Grief in Buddhism: What are the teachings about it, and how are we supposed to practice with it? It’s often easy to suppress or bypass our grief. This may leave us stuck in one of the early stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, or depression), or unable to face reality or live with a fully open heart. Unfortunately, some Buddhist teachings may seem to suggest it’s better if we don’t feel grief. I explore the question of grief and how we can practice with it in Buddhism in a fruitful and beneficial way.
The Lotus Sutra is one of the oldest and most central sutras in Mahayana Buddhism. The sutra states repeatedly that people who perform small acts of devotion, such as making an offering at memorial to the Buddha, “have fulfilled the Buddha Way.” What does this mean? I think the Lotus Sutra, and Mahayana Buddhism more generally, is saying that we can transform the universe in an instant, that the smallest of our actions matters, and that the key to all of it is the state of our own mind and heart.
I continue in a second episode with my reflections on Chan master Hongzhi’s “Guidepost of Silent Illumination. I discuss the interdependence of absolute and relative and why that matters in real life; how skillful bodhisattva action arises out of zazen; how silence is the supreme mode of communication, and how serenity and illumination – calm and insight – are both contained in zazen.
In this episode and the next, I’m going to riff off of 12th-century Chan master Hongzhi’s short text, “Guidepost of Silent Illumination,” one of the most positive and encouraging Zen teachings a know. By “riff” I mean I’ll play off of, and spontaneously elaborate on, Hongzhi’s words, as opposed to explaining or analyzing them in an exhaustive or comprehensive way. I take this approach because it’s more fun, but also because “Guidepost of Silent Illumination,” like most Chan and Zen writings, is essentially poetry.
Buddhism’s central point is nothing other than impermanence, or the “Great Matter of Life-and-Death.” Our practice goes far beyond platitudes or beliefs meant to make you feel better about the whole affair. Instead, the essence of our practice is a direct and personal exploration of the experience and implications of being alive in a world where there is absolutely nothing unchanging for us to hold on to. Except, of course, that very fact, and the fact that being fully alive means we don’t hold on to anything at all.
Fear is a natural response that helps us protect ourselves and our loved ones, but it can also be inappropriate and debilitating. Buddhist practice offers many ways to help us manage our fear. We start with mindfulness of fear in and of itself, and then become mindful of what feeds it versus what decreases it. We then act in ways that increase our equanimity. We also let go of expectations, assumptions, and narratives in order to decrease suffering and ground ourselves in the absolute aspect of reality.
Self-esteem is absolutely essential in Buddhist practice, but it may seem like self-esteem has no place in Buddhism. The Buddha taught us to stop identifying anything as I, me, or mine, because doing so leads to suffering. In Mahayana Buddhism we say the self is empty of any inherently-existing, enduring, independent self-nature. What exactly is it we’re supposed to hold in esteem, or have confidence in? If the main point is to transcend self-concern, isn’t self-esteem the opposite of what we’re going for?
Taking Action is the second area of practice in Crisis Buddhism. It means working to help alleviate or prevent the suffering we witness in the world by leaving our homes, interacting with others, and engaging in bodhisattva activity in an active, tangible way. In this episode I begin addressing three reasons we resist Taking Action: We don’t think it’s “our thing,” we don’t have the time or energy, or we don’t see anything we do that’s also worth doing.
Crisis Buddhism requires us to mindfully balance three essential areas of practice: Bearing Witness, Taking Action, and Taking Care. In this episode I discuss Bearing Witness, or exposing ourselves to the suffering of the world in all its forms in order to make wise decisions, activate our natural compassion, and awaken a sense of urgency. How do we Bear Witness without becoming overwhelmed, depressed, or despairing? We embrace it as a noble practice of compassion and wisdom.
Crisis Buddhism is a new formulation of Buddhist practice I’ve come up with that I hope will help you navigate your everyday life as we face ecological and climate breakdown. It asks us to mindfully balance three essential areas of practice: Bearing Witness, or learning about the suffering of the world in all its forms in order to make wise decisions, activate our natural compassion, and awaken a sense of urgency; Taking Action, or participating in a tangible way to help alleviate or prevent the suffering we witness, and Taking Care, or engaging in activities, relationships, and practices that sustain us.
The Vajrayana teaching of the five wisdom energies is a about five types of energy we all have within us, or five tendencies within a human being. Within each of us, one or two energies tend to predominate, resulting in what we might call “personality,” but at a deeper level these five energies are about five characteristic orientations to the conundrum of human life.
Vows guide our decisions, help us prioritize how we spend our time, resources, and energy, and allow us to discern whether our actions are in harmony with our deeper aspirations – helping us live intentionally instead of letting our decisions be determined by habit energy, inertia, fear, selfishness, or a lack of imagination. I first discuss why it can be so hard to stay true to our intentions, and then I present five aspects of the Buddhist practice of vow that make it a powerful way to shape our lives.
Our practical, lived response to our ecological and climate emergency – as individuals, Sanghas, and Dharma teachers – is inseparable from our Dharma practice. As Greta Thunberg has said, “Change is coming whether we like it or not.” Also, as Buddhists we’re morally compelled to act for the welfare of other beings. Finally, the eco-crisis is a profound and difficult koan, whether we choose to engage it that way or not – and therefore, it’s an opportunity to grow in understanding, compassion, and manifestation.
Non-meditators, beginners, and long-time Buddhist practitioners alike tend to believe meditation is all about stopping our thoughts. This is a serious misunderstanding, and, sadly, keeps many people from embracing the practice of meditation. It’s very important to understand the true purpose and function of meditation, because the vast majority of us find it impossible to stop our thoughts, at least through willful effort. In this episode, I talk about why we long to be thought-free. Then I discuss how meditation is not about stopping thought, but instead is a practice of diligently and repeatedly turning our attention to something beyond thought, thereby realigning our whole being. Meditation requires diligence and determination, but also patience, humility, and faith.
Facing Extinction: A Personal Journal about Trying to Do the Right Thing in a Climate Emergency. Topics: I Need You(r support for my activism); What Does Zen Have to Do with Climate Action? (a discussion with other Zen teachers); What’s the Problem? (why cry myself to sleep at night?); Life is (inexplicably and unconditionally) Beautiful; Civil Disobedience as a Cure for Cognitive Dissonance. Please feel free to skip this episode if you’re really only interested in episodes explicitly about Buddhism.
Next week I’ll take a break from my busy life and projects in order to attend a silent meditation retreat. After spending the half-a-year since my last retreat immersed in the relative aspect of life, the absolute aspect of life will come to the fore. I hope to regain balance and see everything in a much larger context. In this episode, I talk about what that feels like, and the value of awakening to the absolute aspect of reality if you want be an effective agent for positive change in the relative world.
In this episode I finish up our study of 13th-century Zen master Dogen’s essay, “Bodaisatta Shishobo,” or what I’m calling the “Four Ways Bodhisattvas Embrace Living Beings,” with a discussion of “identity action,” or “being in the same boat” with living beings. Even if you’re not a big fan of Zen texts, or of Dogen, I hope you’ll stick around because this episode is on the importance of a bodhisattva – the importance of any of us – making a practice of seeing ourselves as “being in the same boat” with other beings. Can you imagine how different our societies would be if we all tried to do this?
This episode is a Dharma Talk about how practice can help us “brighten the mind” when we’re feeling trapped in negativity, hopelessness, despair, discouragement, depression, lack of confidence, etc. We practice four steps: 1) Acknowledging (noticing and admitting how we’re feeling); 2) Taking some time to fully experience whatever it is we’re feeling, without trying to change it; 3) Exploring what’s going on within us, gently and nonjudgmentally, and 4) Engaging in an activity, like zazen, you know is calming and restorative.
This episode is a part of series I’m trying, “Facing Extinction: Trying to do the right thing in a climate emergency.” What does it have to do with Zen and Buddhism? The connection may not be so explicit, but my own practice feels inauthentic unless I talk about the crisis we’re facing. Maybe I can make a bigger difference as a Zen teacher and writer by honestly sharing my own struggles and experiences with “trying to do the right thing in a climate emergency,” than by trying offer answers to others.
Nirvana, or nibbana, is the ultimate goal of original Buddhism and its modern representative, Theravadin Buddhism. Nibbana means “extinguished,” and attaining it means you have extinguished the “outflows” of sensuality, ignorance, and the desire for further existence. Someone who attains nibbana experiences ineffable peace and freedom, and a permanent state of human perfection. Achieving nibbana, however, is supremely difficult and usually takes many lifetimes. This episode familiarizes you the teachings about nibbana, discusses some of the implications for Buddhist practice, and points out how views of nibbana are one of the fundamental differences between Theravada and Mahayana forms of Buddhism.