Seeking volunteers to facilitate meditation at Shakopee Women’s Correctional Facility

We are a group of eight women who individually facilitate a meditation circle of up to 12 women every Saturday from 8:00 – 10:00 am.  We also offer a half-day retreat once a quarter and a monthly meditation session on Sunday mornings, 9:00 – 10:00, for an accelerated program within the prison.  Volunteers find this to be a very rewarding experience which deepens our practice.  We see ourselves more as meditation facilitators than teachers.  Our weekly sessions typically include several short sitting periods, mostly guided, some mindful movement such as yoga and qigong, and a short reading for discussion.

In the past year, we began teaching a Buddhist Studies class each term of the year.  The chaplain has asked us to expand this effort and to teach two classes each term.

If we are able to recruit two additional volunteers, we will be able to meet this goal.

Ideally, we think volunteers would have a consistent meditation practice, at least two years involvement with Common Ground, some retreat experience, participation in the CG Buddhist Studies class or equivalent, and some community involvement with Common Ground.  Please be aware that all the current activities take place only on weekends.

Requirements of this Volunteer Effort:

– Background check, application approval, and annual training as a Shakopee volunteer.  The initial training is three hours.  Subsequent annual training sessions are about an hour.

– Volunteers need to be able to transport themselves to the prison.

– Only female volunteers are permitted to go by themselves, consequently male volunteers would not expand the capability of the volunteer pool, but would otherwise be welcome.

– Willingness to commit to approximately one Saturday morning a month and one half-day retreat twice a year.  Ideally, the volunteer would also be willing to lead some of the monthly Sunday morning sessions, and participate in teaching Buddhist Studies classes.

The correctional facility has an extensive, lengthy process for approving new volunteers, which includes a thorough background check and annual training.  We ask that you carefully assess your time availability prior to volunteering.  Once the approval and training are completed, volunteers are welcome to simply come along and observe as long as they wish before leading an activity.

Several of our members would be happy to meet with potential volunteers and talk about our practice with the facility residents.  If you are interested, or have questions, please contact Jan Young, who is our volunteer liaison with Shakopee, at  

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Sue Cochrane’s Four favorite Dharma Quotes

Sue Cochrane came to Common Ground over fifteen years ago to learn mindfulness– she was facing her first serious cancer diagnosis while parenting three young boys and working in her judicial career. When Sue first came to Common Ground she had over 20 years practicing the 12 steps of AA and she went first to the “Mindfulness and the 12 step practice meetings.” It was new, just begun by Craig Vollmar, our beloved teacher, leader and friend who passed away from cancer several years ago.

Sue served on the Family Court Bench in Hennepin County, Minnesota for eighteen years, after a career in legal services.  After her appointment to the Court in 1995, she pioneered a new model on her family court cases which transformed the structure and practice of Family Court into a humane, client-centered model.


Here are four quotes that have touched my heart and made an indelible impact on my practice, my work and my personal life. These are ones that I turn to constantly for support, and they always change my life for the better. It was deeply satisfying looking through a long list of my favorite quotes, which I have collected for years, and choosing these from the many.

  1. “The mind’s nature is vivid as a flawless piece of crystal.

     Intrinsically empty, naturally radiant, ceaselessly responsive” — Shabkar

    —I heard this in a talk from Joseph Goldstein years ago. It changed my understanding of emptiness from “drab” and “uninviting” to “radiant openness”— openness  to whatever arises or happens or approaches. My understanding is that when we open, and allow everything, compassion arises. In this talk, Goldstein also says, “Compassion and emptiness are not polarities– they are expressions of each other.” He talks of Bodhicitta, relative and ultimate. A life-changing talk.

    (Coincidentally I have been working on a memoir about my work in the courts called The Crystal Gavel and this quote added depth to my understanding of crystal.)

  2. “The practice of peace and reconciliation is one of the most vital and artistic of human actions.”   —Thich Nhat Hanh

     This quote affirmed my law work as “creative” —I realized when I read this, many years ago on a calendar, that I had not wasted my years as an artist. I struggled with regrets for years until I discovered this quote. Thich Nhat Hanh opened my eyes to see that by bringing my whole self to work—legal mind, artistic creativity, personal history—something artistic followed. Nothing needs to be left behind. This quote helped me realize trying to bring peace and reconciliation to serious conflict, every day, in ways that had not been imagined previously was an art. This work I did was based on what was needed in the moment. I loved working with that unpredictable and creative process, and am and grateful that Thich Nhat Hanh honors the work of peace and reconciliation for us all.

  3. “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.” —Dalai Lama

    I first heard this in another Joseph Goldstein talk and now see it frequently. I brought it as a theme for an international symposium on Love and the Law I co-designed, soon after receiving a terminal diagnosis. The work allowed me to pull together everything that was meaningful to me. Cheri Maples and Tara Brach and Alex Haley were teachers there. I also used these words to conclude an article I wrote that was published after the Symposium, in the International Journal of Collaborative Law. I am deeply grateful this message of practicing kindness always, (which I applied to the institution of the courts) made quite a stir at first, and now is making its way into many minds and hearts around the legal world. An excerpt of the article was published by the Fetzer Institute.

  4.  “Can this be okay?”  —Mark Nunberg

     When one of my sons was becoming aggressive and out-of-control, before we had an autism diagnosis, we had to turn to calling 911 to have him taken to the hospital for services. I was told by one psychologist he needed to go into an institution forever. I was crushed, but vowed not to let that happen. He made great progress after one intense hospitalization, and I was extremely hopeful; I was new to Common Ground and felt uplifted, thinking that my meditation practice was helping him and our family. I thought the worst was over. The very next day he tried to jump out of a moving car and went back into the same emergency psych unit. I lost all hope. I called Common Ground right from the ER. I am still amazed I did that. I did not know where else to turn. Mark answered the main number. I explained what happened, how all my hopes were dashed, and how devastated I was about his future. Mark’s first words were, “Can this be okay?” Standing there on the hospital’s hallway phone, listening as he said those words, I realized I could see my son.  He was sitting on a hospital bed, with a security guard at his side.  I suddenly knew, of course it is ok, it has already happened. I needed to open my heart to what happened, unconditionally. It was up to me to change in that moment, not him. I was able to feel my heart opening and felt burden lift. Over and over and over I turned to that question in my life with him, with all the difficulties and successes. He is thriving now. These are not just quotes to me, they are living practices. I am so grateful for the teachings you share so generously with us.

    —Sue Cochrane, June 2017

    Listen to Sue’s 2016 talk Awake in the Middleness of Life and Death


Meditation Instructions from Sayadaw U Tejaniya

Practice instructions from Sayadaw U Tejaniya, a Burmese meditation teacher and monk whose teachings have been influencing Mark Nunberg and other teachers in our tradition. Mark will be basing his Weekly Practice Group talks off of Sayadaw’s teachings.

Here are more instructions from the same retreat with Sayadaw.



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Generosity: The Art of Being Happy

Generosity: The Art of Being Happy
By Mark Nunberg

It’s nice to reflect on how Common Ground and this whole tradition is built on wholesomeness and the generosity of those who have come before us. It’s unfortunate that all of us, each in our own way, probably have some tension around generosity. It just brings up fear. But in the teachings of the Buddha generosity is really all about happiness. In order to live life and be happy, we need to understand the happiness of generosity. It’s just essential, whether we discover it in relationship with another human being, or in our places of work, or in the communities we are involved in. This circle of giving and receiving is really at the heart of being happy. It’s really the art of being happy.

It’s so beautiful how in the Buddhist tradition generosity is there, right from the very start. The Buddha, being a wise person, understood this basic law of happiness. If you put it in the opposite, it would all make so much sense: does anybody think that having a closed, stingy heart is the way to happiness? No. We know that so clearly. So why isn’t the opposite true? That a heart that is interested in contributing, interested in responding, interested in showing up in a generous way, offering the world what we have to offer, is a cause for happiness. Why don’t we see that?

There’s a beautiful story from the discourses all about this. It’s about Anathapindika, who was known as the number one lay supporter in terms of generosity. This story is from when he first met the Buddha. He was quite a wealthy merchant banker at the time of the Buddha. At one time he was visiting his mother-in-law’s place. Normally, they would treat him with a lot of respect when he would show up, but this time they were all very busy and didn’t seem too concerned with him. So he asked some of his relatives there what was going on, and they informed him that the Buddha and his monks and nuns were coming for their meal the next day, so they were busy getting prepared. When he heard that, he had to ask three times, “Did you say Buddha?” It awoke something in him, a sense that we probably all feel, about the possibility of being awake, of being in this world but not burdened by it, having a mind and body, living the life that we’re living, but not experiencing the weight that we usually experience in our lives.

It wasn’t easy for him to sleep that night. It is said that he woke up three times wanting it to be dawn, but it wasn’t, and the third time he just decided to go off into the night. The monks wouldn’t stay in the towns proper; they would be just outside, in the forest. So Anathapindika set off in the dark of night, and eventually he found the Buddha doing his walking practice in the very early morning, back and forth, mindful, serene, happy. And he didn’t really know what to say, he was a little tongue-tied, so he came up with a very simple statement: “I hope all is well with you sir.” The Buddha sensed the spiritual potential in Anathapindika, so he responded with this beautiful verse:

“Indeed the sage who is fully quenched rests at ease in every way. No sense desire adheres to him whose fire has cooled, deprived of fuel. All attachments have been severed. The heart has been led away from pain. Tranquil, he rests with utmost ease. The mind has found its way to peace.”

And as these stories often go, in that moment Anathapindika had a deep, transformative insight, which in the tradition is called stream-entry. It wasn’t just because of the Buddha’s words; it was probably due to a combination of factors: the Buddha’s words, his modeling of freedom, and Anathapindika’s receptivity. Because of these, Anathapindika understood what the Buddha was pointing to; he directly experienced the letting go of attachment, the letting go of identity, and had a real taste of the path. He became a great student of the Buddha, and there are many, many stories of how Anathapindika supported the nuns and monks. He built monasteries, including a very famous monastery where many of the talks we have today were heard and recorded, first via the oral tradition by memory, then written down centuries later. So we here at Common Ground are in a way the beneficiaries of Anathapindika’s generosity of supporting the monastic community back then.

So part of the understanding of generosity is learning, sensing what moves our heart. And wanting, wishing to respond to what moves our heart, whether we are currently moved by the injustice in the world, or we are moved by the suffering in our own heart or the suffering in our families, or whether your heart is moved by the beauty that you experience at times in the world, or the peace that you experience in your heart. But all of us in different ways, we experience deep movement. We sense what’s not ok, what needs to be addressed: the movement of compassion. We sense the beauty that exists or that is possible and we’re moved by that. But however we’re moved, we can acknowledge that movement, and let it blossom into action, blossom into a kind of trust. Or we let it blossom into our willingness to practice, or to sign up for our next retreat, or to do our morning sit.

In a way, we are falling in love. We all have this capacity for devotion. We see it a lot in the different religious and spiritual traditions. And it also exists in this practice, in this tradition. We channel the love for these teachings and how they support human beings, how they are a cause for people living more skillfully in the world. A verse from the Dhammapada (a famous collection of verses attributed to the Buddha) summarizes all the teachings: “To do good, to refrain from harming, and to develop the heart.” We all know directly in our experience the value of these teachings: to support what is good, to help us refrain from what isn’t helpful in the world and in our lives, and to develop the mind and heart in wisdom and love, resulting in clarity, resilience, stability, deeper understanding, and freedom from reactivity. To different degrees we know these qualities. So why not fall in love with what we directly know and support that so that it’s available for others?

That is the act of generosity. It needs to come out of our own life and our own life situation. It’s a natural movement. And it involves all of our faculties including the pragmatic faculties of understanding our life situation and duties and responsibilities: other beautiful, good things in our life that we’re inspired by, that we’re devoted to, that we want to help set in motion in the world. It’s a study of karma: we’re practicing being real with what we see is of value, sensing the tradition, the wholesomeness of these teachings, how much benefit human beings have found in these teachings, and wanting to be part of that wide and deep river of goodness, in a way that will feel and taste good, not just in the moment, but days, months, years after. That’s really the only way we get a sense of how to let generosity move through us. What will leave a good taste? What will actually be a cause for happiness for us?

Because that’s what it’s about. It isn’t so much about supporting the teachers or supporting Common Ground, or whatever we are moved to do; it’s about understanding how to participate in the causes for happiness, for ourselves and for the whole world. Because it makes us happy! So, the way you figure out how to do that is you have to pay attention to your happiness in the moment. And then just keep tracking it, like “how does that feel?” And then the next opportunity you have you’ll learn from the previous opportunity you had to give. And this isn’t just in our relationship to Common Ground, but in all places in our life, we are learning how to show up in a way that creates and supports the causes for happiness.

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Why and How We Sit

Why and How We Sit
April 19, 2017
Mark Nunberg

There’s an old saying: “If we always do what we’ve always done, we’ll always get what we’ve always got.”

This old proverb helps us understand why a person might want to sit down every day and train the heart. Otherwise, the mind is likely to follow the well-worn path of habit.

Mindful awareness illuminates the nature of the mind. It reveals the causes for stress and the causes for release.

Sitting practice expresses our confidence that we don’t have to repeat the past. Instead, we can be inspired to wake up and to express whatever freedom, wisdom, and compassion is possible.

Releasing Duties and Responsibilities:
Is it OK to put down the world?
Can we feel safe putting down, leaving behind all of our survival conditioning for a period of time?

Connecting with Things As They Are:
Undertake the training to connect and sustain attention with things as they are: non-conceptual knowing.

Can we experience the objects of experience not mediated by language?

We often start by turning the attention toward the sensations of sitting in a direct, inclusive, and fresh way: “Sensations are like this now.”

Acknowledge What Gets in the Way of Continuity of Present-Moment Awareness:
See distraction as a teacher. How is it that the mind gets caught up? Promise that is never kept!

Learn to recognize and even name the hindrances; acknowledge them as natural and impersonal forces in the mind; notice the effect of seeing them clearly.

Strategies for unhooking from seductive patterns.

Acknowledge the Wholesome Qualities of Mind:
Is it possible to become as fluent in recognizing the wholesome qualities (mindfulness, interest, energy, joy, calm, stillness, and equanimity) as we have become with the unskillful forces in the mind?

What happens when the mind clearly acknowledges these wholesome states? What happens when the mind becomes attached to pleasantness of wholesome states?

Notice the emotional healing.

Continuity of Awareness Reveals the Causes for Stress and Its Release:

Wise and continuous awareness wears out habits of:
Stinginess (dana),
Harming (sila),
Distraction (doing),
Attachment (renunciation of form, dispassion with perception and feeling, cessation of doing/intention, and relinquishment of self-framing)

Experiencing simple joy/release of non-attachment, appreciating the path and sharing the merit/blessings

Click here for a related Dharma talk Mark gave at IMS in May called “Understanding the Path”.

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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

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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