Category Archives: Gatherings

What to think. What to say. What to do.

First off, I want to apologize to all for my scarcity around these parts. Joan and I have spent the past two weeks in the agonizingly beautiful city of San Francisco being miserably sick. After a round of Z-Pac, I’m in full recovery mode, coughing only intermittently and able to spend several hours at a time doing something other than “resting”. We took Joan to the UCSF Urgent Care facility Monday morning, because she was getting worse, and we found that she has pneumonia. So she’s on a course of more powerful antibiotic, with pretty good prospects for a speedy recovery; so far, they seem to be working, as the Z-Pac did not. I’m back to getting Benno from school in the afternoon and attending to Joan. We should be able to make the trip home without problems (leaving here next Tuesday): SF -> Elko, NV -> Cheyenne, WY -> Des Moines, IA -> Cincinnati, arriving Friday evening.

Surveillance video

For the past two weeks, in between bouts of semi-drugged sleep, I’ve been thinking about the Boston Marathon Bombing, not trying to make sense of it, because there is no sense to be made, but to understand it, because even senseless acts can be understood, and to find the words to express my developing understanding, because the right words must be found to allow the understanding to emerge, and to figure out how I have to respond, because every experience of dukkha insists on a response.

Because I’ve not had a fully working consciousness through much of that time, and because I’ve not had the energy to face a keyboard, a lot of what I’ve thought is still inchoate, seeking the words to express it, and the actions that I think I have to take are still untested. So this is an interim report (but aren’t they all?)

Two young men, by all accounts sane, healthy, and relatively fortunate – not impoverished, or obviously victimized; well-educated; with many who loved them and who had sacrificed for them – struck out in a well-planned and ruthlessly executed act of violence that left many dead or maimed and many more terrified and desperately confused. How can I think about that, without becoming myself terrified or confused? What can I say to others that will, in some way, work to reduce the harm: the terror and confusion. What can I do – is there anything I can do, or anyone can do – to counter whatever poisons brewed this mess?

There are all kinds of places to begin looking for answers to those questions: belief systems, psychological theory, bloggers, twitterers, and pundits. I’ve been looking at all those, and also at the Buddha’s Dhamma, as I’ve come to understand that through study and meditative contemplation of the teachings in the Pali Canon. And I’ve been struggling to condense what I’ve found into a blog post. I’m not there yet—I’d guess that I’ve got a couple more days of work—but I’d like to offer, as a set of readings for Sunday’s gathering, the following links:

  • Patten Oswald’s Facebook Post. You’ve probably seen this; it was posted within minutes of the blasts and went viral almost immediately. Oswald, as far as I know, is no Buddhist, but his post is informed by the Dhamma; we can’t run away from danger; we must run towards it, look it in the eye, and oppose to the evil we find there—the pride and willfulness and greed and hatred—whatever good we, and those who stand with us confronting the evil, can muster.
  • Nathan is a Zen blogger. I know no more about him, but his post following the bombings does, I think, present an honest and thoughtful take on the events, well-informed by his Buddhist practice. My only difficulty with Nathan’s post is that there is no resolution; while I find almost everything he says to be on target, the post leaves us with little to do.
  • On the New York Shambala Foundation website, meditation trainer Lodro Rinzler offers some practical guidance on how to use a Tibetan compassion meditation practice called tonglen to confront our experience of the bombings.
  • Within the Pali Canon, the opening lines of the Dhammapada, which we looked at a couple of months ago, are still relevant:
    Never by hatred has hatred been defeated—
    Only by kindness; this has been so forever.
  • For a final reading (or an only one, if you’re short of time) I’d suggest the final section of the Satipatthana Sutta, the great Discourse on the Bases of Mindfulness. That section deals with mindfulness of the dhammas; you might think of these as the irreducible components of the Dhamma, as the entire body of truths comprise the Truth, or the individual laws in all the many codes comprise the Law. The five hindrances are dhammas, as are the khandas, the essential elements (Earth, Air, Fire, Water, and Space), the fetters (sensual desire, resentment, pride, speculation, etc.), and the four Dominating Facts of Life themselves. As you read that section of the sutta, think of each dhamma in the context of the bombings, of what you know of the perpetrators, the victims, the public response to the event, and your own emerging understanding of what happened and why. Is there a way to integrate that kind of deliberate scrutiny into a program of meditative practice?

I wish I could be with you on Sunday. If we continue to heal and our trip home is without major problems, we’ll be back in time for the gathering on May 5th


More on Correct Effort

Applying Correct Effort to Correct Effort

Whenever we’ve talked about the Buddha’s Dhamma, it’s been easy for each of us to accept the basic proposition: understand these basic facts of life—essentially dukkha, how it arises and ceases, and the eightfold path that leads to its cessation; cultivate that path in our daily lives; and experience the many wonderful benefits that attend on a life lived in open friendliness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity. Not only do most of us accept the Dhammma as an intellectual proposition, we’ve also caught glimpses of what it’s like to experience a life lived in the Dhamma, at moments during meditation, or with the sudden flash of insight that comes occasionally during a particularly insightful discussion, or afterwards, while driving home, waiting for sleep to come, or waking up next morning.

Given how easy it is to see the truth in the Buddha’s message, given the moments in which we’ve directly experienced its promise, why is it so hard to keep working the program? Why is it so hard for every one of us to maintain the schedule of regular meditation that we know would help us; why is it so hard to keep our energy focused on getting rid of those qualities we know are blocking us from flourishing as we’d like; nurturing those qualities of skillful purpose that will bring us closer to becoming the kind of person we want to become; protecting such qualities as already exist in us; and preventing the emergence of new qualities that threaten our well-being and our course on our chosen path? In other words, why is it so damned difficult to maintain samma vayama: the correct application of effort?

Temptation of the Buddha by Mara

The answer, as last week’s post pointed out, involves the Five Hindrances—attachment to worldly things, ill will, restlessness, torpor, and doubt. The first two of those are relatively easy to identify as they arise in the course of meditation (and they almost alway do, at one point or another). And it’s also easy to understand how to deal with them—notice them at the earliest possible moment, probe until it seems they’ve lost their emotional affect, and gently return attention to the breath.

It’s the last three hindrances that create particular difficulties for most of us. Partly because the three are difficult to tease apart; we’re sitting there and we’re suddenly overwhelmed by a powerful combination of weariness, desire for the meditation to be over, discomfort at our position, and the feeling that this is never going to work and it was a fool’s undertaking from the beginning.
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Correct Effort

Samma Vayama, Correct Effort, marks the transition between the “Virtue Group” of Path factors (Speech, Action, and Livelihood), and the “Concentration Group” (Mindfulness and Concentration), and Correct Effort, itself, is classified as belonging to that latter group.

lonely tree

The correct application of energy, expressed one way or another, is close to the heart of the Buddha’s teaching. In the Canki Sutta, in which the Buddha taught the Brahmin youth Kapatika Baradvaja about the truth–how to preserve it, how to discover it, how to finally arrive at it–Kapatika asks the Buddha what the most important step is, of all the steps they had discussed, for that final arrival at the truth. “Striving,” the Buddha answers.

“Striving is the most important step for the final arrival at truth, Bharadvaja. If one doesn’t strive, one will never get there. Striving, one may hope to arrive, finally, at the truth.”

And the Buddha’s very last words, as reported in the great Mahaparinibbana Sutta, establish the ultimate importance of this path factor:

And the Fortunate One addressed the bhikkhus, saying: “See here, bhikkhus, I charge you. All that you experience will come to end; strive diligently!”

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Gathering 22: Community Values

Contemporary Sri Lankan illustration of the Buddha tending a sick monk.

I’m excited by the direction which our discussion has been taking toward an examination of the values that inform our actions (kamma) as individuals and as a community. Particular concern has been expressed about how we can create a community whose members are involved with one another at a personal level, and not just as fellow students of the Buddha’s teachings. I think this is what is essential to the task of cultivating the Superior Eightfold Path in our lives; it’s way more important than just developing an intellectual understanding how the various Path factors relate to one another, dynamically or logically. And way more difficult.

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Gathering 21: More Action

[The following mail message went to the community mail list on 3/7/2013. It’s here for historical purposes; nothing was posted on the web for this gathering.]

Gathering 20: Action and Consequence

In the Upajjhatthana Sutta, the Buddha recommended that everyone, “women and men, householders and renunciants”, set five truths in mind and take time each day to contemplate those:

  1. It is in the nature of beings to age, and I cannot expect to escape aging.
  2. It is natural, in the course of things, to experience injury and disease; I cannot expect to avoid injury and disease.
  3. All who live will die; I cannot expect to evade death.
  4. In time, I will lose and be separated from all that I cherish and hold dear; I cannot expect to prevent that loss.
  5. My actions have consequences; I am the owner of my actions, born of my actions, heir to my actions, related to the world through my actions; whatever I do, rightly or wrongly, I alone will reap the consequences; I cannot reject responsibility for my actions.

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Gathering 19: Appropriate Speech


I thought that our discussion of Correct Speech on Sunday evening was particularly fruitful, especially as we got into the positive aspects of Correct Speech – that it’s not only a matter of avoiding lies, hostile or divisive speech, and gossip, but also of finding the Correct words to describe the complex reality that we awaken to when we’re able to see through labels and clichès.

I’d like to continue that discussion this coming Sunday. I’d also like to review an aspect of Correct Speech that we mentioned briefly on Sunday but which deserves a second look; that is the matter of the circumstances in which a particular kind of speech is appropriate, and thereby correct. We looked at a passage in which the Buddha reviewed the conditions that determined whether particular words were Correct: whether those words are factually correct, whether they are truthful, whether they are connected with the goal (generally, the cultivation of the way in our lives; more particularly, the goals that underlie the particular situation under discussion), whether they are welcome, and whether they are encouraging.

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Gathering 18: Knowing Right from Wrong

We had an interesting discussion Sunday evening regarding how we determine that our intentions, our speech, our actions, etc. are “right”. That is, how do we know that we are still on the way that the Buddha’s teachings show us? How do we know that we are really cultivating the Superior Eightfold Path and not just kidding ourselves–rationalizing, or turning away from an unpleasant fact, or simply not paying attention?

A Buddhist nun meditating, from alicesoup Flickr stream

That question is essentially the subject of a short and illuminating discourse that the Buddha delivered to his stepmother Mahapajagotami, who was the first woman to join the Sangha. I’ve posted that discourse, the Gotami Sutta, along with an Afterword that’s rather longer and more discursive than the sutta itself but which might help us relate the teaching to the events in our lives today.

I’d like to discuss that on Sunday, continuing our discussion about knowing right from wrong. I’d also like to keep the focus, if possible, on the notion of Correct Intention, since the intentions we conceive lead directly to how we articulate those intentions in our speech and how we embody them in our actions and our livelihood.

Gathering 17: Paving Stones

In the Pabbatopama Sutta (links to text and audio in sidebar), King Pasenadi of Kosala stops by to visit the Buddha late one afternoon. This is unusual; most of the King’s visits are in the morning or early afternoon, after the Buddha has returned from his alms round and before he retires for the afternoon’s meditation. The Buddha asks the King what brings him here so late in the day, and the King explains that he is returning from inspecting the troops. With what I consider to be an ironic (and perhaps gently teasing) acknowledgment that his activities are not the sort of which the Buddha would approve, he goes on….

“I’ve been doing what we divinely anointed noble Kings typically do, intoxicated as we are with power, driven by lust, obsessed with control, ruling our world, always seeking to extend our realm.”

I imagine the Buddha listening to this with a slight smile; then, after respectful consideration of what Pasenadi had said, the Buddha asks him, “Great King, imagine that a trusted messenger would bring you news from the East; a great mountain is there, seven miles wide and seven miles high, and it’s moving. It’s moving this way, crushing everything in its path. And then a messenger from the West would bring the same news, and then messengers from the North and from the South. Great King, with such devastation coming your way, destroying all human lives, life as a human being so hard to attain, what would you do?”

The King’s response is considerably more humble, “Master, if such devastation were coming my way, destroying all human lives, life as a human being so hard to attain, all that anyone could do would be to follow the Dhamma: act ethically, act skillfully, increase merit.”

“I tell you, Great King,” the Buddha went on,”aging and death are advancing on you, and they are unstoppable. What now?”

“Master, as aging and death are advancing, unstoppable, what can I do but follow the Dhamma: act ethically, act skillfully, increase merit.

“Master, divinely anointed Noble Kings, intoxicated with power, driven by lust, obsessed with control, ruling their world, fight elephant battles to increase their realms. But elephant battles are useless against aging and death. Cavalry, infantry, chariots—all are useless against aging and death. There are clever men in my cabinet who know how to divide an enemy and subvert his authority, but such knowledge is useless against aging and death. There is gold in my treasury to bribe and corrupt an enemy, but such wealth is useless against aging and death. With aging and death advancing, there is nothing to be done but to follow the Dhamma: act ethically, act skillfully, increase merit.”

“Good answer, Great King,” replied the Buddha. “Good answer.”

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Gathering 16: Look Closer

[The following mail message (clipped) went to the community mail list on 12/21/2012. It’s here for historical purposes; nothing was posted on the web for this gathering.]