Sunday, October 29, 2006


How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant of the weak and strong. Because someday in life you will have been all of these.

George Washington Carver

Or, as the saying goes, there but for the grace of God goes I.

Treat not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.

Udana-Varga 5.18

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Mindfulness and non-attachment

Don’t tire your mind by worrying about what is real
and what isn’t,
About what to accept and what to reject.
If you want to know the One,
let your senses experience what comes your way,
But don’t be swayed and don’t involve yourself in what comes.
The wise man acts without emotion
and seems not to be acting at all.
The ignorant man lets his emotions get involved.
The wise man knows that all things are part of the One.
The ignorant man sees differences everywhere.

Gatha of Seng T'san, Third Chan Patriarch

Monday, October 16, 2006

Marriage and non-attachment

Disclaimer: I was married before I began learning about Buddhism, and I am very happy as a married person, so perhaps the following analysis is biased.

Non-attachment is often spoken of as a Buddhist ideal. The Dalai Lama said once that attachment is the "root of suffering." If non-attachment and equanimity are the pavingstones of the road to nirvana, then how can it be beneficial to get married?

I think that non-attachment is too often interpreted to as indifference and detachment. Non-attachment does not mean that one must have no love or connection to any thing or being, but rather that such love or connection should be open, accepting and non-differential. It does not mean that you walk into the ice cream shop and tell the girl behind the counter, "I'll take anything." It means that one must be willing to enjoy a scoop of black cherry on a cake cone if the store is all out of mint chocolate chip and waffle cones.

So, what does that have to do with a marriage? A marriage relationship should be a partnership of equals who respect one another's space, physically and otherwise. It is OK if one partner likes tennis and the other does not, as long as the tennis-loving partner can go play a few sets without the other partner feeling bad. It's no problem if they do not share all of the same friends, so long as each respects the other and the couple can strike a balance in how they spend time with friends and with each other.

My brother boasted to me some time ago that he and his partner had been together every day over the course of their six-year relationship. He told me this with the expectation that I would be impressed by it, but I had the opposite response. I thought it was a little sad and unhealthy. I have asked my brother out to dinner, etc., only to have him decline or (worse yet) cancel at the last minute because his partner didn't want to go. This surprised me. I always thought that there is nothing wrong with a partner going out for an evening with a friend or relative without the other person. It does not make one disloyal and it does not mean the former is abandoning the latter. I believe my brother's relationship with his partner is one laced with possessiveness and unhealthy degrees of attachment.

My husband is going to Boston (we live in Florida) for the weekend to visit his father and a couple of old fraternity brothers. Ordinarily I would go with him, but I have commitments at work that I must keep. While I will miss his company while he is gone, I do not feel jealousy or sadness that he is going. I am glad he can go even though I cannot join him. I believe that this is good, because it indicates that I can love without possessiveness.

Anyway, I have wondered about the idea of marriage and its compatibility with Buddhist principles of non-self, non-attachment and equanimity.

I welcome comments - please!

Sunday, October 15, 2006


Taking refuge in the Three Jewels is not something that is done once, but something that all Buddhists should do as a matter of daily living. The Three Jewels--Buddha, Dharma and Sangha--are the cornerstone principles of Buddhist practice and in them, one finds refuge, an escape from the cycle of suffering called samsara.

Lately I have been very busy with my work, and while I never violated any of the precepts, I stopped my daily practice of mindfulness meditation and in general lived less mindfully. Exhausted by the stress of daily life, a couple of weeks ago I looked at myself in the mirror and realized I had moved away from the refuge of the Three Jewels. I had not been studying the Buddha's teachings, and I had ceased developing myself as a dharmasattva, a wise being. I had found myself disconnected from other dharma students who form my loosely-organized sangha.

Realizing the damage I was doing to myself physically, spiritually and mentally by neglecting my practice, I have come back to the refuge of the Three Jewels and assumed again the daily practice of mindfulness meditation.

So what I'm saying is that refuge is not something one does once, when one recites the three-pronged vow, but rather something one does again and again. One can stray and return, as I have.

At the foot of the Bodhi tree, beautifully seated, peaceful and smiling, the living source of understanding and compassion, to the Buddha I go for refuge.

The path of mindful living, leading to healing, joy, and enlightenment,
the way of peace, to the Dhamma I go for refuge.

The loving and supportive community of practice, realizing harmony, awareness, and liberation,
to the Sangha I go for refuge.

I am aware that the Three Gems are within my heart, I vow to realize them.

I vow to practice mindful breathing and smiling, looking deeply into things.

I vow to understand living beings and their suffering, to cultivate compassion and loving kindness,
and to practice joy and equanimity.

I vow to offer joy to one person in the morning and to help relieve the grief of one person in the afternoon. I vow to live simply and sanely, content with just a few possessions, and to keep my body healthy.

I vow to let go of all worry and anxiety in order to be light and free.

I am aware that I owe so much to my parents, teachers, friends and all beings.

I vow to be worthy of their trust, to practice wholeheartedly, so that understanding and compassion will flower, and I can help living beings be free from their suffering.

May the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha support my efforts.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Nirvana and Vedic fire physics

I just read the most amazing book entitled The Mind Like Fire Unbound by Thannisaro Bhikkhu. It's available free online here. It's an essay (about 115 pages in print) that explains what the Buddha meant when he described nirvana as the extinguishing of a fire.

Thannisaro argues that it is misleading to interpret the Buddha's fire analogy using modern ideas about the physics of fire (ignition, fuel, oxygen, etc.). Instead, we need to look at how people in India understood the physics of fire in Buddha's time. The Vedic theory of fire held that the essence of fire never actually dies, but rather is latent and omnipresent everywhere, becoming active and visible to us when it is "agitated" and "attaches" or "binds" to a fuel source (dried grass, oil, wood, fat, etc.). A fire goes out when the essence of fire unbinds or detaches from the fuel source.

Thanissaro points out that the very origin of the term nirvana points to this interpretation. In ancient Sanskrit, the prefix nir meant "not" or "un-" and the word vana meant "bound" or "attached." Consequently, nirvana should be understood as the unbinding of the mind, which causes the fires of passion, delusion and ignorance to flicker and die out.

A more abstract aspect of his argument goes to the idea that the state of nirvana is not unlike that of inactive fire, latent and omnipresent, undescribable and indeterminate. When asked to describe the nature of nirvana after death, the Buddha consistently described it as undescribable.

Anyways, I can't do justice to Thanissaro's argument in a short blog entry, but I highly recommend that you check it out. It's nothing short of brilliant and excellent fodder for contemplative meditation.


May we all be unbound from the fire of samsara.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Reincarnation (cartoon)

This is not, strictly speaking, an accurate statement of Buddhist principles, but it sure is funny.


"Suffering" and the Four Noble Truths

Most translations of the Four Noble Truths refer to "suffering."

Although I am hardly a scholar of Pali or Sanskrit, it seems to me that, at least insofar as these translations are targeted towards Buddhists in the English-speaking west, it might be better to use a different terminology.

In contemporary English usage, "suffering" has the connotation of physical pain or discomfort. Of course, the Buddha was referring to mental and spiritual suffering or anguish as well as physical pain.

The Sanskrit term dukkha connotes insufficiency, inadequacy, imbalance, uneasiness, impermanence and imperfection:

In classic Sanskrit, the term dukkha was often compared to a large potter's wheel that would screech as it was spun around, and did not turn smoothly. The opposite of dukkha was the term sukkha which brought to mind a potter's wheel that turned smoothly and noiselessly. In other Buddhist-influenced cultures, similar imagery was used to describe dukkha. An example from China is the cart with one wheel that is slightly broken, so that the rider is jolted now and again as the wheel rolls over the broken spot.

[from Wikipedia]

If one must translate dukkha into a single English word, perhaps it is better to think of "dissatisfaction" or "discontentment" rather than "suffering."

If I was trying to explain the Four Noble Truths to a non-Buddhist, I would explain it like this:

  1. Life is inherently unsatisfying. Nothing lasts forever. All things must come to an end. Even those things we believe are lasting are in fact fleeting. Everything around us (and within us) has a beginning and an end.

  2. There is a reason life is unsatisfying. Our dissatisfaction arises from our mistaken belief in the continuity of things around us.

  3. There is a way to overcome such dissatisfaction. If we can learn to live in a way that is mindful and accepting of the impermanence of things, then we will no longer feel so unhappy and unsatisfied.

  4. One can overcome dissatisfaction and achieve nirvana by living in accordance with the Eightfold Path. The Eightfold Path is a set of practices that enable us to live more mindfully so that we feel at peace with the impermanent nature of the universe.

I think too many non-Buddhists hear the word "suffering" and immediately think that Buddhism is pessimistic and bleak. Perhaps by using a different, less negatively connotative terminology we can give English-speaking Westerners a clearer picture of the Four Noble Truths.

Or perhaps it is better not to translate dukkha into a single word and instead to try and define it contextually.


I'm back!

I let myself get a little too carried away by my work obligations and I have neglected myself spiritually.

I am back on the wagon (which looks a lot like a dharma wheel) and back into blogland.