December 31, 2016 § 1 Comment

dongyu-gatsal-ling-nunnery-calendar(Click on image to go to Dongyu Gatsal Ling website.)

Practice is the continuous movement from distraction to the present moment. Awakening from distraction to the reality of the moment is enlightenment. As Kosho Uchiyama said, “The only true enlightenment is awareness of the vivid reality of life, moment by moment.”

We only know life as vivid reality when we attend to it fully, without distraction. Until that moment, it seems as if life has placed a pane of glass between it and us. This feeling of separation comes from having attached qualities to the self that it does not properly have, like anger or loneliness. As these qualities are distinct and discrete it is falsely supposed that the self is, too. There arises the fiction of a separate body with its own life and own needs.

The belief that awareness requires a ‘somebody’ who is aware is, in the final analysis, just another thought. Like other thoughts, it distracts from the immediacy of the present moment with questions like, “How will this affect me? And, “What’s best for me?”

We can take that thought, that sense of self, into practice and observe it, just as we do with any other distraction. In observing what we thought was our self, the question will necessarily arise as to who is doing the observing. “Who am I?” we ask.

I, as observer, will ultimately be revealed to be no self, at all. As we step further back from what was thought to be a permanent, separate self our consciousness empties of thinkable content. To quote Tenzin Palmo, “the further back we go the more open and empty the quality of our consciousness becomes. Instead of finding some solid little eternal entity, which is “I”, we get back to this vast and spacious mind which is interconnected with all living beings. In this space you have to ask, where is the “I”, and where is the “other”.”

As Sri Aurobindo wrote it in the poem “Liberation”,

I have thrown from me the whirling dance of mind
And stand now in the spirit’s silence free,
Timeless and deathless beyond creature-kind,
The centre of my own eternity.

I have escaped and the small self is dead;
I am immortal, alone, ineffable;
I have gone out from the universe I made,
And have grown nameless and immeasurable.

My mind is hushed in a wide and endless light,
My heart a solitude of delight and peace,
My sense unsnared by touch and sound and sight,
My body a point in white infinities.

I am the one Being’s sole immobile Bliss:
No one I am, I who am all that is.


December 24, 2016 § 1 Comment


The more we practice, the more difficult it seems to stay in the present moment. Hardly a moment goes by that we are not drawn into some pleasant fantasy or actively engaged in some inner act of denial. When walking, our minds are elsewhere. When listening, we are formulating a response. It seems that all that’s needed for a new distraction to arise is a turn of the head or a blink of the eyes. Yet distracting thoughts have not increased. Practice has simply made us more aware of their presence.

Lest we become discouraged, remember that just before his great enlightenment the Buddha’s mind was filled with images of greatness, riches and beautiful women; followed by frightening images of armies threatening his life. These, we are told, were caused by the demon Mara. But if we strip away the mythology are they not just distractions? The same distractions you and I have everyday? If so, it seems that up to the moment of his enlightenment, the Buddha’s mind was not unlike our own.

The Buddha saw through his distractions. We, on the other hand, have yet to penetrate the fog of distraction that stands between the world and our awareness of it. When we sit in practice, however, this fog begins to reveal itself as our own judgments, fears, hopes and desires. It is these we drift into in our effort to stay in the present moment. It is our deepest fears and greatest longings into which we are pulled. “Desire,” said some adept, “is never-ending. The mind is always thinking.”

Through mindfulness practice we see this fog descending upon our awareness in daily life. Yet it is just because we are more aware of our distractions that we are better equipped to wake from them to the present moment or, that is, our actual surroundings. Admittedly, we are like the dreamer who only dreams he is awake but that, at least, is a start.

If we are diligent in our practice some small hints of what’s to come will appear. These will be brief glimpses of the unreality of thought. It will be easier to resist falling prey to fear and anger. Desire may take a bit longer as we find ourselves praying, as St. Augustine did, “Give me chastity and continence, but not yet.” Nevertheless, if we have reached the point where we see a difference between the awareness of now and the distracted state, we have created a foundation to deepen our practice. And, we have taken the first step on the long path to Buddhahood.

Squaring the Circle of All-Encompassing Awareness.

November 19, 2016 § Leave a comment


There is a simple power that grows as we learn to just sit in the present moment. Each time we return to the moment from distracting thought and emotion this power grows. Each time we disengage from the constant chatter in our heads, it becomes stronger. At first we do not notice anything different. Yet behind the stories we endlessly tell in our heads there is a change going on. Deep within, adjustments are being made. These we need not attend to. In fact, we cannot attend because they are taking place in a realm beyond thought. All we need do to promote it is to just sit. This power is the power of awareness squared.

In mathematics, a square is the result of multiplying a number by itself. In life, awareness is squared when it becomes aware of itself. It is Life realizing Life! In meditation and mindfulness, awareness is squared when there is a continuous waking to the present moment from each distraction.

Waking is a good word as we are always aware but not always awake to this simple fact. At any given moment we experience many things. The breath, the pressures of clothe on the body or some distant sound. All lay within the awareness even though we are not attending to them. When we turn to these sensations we do not say we were unaware of them. We know we were. We were just not aware that we were aware.

In the practice of meditation and mindfulness we cultivate the awareness of being aware or, if you like, awareness squared. It starts with the simple act of focusing upon a single object or activity. As the mind settles on this activity it becomes aware of being aware of the item. This awareness squared is not long maintained, however, as the mind soon slips back into distracting thought and feeling. When the mind becomes aware of this distraction it brings its attention back to the meditation object or activity. Again and again this dropping from awareness squared to awareness and back again takes place, all with the aim of training the mind to remain mentally alert.

Over the course of weeks, months and perhaps years, practice unfolds as a matter of continuously returning to the present moment from each distraction. During this time many things are happening behind the scenes, not the least of which is the appearance that thoughts are becoming more and more numerous.

In spite of appearance, thoughts are not becoming more numerous. They are always arising in a manner that neither increases nor decreases their number. What in fact has happened is that the awareness of thought that has always existed has been squared. The mind has become aware of all the thought that has been going on all the time.

Just as certain sensations (as in the above example of clothes and sound) always exist in awareness, so the mind is constantly thinking. It takes an act of effort to be aware of this thinking and a continuous effort to maintain this awareness. Even with effort there is no initially awareness that these thoughts lack substance and exist only in the mind’s imagination. Only through constant practice does this awareness develop.

When the awareness squared has reached a certain level of maturity the mind will have a sudden insight and see that thoughts are just thoughts. They are not things that exist in the outer world but insubstantial dream illusion with no power to rule or dictate the terms of how you are to live and feel. For that brief instant the mind is free from the tyranny of thought.

If the ground has been properly laid there may arise a deeper awareness that the self, too, is just a thought or construct in the mind. The identification with thought will stop, if only for a moment, but there will remain a lasting Value regarding the true nature of self. The self is not thinkable. Identity lies outside the realm of thought where it sits watching the ever-flowing stream of thought.

This, by the way, is not the end of practice. It is just the first resting place along the Path.

The Nature of Thought

October 29, 2016 § Leave a comment


Meditation is the practice of keeping the mind awake in the present moment. It is awareness without mental commentary. “When we are mindful,” says the Buddhist nun, Tenzin Palmo, “there is no commentary.”

The mass of humanity is closely identified with the mental commentary that streams through their heads every minute of every day. While so identified, people believe that they are these thoughts, and that what they think must be right and true because it is who they are. Meditation aims to curtail this belief through a continuous process of waking up from this mental commentary. This is not an exercise in self-analysis but it may include an analysis of the nature of thinking to break its hypnotic allure.

Part of thought’s allure is that it seems real. This seemingness leaves us believing that what we think is something that actually exists outside of our heads. We become convinced that thought is something we must deal with. And the way to do that is through further thinking that only leads to more thought and more things to deal with.

One quality of thought is what I like to call ‘looping’. The idea is taken from the days when magnetic tape was used to record sound. When the ends of that tape were joined the tape would loop around, playing the same thing over and over again. A lot of thinking is like that. What we felt and thought yesterday is replayed today, and will be replayed tomorrow in an endless loop. (Something to consider when you think mindfulness is boring!)

Identification, the seeming reality of thought and its loopiness, affect us in many ways. Like a sound fading into the background when heard over and over, loop thoughts fade to lower levels of awareness. If we are not actively engaged in some outer activity we follow them down into a bubble of thought that dims our awareness of the present moment. There, we  make the same judgments, have the same desires and feel the same anxieties over and over. All the while believing we are engaged with the real world.

We can easily see others caught up in their bubbles, such as the person who believes his way is the only way. Or in the person who exhibits compulsive behavior or suffers Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It is harder to see our own bubble but it’s there, acting to distort our perception of the world and self. When we start to practice meditation and mindfulness the true extent of this bubble starts to show.

To again quote Tenzin Palmo, “…the difference between being aware of the thought and just thinking is immense. It’s enormous…” When caught in our bubbles we are just thinking. When we practice waking up to each moment we are aware of the thought. We see that they are just recordings. We see that we are continually reacting to them as if they are real. And we begin to question whether we actually are what we think and feel; or someone and something more?

I ask Master Hakuin for spiritual direction.

October 11, 2016 § Leave a comment



September 27, 2016 § Leave a comment


Meditation is the practice of continuous wakening to the present moment; a process that is aided by realizations, where the emphasis is on the word real.

At their core realizations are neither conceptual nor grand but humble, in the sense that they are a simple awareness of bare reality. When they happen there are no flashing lights or blaring trumpets. One just sees things the way they really are. Once seen, however, the effect on transforming an individual can be far-reaching. Yet the individual must not be sidetracked into a searching for these effects, for they come only after the realization.

Realizations are simple but hard to come by, as they require the mind to put aside its clutter of thoughts, feelings, truths and stories.

A few weeks ago, while recuperating from some surgery, I had the opportunity to observe a man who shared my hospital room. I noticed that his every activity was designed to manipulate others into considering his feelings before they did anything.

At first it appeared this man was just being self-serving but it turned out that he had suffered from spinal meningitis when quite young. Back then the doctors performed many painful procedures that to him seemed done without regard for his feelings. In the following years that assessment was woven into a story that became the truth of his life. When I met him, caring hospital staff surrounded him. But all he could see were the little things that confirmed his truth that no one cared.

To see what was really happening about him, this man would first have to be willing to give up his story that people didn’t care. We could imagine his initial struggle to do this would be punctuated with numerous examples of people not caring. If he were able to drop these ‘proofs’ he might see that there are some who do care. Of course, he would still believe some didn’t. To the Buddhist this is an example of dualism, the perception of things as opposing pairs of opposites.

To see the world, as it is, this man would have to drop his dualistic truth. In doing so he would come to see people as neither caring nor not caring. He might then expand this into seeing people as neither right nor wrong, neither good nor bad. People would be just as they are, unadorned by labels.

The interesting thing about this process is that realizations come only after we have dropped our judgments, truths and stories. So, because nothing has been added, when we have one we are actually realizing nothing. We are just seeing what was right in front of us all along but which was veiled by the debris of our thoughts.

As realizations are seeing life stripped of thought, what is, is not what we think it is. And when we ultimately drop every thought, all that remains is bare awareness. Yet with the realization of bare awareness we realize that nothing, is everything.

Thoughts are Stories

August 14, 2016 § 1 Comment

Lily on lake 0001

Practice is really about waking up to life. Your life, as it actually is each and every moment.

In practice ‘waking up’ is a continuous process of letting distracting thought go and returning to the present moment. Thought is typically described in Buddhist literature as thinking, where something grabs the attention and a thought arises that is followed by other thoughts. Becoming aware of an ache, for example, may produce a thought of adjusting the sitting position that is then followed by another thought of how moving will mar the practice. Other thoughts might then follow such as questions on whether one has any idea what practice truly is.

There is another way to describe thoughts that follow one upon the other and that is to call it a story. In the above example the collection of thoughts that started with an ache may become a story of low self-esteem and self-doubt. Or it may become a story of the practitioner as an honest seeker of the way. Whatever the story, becoming caught up in it takes one away from the present moment, which is the only place to find your actual life.

There is an advantage to rephrasing practice as dropping a story. Most inner stories aren’t actually told in words but arise all at once as a feeling with some vague images. As these feelings can be quite strong there is a tendency to seek a solution to them that necessarily creates more thought. When emotions and images are simply identified as a story, however, there is no compelling need to solve them so they are more easily dropped.

The average person isn’t usually tuned into what is actually going on in each and every moment of life. Moments are not seen for what they are but are wrapped in stories and vignettes that are constantly replayed as the day goes on. Convinced that these stories are real, he lives out life in what is at best a waking dream or, at worst, a state of complete delusion. We need only look at the actions of the terrorist to see the global effect of a deluded mind.

It is easy to see vignettes simply by watching our reactions to strangers or even words. Well-dressed strangers provoke a story that is quite different from those who are dirty and poorly dressed. Words like cancer, divorce or security provoke reactions of their own. We may think that because there is such a thing as cancer that our story about it is real. But the fact of something lends no validity to the stories we tell about it, any more than the existence of science makes a science fiction movie real.

In everyday life each moment is accompanied by a little vignette that is draped over what is seen and heard. These little stories are contained in broader stories that we call the story of our life. They are deeply embedded in the mind and shape how we feel and act regardless of what the situation may actually be. Yet for all the value we place upon this story it is, nonetheless, an empty work of fiction. It is not our true life.

In practice we find just how invasive our storytelling has become and how addicted we are to retelling our stories over and over again. Yet as we turn away from each retelling and return to what is actually happening, we start to realize their emptiness. Then, as our practice deepens to include the thought of self, we begin to see that who and what we believe ourselves to be is also a story. A false story that had us believing the fiction of separateness when, in fact, we are connected to all life. And when we start to drop that story, we start to awaken to our actual life that is Life, itself.

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