by Tim Burnett, August 2022


In August 2022, Mindfulness Northwest Executive Director and Guiding Teacher Tim Burnett co-led a 5-day retreat on the Buddhist teachings on connecting deeply using the four traditional practices called the “Brahma Viharas” for “divine abodes.”  Likening these practices to the interconnected roots in a forest, Tim dug into the rich soil of biology to explore what Buddhism teaches us around how we can connect deeply with ourselves and others.


Talk 1: Loving Kindness and Forests


Talk Notes

Roots of compassion makes me think of a tree. When we think of a tree we visualize a single trunk, a neat arrangement of branches, and a set of roots radiating outward.


We think of that tree as separate, individual.


Now we’re learning that trees mostly don’t live that way. They can, but mostly they don’t, they live in an interconnected web with other trees. And that interconnection even involves other species: in a healthy forest the root tips are intertwined with the hyphae tendrils of fungi. Trees are linked together through a network of roots and fungus. And they share across that network. This is amazing: a tall tree that can reach above the canopy of the forest to the sun shares some of the sugars it produces through photosynthesis with neighboring trees through this interconnected network. And it all happens not just between the trees by also through and with the fungus in the ground.


The fungus, there are over 100 different species that do this, are in a symbiotic relationship with the trees which makes total sense. Fungus is really good at absorbing nutrients from the soil (nitrogen, phosphorous – think of a bag of fertilizer – and trace elements) and fungus can’t do photosynthesis to get energy so there’s a nice exchange there between a fungus and a tree. This kind of relationship in the plant world has been known for a long time.


But what makes less sense from a Darwinian evolutionary perspective is why the fungus would connect with multiple trees and also help the trees share resources with each other.


But that’s what’s cool about the actual world out there as we can learn about it through science. We come up with theories, like evolution, that do make sense and explain a lot. And totally shift the way we understand this massively complicated world around us. I do love science actually. No it can’t explain everything: but what can? I love science and the mystery of what’s known too. And when science re-writes itself I don’t think that’s a failure of science, hey they didn’t get it right see, nah nah nah science is dumb, now that’s science doing it’s thing in a wonderful way. Science can realize it’s wrong and reinvent itself.


In many of our lifetimes with big things out there and tiny things in here (our brains): that happened with fundamental ideas in neuroscience: like how we continue to rewire and regenerate our neurons and neuronal patterns in our brain.  Before most scientists thought the brain was fixed at puberty, locked down in a pattern for life and with no new brain cells being created. Now we know that’s not true. That also happened in geology with the understanding that giant tectonic plates are moving around beneath us. Before that there were all kinds of explanations for where mountains and volcanoes and so on came from that turned out to be wrong.


And now networks of trees helping each other and even communicating – communicating – through an interspecies network. Trees can signal threats like drought or insect attacks and other trees in the forest start responding internally because of the signal, before the insect or the lack of water gets to them. One species of tree will even help another species of tree. That’s really hard to make sense of from a “survival of the fittest” perspective. One possibility is the entire forest is a kind of unit of natural selection: this forest does better over time because the trees and fungi cooperate so all of the species benefit to together. I read that there is argument and debate about this going on in the scientific community.


(Great resource:


And a neat thing is one of the leading researchers on all of this lives right across the border in Canada where a few of us in our group come from: Susanne Simard who grew up in the woods of British Columbia and is now on the faculty at UBC. Another is a German researcher named Peter Wohlleben. Both Simard and Wohlleben have been accused of making claims about this beyond what the research really shows. Simard talks about Mother Trees in the forest sharing their accumulated wisdom. I’ve stared her book Finding the Mother Tree and it’s really fun: a mix of memoir and science lesson. But that kind of mushy talk gets a hard core researcher’s goat. But new discoveries do breed excitement and I’m grateful that these folks get psyched and write books and do TED talks so we can know about what’s going on without getting a PhD in biology and reading academic papers. It’s all good. And it’ll be refined and clarified as they go.


But this is a massive thing. The trees here at Samish, especially whenever you see groups of them, are talking to each other, are sharing with each other, are supporting each other. Cooperating with each other. The trees themselves are compassionate.


So maybe “roots of compassion” was a better name for this series of retreats than I could know when I thought of that some years ago.


We think trees are separate, we think we are separate, but neither is true. We’re so interconnected it’s hard to know if even makes sense to say “look there’s a tree” instead of “look there’s a forest” – “look there’s a person”? Is really “look there’s community” – we are each a community we only think we’re a person.  I don’t know if a tree has that confusion of a separate consciousness like we do.


One of the great roots of our contemporary compassion movement that you may have contemplated before are a set of four different pathways of connection taught in early Buddhism. Four different kinds of fungi in our collective soil that bind us together.


These are the practices of loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. Collectively these four are often called by the title, in the Pali language, the Brahma Viharas. I think the Sanskrit is about the same. Brahma means divine, really good in other words, and viharas are huts, so place to be, abodes. These four then are the four really good, divine, places to come deeply home to.


A few of the great American proponent of these four practices are Sharon Salzberg and Jack Kornfield so I’ll quote them a bit especially in these four talks exploring these four ways of connecting.


Loving-kindness gets the most attention of these four ways of connecting. Many of you have taken the Mindful Self-Compassion class where it’s a core practice. Warming up our hearts by connecting with our spontaneous loving feelings for someone we deeply care about – I had some feelings like this seeing dear old mindfulness friends arriving yesterday. You know that wonderful upwelling: aww! Look! You’re here, wonderful. The other person didn’t do anything really, it’s not transactional in that way, they just are here and you see them and your heart rejoices. You know? It’s a really wonderful quality of the human heart that we can celebrate.


And then once we experience and deeply re-member that this is so natural and possible for us we practice applying to same feeling to others we don’t feel so delighted by in general and to ourselves with whom we often seem to not feel so kindly towards.


The practice itself involves visualization and a very interesting use of language. Let’s do a short try with it right now as I know not everyone is familiar with these things.


[brief LKM loved one and self]


Our habits of self-denigration can seem so strong and automatic. Earlier someone gave me a note that she’d locked herself out of her cabin. We were on our way to the Hall here so I knew I had to remember this for later. And I did when I got back to the kitchen for dinner I went and picked up the key. Yay so far. And then I sat down and had breakfast and started thinking about this talk. Suddenly with a start – I don’t know how the neurons happened to fire a memory then but they did – that I hadn’t gone and unlocked that door. Right away my feeling was “darn it! I forgot!” – maybe all these years of practice helped me refrain from going further into, “you dummy, you aren’t doing your job very well, you’re so forgetful” blah blah blah. But there was that flash of annoyance at myself for sure. And then as I was walking around looking for the right door a kinder thought arose: “no, the key thing here is that I remembered! I am taking care of this person and fulfilling my responsibilities” and then I was so happy to see that the person was on our breakfast dish crew and hadn’t even made it to her room yet.


Sharon Salzberg tells a similar story (Lovingkindess p. 39-42 w/ a transition into the list of benefits from Buddha – JK p. 96 is a nice version too).


These practices aren’t just so we’ll feel better, though, that would be like one of the trees in the forest having the idea “oh I can use this fungal network to get what I need, cool!” – they are so we can all feel better. Can all be better.


And while the physical limitations and the dimensions of privilege all around us are very real and important, these practices help us see that our inner lives matter too and have a huge impact on how we are. Maybe like me you’ve had the good fortune to travel and meet people in so-called “third world countries” or in our more impoverished neighborhoods and levels of society. You often find people who are happy, generous, and forgiving there. Maybe less so in affluent areas. I hesitate to generalize in that way but it has been part of my own waking up to privilege and to the power and importance of our inner lives to experience this. How can you appear to be so happy with the run down car you just picked me up in as I tried hitch-hiking up the coast as a young man? How can you express such joy in introducing me to your children when you live in the Kibera slum in Nairobi where raw sewage runs through the gutters in front of the tin shack you’re living in? What can I learn here about my heart and my own conditioning while I also do what I can to help and to advocate for a more just world?


We do this together and first we have to tune into each other, know the whole community, here’s a story collected by Jack Kornfield:

JK doctor story p.92


It’s all about connection is the point. We may have each had the thought, conscious of not, that we are here at retreat for our own benefit but then we get there and we start to realize that our practice is about all of us.


It’s about respecting and honoring each other, this planet, all who came before us, and all who will follow. It may feel extra intimidating or overwhelming in the light of pretty scary political forces, especially for the Americans here but everywhere, and the truly frightening reality of climate change – the warm dry summer we just had was lovely and all but…didn’t it also feel a bit “not quite right”?


And can our hearts be big enough to include it all, including those who seem twisted up and wrong from your point of view. Here’s another example from Jack Kornfield:


JK golfer story p. 38



Talk 2: Compassion and Not Knowing

Note this talk was not recorded unfortunately.


Talk Notes


Inspired by their walking.


So I wasn’t in the best mood yesterday. Can you relate? I felt a bit jagged, a bit run-down, a kind of low level feeling of not trusting myself or the situation. I was more or less aware that I was feeling this way but nonetheless it did affect the way I was seeing what’s happening. Our moods affect what the psychologists call “attribution” meaning they affect how we analyze what’s going on, how we interpret other people’s actions and abilities, how we look at our own competence and, well, ok-ness. 


This morning I’m feeling much better which does seem to shine the light of clearer awareness on how yesterday was for me. I wish that for you too, but maybe you’re still in it. Or maybe your mind and moods are doing a totally different pattern than mine.


In a way this practice of silent retreat is more of a blank canvas than anything else. A blank canvas on which our mind paints our patterns. We aren’t doing much here. We’re mostly doing less. Fewer activities by a long shot yet, but also making fewer decisions, having way fewer inputs for sure from disconnecting from the many webs we’re all connected to. It makes a lot of space for our minds and patterns to paint us that picture.


And then we look at it and, on a good day, can see “well it’s just a picture my mind painted.” It’s real enough in it’s way – born from our history, our values, all of the things that make us a person, but it’s also just a picture. And it’s a picture painted at a certain moment of time. The picture of who I am and what’s going on looks and feels different today for me than the pictures I was painting yesterday. It’s not static. It’s changing. One of the learnings from retreat might be to see the swirlings of the kaleidoscope we call “me.” It’s all recognizably “me” but it’s definitely pretty fluid.


I’m learning more and more these last few years about the fluidity of gender. I won’t say too much about that now but it’s helpful when I see that there’s a kind of deep alignment in how things really seem to be as I peel back the layers in different parts of lie: less fixed, more fluid, more changeable, not lining up so exactly with my ideas and concepts of how things are. 


This makes total sense really if we think about it right? We can only have so many concepts. Surely reality is much more variable and changing and presents in more shades of gray and every other color in the rainbow than anyone’s collection of concepts. “male” and “female” are definitely not fully descriptive of the arc of gender and neither are “good mood” and “bad mood” really a clear description of the fluid nature of our emotional minds. We can, and should, create new concepts that are closer to reality as we are coming to know it more deeply. But then keeping in mind that even those concepts are not quite right either, always subject to further revision and change. The concept isn’t reality. The map isn’t the territory.


We talked a little about the first of four channels of connection between us yesterday, loving kindness, and I’m glad Annie led a practice to remind us about the practice of loving kindness meditation that can help strengthen and develop this innate quality within us. 


You might bring up the phrases of loving kindness regularly as you go along for the rest of the week. You can meet a moment of grouchiness with a very sincere “May I be happy” even if subjectively you aren’t feeling so happy. Like Sharon Salzberg’s story yesterday – a week of feeling utterly uninspired as she repeated phrases like that to herself as she breathed and sat and walked mindfulness in her solo retreat.  Sometimes, like she did, we may be surprised by some tangible result “You’re a klutz…but I love you.” other times it’s not so obvious to our minds.


In the 9-month Mindfulness Teacher Training Program we offer one of the bits of Buddhism we tap into is a 13th century essay on how to do Zen meditation. The teacher there, Dogen, makes a really interesting point: 


Do not suppose that what you realize becomes your knowledge and is grasped by your consciousness. Although actualized immediately, the inconceivable may not be apparent. Its appearance is beyond your knowledge.

This makes sense neurologically too, doesn’t it? Some aspect of our brain must be responsible for evaluative thinking “is it working? Do I feel differently? What did I learn?” but the brain is massive and complex – there are whole other areas making sense of the images we see, encoding our memories, influencing our judgment and interpretation of reality. Those areas can certainly shift and change and “re-wire” without our conscious mind getting a clear conceptual memo about it. “Hey – ding! – good news from our subconscious: you are now 12% less reactive than before you did this meditation retreat, congrats!”   


Makes me realize maybe the instant gratification pushed by capitalism and amplified by the always-on social media world has been reinforcing the idea that we would and should and will know in a conscious way ever good thing that happens. Otherwise how will be know what to buy or what to click on?


But it seems that at a deeper level, the real level we’re all here for, it often doesn’t work that way. Changes and connections and sharing and learning may well be happening below the ground of our conscious awareness.


A little more about the trees business in case you’re interesting. Here’s a short description of one of the breakthrough experiments that Suzanne Simard – the scientist in British Columbia – did to prove how radical this underground tree root + fungus network is:

…scientists … thought that perhaps trees that lived together were helping each other by sending resources through their roots [to each other]. To test this out in North American forests, dendrologists utilized a technique called isotope tracing. In this experiment, scientists injected carbon dioxide gas replaced with radiolabeled carbon into the trunk of Birch trees (Figure 1). When nearby Fir trees were covered by shaded cloth, to block their ability to acquire nutrients through photosynthesis, scientists found a higher level of radiolabeled carbon in their trunk, meaning they must have received sugars from the Birch. These experiments confirmed that trees are indeed communicating with each other and sharing nutrients through their roots, forming a complex system sometimes referred to as the “wood wide web.” 

So she and her team were able to do a kind of atomic “marking” using a variation on carbon that doesn’t occur much in the wild. Injecting the special carbon in the birch trees so it’s in their circulatory system and shading the fir trees so they can’t make their own carbon-based sugars (the carbon pulled from the air right? So that’s the other insanely great thing about trees: they are pulling the carbon dioxide out of the air, stripping out the carbon, and releasing oxygen – reducing the effects of global warming and providing us with breathable air at the same time).

Anyway then Simard’s team could find the special carbon they put in the birch trees showing up in the stressed fir trees. Sharing of resources across species. This is a pretty huge thing actually. Doesn’t fit the usual evolutionary model. Another case where concepts are too limited and need to be re-written.


Anyway I’ll try not to geek out on forest ecology all week with you. It’s just pretty amazing. And I think it is a good example for us of the limited views we have of pretty much everything. There’s always more to it. And more to us.


The second practice of connection is compassion. Compassion and loving kindness sound very similar but are different mental factors in Buddhism. Loving kindness is metta in Pali, or maitri in Sanskirt; compassion is karuna in both languages. Loving kindness is the wish that being be well; Compassion is the willingness to be with suffering and try to help. Of course those two are deeply, deeply connected. 


Just like with loving kindness it’s usually pretty natural to be willing the feel the suffering of a close friend or loved one and try to help. Of course! And it can be harder with people we don’t know – often we just don’t notice their suffering! – and especially with people we have issues with.


In the Buddhist frame compassion that’s just for people we feel close to is a limited type of compassion called relative compassion – conditioned by our evaluations and judgements as it is – and we can aspire to something much, much bigger: absolute compassion. Compassion for all beings equally. Our usual mind can for sure resist this idea: “so and so doesn’t deserve my compassion, look at the horrible things he/she/they do. “  But there’s a mixed up understanding in that: compassion is not saying bad behavior is okay, it’s saying that when a fellow being suffers my response can be to feel the suffering with them and try to help. Maybe we’ll even get lucky and someone who is prone to destructive behavior will wake up a bit when met with compassion.


Here’s a classic story about meeting suffering with compassion:


THE TRAIN CLANKED and rattled through the suburbs of Tokyo on a drowsy spring afternoon. Our car was comparatively empty – a few housewives with their kids in tow, some old folks going shopping. I gazed absently at the drab houses and dusty hedgerows.

At one station the doors opened, and suddenly the afternoon quiet was shattered by a man bellowing violent, incomprehensible curses. The man staggered into our car. He wore laborer’s clothing, and he was big, drunk, and dirty. Screaming, he swung at a woman holding a baby. The blow sent her spinning into the laps of an elderly couple. It was a miracle that she was unharmed.

Terrified, the couple jumped up and scrambled toward the other end of the car. The laborer aimed a kick at the retreating back of the old woman but missed as she scuttled to safety. This so enraged the drunk that he grabbed the metal pole in the center of the car and tried to wrench it out of its stanchion. I could see that on of his hands was cut and bleeding. The train lurched ahead, the passengers frozen with fear. I stood up.

I was young then, some 20 years ago, and in pretty good shape. I’d been putting in a solid eight hours of aikido training nearly every day for the past three years. I like to throw and grapple. I thought I was tough. Trouble was, my martial skill was untested in actual combat. As students of aikido, we were not allowed to fight.

“Aikido,” my teacher had said again and again, “is the art of reconciliation. Whoever has the mind to fight has broken his connection with the universe. If you try to dominate people, you are already defeated. We study how to resolve conflict, not how to start it.”

I listened to his words. I tried hard I even went so far as to cross the street to avoid the chimpira, the pinball punks who lounged around the train stations. My forbearance exalted me. I felt both tough and holy. In my heart, however, I wanted an absolutely legitimate opportunity whereby I might save the innocent by destroying the guilty.

This is it! I said to myself, getting to my feet. People are in danger and if I don’t do something fast, they will probably get hurt. Seeing me stand up, the drunk recognized a chance to focus his rage. “Aha!” He roared. “A foreigner! You need a lesson in Japanese manners!” I held on lightly to the commuter strap overhead and gave him a slow look of disgust and dismissal. I planned to take this turkey apart, but he had to make the first move. I wanted him mad, so I pursed my lips and blew him an insolent kiss.

“All right! He hollered. “You’re gonna get a lesson.” He gathered himself for a rush at me. A split second before he could move, someone shouted “Hey!” It was earsplitting. I remember the strangely joyous, lilting quality of it – as though you and a friend had been searching diligently for something, and he suddenly stumbled upon it. “Hey!”

I wheeled to my left; the drunk spun to his right. We both stared down at a little old Japanese. He must have been well into his seventies, this tiny gentleman, sitting there immaculate in his kimono. He took no notice of me, but beamed delightedly at the laborer, as though he had a most important, most welcome secret to share.

“C’mere,” the old man said in an easy vernacular, beckoning to the drunk. “C’mere and talk with me.” He waved his hand lightly. The big man followed, as if on a string. He planted his feet belligerently in front of the old gentleman, and roared above the clacking wheels, “Why the hell should I talk to you?” The drunk now had his back to me. If his elbow moved so much as a millimeter, I’d drop him in his socks.

The old man continued to beam at the laborer.

“What’cha been drinkin’?” he asked, his eyes sparkling with interest.

“I been drinkin’ sake,” the laborer bellowed back, “and it’s none of your business!” Flecks of spittle spattered the old man.

“Ok, that’s wonderful,” the old man said, “absolutely wonderful! You see, I love sake too. Every night, me and my wife (she’s 76, you know), we warm up a little bottle of sake and take it out into the garden, and we sit on an old wooden bench. We watch the sun go down, and we look to see how our persimmon tree is doing. My great-grandfather planted that tree, and we worry about whether it will recover from those ice storms we had last winter. Our tree had done better than I expected, though especially when you consider the poor quality of the soil. It is gratifying to watch when we take our sake and go out to enjoy the evening – even when it rains!” He looked up at the laborer, eyes twinkling.

As he struggled to follow the old man’s conversation, the drunk’s face began to soften. His fists slowly unclenched. “Yeah,” he said. “I love persimmons too…” His voice trailed off.

“Yes,” said the old man, smiling, “and I’m sure you have a wonderful wife.”

“No,” replied the laborer. “My wife died.” Very gently, swaying with the motion of the train, the big man began to sob. “I don’t got no wife, I don’t got no home, I don’t got no job. I am so ashamed of myself.” Tears rolled down his cheeks; a spasm of despair rippled through his body.

Now it was my turn. Standing there in well-scrubbed youthful innocence, my make-this-world-safe-for-democracy righteousness, I suddenly felt dirtier than he was. Then the train arrived at my stop. As the doors opened, I heard the old man cluck sympathetically. “My, my,” he said, “that is a difficult predicament, indeed. Sit down here and tell me about it.”

I turned my head for one last look. The laborer was sprawled on the seat, his head in the old man’s lap. The old man was softly stroking the filthy, matted hair.

As the train pulled away, I sat down on a bench. What I had wanted to do with muscle had been accomplished with kind words. I had just seen aikido tried in combat, and the essence of it was love. I would have to practice the art with an entirely different spirit. It would be a long time before I could speak about the resolution of conflict.


That’s the Aikido teacher Terry Dobson as told by Ram Dass for a book he put together years ago of stories about compassion called “How Can I Help?”


But the strange thing about our relative compassion is we usually don’t put ourselves in the deserving-of-compassion camp. Here’s a really interesting reflection exercise from the Mind Self-Compassion exercise. 


[How Do I Treat a Friend?]


So let’s see if we can practice loving kindness and compassion with ourselves more as things quiet down and we can start to see the realities we’re creating in our minds. The pictures we’re each painting and re-painting on the blank canvas of a quiet week at retreat.


Bringing up kind words for yourself. I’ve mentioned a few times the practice of soothing touch so here’s a little more about that [soothing touch instruction]. And to make it truly compassion a willingness to feel more fully what’s going on. Nothing wrong with good feelings – yay for that – feel those too, savor the good; but for compassion to grow in each of us the willingness to feel and explore – as much as you’re able to now – the dark feelings too. The pain, the hurt, the residue of trauma. 


One of the things I love so deeply about mindfulness training groups and the more open hearted Buddhist groups too, is the open acknowledgment that we’re all wounded here. We’ve all been traumatized. We’re all healing. We’re all broken.


And yes, for sure, there are levels of degree. And it is so horrible – just horrible – that some of us have to bear the additional layers of trauma and hurt from societal trauma and intergenerational trauma. All of the many -ism’s and -phobia’s. The deep pain of oppression. I mentioned a little how much I admire the Community of Christ for taking care of this place and sharing it with others for 60 something years. But I also think about the Samish Nation that was here – right here – for thousands of years before that. They weren’t given much choice in giving over this place to the colonizers. I made myself learn a little more last year about the smallpox epidemics of the 1850’s in the Northwest. And was horrified to learn that the white settler communities, while they were for sure less vulnerable than the indigenous population they could get sick from smallpox and even die from it too. But they had a vaccine. It was one of the first vaccine’s invented. And the vaccine wasn’t shared with the Indians. With a few exceptions the native populations were sent back to the village to die.


As the poster the Samish Nation created in the dining hall – that’s from them not the church – death rates were as high as 90%. That’s a horror that’s almost impossible to take in.  But their descendants have that trauma in their bones in a way I’ll never be able to fully fathom. We have had the good fortune to meet with Samish tribal members a few times here but it’s been a while. We sent an email to their tribal chairman recently actually but he never responded. Probably it’s a little tacky of us to assume he’d go out of his way for us, and things happen better face to face so maybe we need to make some time to go hang out at their tribal office in Anacortes and see if someone has time to talk to us.




And of course that situation was also complicated. The average settler was I’m sure a very good and honorable person. Trying to find a way to live for their family. Facilitated, to be sure, by racist government land grant and settlement policies and, for sure, influenced by the systemic racism of the day. And confused by the damage smallpox had done a decade or two before the major waves of settlement arrived here. They did see mostly empty lands. I don’t know if the average person knew that the women of the Samish tribe would have visited that clearing in what became their new farm every spring to cultivate camas bulbs, or the hunters passed through on their way upriver to hunt elk every fall. Maybe they knew that but I doubt it. 


We sit in a beautiful place and a place that’s know tremendous trauma. It’s hard to hold isn’t it?


So I was thinking about trauma and compassion. 


As a privileged person I tend to think “oh I don’t really have trauma in me” but then I flashed on a horrible year I experienced working as an elementary school teacher where a powerful colleague was cruel to me. I’ve thought a lot about that year and what I learned about not repressing my emotions, but this morning I was realizing that that’s trauma too. No one grows up free of trauma. Well and I did get divorced last year too! 


But for sure it’s relatively worse for some than others. A huge range there.


But if we let our own denial of our suffering block us from feeling and healing we’re way less useful to others. The Buddhists say that the “near enemy” of compassion is pity. A near enemy being another emotional state that we confuse with the good one. I think we’re way more prone to fall into the unhelpful state of pity if we don’t explore our own suffering thoroughly.


And of course this is a subtle art for those who have known much trauma. I have seen mindfulness practice be an enormous help, but usually this needs to be with the support of other therapies and especially a strong ongoing relationship with a therapist, or coach, or teacher – a mentor. We need another perspective. In the mindfulness world it’s a little harder to form an ongoing relationship with a teacher but it can happen.


That said I’ll start offering private check ins this afternoon. I’ll just work my way around the room here starting with Arpana. I’ll come find you in here or out walking during our afternoon meditation times. It’s totally fine with me if you’d rather not – it’s truly an invitation. But I do recommend it as a practice. It’s checking in. I do my best to be a mirror more than anything else. We explore your practice together for a bit. 15 or 20 minutes usually max. Can be shorter or longer. You don’t have to have a brilliant question or insight. You could be in a state like Sharon Salberg described “this is all dreary and boring” – that’s fine. We can look at that. Or you could be delighted and excited by all of this – also fine we can look at that.


Here’s a poem by Galway Kinnell


Saint Francis and the Sow


The bud

stands for all things,

even for those things that don’t flower,

for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;   

though sometimes it is necessary

to reteach a thing its loveliness,

to put a hand on its brow

of the flower

and retell it in words and in touch

it is lovely

until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing;   

as Saint Francis

put his hand on the creased forehead

of the sow, and told her in words and in touch   

blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow   

began remembering all down her thick length,   

from the earthen snout all the way

through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail,   

from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine   

down through the great broken heart

to the sheer blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering   

from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and blowing beneath them:

the long, perfect loveliness of sow.



Sometimes it is necessary

to reteach a thing its loveliness,

to put a hand on its brow

of the flower

and retell it in words and in touch

it is lovely

until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing


Sounds like self-compassion to me. Reteaching ourselves our own loveliness.





Talk 3: We don’t have a word for it! (On Mudita)

Talk Notes

May I be a guard for those who are protectorless,

A guide for those who journey on the road;

For those who wish to go across the water,

May I be a boat, a raft, a bridge.


May I be an isle for those who yearn for landfall,

And a lamp for those who long for light;

For those who need a resting place, a bed;

For all who need a servant, may I be of service.


May I be the wishing jewel, the vase of plenty,

A word of power, and the supreme remedy.

May I be the trees of miracles,

And for every being, the abundant cow.


Like the great earth and the other elements,

Enduring as the sky itself endures,

For the boundless multitude of living beings,

May I be the ground and vessel of their life.


Thus, for every single thing that lives,

In number like the boundless reaches of the sky,

May I be their sustenance and nourishment

Until they pass beyond the bounds of suffering


I was thinking more about my grouchy response to a road crew starting up at 7:30am the other morning. Later that day when I was walking in the neighborhood I found the crew. They were pouring a new sidewalk in front of one of my neighbors houses. As I saw this I realized where I was walking at that moment: on a sidewalk. And I realized these bodhisattvas were creating the very ground I walk on in my neighborhood and sure enough my annoyance about the noise melted away. Sometimes a little reframing really does help.

And then I thought about this some more – this sense of walk on the firm ground that was made safe an secure by others – and I remembered a story from early Buddhism.

There are many stories about the person we think of as the Buddha in his previous lives. Remember that’s a big part of the culture this tradition emerged in – and in some parts of the world it very much still is a part of it.

One time my teacher was with the Dalai Lama and a group of Catholic monastics at Gethsemani Monastery – in Tennessee actually so that’s a neat connection – and HH looked up at the Fransican monks and said, “Oh – I feel for you brothers, you have to reach your union with God in only one life time. We are very lazy in my tradition, we have many lifetimes to reach nirvana.”

And some of the stories of the Tibetans locating a reborn Lama are really uncanny – I don’t know that it can really be explained by science how a toddler born in a village in Tibet can correctly identify the right mala beads and other possessions of the master who’s died when they’re testing the child to see if he (or she, there are a few female tulkus I’m glad to say) when they test the child. And there even a few examples of children born in the west who turn out, according to this system, to be reincarnated Tibetan masters. So who knows.

Anyway as I walked on the sidewalk I remembered a story. The Buddha was not yet the Buddha, he was an wandering ascetic named Sumedha. One day Sumedha was cruising along doing his walking meditation and he noticed a great procession coming. Hundreds of important spiritual leaders and teachers and at the head of it was Dipankara Buddha. An earlier Buddha – in Buddhism the Buddha we think of, Shakyamuni Buddha, is actually just the most recent Buddha – there are vast cycles of Buddhas being enlightened, teaching, passing away, and people continuing to practice with their teachings, and eventually once everyone’s forgotten about that Buddha it’s time for a new Buddha to appear in this world. So this was a really really long time ago.

Then Sumedha saw that out in front of this procession was a crew of devoted laypeople who were sweeping and cleaning and clearing the path in front of Dipankara Buddha. So the Buddha would only step on clean pure ground – are you starting to get it that Buddhism actually is a religion? – and suddenly everything stops. There’s a problem.

Running across the road is a little muddy stream and somehow the crew can’t fill it or cover it or build a bridge across. Everything they try to do just crumbled into dust. No way would anyone feel okay about Dipankara Buddha stepping into that muddy stream. Ick.

As a wandering ascetic one of the things Sumedha had renounced was ever cutting his hair – so he had really long hair kind of wrapped around his head, probably all in dreadlocks, and he knew just what to do. Going up to this muddy stream he unbound his hair and lay down at the edge of the stream and spread his hair across it. And this worked of course – his hair was strong and clean and made the perfect bridge for Dipankara Buddha to walk across. As he lay down he cried out something like:

“This day it behooves me to make sacrifice of my life for the Buddha: let not the Blessed one walk in the mire—nay, let him advance with his four hundred thousand saints trampling on my body as if walking upon a bridge of jeweled planks, this deed will long be for my good and my happiness.”

I guess not only was he offering to cover the mud but he was inviting Dipankara Buddha and all of his attendants – 400,000 saints – just tromp right across his body too.

And this impressed the Buddha of that age. He stopped and took in the sincere practice of Sumedha and realized that he had been practicing selfless generosity for many lifetimes and that now with his new generous act his karma was all set: this ascetic monk would definitely be reborn next time around as a new Buddha.

That’s something else that always happen before you become a Buddha, a previous Buddha predict that you yourself will be a Buddha. Not entirely sure how it all works but receiving a prediction like that is a big big deal.

So you can see where I’m going with this. There is also the power of story and mythology to help us open up. The road crew that was bugging me was also like Sumedha – lovingly creating a place for new Buddhas to walk safely and cleanly. They were also putting the new sidewalk through one of my neighbors gardens that I’m really impressed with. And I went and looked later and it looked like they’d been very careful to disturb her plantings as little as possible.

So next time someone’s bugging you you might ask yourself if there’s a bigger story here. Here’s a poem that suggests something similar:

Alison Luterman – Because Even the Word
Try to love everything that gets in your way:

the Chinese women in flowered bathing caps

murmuring together in Mandarin, doing leg exercises in your lane

while you execute thirty-six furious laps,

one for every item on your to-do list.

The heavy-bellied man who goes thrashing through the water

like a horse with a harpoon stuck in its side,

whose breathless tsunamis rock you from your course.

Teachers all. Learn to be small

and swim through obstacles like a minnow

without grudges or memory. Dart

toward your goal, sperm to egg. Thinking Obstacle

is another obstacle. Try to love the teenage girl

idly lounging against the ladder, showing off her new tattoo:

Cette vie est la mienne, This life is mine,

in thick blue-black letters on her ivory instep.

Be glad she’ll have that to look at all her life,

and keep going, keep going. Swim by an uncle

in the lane next to yours who is teaching his nephew

how to hold his breath underwater,

even though kids aren’t allowed at this hour. Someday,

years from now, this boy

who is kicking and flailing in the exact place

you want to touch and turn

will be a young man, at a wedding on a boat

raising his champagne glass in a toast

when a huge wave hits, washing everyone overboard.

He’ll come up coughing and spitting like he is now,

but he’ll come up like a cork,

alive. So your moment

of impatience must bow in service to a larger story,

because if something is in your way it is

going your way, the way

of all beings; towards darkness, towards light.

So chapters 2 and 3 of our text basically take the ideas introduced in chapter 1 and invite them to sink in.

There is a lot of repetition and saying the same thing in multiple different ways in traditional Buddhist texts – probably this is true of all ancient religious literature – and to our eyes and ears this can be a little tedious. Like I get it already – be devoted to the ancestors, be humble, respect the depths of suffering, and have trust in basic goodness. So you really have to tell me all of that over and over again?

Well if you asked the text, I think the text would say, “YES, I do, because you don’t really get it yet. You may have the idea of it, but you don’t have it in your bones, you don’t have it in your heart.”

Instead of being language used to explain something it’s more like the language in these next two chapters is a kind of yoga for our minds and hearts. Just like yoga for our body, just like meditation, you have to keep doing it over and over again before things start to shift. You keep hearing and you keep hearing it, and in traditional monastic education you also memorize it and recite it over and over and over. In our Zen tradition we have some shorter texts we do that with. Everytime we meet for meditation we also recite texts and they get lodged in our hearts. Sometimes a line or a phrase or an image from one of those texts which I have chanted hundreds and hundreds of times just pops up right when I need it – right when I’m stuck on some bonehead idea – sometimes anyway – a few words or an image pops into my mind and wakes me up – “Oh! This is that!” not what I thought it was. So let’s practice just listening here to 8 verses of chapter two – the translators title this chapter “Offering and Purification”


To all the Buddhas, those Thus Gone,

To the Sacred Law, immaculate, supreme and rare

And to the Buddha’s heirs, an ocean of good qualities –

That I might seize this precious attitude, I will make a perfect offering.



I offer every fruit and flower,

Every kind of healing salve,

All the precious things the world affords,

And all pure waters of refreshment;



Every mountain rich and filled with jewels,

All sweet and lonely forest groves;

The trees of heaven, garlanded with blossom,

And branches heavy, laden with fruit;



The perfumed fragrance of the realms of gods and humans,

All incense, wish-fulfilling trees, and trees of gems,

All crops that grow without the tiller’s work,

And every sumptuous object worthy to be offered.



Lakes and tarns adorned with lotuses,

And plaintive with sweet-voiced cried of water birds

And lovely to the eyes, and all things wild and free,

Stretching to the boundless limits of the sky



I will hold them in my mind, and to the supreme Buddhas

And their heirs will make a perfect offering.

O think of me with love, Compassionate Lords,

Sacred objects my gifts, accept these offerings.



To the Buddhas of the past, the present, and all future time

To the Doctrine and sublime Assembly,

With bodies many as the grains of dust

Throughout the universe, I prostrate and bow.



Until the essence of enlightenment is reached,

I will go for refuge to the Buddhas;

Likewise, I take refuge in the Doctrine

And the host of Bodhisattvas

So not only should we honor and appreciate and feel gratitude for our teachers and ancestors we should give them gifts – give offering. And the more outlandish the better here it seems. Give them lakes covered with lotus flowers full of birds stretching to the horizon. Give them trees full of gems. Give them healing salves. And most importantly though, given them your devotion to these teachings.

So this is an important practice – the practice of devotion, the practice of making offerings – and it’s been hard to figure out how to translate it into a non-religious context. We manage a bit of this by offering poems. But you might think about how in your life you could bring up and practice a more devotional spirit. You might say a little prayer before eating for example. You might do a gratitude practice in the evening. This is an imaginative act and I invite you to experiment. And it might be helpful to work through some of the resistance many of us might feel. I myself wrote a little morning verse to orient me towards the day and encourage me to focus on my values – here’s that verse, since we went on Zoom I’ve been sharing it with my fellow Zen sangha members and they seem to enjoy it. We’ll send it with the poems after the retreat.

Oh Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, please concentrate your hearts on me. I, ____________ , Buddha’s Disciple, greet the new day with humility and joy.

May I today in all actions of body, speech and mind:

Affirm life; give generously; keep the mind clear;

treasure the body; be courageous and kind in speech;

open to and heal through strong emotions;

and return to Buddha, Dharma and Sangha on every breath.

[repeat second paragraph]

Do I remember every single day to be generous, clear, take great care of my body, be awesome with my speech, and open up fully to my emotions? Wellll….no. But it doesn help. Some of these phrases pop up and encourage me, guide me. And reciting it each morning also affects the way I create the agenda for the day “treasure the body “- right did I leave time for a run in there? I have gotten a bit fonder of beer during the pandemic than ideal and the phrase “keep the mind clear” sometimes pops into my mind when I’m reaching for the fridge door. It helps.

What helps you to remember your intentions? Remember who you really, truly want to be?

Back to the text, later in chapter 2 the text takes a surprising turn – listen to this:


Treacherous is the Lord of Death!

Whether what we have to do is done or not,

We cannot stay. In sickness or in health,

We cannot trust our fleeting, flickering lives.



We must go from life forsaking everything,

But I devoid of sense and prudence

For the sake of friend and foe alike,

Have brought about so many evils.



My enemies at length will cease to be,

My friends and I myself

Will cease to be,

And all is likewise destined for destruction.



“I myself might suddenly depart,”

Such thoughts are always far from me,

And so, through hatred, lust and ignorance,

I have been the cause of many wrongs.



Thus from this day forth I go for refuge

In the Buddhas, guardians of wandering beings,

Who labor for the good of all that lives,

Those mighty ones who scatter every fear.

One of our more powerful habits is to think we can do some good action later right. I’ll get to that later. After I reduce my hours at work I’ll exercise more. After the pandemic I’ll call her up. After I retire I’ll…. And so on.

Which is curious, why are we so sure there’s going to be a later. Just because each one of us wore up this morning doesn’t mean we’ll wake up tomorrow. In fact I just got yet another piece of evidence about this. One of my dearest friends from college called me up yesterday – turns out his daughter’s thinking about going to Western Washington University here in Bellingham and his family is coming to visit next week – very exciting for me. And we got to talking as old friends about keeping in touch with old friends which he and I have not been so great about but it’s one of those friendships where you’re just INSTANTLY comfortable like you just finished the last sentence 5 minutes ago instead of 10 years ago which is the case with us. And my friend shared that one of his oldest childhood friends just died.

He said his friend was late 50’s, healthy and fit, a vibrant person, and his wife was out in the garden for about 10 minutes, came back in and was calling for him, he didn’t answer to she kept looking and found him collapsed and unresponsive on the floor. She had CPR training and started compressions right away and managed to call 911. She did it right, they came and took over, and never once did his friend show even the faintest response. It must been that when the front door closed behind her on the way out to the garden he just died. They didn’t bother with an autopsy but isn’t in interesting how our minds want so badly to know WHY. Heart attack? Major Stroke? Aneurism in the brain? What? And don’t you think part of why we want to know is we’re instantly strategizing on how to avoid that fate or at least trying to talk ourselves out of it – oh…heart attack? Did he have family history of that? I’m glad I don’t. My heart is just fine. Denial, man, wow.

So I think what we have here is a 5th plank for our deep patience program – “remember you’re going to die and it could be very soon.”

One traditional Buddhist phrase here is: “Death is certain, only the time of death is uncertain.”

This is one of those cliché but oh so true teachings: if we truly lived like this was our last day would be so annoyed by things?

Well, how do you know it’s not your last day. You actually do not know that. You really don’t.

So that gives us two more additions to our list of pointers towards a life that patience flows through, we’re up to 6 now.

1) Practice gratitude for ancestors and supporters

2) Practice deep humility especially when you’re triggered

3) Respect how hard it is to be a person, for you and for everyone else

4) All beings want to be happy and free from suffering: goodness is in there

5) The mind’s view of things is stubborn, practice gentle yoga on your mind (not just trying to talk yourself into new ideas)

6) Death is always just around the corner, there’s no “later”

I’ll close today with a little from my own teacher, Norman Fischer, from his book The World Could Be Otherwise which is also about the practices of bodhisattvas. Here’s a little from him on how central and important patience is:

Norman p. 84 top two paragraphs [want to get back to his stuff on anger]

And if there’s time here’s another song for you – sometimes you run into a folk song that has a great Dharma teaching in it – this is a nice rootsy one sung by Gillian Welch called “Hard Times”

Gillian Welch, Hard Times

There was a Camptown man

Used to plow and sing

And he loved that mule and the mule loved him

When the day got lo-ng

As it does about now

I’d hear him singing to his muley cow…

Callin’ come on my sweet old girl

And I’d bet the whole damn world

That we’re gonna make it yet to the end a’ the row…

Singing hard times

Ain’t gonna rule my mind

Hard times

Ain’t gonna rule my mind, Bessie

Hard times

Ain’t gonna rule

My mind

No more

I said it’s a mean old world heavy in need

And that big machine is just a-picking’ up speed

And we’re suppin’ on tears, and we’re suppin’ on wine

Y’all get to heaven in our own sweet time…

So come all you Asheville boys

And turn up your old time noise

And kick til’ the dust comes up from the cracks in the floor…

Singing hard times

Ain’t gonna rule my mind, brother

Hard times

Ain’t gonna rule my mind

Hard times

Ain’t gonna rule

My mind

No more

But the Camptown man he doesn’t plow no mo-re

I seen him walking down to the Superette store

Guess he lost that nag and he forgot that song

Woke up one morning and the mule was gone…

So come all you ragtime kings

And come on, you dogs, and sing

And pick up the dusty old horn and give it a blow…

Playing hard times

Ain’t gonna rule my mind, honey

Hard times

Ain’t gonna rule my mind, sugar

Hard times

Ain’t gonna rule

My mind

No more




Talk 4: All Things Being Equal

Talk Notes

Seven Branch Prayer (from Shantideva Bodhicharyavartara chapter 3)

May I be a guard for those who are protectorless,

A guide for those who journey on the road;

For those who wish to go across the water,

May I be a boat, a raft, a bridge.


May I be an isle for those who yearn for landfall,

And a lamp for those who long for light;

For those who need a resting place, a bed;

For all who need a servant, may I be of service.


May I be the wishing jewel, the vase of plenty,

A word of power, and the supreme remedy.

May I be the trees of miracles,

And for every being, the abundant cow.


Like the great earth and the other elements,

Enduring as the sky itself endures,

For the boundless multitude of living beings,

May I be the ground and vessel of their life.


Thus, for every single thing that lives,

In number like the boundless reaches of the sky,

May I be their sustenance and nourishment

Until they pass beyond the bounds of suffering

So I noticed another miracle this morning. Maybe you did too. In my case I realized with a little start that it’s completely amazing that if I turn a little plastic dial on my stove the frying pan heats up and I can make an omelets. And I was thinking about the systems involved and realized that knowing something of the science doesn’t make it any less a miracle. That electrons – whatever they really are – can circulate in wires and that humans have made power plants in the mountains that harness the energy of water and gravity and get those electrons spinning so many miles away and it all gets somehow distributed to every darn house in my neighborhood. It’s amazing. Really incredible.

And then I put tomatoes from my garden, and kidney beans I’d cooked, and eggs, and a little sharp cheddar cheese in and my attention shifted from the miracle of the stove to the miracle of each of those foods. Each with it’s own story. Each with so many hands and hearts and beings involved. And sadly I’m sure each with it’s share of suffering too – I worried for a moment about the farm workers in the San Joaquin valley who are harvesting those beans right now. In the smoke, with the danger of Corona virus – maybe of them so far from where they grew up. And then I realized that miracles are wondrous and there is also that thread of sorrow woven through the cloth of all of life isn’t there? And it’s such an interesting and powerful opportunity to hold it: to shed some tears for those farm workers, and hopefully to in this life somewhere have some something to help, and also to deeply enjoy and be nourished by my omelets. That omelete I could see not really made by me, but gifted to me by all beings.

So back to our text. The prayer we recited at the opening is the essence of chapter 3 of the Bodhicharyavatara – devote yourself to others, devote yourself to goodness. In a way that solves patience and impatience, you are so humbly devoted to others how would impatience about them ever even come up?

And the intention here is not just to be a “good person” – actually the idea of a “good person” doesn’t really show up in Buddhism in the way we think of it.

A bodhisattva is I guess, by our way of looking at, it a good person, but the thinking doesn’t emerge from the good vs. evil model we have in us.

A bodhisattva doesn’t serve others because they’re supposed to, it’s because they see more clearly how things really are and serving others is the only thing that makes sense to them.

Why? Because they see that there’s no fundamental difference between self and other. We are different manifestations of the same life. Like the example I gave yesterday about the two hands: if the left hand has a splinter the right hand just pulls it out, the right hand doesn’t stop to think about whether the left hand has done enough nice things to it over the years, about whether the left hand deserves the help; the right hand doesn’t think “oh I’m too tired today, you’ll be okay until later” or “maybe some other hand will come along to help you, I’m busy” no: the right hand just pulls out the splinter. And it’s not even that the right hand thinks, “oh right! We’re part of the same body, therefor it’s the right thing to do to help that left hand, okay here I come!” No, none of that. Just pull out the splinter. See a pile of mulch that needs to be spread out? Knock on the door and see if there’s a shovel you can use.

And here’s another place that in the mindfulness movement we offer these deeper teachings in poetry. Several of you mentioned to me how moving it was to hear Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem Kindness: “Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore.” Same idea.

And yes, of course it gets tricky fast, see a homeless person asking for money do you just give money? Do you offer a warm human smile and good luck? Do you figure the person is scamming and not exactly homeless? I have friends on the police force who say this happens here in Bellingham: get nice and dirty and grab a spot on the right intersection you can make a decent living begging from cars they claim.

How does a bodhisattva respond to homelessness on the streets? Do you set up an automatic monthly donation to the food bank from your paycheck, I often think that’s probably the most rational response but have I done that? Nope… Tricky.

Another common metaphor for this understanding is the ocean. Each of us is a unique wave on the ocean, no two waves is exactly the same, but we’re all part of one ocean. That metaphor is nice about birth and death too, isn’t it? Waves come and go. They return to the ocean, they emerge from the ocean. And still: if a wave has been traveling across the ocean with a friend wave for a thousand miles it’s a sad thing for them when they reach the shore and smash into nothing – but of course it’s not nothing, they are together as ocean – completely connected. And this way of understanding does help us humans with death a bit. My friend’s friend suddenly crashed onto some kind of internal reef and passed suddenly away. Sad to be sure but it’s not like he was here and now he’s gone. Buddhism lines up with physics here: nothing appears or disappears really – matter is not created or destroyed – it just changes form. Something was animating that particular collection of organs and bones in the bag of skin a minute ago and then the wave crashed into the shore and the stuff of the body becomes a different kind of stuff. It’s only strange to us because we’ve forgotten about the ocean. Because we’ve convinced ourselves each of our little waves is separate from the ocean, can live independently from the ocean. But of course we can’t.

So chapter 3 emphasizes devotion to others because they aren’t really others. That’s a really important nuance. And back to doing slow gradual yoga on our minds: just because that idea sounds neat, or sounds threatening, or sounds any particular way doesn’t transform our hearts. That takes time and so much patience.

Chapter 4 is all about guarding this realization with care. It’s called “Carefulness” in the translation I’m using. Carefulness has maybe a bad rap in some circles. You can get criticized for being too cautious, too careful. But it’s a virtue here: take good care of the world by taking better care of your mind. And taking better care of your mind is absolutely taking care of the whole world.

And this flips our motivation for practice around. We tend to think of practice as something we do for ourselves. We often in the next sentence after “it’s good for me” will say it helps the people in our lives too, but basically we have a kind of separate-self motivation. My days go better if I practice. I feel calmer and more resilience if I practice. I don’t get as easily hooked by the stress of my co-worker if I practice.

True enough as far as it goes – these statements are usually based on experience which is always our trusty guide.

But maybe Shantideva would suggest a bigger view: we practice to take care of everyone, to take care of the world, when I practice work goes better for everyone not just me, when I practice my whole family is more harmonious and there’s less suffering, when I practice I’m kinder and more careful on the road and there are fewer accidents and less stress in traffic (which is less now of course – can we keep that post-Covid?). So we practice as a way of caring for the world.

And so we get to chapter 5 – I’m really excited now because we are soooo close to chapter 6 which is actually the chapter that speaks directly to patience, but I realized it would be a kind of impatient move to just skip chapters 1 to 5 to get to the “good stuff” in the patience chapter.

That wouldn’t be a terrible thing. My teacher once did a weekend training just on chapter 6, but it’s just feeling right to go more slowly through the text and not skip chapters left and right because we’re rushing for the treasures somewhere else. Isn’t that a good way to miss the treasures right in front of us? There are lots of traditional stories – in Buddhism, in the Jewish tradition, I’m sure in all traditions, about how easily we go rushing off looking for treasure and forget that it’s right here. And it could even look like garbage to us at first, we have to slow down and look carefully.

So here are a few verses from chapter 5 which the translators have called “Attentiveness” – pay attention, pay attention, pay attention. So grateful for this practice to help us with this.


Those who wish to keep this discipline

Must guard their minds in perfect self-possession.

Without this guard upon the mind,

No discipline can ever be maintained.



All anxiety and fear,

Pain and suffering immeasurable,

Each from the mind itself proceeds:

Thus the Truthful One has said.



This is so, and therefore I will seize

This mind of mine and guard it well.

What use to me so many harsh austerities?

Let me only place a guard upon my mind.


No too different from the idea of carefulness. Guard our minds. Not always so easy to do right? Like those unfortunate things you say that are out of your mouth or the text is sent before you quite thought it though – oops, can I take that back? I didn’t mean it!

Probably the guarding needed to happen a little earlier right? When that grouchy thought about your friend first took hold before you sent that grouchy text.

Maybe your training in body awareness can help. Wow, why is my forehead to scrunched? Why is my gut tight? Why are my shoulders up at my ears again? Oh…I’m a bit upset about my friend, huh! What’s that about?

Maybe your training in intentions can help. You remember a line from a little verse you say when you get up to remind you about your intentions. You notice your habits. Oh! I’m doing that thing again…

Maybe having wise friends can help. Friends who care deeply about you but are strong enough in their own practice to not be caught up in your madness. You text your support friend to express your frustration with your difficult friend and get another perspective before you grouch back.

Maybe just this powerful idea of taking a purposeful pause shows up. Maybe we manage to bring some curiosity online and find out more about what’s going on before we react, or at least react a bit less.

I have to make an admission there: I’d left my phone activated and in front of me for some reason last night when I was doing interviews and an aggressive looking text came in from my sister. I glanced at the little summary on the home screen you know, darn but our eyes are fast at taking in words and interpreting them at lightning speed, and our emotions are so vigilant against threat, so I froze up for a second, totally missing what the person was telling me.

I paused and apologized and explained briefly, took a breath and was able to set it aside.

Later I read it more carefully and considered whether I even wanted to reply that evening, or ever, I ended up sending her back a question that helped me see if was more just her abrupt style of communication than trying to put me down like it looked.

She ended up sending something kind of sweet about just wanting her “big bro” to be happy. I don’t think she and I really understand each other that clearly but the interaction that was tipping on the edge of fight became a reconnection instead that I think both of us were okay with. A bit difficult still for me, anyway, but nice. And I was grateful I didn’t go with the first defensive reply that popped into my mind – it was kind of mean!

And this point Shantideva makes in the middle of these last three verses there is so important. All of this madness happens in our minds. Let’s listen to these again:


Those who wish to keep this discipline

Must guard their minds in perfect self-possession.

Without this guard upon the mind,

No discipline can ever be maintained.



All anxiety and fear,

Pain and suffering immeasurable,

Each from the mind itself proceeds:

Thus the Truthful One has said.



This is so, and therefore I will seize

This mind of mine and guard it well.

What use to me so many harsh austerities?

Let me only place a guard upon my mind.

And all of this potential clarity and insight happens there too. We so easily externalize – blaming my agitation on my sister for a second there before I realized it was my own misinterpretation that had causes that adrenaline spike –

And the last line is a bit of a dig from Shantideva against super hard core practice. This is the middle way school. We do need some discipline for sure but harsh austerities, maybe not.

Here’s a cute little side note about Shantideva himself – he was seen as a lazy monk at the monastic university. According to the traditional stories: he was one of those people who didn’t show up for anything, never studying or coming to practice sessions. His fellow monks said that his three big “realizations” were: eating, sleeping, and shitting. So one day they decided to expose him for the fraud he was.

They put out the word out that there was a very important Dharma Talk happening the next day and it was mandatory for everyone to come. They gathered in the largest hall and a special raised seat was set up like they would do for a visiting high teacher.

Of course Shantideva shows up late. He expects the lecture would have started already and is surprised that the teacher’s seat is empty and everyone is sitting there quietly waiting. So he goes up in front and asks, “who will the teacher for today’s talk be? What are you all waiting for?”

And the head monks – I picture them kind of like the Head Boys at a British public school you know? – jump up and say: “YOU! We want to hear a talk by you Shantideva! You’re a lazy good for nothing and it’s time we exposed you to the whole community! Let’s see what you have to say!” And they barred the doors so he couldn’t escape.

So, Shantideva says “ok” and climbs up onto the seat and gives his talk. What was the talk? You guessed it: he recited the entire 1,000 verses Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra. Just made it all up on the spot. The last chapter, chapter 10, is a deep, deep dive into the transcendent wisdom that we’re exploring the edges of this week and it was so intensely spiritual or whatever that then Shantideva’s body floated up into the air as he gave the last stanzas he drifted away like a cloud never to be seen again. I guess the idea must be that one of the monks was a great note taker and wrote it all down as Shantideva was reciting the text.

So many fun stories in all traditions.

Here are a few more verses from chapter 5 and here “mindfulness” makes an appearance – yay. I’m going to a bit longer excerpt this time so if you like bring up what concentration you have available (and don’t worry, you can go back to the recording).


Oh you who wish to place a guard upon your minds,

I pray with palms pressed earnestly together,

At cost of life itself, preserve

Your mindfulness and mental scrutiny.



Therefore, form the gateway of awareness

Mindfulness shall not have leave to stray.

If it wanders, it will be recalled

By thoughts of anguish in the lower worlds.



In those endowed with fortune and devotion

Mindfulness is cultivated easily

Through fear and by the counsels of their abbots

And staying ever in their teacher’s company



When mindfulness is stationed as a guard,

A sentinel upon the threshold of the mind,

Mental scrutiny is likewise present,

Returning when forgotten or dispersed.



We should not be downcast by the warring wants

of inner children, to and fro. Their thoughts are bred

From conflict and emotion.

Let us understand and treat them lovingly.



In doing virtuous things, beyond reproach,

To help ourselves, or for the sake of others,

We should always bear in mind the thought

That we are self-less, like an apparition.



Regard your body as a vessel,

A mere boat for going here and there;

Make of it a wish-fulfilling gem

To bring about the benefit of beings.



Thus with free, untrammeled mind,

Have an ever-smiling countenance,

Rid yourself of scowling, wrathful frowns;

And be a true, sincere friend to beings.


Eating only what is needful, sharing

With religious persons and those who are

Defenseless or have fallen into lower states –

Give all except the three robes of religion.


The Bodhisattva’s acts

Are boundless, as the teachings say.

The greatest of them all is this:

To cleanse and purify the mind.



Reciting thrice by day, by night,

The Sutra in Three Sections,

Relying on the Buddhas and the Bodhisattvas,

I shall purify the downfalls that remain.



There is no virtue

That the Buddha’s offspring should not learn.

To one with skill in such pursuits,

Nothing that he does is destitute of merit.



Directly, then, or indirectly,

All I do will be for others’ benefit.

And solely for their sake, I dedicate

My actions for the gaining of enlightenment.



To keep a guard again and yet again

Upon the state and actions of our minds and bodies –

This alone and only this defines the sense of mental watchfulness.



All this I must express in action;

What is to be gained by mouthing syllables?

What invalid was ever helped

By mere reading of the doctor’s treatises?


Just a few highlights and we’ll call it good.

First this idea of guarding the mind is interesting. And there can be some dynamic tension here with other messages we receive. We like to suggest in MBSR that we should just experience everything that comes right? Be very open. Stop trying to guard the door. Let your mind be like a guest house and welcome every new arrival: the joy, a depression, a meanness. Welcome and entertain them all even if they are a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture. Treat each guest honorably: she may be clearing you out for some new delight.


So: which was is it? Do we guard our mind or are we supposed to let it all in? And we do also suggest in MBSR to be more mindful about what we feed our minds right? Media, news, gossip – we know how all of that affects us.

I guess my experience is that, as usual, it’s complicated. In the end we need one seriously wise guard crew at the gate. Repression and avoidance can be helpful in the short term but ultimately cause so much suffering. And yet some terrible experiences are just too much and need to be buried deep for a while, maybe a long, long while. And yet taking up the habit of ignoring our needs leads only to a very bad place.

Maybe it’s that we need guards at the gates of our minds and the life project is to educate our guards in the wisdom to know what to let in and what not to. Here’s the thing though: guards are needed not for external things only but also for helping us be wise in the which of the internal thoughts and habits we run we should let in too – here’s another passage from Norman Fischer’s book on this:

[p85-86 marked]

This is a great example. We probably all need to guard against blaming thoughts. While we do need to correctly attribute cause and effect and respond to things like oppression as wisely as we can, it doesn’t seem like letting thoughts of blame take up residence in our guest house is at all helpful.

Maybe the “both/and” model is to let the blaming thought in, recognize them, and then very politely and kindly escort them out the back door. Don’t serve them snacks or offer them the guest room. It’s all just models and metaphors though so think about this stuff however you like.

And the mind is just so powerful right? Shantideva says that over and over. Reminding us that we’re creating this word of me and others, me and the external world, it’s absolutely all happening in our mind.

One of the schools of Buddhism that evolved out of Shantideva’s was called the “mind only” school because their conclusion was that there is actually no external reality at all: everything is literally a projection of our minds.

So guarding our minds is a big topic and it’d be easy to lean too far in one direction or the other. There are some tricky nuances here though around repression and compartmentalization, sometimes you do just have to suffer and it has to work through you. But of course we need to be smart about it – some things are just too much. Sometimes friends, therapists, and teachers can help a lot, other times your inner work is your own. We are resilient and we are fragile too. We are ultimately alone in some way and we are ultimately all just waves in the vast ocean too.

I guess what I’m realizing as I say this is I bring this up and Shantideva brings this stuff up not as answers, not as a rulebook or a gameplan, but as pointers to where we may need more training, more study, deep reflection, and a willingness to do the work. Why? Because that’s how we an all beings will awaken. The external stuff is needed too but look at the madness in our country right now: it’s all born in the mind. Its all born in the mind. It’s views. It’s perception. It’s how language and concepts are being used and how real they seem to be. This work is not just about us feeling better in our bubble or our safe corner, it’s about all of us. I think this is really important: that we not narrow this down to something like “personal growth” or “personal development” – this is also anti-racism, this is also anti-misogyny. This is an important part of how we truly understand that black lives matter. This is all beings matter and it’s not groovy or far out or all is one – it’s subtle, it’s deep, it requires a lot of intelligence, it requires a lot of cooperation.

Guarding the mind is guarding the well being of the whole community. And we don’t stop with human their either. Guarding the mind is also understanding how we can try to pull of the last minute trick of preserving our habitable lovely planet too. So I really think although we’re having a nice little retreat and each of us is doing our best, with maybe a few moments here and there or being a bit too intense or a bit too lazy about it all, what we’re up to is really much bigger than that.

Up for another song? How about a love song? And just like I was just saying maybe we can understand love songs as not just about a couple but about all of us learning, at last to truly love each other. This is from Tracy Chapman.

If you…..wait for me.e.e

then I’ll…….come for you

Although I’ve trav…eled far

I always hold….. a place for you….in my heart


If you….think of me.e.e

If you miss me….once in a while

Then I’ll return to you

I’ll return and fill that space….in your heart



Your touch

Your kiss

Your warm embrace

I’ll way…baaack to you

If you’ll be wait-ate-ting


If you…dream of me

Like I-I-I…dream of you

In a place that’s warm and dark

In a place where I….can feel the beating of your heart



Your touch

Your kiss

Your warm embrace

I’ll find my way…back to you

If you’ll be wait-ate-ting


[higher] (oh) I’ve….longed for you

And I….have desired

To see your face, your smile

To be with you wher-e-e-e-ver you are

[octave up]


Your touch

Your kiss

Your warm embrace

I’ll find…my way…back to you

Please say you’ll be wait-ate-ting


Together again

It would feel so good to be [up]

In your arms

Where all my journeys end [up]

If you can make a promise

If it’s one that you can keep

I VOW to come for you

If you-u wait for me


And say you’ll hold


A place…for me


In your heart.


A plAce for me, in your heart.

A plAce for me, in your heart.

A plAce for me, in your heart.