When we call suffering beings to mind and extend metta, we face reality while centering ourselves in our true self, which is boundless and interdependent with all of life. We recognize the wellbeing of others is not separate from our own wellbeing. This might seem like metta practice would open us up to even more suffering, thereby increasing our own fear and anxiety, but this is not the case. In fact, metta helps us face reality – an absolutely essential part of our Buddhist practice – while aligned with our deeper nature. This alignment results in a sense of plenty – of having resources to share. It results in a sense of strength, because we are centered in our boundless self and have given up our self-centered concern and defensiveness. Metta practice also counteracts our sense of powerlessness in the face of tragedy or difficult circumstances, and awakens our compassionate impulses to help.
Buddhism, as well as many other religions, teach that we should treat each and every human being with respect, regardless of their behavior or off-putting manifestation. What does this really mean? Sometimes people are hateful, manipulative, cruel, selfish, irresponsible, or downright violent and destructive. Surely, in being asked to respect such people, we’re not being asked to ignore or condone their behavior, so how does respect for them actually look? And why is it important to cultivate this unconditional respect?
Buddhism teaches that no matter what happens to us, we always have some degree of choice about how we respond, and what we do next. At those critical, precious moments when your perspective widens and you become more aware of yourself, you can act in accordance with your aspiration to relieve suffering for self and other. This is what practice is: Taking advantage of our moments of choice, which arise countless times throughout the day and night, never losing faith that each of those little choices matter.
The Parable of the Burning House is one of five main parables of the Lotus Sutra, a classic Mahayana Buddhist text. I go through the parable paragraph by paragraph, stopping to reflect on each part of the story along the way and encouraging you to imagine yourself within the story as if it were a dream. I finish up by discussing the relevance of this teaching for our everyday lives and practice.
Whether you are personally intrigued by the concept of enlightenment or not, it is absolutely central to Buddhism. However, enlightenment – to use a kind of corny phrase – is not what you think. I’ll discuss sudden and gradual experiences of enlightenment, the changes such experiences bring about in us, and why it’s important for all of us to seek enlightenment.
Humans evolved to make sense of their experience by explaining with a story, or narrative. Our stories range from obvious, long-standing narratives to subtle assumptions and categorizations. Although our stories help us communicate and navigate our lives, they also can preoccupy and burden us. Sometimes they are distressing, depressing, or exhausting to maintain. This is why, in a brief teaching meant to encompass the essence of practice, the Buddha said we should train ourselves such that “in the sensed, there is only the sensed, in the cognized, only the cognized.” That is, we should train ourselves to experience things without our stories.
Vow is a central practice in Buddhism, as I’ve discussed before. Vows – alternatively aspirations, intentions, or commitments, formal or informal – are a conscious choice we make about the kind of life we want to live, and the kind of person we want to be. Clarifying the vows we are already living, and the vows we still want to take on, can help give direction and meaning to our lives.
How do we create a strong and sustainable Buddhist practice outside of a monastery? It takes determination, creativity, and flexibility. In some ways practice outside of a monastery is harder. We need to create structure for ourselves and build up good habits, but then the circumstances of our lives change, and our practice has to change. There are many competing demands on our attention and time, so we need to consistently maintain our practice (can’t just “set it and go”). We’re mostly doing this alone, relying on our own self-discipline instead of social support (or even “positive peer pressure”).
The key is giving our practice form, but also accepting that it will change, sometimes constantly; learning to hold it together like clay on a potter’s wheel but recognizing this is a dynamic process.
All religions and spiritual practices have one purpose: To relieve our suffering and give us hope. Buddhism is no different, teaching us that all we need to do is awaken to reality and we will be free and at ease. However, as Buddhists we sometimes emphasize “relieving suffering” and leave it unsaid that, after being freed from your suffering, you will perceive things in a way that gives you hope, inspiration, and solace. The Buddhist teaching of suchness arose a couple hundred years after the Buddha, at least in part to address the need some of us feel to hear descriptions of the positive aspect of reality from the beginning of our practice.
Despite the placid appearance of most Buddha statues and the Buddhist precept against indulging anger, there is a place for fierceness and compassionate anger in Buddhism. Especially when we’re faced with injustice or need to protect others, we may need the energy of anger or fierceness to make ourselves heard. I discuss how respect for appropriate fierceness and anger appears in Buddhist iconography and mythology.
Many American cities are on fire – literally – as tensions over systemic racism erupt. How do we enact our bodhisattva vows in the face of all of this suffering – caused by racism, the global pandemic, the breakdown of earth’s natural life support systems, and global heating? Our vow is to “save all beings” but – at least in terms of an individual’s goal – is impossible. How do we honor our bodhisattva vow in a vital and authentic way, as opposed to it being a largely irrelevant ideal?
Grief is love in the face of loss; do you want to stop loving in order to stop feeling grief? Of course not. But we also don’t want to be controlled or overwhelmed by it. There are a number of Buddhist practices that can help us as we practice with grief – trying to face it, and making sure we don’t impede our own grief process. What I’ll share in this episode isn’t by any means a developed or exhaustive process of grief work, it’s just a short list of Buddhist practices that can be beneficial.
Shikantaza, or the practice of “just sitting,” can be challenging. We’re asked not to try to control our meditative experience, but are we just supposed to sit there like a sack of potatoes and let habit energy have its way? I present a simple approach to returning to your intention whenever you have a moment of awareness in your sitting, and making that intention very simple and free from expectation of results. We simply intend four “S’s”: To sit upright, still, silent, and simply be.
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?