Thursday, April 5, 2018


A puzzled man asked the buddha: "I have heard that some monks meditate with expectations, others meditate with no expectations, and yet others are indifferent to the result. What is the best?"

The buddha answered: "Whether they meditate with or without expectations, if they have the wrong ideas and the wrong methods, they will not get any fruit from their meditation. Think about it. Suppose a man wants to have some oil and he puts sand into a bowl and then sprinkles it with salt. However much he presses it, he will not get oil, for that is not the method. Another person is in need of milk. She starts pulling the horns of a young cow. Whether she has any expectations or not, she will not get any milk out of the horn, for that is not the correct method. Of, if someone fills a jar with water and churns it in order to get butter, they will be left only with water.

"But... if somebody meditates with a wholesome attitude, with right attention and mindfulness, then whether they have expectations of not they will gain insight. It's like filling a bowl with oil seeds and pressing them or milking a cow by pulling the udders or filling a jar with cream and churning it. It's the right method."
---Majjhima Nikaya

There are some stories in the suttas where the buddha really comes across with a subtle sense of humor, using some pretty funny examples of behavior that is unskillful. This is one of my favorites and I especially enjoy that it's in response to a question about expectations.

How many of us have heard -- perhaps repeatedly -- that we need to practice free of all expectations? In zen, it's been held up as a kind of emblematic feature of practice. And certainly, I am not denying that expectations can become a hindrance to practice. A beginner especially can fall victim to expecting things that are ultimately not possible or unrealistic or even nor useful. Also, if one holds too fast to expectations, they can become an obstacle keeping one from seeing what is actually happening because they are focused on what they expect to happen.

That said, though, it's a bit ingenuous to suggest that anyone actually takes up this practice, which can be incredibly challenging, completely free of expectations. Perhaps with greater experience, expectations become less relevant, but the response of the buddha is pointing out that whether one has expectations or not, if one practices with right determination, a wholesome mind (which I take to be one committed to sila (the ethical training including the five precepts), and practicing the method correctly, then insight, awakening, will be the result.

This points out the importance of practice, and of practicing correctly. Right attention and right mindfulness are aspects of correct method. Attention needs to be focused on what is free of reactivity so that mindfulness -- which includes an analysis of how what is arose, what keeps it present, what leads to its passing away -- can be honed and directed. It is this which leads to the insights that embody and promote liberation.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Not Too Tight; Not Too Loose

A comfort-loving student named Sona was making violent effots to become physically and mentally vigorous. But he seemed so unsuccessful that the thought came to him: “My family is wealthy; perhaps I can enjoy my riches and yet do good. What if I were to give up the training and return to a rich but worthy life?”

The Buddha understood what Sona was thinking and said to him, “Sona, were you not skillful at playing the lute when you were a layman?”
“Yes, I was,” replied Sona.
“And what do you think, Sona, was it possible to play in tune when the lute was overstrung?” asked the Buddha.
“No, indeed not. The strings could snap if too tightened,” replied Sona.
“And what do you think, Sona, suppose the strings were slackened and became too slack. Could you play then?” the Buddha asked.
“Again, no. Without any tension, the strings could not produce any tones” Sona answered.
“But when they were neither overtightened nor too slack, but keyed to the middle, not too tight and not too loose, then could you play harmoniously?” the Buddha asked.
“Certainly!” responded Sona.
“Then, Sona, take heed that when effort is too strenuous it leads to mental and physical strain and when too slack to laziness and dullness. So, please make a firm determination that you will adopt the middle way, not allowing yourself to struggle or to slacken, but recognizing that confidence, energy, mindfulness, concentration and wisdom are the fruits of a calm and equable middle way” the Buddha exhorted.

Sona followed the buddha’s advice and in due course awakened.

Based upon this story and the teachings of Patanjali where he describes Iccha or the proper “yogic will” toward practice as requiring both abhyasa and vairagya or continuous, diligent effort and a dispassionate, non-clinging attitude, I offer a course called “Not Too Tight; Not Too Loose.” It’s been my experience that many students without a firm understanding and connection with a teacher can often fall into one of these extremes and then give up altogether.

Some students seem to throw themselves into practice and I am always concerned with such aggressive determination because it tends to burn out swiftly and if anything, this path of practice requires long-term commitment. Which is already something not held in very high esteem in our quite superficial, sensation-oriented culture. Others get interested, but never make a real commitment, remaining almost aloof or lackadaisical in their approach to practice. No roots are ever really planted and practice withers with a whimper.

Confidence and energy must be there for a student to be able to commit to practice, and mindfulness helps to balance efforts to concentrate. The middle way, neither not too tight nor too loose allows one to practice in the face of all changing conditions without losing sight of why we practice.

That said, I always emphasize that it’s a disastrous mistake to take this teaching as some kind of fairy tale where once the middle way is found we can live happily ever after. Not too tight and not too loose is absolutely NOT a static position or orientation.

I play guitar and ukulele and if you are at all familiar with string instruments (actually this goes for all instruments, but keeping with the analogy the Buddha uses when speaking with the lute-player, Sona, I’ll stick with string instruments) you know that if you tune your instrument in a room that is 68-degrees F and 30% humidity, and then walk into a room that is 95-degrees F and 80% humidity you will have to re-tune your instrument.

Not too tight and not too loose is ALWAYS in relation to circumstances and conditions. If you are well rested and feeling at ease, you can relax a bit in your meditation practice, but if you’ve had a rough night tending your sick child, and you are feeling tired, you will have to ‘tighten up’ a bit and use more energy (that you will feel you don’t have!) in order to practice.

Sensing the ‘sweet spot’ of not too tight, not too loose itself is the practice of mindfulness. Seek the ever-changing middle way and practice in harmony with your present conditions.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Guarding The Senses

The Buddha was talking with Uttara, a young pupil of a teacher called Parasariya.
“Uttara, does Parasariya teach you how to control your senses?” asked the Buddha.
“Yes, Parasariya does indeed teach us how to control our senses.”
“And how does he do this?”
“We are taught not to see material forms with the eye nor hear sounds with the ear. This is how we are trained to control our senses.”
“But, in that case, Uttara, the blind and the deaf must be in total control of their senses, for the one does not see and the other does not hear,” the Buddha replied.
Uttara was silent.
After several moments, the Buddha continued, “Well, Uttara, Parasariya teaches you one way and here we teach a different way. Let me tell you what we teach. When a yogi sees a form with the eye, usually a feeling of liking or disliking comes into being. The yogi understands that liking or disliking has arisen but that either one is not inevitable but is conditioned and dependent upon myriad causes and conditions. So, the yogi cultivates a state in which there is equanimity and finds that in so doing, the liking or disliking begins to fade and the yogi can then see things as they are. This is how the yogi can control their senses. That is what we teach.”
---Majjhima Nikaya

I am often asked what are the differences between the yoga taught by the Buddha and that taught by Patanjali or the Classical Yoga tradition. While there are quite a few, this passage points to a fairly central difference in actual practice. But first, it’s helpful to remember that the earliest definitions of the word yoga emphasized the practice of yoking. And this “yoking” was itself described as the practice of meditation. A common analogy of yoking the senses, breath and mind was to parallel it to the yoking of horses to a chariot, where the horses were the senses, the charioteer the egoic self and the owner of the chariot, sitting within, the ‘True Self.’ The implication was that the horses or senses, given free reign would cause havoc and needed to be restrained.

In Classical Yoga, pratyahara, the fifth limb of the eightfold path described in the Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali, was often defined as “withdrawal” and described as sensory inhibition. The most popular image for this process of sensory inhibition is offered in the Goraksha-Paddhati (2.24): “As the tortoise retracts its limbs into the middle of the body, so the yogin should withdraw the senses into himself.” Of course there are other understandings of the process of pratyahara as in “the pleasant state of consciousness that beholds the Self in all things” as stated in the Tejo-Bindu-Upanishad (1.34) but in the contemporary yoga world it is the former view of the tortoise withdrawing inwardly that is most encountered. As Georg Feuerstein said to a group of us in 2002, “For Patanjali, yoga was a process of in-up-and-out.”

In this passage from the Majjhima Nikaya, Uttara is describing his teacher’s teaching on sense control as a process of shutting down the process of perception: “We are taught not to see material forms with the eye nor hear sounds with the ear.” It might be easy to miss the Buddha’s wry sense of humor as he responds, “But, in that case, Uttara, the blind and the deaf must be in total control of their senses.” I can picture poor Uttara standing there, now mute in the face of this subtle smack-down!

The dramatic tension exists in those moments where Uttara remains silent, until the Buddha rescues him with his teaching. And note, he doesn’t completely negate Parasariya’s teaching as “wrong,” but rather just says “Parasariya teaches you one way and here we teach a different way. Let me tell you what we teach.”

And what the Buddha teaches is what my teachers more accurately describe as “guarding the senses” in that the senses themselves are not “controlled” or “yoked” but the conditioned reactivity to the sense perceptions. In other passages, the Buddha exhorts his students: “In the seeing let there just be the seeing; in the hearing let there just be the hearing.” What the Buddha is getting at is that just about immediately upon a sense organ making contact with a sense object (eyes making contact with form/color etc. or ears making contact with sound) and the arising of sense consciousness, a conditioned reaction of a feeling-tone of pleasant or unpleasant arises. Without mindfulness, that conditioned reaction will condition and determine how we then react through action that is either clingingly desirous or aversive. The feeling-tone will present a kind of ‘veil’ that prevents us from actually seeing or hearing with more objectivity and clarity. We react to our feeling-tone and not the actual sense object (form or sound, in the case of eye and ear).

With mindfulness, we can stop, take a backward step from the conditioned reactivity and then choose a more skillful and beneficial way of responding. While Parasariya’s way may lead to a deep samadhi-like state of peace, it ultimately is very limiting as there can be no engagement with the world of “sound and vision.” With the practice of satipatthana (mindfulness), the yogi does not have to disassociate from the world, but rather changes the way they relate to the world. From conditioned reactivity to creative response, the practice of mindfulness can cultivate greater freedom here and now in the realm of inter-relationship, or perhaps even more the reality of “interbeing.”

Friday, December 8, 2017

The All (Sabba-Sutta)

I will teach you the all. Listen closely. 
What is the all? It is the eye and forms, the ear and sounds, the nose and scents, the tongue and tastes, the body and feelings, the mind and thinking. This is called the all.

Someone might say, "This all is not enough. I reject this all. I will proclaim another all. But because this is a groundless assertion, such a person, when asked about it, would not be able to show another all because that all is not within their sensorium. Such an assertion is merely a thought arising in the mind.
--- Samyutta Nikaya

This passage may be one of the earliest explications of the phenomenological  experience of reality. It also describes the buddha's criteria for how and what we can know of reality: what is the source for knowing the nature of our experience? It is the totality of our sensorium (the six sense organs and the objects of the senses) because these six senses comprise the totality of our lived experience, our lived reality as opposed to our imagined, deluded story about reality.

Whatever the reality outside of the sensory apparatus, we can only know what we know through the sensory apparatus. The raw reality -- phenomena as they are -- cannot be known directly as our senses already condition what and how we can know and experience reality. It is in this way that we can say our sensory apparatus create our lived reality/experience.

For example: you and I have been presented the same meal. I take a bite and begin to gag and feel like I could vomit. You take a bite, savor the taste, sigh and smile with pleasure. Can we say that the taste of the food was the same or different? We can imagine similar scenarios for any of the senses: a scent I find delightfully pleasant may make you gag in revulsion, etc.

Remember, the buddha is much less interested -- if he is at all -- in metaphysical speculation than the alleviation of existential duhkha. His teaching of satipatthana directs us to pay full attention to the experience of the sensorium because that is where the duhkha arises and it will be the place where it ends. As Glenn Wallis writes, "...your experience is your reality. And your experience is your reality." Thus, if your experience is pervaded by duhkha, then paying attention to the nature of your experience is much more to the point than speculating about "reality." 

This passage from the buddha also points to a fairly radical notion. The buddha is asserting that your sense organs and the data that comprise the totality of your experience is 'the all,' which is to say this all is your (lived) world! The buddha seems to be saying that those who posit another 'all,' such as a supernatural realm are misconstruing what is actually known. Those who speak of "knowing god" (or knowing "god") are not really clear on what it is that they actually know. According to this passage from the buddha, what they know are thoughts, concepts, perhaps visual imagery arising in their minds. Such mental formations are part of the sensorium and the only thing we can know. The error is the extrapolation from these mental formations to an entity that exists in the 'external' world. Recently, I read a Facebook thread where two devotees of new age thinking argued about what the "higher dimensional entities" they were in contact with thought about sexual relations for enlightened beings. One said they are beyond any such relationships while the other said they were so open as to be polygamous!

We all make all sorts of claims about the existence of things without taking the time and making the effort to look at just how we know them! The buddha is suggesting we get clear about just what it is that we know.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

The Awakening Life

Describing his awakening, the Buddha said: “Coming to be, coming to be! Ceasing to be, ceasing to be! At that thought, yogis, there arose in me a vision of things not before called to mind. Knowledge arose: such is form, such is the coming to be of form, such is its passing away. Recognition arose: such is its coming to be, such is its passing away. And the state of abiding in the understanding of arising and passing away; that too arose.”
---Samyutta Nikaya

In this description, the Buddha is emphasizing the deep insight into impermanence and the emptiness of phenomena. Form – the body – is the first of the five skandhas, and in an oral tradition, often, just mentioning the first of a list implies the rest of the items on that list. So, we can be assured that as with form arising and passing away, the Buddha would say the same for feelings, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness.

When seeing clearly, with deep comprehension, the arising and passing away of the five skandhas, we come to see the empty nature of them; and in seeing the empty nature of the five skandhas, we loosen the clinging grip to the misidentification of them as “self.”

As a naturalist, I find the possible implications of that final sentence quite profound: the “state of abiding in the understanding” of impermanence may sound like a final, unchanging state of being, but he’s saying here that that state of abiding itself arose! Anything that arises passes away, so the importance of diligence becomes vividly clear: each moment we must cultivate the conditions that allow the on-going abiding in that understanding. It is moment after moment of understanding in relation to the ever-changing experiencing.

My graduate studies professor, Peter Harvey has said that the Pali would better be translated as “nirvana-izing,” as a kind of action rather than a state. This passage seems to point to that understanding. It may not satisfy a traditionalist and transcendentalist, but, as a naturalist, it is a way of understanding that I can feel comfortable accepting. Rather than seek a final "awakened" life, we can live the awakening life here/now, moment-to-moment, breath-by-breath.