of timeless awareness come into play—seeing clearly, appreciating differences, sensing balance and imbalance, doing what needs to be done, and being in all of that in direct knowing. In particular, others do not arise as “other”. They arise as human beings like me. On the other hand, if I fall into reaction, then something in me shuts down. I ignore or disregard some aspect of experience, imbalances arise, and problems ensue, in me, and in the world around me. I lose touch with my own humanity and visit that loss on others. This, for me, is the essence of evil, the ignoring of another person’s humanity, the relegation of another human being to the category of “other”.

Arendt in her essay Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship writes:

the total moral collapse of respectable society during the Hitler regime may teach us that under such circumstances those who cherish values and hold fast to moral norms and standards are not reliable: we now know that moral norms and standards can be changed overnight, and that all that then will be left is the mere habit of holding fast to something. Much more reliable will be the doubters and skeptics, not because skepticism is good or doubting wholesome, but because they are used to examine things and to make up their own minds.

Spiritual practice acts like a mirror, and sooner or later, you find yourself looking in that mirror. For me, the only question that counts at that point, is “Do I work with what I see, or do I turn away?” Why, I cannot say, but I have repeatedly chosen and continue to choose to work with what I see. For this, I feel deeply grateful, though to whom or what I cannot say. It has not been easy, but the alternative always seems to be worse. In this process, I have to question not only myself, but everything that I think I know or understand. And I think this is what Arendt is pointing to. The qualities that develop in us from questioning ourselves deeply are precisely the qualities that make it difficult for us to accept things at face value or how they are presented to us by an arbitrary authority. These same qualities may make it possible for us to exercise personal responsibility even when it means that we may pay for it with our welfare, our well-being, or even our lives.

Both these people had deep experience with authoritarian regimes. Given where we may be heading, I think it is worth paying attention to what they have to say. We may not be able to affect the course of human affairs, but at least we can live and die knowing that we did not let such authoritarianism, in all its different guises, infect us with its ideology and strip us of our humanity. We all have to die at some time. Some ways of dying are worse than others.