14 Aug
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This Wide Human Stream

Getting everything done before I catch a flight to California to go on retreat appears to be taking quite a bit longer than I had expected, so I won’t be posting again until sometime after I get back. (I return late on Aug 30.)

Usually before going on retreat, I leave you with a selection from my favorite inner travelogue, Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino. This time I’d like to offer something similar, but different — from Flightsby Olga Tokarczuk, which won the Man Booker Prize this year and was just released today:

The Bodhi Tree
I met a person from China. He was telling me about the first time he flew to India on business; he had lots and lots of important individual and group meetings. His company produced quite complicated electronic devices allowing blood to be conserved longer-term, and allowing organs to be safely transported, and now he was negotiating to open up new markets and start some Indian subsidiaries.

On his final evening there he mentioned to his Indian contractor that he had dreamed since childhood of seeing the tree under which the Buddha had attained enlightenment — the Bodhi tree. He came from a Buddhist family, although at that time there could be no public mention of religion in the People’s China. But later, once they could avow whatever faith they wished, his parents unexpectedly converted to Christianity, a Far Eastern variety of Protestantism. They felt that the Christian God might come in handier to His followers, that He would be, let’s be honest, more effective, and it would be easier with Him to get some money and get set up. But this man did not share that view and kept the Buddhist faith of his ancestors.

The Indian contractor understood the man’s desire. He nodded and topped off his Chinese colleague’s drink.

In the end they all got pleasantly inebriated, getting out all the tensions of signing contracts and negotiations. With the last of their strength, wobbling on swaying legs, they went into the hotel sauna to sober up, since in the morning they still had work to do.

The following morning a message was delivered to his room — a little note with just one word: “Surprise.” Clipped to it the business card of his contractor. In front of the hotel stood a taxi, which now conveyed him to a waiting helicopter. After a flight of less than an hour the man found himself in the sacred spot where, beneath a great fig tree, the Buddha had attained enlightenment.

His elegant suit and white shirt vanished into the crowd of pilgrims. His body still preserved the bitter memory of alcohol, the heat of the sauna, and a rustle of papers signed in silence on the glass surface of the modern table. A scraping of a pen that left behind his name. Here, however, he felt lost, and helpless as a child. Women who came up to his shoulder, colorful as parrots, pushed past him in the direction this wide human stream was flowing. Suddenly the man was frightened by the thing that he repeated as a Buddhist several times a day, when he had time — the vow. That he would try to bring with his prayers and actions all sentient beings to enlightenment. Suddenly this struck him as utterly hopeless.

When he saw the tree, he was — to tell the truth — disappointed. He had not a thought in his head, nor any prayers. He paid the place its due homage, kneeling many times, making substantial offerings, and about two hours later, he returned to the helicopter. By afternoon he was back in his hotel.

Under a stream of water in the shower that washed from his body the sweat, dust, and strange sweetish smell of the crowd, the stalls, the bodies, the ubiquitous incense, and the curry people ate with their hands off paper trays, it occurred to him that every day he was witness to what had shaken Prince Gautama so: illness, old age, death. And it was no big deal. It produced no change in him; by now, to tell the truth, he’d grown inured to it. And then, drying himself off with a fluffy white towel, he thought he wasn’t even sure he truly wished to be enlightened. If he really wanted to see, in one split second, the whole truth. To peer inside the world as though by X-ray, to glimpse it in the skeletal structure of a void.

But of course — as he assured his generous friend that same evening — he was extremely grateful for this present. Then from the pocket of his suit coat he carefully extracted a crumbled leaf, which both men inclined over in rapt, pious attention.


See you in September!

13 Aug
Posted in: Retreats
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I Got In!!!

I just found out I got into the month-long retreat Guy and Sally Armstrong will be teaching at the Forest Refuge next June!!! (There are less than 30 spots available and they’re awarded by lottery.) My buddy Carolyn got put on the wait list (bummer) but I think chances are good a spot will open up. It’s almost a year away, after all.

The theme of the retreat is The Still Heart of Awareness and the structure is pretty unusual:

This retreat will strengthen our understanding and experience of the nature of awareness in meditation practice. We will explore this in three stages.

During the initial part of the month, we will build meditative stability through a focus on anapanasati (mindfulness of breathing).

In the next phase, we will undertake intensive practice of metta (lovingkindness), allowing the beautiful and responsive qualities of heart to unfold.

Then, with concentration and lovingkindness as our foundation, the last stage of the retreat will focus on specific meditative techniques that allow us to rest in the pure nature of awareness. The teachers will offer regular meditation instructions, talks about the teachings and individual meetings. A minimum stay for the full month of June is required. Participants are expected to follow the sequence of instructions as they are given.


Sounds awesome. (Finger crossed, Carolyn!)

10 Aug
Posted in: Practice, Talks
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When It’s Good….

In the same Q&A session I wrote about yesterday, Ajahn Sucitto was also asked:
Do you think jhana training is necessary? [jhana: deep states of meditative absorption]

He says:
I think it’s very helpful. Train towards that. The degree to which one has results is sometimes dependent on one’s capability or one’s limitations or on situations. But train towards that because jhana training encourages one to keep discarding what’s not necessary.

It keeps us centering, centering, centering…and discarding that, discarding that…and protecting and enjoying the good (the qualities that develop as the mind purifies).

So it’s that attitude of homing in. But also of enjoying, deeply absorbing, taking in…. Anything you do with that attitude — it’s going to help in the process of training the mind not to keep skipping on and not to go off onto side tracks. And to stay on theme. And to enjoy the good.

This is absolutely necessary. To the degree to which your mind will stabilize into jhana — it takes time, you know, and certain capacities — but the attitude is one you must always bear in mind: Absorb into the good!

When it’s good — take it in, feel the quality of good. Because this is going to enrich you. If you skip off onto the next thing, you didn’t taste the fruit. You just picked it. But you didn’t taste it! So then it doesn’t have the deep effect.


Great! This is exactly what I’m going to be doing at the Concentration Retreat beginning August 19. Can’t wait!

9 Aug
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Sucitto’s Advice for Dharma Teachers

In a different Q&A session from the one I posted yesterday (but from the same retreat), Ajahn Sucitto was asked:
What advice can you give upcoming Dhamma teachers in the West?

His answer:
More practice is necessary. And, kalyana mitta. 

Practice a lot. And cultivate kalyana mitta — spiritual friendship. Those are for anybody…not just Dhamma teachers…but for upcoming human beings! [laughter]

Practice a lot and stay with what you know. And don’t bluff. And seek kalyana mitta, who will help to tell you when you’re bluffing….and will accept you — love you — all the same.

That’s briefly speaking. I’m sure there’s much advice in detail you can get from other Dhamma teachers, but that would be my little piece in it.


Sounds like enough to me!

(The exchange above was part of this Q&A session (beginning at the 33-minute mark). The tape (at the time of this post) is incorrectly identified as Guided Meditation: Everything Unfolds from the Center. But it is, in fact, the recording of Q&A: Negotiating Contact and Gladdening the Mind, a session that also includes questions on the meaning of spirit, spiritual powers, consciousness creating duality, transmuting sexual energy, sampajanna, and jhana training. Click here to listen.)

8 Aug
Posted in: Practice, Talks
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It Begins to Shine

I’ve been listening to a lot of Ajahn Sucitto’s new talks lately and, as always, have come across several teachings that have grabbed my attention so powerfully, that I had to stop and let my heart drink it in. Here’s one from a recent Q&A session, in which he talks about the quality of adhitthana (usually translated as “resolve” or “determination”).

“Pick one or two parami [wholesome qualities such as: generosity, patience, honesty, goodwill, etc] that you really want to focus in on, and then you can do things [to deepen your commitment to this quality], like make an image of it.

“This is what shrines and rituals are about. You pick up on something, or you feel something where there’s a glow in your heart, a strength, a keenness… Yeah, a glow in your heart that says: This is meaningful; This is beautiful; This is strong; This is what I value — deeply. Or you look in your life and you think: What DO I value — deeply?

“If you’ve got one or two of those, you hold it and you contemplate it and you take it in — and it begins to shine, and fill you.

“Then you want to make some kind of image out of it. You can use a word for that — a verbal image — or a sound, or a chant or a prayer. Or you can make a physical image, like something you can fashion or paint, or just use flowers or sticks or something. And then you make a shrine. And you want to put that thing up there, and you want to look at it every day, and you want to offer things to it, and you want to bow at it — and then you’re establishing a real participating field with that quality. This is how you generate fields.

“You generate a meaningful field not just by thought, but by really placing something, going to it, enacting it, chanting it, praying to it — you know?

“Why do people do this? It’s not just because of some superstition. It’s because when you put it there and you keep activating it, potentizing it by your presence and by your actions — it starts to pay off. It starts to hold you. Yeah. And the next time you’re about to “lose it,” you remember that. You remember that, and you come back. You’ve look to that and you’ve thought about that every day and the next time you’re about to lose that quality — it brings you back.

“This adhitthana principle is something that I’ve used a lot. It’s powerful. You say what you resolve — and then, you listen. If something inside you says: That’s a good idea, then it’s not enough. So you say it again: I resolve this. If something says: Yeah, that’s interesting. Then no, that’s not good enough. So you say it again, until something in your heart goes: Mmmmm. Then you’ve got it. And maybe you fold your arms or you bow or something. Then that’s locked it.

“Then it’s not just a good idea. It’s not a thought that will later change its mind and say that’s NOT a good idea. This goes beyond that. You’ve planted something in the field.

“You don’t enter this field just by a little thought. You’ve got to plant it there. And then you’ve made that. And, at that depth, it holds you. It’s very powerful…..

“These are things that…. if it means something, it really… It does work. It works — on a level that’s difficult to explain rationally. Because the mind is not just rational. These are strong psychological potencies. When you make adhitthana, they go in there. This can be because you make a resolution with another person or because you know the “sign” of something that gives you faith and strength and then, if you get that sign, that’s fantastic. Then make the most of it. Really. Get it established strongly. And don’t think about it ‘working’ in terms of time…”


When I first hear this I had to get up right in the middle of it and go make a drawing. (A graphic symbol, actually.) Which is not quite in its finished form, but which I will put on my altar as soon as it is.

(The excerpt is edited for readability. It begins at about the 34-minute point on the tape, but really, you should listen to the whole thing. FYI: In this talk, he also gives a thorough and quite beautiful response to a question about female monastics. Click here.)

7 Aug
Posted in: Activism
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Just Saying…

6 Aug
Posted in: Poems
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But Yes.

Swampy Cree narrative poem
translated by Howard Norman

I stay awake.

I am the poorest one.
I cook bark.
I have bad luck in hunting.
A duck caught my arrow
and used it
for her nest.

I am the poorest one.
I sit in mud and weep.
I have bad luck in hunting.
A goose caught my arrow
and broke it
in two.

I am old, old.
Don’t bring me pity,
but food

3 Aug
Posted in: Poems
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Never Too Late

Starting the Spring Garden and Thinking of Thomas Jefferson
by Gary Snyder

Turning this cloddish soil still damp and cold
with a heavy curved crofters spade
finally I’ve read the life of Thomas Jefferson
here we are about the same age
— eighty — except I’m living alone with my dog
and spading a tiny spring garden
and he had hundreds of workers
on the farm and fixing the house while he
mostly wrote letters and thinking — thinking
true democracy is to help everyone
do for themselves. Which means
we must think with the help of the whole
neighborhood, bullshit detectors in place but
cleanly and clearly forgiving
— to be free is to get past too much lonely stubborn
deluded private thirst for what?
for things? for some small perk?
So give and take. Where was Jefferson in this — I wonder —
whacking clods, tossing clumps of winter grass roots
to the side
scooping out and heeling in some Asian aubergine
— the long thin kind you grill with grated ginger
Everyone free to decide to join in on the work
and the play
empowered to be free of “me”
in a world which both has and has not
hierarchy. But he had slaves
and never thought that through.
& Tom had friends like Madison and Adams
to honestly argue him down and explain
the cracks in his dream;
Now — out on the far west coast of the continent
this rough mountain pine tree land
two hundred years later,
putting another turn on
whatever he thought we could do
Tom Jefferson: never too late,
never be through,
you always can pick up a hoe —
let your people go —

2 Aug
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We Keep Looking

This Tenderness
from Things that Join the Sea and the Sky: Field Notes on Living, by Mark Nepo

We keep looking for a home though each of us is a home. And no matter where we run, we land before each other, thoroughly exposed. This is the purpose of gravity — to wear us down till we realize we are each other.

Though we think we’re alone, we all meet here. Though we start out trying to climb over each other, we wind up asking to be held. It just takes some of us longer to land here than others. Once worn of our pretense, it’s hard to tolerate arrogance. Once humbled, it’s hard to withstand a litany of “me.” Once burning off the atmosphere of self-interest, there’s a tenderness that never goes away.

This tenderness is the sonar by which we sense the interior life. This tenderness is the impulse that frees us. For anything is possible when we let the heart be our skin.

The point is to feel whatever comes our way, not conclude it out of its aliveness. The unnerving blessing about being alive is that it can change us forever.

I keep discovering that everyone is loveable, magnificent, and flawed.

31 Jul
Posted in: Talks
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Soften. Widen. Include It All.

Ajahn Sucitto has a new talk, called The Practice of Inclusivity, that I’ve listened to a couple of times now (and surely will listen to a couple of times more) because it just keeps speaking to me, on so many levels.

He begins: “I’ll offer some reflections, some thoughts…. straight from the heart:

“When I began to practice, I began in a highly structured way. I was using the Burmese satipatthana system, which is quite a carefully tooled, structured system. I hadn’t done any meditation at all! So I went from nothing to that. [laughs]

“Then because I felt I needed some structure in my life, after the class was over, I said to the monk who was teaching (this was in Thailand): Can I go to the monastery? Because I felt the structure there would keep me focused. Otherwise it was just going to dissipate. He said: Yeah, you can go. It’s free. Just show up.

“So I packed my stuff, sorted my things out, and went down the road to the town where the monastery was and they said: OK. Here’s this little hut you can live in. You’ve got to keep these eight precepts…. It was solitude. No eating in the afternoon, no entertainments, celibacy… You know, the “thing.” So that was Day 2 of my meditation career. [laughs]

“And I thought, yeah, maybe a week of this and I’ll sort things out, and get back on the road. And after a week or so, I thought: Hey, I can sit still for 5 minutes. I’m nearly there! (Because I hadn’t sat still for 5 minutes in my life at all.) And then after a while I thought: Uhh, this might take a little longer. Maybe 3 months. And then: Well, it doesn’t seem to be quite settled yet, but probably a little longer should do it.

“So then it was 3 years that I was in this hut. In solitude. It was structured in terms of the meditation. And in a structured situation….”

From there Sucitto goes on to tell how after 3 years of practicing with great diligence, his father dies, so he goes back to where his mother is living in England, and finds that his practice — without the structure he’s been used to — completely falls apart. So he decides to join Ajahn Sumedho at a small monastery in London. He tells how the communal living situation was quite helpful to him, but this time, as far as the teachings were concerned, there was very little structure at all. Ajahn Sumedo’s instructions were:

Sit there. Everything that arises, passes away. Be with that.

Sucitto askes: But how do you mediate? 

Sumedho says: The thought: “How do you meditate” — notice that it arises, be with that, it will pass.

So there was very little structure to the practice. “But what was provided was a community structure. You lived together; you operated together; you had certain loyalties and affiliations to the teacher, to the other people in it — it was only a small group. So you were held within that. And you were held within a larger structure, which was all the lay people who would come round and help to hold the thing together. So there was a communal structure, a living structure. So gradually over time, that sort of began to replace my early structure.

“Then as I shifted, or as my mode of practice began to shift of its own accord, I thought: How would I try to sum up how to meditate? One day I had to go and teach a retreat. And I was in the shower and I thought: How do I meditate? (Showers are great because then people leave you alone. And you’ve got nice, soothing water running down!)

“So I thought: Well, you pay attention. You definitely pay attention. Yeah. And as you pay attention, then: You begin to widen and soften your attention. Yeah. And then: You meet what arises in your mind. Yeah. Meet what arises. Just meet it.

“And then as you get that underway, as you begin to meet stuff rather than react to it, shut it down, run away from it, proliferate on it, complain about it, identify with it, blame it on somebody else, blame it on yourself, try to sort it out in your head…. you just meet it.

“And as that becomes more available: Include it all.

“So you keep widening to include it all. Which means it comes into your day. As a model of how I practice — yeah, that’s about it. Then after years of just sensing that and practicing with that, the words “meet what arises” and “include it all” began to take on a larger significance.

“I was still operating within the boundaries of what I call “my mind.” My thoughts: I include all that. My reactions: Yeah. My emotions: I include all that.

“Then, as I began to include all that, I recognized there was something else I was leaving out. Which is: Other People. How they are. What’s happening for them. I decided I wanted to get interested in that. Learn to be still with them; pay attention to them; meet what arise in that; soften, widen, open my heart; meet what arises; whatever they’re experiencing — meet that. Include that.

“Rather than determine that they should be different; or give them a pill; or tell them to go away… You know: strategies. (Like: fix them; change them; even understand them.) Don’t bother! Just meet what arises; widen, soften; include it all. And see what happens with that.

“And through that I began to recognize just how many boundaries there are to cross. How many places or boundaries marked by fear, marked by people’s nervousness, marked by people’s criticisms of themselves and others, marked by people’s traumas, where they feel they can’t go, they’re not allowed, they’re not OK, there’s something wrong with them. These familiar boundaries that arise for people. Where they’re not being included.

“As I began to teach more, listening to people, more and more I began realizing: everybody’s feeling there’s something wrong with them and that they’re the odd one out. Or that they’re not included.

“They’ve been excluded by: the society, their parents, their partners, their health, their race, their gender… There’s something where they’ve been shut out. And they’re hurting because of that.

“So I began sensing that and not even fixing it or changing it or giving any anesthetics or sedatives (like: Don’t worry about it). But just meeting the pain. Of people’s hearts at this place of exclusion. And including that. And witnessing that.

“Then I thought: where does all this happen? When one realizes it’s so beautiful… It’s so beautiful, it’s so transformative, when we can — either within our self or with others — just be at the place of meeting. And widening. And including. And not naming, changing, fixing, analyzing…. Just including. What happens with that?

“So I’ve spend about twelve years doing this approach quite consciously with other people. Just to focus on that, notice what happens when we just sit together in presence and what arises. Whether it’s the agitations, the fears, the sense of what do we think about each other, the feelings of I’m not good enough for you or you think you’re not good enough for me, or we’d better keep talking and making something happen because we feel nervous, or you know…. Whatever. Just meeting that and letting that arise and pass.”


The talk, of course, goes on from there. I just wanted to give you a taste. The text is edited, mostly for readability. I strongly recommend you listen for yourself. (He has an accent. And he mumbles. But just get used to it.) He really does speak, as he says, “straight from the heart.” Which is so beautiful. Also, make sure you get all the way to the part at the end where he talks about what he means by citta, and how he has come to understand it as…. Well, listen to the talk and find out! Click here. (Start at the very beginning. It’s less than an hour. It’s so worth it.)