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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.

True Listening (January 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | January 2014


True Listening

The receptive state of listening is a kind of auditory meditation, says SAKYONG MIPHAM. It is an important way to gain wisdom and insight. But it’s not easy.

It is said that when the Buddha first taught, two deer approached, knelt down, and raised their ears. The two deer symbolize the act of listening, a sublime way of being present in the moment. Their perked-up ears represent keen attentiveness, their kneeling bodies relaxation and respect. The receptive state of listening is an important way to gain wisdom and insight. It is auditory meditation.

True listening is not always easy. It is a skill we develop. In this era of technological expertise and emotional unavailability, all too often there is more speaking than listening. We are not really conversing but merely exchanging rhetoric.

For a genuine dialogue to occur, speaking and listening must both play leading roles. Conversation is a dance and play between two interlocking human minds, which naturally creates harmony. Therefore, having a good conversation is an art that benefits oneself and others.

In the art of conversation, two people are equal partners. When one is speaking, one is more active; when one is listening, one is more receptive. A conversation where someone is speaking but no one is listening fosters disharmony—within the conversation and within the relationship. Thus, in order for the conversation to be healthy and productive and to grow, both participants need to take turns listening.

One reason we have conversations is that often we just need someone to hear what we have to say. However, in a world where we are constantly encouraged to indulge and gratify our own desires, it can be difficult to find someone to listen, because that means focusing on the other person rather than oneself. Unfortunately, we are creating a culture in which everyone is expressing themselves but no one is listening.

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

The Tears I Shed Yesterday Have Become Rain (January 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | January 2014


The tears I shed yesterday have become rain

War and violence, loss and exile—no one knows more than Thich Nhat Hanh how we all suffer. Yet, he teaches, every single one of us has the capacity to transform our suffering. At Blue Cliff Monastery in the Catskills, ANDREA MILLER joins Thich Nhat Hanh and his students to practice for peace and happiness—for themselves and for the world.

Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh has a soft, feathery voice. It is, we are informed, twenty decibels lower than average, so even when he’s using a microphone, we must be perfectly quiet in order to hear him.

“It was fifty years ago on this very day,” he nearly whispers, “that Martin Luther King gave a famous speech with the title ‘I Have a Dream.’” Thich Nhat Hanh, or Thay, as he is affectionately known, pauses.

“From time to time,” he says with a smile, “I have a nice dream also.”

This is the beginning of today’s dharma talk, and the beginning is always my favorite. It’s addressed especially to the children. From the toddler who likes to yodel during silent meals to the woman sitting in front of me with the pure-gray ponytail, there are more than eight hundred people on this six-day retreat. We are at Blue Cliff Monastery in Pine Bush, New York, and the theme we’re exploring is “Transformation at the Base: The Art of Suffering.” In other words, it’s the very essence of the Buddhist path. Suffering is the inevitable common denominator of life. Buddhist practice transforms it into happiness and liberation.

“I’ll tell you one of my dreams,” Thay continues. “I had it about twenty years ago, when I was very young.” The eighty-six-year-old monk smiles at the quiet joke he’s cracking. “I was something like sixty-six. Very young.”

Yet in his dream, he was even younger, maybe twenty-one or twenty-two, and he was overjoyed because he’d been accepted into the class of his university’s best professor, a man who everyone said was exceptionally wise and kind. But on his way to the classroom for the first time, Thay saw a young man who looked exactly like him. He knew this young man was no other than himself and he wondered if the other him had also been accepted into the prestigious class. He stopped in to the administration office to ask.

“No, no, not him,” declared the lady in the office. “You, yes, but not him.”

Thay left the office confused and grew more so when he learned that the illustrious professor was a professor of music. Not being a music student, Thay couldn’t understand why he’d been accepted into this advanced class. Then he opened the classroom door, and inside there were over a thousand students, and the view through the window looked like Tusita Heaven—all waterfalls and mountain peaks covered with snow.

Surprise after surprise, Thay was informed that he had to give a music presentation as soon as the professor arrived. What was he going to do? Looking around for a solution, he put his hand in his pocket and felt the bowl of a small bell. Because he was a monk, the bell was the one instrument he was a master of, so with a happy heart, he waited for the professor’s arrival. “He’s coming, he’s coming,” Thay was told, but he never did get a glimpse of the professor. In that moment, Thay woke up.

“I stayed very still in my bed,” he tells the Blue Cliff retreatants, “and I tried to figure out what the dream meant.” Thay realized that the young man who looked exactly like him was a self that he had left behind.

“Because I’d made efforts to practice,” he says, “I overtook myself. That is why I was accepted, and he was not. In the process of practice, you become your better self with more freedom, more happiness.”

The music class, according to Thay, symbolized an assembly of advanced Buddhist practitioners, while the professor symbolized the Buddha himself. “I regret that I did not have a few more minutes in the dream,” Thay quips. “If I had, then I would have seen the Buddha in person.”

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

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