What is our practice?

Dear Friends,

Mindfulness is the practice of opening to and understanding the moment just as it is, whether we are practicing sitting meditation, cooking dinner, or advocating for justice. To begin we make the necessary effort to calm the mind and heart. Without this first step our intention to be present is often overwhelmed by the mind’s habits to struggle with conditions. Instead of struggling, we practice trusting the mind’s capacity to be relaxed, clear, intimate, and willing to feel how it is. This simple, clear seeing is at the heart of mindfulness practice.

Mindfulness is all about cultivating a continuous present-moment awareness. We train in persistence, a willingness to begin over and over again. This training is overseen by the wise and kind heart that appreciates how difficult it is to remain present. Still, no matter how difficult it appears to be, our practice is to gently and persistently return to the simple truth, “This is being known.” Awareness is already available and knowing; the practice is to simply and clearly recognize, “This is being known.” Many people develop whole-body awareness, a direct, non-conceptual knowing of sensation, as a means for developing momentum in their practice. Daily sitting practice and an effort to be present throughout the day are causes for greater joy, tranquility, and insight. This capacity to be present is our wise friend, protector, and guide – this is how we live with greater wisdom, compassion, and ease.

Mark Nunberg
Guiding Teacher

“Nothing whatsoever is to be clung to as I or mine. To have heard this phrase is to have heard all the teachings, to have practiced this is to have practiced all the teachings, and to have understood this is to have understood all that needs to be understood.”
— The Buddha

Posted in Guiding Teacher Letters, Teachings & Reflections

Sutta Study Reflection Theme 5-6-17

From Craving to Liberation, From Grasping to Emptiness: Excursions into the Thought-World of the Pali Discourses by Bhikkhu Analayo,

Chapter 24, Liberation / Vimutti

To be read out loud:

24.2 Third paragraph on page 289 to the last full paragraph on page 291

24.2 Second paragraph page 294 through end of section page 296

24.3 Last two paragraphs of this section on pages 298-299

Practice theme:

In the same way we learn to notice when the mind is under the influence of any of the hindrances or afflictive emotions, we should also train the mind to clearly recognize moments when not affected by afflictive qualities. Awakening depends on the inspiration/energy that arises when the mind more and more realizes the previously unimaginable potential of release. Thich Nhat Hanh uses the image of learning to notice the non toothaches in life, can we recognize moments of non suffering, the heart temporarily free of being burdened? In whatever way our hearts can be burdened, we can also experience a liberation from that burdensomeness, in the moment that the mind releases its grip.

Venerable Analayo mentions many important but temporary liberations mentioned in the early texts. Here are a few that we can keep in mind this month: a mind established in metta as the escape from ill-will, compassion as an escape from vexation, appreciative joy as an escape from discontent, and equanimity as an escape from passion. Whereas temporary liberation arises whenever the mind is able to abandon or suppress one or more of the defilements, permanent liberation arises when ignorance or wrong view is uprooted from the mindstream. At that point the mind is no longer able to be confused or burdened by defilements.

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Wisdom from Kabir, Mark Nunberg, and Agnes De Mille

Living is a form of not being sure, not knowing what next or how. The moment you know how, you begin to die a little. The artist never entirely knows. We guess. We may be wrong, but we take leap after leap in the dark.
-Agnes De Mille

I said to the wanting-creature inside me:
What is this river you want to cross?
There are no travelers on the river-road, and no road.
Do you see anyone moving about on that bank, or nesting?

There is no river at all, and no boat, and no boatman.
There is no tow rope either, and no one to pull it.
There is no ground, no sky, no time, no bank, no ford!

And there is no body, and no mind!
Do you believe there is some place that will make the
soul less thirsty?
In that great absence you will find nothing.

Be strong then, and enter into your own body;
there you have a solid place for your feet.
Think about it carefully!
Don’t go off somewhere else!

Kabir says this: just throw away all thoughts of
imaginary things,
and stand firm in that which you are.


A parable from Mark Nunberg about screen doors as a metaphor for looking at things through the lens of the 5 Aggregates rather than the lens of identification:
Imagine a person who loved screens. Perhaps their family business was to make them. This person notices everything about a particular screen: the color of the wire, the size of the screen, how far apart the threads are, whether it is clean or dirty. They spend a long time every day fixated intensely on the screen on their back door. One day someone suggests that there is something about screens they are not noticing. At first they are affronted, but they believe them enough to investigate. They look at the screen with a beginner’s mind, as though it is the first time they are seeing it. The focus of their eyes relax and lo and behold they are able to see beyond the screen and into the back yard.


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Thoughts from Myoshin Kelley and Mark Nunberg

Hi all,

Thanks to Andrew for taking these notes at recent weekly practice groups!

A paraphrase from Myoshin’s talk: The Buddha did teach that the nature of all phenomena is emptiness, but this does not mean a void. It is better understood as unknowableness; beyond our ability to conceive. It conveys a sense of possibility; unlimited potential for anything to appear, change, or disappear.

A story from a talk from Mark, about the power and danger of having a mind: a man is wandering through the desert and wishes for some shade. All of a sudden, he comes across a tree. Happily, he sits down under it but after a while he starts to get lonely. As soon as the thought occurs to him, someone else wanders up to the tree and joins him. “This is great,” he thinks. If only we had some food and drink to enjoy here, and it appears. At this point the man gets suspicious and thinks “I wonder if there’s a demon in this tree” and a demon appears. “Oh no,” he thinks, “I wonder if it will eat me”. And sure enough it does.

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Letting Go

Letting go happens, but it’s not something we decide to do. It happens because there is understanding, and understanding brings change.

An excerpt from The Way It Is by Ajahn Sumedho:

The Buddha pointed to the way of seeing things as they are; this is what we mean by ‘enlightenment’. Seeing the way it actually is, we aren’t doomed to living in a realm which there’s no way out of. There’s a clear way out of that realm of misery; a very precise way. So the Buddha said “I teach only two things: suffering and the end of suffering.”

So Buddhism is a baffling religion to Westerners because it has no doctrinal position. It’s not making doctrinal statements about ultimate reality or anything: there’s just suffering and the end of suffering. That is to be realized now; to realize the end of suffering you have to admit and really know what suffering is because the problem isn’t with the suffering but with the delusion and the grasping. And we really have to understand suffering – so according to the sermon of the Four Noble Truths, suffering is to be understood. There is suffering. It should be understood.

In our daily life here at Amaravati we notice when we are suffering. We can blame it on the weather, blame it on the people or blame it on whatever, but that’s not the point; because even if someone is treating us badly, that’s just the way the world is. Sometimes people treat us well, sometimes they treat us badly because of this worldly concern for conditions; but the suffering is something we create.

In a monastery we’re trying to act in responsible ways so that we’re not intentionally causing anyone to suffer. We’re here to encourage each other towards moral responsibility, towards co-operation, kindness, compassion. That’s our intention.

Sometimes we get lost – we blow up at each other, or we do things that aren’t very nice – but that’s not our intention; these are the heedless moments. I conduct myself in a moral way not only for my own benefit, for my own practice, but out of respect for you and towards the Sangha, for the community around us: to be someone who lives within the restraints of the moral precepts.

Then my intention is towards my relationship with you, towards mettá, kindness and compassion, joy, calm, serenity. At least the intention for everyone of us is to do good, refrain from doing evil. And that helps us to look at the suffering we create in a community that’s aiming at that – because a lot of you really suffer here. And this is to be understood. It’s the First Noble Truth, dukkha, the suffering of not getting what we want; the suffering of things not being the way we want them, of separation from what we like; the suffering of having to do that which we don’t want to do, of having to be restrained when we want to be unrestrained.

I think of how easy it is to create you in my mind. “The nuns are like this: the anagarikas are like that, Bhikkhus are like this,” and so forth. One can have these biases: “Women are this way; men are that way, Americans are like this and the English are like that.” We can believe that, but these are perceptions of the mind, views that arise and cease. And yet we can create a lot of suffering about them. “This one doesn’t come to the morning chanting or that one isn’t doing their share of the work and this one thinks they’re too important” or whatever, but the important point is the suffering, the dukkha, because when we have that, we create despair in our minds. We get annoyed, indignant and that all takes us to a sense of despair. If we don’t understand dukkha here, then we’re not going to understand it wherever we are: in London or in Bangkok or in Washington DC; on a mountaintop or in a valley; with the good people or the bad people. So it’s really important to observe suffering to know the dukkha.

There are three insights into the First Noble Truth: there is dukkha; it should be understood; it has been understood. That’s how insight works; recognition of it; it’s something to understand; begin to know when we understand it. So that’s the three insights into the First Noble Truth.

The Second Noble Truth is the origin of dukkha: there is an origin; it’s due to the grasping of desire. The second insight of the Second Noble Truth is that this attachment to desire – this identification with desire being ‘me’ and ‘mine’, this following of desire – should be let go of, leaving it as it is. Then the third insight of the Second Noble Truth is: desire has been let go of – through practice. Dukkha has been let go of.

There is the first insight into each of the truths: pariyatti – an observing that there is suffering, its origin, and so forth. Then there’s the patipatti or the insight into practice. What we do. How we practice. And then the third insight is the pativedhi or the wisdom. It has been understood; it has been let go of.

Now when there’s that insight:, ‘The origin of suffering has been let go of’, there is knowledge of that result – actually letting go. You know what it’s like not to be attached to something. Like this clock. This is holding the clock; it’s like this. And now I’m aware of what it’s like not holding the clock. If I’m holding things and I’m heedless, then I don’t even notice I’m not holding things. When there’s no grasping, I’m not aware of it. A really ignorant and heedless person is so caught up with grasping that even though they’re not grasping something all the time, the habit is such that they only notice when they are grasping at something. Like now, many of you feel fully alive only when you’re filled with greed or anger of some form or other. So letting go can be quite frightening to people; when they let go of things, they feel like they’re no longer alive.

There’s a lot of investment in being a person. Even the view that ‘I have a bad temper; I have a lot of anger,’ can be a kind of conceit. If I’m angry I feel very much alive. Sexual desire makes the ‘I’ feel alive – and that’s why there’s so much obsession with sex in modern European lives. And when there’s no sexual desire, no anger, I want to fall asleep. I’m nothing. When there’s no mindfulness at all, one just has to seek more sensual pleasure – to eat something, to drink something, take drugs or watch something on the TV, read something or do something dangerous. You can break the law just because it’s exciting to do so.

Now imagine trying to get people to spend a weekend just holding a clock noticing what it is like holding a clock! What a waste of time, I could be out terrorizing the police, I could be at a disco – with strobe lights, with music blaring in my ears, with pot and L.S.D. and Scotch! Being attentive to the way things are, no longer just distracting the mind, sounds really painful by comparison.

This evening we’re going to sit in meditation until midnight. It’s a chance to observe more fully what it’s like to be sitting; what it’s like when the mind is filled with thoughts and when there are no thoughts; when there is suffering and when there isn’t suffering. If you have a view that sitting until midnight is going to be suffering you have already committed yourself to suffering until midnight.

But if you start examining that very view, or fear, or doubt in your mind for what it is you can observe when it’s present and when it’s not present. If you’re suffering then you’re not thinking there’s any suffering. Then there’s this feeling of suffering and you’re attached to the view ‘I’m suffering and I have to sit up and I’m tired.’ So the First Noble Truth: ‘there’s suffering, suffering is to be understood’, and this is through an admission, a recognition and an understanding.

The insight of the Second Noble Truth is to let go of it, to leave it alone – don’t make anything out of an all-night sitting. These are perceptions. They’re nothing, really: if you’re using the situation for reflection and contemplation of when there is suffering – then there isn’t suffering. I’m aware of holding this thought, grasping this thought, or of not grasping this thought. One can pick things up or put them down, knowing how to use these things rather than having a blind obsession of grasping or rejecting. I can put down the clock, but I don’t have to throw it away, do I? It’s not that holding the clock is wrong, unless there is ignorance about it. One is aware of the grasping and the non-grasping, holding and not holding.

So the Third Noble Truth – there is the cessation of suffering. When you let go of something and you realize letting go, your habits become your teachers. When you let go of suffering, suffering ceases. ‘There is cessation and it should be realized’ – this is the second insight into the Third Noble Truth. And this is our practice: to realize cessation, to notice when suffering ceases. It’s not that everything’s going to disappear, but the feeling of suffering and ‘I am’ ceases. This is not to be believed, but to be realized – and then there is the third insight: that cessation has been realized.

This leads to the insight into the Fourth Noble Truth concerning the Eightfold Path, the Way out of suffering. These insights connect to one another. It’s not that first you do one and then you do the other – they support each other. As we have the insight into letting go, as we realize cessation then there is the right understanding and the rest follows from that – the development of wisdom or paññá.

Now don’t see this as something that deals with just very deep and important issues, because it’s about the here and now, the way things are. We’re not thinking about extreme situations to work with, but just sitting, standing, walking, lying down, breathing, feeling as normal beings, living in a moral environment with the way it is. We don’t have to go into hell to really see suffering; we’re not seeking it.

We can create hell at Amaravati, not because Amaravati is hell, but because we create it with all kinds of miserable things from our mind, and this is the suffering we can work with. It’s just the suffering in this normal human realm where our intentions are to refrain from doing evil, to do good, to develop virtue, and to be kind. There’s still enough suffering here to contemplate these Four Noble Truths with their twelve aspects.

You can memorize them; then, wherever you are, you’ve got something to contemplate. Eventually you let go of all these things because they aren’t ends in themselves either, but like tools they are to be used. You learn to use these tools, and when you’ve finished you don’t need to hang on to them. Signifying this, the Buddha referred to his teaching as a raft, which you can make out of the things around you. You don’t have to have a special motorboat or submarine or luxury liner. A raft is something you make from the things around, just to get across to the other shore. We’re not trying to make a super-duper vehicle; we’re able to use what’s around us for enlightenment. The raft is to carry us across the sea of ignorance and when we get to the other shore, we can let it go – which doesn’t mean you have to throw it away.

This ‘other shore’ can also be a delusion, because the other shore and this one are really the same shore. It’s merely an allegory. We have never really left the other shore, we’ve always been on the other shore anyway; and the raft is something we use to remind us that we don’t really need a raft. So there’s absolutely nothing to do, to be mindful, to be able to sit, stand, walk, lie down, eat your food, breathe – all the opportunities as humans to do good. We have this lovely opportunity in the human realm to be good, to be kind, to be generous, to love others, to serve others, to help others. This is one of the most lovely qualities of being human.

We can decide not to do evil. We don’t have to kill, lie, steal, go around distracting ourselves and drugging ourselves, getting lost in moods and feelings. We can be free from all that. It’s a wonderful opportunity in the human form to refrain from evil and to do good – not in order to store up merit for the next life, but because this is the beauty of our humanity. Being a human can be a joyful experience rather than an onerous task.

And so when we contemplate this, we begin to really appreciate this birth in a human form. We feel grateful to have this opportunity to live with our teacher, the Buddha, and our practice, the Dhamma; and to live in the Sangha.

Sangha represents the human community as unified in virtuousness and moral restraint; it is the soul force of the human realm. That which is truly benevolent in humanity has its effect on the moral aspects that abide in the human realm. So all sentient beings are benefited by that. What would it be like if there were just a selfish humanity, with every man for himself, endlessly making demands, not caring about each other at all? It would be a terrible place to live. Therefore we don’t do that; we abide in the Sangha, an abiding where we live together within a convention that encourages morality and respect for each other. This is for reflection, for contemplation; you have to know it for yourself; nobody can realize it for you. You have to arouse yourself, and not depend on something external pushing you or holding you up.

We even have to let go of our need to be inspired. We have to develop the strength to where we no longer need any kind of inspiration or encouragement from anyone else – because inspiration isn’t wisdom, is it. You get high – ‘Ajahn Sumedho’s wonderful’ – and then after a while you don’t get high on me any more, and then: ‘Ajahn Sumedho’s disappointing, he’s let me down’. Inspiration is like eating chocolate: it tastes good and it’s very attractive but it’s not going to nourish you; it only energizes momentarily and that’s all it can do. So it’s not wise to depend on whether people live in the way that you want them to or whether they never disappoint you.

It’s so important to develop insight through practice, because inspiration just wears out – and if you are attached and blinded by it, then you are in for terrible disillusionment and bitterness. There’s a lot of this with different charismatic, guru-figures that teach around the world. It’s not balanced, is it? As intoxicated as you can get with somebody else’s charisma, you can’t maintain it. So it inevitably involves falling down into some lower state.

The way of mindfulness is however always appropriate to the time and the place, to the way things are in their good and bad aspects. Then suffering isn’t dependent on the world being good or bad, but on how willing we are to use wisdom in this present moment. The way out of suffering is now, in being able to see things as they are.



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Sutta Study Discussion Theme 4-1-17

From Craving to Liberation, From Grasping to Emptiness: Excursions into the Thought-World of the Pali Discourses by Bhikkhu Analayo,

Chapter 23, Emptiness / Sunnata

To be read out loud:

23.1  Second paragraph p. 273 “Hence…” to end of section.

23.3 Whole section

23.4 Last paragraph on p. 280 until end of chapter p. 281

Practice theme:

Venerable Analayo reports that in the early texts the adjective ‘sunna’ or being empty of something was used more often than the abstract noun ‘sunnata’ or emptiness. This means that the Buddha, in his usual pragmatic fashion, was instructing folks to be mindful of moments when the mind is empty of greed, anger and delusion; or empty of identification with the idea of a permanent self; or the environment is empty of stimuli that might trigger latent tendencies of greed, anger and delusion. In other words, the Buddha used the concept of emptiness is a tool or skillful means used to support the arising of insight and release. The path of practice is learning to recognize, wake up to, the mind empty of any of the distorting effects of wrong view. Do we know this mind? Ajahn Chah refers to awakening as the reality of non-grasping – realizing the mind empty of grasping.

Understanding the Buddha’s teachings on emptiness reveals much about the practice. We hear how the practice is not about striving to attain some special state, but when we understand this teaching on sunnata, at least intellectually, we will naturally orient our practice in a way that is more about abandoning what is burdensome and unnecessary. In section 23.2 Analayo mentions the Culasunnata sutta where the Buddha explains to Ananda his meditation practice of ‘dwelling in emptiness’. Please consider listening to Ajahn Punnadhammo’s brief introduction and guided meditation using the Buddha’s teachings from this sutta. Here is the link: http://dharmaseed.org/teacher/8/talk/19346/

This month, let’s cultivate the perception that the mind’s empty nature is already here and now. Due to the force of habit the mind regularly fixates on and reacts to mental activities in a way that obscures or distorts the empty (of self) nature of the mind. With practice, wisdom develops and the mind remains more and more unconfused by the habits of greed, anger and delusion or any other self centered patterns of mind. This sets up the possibility of insight, the mind recognizing its empty nature.

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Quotes and Resources from Nils’ and Wynn’s Talks This Week

From Nils Heymann’s talk:

The Buddha’s First Discourse: Setting in Motion the Wheel of the Dharma

Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare. -Audre Lorde.

From Wynn Fricke’s talk:

A Victim Treats his Mugger Right

“When one intends to move or when one intends to speak, one should first examine one’s own mind and then act appropriately with composure. When one sees one’s mind to be attached or repulsed, then one should neither act nor speak, but remain still like a piece of wood. When my mind is haughty, sarcastic, full of conceit and arrogance, ridiculing, evasive and deceitful, when it is inclined to boast, or when it is contemptuous of others, abusive, and irritable, then I should remain still like a piece of wood. When my mind is averse to the interests of others and seeks my own self-interest, or when it wishes to speak out of a desire for an audience, then I will remain still like a piece of wood. When it is impatient, indolent, timid, impudent, garrulous, or biased in my own favor, then I will remain still like a piece of wood.”


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Self-Acceptance and Equanimity

Quotes from Mark’s talks this week.

“What makes us a powerful learner and creatively engaged is equanimity: moving into the world with an open heart and mind.”

“If we do not realize thought is impersonal, we assume ‘if I had this thought, it must be what I want’; but thoughts are conditional.”

“Awareness is never separate from the object being known, but we choose whether to focus more on the ‘object’ or the ‘being known’.'”

Quote from Cornel West: “Justice is what love looks like in public.”

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Poem: Autobiography in Five Short Chapters

Autobiography In Five Short Chapters

Chapter I

I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost… I am hopeless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.

Chapter II

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in this same place.
But it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

 Chapter III

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it there.
I still fall in… it’s a habit… but,
my eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

 Chapter IV

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

Chapter V

I walk down another street.

– Portia Nelson

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Engaging this Messy World with the Wisdom of Non Attachment


History, despite its wrenching pain cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again. —Maya Angelou

Mindfulness must be engaged. Once there is seeing, there must be action. —Thich Nhat Hanh

Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced. —James Baldwin

Chan Master Yunmen, 9th century, when asked “What is the work of the Buddha’s whole life” replied, “An appropriate response.”

Do mindful awareness and the letting go of attachment make us incapable of being a happy human being with a personality, relationships, and responsibilities? Does non-attachment allow for a greater intimacy in life, or does it lead to a disconnection and distancing from life’s joys and sorrows? Do we need attachment in order to deeply care about and respond to the suffering we see and feel in and around us? Is our experience of non-attachment enlivening or deadening? The Buddha’s teachings point to a heart free from greed, anger and delusion—realizing a mind that is no longer governed and distorted by these deeply conditioned impersonal habits. How have we experienced non-attachment, or what Ajahn Chah called “the reality of non- grasping”? Do we see it as a true refuge for the heart?

We all know that it is not easy being a human being. With some practice we can begin to see more clearly that being attached to opinions and expectations results in the heart being uneasy and tight. The mind’s habit is to struggle with the conditions of life. It thinks that grasping and rejecting experience is functional and leads to happiness. Does it? Perhaps this pervasive habit of attachment is the source of all suffering. If this were seen to be true, wouldn’t we seek a way to be free from this pervasive habit? Seeing how attachment operates in our own mind breaks the heart open with compassion for all the suffering that this pattern sets in motion in the wider world.

Life demands both a whole- hearted engagement and an absence of attachment. What would be the alternative? Living our lives attached to half-hearted avoidance? Does anybody think that this is a winning strategy for a good life and a good world? Let’s remember, non- attachment is not the same as non- engagement. Non-attachment is only realized through engagement, being intimate. The relevant question is, will this way of relating and engaging cause suffering? When we are attached to keeping distant from messy parts and holding on to what we find pleasant, we lose our authentic connection with life as it is. Real freedom, wisdom and love are found in moments of fearless engagement with life through a mind free from attachment. We transform our hearts and the world by cultivating and living with this deep understanding.

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