with Tim Burnett & Oori Silberstein, August 2018


In August 2018, Mindfulness Northwest director and leader teacher Tim Burnett co-led a 5-day silent mindfulness retreat with co-teacher Oori Silberstein. Tim and Oori and gave daily talks exploring the early Buddhist teachings of Brahmaviraha – the four “Divine Abodes” for practice.

The primary text for the lectures was:

(we focused on chapter IX which starts on page 291 from the page numbers in the document)
The poetry we shared can be read here: Brahmavihara Poetry

The Four Brahma Viharas

 English  Pali  Far Enemy  Near Enemy
 Loving-Kindness  metta  hatred  desire
 Compassion  karuna  cruelty  pity
 Empathetic Joy  mudita  jealousy  enthusiasm
(about material success)
 Equanimity  upekkha  greed / resentment  apathy

Talk 1 – Monday August 27th – Loving-Kindness by Tim Burnett


Talk Notes

[Note that Tim often departs significantly from his notes when speaking but the notes themselves might be valuable to read]

One of the great things about slowing down and practicing is we start getting interested in what things really mean and whether it’s all really the wa we think it is. So much flies by unexamined usually. My Zen teacher used to say that “everyone’s a philosopher.” He meant everyone has their own philosophy of life, their own theory of who and what they are what the world is. So often we take our theories for granted. Assuming everything to be as we think it is. We take lots for granted. It’s wonderful to slow down and get curious.

So we call these retreats we do here in August and October “roots” retreats. The roots of compassion and the roots of mindfulness.

So what is a root? What do roots do? Roots anchor a plant in the earth usually. We tend to say “roots go deep” which is sometimes true. Often roots reach out broadly. If you’ve seen a northwest fir or cedar that’s fallen over the roots are a broad fan. So roots of compassion may reach deep and also out broadly in all directions. Stabilizing us with a broader feeling, reaching our awareness out horizontally for support.

Roots take up water and nourishment. So how do the roots of compassion nourish us and hydrate us? That’s a question to hold all week I think. How does this practice nourish me? How does it hydrate me?

So here are some teachings from the early Buddhist traditions that are some of the roots of the contemporary movement towards practices and trainings that develop more mindfulness and compassion in us.

We want to focus on a set of teachings called “Brahma Vihara” – and in these talks we will attempt to speak in English and not drift off into the intricacies and terminology of another tradition which was developed in another language. And besides nether Oori or I are really scholars of these old Asian languages anyway but a few terms that are commonly used are helpful to mention.

Brahma Vihara. So Brahma is an Indian god actually. These are religious teachings and there’s a God here right away. Brhama can refer to a diety the way we think of a God but also to a principal of godliness. A kind of cosmic principal.

Vihara is hall or a monastery. So we’re in a vihara right now.

So these are teachings of the godly, cosmic halls of practice.

The goals of early Buddhism are a little different than our goals might be right now. These are teachings not for feeling personally better, less stressed, kinder and so on, but they are teachings for transporting us to the halls of Brahma. These are teachings for being closer to god in a certain way. They pre-date Buddhism actually.

One of Buddha’s great insights was that even though it sounds really great to be hanging out with the gods – to be reborn into a heavenly realm and live in the Bharma Vihara. Actually even though that would be pretty blissful it’s would never be truly satisfying. The heavenly realms in Buddhism are richly depicted as full of jeweled trees and delicious food. The lakes are perfumed and the streams are a delicious nectar you can drink. Or actually you have gorgeous servants who take the golden ladles and scoop up the stream water nectar to bring it to you. You are totally blissed out and happy in the heavenly realms. But after a few thousand years it gets old.

And Buddha also deeply saw that everything is changing and impermenant so even the heavens are not permanent. It’s a different idea from the Christian heaven which I think is basically a permanent abiding right? Eventually even the gods die. The first sign, I was amused to read recently, is that you start to smell bad and your servants lose interest in you.

So Buddha took a set of teachings that was originally designed to send you to rebirth into the heavenly realm and repurposed them for this great project which is complete release from suferring. Total freedom.

How that actually looks is described in different ways in the different Buddhisms but it’s not just checking out into bliss. It’s deeply understanding that happiness is not contingent on getting what you want. It’s an incredibly deep acceptance and merging with what is. Nothing ruffles you anymore. In some Buddhisms that gives you the freedom to drift away into nirvana and in other Buddhisms is frees you up to be in this messy world with incredible resilience and courage because you truly have nothing to fear.

When you are free, free from wanting to push anything away or cling on to everything, you have total freedom to operate in this world or in any world.

So that’s the heavenly realm in Buddhism: not a realm so much as a way of being in any realm. And it’s actually a more radical vision than stress reduction or compassion cultivation.

But I myself don’t see a conflict in having different goals and thought systems around the same practices. It’s good to have a feeling that there’s a broader range of understandings implied in these teachings than just feeling a bit better. And meantime what’s wrong with feeling a bit better for goodness sakes? And these teachings do help us feel better. They help us become kinder, more generous, more compassionate, and more gounded and balanced. And more free. Free from narrow views and afflictive emotions.

Like anything, the words and instructions and stories that the teachings come in are interesting and valuable but they are more like the recipe than the meal. If you rip out the page of the recipe book and eat the paper you it’s won’t taste very good or be nourishing will it? No, you have to gather up the ingredients and do the careful work of following the recipe and making the dish and sitting down and mindfully eating it. The recipe points to that outcome but the recipe is not that outcome. Sometimes we get a little covetous around getting the right teaching or finding the right teacher or something like that because we are a little too focussed on the recipe.

We’re here to enjoy the whole experience in this 5-day compassion cooking school. It’s helpful to have good teachings and decent teachers for sure. You also need a good kitchen – good conditions for practice. But most importantly you need to show up and do the work. Work has a kind of narrow and tense valence to it so it’s not quite the right word but you get what I mean. Effort is required. Patience is required – if you get halfway through the recipe and say “this is a lame recipe, not enough salt, I’m going to add more salt” you may end up with something edible perhaps but it won’t be what the recipe intended. There’s a degree of faithfulness to the instructions that’s also needed. Even when you doubt them. Even when you doubt yourself – “I don’t know how to knead this bread dough properly so I’ll just skip this part and stick the dough in the oven” – what do you get then, a flour brick not a loaf of bread.

So the Brahma Vihara instructions are to practice in 4 areas. As early Buddhist teachings we often use the Pali word for each of these areas so forgive us in advance for that. Pali is an ancient language of South India that the Buddhist teachings were first written down in. It’s actually not the language Buddha himself spoke or taught in. Interestingly this writing down project didn’t happen for at about 500 years after the Buddha’s life. Do you think your relatives will be able to accurately tell what kinds of sayings and doings you did 500 years from now? He was a very important relative to be sure and they set out to recite and repeat his teachings very carefully – it was actually one of the main practices of the very earliest Buddhists: reciting the teachings out loud. But still 500 years….

It’s good to take all truth with a grain of salt eh? But still to really try it on. To cook the meal. Repeatedly. From the receipes we’ve received. Regardless of whether they are prefectly right or true or whatever.

I’m a bit famous for my long winded introductions but I think it’s important to frame things. Not to be too quick to jump into “this is the thing to do,” and internally lock that down. I’m in the Zen lineage of Suzuki Roshi – the author of the great classic book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, and one time a student asked him what the true meaning of Buddhism is. You know what he said? “not always so”! So whatever theory we come up with in our personal philosophy about who we are and who they are and why they voted how they voted or whatever it is we can also inject a little bit of “not always so” – I don’t always dislike that. She isn’t always like that. A willingness to be surprised by the incredible complexity of this universe is a great thing. It gives us more flexibility and curiosity and makes a lot more room for joy and delight to slip in through the cracks, like in those immortal lines of Leonard Cohen:

Ring the bells (ring the bells) that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)

That’s how the light gets in

The first of the four areas of practice is one we come back to a lot: metta is the Pali term. Loving-kindness is the usual English translation. Or sometimes just kindness. Or kindliness to emphasize that this is not a kind of inherent trait but a practice.

Have you ever practiced Loving Kindness meditation? We’ll do several versions of that practice this week. It’s a practice to help us nourish our inherent quality of kindliness towards all beings. “All beings” is wonderful Buddhist term too. It means what it says but it’s worth pausing on that for a moment. All beings without exception are the recipients of our kindness in the practice of metta, of loving-kindness. That includes … you fill in the blank … it’s easy for our mind to think of beings whom we don’t feel deserve our kindness.

But these are practices not political debates – or even moral debates in that sense of deciding who is deserving and who isn’t – and in fact Buddhist ethics have a bit different way of thinking about such things than some of the Western ethical systems but that’s for another Roots retreat.

So whether we like the recipe or not we practice metta, loving kindness, towards all beings and little by little we start to actually feel some changes in our orientation towards them. And we include this being here – ourselves!

It can take a while. But this stuff actually does “work”. Does it work in the way we might predict it should – this much practice should lead to that much kindness? well: not always so. But it does inculcate change and growth.

The best known source on how to practice metta and the other Brahma Vihara teachings is actually a 5th century CE long commentary by a Sri Lankan monk named Buddhaghosa. So now we’re a century after the Buddha’s life if you’re keeping score.

Buddhaghosa says well the first thing to do if you want to practice loving-kindness is to deeply recognize how much you practice it’s opposite: hatred. Hatred sounds very stark. We’re all nice people here, we don’t run around hating others. If you think that’s too extreme you can use a range of other words. Annoyance. Impatience. Grumpiness. Wanting someone to be other than the way they are. That could even come up here at retreat. You might find yourself surprisingly annoyed by someone.

That’s really good. Don’t just brush past it. Stay with it an study it. Here is anger or annoyance or impatience or whatever you call it. What does it feel like? How does it show up in your body? What’s it’s energy and what does that energy do. Does it stay the same? Does it change? Is it glue for certain kinds of thinking and emotions? Does is persit a long time? The first step in study of loving-kindess is the study of hatred in all it’s forms.

Each of the four areas of practice has a goal or central principal – metta or loving-kindness here – and each of those goals has it’s opposities which they call enemies. There are two kinds of enemies: the far enemies and the near enemies.

The far enemies are the opposite thing: hatred is the far enemy of loving-kindness. So first we study hatred, get to know it and there are some techniques for transforming and liberating hatred.

The near enemies are sneakier. Those are qualities that look like the godly brahma quality but are actually not. The near enemy of loving-kindness is greediness. Certain kinds of desires. That makes sense right. You’re trying to orient towards someone with kindness but you notice that there’s a kind of stickiness to it. You want something from them in exchange. There are strings attached. Sometimes you think you’re being quite kind but the universe seems to be giving you feedback that something else is going on. We are often pretty stubborn in our theories about what’s happening so that may cause us to blame someone else. “I was really kind to her but she just didn’t get it!” Maybe. Or maybe we aren’t actually practicing kindness at all but some kind of greedy manipulation that has a surface appearance like kindness.

Back to hatred. In his monumental book Buddhaghosa has several suggestions for us around working with our hatred. I’ll just mention a few. If you want to a Buddhist geek later I can send you the PDF of this ancient text and you can work your way through it more thoroughly.

First he says just apply loving kindness practices towards the person you’re feel enmity towards. Hold the image of that person in your heart and offen them phrases of loving kindness like “may you be happy and joyful, may you feel safe, may you be healthy and strong, may you live with ease.” Whether you feel like it or not. Just do it. Keep it up a while. A few years is a good length, maybe longer.

Then he says if that doesn’t work contemplate great example of beings and teachers who respond to hateful things with patience and kindness. He gives a bunch of examples of this from the Buddhas many lives and previous lives where he sacrificed just about everything he could in the service of others. We might think of other examples: Nelson Mandela when he was liberarted from Robben Island forgiving his jailers for example. Ilooked it up he was a prisoner there from 1964 to 1982. 18 years. There are many examples of Tibetan monks imprisoned and even tortured by Chinese authorities who practiced kindness and compassion towards their jailers.

To really bring to mind, and therefor it’s useful to learn about the great human capacity for kindness, forgiveness, and non-anger and really complete it. That this is an important part of understanding who and what we are. We learn all kinds of things but how much attention to we pay to this?

It’s a kind of perspective taking isn’t it? And that happens often on retreat. Your mind gets locked into some view or other – some story – and then eventually your perspective may shift and you’re like, “woah that was all wrong! how could I have thought that?” See if this happens. This is another great advantage of the sustained silent practice we do in retreat. It makes room for this.

Then he says well if that doesn’t work. Bring to mind the other person’s good qualities and times they showed wise restraint and excellent conduct. Really bring that in your heart without any “yeah, but…” in it.

And then if that doesn’t work he says recognize how harmful it is to you and to the other person to fan the flames of anger. He gives a list – Buddhism is full of lists – of the ways this happens. You end up saying to him or her, “may you be ugly!” and that makes you ugly. “let him lie in pain!” and that actually gives you pain. “Let him have no fortune!” and those thoughts undermine you own good fortune. “Let him not be wealthy….let him not be famous…let him have no friends!” It all constricts your own life and ends up resulting in your own life being impoverished, ignomious, and friendless.

Here’s what it says you might end up saying about the person you’re feeling hateful and angry towards:

“As a log from a pyre, burnt at both ends and fouled in the middle, serves neither for timber in the village nor for timber in the forest, so is such a person as this I say!”

But what’s that lead to? Buddha told the student:

“By repaying an angry man in kind you will be worse than the angry man and not win the battle hard to win; you will yourself do to yourself the things that help your enemy; and you will be like a pyre log.” and “You will be one who does not carry out the Blessed One’s teaching.”

So it’s really a quite bad deal practicing hatred and anger. Watch that happening, feel it, maybe you’ll be able to cut it out. This is experiential work not just ideas. Don’t end up like a shit-covered log in a funeral pyre.

Still hateful and angry? Consider this – and here we need a minor world view shift – if all beings are subject to rebirth. Being reborn over and over and endless cycle, then the person you angry with was most definitely in different relationships to you in past lives. And in one of those past lives he or she was definitley your mother. It just stands to reason. That must have happened.

In our context we might also play with our perspective by bringing gratitude for the many many people and beings who have helped us be who we are. Eventually that broadens out to include even the person we think of as an enemy.

Or just turn towards whoever it is and say to yourself, “he was once my mother who cared for me, how could I now repay that kindness with hatred and anger.” Why not?

And if none of this and several other ideas to boot helps with your hatred and anger with this great block to loving-kindness then he says contemplate deeply the great advangated of loving-kindess practice. There are 11 advantages:

1) you sleep well

2) you wake up happy

3) you dream no evil dreams

4) you’re dear to human beings – people really love you

5) you’re even dear to non-human beings

6) the gods watch over you

7) fire and poison don’t affect you

8) your mind is easily concentrated

9) the expression on your face is serene

10) you die unconfused and content

11) and it says if you “penetrate no higher” you are reborn in heavenly Brahma realm, meaning if you don’t really go all the way on the path of Buddhist liberation in freedom at least ou get to hang out in heaven for a few millenia and bliss out.

Some of this seems very quaint to us and the language, in translation especially, is not what we’re used to but what’s it all pointing to?

If we practice loving-kindness towards all beings we become content. We sleep well, we’re relaxed and happy and in accordance with the forces in the world, our mind is more settled, we’re just doin’ fine. And when it comes time to die – and we don’t know when that is do we? – when it comes time to die we die without confusion and suffering.

This is huge. Actually when I was thinking about the turning off your phones and trusting that messages will arrive from the camp managers to us quickly I was thinking of a time during walking meditation outside when I had to deliver a message to a participants that her father had suddenly taken very ill and was in the hospital. She left for home immediately and was able to be with him before he died, but only just. We don’t know when we or our loves ones will pass from this earth we really don’t. If we allow an awareness of this truth into our hearts doing these practices takes on a little more urgency doesn’t it?

And the amazing thing here is that we really can change our inner patterns and believes and reactions to things. These practices really do “work” as I was saying. Sometimes the pattern in which it unfolds is surprising. It’s usually non-linear. A great story from the meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg who’s a great advocate of loving kindness practice is early on she was gung ho about practice but also really doubtful about it actually working. She doing an intensive monastic practice – a retreat like his for for months in Burma – over and over all day doing loving kindess practices. Bringing up a loved one and within them well, bringing up an acquaintance and wishing them well, bringing up an enemy and trying to wish them well, and bringing up herself and trying to wish herself well. That step – wishing happiness for herself and actually meaning it she found the most difficult. It all seemed to forced. Just going through the motions. But she was determined and kept at it anyway.

Then there was some crisis or other back home and she had to leave the retreat and fly home to Ameria. Very frustrating. Soon she’s back in her parent’s home. Then at some point she knocked over a vase or something and smashed it to the floor. Out of her mouth came some familiar words, “oh Sharon you are so clumsy” or probably some ruder words too. But then, out of somewhere deep, came more words that really surprised her: “but I love you anyway.”

So that’s the really important thing. The practices of loving kindness and the way they support and are supported by the other 3 big areas of practice the Buddhists talk about in these Brahma Vihara teachings do change us. It can be slow. It can be frustrating. It can be hard to believe but even in a world full of anger and confusion and criticism and destruction we can also realizing – from our gut, in our bones, that “I love you anyway.”

Here’s a poem to close:

Rosemerry Trommer – One Morning

One morning

we will wake up

and forget to build

that wall we’ve been building,

the one between us

the one we’ve been building

for years, perhaps

out of some sense

of right and boundary,

perhaps out of habit.

One morning

we will wake up

and let our empty hands

hang empty at our sides.

Perhaps they will rise,

as empty things

sometimes do

when blown

by the wind.

Perhaps they simply

will not remember

how to grasp, how to rage.

We will wake up

that morning

and we will have

misplaced all our theories

about why and how

and who did what

to whom, we will have mislaid

all our timelines

of when and plans of what

and we will not scramble

to write the plans and theories anew.

On that morning,

not much else

will have changed.

Whatever is blooming

will still be in bloom.

Whatever is wilting

will wilt. There will be fields

to plow and trains

to load and children

to feed and work to do.

And in every moment,

in every action, we will

feel the urge to say thank you,

we will follow the urge to bow.

Talk 2 – Tuesday August 28th – Compassion by Oori Silberstein


Talk 3 – Wednesday August 29th – Empathetic Joy by Tim Burnett


Talk Notes

[Note that Tim often departs significantly from his notes when speaking but the notes themselves might be valuable to read]

The third of the divine abode practices is called mudita in Pali.

Mudita means taking pleasure in the goodness and accomplishments of others.

It’s really interesting that we truly do not have an English word for this. It’s often pointed out that the Germans have a word for it’s opposite: taking pleasure in the suffering of others. Schadenfreude.

Mudita is most often translated as “sympathetic joy” – sympathy which means feeling something in connection to you but sympathy is most often associated with suffering, the first dictionary definition of sympathy is “feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune: they had great sympathy for the flood victims.” So that’s not quite right.

Sympathy, by the way, is actually 3/4 of compassion: being aware of the suffering of others, feeling badly about it, but it doesn’t neccissarily include the intention to help.

For a translation of this third above of mudita, “empathetic joy” is better. Empathy has just a single simple dictionary definition as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”

Or maybe mudita is just simply empathy. You feel happy, I feel happy. I’m not just glad for you. Sometimes we say that when we don’t 100% mean it right: “Oh I’m so happy for you. Good for you.”

Mudita has this felt-sense connection to the other person’s happiness and success. We should say “I’m happy with you.”

The standard translation of our old Buddhist text from the 5th century on this stuff just uses “gladness” as the translation.

Practicing gladness as the happiness and joy and success of other beings, of all beings.

So take a minute now to think about how you respond to the joy and happiness of others.

Does it depend on who they are? Are you able to be happy about the success of, say a family member, but for people who aren’t so fond of it’s harder?

How about people that you might feel in competition with in some way. People in your same field.Colleagues at work. Are you happy when they get a promotion or an award or publish something really great?

And here we’re talking not just about responding politely with something positive to say. “that’s great, congratulations.” But actually in our hearts feeling happy, feeling joyful. A deep taste of mudita makes our day just the same as our own success and happiness can make our day.

And of course this makes me think of Facebook.

If you’re not on Facebook you can imagine I think.

So you’re looking through your Facebook feed and in between the politcal rants and bits of news your actual acquantances are posting mostly about the things they want to celebrate (or a cynic might say show off about). It’s a distorted view of human life. Wonderful. But distorted.

And it’s becoming clear that for most of us after any sustained amount of time digging through that end up how? Happy and glad for all of these great accomplishments of people we know? Sometimes perhaps. But more often we end up feeling depressed, anxious, and feeling inadequate.

I have a Facebook friend whom I know a little bit in real life, an MBSR and Vipassana teacher named Bob Stahl. It seems that the time Bob is most often sitting there thinking of Facebook is when he’s in the airport about to fly somewhere really interesting to teach a retreat.

I don’t think he’d mind that I now share one of his posts verbatim: “Sitting here at SFO airport getting ready to go to Spain and Germany to teach week long retreats. May the wisdom of my teachers flow through… May all beings find the gateways into the heart…”

And I know his intention is not to show off in the least. You hustle to get packed up and out the door and then at the airport you stop moving and there’s time to reflect on what you’re doing and notice how grateful you are.

And then about a week later, more or less like clockwork, he posts a group photo and “Just finished a one week retreat near Girona, Spain. So beautiful to experience our hearts blossoming open. May we never underestimate the powers of love, wisdom and compassion. Love is stronger than hatred and fear. May we keep hope/love alive…Now off to Germany to teach another week long…”

And below that there are usually about a dozen happy and enthusiastic replies from the students in the course. Like “thank you Bob..you are a very inspiring maestro..with a big heart” and “Once again, thank you so much Bob for your presence, your guidance and your generosity. It has been such a healing retreat that words aren’t enough. Hope to see you soon”

So….why do I even notice these posts with such interest? More so than just “oh that’s nice for Bob and the students.” It’s because I’m struggling with my mudita practice. Having trouble going straight to feeling in me the joy that Bob expresses in getting to fly to Spain and teach a retreat to these people who all fall in love with him and the practice (and yeah I know they don’t all fall in love, probably a few of them didn’t have a such a good time, probably one or two left because it wasn’t working or had various issues arise, I mean people are complicated and no one thing helps everyone right? – but the way it looks on Facebook….yeah.).

I think you’ve already figured out what the far enemy of mudita, of empathetic joy, is: jealousy.

And jealousy is an ugly word for us. Embarassing.

And here’s what’s funny. If you pay attention you see how irrational it can be. How utterly insatiable.

I was in May sitting at the L.A. airport waiting for a flight to Costa Rica so I too could teach a retreat in a beautiful place. And I too had students who loved it and loved the practice and seemed pretty darn keen on me too.

So it’s not rational stuff. It’s deeper down. Down where the spirit meets the bone. I think at some point Oori quoted these great lines from Miller Williams which oddly enough I first learned of from Bob Stahl himself:

Have compassion for everyone you meet, even if they don’t want it. What seems conceit, bad manners, or cynicism is always a sign of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen. You do not know what wars are going on down there where the spirit meets the bone.

Miller Williams is the musician Lucinda William’s dad and she arranged these lines to music so I can’t not hear here singing them now “have compassion for everyone you meet…even if they don’t wan’t it….”

Mudita helps to daylight jealousy. Just like metta, loving-kindness, helps to daylight hatred impatience and anger. And with awareness we have some choices.

We can choose to avoid. I’m just going to let that one slide on by.

We can choose to justify our narrow feelings. We can choose to be snarky. All those adoring fans in Spain, puh-lease Bob! Do you have to go inviting all that and on a public forum like Facebook. Keep your fans to yourself please!

You know?

Or we can choose to practice. How?

First, always, you know this: mindfulness.

By feeling what we’re feeling with honesty and acceptance. Ooh, I’m a little reactive to Bob’s happiness and success here. Ooh that’s painful in me. And it’s not anyone’s fault. Not mine, not Bob’s. There’s a great phrase I first heard from my Zen teacher ages ago which pops up in MSC class attributed to the English pscyhologist Paul Gilbert, “it not your fault, but it is your responsibility.”

The feelings in me are deeply rooted in so many things. My history. Our culture. My parent’s attitudes. My friends.

My place in the heirarchies of privledge is a factor too. My son was telling my wife the other night that he’s realized his attitudes are affected by his status as a “cisgender het white male” – 16 years old! Also our first ever confirmation of his sexual orientation, “het” I had to figure out meaning “heterosexual” – which is an interesting milestone. I’ve been using his stayings and doings a bit lately in my talks. Hopefully 20 years from now he won’t be going through the archives and get mad at me. Maybe I’ll be gone by then.

So anyway when jealousy arises instead of joy in respond to the well being, happiness and accomplishments of others it’s not your fault. You’re a part of the equation to me sure. Whatever you think “you” is. But the arising of these things is deeply conditioned for the rest of the universe across space and time.

It’s not your fault, but it is your responsibility.

Sometimes we do social bonding by complaining with peers about the success of others – oh puhleeze – but what are we doing then? We’re rigidifying jealousy. We’re diminishing the possibiity of the joyful exchange of energy and love that is mudita. This is not taking responsibiity.

Mindfulness. We feel our jealousy as it is. And it’s a bit painful. Or a lot painful.

Then a little Common Humanity is so helpful. I don’t think Oori mentioned by favorite common humanity practice: the phrase “just like me.” As he said with 8 billion people on the planet it’s pretty certain that it’s not just you who feels that way. Either in general or even very specifically.

Just like me many others feel a little jealous sometimes.

Just like me, many other mindfulness teachers feel envious of another teacher’s junket to Spain.

This takes some of the pressure off.

Then kindness. It’s painful to feel jealousy instead of mudita. Let me just take a minute to breathe with that. May I be kind with the narrow minded parts of myself. My I love them, and love myself, just as I am – flaws and all.

And that paves the way for opening more directly to mudita but it’s really key to not try to bypass the suffering. Because there’s suffering in me I practice self-compassion. And out of that self-compassion new possibilities open up.

This is very different from just trying to talk yourself out of it.

With this particular example: I actually have decided NOT to do an international retreat next year I think. It’s so tempting but I think it’s just too much while our son’s at home and with everything else I’m doing. I have invitations to go to Portugal and to Panama actually and I could do just what I did in Costa Rica all over again. So this work isn’t exactly about what makes sense in the practical world.

It’s about your deep conditioning and your suffering and clinging and fear. For me I think it’s about a deep underlying basic fear that I’m not good enough, not cool enough, a big imposter. This idea of “fraud syndrome” is huge.

[something about hungry ghosts – our anti-mudita helps us understand our hungry ghost nature]

So it’s not just me seeing Bob’s posts and saying, well I’m a little reactive to this but hey I could go to Portugal but I’m not gonna nyah nyah nyah. That would be a kind of bypassing and skipping the real feelings and the real possibility of practice here.

True change, truly entering the divine abodes is only through the gateway of our real feelings. It sounds a little grim to say it this way but the doorway in is pretty much our own suffering.

The door of jealousy the gate into the hall of empathetic joy.

The door of not wanting to help a suffering being is the doorway into the hall of compassion.

The door of hatred, annoyance, or dismissal of another is the doorway into the hall of loving-kindness.

Maybe opportunities to practice all three of these great practices will arise at this very retreat. This is likely.

The near enemy of mudita, empathetic joy, by the way is a little weird because the framing of these teachings was so different from our situation. The Buddha was speaking to monastics and wanting to encourage them to go beyond their upbringing in everyday life into a deeply spiritual life.

So he called the near enemy of mudita a kind of joy or exhiliaration at success that it’s solely material. So if I was just thrilled by Bob’s success as just a cool thing he gets to do and he gets to be a cool guy in the world I might be actually practicing the near enemy of mudita. For true mudita we need to get more to the essence of it. To the deep beauty of practicing with suffering human beings in this case.

We could also adapt things a bit and say distraction or maybe boredom is the near enemy of mudita. But we have plenty to work with just around the far enemy of je

alousy so maybe it’s not so important.

So to review – and these talks will be posted on the website and perhaps I’ll even get a white board out in the dining hall later for these main points

mental factor translation far enemy near enemy

metta loving-kindness hatred (and it’s variants) greed

karuna compassion cruelty pity

mudita empathetic joy jealousy excitement at material success only(for us: boredom or distraction)

And tomorrow we’ll start exploring a 4th factor which is not so much a mind state like these but more like a cultivation of the mind ground that’s needed for the first three to function well.

upekkha equanimity resentment apathy

[end with]

Back to Bob Stahls usual postings before and after he teaches internationally. After this recent Spain trip he posted this – it’s another poem that pops up in MSC class actually.

Admit Something

By, Hafiz

Everyone you see, you say to them,

Love me.

Of course you do not do this out loud;


Someone would call the cops.

Still though, think about this,

This great pull in us

To connect.

Why not become the one

Who lives with a full moon in each eye

That is always saying,

With that sweet moon language,

What every other eye in this world

Is dying to Hear.

[if time lead a mudita practice: visualizing a good friends’ success, then visualizing the success of someone you feel in competition with]

Talk 4 – Thursday August 30th – Equanimity by Oori Silberstein


Talk 5 – Friday August 31st – Summing Up by Tim Burnett


Talk Notes

[Note that Tim often departs significantly from his notes when speaking but the notes themselves might be valuable to read]

I really appreciated Oori’s talk yesterday on equanimity and the one before on compassion. I appreciated what he said but I think I appreciate even more that he was willing to say anything. It’s a vulnerable thing to open your mouth in a setting like this. You never know if what you’re saying will be helpful or confusing. Sometimes I’ll say something that is taken in way that it actually seems to be harmful, at least in the short term. And if that happened, if anything the teachers said or did this week that was confusing or troublesome we deeply apologize. I apologize.

Sometimes I think I am more or less tapped into the wisdom of experience and have some kind of clear sense how to respond, and sometimes, I have to admit, I’m a little more shooting from the hip in hopes of saying something that might be helpful. Consciousness and the heart are mysterious. There are plenty of teaching with a ton more experience and insight than I but actually there is no true and perfect teacher who knows all about the deep complexity and diversity of human experience.

And the best teachers don’t really tell you anything anyway. They support you in seeing what you already know but somehow weren’t yet ready to fully see. So I hope that’s happened in some ways too.

And I speak here not just about the human teachers, but also the bird teachers, the water teachers, the many teachers in each of our bodies, the many teachers in our hearts, the sometimes crazy-making teacher of our own mind. So many teachers and we always have so many teachers. The wonderful thing about a retreat is that we slow down a little and we start to hear the teachers all around us and within us. This is wonderful and also sometimes very challenging. Good teachings are what you need to hear, and that is NOT always what you want to hear.

And we should also remember on this last morning of our retreat that what we learned is not just the kind of learning we can access with our thinking. There are other kinds of learning that happened here, are happening here, and will continue to simmer way in you for some time. So it’s good to not be so sure you know what happened at retreat. To stay curious about that. And curious can be very open. A state of wondering not a demand for answers.

A famous Zen text on how meditation really works says,

Do not suppose that what you attain becomes your knowledge and is grasped by your intellect. Although actualized immediately, what is inconceivable may not be apparent. Its emergence is beyond your knowledge.

“Do not suppose that what you attain becomes your knowledge and is grasped by your intellect.” These words were written in the early 11th century. Doesn’t that sound so contemporary. Of course they weren’t written in English.

“Although actualized immediately, what is inconceivable may not be apparent.” Inconceivable sounds very lofty but actually it’s simple. It’s those vast areas of life that can not be conceived with concepts, not turned handily into words and ideas and categories. I appreciated Oori saying that perhaps it’s hard to talk about equanimity because whatever equanimity really is is not something that can be nailed down with words and concept. Words and concepts are bit rigid. Once you say it’s this it’s really hard for our minds to allow that it might also be that. Or that.

“Actualized immediately” – so whatever you learned this week is not something that you’ll gradually figure out later. It’s already here. It’s in you. You can trust this. That’s a really important point. Often on the last day the mind that conceives wants to know how you’ll hold onto whatever you learned. This particular teaching says you don’t have to worry about that, it’s already blossomed within you.

“Its emergence is beyond your knowledge.” Just in case you didn’t get it the first time, he’s saying, realize that there are deep forces of healing and growth and liberation that aren’t in the knowledge realm. It’s not that they don’t emerge, it’s not that they don’t exist, but that their emergence is beyond the little circle of light in the darkness that is our conscious awareness, our usual kind of knowledge.

Isn’t that good? That’s from Zen Master Dogen – a Japanese priest who’s credited with bringing one of the styles of Zen Buddhism from China to Japan in the 11th century.

So there’s some mystery here.

And there are also these practical teachings. Practice kindness. See if you can turn towards suffering and meet it with compassion. Delight in the joys of others. Keep your feet on the ground.

That’s pretty much what we went on about for 4-5 hours of lecture.

Practice kindness. See if you can turn towards suffering and meet it with compassion. Delight in the joys and goodness of others. Keep your feet on the ground.

Here’s one more teaching from Early Buddhism that’s very directly about our practical life in the world. Don’t be blown around so much by the Eight Worldly winds. This teaching is a set of pointers towards equanimity.

The Eight Worldly winds that knock you off your feet are given in pairs:

gain and loss,

fame and infamy,

praise and blame,

joy and sorrow

The suggestion is to unhook our happiness – our deeply rooted sense of okayness – on getting the half of each of these pairs that we want; on avoiding the half of the pair we don’t want.

gain and loss.

We want to gain, we don’t want to loose. And yet this life is a continuous flow of gain and loss, loss and gain. Stuff, health, friends, careers. All of these are gained and lost. Our life itself is a big gain and loss. My Zen teacher says sometimes: you what the most consistently terminal condition is? Birth. Birth is a terminal condition. We gain this embodied life and that means we will lose this embodied life. But start small: I want to gain your friendship – that’s fine nothing wrong with a wish or a desire as Oori said it’s the clinging that causes the suffering. Clinging to gain, hiding from loss.

Another line from Master Dogen: in aversion weeds spread, in attachment blossoms fall. In aversion weeds spread, in attachment blossoms fall. Our clinging to gain and loss ends up creating a really ugly garden. But when we lighten up about gain and loss the flowers bloom and I don’t know what the weeds wouldn’t spread but maybe they at least fit into the ecosystem a little better.

fame and infamy

Here we have our practice of mudita right? Freedom from jealousy of those with fame or maneuvering to get more fame ourselves. And a willness to take a stand or do what needs to be done even if it results in sullying your name.

Fame does happen sometimes I guess. People choose to pay more attention to your out of whatever need they have for that, that’s okay you can accept that and appreciate their kindness but it’s helpful to remember that it’s not exactly “you” that they are holding up. It’s the reflection of you in their own lives – your efforts and who you somehow ended up from the rich combination of factors that brings us forth – somehow we ended up the right person to remind others of their own goodness, of their own strength. When someone tells me I’m an amazing teacher or something I know that this small realm of conscious awareness I have is only a small part of that situation. It’s me and it isn’t me. So I express back my appreciation for this positive and helpful connection between us. I also try to do my best not to side step the compliment, someone called me on that the other day in a very sweet way. We accept compliments and gratitude, it would be ungrateful not to. But we also remember that it’s not exactly us that the person is grateful to. It’s largely the reflection in us that help them see their own goodness.

And infamy happens. In the course of setting up Mindfulness Northwest I ended up ruffling a few feathers in Seattle. There are people who think I’m no good and that Mindfulness Northwest is an aggressive competitive organization that’s taking away their MBSR students. I feel badly about this, I really do. For a time I suffered quite a lot trying to figure out how to avoid this infamy. And yet I knew I wanted to offer mindfulness as fully as I know how in the Puget Sound region. I did my best to be inclusive and listen and accommodate others as I could but I also did my best to be clear about my intentions and not buy into the fears and confusion of others. But it’s really hard when some hold you in ill repute. Really hard. And it is absolutely inevitable and if you life your life trying to avoid infamy you will not have much of a life. And you will end up unable to serve others. So we accept infamy as best we can, humbly, always willing to listen and learn but also with equanimity and contact with our intentions. Just because someone things you are not good doesn’t mean you should change a thing. Or it can mean you are being pig headed and should change a few things. Or it could mean you should completely back down. It’s a challenging area of practice. It helps to have very wise friends with a broad perspective to help you untangle it. Watch out when you’re working with infamy if you are asking your friends to only reinforce your righteousness.

praise and blame

Pretty much the same dynamic as fame and infamy but more day to day. Is the action I’m taking in this moment an attempt to receive praise or deflect blame? Or is the action I’m taking rooted more deeply in my best intention and understanding of the situation and I’m willing for their to be praise or blame – or nothing! – as a result?

There’s a great compassion training slogan about seeking praise and fame that I have worked with a lot: “don’t expect applause.” Parents, teachers, therapists, just about anybody here you might find that phrase helpful to bring to mind when you are in that “hey, wait a minute, no one said thank you! I worked hard on that!” you can invite into your mind “don’t expect applause.” This can really help.

joy and sorrow

Here’s where is really gets close to the bone. And some imagination may be needed. Remember that Buddhism is reaching for a much higher bar than stress reduction or becoming a little happier and kinder. What if our well being was not even contingent on having joy and avoiding sorrow. This seems a little contradictory to the practice of running around saying to yourself “may I be happy” doesn’t it? It might be happy isn’t the best word for that loving-kindness practice is really pointing to. Perhaps may I be content, may I be accepting, may I be okay, one of those might be better. What we’re interested here is unhooking the conditions outside from the well being inside. And we have such strong assumptions and beliefs in how tightly hooked those are together. Of course I’m upset, she was mean to me. Of course I’m angry, I was inappropriately fired from my job. Of course I’m grieving, my marriage is falling apart.

The suggestion – high bar suggestion – in this teaching is that the depth of acceptance possible in the human heart is much broader and deeper than we imagine. That we can experience a basic okay-ness, a groundedness, a peaceful acceptance – even in the middle of the big challenges and sorrows of life.

AND this is saying don’t get so excited about getting all jazzed up by great things happening. It’s great when joyful things happen, appreciate it, savor it, sure. But don’t hook your inherent well being to it.

Joyful thing happens. Wonderful, and…that’s fine. I’m okay. I’m on the ground.

Terrible thing happens. Difficult, and…that’s fine. I’m okay. I’m on the ground.

Does that make sense? I’m concerned that we’ve confused you with all this “may I be happy” talk.

And we really do mean it: may you be happy!

The chapter in the Visuddimaggha – the 5th century Buddhist text we’ve been referencing – ends with this summary of how to practice the four brahmavihara practices. I think I’m actually going to just read this slowly, it’s 4 or 5 paragraphs, without comment. Just hear this with your heart and don’t worry too much about figuring it all out or unpacking it. And as I said we’ll send you the actual text in case you want to circle back to it.

For the Great Beings’ minds retain their balance by giving preference to beings’ welfare, by dislike of beings’ suffering, by desire for the various successes achieved by beings to last, and by impartiality towards all beings.

When a practitioner has understood thus that the special efficacy of each [of the four devine abodes] resides in “having beauty as the highest,” etc., he should understand how they bring to perfection all the good states beginning with giving.

For the Great Beings’ minds retain their balance by giving preference to beings’ welfare, by dislike of beings’ suffering, by desire for the successes achieved by beings to last, and by impartiality towards all beings.

To all beings they give gifts, which are a source a pleasure, without discriminating thus: “It must be given to this one; it must not be given to this one.”

And in order to avoid doing harm to beings they undertake the precepts of virtue.

They practice renunciation for the purpose of perfecting their virtue. They cleanse their understanding for the purpose of non-confusion about what is good and bad for beings. They constantly arouse energy, having beings’ welfare and happiness at heart.

When they have acquired heroic fortitude through supreme energy, they become patient with beings’ many kinds of faults.

They do not deceive when promising “We shall give you this; we shall do this for you.” They are unshakably resolute upon beings’ welfare and happiness. Through unshakable loving-kindness they place them first [before themselves]. Through equanimity they expect no reward.

Having thus fulfilled the [ten] perfections, these [divine abidings] then perfect all the good states classed as the ten powers, the four kinds of fearlessness, the six kinds of knowledge not shared [by disciples], and the eighteen states of the Enlightened One.

This is how they bring to perfection all the good states beginning with giving.

The conclusion there is a reference to a whole bunch of other teachings – the ten perfections, the ten powers, the four kinds of fearlessness, the six kinds of knowledge and so on. We’re just barely scratched the surface of this material in a way.

But in another way we’ve deeply steeped in the entire body of teachings. Because these teachings are beyond just a collection of words and ideas. These teachers are a pointer towards a deep and profound, but simple sounding, practice: be yourself. Truly yourself. Be a complete human being capable of more love and understanding and compassion and patience and flexibility and equanimity than probably this conscious mind believes possible. And it’s okay that the conscious mind doesn’t quite buy all of this.

As Hamlet reminds us:

There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy

Thank you’s.



Talks and poems will be on the website and we’ll email you the link

people have left: planned and unplanned