Various locations | Jan 2012
In this series we open an exploration of a few fundamental dharma principles. Students will already have some familiarity with many of these topics, and some may seem trivial. But the reality is there is no trivial truth. Any and all truths can only take us as deeply as we allow them to enter. Most of us reach a comfort level with these fundamentals and then build our practice on top of that partial understanding. If our practice is to move forward these principles must be reexamined and thoroughly realized, then the simplest truth can have a profound impact.
This first homework is looking at death as an expression of denial - the unwillingness to face facts. Death is an example of the many ways we refuse to face life on its terms, the many ways we turn away and pretend life is other than what it is. But the dharma rests on facing facts without distortion, and unless we renew our commitment and trust to doing just that, our understanding will remain superficial.
Why did the Buddha say he only taught suffering and the end of suffering? If this is the core of what he taught, how diligently do we practice it? Do our practices attempt to understand the nature of anguish, or do they sidestep that issue and attempt to create anguish-free environments and foster greater dependency on pleasant experiences? Do we see anguish as a fundamental dharmic principle that guides and directs us toward liberation, or do we pull back and adapt a philosophical approach to anguish - "This too shall pass." Suffering provides all that is necessary for a complete understanding of the formation of self, but we must be willing to move toward the difficult for that to be imparted.
Any review of the fundamentals must go squarely through bare attention. Bare attention is the essence of our practice, and the single tool that nourishes our wisdom and understanding all along the way. "Baring" our attention is why the practice seems to take so long to mature. We are so used to looking to thought for guidance that we overlay a film of thought on our attention to give a familiar tinge to what we see. Without that film of memory there would be the simple essence of emptiness seeing itself. Many of us feel unprepared for that level of reality so we subtly think about what we see, and our thinking makes this great expanse feel safer and more manageable. Cleaning up our attention becomes our work.
The Buddha once said that his teaching directed us toward three principles: sila (ethical conduct), panna (wisdom), and samadhi (firmness of mind). Samadhi is the fundamental principle of a steady and harmonious mind. During samadhi, consciousness is not wavering with each thought but firm and stationary, allowing attention to be bare and free for observation. There is a component of wisdom within samadhi since the mind is resolute and unperturbed by states of mind, yet there is a difference between samadhi and awareness. Awareness is not a state of mind and samadhi is a conditioned state that changes over time; awareness is more easily acknowledged when the mind is firm and steady.
In the West we have little preparation for dharma practice because our lives have not been tuned to staying within ourselves. We have been taught to look outside for approval and to compare ourselves to others. How can we possibly find ourselves within any comparison? All we will ever find is a sense of lacking. Leaning toward the world does not allow us to find our own stability, and yet we cannot question the sense of self without inward evenness and dependability.
We usually approach ethical conduct (sila) from either righteousness (morality) or idealism (I must never harm any living thing!) but not often from stability and unification of heart. From the heart we just see what is appropriate to do and do it within the context of connection and nonharm. When we transgress we learn and move on and never expect anything miraculous or perfect in any way. We simply live within the fullness of our humanity, and that is enough.
Why is generosity a fundamental dharma issue? The dharma opens us beyond our self-limitations, and generosity is the essential direction of that opening. There is a balance between staying within ourselves and our understanding without idealizing the dharma while working with our edges that keep us contained within ourselves. Generosity is the authentic journey out of that container where we realize we were never alone or isolated. Generosity is the manifestation in action of connectedness and is the fundamental conduit of a life lived from the heart.
Wise view is fundamental to everything we do in the dharma. Having a direction establishes a context for all dharma activities. Without it we flounder and move in the direction of our conditioning toward pleasure and ease. Simply stated, wise view is the view that our thoughts distort our perceptions away from the inherent interconnection of all things. Working in clear alignment with interconnection allows us the courage and intention to move toward the difficult, toward that which seems to separate, and confirm the truth of oneness. All dharma activity must be in accordance with that intention, or it will further support the conditioned sense of separation.
Wise intention is the energy that moves all spiritual practices forward. We mistakenly think it is our willpower, but it is always and only our intention. There are two expressions of intention: the primary intention associated with the longing to be free and the secondary intention for gain and acquisition. The secondary is formed by the mind from the primary intention, and that is the reason we believe that satisfaction can come through desire. The mind tells us that. For the energy to be reinvested back into the primary we have to prove to ourselves that secondary gains will never be truly fulfilling. That is what is left for many of us to do.
Our culture has made renunciation into an austerity rather than a virtue, a contraction rather than openness. The word has the negative connotation of self-deprivation when it really means releasing ourselves from what binds us. We are usually willing to release any constraints that do not serve our greater intentions. Simplicity is the natural result of renunciation, but simplicity is not an austerity. It is not forced, but rather is the natural clearing away when everything in excess has been eliminated. Ultimately we simply renounce our separation and live life from that view and intention.
Faith means "to place our heart upon." It encompasses trust, clarity, confidence, and devotion and is the opposite of spiritual despair. Faith is not faith in something; it is the willingness to allow something new and unknown to enter our consciousness. Faith is the willingness to explore a new perception of life beyond what we have known life to be and provides no guarantees that the search will lead to a better outcome. Why do we offer ourselves to the unknown without any assurance? Because it becomes intolerable to our hearts to stay where we are.
Mindfulness is the ability to generate attention toward oneself or an outside object. It is a step toward more conscious living. But mindfulness is coming from our exertion of will; that is, we are making ourselves mindful. When we relax our efforts, mindfulness goes away. As long as we are in control we will continue to believe in the truth of separation and will not see the end of the assumption of self. This is the spiritual fix we are in: either we let go of mindfulness into effortless awareness, or we stay bound to the person who is making herself conscious and thereby limit freedom.
Surrender is not something we decide to do. It is what is left after we have tried every way to avoid or surmount a problem. Surrendering is releasing your guard and allowing the experience into you without protection or defense, and therefore it is an activity of faith. Mostly we try to adapt our way through a difficulty, changing strategies according to the results, but surrender is not another response to a problem, it's the ending of time, distance, and separation from the problem itself.
Wisdom is the integration of truth into your life. It is not theoretical or abstract in any sense, but a steady confidence of knowing what is true. Wisdom comes from seeing an experience in stillness, free from our normal commentary. Our narrative confines us to just what we have known and in the absence of the narrative arises a new perception. This is called wisdom.
We cannot talk about the fundamentals of Dharma without mentioning honesty. All we have to do is meet a truly honest person to know that honesty is infectious. We sense that it must take courage to live with honesty and integrity, but what it really takes is a love of the truth. Honesty in Dharma practice is simply the love of what is true. It is behind all of our inquiry and Dharma investigation. "What is going on here?" is the soul searching question that opens the doors of the heart. We release our deceptions for two reasons: first, it is painful to deceive, and second, we have a profound urge to know the true causes and motivations for our defensiveness. That urge, when properly honed, will be our vehicle for the completion of the spiritual journey.
Relax, observe, allow, and respond are the quiet R-O-A-R of the Dharma. These words place us in the proper orientation to life so that life can affect us. Notice this is not passivity, since responding is essential. These words set us up so that we are aligned with our spiritual intentions, each word offering a perspective on the ease and observation needed for our spiritual fulfillment.
One of the more common emotional responses to practice is that at times we feel like we are failing in meditation. Nothing seems to be going according to the instructions. We try diligently and then hear that striving will not get us anywhere. We want to like ourselves but are full of self-contempt. We would like to wish everyone lovingkindness, but we do not feel that in our hearts. All of this has us feeling like a spiritual failure.
One way to sidestep the thought that our practice is not going well is to remember that our practice is about self-knowledge, and self-knowledge is always working. Like a mirror that always reflects what it sees, it may not be showing us what we want to see, but it is always reflecting back what it sees. The practice is to accommodate what we see, no matter what is reflected back. Just let the reflection show us the state of affairs. Now comes the hard part. Do not attempt to change, judge, or get over what we see. If we want to do something, relax with what we see. Let the built up tension be dispelled. If we try to get over a problem before we understand what the nature of the problem is, we will further complicate our struggle.
Much of our struggle is arising from the sense of being a personal failure. In a culture built upon evaluations and comparisons, many of us feel like we are defeated before we begin. We lead with self-uncertainty and for a Dharma practitioner that is the worst possible assumption. Awakening needs everything from us, and self-uncertainty holds us back in timidity. We have to address this assumption head on to end its tyrannical rule.
Love throws many of us off a little. Some of us would like our path free of tenderness and caring because love involves a part of us that is not logical or rational. Love puts the world together in a way that can’t be calculated or reasoned. The mind wants everything organized and direct, nothing cloudy or confused, but the spiritual journey is intuitive and not mentally derived. At some point we must leave the crisp edges and clear surfaces of the mind and move into the wonders and mysteries of the heart, and love is the path that does just that.
Fear is the dominating emotion controlling the world of formations and forms the edge between the ideas that hold us together as a formed entity and the ever-present universe of mystery and wonder. Inevitably consciousness will be confronted by the fears it harbors. Fear is fear of something and that something has been conditioned into our minds as a threat. The threat is held within a narrative and the narrative warns us that if we do not contract back on ourselves a tragedy will occur. We take this narrative as a literal truth and find ourselves avoiding the feared event. All of this maneuvering keeps us formed as a person and separated from all internal and external objects that are potential threats. By avoiding the threats we never grow beyond ourselves as a formed entity, and thus we perpetuate fear.
Many of us do not realize the accessibility of the heart. We think it is distant and attainable only through hard work. But it is as close as a pause in our thoughts, a hesitation in our busyness, and is the natural response of awareness to life. Our thoughts cover the heart with a foggy distraction, but when we interrupt the stream of our thinking the heart response with a gentle appreciation for living. In that moment life is acknowledging itself with gratitude. During this season of Thanksgiving, look deeply and silently to call forth this natural appreciation for living.
Insights remain a dormant potential but not a formative actuality until they are put into action. Action validates the insight and establishes our intention to move in line with its truth. Action overcomes doubt and aligns our cognitive system with our spiritual transformation. It is the essential component for moving our spiritual journey forward. Too often our insights get lost within our conditioned habits and are never brought into the light of day, and therefore never fully position our mental and physical systems to the Dharma.