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What Makes Us Free? (January 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | January 2014


What Makes Us Free?

Insight. Loving-kindness. Cultivating what’s wholesome. And making them real in our lives every day. These are what make us free, say Insight Meditation teachers JACK KORNFIELD and JOSEPH GOLDSTEIN, in a conversation at California’s Spirit Rock Meditation Center, moderated by MICHELLE LATVALA.

Q: One of the big differences between Buddhism in the East and Buddhism in the West is that the majority of meditators here are lay practitioners, as opposed to monastics. Can you give us some ideas about how Western householders, with busy lives at home and at work, can still have a deep and effective meditation practice?

Jack Kornfield: Particularly in the West, practice can easily activate a kind of striving and ambition and self-judgment. So it’s critical to add a lot of loving-kindness and compassion practice. As people begin to sit, there’s a layer of self-judgment and self-criticism that needs to be addressed with compassion, rather than more striving. That allows dharma practice to deepen, because it’s only when attention is married to loving-kindness that things begin to open up. When the two are together, a kind of freedom quite naturally starts to happen. Otherwise, we’re still struggling and judging the way things are.

Joseph Goldstein: It is important to take some time occasionally to reflect on what our highest aspirations are. It’s helpful to do that because we come to the practice for many different reasons, and often these change as we deepen our understanding.

If we have a clear understanding of what our highest aspirations are, then it is clearer what we have to do to get there. If our aspiration is just to calm down a little bit and have less stress in our lives, that’s one thing, and we can do the appropriate practices. But if our aspiration is to get enlightened, that’s another kettle of fish, and we need to deeply consider what that means.

Assuming we aspire to get enlightened, there are a couple of simple things that can keep us on the glide path of awakening. These are practical things we can do amid the busyness and distractedness in our lives today. One thing that’s so helpful is a daily sitting practice. We need some time each day when we quiet down and actively train our mind in awareness and mindfulness. We need to arrange our day around that, because it’s so easy for it to get squeezed out.

The other thing that can really transform the quality of practice in our lives is understanding and practicing wise speech. We speak a lot in our daily lives, but how many of us pay attention to the motivation for our words before we speak? Probably not that many! We’re in conversation, whether it’s at work or with friends and family, and the words just tumble out. Sometimes they’re motivated by wholesome, loving qualities, and sometimes not.

My favorite Pali word is samphappalapa. It means exactly what it sounds like—useless talk. I love the practice of watching my mind about to samphappalapa, because the tendency is so strong to speak for the sake of speaking. That has no value, no purpose. By seeing that “about to,” you can then think, “No, I don’t have to do that.” It’s amazing how free we feel in that moment of restraint.

Speech is such a huge part of our daily experience, and often its motive is to cause divisiveness or harm to others. So to practice right speech, we need to pay attention to our motives. That’s not easy. There are very few of us—if any—who have perfectly pure motivation. So when we look at our motivation, it takes a lot of clarity and honesty, sometimes even courage. But if we are willing to be open and honest about the mix of motivations behind our speech and our actions, then we can choose the motives which are most wholesome and act from those, and let the others go.

Read the full article in the January 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

Dad's Happiness (January 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | January 2014


Dad's Happiness

In her widowed father’s pale, hopeful face, ANN NICHOLS saw that everything her mother had fallen for in a Cambridge apartment fifty years earlier was still alive in him. Why should he be limited to a life without the possibility of romance? 

Ten years ago my mother developed congestive heart failure and eventually required a kidney transplant. Although she struggled to maintain their schedule of social events, travel, and post-retirement wish fulfillment, she eventually gave in to a slow invalid life that infuriated her on a daily basis. My father assumed the role of caretaker, taking her to medical appointments and sleeping in hard plastic hospital chairs. Through his own Parkinson’s disease, cancer, and radiation, he sorted her pills and tried to cook things that would tempt her flagging appetite.

Last October, she died. We were all there—my brother and I on either side of her and my father stroking her thin, white hair. As her breaths grew slower, I practiced the Buddhist meditation practice of tonglen, taking in her suffering and sending her peace and love. I knew that as the waves of her pain receded, mine were rushing in.

Although I’d never worried about being the child of divorce, I had fretted since childhood about losing my parents to death. And losing my mother was in every way as hard as I feared it would be. It was, it seemed, an end to everything that had been my family.

Within a month of my mother’s death, my father had a recurrence of cancer and a third surgery. There were complications, and for three months he could neither speak nor swallow. After ten days in the hospital, he was sent home with a tube in his stomach through which he was to consume highly caloric, almond-scented liquid. The tremors in his hands and his general weakness made it impossible for him to feed himself. He could not pour the formula neatly into the 60cc syringe; he could not grind up his medications and mix them with the formula. I moved back to my childhood home and became his live-in nurse.

For those months we existed in a gentle, routine-bound cocoon. Physical therapists, speech therapists, nurses, and the occasional visitor came and went, but mostly it was just the two of us. I missed my own house, my husband, my son, and my dogs, but it was healing to be in that house as I tested the depths of my grief. Every four hours I fed my father, and between feedings I cleaned out my mother’s closet, her drawers, and her office. I wore her slippers, used her lip balm, and slept in one of her sweaters. I meditated daily: observe the pain, let it be, let it pass.

One night after the 11 p.m. feeding, my father noticed that I’d been crying. “Do you want to talk about your mother?” he asked, as I coiled up the protruding plastic tubing and cinched it with Velcro. “I’m afraid I haven’t been very good about that.”

I shook my head and kissed his forehead. “No,” I said. “I talk to her all the time.”

He nodded, and I left him to drift into Percocet sleep.

Sometime in the final month of my nursing stint, my father mentioned a woman he’d met in the neighborhood.

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

Illustration (detail) by Tara Hardy

Poem of Silence (January 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | January 2014


Poem of Silence

With just seventeen syllables, the essence of haiku is what  isn’t said. MARY ROSE O'REILLEY on reciting Basho to the Northern forest.

Last winter I lived on an island in Puget Sound. My bedroom window faced one of those green, fecund forests of the Pacific Northwest from which it seems anything can emerge: a mule deer, a dinosaur, an angel, an idea about what one’s next step in life might be. I hoped for the latter.

Before I left for this retreat, my friends and I strategized about staying in touch. We have so many ways to do this nowadays—clutching our wee-pods and me-pods, over-stimulated and overloaded—that it’s easy to lose someone forever. My friend Katherine didn’t want to telephone or write letters, as she was struggling with a deep grief that resisted sentences.

“Let’s just send haiku postcards to each other now and then,” she said. So we did. Carried away with enthusiasm, I decided to write a haiku every morning, to mark the path of my life on the island.

Nothing in my apprenticeship to poetry had taught me how to work in this disciplined Japanese form, which is good, because I would have learned how to obsess over syllable counting or some pseudo-Zen effect. There was, however, one poem by Basho, the seventeenth-century master of the form, which I knew by heart in Japanese, because I’d memorized it long ago to greet a guest from Kyoto:

furu ike ya 

kawadzu tobikomu

mizu no oto


My Japanese guest had responded to my effort with stunned incomprehension before he doubled over laughing.

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

Being Here (January 2014 review) Print

Shambhala Sun | January 2014


Being Here

Ram Dass has led a long and adventurous life, one of loving and being loved. Fellow seeker MIRABAI BUSH recalls firsthand the patience, humor, and grace of one of our most influential spiritual figures. 

Grist for the Mill: Awakening to Oneness
By Ram Dass with Stephen Levine
HarperOne 2014; 256 pp., $15.99 (paper) 

It was 1973 and Ram Dass was giving a lecture at Winterland, the famed music venue in San Francisco. The hall was full, as they always were in those days, and Ram Dass was getting ready to speak. I was walking through, welcoming people and greeting old friends, my toddler son, Owen, holding my hand. There were men and women in business suits, hippies in rainbow clothes, American Sikhs in turbans, and the spiritual gang in flowing white. The center floor was open, and people were setting up their meditation pillows and sleeping bags, knowing Ram Dass would go until morning. After hugging an old friend, I turned to see that Owen was no longer next to me. I looked around. Gone. I panicked. He could wander out into the middle of downtown San Francisco! I found the security guards and told them to watch for him, then I started moving around the room. At last, across a sea of people, I saw him, his little head pressed up against a giant speaker. He, like millions of others over the years, was listening as fully as he could to Ram Dass:

“In a gathering like this, it is no longer sufficient just to talk about it. Now we have to become it…. If we come with the certainty that we already know and that what we have is enough, then even though we hear the words, we will not receive the transmission…”

It was at those gatherings—in what collaborator Stephen Levine calls “the direct, charismatic, air medium of the oral tradition”—that many people heard the teachings that became Grist for the Mill, now newly updated, following closely on the heels of Polishing the Mirror: How to Live from Your Spiritual Heart. Ram Dass, in a style that is part stand-up comic and part Harvard professor, uses stories from his own life to illustrate a truth, often learned though hilarious difficulty and resulting in a new humility. Once I asked him about his use of stories. He said, “Stories break through into heart spaces. And spiritual matters are hard to talk about because they are… you can’t get the concepts across… and, uh,”—a long pause—“stories sort of knock on the door of spirit.”

His biggest teaching came through his stroke, years after the talks in this book, but even then he knew that suffering is grace: “We begin to notice that our suffering awakens us more than our pleasure. ‘Ah, cancer’—as a being in a body, the temple of my soul for this incarnation, I will do my best to heal it, but I will work with the cancer whether I am healed or not, as a vehicle for awakening. A conscious being uses everything.”

I first met Ram Dass at a course taught by S.N. Goenka in 1970, the first meditation course he taught for Westerners. It was a seedpod for Buddhist teachers, including Sharon Salzberg, Joseph Goldstein, Wes Nisker, and others. Goenka told us the story of the Buddha saying to Ananda that spiritual friendship is not just half of life but in fact the whole of life. Noble, admirable friends help us on the path of liberation. Ram Dass became that friend to many, and to me.

When I ran a business with my former husband in Cambridge in the seventies, Ram Dass would come and speak to the staff about right livelihood and karma yoga: “Perform the daily actions of your life so as to come to a clearer state of consciousness or deeper peace or greater enlightenment or whatever metaphor you want to use. You start where you are, not where you wish you were, with certain trainings and skills and responsibilities, and the game is to find the path within all that and use it to work on yourself.” Not every employee thought they were working at Illuminations to become enlightened, but they all loved Ram Dass. When Owen turned sixteen and was eligible to drive, I was sure he’d die on the streets of Cambridge and Boston, hit by one of the world’s worst drivers. Ram Dass, his godfather, my friend, and generous without limit, gave him his indestructible Volvo. Owen survived.

When I visited Ram Dass a few weeks after his stroke at the Kaiser Rehab Hospital in Vallejo, California, he was lying in a bed, paralyzed on one side, pale, looking at a picture of our guru, Neemkaroli Baba, Maharaji, and a batik wall hanging of Hanuman, the son of the Hindu Wind God, the spirit of breath. After a long silence together, he looked at me, trying hard to speak, moving his hand as if he were about to, pointing to his paralyzed side, then trying to express something that he wanted me to hear. It felt very familiar, even in that sterile room through my tears. We had always shared what we had learned. Then he moved his fingers down his arm; like in the Yellow Pages ads, they were walking. This is the path, the journey. “Learning,” he said. Long silence. “Learning… patience. Patience.” Then he closed his eyes. Suffering is grace. And learning is the journey. Be patient.

Some years later, when he had recovered more of his voice after much hard work, Ram Dass asked me a serious question: “Mira, where are we now?” I actually thought that he might be getting Alzheimer’s, and I didn’t know whether to say, “In your kitchen, in Maui” or joke, as I did: “I don’t know.” But later he asked again, and I realized that he meant, Are we doing the right thing? Is this what Maharaji meant? He said he just wanted to be as unconditionally loving as possible for the rest of his time. I said that seemed right. And he’s been doing that ever since.

“Ram Dass is your guru,” Neem Karoli Baba, who was actually my guru, once said to me. What did that mean? That he would teach me more than anyone else about what really matters? That’s been true. And what really matters is love, Ram Dass’s favorite subject. “The path of love doesn’t go anywhere,” he said once. “It just brings you more here, into the present moment, into the reality of who you already are. It takes you out of your mind and into your heart.” With guru-brother Rameshwar Das’s help, Ram Dass published Be Love Now last year, filled with stories about love, including one about Maharaji telling him to love everyone and tell the truth. I can’t, Ram Dass said. I don’t love everyone, so if I say I do, I’m not telling the truth. Maharaji just looked at him tenderly and said, “Love everyone and tell the truth.”

Ram Dass’s house is a temple, filled with statues of the Buddha and Hanuman, Ganesh and Krishna, and photos of the great saints Ramana Maharshi and Ramakrishna and of course Maharaji. There are books and gifts everywhere from friends and students, and two purring cats named for Ram and Sita’s twin sons.

One day, we are sitting at breakfast, eating papayas and bananas from the garden and drinking tea sweetened with agave because Ram Dass can’t have sugar. The intrepid Dassi Ma, who cares for every detail of Ram Dass’s life, is with us. We talk about the sad death of our friend Jonathan Brilliant just a few days before. He was twenty-six and died of cancer. Ram Dass was his godfather, and we both loved him. We knew him from the time he was born. No one understands why Jon got cancer, even his doctors. He was packed with potential, one of the beings you most want on the planet. He had already lived in both Paris and Shanghai, mastering the languages, the thinking, and the affectations of both cultures. He had a cartoon sense of humor, for which he credited his mentor, Wavy Gravy.

Why was Jon gone and Muammar Qaddafi still here, I was asking the universe—Qaddafi, who had just said that the Libyan resistance fighters rose up because Osama Bin Laden put LSD in their Nescafé. It makes no sense. All of the spiritual traditions say that losing a child is the worst suffering we can experience. Why is this happening?

We make a little altar on the table with pictures of Jon. Ram Dass says that Jon was here to do certain things, and when they were finished it was simply time to go. He came like an angel to affect the people in his life, help them see things they otherwise would not. He says he thinks life after death is an infinite space of love, but that our understanding from life will affect how each of us experiences it.

We run out of words and even out of silence after a while, and Ram Dass decides to work on his public talk for the following night with the philosopher Peter Russell. I take a fresh coconut and a straw down to the pool. I swim and think about Jon and about Ram Dass, who is slower and paler than he was and is having trouble with his breathing. There is an empty space around him that he used to fill up, even though he seems surrounded by light. When I see him later, he says, “I watched you swimming.” “Oh,” I say, “how was my stroke?” He pauses. Then he says, “Reliable.” May you always find me reliable, I think. May my spiritual friendship and my love always be reliable.

That night Ram Dass wants to watch a Japanese film, Departures, about a young cellist who trains for a new professional role as a nakanshi, one who prepares the dead for burial. I think R.D. is interested in the cello part, because he used to play the cello, but the movie is really about death and about grief, service, and ritual. I think as I watch this beautiful movie that I want that ritual for my body when I die. I ask Ram Dass where he wants his ashes spread when the time comes, and he says, “In the ocean” and looks out the window. “Out there.”

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

Be a Lamp Unto Yourself (January 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | January 2014

Be a Lamp Unto Yourself

The freedom that Buddhism offers can’t be found if you don’t ask questions—about the teachings, the teachers, and yourself. LARRY ROSENBERG on how to cultivate a spirit of inquiry, even skepticism, to illuminate your path.

The practice of the dharma is learning how to live, and it is both a joyful and challenging path. It asks that you open your mind to take a fresh look at your views and opinions, and to accept nothing on faith alone. As you practice, you will be encouraged to investigate your most cherished convictions, even those you may have about the dharma itself. Happily, this can be a never-ending journey of self-discovery into every aspect of your life.

Of all the teachings of the Buddha, the Kalama Sutta is one of my favorites precisely because it encourages this profound interest in the dharma. The Kalamas were a group of people living in India at the time of the Buddha, and they questioned him about how to recognize wise and authentic teachings. Indeed, if Buddhism were not infused with the spirit of this sutta—a spirit of questioning and testing—I’m quite sure I would not have this meditative practice today.

I was raised in what you might call a tradition of skepticism. My father was the first to teach me the importance of asking questions. He came from a line of fourteen generations of rabbis, but, like his own ex-rabbi father, he rejected that heritage—although the term rejected is too weak. He frequently expressed contempt not only for Orthodox Judaism, but also for all religions. Before Hebrew school class, my father would pull me aside and say things such as, “Ask the rabbi just how Moses got that river to split.” As you can imagine, Rabbi Minkowitz was not particularly pleased to be questioned in this way. I think my father was the first in recorded history to pay a rabbi not to give a talk at his son’s bar mitzvah. My father said, “Please. Here’s the money. Don’t give a talk.” But the rabbi did it. And my father fumed.

My father instilled in me his belief in the necessity of critical thinking. If I got into trouble—I was usually very good at home, but mischievous at school and in the neighborhood—my father put me on trial when he came home from work. He had always wanted to be a lawyer or judge, but he drove a cab, so he had to settle for a court made up of my mother and me. His court was sensitive and reasonable: he allowed “the accused” to speak, and sometimes, after listening, he dropped the charges. Of course, my mother would smile: they were both happy that I got off.

But my father always explained why I should have acted differently: “When you did that, your aunt Clara got aggravated, then she called up your mother, and now I have to listen to it. Next time, just pick up the rye bread and bagels and come home. It’s simple.” He made it clear that my actions had consequences. Above all, he taught me that everyone has the right to ask questions about anything and everything. With that right comes a responsibility: if you question the actions of others, you must also be willing to question your own.

Like my father, the Kalamas of the Kalama Sutta were skeptical but responsible. Their world was alive to spiritual matters, and overrun with teachers often competing for an audience and advocating different philosophies or paths. Their environment was not unlike the one you live in today. You’re inundated with choices. “Interested in religion? What kind? Buddhism? What flavor? Vipassana? Oh, you’ve tried that? A little too dry, perhaps too much talk about suffering and impermanence? You might prefer Dzogchen, the innate perfection of the mind. Besides, most vipassana teachers are not even monks; they just wear sweatpants. At least the Tibetan teachers in their colorful outfits look like teachers. Or consider Zen. Beautiful! All those parables that teach you and make you laugh. Or what about the One Dharma approach that embraces them all?”

You live in a great swirling spiritual marketplace, full of promises and claims. No wonder many of you find it confusing. Twenty-five hundred years ago, the Kalamas were similarly confused by the profusion of paths to wisdom and peace.

Though the Kalamas knew the Buddha’s reputation as a great sage, they were concerned that he, too, might be merely one more teacher with a competing point of view. I deeply admire their uncommon degree of skepticism. The history of the world reveals that most of us are drawn to those who provide a strong, uncompromising teaching and who say or imply: “This is it, and everyone else is wrong.” Certainly you see this dangerous pattern in contemporary politics. But it also shows up in spiritual circles, where it raises the same questions: Do you really want freedom? Can you handle the responsibility? Or would you just prefer an impressive teacher to provide answers and do the hard work for you?

Despite the host of problems in dharma centers in the past thirty years, I still see some meditators check their intelligence at the door, and almost grovel at the feet of a teacher, saying, “Just tell me how to live.” Even with my staunch belief in questioning, I’ve made this mistake a few times myself. Have you? I longed for my special teacher with unique access to the truth. It felt fantastic to be their student. My spiritual life was taken care of. I was absolved of the worry and responsibility that comes with exercising the right to ask questions. But, of course, I wasn’t free.

The Buddha’s response to the concerns and confusions of the Kalamas gives you an antidote to making unskillful choices. He guides the Kalamas, and you, in the selection of a teacher and also in the skill of investigation in all realms of life:

So, as I said, Kalamas: “Don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted and carried out, lead to harm and to suffering’—then you should abandon them.” Thus was it said. And in reference to this was it said.

“Now, Kalamas, don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted and carried out, lead to welfare and to happiness’—then you should enter and remain in them.”

Before looking further into these teachings in this sutta, I’d like to offer another story. This one is said to have happened in a village in China where people came from far and wide to hear the dharma talks of a highly respected young teacher. One day, an esteemed old master joined the crowd. When the young teacher spotted him, he said, “Please, come up here, sit next to me while I give my talk.” So the old master rose and sat at his side.

The young teacher resumed his talk and every other word out of his mouth quoted a sutta or a Zen master. The old teacher started to nod off in front of everyone. Though the young one noticed this out of the corner of his eye, he continued. The more authorities he cited, the sleepier the old master appeared. Finally, the young teacher interrupted himself to ask, “What’s wrong? Is my teaching so boring, so awful, so totally off?” At that point, the old master leaned over and gave him a hard pinch. The young teacher screamed, “Ouch!”  The old master said, “Ah! That’s what I’ve traveled this long distance to hear. This pure teaching. This ‘ouch’ teaching.”

Like the old master in this Zen story, the Buddha’s response to the Kalamas highlights the primacy of direct experience. The Buddha acknowledges that people rely on multiple types of authority: some internal, some external, some reliable, some way off the mark. He advises them that just because a teaching is ancient, or recited from the scripture, does not make it true. Just because it appears reasonable, or you’re drawn to the person teaching it, does not mean it is wise.

Then the question becomes: How do you distinguish authentic from false or misguided? Where do you turn for guidance to learn how to live?

In the Kalama Sutta, the Buddha does not reject reason and logic. He does not say that ancient teachings are irrelevant, or that you have to reinvent the dharma wheel every time you face a choice. No, the Buddha gives the Kalamas—and us—guidelines that are precautions, not prohibitions. He cautions us against blind obedience to the authority of traditions and teachers, or to the authority of our own ideas. He also cautions against blind obedience to reason and logic.

For students new to meditative living, these warnings can be especially relevant. On first coming to practice, you will find that convictions inspired by teachings, teachers, and community support help motivate and energize you to begin to practice. However, this faith is provisional. Remember, the Buddha tells you to test the teachings and ideas as “working hypotheses” in the laboratory of your actions. There is an “expiration date” when conviction based on external support gives way to conviction grounded in personal experience. At that point, your understanding is no longer borrowed from others. It is authentic and your own. This happens as you develop the ability to awaken and stabilize mindfulness.

Whether you are a new or experienced meditator, when you truly investigate your beliefs and convictions, don’t you find that it challenges and stretches you? This has certainly been my experience. Teachings can inspire you. Just to hear them can satisfy your intellect and nourish your emotions. Even so, remember to ask: Where is this taking me? Does the practice of meditation move me in a direction to act with more kindness and wisdom? Investigate again and again.

But don’t stop there. For the dharma to become firsthand knowledge—to feel the “ouch” of it—you have to live intimately with it, hold it up to scrutiny, and let it hold you up to scrutiny. “Be a lamp unto yourself,” says the Buddha. Your questions light the way. This is the heart of the Kalama Sutta.

Ultimately, your ideas of the truth must be put to the test of lived experience. Throughout his teachings, the Buddha offers a simple formula that guides us in this direction: examine everything in terms of cause and effect. Whatever is unskillful, leading to harm or suffering for you and others, should be recognized and abandoned. Whatever is skillful, leading to happiness and peace for you and others, should be pursued.

Remember, early in his life as a teacher, the Buddha said, “I teach one thing only: suffering and the end of suffering.” And he gave us a set of practices that emphasizes learning how to live and how to lessen suffering, called the four noble truths: there is suffering; there is a cause of suffering, which is craving and attachment; there is cessation of suffering; and there is a path of practice that brings about this cessation.

The four noble truths are my unfailing compass for every form of life, whether teaching in a meditation hall or encountering a stranger on the street. For thousands of years, they have been shared by every school of Buddhism and guided countless yogis. The four noble truths offer the vehicle to learn the skills to diminish suffering in the world, even to free yourself from suffering. The first noble truth, there is suffering, describes an unskillful outcome: the emergence and recognition of suffering. The second noble truth, craving and attachment, is the unskillful cause that brings about this harmful outcome. The third noble truth, cessation of suffering, is a skillful outcome brought about by following the fourth noble truth, an eightfold path characterized by ethics, stability of mind, and wisdom.

Yet even the most fundamental teachings of the Buddha, such as the four noble truths, deserve to be held up to the light of inquiry described in the Kalama Sutta. I learned this in my early days as a Vipassana yogi, when the Thai forest master Ajahn Chah visited the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. At that time, many of us were enthralled with the liberating power of “letting go.” In our discussions, everyone was letting go of this and letting go of that—and often letting go of “merely everything.” As he listened, Ajahn Chah seemed to grow skeptical. He encouraged us to slow down, back up, and carefully examine the moments when we were actually suffering. Rather than rush to let go, he urged us to make direct contact with the suffering and to see whether it was caused by some form of craving and attachment, of wanting things to be other than the way they were. He felt that the real letting go was learned by seeing the price we paid by holding on and resisting—and the joy experienced when we were free of the burden of attachment.

Paying attention to our own experience of suffering, rather than our conceptual notions of letting go, gave us the chance to see the benefits of the four noble truths in the crucible of our own lives. The transformation of suffering that comes from awareness is most powerful when it’s intimate with the experience of your own life. Inquire, question, and test your understanding of the teachings so that it becomes bone deep.


From Three Steps to Awakening: A Practice for Bringing Mindfulness to Life, by Larry Rosenberg, © 2013. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boston.

Photo(s) accompanying this article are by Ben Hobbs.

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

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