Browsing Category "Books"
7 May
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What We Talk About When We Talk About….

Mirabai and Ram Dass have just written a new book: Walking Each Other Home: Conversations on Death and Love (which is coming out soon), so of course we talked about this while I was visiting with her.

And (as I posted last week), Bhikkhu Analayo has just come out with a new book: Rebirth in Early Buddhism & Current Researchso we talked about that too.

Also, a friend of Mirabai’s had recently died (Bobo Legende, who had also written a book just before she died: Not What I Had Expected).

So as you can see, there was kind of a theme going on. Which was quite wide-ranging. And not in any way at all sad.

For example, we also talked about this little gem: The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Make Your Loved Ones’ Lives Easier and Your Own Life More Pleasant (by Margareta Magnusson).

Here’s an excerpt:

Death cleaning…it is a term that means you remove unnecessary things and make your home nice and orderly when you think the time is coming closer for you to leave the planet…

“I have death cleaned so many times for others, I’ll be damned if someone else has to death clean after me…..

“I am now somewhere between eighty and one hundred years old. I take it as a responsibility of my old age to tell you about my experiences, because I believe this philosophy of death cleaning is important for all of us to know….

“Do not ever imagine that anyone will wish–or be able–to schedule time off to take care of what you didn’t bother to take care of yourself. No matter how much they love you, don’t leave this burden to them.”


Sadhu. Sadhu. Sadhu.

3 May
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If You’re Interested….

Bhikkhu Analayo has just come out with a fascinating new book: Rebirth in Early Buddhism and Current Research, which I HIGHLY recommend if you’re at all interested in the topic…which I totally am, ever since I heard Joseph Goldstein play a recording made in the 1970s of ancient Pali chants recited spontaneously by a little 2-year-old boy (now grown up), who Joseph knows personally (as do many of the other dharma teachers I’ve sat with).

I was kind of neutral on the subject until I heard that sweet little voice!

(Links to the recordings can be found here under the boy’s name: Dhammaruwan.)

Dhammaruwan (now Bhikkhu Samadhikusala) and those tapes feature prominently in Bhikkhu Analayo’s new book:

“…it occurred to me to take a closer looks at recordings of Pali chants recited spontaneously and from memory by a small Sri Lankan child, whom I knew from the time I lived in Sri Lanka myself in the 1990s, by which time he had already become an adult. This brought to light support for his recollection of having learned these chants in the long-distant past, making it clear that they deserved a study more detailed than is possible within he confines of an article.

“In order to contextualize my findings, I also started to read up on various areas of research related to rebirth. This in turn made me realize that I had entered a minefield of at times firmly entrenched opinions regarding rebirth, leading me to investigate historical antecedents for the current debates on this topic. These four trajectories inform the four chapters of the book.”

Check it out!

18 Apr
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And So On…

More from Turning the Wheel of Truth by Ajahn Sucitto:

“When something new arises in your life, if it’s pleasant and wished for, there is happiness — and then comes the need to sustain that happiness or the wish not to be parted from it. When something beautiful to behold arises, how long can you continue to be thrilled by it? A few minutes? Can you make it through an hour before it starts to pall? How about a day, let alone a year?

“Of course, we live with many options. If we get bored with looking at a painting, we read something; when that becomes boring, we go for a walk, perhaps visit a friend and go out for dinner together, then watch a movie. If this routine gets tedious, we might attempt to regress into our past life, pursue astral travel, then write a book about it…and so on.

“The pattern is that each new arising, or ‘birth’ if you like, is experienced as unfulfilling. In this process of ongoing need, we keep moving from this to that without ever getting to the root of the process.

“Another aspect of this need is the need to fix things, or to fix ourselves — to make conflict or pain go away. By this I mean an instinctive response rather than a measured approach of understanding what is possible to fix and what dukkha has to be accommodated right now. Then there’s the need to know, to have it all figured out. That gets us moving too.

“This continued movement is an unenlightened being’s response to dukkha. That movement is what is meant by samsara, the wandering on.

“According to the Buddha, this process doesn’t even stop with death — it’s like the habit transfers almost genetically to a new consciousness and body. But even within this life, we can see all these ‘births’ as the same habit taking different forms…

“Our habits prescribe the way we relate to others, and of course they model our own future. This habitual activity is kamma. Its key feature is that its effects don’t die away when the action is completed; it actually changes how we will perceive things and act — it molds our identity. That is, through habitually forming tendencies, our mind gets into and deepens its ruts, and that affects how it works and how it intends….

“If we develop and foster thieving intentions, covetous ‘mental action,’ then we see life and people in terms of what we can get out of them. You know the saying: ‘A thief notices a saint’s pockets.’ On the other hand, if we foster harmlessness and compassion, we see the world very differently….

“Each birth is aimed at getting what is pleasing, getting away from what we don’t like, and finding fulfillment. Birth, therefore, involves a lot of stressful reaching out, holding on, jealousy, possessiveness, and defensiveness. And those same old instincts crop up again in different scenarios.

“Birth is pretty deluding: it always looks like a fresh thing until we’ve learned to look at that shadowy feeling in our heart — the same old compulsive drives, needs, holding on….suffering.

“And in the blur of these drives and needs, the mind that goes through birth, aging, and death assumes ‘that is what I am’. And so it tries to create a self to get out of there or to not be there. But all these creations are more ‘births,’ and more unsatisfactoriness. Frustrating, isn’t it?”


Whew! Good thing that’s not the end of the story. Stay tuned.

17 Apr
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Everyone knows the feeling of lack or loss or conflict in their lives: this is what the Buddha called dukkha, often translated as “suffering,” but covering a whole range of meanings and nuances. At times, we feel it as a sense of need, or a dissatisfaction that can vary from mild weariness to utter despair.

“…It is a feeling characterized by a sense that things are ‘out of balance.’ Even if we are physically well and mentally skilled, we can feel disappointed that life isn’t offering us enough, or that we’re not making enough of it or doing enough, or that there’s not enough time, space, freedom….

“Then there’s the sense of ‘too much‘ — feeling overwhelmed, not having enough space, time, and ease. In both cases there’s a continual sense of subtle or gross stress.

“Just reflect upon your activities and pursuits: notice that they involve a constant effort to change or cope with what is disagreeable, or to stimulate well-being. This striving is universal.

“It is worthwhile considering that, however altruistic our actions are, the feeling of unsatisfactoriness is the same. This feeling is what the Buddha pointed out as the dukkha that we can resolve.

Dukkha is characteristic of objective physical reality, with its disease and death. However, as a noble truth, the term points to something different. It means the subjective sense of stress that isn’t bound to physical reality.

“Sometimes having little is fine or even peaceful in its simplicity; at other times we can feel devastated that there’s a stain on the dining room tablecloth…

“The Buddha is not implying that life is miserable; most things have a mixture of pleasure and pain and neutrality in them. It’s just that human experience is characterized by a constant restless quality of disquiet. It’s like a shadow….

“The Buddha taught dukkha, but also the cessation of dukkha. The particulars of unpleasant circumstances can come to an end or be brought to an end, even if problems then surface in other areas. And the way of meeting conflict and problems can be compassionate, calm, and peaceful in itself. So accepting that life has its dark, problematic side needn’t be depressing.

“Most fruitfully, the kind of suffering that is the mental reaction to a situation, even on an instinctive plane, can be completely abolished. With the ending of that kind of suffering, the mind is clearer and wiser and more capable of effecting positive change in the world of ever-changing circumstances.”

— Ajahn Sucitto, from Turning the Wheel of Truth: Commentary of the Buddha’s First Teaching.

10 Apr
Posted in: Books, Retreats
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If You Practice Deeply…

Later this month I’ll be spending a few days with my mentor, Lila Kate Wheeler, and I’m getting ready by reading one of the books she edited: The State of Mind Called Beautiful, a collection of talks given by Sayadaw U Panditata at the Forest Refuge (pictured above, where I sat a 5-week retreat at the beginning of this year).

Here’s an excerpt from the book, which I offer with the hope of encouraging you go on retreat!!!

“Only by practicing the Buddha’s teachings and training (Dhamma Vinaya) can one fulfill the intent of the Buddha’s compassion. To gain the benefits of Dhamma Vinaya, the Buddhist texts offer the following four guidelines:

  1. Associate with a person who is knowledgeable and can teach the Dhamma.
  2. Hear the correct teachings.
  3. Engage wise attention, which means directing one’s life wisely, as well as maintaining upright behavior in all circumstances.
  4. Practice well in accordance with the Dhamma Vinaya.

“These days many people are not well versed in Buddhist literature; they do not apply the teachings correctly. Such people will slip from the correct path. If you’re careful to fulfill these four requirements, your contact with the Dhamma Vinaya will be worthwhile. If you don’t fulfill them, beware, for you could be wasting an amazing opportunity — a human life.

“Meditation practice leads us to gain insight, the eye of wisdom that understands what the Buddha understood and what he was trying to teach.

Attending intensive meditation retreats fosters maximum depth of practice and exposes you to the guidance of qualified teachers. Retreats, then, support the first, third, and fourth guidelines above.

“On retreat, internal and external purity are easier to achieve than in everyday life. Both of these forms of purity are indispensable for anyone who wants to develop insight…

If you are at all able to set aside time for a retreat, of course you must encourage yourself to choose that option, even if it means giving up something else, like a vacation. And once you have entered an intensive practice period, please, please, do not waste the opportunity in distraction and laziness. Retreat time is precious. You never know when, or whether, you can come back again!

“If you practice deeply you may encounter the experience of nibbana, genuine knowledge of the Dhamma, and the Four Noble Truths.

Mediation practice is the one and only way to gain and experience this. There is no other way.”

9 Apr
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Beneath the Surface Glitter

The KM Book Study group meets tonight to continue our discussion of In the Buddha’s Words, by Bhikkhu Bodhi. We’re on Chapter 6: Deepening One’s Perspective on the World.

Here’s an excerpt:
“To follow the Buddha in the direction he wants to lead us, we have to learn to see beneath the surface glitter of pleasure, position, and power that usually enthralls us, and at the same time, to learn to see through the deceptive distortions of perception, thought, and views that habitually cloak our vision.

“Ordinarily, we represent things to ourselves through the refractory prism of subjective biases. These biases are shaped by our craving and attachments, which they in turn reinforce. We see things that we want to see; we blot out things that threaten or disturb us, that shake our complacency, that throw into question our comforting assumptions.

To undo this process involves a commitment to truth that is often unsettling, but in the long run proves exhilarating and liberating.”


Let’s dive in!

5 Apr
Posted in: Books, Dharma Friends, Racism
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At the Threshold

From In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History, by Mitch Landrieu, which my CDL “White Awake” group will be discussing next month:

“Unlike the cursing anonymous voice on a telephone, or the menacing face, or the billy club that split John Lewis’s head in Selma, Alabama at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965, implicit bias is hard to see; implicit bias is a silent snake that slinks around in ways we don’t notice.

“Questions gather at the threshold of transformative awareness. Whom do we sit with at lunch? Who are the kids we invite to our children’s parties? Or look at for honors programs at school? Who do we think of as smart, with good moral fiber, God-loving and patriotic? To whom do we give the benefit of the doubt, and why? Who are the people we condemn most quickly?

“As questions multiply about the consequences of race, it forces you to look in the mirror and see yourself as you really are, not who you’ve been told you are, not who society has made you to be, and not the image you want others to perceive.

“That’s when you start noticing things about yourself you never thought about before. The sight is not always pretty.”

4 Apr
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Deliberately More Colloquial

I’d like to share this wonderfully straight-forward translation of the Four Noble Truths from Turning the Wheel of Truth: Commentary on the Buddha’s First Teaching, by Ajahn Sucitto (pictured here).

“There is a noble truth with regard to suffering. Birth is difficult; aging is hard; dying is painful. Sorrow, grieving, pain, anguish, and despair are all painful. Being stuck with what you don’t like is stressful; being separated from what you do like is stressful; not getting what you want is stressful. In brief, the five aggregates that are affected by clinging bring no satisfaction.

“There is a noble truth concerning the arising of suffering: it arises with craving, a thirst for more that’s bound up with relish and passion and is always running here and there. That is: thirst for sense-input, thirst to be something, thirst to not be something.

“There is a noble truth about the cessation of suffering. It is the complete fading away and cessation of this craving; its abandonment and relinquishment; getting free from and being independent of it.

“There is a noble truth of the way leading to the cessation of suffering. It is the noble eightfold path: namely, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.”


In the introduction, Sucitto explains: “…since the teaching was given so long ago in a culture different from our own, its wording and allusions can cause us modern readers to stumble. For starters, it’s written in the Pali language, which is an amalgam of various ancient, vernacular Indian dialects. This language of the text is similar to Sanskrit, but is deliberately more colloquial.

“This is because the Buddha chose to teach in the spoken dialects of ordinary people in order to get his message across more readily–not that this helps the modern Westerner. Sanskrit was the literary language, reserved for the upper caste, so by using ordinary language, the Buddha was making the point that his teaching wasn’t philosophical or only for the learned. Instead, it is supposed to reach ordinary people, be matter-of-fact, and accessible.”


I think Ajahn Sucitto’s translation goes a long way toward doing just that.

28 Mar
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Resist Ugliness in the World….

I’d like to recommend another wonderful new book: The State of Mind Called Beautiful, by Sayadaw U Pandita, translated by Ven. Vivekananda, and edited by Kate (Lila) Wheeler (who just happens to be my mentor!).

Here’s an excerpt from Lila/Kate’s preface:
“The talks in this book were given at a one-month retreat in May 2003 inaugurating the Forest Refuge, the long-term retreat facility at Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts…

“The panorama begins with the fundamental teachings. Dhamma, the truth, is what we should do; Vinaya, the discipline, is what we should stop doing. Between these two, our practice is like planting flowers and pulling up weeds.

“It its necessary to do practices that strengthen the mind and heal societies and families, because violence, war, and instability mark our current days. These practices are called the four guardian meditations. They uplift and protect us, and even long-term meditators are asked to practice them.

But inner actions like mediation are not enough. There must be outer, compassionate activity–with no compromise of ethics. The Earth, he said, appears to be in the control of people who ‘resemble demons more than human beings.’

“Leaders who attempt to control these inhuman beings often sink to the same level themselves. We must resist this, he said. ‘Compassion, he observed, ‘says what needs to be said. And wisdom doesn’t fear the consequences.’

“At the time, his country was subject to a brutal dictatorship, and Sayadaw-gyi publicly supported democratic reforms at great personal risk to himself.

“Next he drilled deep into the fundamental mechanics of how a mind is healed by Dhamma. One of the core teachings of The State of Mind Called Beautiful is the exposition of how and why the Noble Eightfold Path is present in every moment of mindfulness. He also systematizes and concretizes the relationship between morality, concentration, and wisdom in ways that any psychoanalyst would admire.

Restraint suppresses the physical acting out of impulses. Then outer life is calm, but the tormenting impulses are deeply embedded and likely to remain. Concentration training can divert the mind away from its obsessions. Finally, with sufficient clarity of mind, direct awareness can penetrate to the inherent lack of substance. This is how intuitive wisdom develops and dissolves the pain in the mind.

“‘The defilements are disgusting, dreadful, fearsome, and frightening,’ he thunders.

Look around at the world. Ask yourself if this sounds right….

“The skills and clarity Sayadaw-gyi taught are indispensable these days, when the Buddha’s starkest teachings about the dangers of samsara are beginning to ring louder than ever before in our lifetime.

With this in mind, we offer you The State of Mind Called Beautiful.

22 Mar
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Lost in Translation

I have always been a little uneasy about the part of the Buddha’s life story where he leaves his young wife just as she has given birth, to go off on his own personal “quest.”

But now I’ve just run across this footnote in Turning the Wheel of the Truth: Commentary on the Buddha’s First Teachingby Ajahn Sucitto:

“Many fables that present the life of the Buddha tell of his marriage and sudden nocturnal departure in a highly dramatic way that was designed to emphasize the great renunciation of the young seeker. Most of us these days would view nocturnal departures as anything but renunciation, so unfortunately this legend has cause the Buddha to be seen more as a jerk than one who negotiated his way out of the jam that his parents had put him in.”

Ah. That does put things is a bit of a different light.

Here’s the text that the footnote refers to:

“…When was he born? Traditions vary, placing his birth date anywhere between 573 B.C.E. and 483 B.C.E. Modern research suggests 480 B.C.E.

“What is more commonly agreed upon is that he was born as the son and heir of Suddhodana, an elected chief of the Sakyan republic. This republic occupied a fragment of southern Nepal on the Indian border, and probably extended into what is now the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. The son was named Siddhattha Gotama (Skt.: Siddhartha Gotama).

“Although a lot is made in subsequent legends of his early life, the Buddha only referred to it a few times. The Sakyan republic was not a grand kingdom; it was a vassal state of another small kingdom occupying the northeast of Uttar Pradesh. So he was a nobleman in a small republic.

In his teens he was bound into an arranged marriage for dynastic reasons. This marriage was anything but a love affair–it’s unlikely that the couple had even laid eyes on each other before the wedding. However that’s the way it was done in those days; the important thing was to bring forth a son as a guarantor for the future of the family. After thirteen years, the couple managed to do that, and so, after some protracted and painful negotiations, Siddharttha got permission from his family to take leave and pursue a spiritual quest as one ‘gone forth.’

Siddhattha’s departure meant that he gave up everything. He relinquished inheritance, statehood, livelihood, family network, friends, and caste–all the elements that in Indian society gave him a place in the cosmos–which included not only this world and life, but also a future birth.

“So with ‘going forth’ he had put aside his ascribed place in the cosmic order to find a new one for himself. Relinquishment made life starkly simple–a ‘gone forth’ person had to survive on what he or she could glean, and put everything else aside to focus on developing his or her mind, soul, or spirit. Whatever you think of his domestic policy, you can’t fault Siddhartha in terms of putting his life on the line.

“He wasn’t entirely alone in this–there was a whole movement of samanas (religious seekers) doing the same kind of thing–sometimes following a particular teacher and sometimes forming groups and adhering to an ethical code of harmlessness, celibacy, truthfulness, and renunciation.

“To be a true ‘gone-forth one,’ however, the essential factor was to wander free from the ties and comforts of home life. This was life with the veils and wrapping pulled off. It was life among wild animals, thieves, and outlaws–life lived on the hard earth at the roots of trees; seeking alms-food from villages; and looking for something to wear, often pulling rags off the corpses whose jackal-chewed remains littered the charnel grounds.

“It was life held like a brief candle-flame in the vast stormy night of sickness, danger, and death. Only a few ventured into this way fo life, some of dubious sanity, some quiet saintly, but all were held in a mixture of fear and awe by the ordinary folk of town, clan, and family.”