Sunday, June 3, 2018


“Is suffering brought about by myself alone?” asked Kassapa.
“No, Kassapa,” replied the buddha.
“Then is it brought about by another?”
“No, Kassapa.”
“Then both together, myself and another?”
“No, Kassapa.”
“Then is it brought about randomly by chance?”
“No, Kassapa.”
“Then there is no suffering?”
“No, Kassapa, it is not that there is no suffering. For there is suffering.”
“Well then, perhaps you neither know nor see it, dear buddha.”
“It is not that I don’t know suffering or don’t see it, Kassapa. I know it well and see it.”
“But… to all my questions, you have answered ‘no,’ and yet you say you know suffering and see it. Please teach me about it.”
“Kassapa, there are two wrong views: One says that oneself is the entire author of a deed and all consequent suffering one brings upon oneself and this is so from the beginning of time. The other says that it is deeds done by other people that bring about one’s own suffering. You should avoid both these views, Kassapa. Here we teach another way: All deeds, whether your own or another’s, are conditioned by ignorance and that is the origin of this whole mass of suffering. By ending that ignorance wisdom comes into being and suffering ceases.”
---Samyutta Nikaya

In this exchange between Kassapa and the buddha, we see the buddha rejected some common views regarding suffering that were popular in the time of the buddha and are still often found promulgated today, especially in the contemporary yoga world so influenced by ‘new age’ thinking.

First, Kassapa asks if suffering is brought about by oneself. Today this is often voiced in the context of karma with some teachers and practitioners saying that all one’s suffering arises based upon one’s karma. The buddha rejected this idea and offered several other catagories of causality beside karmic actions which he characterized as only those actions done volitionally. Additionally, there are those who hold this view in new age circles claiming that one “manifests” their reality and if one is suffering it’s because they created it themselves. This is a pernicious idea that adds suffering to suffering: I’ve seen yogis dealing with serious illness like cancer being asked what they think they did that brought this upon themselves. They are told that if their practice is “pure” enough, they should not experience suffering.

When this view is shot down by the buddha, Kassapa then assumes that one’s suffering is caused by others. In a response later in this exchange it’s clear that other’s actions can create the conditions for one’s suffering, here the buddha is denying that others are the root cause of one’s suffering. But, in this exchange with Kassapa, the buddha is telling him that others are not the ultimate cause of one's suffering. Today, in our culture, there has been a growing sense of victim consciousness that disempowers individuals. I am not denying that most likely every one of us has been victimized at some point in our life. Some have had to endure truly horrendous conditions. In this sense, those of us who suffered because of the behavior of others have been victimized. The trouble begins, however, when victimization becomes the whole of one’s identity, and with the rise of “identity politics,” there has been a rise among many who have been victimized that their identity is one of being a victim. As psychotherapist Barbara Frazier writes:

Being victimized is different than being a victim. A person who is victimized is still first and foremost that same person. It is a person who has had an experience or a series of experiences, and who is likely changed as a result or these experiences, yet is not reduced down to only those experiences.

A victim becomes the experience and stays there. He begins to see all of his life through this narrow window. He attributes his feelings, thoughts, and experiences going forward to his reaction to the original victimization event. He talks about it, thinks about it, and holds on to it almost like a badge of identity. Strangely, it becomes his point of reference for his life.

So, after the buddha denies that others are the cause of one's suffering, Kassapa suggests that perhaps it's both oneself and another, but the buddha shoots down this possibility as well. The buddha is pointing to a more nuanced view regarding conditions that he shares toward the end of this exchange. 

Kassapa keeps at it and then asks if suffering's arising is random and the buddha denies this is so as well. Today, there aren't that many I know of who would argue this, but there are those who speak of 'fate' and this too the buddha would deny. Fate implies that there is nothing one can do about suffering (or any other situation) because our actions do not have causal significance. Finally, a view many hold today is that suffering arises because it's the 'will of god' (or 'the gods') and the buddha again rejects this possibility because again, if it's the will of god, then there is really nothing we can do about it.

Still, the buddha teaches that though we do not bring on our suffering ourselves, nor do others, there is still something we can do in response to ameliorate suffering and even end it! This is because suffering, he says, arises based upon myriad causes and conditions (many, if not most, that we have not chosen for ourselves) and that the root cause of our suffering is ignorance.

Ignorance is generally the translation yogis use for the Sanskrit word avidya (avijjā in Pali). Avidya more literally means "not know," "not understand," or "not see." It is a cognate with the Latin vidēre ("to see") and it's echoed in the English "vision." It's the understanding that the unawakening being doesn't know nor do they see the reality of emptiness, the absence of any essential self-nature in any phenomena.
But, I also think that when we say "ignorance," we can also understand it as "ignore-once," or as we might say nowadays, "denial," because so much suffering arises through ignoring what we do not wish to acknowledge; we know it's there at one level, but choose to ignore it.

And the final point of the buddha is that because it is ignorance that is the ultimate cause of suffering and not any "individual" (which in a real sense doesn't even exist) then our focus in practice should be the removal of ignorance -- in ourselves and in others. Thich Nhat Hanh would often remind his students that "Man is not the enemy; our enemy is hatred, ignorance and fear." The bodhisattva works for the liberation of all, knowing that none can be truly free if all are not free, while knowing also that there are no 'beings' to be freed! 

The bodhisattvas, grounded in perfect understanding, find no obstacles for their minds. 
Having no obstacles, they overcome fear, liberating themselves forever from illusion, and realizing perfect nirvana. 

All buddhas in the past, present, and future, thanks to this perfect understanding, arrive at full, right, and universal awakening.
---The Heart Sutra


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.”