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Tonglen: In with the Bad, Out with the Good (Your Guide to Buddhist Meditation/July 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | July 2014



Tonglen: In with the Bad, Out with the Good

“Accepting and sending out” is a powerful meditation to develop compassion—for ourselves and others. ETHAN NICHTERN teaches us how to do it in formal practice and on the spot whenever suffering arises.

Tonglen, which in Tibetan means “accepting and sending out,” is one of the most powerful and intense compassion meditations in the Buddhist tradition.

The Buddhist definition of compassion is inherently intense and expansive: the willingness to stay open and available to pain and suffering, both in oneself and others. So Tonglen does more than help us develop compassion for others. It also transforms our own lives. Using our imagination and respiratory system, it helps us stay present with difficult feelings and relationships that usually provoke resistance and distance. Tonglen gives us incredibly effective mental tools for meeting painful encounters throughout the day.


Tonglen in Four Steps

Before the session, contemplate your intention to stay present with suffering, which is traditionally called the bodhisattva intention. Spend a few minutes doing mindfulness of breath practice to help ground you. Then begin the four steps.

Ethan Nichtern is a senior teacher in the Shambhala tradition, founder of the Interdependence Project, and the author of
One City. His third book, The Road Home, will be published in early 2015 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Read the rest of this article inside the July 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

Koans: One with the Question (Your Guide to Buddhist Meditation/July 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | July 2014


Koans: One with the Question

The enlightenment stories of the ancient masters are confounding to conventional mind. Their truth, says MELISSA MYOZEN BLACKER, is revealed only when our whole being becomes the koan.

Koans represent the sayings and doings of Zen masters and their friends and students, as collected many centuries ago. Koan (Japanese) literally means “public case” (as in a legal precedent), and these ancient cases continue to have relevance for modern dharma students, illustrating what it might mean to live free from repetitive dualistic patterns of thinking and behaving. We are all prisoners of a mind that judges and compares, endlessly caught in dualistic thinking: like and dislike, this and that, you and me, knowing and not-knowing. Through the serious play of koan practice, we learn to live freshly and immediately with everything that arises. We personally taste life as it is, however it appears: as a breath, a headache, the song of a bird, with nothing extra added.

Koans are not intellectual puzzles or riddles, and they are not designed to destroy the discursive mind. They are instruments of practice that lead to a real human connection, with other people who have studied the way of the Buddha and who have themselves become open to the possibility of a life lived with clarity and compassion. As Wumen, the thirteenth-century Chinese compiler of the koan collection The Gateless Gate, said, through this practice we learn to “walk hand in hand with all the Ancestral Teachers…the hair of your eyebrows entangled with theirs, seeing with the same eyes, hearing with the same ears.”

To dive deeply into koans, it’s essential to work directly with a teacher. In my lineage, students often begin with Mu, sometimes considered a “breakthrough” koan. A monk asks Zen master Zhaozhou if a dog has buddhanature and receives the answer “mu,” meaning “no” in Japanese. This is unexpected because it’s a well-known Mahayana teaching that everyone and everything, dogs included, have awakened nature. Working with this koan, a student can drop the story and become one with the word “mu.” Accompanied by a quality of wondering, mu rides on the breath and washes through all experiences and actions. As insights arise, and as old patterns of experiencing reality drop away, the teacher works closely with the student, supporting and directing his or her new discoveries.

Although not traditional, it’s also possible to engage with koans on your own. They can yield great treasure if we sincerely engage with them. For example, let’s look at Case 20 from The Book of Equanimity:

Dizang asked Fayan, “Where are you going?”

Fayan said, “I am wandering aimlessly.”

“What do you think of wandering?”

“I don’t know.” “Not knowing is most intimate.”

Fayan was suddenly awakened.

Without trying to figure out what Dizang and his student Fayan are actually talking about, we can feel our way into what “wandering aimlessly” suggests to us: an accurate description of how our own heart-mind wanders aimlessly and endlessly through its patterns of thinking and feeling. What would it be like to truly admit that we don’t know, on the very deepest level? And how could we taste what Fayan discovered, the great intimacy of not having to know?

This direct intimacy is available to everyone, and koan introspection is one of the many skillful means that can lead us to a fully compassionate, clear, and awakened life.


Melissa Myozen Blacker is the abbot of Boundless Way Zen, a community with Zen practice centers throughout New England. She also teaches mindfulness programs and retreats.

From the July 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

To order a print of "Hotei Bird and Monk," by Keith Abbott (shown above), as well as other pieces of unique and beautiful Buddhist art, visit the Shambhala Sun webstore.

Zazen: Just Ordinary Mind (Your Guide to Buddhist Meditation/July 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | July 2014



Zazen: Just Ordinary Mind

Our natural mind is clear, simple, and ordinary. The practice of Zen meditation, says SUSAN MURPHY, is simply to abandon anything extra. Then the ordinary reveals its magic.

First, what Zen meditation is not. It is not a meticulous body scan, nor a rigorous examination of the contents of the mind. Nor is it a private entry into nirvana.

Zazen is a deep study of the embodied mind. It is a meditation practice that fosters both gradual and sudden shifts of radical insight into the genuine nature of mind. In a typically startling yet low-key undoing of expectations, Zen often calls this clear and most natural experience “ordinary mind.” In Zazen, “ordinary” things grow both plainer and stranger at once.  

This “ordinary” does not mean ho-hum or customary. It means as ordinary as the way a bee softly bothers the flowers. As ordinary as waves welling and sucking back over rocks. As ordinary and unlikely as the overwhelming fact of the universe, of breathing in and out, of having a boundless consciousness that seems also to have a name and history and a mortal body. Ordinary means to be with what is, freely moving with unfolding circumstances and at rest everywhere, like a leaf in the breeze.

Zazen (literally, “seated meditation”) is a focused investigation of the nature of “self.” But as the great Zen philosopher Dogen put it, to study the self is to forget the self. All fixed ideas and sense of “self” become “forgotten”—in other words, softened, dissolved, dropped away, expanded to include all that is. 

This is done not by directing yourself toward something special but by subtly abandoning anything that resists the simplicity of just being, just sitting, just breathing. It begins in grounding the mind deep in the body and breath, just as they are.

Simple? Yes. And yet it takes all that we are, and many years of practice, to truly experience and maintain.

Susan Murphy Roshi is the founding teacher of Zen Open Circle in Sydney, Australia. She is the author of Upside Down Zen and Minding the Earth, Mending the World.

Excerpted from the July 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

Loving-Kindness: It Starts with You (Your Guide to Buddhist Meditation/July 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | July 2014


Loving-Kindness: It Starts With You

JOSH KORDA on how to free your naturally loving heart and expand your goodwill to include all beings.

I haven’t had a drink or a self-prescribed mood-altering drug in nineteen years. I make that statement with both pride and wonder, given the amount of suffering that preceded my renunciation of booze, pills, and the like. I mostly attribute my sobriety to my spiritual practice, the support of my Buddhist community, and our local twelve-step gatherings. But if one practice or tool has helped me get and stay sober, it is the practice of Metta, or loving-kindness.

I grew up in an unpredictable household. My father, an alcoholic, could shift from pleasant joviality to rage-induced violence over the course of a few glasses of wine. I vividly remember plates suddenly flying toward my head during tense dinners and the sound of my mom’s muffled cries while locked in a bathroom. In short, the stuff that leads to years of analysis later in life.

By my teens I was hypervigilant of others and self-absorbed, the victim of a self-critical inner tyrant. I felt unworthy of others’ love and worked hard to hide emotional states my father couldn’t tolerate during his “episodes”—any sign of weakness, frustration, or sadness.

My underlying assumption was simple: if others could see these authentic energies, they wouldn’t accept me either. Yet I desperately needed emotional tolerance and interpersonal bonding. My life around others became a self-conscious performance. Suppressing so much resulted in an agitated mind, which set me up for addictive behaviors. Alcohol and drugs, I found, relieved the stress created by my concealment and self-judgment.

The underlying darkness was kept at bay, until my world fell apart and I wound up in my final detox stint, everything and everyone lost as a result of my heedlessness.

My early days of sobriety were buoyed by the Buddhist practice I had developed over the years. But breath concentration and Vipassana practice weren’t enough to deal with my deeply embedded feelings of low self-esteem. The self-critical tyrant remained on his throne, barking his angry rebukes and rebuttals, which I continued to believe, despite having a path in which I cultivated virtue and volunteerism. I was deeply despairing and incapable of lasting relationships and deep friendships. And so, when I heard of loving-kindness practice from wonderful teachers like Ajahn Sucitto and Sharon Salzberg, I dove in.

Metta is a powerful meditation practice that heals agitated minds with the development of goodwill toward ourselves and others. Of great therapeutic benefit, Metta relieves our stressful thought patterns and can result in immediate improvements in well-being.


How to Do Loving-Kindness Meditation 

Traditionally, we begin loving-kindness practice by taking a comfortable seat. We can quietly shift positions when necessary, as this is not a time to investigate physical discomfort.

Once seated, we start by inwardly directing loving-kindness and goodwill to ourselves: perhaps toward a visual sense of our appearance or toward an area of the body where we experience core emotions, such as the chest or abdomen.

During initial forays into Metta the mind will often rebel; thoughts critical of the meditation’s value or stories of our unworthiness are swift to arise. All this means is that we need this practice, for, as the Buddha taught, we each deserve goodwill and if we cannot summon it easily for ourselves, we’ll never feel true compassion for other beings.

When I first started my loving-kindness practice, developing thoughts of self-regard was a struggle, to say the least. Finally it occurred to me that I was addressing myself, in my thoughts, in ways I would never address anyone publicly, even those I detested. I made a pact in my practice that I would say the same things to myself that a good friend might say. My first choice of phrasing was begrudging, along the lines of “I suppose you deserve some happiness.” It’s a sign of the degree to which I’ve healed that my phrase of choice these days is “I love you, keep going.”

Once some self-compassion has arisen, we bring to mind images of friends, mentors, or others we hold in high regard. This stage of Metta is generally uncomplicated, requiring little effort, as the admiration we feel for these people naturally results in goodwill.

Next, though, we direct goodwill in more challenging directions. We start with people we are indifferent toward, about whom we have neither positive nor negative feelings. This stage requires more effort, as the human mind is quite facile at developing opinions about people. Choosing a neutral person—for example, someone we see regularly during a commute or in a store we frequent—may require memory jogging.

Finally, we move to the most challenging stage of Metta practice: radiating goodwill toward those we’ve reviled or struggled with. (Dick Cheney and the Doobie Brothers almost instantly come to mind, but maybe that’s just me.) This part of the practice is as essential as developing self-compassion, since holding resentment is a primary source of agitation and suffering. The limits of our goodwill form the ultimate boundaries of our peace of mind, for we cannot achieve peace while aversion is present.

The goal of Metta practice is to free our natural feelings of benevolence from their limited confines. Loving-kindness and goodwill conditioned by agendas or expectations are not deeply beneficial. In Metta, we work to develop feelings of ease and love as boundless as the oceans that nourish and sustain our world.


Josh Korda teaches in the Theravada Buddhist tradition at Dharmapunx NYC + Brooklyn and is a regular visiting teacher at Against the Stream in Los Angeles.

From the July 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

Walking: Meditation in Motion (Your Guide to Buddhist Meditation/July 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | July 2014


Walking: Meditation in Motion

With every step, says BROTHER PHAP HAI, you can touch the Earth and the wonder of life.

In the film Gravity, after hurtling through outer space, Sandra Bullock’s character takes slow, delicious steps on the Earth. For me, this simple scene was the most impactful of the whole movie. It reminded me of a teaching by the ninth-century Zen master Rinzai: “The great miracle is not to walk on the air or to walk on water or fire, but to be able to walk on the Earth.”  

When I started to ask what it meant to walk on the “Earth” of my own life, I realized that I spent most of my time walking on the “air” and “water” of the past, the future, my plans, fears, and hopes. In fact, it was rare for me to take steps on the “Earth” of my embodied experience.

An authentic practice life isn’t about seeking peak experiences but rather touching the wonder of the ordinary.

This is made clear in a conversation that the Buddha is said to have had with a prince. The prince asked, “What do
you and your monastics practice every day?”
The Buddha replied, “We sit, we walk, and we eat.”
The prince said, “We also do these things every day, so how are you different?”
The Buddha responded, “When we sit, we know we are sitting. When we walk, we
know we are walking. When we eat, we know we are eating.”

We can practice walking meditation throughout the day, even when we only need to take a few steps. Usually in our daily lives, we’re habituated to physically and mentally going somewhere that’s not here. We’re sitting and we decide to open the window. The next thing we’re aware of is that we’re at the window; we haven’t been present for the time in-between. Walking meditation is an opportunity to bring awareness to the transition moments, which in fact make up the majority of our life. 

Whenever I practice walking meditation, it’s new and different. At times I walk slowly, taking perhaps three steps for every in-breath and three steps for every out-breath, and at other times the situation is such that I need to move more quickly, but in any case I bring the same awareness to my steps. As I walk, I feel my feet on the Earth and bring my awareness to my breath. I become rooted in my body, established in time and place.

Walking meditation is a gift you offer yourself. When you walk, relax your whole body. Notice how many steps you take for each in-breath and out-breath. If you find that your mind is wandering, silently repeating a word or two can be helpful. One suggestion is to say, “Arrived, arrived” on the in-breath and “Home, home” on the out-breath.

The practice of meditation is about arriving with every breath, every step. When we settle into our lived experience, we have truly arrived.

Read the rest of this article inside the July 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

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