Monday, May 26, 2008

Images from the Gyalwang Karmapa

Recollecting the Gyalwang Karmapa’s four days in New York, my strongest images are of his presence: his warmth, his confidence, and most of all, his compete lack of fabrication or contrivance. That said, strong images from his teachings also spring to mind. In his first talk he spoke very personally about how we can deal with the difficulties we must face in life:
A lot has happened to me in this life. I have had a lot of challenges. In dealing with challenges, we must not let practical difficulties destroy our state of mind. For example, if you put a heavy object, weighing perhaps one or two hundred pounds, in front of a mirror, the heavy thing will be clearly reflected, but without the heaviness. In the same way, we can’t prevent ourselves from experiencing life’s difficulties, but we can experience them as if they are reflections in a mirror—clearly reflected without weighing us down.*

The next afternoon, he used another image to explain that the weight we usually experience comes from the way our fixations distort our interactions with the world.

Much of what we experience is not just mere appearance, but our fixation, what we overlay onto the appearances. For example, there is the way we divide things into “I” and “mine”. We don’t directly look at appearances, but see them through a frame, or window, which divides the world into I/mine, self/other. Something odd happens when we look out through the window of I/mine. When we try to reach out to others through this window, the window colors our interactions. The basic problem with that window is that we can’t really see through it.

We can imagine whatever we like. We want to look at something nice out the window, but if there isn’t anything nice there, we create a delusion instead. The window becomes a solid wall that blocks genuine reality. Genuine spiritual experience cannot be seen through the window of “I” and “mine”.*

There is a nice blog following the Karmapa’s visit called, His Holiness The 17th Karmapa’s 2008 U.S. Visit.

* These are not the Karmapa’s exact words, but a reconstruction from several people’s notes.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Karmapa Khyenno! (Hail Karmapa!)

There is a very nice story in the Times today about the arrival of the Seventeenth Gyalwang Karmapa in New York. I had the good fortune to attend the early-morning, traditional tea and rice welcoming ceremony for him at the NY Shambhala Center, because I have been working on the finances for his visit.

After the chants and the offerings of the tea and rice, the Karmapa spoke briefly. His words were tinged with humor and he was clearly delighted to be in America. He said something like, “Last night I had the thought that I was in India. This morning I think I am in New York. Looking at you, I believe it! I am in shock!”

Later in the day, my good luck held, and I was able to attend a meeting and a reception with the Karmapa. It was lovely to have time to observe him up-close. He is twenty-two years old, but honestly, they don’t make twenty-two-year-olds like that. It is his gaze that distinguishes him, and gives him away. It is so steady. It is not the gaze of an ordinary person, certainly not someone in their early twenties. This is someone to watch. Karmapa Khyenno!

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Thinking V

To understand bondage and liberation, we need to see how we are bound by our thoughts. This is not just the discursive thoughts, but our projections, which are the objects of the discursive thoughts, and the emotions that link the two. This whole system of thoughts is bondage.

When we don’t recognize the nature of these phenomena, we are bound by them. We are taken in by the illusion or mirage, like thirsty people lost in a desert. When we recognize them, we are free from their compulsion. This is self-liberation: this freedom is not brought about by an outside agent, but by our own insight.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Thinking IV

The Lord of Yogis Milarepa sang in “The Six Questions”:

Mind has even more projections than there are dust motes in the sun;
Is there an accomplished yogi here or a yogini
Who sees the appearance of things laid bare in the very bed where it lies?

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Thinking III

These concepts—the objects of that endless monologue—are as vague and general as drawings on water. They don’t come from anywhere and they don’t go anywhere. Suddenly it seems like a friend is present. In the next moment, it is a pickup truck or a presidential candidate. As obscure as they are, we are trapped by them like a deer trapped by headlights.

How are these concepts different from the objects seen in dreams?

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Thinking II

What is thinking? Most of us tend to identify thinking as discursive activity: an ongoing internal monologue along with its labeling. We identify with the monloguer and consider the object of our discursiveness as “other.” These are the main features of our sense of duality, the split between “this” and “that.” Emotions link the two, and confirm the sense of separation.

But what are the objects of our discursive thoughts? Aren’t they our concepts? Isn’t that also thought?

Friday, May 2, 2008

Thinking I

When you think about something or someone, the object seems to actually be present. Whether it is a past thing or a future thing, something in the room or far away, an animal, a vegetable, or a mineral, it seems to be right there. Usually it seems to be in front. Sometimes it seems to be in some other direction.

When you think about something else, the first thing disappears and the new thing appears. How does that happen?

Monday, April 21, 2008

Lessons from a New Car

Last summer, when our 1995 Lexus developed an unhealthy affection for the repair shop, I started looking for something nice to replace it with. We finally got our new (to us) car at the end of last month. I had assumed that we would be in for the usual dharmic reminders that such major purchases provide: that an actual car never lives up to the anticipated dream-car; that what is new, fresh, and exciting, rapidly becomes a source of dukkha because of overlooked drawbacks and defects; that with the first scratch, impermanence would be rearing its ugly little head.

I had not counted on receiving a completely different type of teaching. It had been a really busy period when the car was delivered, and I barely had a chance to drive it around town. A week later, my wife Wendy and I headed out in the new car to Boston, New York, and Albany for two weeks of teaching, and visits with family and friends. After a couple of hours on the road, an intermittent squeaking sound from the heater fan became too obvious to ignore.

Wendy and I discussed whether to take the car into a dealership in Boston or New York, or wait until we got back to Halifax to get it repaired. I checked the Canadian warranty to try to figure out if the repair would be covered in the States. As we drove through New Brunswick worrying about what to do, Wendy observed that the irritating noise sounded like a bird chirping. For some reason, I said we should give the bird a name. Wendy said let’s call it Henry.

Soon we were talking about “Henry taking a nap,” when the sound disappeared; “Henry worrying about getting lost,” when we got off the highway and weren’t sure which way to go; “Leaving Henry at the motel parking lot,” when we started off the next morning with a quiet fan. Finally, we worried about getting the car repaired and hurting Henry!

It is amazing how changing our thoughts about a sound can completely change our experience of it. This is the principle behind the Vajrayana practice of visualizing oneself as a deity, and the environment as the deity’s palace: if we can get into the spirit of the game, we can transform our experience of samsara into the experience of a pure realm.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Are We There Yet?

Today is April 4th, 2008, the twenty-first anniversary of the parinirvana of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Twenty-one is the age when we are definitely considered to be adults in Western society, but have we students of Trungpa Rinpoche reached adulthood yet? I wonder.

I always imagined that there would be some clear experience of having arrived at spiritual maturity, a Buddhist bar mitzvah, or some sort of collective birthday party. Now I’m not so sure. I feel strongly connected with my gurus and the lineage, and surrounded by sangha, family, and friends, but I also feel very much alone, floating in space, with no planet in sight, and no umbilical cord to attach me to the mother ship.

Maybe twenty-one is the time to give up dreams of getting somewhere and just be. Maybe this is it.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Contemplating Reality 10 Week Course

They say that meditating without studying the view is like trying to travel to a distant city with no eyes, no guide, no map; and studying the dharma without practicing meditation is like trying to make that journey without arms and legs. We need both study and practice to make the journey to enlightenment. That's basic to the logic of the path.

I wrote Contemplating Reality to help practitioners join study and meditation. Now, Deborah and Joe Szostak have created an excellent syllabus for a ten week course based on the book. Teachers can use the syllabus to present weekly classes on the stages of the view. Students can use it to organize study groups of that material.

Please feel free to download the syllabus and see if it meets your needs.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Seventeenth Gyalwang Karmapa is Coming to America

The first visit of the Seventeenth Gyalwang Karmapa to the United States was officially announced this week by my guru and friend, Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche. His announcement, and the tentative schedule of the tour, is available here.

In 1974, at the invitation of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the Sixteenth Gyalwang Karmapa hoisted the victory banner of the Tibetan Buddhist teachings on Western soil. At the time of his first visit, I was a clueless twenty-five year old student of Trungpa Rinpoche’s living in Boulder, Colorado. I can confidently report that I was dazed and confused by the spectacle. Trungpa Rinpoche’s sangha, “the scene” as we called it, was turned on its collective head. Our brilliant, folksy guru suddenly manifested the dignity and humbleness of his tradition, basking in the Karmapa’s radiance. I felt more insignificant than ever!

With time, intimidation gave way to appreciation. The warmth of the Dharma King was irresistible. Friends who traveled with the party recounted that even stony-faced state troupers escorting him, eventually melted in his presence, and asked for his blessings at his departure.

Years later, my appreciation of the brilliance of the lineage of Karmapas deepened when Khenpo Tsültrim Gyamtso Rinpoche taught a group of us mahamudra from the Ninth Karmapa’s instruction manual, Mahamudra: the Ocean of Definitive Meaning; gave extensive teachings on the Third Karmapa’s Profound Inner Reality; taught us madhyamaka from the Eighth Karmapa’s Chariot of the Dakpo Kagyu Siddhas; and periodically dipped into the Seventh Karmapa’s Ocean of Texts on Lorik to teach us Buddhist theories of valid cognition and perception.

For Buddhists everywhere, the 21st Century began dramatically when the Seventeenth Karmapa suddenly surfaced in Dharamsala, at the side of the Dalai Lama, after a dramatic escape from Tibet. Nearly three years later, I had the great good fortune to be included in a small delegation that met the Gyalwang Karmapa at Gyuto Monastery in India.

When we entered the room I had some unusual experiences. There were no fireworks, visions, or flowers falling from the sky, and the Karmapa did not tell me my mother’s social security number or anything like that, but the experiences were unusual, nevertheless. The most memorable one was feeling that I was sitting at the feet of all the Karmapas, not just the seventeen-year-old who was the Seventeenth in that line.

The first thing he said to us was, “For a long time it has been my wish to meet the students of Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche. This is a great and joyful occasion. It has fulfilled my aspirations.” He went on to say that he looked forward to working with us when he made his first visit to the West. That was more than five years ago.

Well, here we go!

Friday, March 14, 2008

Some Diet Advice for Myself

Other than the exceedingly rare story of someone’s humble and virtuous actions, one of the few enjoyable experiences reading the daily newspaper is seeing the mighty get their comeuppance—obviously the Sheriff of Wall Street’s self destruction, and Lord Black of Crossharbour’s arrival at a Florida prison, come to mind.

Righteousness is a tasty emotional treat, but an unhealthy diet. Less appetizing, but much more nutritious, is recollecting your own failings. When I remember to chew on the bitter morsels of recollections of my own crimes, misdemeanors, and deceits, my projected bubble, in which I am always virtuous and right, gets a little punctured.

One nice thing about this diet is there are all sorts of opportunities to fill up. If a friend, colleague, or relative harms you, try a bite of your own imperfections. It is not as tasty as schadenfraude (pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others), but it will definitely deflate your ego. That’s the point of dharma, isn’t it?

PS. That reminds me of a quote that my friend Derek Kolleeny is fond of: “Before you criticize someone, try walking a mile in their shoes. That way, you are a mile away from them and you have their shoes.”

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Materialist Metaphysics, Continued

The old DuPont slogan, “Better living through chemistry,” expressed the Twentieth Century’s faith in material progress. At one point, Prozac and other new antidepressant drugs seemed to be the crowning fulfillment of this dream. Why be depressed when you can take this little pill and feel better? I could tell that things were getting a little out of hand when I discovered that my sister was feeding chicken-flavored Prozac to her cats.

Faith that brain chemistry determines our mental experience is being challenged by new research that shows that antidepressants do not have more clinically significant effects than placebos. Both placebos and antidepressants have an effect on the mind. Antidepressants also effect the brain. These new studies show that only the mental effects are significant. Curiously, in both cases, the mental effects are produced by illusions—the illusion that the substance will cure your depression.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there were some way to work directly with the mind…. How about, “Better living through view, meditation, and conduct.”

Monday, February 18, 2008

“Training the Heart”

There is a nice article by the late Ajahn Chah in the current issue of Buddhadharma (Spring 2008) that reminds me of the famous Kadampa slogan, “All dharma agrees at one point.” Whether we call it mahamudra, ordinary mind, buddha nature, dharmadhatu, mind itself, prajnaparamita, empty cognizance, rigpa, or wisdom, that point is the heart-essence of all dharma paths, the guide to the ultimate goal.

Here is how Ajahn Chah describes it:
The Buddha taught that we should cultivate clear knowing for ourselves. Whatever arises, arises in this knowing. When that which knows, knows in accordance with the truth, then the mind and its psychological factors are recognized as not ours…. The mind is free, radiant, and unentangled with any problems or issues. The reason problems arise is because the mind is deluded by conditioned things, deluded by this misperception of self. So the Buddha taught us to observe this mind. In the beginning, what is there? There is truly nothing there. It doesn’t arise with conditioned things, and it doesn’t die with them. When the mind encounters something good, it doesn’t change to become good. When the mind encounters something bad, it doesn’t become bad. That’s how it is when there is clear insight into one’s nature.

There are countless Buddhist teachings, practices of meditation, and methods of training, but unless they lead to this vital point, the fruition will be a long way off. When you get this point, it is called receiving “buddhahood in the palm of your hand.”

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Books & Movies: Madman and Angry Monk

If you would like some profound insights into the meaning of the Middle Way, Tibetan political history, and the challenges of the traditional East meeting the modern West, look into the life and teachings of the remarkable Gendun Chopel.

Donald S. Lopez Jr.’s The Madman’s Middle Way includes a fascinating biographical sketch, an elegant translation of Chopel’s Adornment for Nagarjuna’s Thought, and an excellent commentary that draws out the key points and provides much needed background information on the doctrinal conflicts that the text addresses.

The Adornment deals with core questions about the validity of knowledge in an experiential way, using ordinary language. Here is an example from the beginning of the text:
All of our decisions about what is and is not are just decisions made in ac¬cordance with how it appears to our mind; they have no other basis whatsoever. Therefore, when we ask, “Does it exist or not?” and the other person answers, “It exists,” in fact, we are asking, “Does this appear to your mind to exist or not exist?” and the answer is simply, “It appears to my mind to exist.” In the same way, everything that one asks about—better or worse, good or bad, beautiful or ugly—is in fact merely asked about for the sake of understanding how the other person thinks. That the other person makes a decision and answers is in fact just a decision made in accordance with how it appears to his or her own mind; there is no other reason whatsoever. Therefore, as long as the ideas of two people are in disagreement with each other, they will argue. When they agree, the very thing that they agree upon will be placed in the class of what is, what exists, what can be known, and what is valid, and so on. Thus, the more people there are who agree, the more the point they agree upon becomes of great significance and importance. Contrary views are taken to be wrong views, mistaken perceptions, and so on….

Therefore, our statements about what does and does not exist are in fact classifications of what appears before our mind. Our statements that something does not exist or is impossible are classifications of what cannot appear before our mind. The reality [dharmata] that is neither existent nor nonexistent does not belong to the former class, it belongs to the latter.

There is also a great documentary about Gendun Chopel called Angry Monk: Reflections on Tibet, that mostly describes political and social aspects of his life, and has some amazing interviews and archival footage of old Tibet. The film was an official selection of the Sundance Film Festival in 2006. You can watch the trailer on the film’s website, or order a copy of the DVD by writing to

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Cheerful New Year!

Best wishes to all of you, as Buddhists around the world celebrate Losar, the Tibetan New Year, the Chinese New Year, the Lunar New Year, and Shambhala Day (as it is known in the Shambhala community).

Trungpa Rinpoche, founder of Shambhala, made a point of wishing people a cheerful New Year, and cheerful birthday, instead of a happy New Year and happy birthday. He explained that happiness depends on circumstances, while cheerfulness is unconditional—we can always tune into our inherent well-being even if our circumstances are not happy.

It is our alienation from this basic well-being, buddha nature, our true nature, that keeps samsara spinning. By tuning into our true nature we can cheer up on the spot.

So, Cheerful New Year to you!

Sunday, February 3, 2008


There’s an article about innovation in today’s New York Times that offers parallels to the process of progressing along the Buddhist path and provides important lessons for practitioners. It’s called “Eureka! It Really Takes Years of Hard Work.”

The point of the article is that the popular myth that innovation depends on “eureka moments,” great breakthroughs, is a fiction. Innovation depends on a slow process of hard work with many little improvements and small insights.

The same thing could be said about the Buddhist myths of sudden enlightenment and transcendental visions. Progress on the path is always gradual and almost imperceptible. It comes from a slow process of study, contemplation, and meditation, with small insights and a gradual decrease in delusion and kleshas.

Hoping for sudden enlightenment is as debilitating as trying to find the innovation “that will ‘revolutionize the industry,’ create a ‘billion-dollar business’ or ‘make one rich overnight.’” Many people find it difficult to sustain their practice because, either they doubt that they have the “special talent” it takes to make the “big breakthrough,” or they gave it a try and “nothing happened.”

As Suzuki Roshi says in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, “After you have practiced for a while, you will realize that it is not possible to make rapid, extraordinary progress. Even though you try very hard, the progress you make is always little by little. It is not like going out in a shower in which you know when you get wet. In a fog, you do not know you are getting wet, but as you keep walking you get wet little by little. If your mind has ideas of progress, you may say, ‘Oh, this pace is terrible!’ But actually it is not. When you get wet in a fog it is very difficult to dry yourself.”

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Buddhist Bible Thumpers

I would love to be a peaceful bodhisattva who has completely seen through delusion and overcome all conflicting emotions, but I have to admit I am not that guy. Among other things, I am irked by Buddhist fundamentalism. For example, yesterday evening, I read this in an article by a well-known Buddhist teacher: “Read up on what the Buddha had to say on the topic and don’t settle for books that put you at the end of a game of telephone. Go straight to the source, the words of the Buddha himself.”

This is silly and misleading. First of all, what are purported to be “the words of the Buddha himself” cannot possibly be his actual words. The Buddha’s words were not recorded or transcribed (See my post Books: Basic Teachings of the Buddha for details.) The sutras are not first-hand reports, like watching CNN, broadcasting live from Bodhgaya.

Second, where I come from, the source is the tathagatagarbha, or buddha nature. It is accessible to all of us. It is not words in ancient books. Buddhism is a living tradition that depends on a lineage of transmission for its vitality. Each generation of teachers must make a direct connection to the source, by realizing, in the words of the great Tibetan master Milarepa, “There is no other buddha apart from your own mind.”

The point of the path is to taste the truth of the Buddha’s words for ourselves, not just repeat them.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Materialist Metaphysics

Why Do Some People Resist Science?” illuminates the way we acquire many of our beliefs (see the previous post). It also puts forward one belief that needs to be challenged, which is that, “The strong intuitive pull of dualism makes it difficult for people to accept what Francis Crick called ‘the astonishing hypothesis.’ Dualism is mistaken — mental life emerges from physical processes.”

I have no problem with the first part of the statement about the intuitive pull of dualism. That makes sense. I also agree that, “Dualism is mistaken.” This has been a central tenet of Mahayana Buddhism for a couple of thousand years. It is the late Dr. Francis Crick’s hypothesis that “mental life emerges from physical processes” that needs to be debated.

This is not a scientific conclusion. It is a metaphysical assumption. Crick, who won the Noble Prize with Dr. James D. Watson for discovering the double helix structure of DNA, asserted this as though it were a fact. In his book The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul he wrote, “You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”

Asserting the nonexistence of mind, because it cannot be detected by the material methods of science is a logical error. It is like looking for your lost car keys under the street light, even though you dropped them around the corner, “because the light is better there.” To deny the mind contradicts our experience of subjectivity. Just by looking inwards we can refute this extreme position. From a Buddhist perspective, there is nothing more obvious and essential than the knowing mind. How can we even speak of joys and sorrows without it?

Brain and mind are observed through different modalities. Scientific methods make quantitative observations of the material world. Though science is limited to studying the natural world, knowledge is not limited to the realm of science. Here is a simple example: we can learn everything there is to know about the physical and chemical properties of a Snickers bar, the structure and functioning of the human gustatory system, and the neurophysiology of taste, without learning anything about the experience of tasting a Snickers bar. This experience is not material and is beyond the intellect. No matter how we describe the experience of eating a Snickers bar to someone who has never tasted one, they will not be able to know what the experience is like. Yet, when we eat the Snickers bar we know exactly.

A really astonishing hypothesis is that whatever we conceive to be outside of mind, is just that, a conception. If things truly existed beyond the mind, how could they enter into our experience?

David Chalmers is a professor of philosophy at the Australian National University who works on the philosophy of mind and related areas of philosophy and cognitive science. He wrote a nice introduction to the problems of consciousness from a Western scientific perspective in a Scientific American article called “The Puzzle of Conscious Experience.” Another paper, “Consciousness and its Place in Nature,” gives a more technical summary of the arguments against materialism, emphasizing the metaphysical issues (proceed with caution: this paper assumes a lot of philosophical background).

All this may sound academic and theoretical, but believing that matter is the only reality provides the philosophical basis for rejecting the reality of the experience of other beings. This provides a justification for all the harmful, self-centered actions people perform. It also closes the door to the path of liberation.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Why People Don’t Believe in Egolessness

Ask yourself, How do you know that the earth revolves around the sun? That George Washington was the first president of the United States? That objects persist over time?

Well, everyone knows these things! Well then, you need to ask, How do they know?

In Buddhism knowing is a big deal, because ignorance is the root of samsara: the cause of all our suffering. Ignorance includes both not knowing, which is mental darkness, and delusion, which is believing things that are false, such as believing that the ego, or the self, truly exists.

I recently came across an interesting article called “Why Do Some People Resist Science?” It could easily be read as “Why Do People Resist Egolessness?” Written by two Yale psychologists, Paul Bloom and Dena Skolnick Weisberg, it sheds light on why we believe the things we do.

The main thrust of their argument is that through experience in our first year of life, we develop basic concepts about the physical and social world. We learn that objects are solid, persistent, fall if they are unsupported, unmoving unless they are acted upon. We learn that people react to events, act according to motivation, react emotionally to situations. As we grow up, we add uncontroversial, culture-specific beliefs that are “common knowledge” to these “instinctive” concepts. These include the names of objects, that the earth is round, matter is made of particles, electricity makes things work, and so on.

When we are presented information that conflicts with our instinctive beliefs and common knowledge, we tend to evaluate the information by judging the authority of the teacher rather than the logic of the information. In other words, most of our beliefs are not based on direct experience or reason.

Buddhism presents a hierarchy of the sources of valid knowledge that we need to lead us from ignorance to enlightenment. The least reliable type is knowledge that comes from trusted authorities, like the Buddha and other noble beings. It is least reliable, not because the Buddha isn’t trustworthy, but because we haven’t figured it out or experienced it for ourselves. More trustworthy is knowledge gained through valid reasoning (and the teachings present detailed discussions of what constitutes a valid reason). The most trustworthy knowledge is gained through direct, non-conceptual experience. In fact, it is the direct experience of egolessness, or selflessness, that produces liberation.

Some Buddhist traditions accept all three sources of knowledge, others accept only the two higher ones. Other than understanding coming from these sources, the rest of our ideas are considered to be just opinions. As these two Western psychologists point out, most of what we think we know is just opinion. Perhaps our most prominent opinions are that we exist, and we are important!

Friday, January 11, 2008

The Truth of Suffering

Buddhists talk a lot about suffering and dissatisfaction. These are the most common translations for the Sanskrit term duhkha, and the Pali dukkha. When the Buddha taught the first noble truth, he wasn’t saying that life is one uninterrupted agony. Clearly, that is not what most of us experience.

One of the possible etymologies for these terms provides a helpful insight into the Buddha’s intention. Duhkha means a bad fit and was used to describe a wheel that doesn’t properly fit on its axle. Sometimes the image is a potters wheel that doesn’t turn smoothly and screeches as it spins. Sometimes it is a cart with a slightly broken wheel that jolts the rider again and again as it turns. Does this sound a little more familiar?

Why is there duhkha? Because we don’t see things just as they are. We see our conceptual fabrications, our projections. This is the bad fit: the way things appear to us and the way they actually are don’t agree. We mistake our confusion for what actually is, and so we are constantly out of sync with our own experience. That is delusion.

The opposite of duhkha is suhkha, which is like a wheel that turns smoothly and noiselessly. We experience duhkha. Buddhas experience suhkha. In fact, it is said that they experience mahasuhkha—a great fit.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Books: Basic Teachings of the Buddha

My good friend, Barry Boyce, suggested reading Glenn Wallis’ new book, Basic Teachings of the Buddha over the holidays. Barry is an insightful, literate man, and senior editor and staff writer for the magazines Shambhala Sun and Buddhadharma. I take his suggestions seriously.

Despite Barry’s gusto, I approached the task with little enthusiasm. My previous attempts to read the sutras did not go well. For one thing, I just couldn’t imagine the Buddha speaking in such a formulaic and repetitive way. They don’t read like the voice of one of the great teachers of all time.

We now know that writing was not common in India until several centuries after Shakyamuni’s parinirvana. The stories of his life and teachings were transmitted orally by his followers. Eventually, the formulaic style developed and the stories were systematized. It seems obvious that what was written down, hundreds of years after the fact, didn’t capture the actual feeling of what the Teacher said, nor the full range of meaning of his teachings.

Another irritant was that the sutras are generally presented as either ancient historical documents with no relevance to the contemporary Buddhist practitioner, or chauvinistically, as the only “true” teachings. That kind of fundamentalism puts me off.

In the Tibetan tradition, the sutras are more often treated as objects of veneration than objects of study. That’s because the primary transmission is not the “book” or the “word” as it is in the Abrahamic religions, but the personal realization of the teachers of the lineage. In the image used by Trungpa Rinpoche, what is important is the fresh baked bread, rather than an ancient recipe.

Glenn Wallis is obviously sensitive to these issues. As I started reading his excellent introduction, my resistance dissolved. He provides extensive background and context for these scriptures, treating them both as literature, and as spiritual insights.

The sixteen sutras included in this volume really do cover most of the core themes of the dharma. (They are also mercifully short covering only sixty-five pages of the text.) Wallis’ own commentary on the sutras does a wonderful job of drawing out the themes, and he continually encourages us to apply these teachings to our own experience. I particularly appreciated his treatment of Sutta 7: Evidence of Selflessness (Anattalakkhana Sutta). It is hard to find investigations of personal selflessness that strike the vital point, and this one worked for me.

It’s great to have such a readable, accessible book of early Buddhist teachings. It is both a good introduction to what the Buddha taught, and helpful to be able to ground our understanding of contemporary dharma in its historical roots. Do give it a try.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Two Truths

All Buddhist traditions present two realities. Sometimes these are called samsara and nirvana. Sometimes they are called bondage and liberation. Sometimes they are referred to as suffering and its cessation.

Whatever they’re called, the problem is always the same: how do we get from point A to point B? How do we get from the crappy, uptight, confused reality that we currently experience, to the open, relaxed, brilliant reality of the buddhas? The funny thing about the Buddha’s answer to this question is that point A and point B are not two different locations, but one location viewed differently. Don’t you think that’s interesting?

This blog is about the process of transformation that gets us from point A to point B (which are really the same point) and some of the places of interest we might see along the way.