Roots of Compassion: PRACTING PATIENCE IN A turblent world

The Buddhist Roots of Compassion 2020

In August 2020, Mindfulness Northwest Executive Director and Guiding Teacher Tim Burnett co-led a 5-day retreat on the Buddhist teachings on patience with reference to the 8th Century Indian teacher Shantideva and his famous work Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life. The primary text Tim was referring to is A Flash of Lightning in the Dark of Night: A Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life by HH Dalai Lama.

Talk 1: May I be a boat, a raft, a bridge...


Good morning again,

I was thinking about our orientation last night and noticed an interesting change from my usual orientations. Usually we talk quite a lot about the wonderful practice of silence. How transformative and deep and challenging it can be to be with a group of people without the usual chatting for a week. How much that helps us quiet down and be more sensitive with our heart and with each other. 

And we didn't talk about silence at all really beyond a little nudge not to be using the chat feature in Zoom other than to send an update to me or Carolyn. 

So that gives us the interesting challenge of integrating a quieter more settled approach into your days with this online retreat. And maybe for those of us living alone or off at an AirBnb that will look a bit like an in person retreat. But for most of us it sounds like it'll be more of a dance with your household and the world. 

As I was mentioning in some ways we are leading the dance but probably in deeper ways it's better to let the dance lead us. Following your nose out to your equivalent of standing on the deck and watching the hills instead of adding some extra stimuli. And the deep practice of patience and exceptance of all the stimuli your mind and your circumstances throw your way. "Oh! Hello, welcome - how can I meet you kindly? skillfully? Patiently?"

I'll be giving talks at this time on all five days. The broad topic is patience as you know. And the vehicle I want to use as a kind of roadmap to explore aspects of patience is a traditional Buddhist text that's treasured in Tibetan Buddhism as a exploration of not just patience but as a roadmap on how to be the best possible person we can be. 

This initial talk will be a little more scholastic as I want you to have some context for this. Sometimes our mindfulness movement is little free with little quotations and mentions of things from different traditions without context so that's another of my intentions with these roots retreats. To go a little deeper. 

That said, don't worry about remembering all or any of this. It's being recorded and you can go back to it later if you want the fact and details. Let it wash over you. The traditional instruction in the Zen monastery on receiving a talk is to sit in meditation and let the sounds and the words flow through your mind without holding onto a thing. To really trust the process without any grasping. So please do your version of that. I don't mind if you lean against something or lie down or whatever you choose to do. Or play with the idea of being upright in meditation as I speak. Try stuff. 

So, this text was written in the 8th century by an Indian Buddhist monk named Shantideva while he was at the great Nalanda University in northern India. The title of this work which is written in Sanskrit verse around year 700 is Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra. The title is usually translated into English as "A guide to the bodhisattva's way of life."

A be a "bodhisattva" is the deep goal of Mahayana Buddhism - it means an awakening being - with a wonderful double meaning of a being who is herself awakening and is devoting herself to the awakening of others - and the spirit is always unconditional, creative, and loving: bodhisattvas are devoted to the awakening and healing of all beings without exception.

The school of Buddhism that this monk, Shantideva, was a part of is called that Madyamaka or "middle way" school and it's the teachings of this school that spread north into Tibet in several waves in the centuries just before and after Shantideva's life. A few centuries later Northern India was invaded by Turkish and Mongolian armies and Islam replaced Buddhism there.  And after so many insane upheavals we now have Pakistan shifted over to the west a bit geographically but where the descendants of those folks ended up.

A side note about the monastic university Shantideva wrote this at is worthwhile I think. I don't know if it's encouraging or discouraging to think about how much turmoil and destruction humans have been through over the centuries but on the whole I think holding a bigger view of history does help.

At it's height they think Nalanda had over 10,000 monks living and studying there and the library had hundreds of thousands of volumes. If may have been founded as early at 1200 BCE making the university about 2400 years old when it was destroyed around year 1200 CE. One account says the invading Muslim forces mistook it for a fortress because it was such a large walled compound making it a priority for them to sack it.

An unfortunate side bar is it was a gendered system. Even though the Buddha did ordain nuns the misogyny of that culture had it's impact. It probably was mostly or exclusively men there.

2,400 years old! Oxford for comparison was surprisingly enough founded right about when Nalanda was being destroyed in 1200 make it about 820 years old. The University of Bologna in Italy might be a bit older. So Nalanda was three times older than the oldest Western universities and that's where our text comes from. So much has come and gone in our world and so much more will come and go. 

This text is much treasured in Tibetan Buddhism - because of these 6th and 7th century Indian masters they treasure sometimes that Buddhism is called Indo-Tibetan. There are many many commentaries on it in every Tibetan Buddhist school and the main text I'll be re-reading as I prepare this talks is a book chronicling a week of teachings HH the Dalai Lama gave of it in 1991. That was the first time he'd given extensive teachings outside of Tibetan or India where the Tibetans in exile live. The book is called A Flash of Lightning in the Dark of the Night which is an image in the text. 

We all want answers. It's wired into us. And preparing to teach a retreat I always feel a bit overwhelmed at first by the desire in me to try to give answers. If the topic is patience I should be able to explain patience to you in a way that will transform your life. And being an altruistic person, but not without ego, then it will be great if everyone of you discovered something new and important and life changing about patience, and then thanked me for helping you "get" the answer to patience and impatience.

But of course it doesn't work that way. And then after struggling a bit to think about how to teach this I eventually relax a bit. 

It helps to remember that while it is really good news that we all do change - in every way - there's no part of us that's truly fixed - maybe some aspects of us are more resistant to change than others, I'll grant you that - we do all change. 

And it helps to remember that change is a mysterious process. Some of it happens in our thinking minds for sure - we make connections, notice patterns, see new ways of thinking about things - this can be very exciting and gratifying. But I think that's just a tiny piece of where change happens. I think most change happens in deeper places in our heart, our subconscious, if you use the word "soul" then yes there too. And it's often the case that our conscious mind isn't aware of these deeper shifts and realignments for a while.  For quite a while sometimes. 

When we first take up mindfulness and compassion practices there often are many shifts and realizations and changes - it can be wonderful, it can be overwhelming - but then for most of us the process gets quieter, more subtle, more mysterious. 

Some of the language, ideas, and suggestions made in this text will appeal to your conscious mind and some will probably bother you - you might have some arguments to make about Shantideva's attitude and approach. Some of what he suggests may seem extreme. And that's just fine, I don't think we should ever stop thinking critically or ignore or reactions to something just because some teacher is telling us this is "good stuff."

But on the other hand if our thinking mind is too harsh of a gatekeeper we never let anything new into our hearts. This is like the way social media can become an echo chamber of people agreeing with people who already agree with them. You can become your own echo chamber too - only taking in things you already agree with. So I'd encourage you this week to invite your intellectual gatekeeper to relax a little and let some old teaching in, let them marinate, let them sink into the darkness of your heart / psyche / subconscious / soul. 

When I first started Zen Buddhist training I knew that the meditation was beneficial to me. I could see clear as can be that the days I got up early and stopped for an hour of meditation at the Zen Center before riding my bike up the hill to the university were consistently better days. I felt more grounded, resilient, my energy was better, I was less subject to the insecurity I often felt socially among my peers (who were all much more cool than me, no question). 

But when I went a couple years later to live at a Zen Monastery for a while and really got exposed to the whole scene of American Zen I remember not being so sure I liked all of this stuff. I had this idea of "trying these clothes on for a while" to see if they really fit. Somehow I knew a quick trip to the dressing room wouldn't be sufficient to find out if they fit, that I had to put them on and walk around in them for a few months. And 3 months later I was getting into my car for the first time since I arrived and I found myself sitting so much differently in that funky old Toyota Corolla seat, and when I got back to the town I grew up in, I soon ran into an ex girlfriend who had ended things partly because she found me kind of needy and demanding, one of the first things she said was, "huh, you seem different!" and before long we were back together. For a young  man that's probably the most convincing evidence that anything works eh? Getting your girl back!  So I guess I realized then that the clothes fit.

So let's see how putting on this 7th century Buddhist poem on how to be a good person fits. It'll take a while to see.

Receiving a Buddhist text from a teacher is part of the magic in this tradition. It's not just a matter of reading the words, it's an empowered process of receiving something precious. In the book that's the first thing HH talks about, he said, "I received the transmission of the Bodhicharyavatara from Tenzin Gyalten, the Kunu Rinpoche, who received it himself from a disciple of Dza Patrul Rinpoche now regarded as one of the principal spiritual heirs of this teaching."  

Well I myself received this teaching from my primary Dharma teacher, Norman Fischer, at retreats he led with our Zen sangha here in Bellingham in the early 2000's. Norman has been so several teachings by HH so maybe that's where he first heard of it, I can't remember.

HH goes on to share, "It is said that when Patrul Rinpoche [his teachers' teacher's teacher] explained this text auspicious signs would occur, such as the blossoming of yellow flowers, remarkable for the great number of their petals. I feel very fortunate that I am in turn able to give commentary on this great classic of Buddhist literature."

Buddhism has the reputation of being a very rational and kind of scientific spiritual tradition - a great wisdom tradition - a "science of the mind" - and HH the Dalai Lama is famous for encouraging dialog between traditional Buddhists and Western scientists. And is clearly a very brilliant thinker. But I don't think he is telling us about the magical flowers just for color or as it's a cute story, I am quite sure he believes this literally happened. And who are we to say it didn't? 

Maybe some small miracles will occur as I now have the great, and intimidating honor, of sharing something of this text with you in the service of our growth and development as humans in a difficult time. I guess that's why I did that side bar on the destruction of Nalanda University - it can be helpful to remember that although we are indeed in a remarkable and difficult time that's hardly a unique situation for people. There have been so so so so many difficult times. And here we are in one of them. 

So the teachings here are not just information that happens to be stored in a book. Even a special book. The teachings here are a process full of depth and mystery and ritual. We are invited to consider a massive feeling of trust, of faith, that we can actually evoke so that they can enter our hearts and do their work.

So in that spirit of a process of receiving, we'll open each set of teachings with five verses from the 3rd chapter of the text which are often recited as a prayer. It's what I sent in the email yesterday, I'll pop it on the screen too. Could be another thing to print out if that's easy to do. And if this feels like too much of course you can just listen!

Talk  Opening Verse (from 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 a slave.

 

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

These verses express something about the life of the "Bodhisattva" which is the ideal of this form of Buddhism. Bodhisattva means "being who awakens" - the idea being a being helps everyone awaken, helps everyone grown, helps every attain their fullest potential which in this cultural and religious sphere is to become a Buddha themselves.

So a bodhisattva becomes infinitely patient not by setting boundaries and practicing self care per se but by devoting herself utterly to others. 

If your mind is already firing off warning flags - what's wrong with self-care? Aren't good boundaries healthy? - yes I think that's all true but let's set that aspect of becoming more resilient, compassionate, and patient people aside for now and investigate these teachings. They come from another culture and another time and they also may work from a somewhat different idea of what a this "self" we're trying to take care of actually is. 

Holding it all lightly and with curiosity. And also noticing if in reciting those lines together there were any feelings other than "woah! Ut oh!" present. Was there a feeling of expansiveness, or of inspiration, or of deep commitment, or of love?  

Listen to it again without chanting with me:

 

Talk  Opening Verse (from 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 a slave.

 

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

May be just what's needed. May I serve. May I help. And may I devote myself to this project infinitely and utterly without ever considering turning around from suffering in any form. 

These are beings who show up. In a big way. 

And these are beings who are supremely patient. The monks reciting this all those many years ago also knew, just like us, that reality is messy. They weren't naïve. That the protector-less might not give us lovin' gratitude for our protection, that the those you yearn for landfall might swim right past our island, and let's just slide right past the "servant and slave" language for now. But you get my point.

These lines suggest a deep commitment to helping others and keeping it up until no one needs any help. Later on we'll encounter HH's favorite line which I think he recites daily in his morning practice (which takes him 4 or 5 hours a day if I remember right):

For as long as space endures 

And for as long as living beings remain, 

Until then may I too abide 

To dispel the misery of the world.

This take on patience is going to really feature a sense of devotion to others, devotion to a process of training, and especially devotion to nurturing a certain kind of intention. 

What you aren't going to hear about from this tradition is a sense of self-protection, boundaries, or even self-care. This is challenging for us and some of the clothing we are trying on for size. 

In a conventional way of course we do need to take care of ourselves. You can't serve others very well if you aren't rested or if you aren't nourished. But these teachings press on a kind of idea of self that we can easily take for granted as essentially true: the idea that we are separate little beings who need to built protective walls around ourselves. These teaching suggest a whole different model of self that is radically open and permeable and interpenetrated with others and the world. 

For example our first cut on patience might be that I am here and there is a bothersome thing happening over there - this morning someone was banging something down the street, some kind of work project at 7:30am, and I noticed myself defaulting to that mode. I felt like my peaceful self over here in my apartment was being attacked a little bit. I imagined going out there to ask those other people to stop making that noise. Don't they know that peacefulness is important? It was so nice and quiet this morning, and now that's being messed up. 

A narrow first cut on patience might be, "Okay - how to a relax about this noise. Stop being so reactive? Obviously some road crew is not going to listen to some strange telling them to be quiet anyway. How can I just accept that the world includes noise and I don't control everything?"  That's not bad, better than just being a grouch. But these teachings will suggest something deeper than that. That it's not about me managing my mind and managing my environment. That there's a more powerful possibility here where I can be free and help to free others.

In a nutshell the patience Shantideva will be describing is a kind of passionate devotion to the wholeness, to non-separateness, to a radical and even cheerful kind of acceptance of all that is without acceptance. It's a high bar teaching to be sure, or maybe it's an encouragement to let go of our self-limiting idea that there are bars at all.

So that's enough for today. It's actually traditional to start slowly with these texts. Usually the teacher takes apart just the title word by word, character by character,  on the first talk so we got a little further maybe.

I'll close with a song this is my rough version of Michael Hedge's version of e.e. cummings wonderful poem "i carry your heart with me(i carry it in"

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in

my heart)i am never without it(anywhere

i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done

by only me is your doing,my darling)

                                                      i fear

no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want

no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)

and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant

and whatever a sun will always sing is you

[and] here is the deepest secret nobody knows

(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud

and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows

higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)

and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart)



 


 

 



Talk 2: Humility and Forgiveness


[opening verse, sub "servant" for "slave"]

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 shared  yesterday that in traditional Buddhism miracles are associated with studying and teaching these texts. Well I experienced a minor miracle myself on Saturday when I was preparing for the retreat and studying Shantideva. 

A little back story is required: I recently moved to a place without much for landscaping - just weedy lawns all around the building. I'm less into gardening just for gardening's sake these days but I love birds and ecology and want to improve the habitat.  Get rid of the lawns, put in native shrubs and so on.

So I did the cardboard plus deep mulch thing to smother a bunch of the lawn. Only I bought too much medium bark mulch - it's cheaper if you get a full dump truck load of 20 yards. So I've ended up with this giant pile of mulch at one end of the project. I've gotten several notes from neighbors asking if she can take a load to their gardens - I always say yes but there's still a lot left. It's a bit odd looking I guess this big pile of mulch next to the sidewalk along side the area of mulched garden. It's been that way for a few months now. 

It seems to be working fine, the grass isn't getting through but some weeds have of course made headway and from time to time this summer I've needed to weed them out. It's a chore though, and my moods haven't been very stable so I've had less energy and it was starting to get a little weedy out there. So on Saturday I got myself out there and weeded them all out. 

And then I went back inside to study the Bodhicharyavarata and try to have confidence I can say something helpful to your about it and about the practice of patience. 

I'm all settled in with my pile of books when I hear a rap-rap on the door. Unusual these days. So I go down and there's a man about 30 or so who seems a little agitated. "Looks like you've got too much mulch there!"

At first I thought he wanted to take a load of it for his garden so I asked where he lived. He said further down C Street. Which is my street. I said oh? Which house? And he said, no, I live in a tent and I remembered that where C Street ends down by the bay there are a number of homeless people living in tents and RVs. And what was he growing? "Nothing but sometimes I find mushrooms."

So now I'm confused about what he wants with the giant pile of mulch. And eventually we figure it out: he wants to spread it out for me. He sees a pile and he wants to spread it out, making my mulch deeper. A job is here, so he wants to do it. .Do I have a shovel? A wheelbarrow will help too. 

Okay - a bodhisattva has appeared who want to even out my giant mulch pile. Huh. I say "sure" because I don't know what else to say mostly. He says, "thank you for letting me work!" and pulls off his shirt and gets to work. He works hard for a few hours and it does look a lot better out there. He hadn't asked for anything in return, which is how bodhisattvas always operate, and when I said I'd like to offer him something at the end he looked at me a little suspiciously: what do you want to offer me?  Well, I said, $20 per hour for two hours of work holding out $40. He said, "ok." and took it. He didn't thank me particularly. I accepted his offer of work and he accepted my offer of money. The giving economy was in flow for the moment. And then he rinsed off at the hose, put his shirt back on and walked down the street.

Anyway that was him coming back on Sunday night ringing my door bell because he wanted to spread more mulch. I thought we were all done. 

And of course I don't really KNOW in that kind of KNOWING way that studying this text on the way of the bodhisattva caused a bark spreading bodhisattva to appear at my door but it is for sure the first time anyone has knocked at my door asking to work for me without asking anything in return. A being who noticed and understood a problem and offered to help. 

There are certainly much bigger problems in the world than unsightly mulch piles but that's a great example of a bodhisattva at work. We do ask - we don't assume - I think I see a problem here, may I help? And when we are invited we work hard. This guy really worked hard. And we take care of things as best we can and without expecting anything in return. It sure didn't seem like he would have acted any differently when he was done if I hadn't given him $40. 

But how knows really. Interesting though eh?  Keep an eye out for magically appearing yellow flowers and helper bodhisattvas this week.

So in chapter 1 we get a little flavor for Shantideva as a person and he brings up a big and challenging idea that's going be foundational for his suggestions about how bodhisattvas operate and how they practice patience.

Here are 6 of the verses from chapter 1:

Chapter 1 - The Benefits of Bodhichitta

To the Blissful Ones, who have the dharmakaya, and to all their Heirs,

And to all who merit veneration, I bow down.

According to tradition, I shall now in brief set forth

An entrance to the Bodhisattva discipline.

 

2

What I have to say has all been said before,

And I am destitute of learning and of skill with words.

I therefore have no thought that this might be of benefit to others

I wrote it only to sustain my understanding

 

4

Difficult indeed to find this state of ease and richness,

Whereby the true significance of being human

May be reaped! If I neglect to turn it to my profit,

How could such a chance be mine again?

 

5

As when a flash of lightning cleaves the night,

And in its glare shows all the dark, black clouds had hid,

Likewise rarely, through the Buddhas' power,

Virtuous thoughts rise, brief and transient, in the world.

 

6

See the utter frailty of virtue!

Except the mind of perfect bodhichitta,

There is nothing able to withstand

The great and overwhelming strength of evil.

To the Blissful Ones, who have the dharmakaya, and to all their Heirs,

And to all who merit veneration, I bow down.

According to tradition, I shall now in brief set forth

An entrance to the Bodhisattva discipline.

So he dedicated his text first to the teachers who came before. I know many of us are starting to remember to offer dedication to those whose lands we stand on. I've already acknowledged my Zen teacher Norman Fischer so I want to also acknowledge the members of the Lummi, Nooksack, Samish, and Semiahmoo nations who lived and still live in this area. Where this building sits were deep old growth woods but nearby is a creek those folks would have moved up and down fishing, hunting, gathering.  At the base of that creek, a few blocks down from here is the site of the first lumber mill in the area, built in 1852 - that was the beginning of huge changes in this region and catastrophic losses for all of these peoples. You might take a moment to acknowledge the peoples who once inhabited your place.

So Shantideva starts there which is traditional- to the blissful ones who have the dharmakaya and all their heirs I bow down. Thank you for making this possible for me.

And then he expresses his humility. 

What I have to say has all been said before,

And I am destitute of learning and of skill with words.

I therefore have no thought that this might be of benefit to others

I wrote it only to sustain my understanding

This is a core practice in learning the deeper kind of patience we're looking towards. To be more humble, to practice humility, which is way of reducing our sense of separateness and especially our sense of superiority over others.

And then he expresses something of how hard this practice is. How hard it is to be a person and have a positive vision of the possibilities in this life. We all know this, it's hard to stabilize your mind, it's hard not to get lost and discourage it's hard to rest in a bigger vision.

4

Difficult indeed to find this state of ease and richness,

Whereby the true significance of being human

May be reaped! If I neglect to turn it to my profit,

How could such a chance be mine again?

 

5

As when a flash of lightning cleaves the night,

And in its glare shows all the dark, black clouds had hid,

Likewise rarely, through the Buddhas' power,

Virtuous thoughts rise, brief and transient, in the world.

And finally we get to this key practice idea that underlies deep patience:

6

See the utter frailty of virtue!

Except the mind of perfect bodhichitta,

There is nothing able to withstand

The great and overwhelming strength of evil.

This term "bodhicitta" which is left untranslated from Sanskrit literally means the thought of enlightenment or the mind of awakening. There's "bodhi" again like in bodhisattva, and citta is one of the words for mind. 

This is the powerful root intention of these practices. It's the intention of bodhisattvas. The deep prayer, the deep hope, the powerful thought that all beings should be free from suffering, all beings should be happy. There's some overlap here with our bruised and battered American ideal expressed in the declaration of Independence - that we all deserve: Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. 

In Buddhism the idea is that if you get of self-centered views and fear you start to notice some powerful truths. You notice fully how fluid and changing everything is. That nothing is fixed. That there's nothing really to hold onto. You notice that that powerful habit to try to hold onto things - stuff, ideas, life itself - is what creates suffering. You notice deeply that all beings want to be happy and don't want to suffer. You start to question your many assumptions about who you are and what your limitations and opinions and views and all that are. You start to become more and more flexible, more and more open. More and more accepting. And yes, more and more patient not because that's what "good" people do but because the more you slow down and really take it all in - really study how things are - you realize that being open, kind, and loving to everyone without exception is just what makes sense. That it's the only thing that make sense.

And as you keep studying this you realize it's not just a matter of replacing bad models with better models. Replacing prejudices with accurate understanding - although that's great along the way - you ultimately realize that all concepts and models and ideas are themselves fluid and, well the term they use is confusing: they are empty. They are empty of solidity, they are empty of the power we gave them, they are empty of hate, greed and confusion, and because they are empty of all of that there is room for infinite light and joy and goodness.

And you have this amazing thought: wow, what if I were to truly devote myself to the well being of everyone without exception, what if I were to work night and day for love for growth for light for wellness! 

Not because I need a new job though, because that was everyone and everything's nature all along!

That's a way of talking about bodhicitta. The thought of awakening. Thought makes it sound more conceptual, maybe the realization of awakening. Or the heart-mind of awakening.

And the think about powerful thoughts is you can't unthink them right? I mean you can get distracted too be sure, you can get side tracked, you can forget for a while but as some deep fundamental level you never, ever forget a realization like that. And that's how bodhicitta is looked at - once you've got it, you've got it.  Oddly in a tradition that studies change and impermanence so deeply bodhicitta is seen as "irreversible" and this doesn't just make you a super effective and motivated helper of others. You get a lot happier too!

Here's what HH says about the strong settling in and practicing of bodhicitta and how it affects your negative emotions:

[It's] not a matter of reducing the strength of the negative emotions temporarily through meditative concentrations of differing degrees of subtlety. One the negative emotions have been eliminated by means of nonconceptual wisdom, they are eliminated forever. This is known as irreversible elimination. When the extraordinary nonconceptual wisdom is perfected through practice and all obstacles to it have been removed through the antidote, we then say that elimination is complete.

A pretty radical statement. I don't think anyone in positive psychology ever makes claims like that. And funny thing is that's just of page 10 of his book and then he just keeps going along. Like why didn't alarms go off all over the world and everyone drop everything to come learn more about this. There's a way to completely eliminate negative emotions?!  Wow. What a balm for the world that would be if many of us could practice in that way, eh?

Maybe we could add to the filing requests for running for public office that the applicant has done at least one 3-year retreat and has at least a taste of the freedom from negative emotions he's talking about. Has some sense of this nonconceptual wisdom. That would be something. 

So that's why Shantideva makes a big deal about bodhicitta and compares it more conventional versions of morality and virtue - that's all of us "trying to be good" right? Works okaaay, most of the time, except when it doesn't.

See the utter frailty of virtue!

Except the mind of perfect bodhichitta,

There is nothing able to withstand

The great and overwhelming strength of evil.

This is another quality of Buddhism: a deep realism about the depth of the human problem. Our deep conditioning towards greed and anger, our vulnerability through confusion and misunderstanding are just…epic. As we're seeing every day on the news and I think it's going to get a lot worse here coming up I'm sorry to say. Worse before it gets better I hope and I pray not many of us have to die before a glimmer of bodhicitta is remembered by us a culture. I hope so.

So Buddhism is one the one hand very realistic, the twisted qualities of our minds are deeply rooted and hard to dislodge, but on the other hand Buddhism - especially this branch of Buddhism - is so optimistic: we all have this ability to awaken the thought of enlightenment - this bodhicitta - and once it's burning bright it doesn't go out again. And in it's light we see that all beings, no matter how confused and messed up they may appear to be, have the seeds of awakening in them. 

Let's go back to Pema Chodron. The way she received these teachings from her teacher is to understand that everyone posses what he called "basic goodness" - this is part of an interview with Bill Moyers in 2017:

BILL MOYERS: Do you describe yourself as a person of faith?

PEMA CHÖDRÖN: Well, I thought about this topic, because I knew it was a subject of faith and reason. And faith was not a term that I had ever used for myself. So I gave it some thought, you know. I do have a lot of faith. But the main faith is that sentient beings have the capacity to awaken all beings. And that, given the right causes and conditions, many people who are sort of neutral, and could get caught by the sweep, or a strong seduction towards aggression could equally be swayed toward peace and love and kindness. Because people have that capacity in them. Now this isn’t to say that I don’t see injustice. But I think I’m more of the school of Martin Luther King, you know. Where you want beloved community, where you take the view that wanting everyone to be healed, not wanting to win your side and make the other side wrong. And, OK, underlying this would be that you want for everyone to deescalate their aggression, and not increase their aggression. And I equate that with happiness and peace in the world and so forth.

BILL MOYERS: On almost any day, well I would say on every day in New York you can experience random acts of kindness. But, after 9/11 kindness seemed to be everyone’s daily behavior. I saw so much kindness. And then, of course, it didn’t take too long for it to disappear.

PEMA CHÖDRÖN: OK, so this is like a big view of what happens with individuals. And what we saw in New York, and you see with people who are in those states, that it’s a softness, a kindness, it’s as people said during those days in New York, it’s the only thing that makes sense. And then what happens? The habit comes back. Because, basically, the kindness comes out of not being able to escape from groundlessness. And then, when everyone is in the same situation, you’re all groundless together, the only thing that makes sense is kindness. It’s so interesting, you see, this almost proves, you know, if you’re going to have a proof of faith in basic goodness, that sort of proves it. Then the person who believed in basic badness would say, no, the more fundamental thing is what reasserts itself. And I would say, no, what the Buddha taught was what reasserts itself is the classic texts call it adventitious. It means removable. It’s temporary. Neurosis is temporary. Sanity is permanent.

BILL MOYERS: I like that.

PEMA CHÖDRÖN: But, also, I’ve done dialoguing, interfaith dialoguing when I was, about 10 years ago I did a lot of it. And I came out of it feeling if your view is that of basic badness, you see it wherever you go. If your view is basic goodness, you see it wherever you go. And I said, I might be wrong, maybe basic badness is a fundamental state. But basic goodness makes for a much happier world. And for feeling more at home in the world, and more friendship. So I came out feeling, you know, I’m open enough to, maybe when I die, you know, some big plaque comes up and says, “You were wrong all your life. Everything you believed in your whole life is wrong.” I think I’m preparing for that moment, you know, for it not to be anything that I thought it was. And it would be OK. And do you see what I’m saying?

BILL MOYERS: Have you forgiven your husband?

PEMA CHÖDRÖN: Oh sure. Yeah. Well, not only forgiven him, I tell him, you know, it’s a little insulting to him actually. I say, “You know, your leaving me was the best thing that ever happened to me.” It’s, you know, I’m not sure he’s forgiven me, you know. But sure I’ve forgiven him because, basically, without that, it’s like people who say, “I lived such a superficial life until I found out I had a disease that wasn’t going to get better.” Do you see what I’m saying? Not everyone uses that to get happier. But for a lot of people, when you can’t get rid of it, it sort of brings you to the bottom, and that kind of positive bottom where you surrender, and then things begin to open up for you. Somebody had given me a poem, and it had a line it which was, “Softening what is rigid in your heart.” Work on yourself. Work on your own aggression. And that’s sowing the seeds of peace. It’s not that do this and then the war will be over in Iraq. You know, it’s not naive that way. But it’s talking about sewing seeds of peace. And this is where the meditation comes in. People who meditate, they do become much more in tune with being able to notice that they’ve been hooked and then also notice what they’re saying to themselves at that time to escalate the whole thing. In other words, it does give you more clarity about what’s going on with you.

BILL MOYERS: After over 30 years on this path of enlightenment when you took that vow to be a nun, do you feel you’re close to a state of perfection?

PEMA CHÖDRÖN: No. No. I’m happy. I’m very happy. I feel satisfied with my life. If I died tomorrow, I’d feel I hadn’t wasted my life. But my appetite is insatiable, and I feel I have a long way to go, you know, in terms of perfection.

BILL MOYERS: Who was the Zen master who told his student, “All of you are perfect, and you could use a little improvement.”

PEMA CHÖDRÖN: That’s was Suzuki Roshi. Yeah. “All of you are perfect, and you could use a little improvement.” Yeah. So, you know, one of the things with the bodhisattva warrior, they say that “No matter how far you get in terms of being unhooked yourself, or being happy yourself, or always look back at who you used to be. Never forget to look back at the neurosis that you carried for so many years. Otherwise you’ll lose your contact with the suffering of other people.” So for the bodhisattva warrior, our kinship with each other is the crucial thing, you know. So it isn’t that really you want to avoid the pain of the world, because that educates you about what other people are up against. But the suffering. When I remember earlier I tried to distinguish between pain and suffering? And that suffering is what could lessen, and there could be a sensation of suffering. So you’re not trying to tell people that then there’ll be no bad more things happening to good people. But that the good people will relate to things in a way that doesn’t escalate their suffering, and therefore the suffering of those around them.

So that's a bit about chapter 1 of the text called "The Benefits of Bodhicitta" and to sum it all up there are four main points here:

1) Respect and venerate your ancestors - really do that, actively, as a practice

2) Be humble, deeply humble

3) Have respect for how hard it all is - and really explore and feel that

4) Know that there is basic goodness and that the mind of awakening is there, waiting to light up


 

 


Talk 3: Even the Word 'Obstacle' is an Obstacle


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"

1

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.

 

2

I offer every fruit and flower,

Every kind of healing salve,

All the precious things the world affords,

And all pure waters of refreshment;

 

3

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;

 

4

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.

 

5

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

 

6

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.

 

24

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.

 

26

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:

33

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.

 

34

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.

 

35

My enemies at length will cease to be,

My friends and I myself

Will cease to be,

And all is likewise destined for destruction.

 

38

"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.

 

47

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: Guarding your Mind



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.

1

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.

 

6

All anxiety and fear,

Pain and suffering immeasurable,

Each from the mind itself proceeds:

Thus the Truthful One has said.

 

18

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:

1

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.

 

6

All anxiety and fear,

Pain and suffering immeasurable,

Each from the mind itself proceeds:

Thus the Truthful One has said.

 

18

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).

23

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.

 

29

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.

 

30

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

  

33

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.

 

56

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.

 

57

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.

 

70

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.

 

71

Thus with free, untrammeled mind,

Have an ever-smiling countenance,

Rid yourself of scowling, wrathful frowns;

And be a true, sincere friend to beings.

 85

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.

97

The Bodhisattva's acts

Are boundless, as the teachings say.

The greatest of them all is this:

To cleanse and purify the mind.

 

98

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.

 

100

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.

 

101

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.

 

108

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.

 

109

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 

 

(Remembering)

Your touch

Your kiss

Your warm embrace

I'll find..my 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 

 

(Remembering)

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] 

(Remembering)

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.


 



Talk 5: Patience in an Unjust World


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.

1

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.

 

6

All anxiety and fear,

Pain and suffering immeasurable,

Each from the mind itself proceeds:

Thus the Truthful One has said.

 

18

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:

1

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.

 

6

All anxiety and fear,

Pain and suffering immeasurable,

Each from the mind itself proceeds:

Thus the Truthful One has said.

 

18

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).

23

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.

 

29

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.

 

30

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

  

33

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.

 

56

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.

 

57

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.

 

70

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.

 

71

Thus with free, untrammeled mind,

Have an ever-smiling countenance,

Rid yourself of scowling, wrathful frowns;

And be a true, sincere friend to beings.

 85

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.

97

The Bodhisattva's acts

Are boundless, as the teachings say.

The greatest of them all is this:

To cleanse and purify the mind.

 

98

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.

 

100

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.

 

101

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.

 

108

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.

 

109

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 

 

(Remembering)

Your touch

Your kiss

Your warm embrace

I'll find..my 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 

 

(Remembering)

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] 

(Remembering)

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.



 

 


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