community, compassion - karuna, daily life, ethics, Noble Eightfold Path, racism, Right Action, Uncategorized

September 2017 full moon – Taking A Stand

Stand Against Suffering: A Call to Action by Buddhist Teachers

“‘As long as a society protects the vulnerable among them, they can be expected to prosper and not decline.’

The Buddha, in the Mahaparinirvana Sutta

Buddhism does not align itself with any party or ideology. But when great suffering is at stake, Buddhists must take a stand against it, with loving-kindness, wisdom, calm minds, and courage.”

Stand Against Suffering: A Call to Action by Buddhist Teachers

watertower yard
Water tower with Native American protest graffiti, Alcatraz

What stand can I take?

The purpose of the dharma, the Buddha’s teachings, is to free ourselves from ignorance. With the current escalation in overt racism and hate crimes around the world – on top of systemic social injustice – as a white person, the stand I’d like to take is in terms of better understanding my own white privilege.

Just getting beyond the initial reaction to the term “white privilege” can be quite a journey, so I’ve set up a new webpage with links to some resources that I plan to continue exploring myself over the next few months and years.  I also hope they’ll be helpful for any dharma practitioners who are interested in seeing through our various biases and social constructs, in the service of deeper wisdom and compassion.

https://jill0shepherd-insightmeditation.com/wise-action-undoing-racism/

I plan to add more links to inspiring and challenging articles, and in the meantime, below are just a few items that touched me recently.

 

jail screen 3
Cell block, Alcatraz

Where Will You Stand?

Rev. angel Kyodo williams 18 August 2017

“Much of what is being taught as Buddhism in America is the acceptance of a kinder, gentler suffering that does not question the unwholesome roots of systemic suffering and the structures that hold it in place. The expansive potential of the dharma to liberate us from suffering is in danger of being rendered impotent because it is held in subjugation to the very systems that it must thoroughly examine. 

No one group, community, or institution has the answer, but each of us can call forth the willingness to offer our best, claim responsibility for our worst, and fold it all into the continuous moment-to-moment practice of simply being present to what is. If your practice is not attenuating greed, hatred, and ignorance—the social expressions of which are the delusions of supremacy, racism, and oppression—then you need to change your practice.”

Where Will You Stand?

trunk red sap close
Eucalyptus trees after bushfire, New South Wales, Australia

Clinton Pryor walks for indigenous justice in Australia

“I started this journey walking from Perth to find the truth and find a new way for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in Australia. For the past 50 years our people have been fighting for rights, but it’s like it has just gone down the drain too many times. So, I decided to go for a big massive walk across the country to find the truth of what’s going on. What I’ve seen and experienced this way is that our people are living in developing world conditions.

In some communities there’s no fresh water. Other communities are polluted from mining, and on top of that these companies are hiring people from out in cities and towns to work in these communities, when our local people want jobs as well. What the people want in these communities is to be self-governed. They want to take care of our people themselves.”

https://www.theguardian.com/inequality/2017/sep/08/6000km-only-20-minutes-with-the-pm-prime-minister-clinton-pryor-relives-epic-walk-across-australia-indigenous?


Te Puea marae
Te Puea marae – image from facebook

Te Puea Marae gears up to help homeless for second winter in New Zealand

The south Auckland marae (Māori meeting house) that opened its doors to the homeless last year is about to do so again.  Te Puea Marae in Mangere helped 181 people last year, using 1200 volunteers over three months. Starting on 18 July, it will again take people in – for six months.

Spokesperson Hurimoana Dennis told Morning Report this time they’ve been working hard with government agencies to provide the service.

“We believe we can still … support homeless families. We did it last year – we learnt some things, and we put people into homes.  It’s an opportunity … to work with agencies, to show agencies what best practice engagement looks like for our Māori families, our communities and those who are homeless.”
http://www.radionz.co.nz/news/national/334794/te-puea-marae-to-help-homeless-for-second-winter

Check out their facebook page for ways to help:

https://www.facebook.com/TePueaMaraeManaakiTangata/

 

daily life, Determination - aditthana, insight, Insight meditation - vipassana, motivation, retreat, Uncategorized

February 2016 full moon – Motivation, Respect, Resolve

sea wall woman 2
Woman reading on sea wall – Newcastle NSW

The rewards and challenges of technology

Earlier this evening, I gave my first dharma talk via video-link, from the YHA in Sydney to Auckland Insight in New Zealand.  Nothing too remarkable about that these days; but still, it was a delight to be able to connect with the group in this way, and I felt a new sense of appreciation for the benefits of computer technology.  We now have access to a wide range of dharma teachings from many different traditions, in many different forms.  And with almost no effort, we can instantly download or stream talks and videos, or sign up for online study courses.

In my own experience though – as both a teacher and a student – there can also be a downside to this instant abundance.  Without awareness, it can unconsciously reinforce a passive, materialistic, and at times even disrespectful relationship to the teachings.

So as technology helps meditation becomes more and more mainstream, it’s becoming increasingly normal to approach it with a consumerist mind-set.  In some ways, this makes sense.  When everything else around us is presented in that way, why wouldn’t we think about the practice in terms of what we can get from it?  And why wouldn’t we assume that it should be available on my terms: in the way I want it, when I want it, for the price I want it?  We can even mistake this kind of freedom (to consume) for the deeper freedom that the Buddha’s teachings point to. Continue reading “February 2016 full moon – Motivation, Respect, Resolve”

freedom, insight, retreat, Uncategorized

December 2015 full moon – In praise of trees

NZ Christmas tree 3
New Zealand Christmas tree with native bird ornaments

This year, the full moon coincided with Christmas Day for the first time in 38 years. I’m in New Zealand visiting family for the holidays and even though it’s the middle of summer, there are evergreen Christmas trees decorated with icicles and snowflakes everywhere. The symbols of Christmas have always been messed up – the pagan-influenced Christmas tree, the Coke-ad inspired Santa, the Christian Nativity scene – but even more so in the Southern Hemisphere. In Australia, women in Santa hats and bikinis body-surf on Bondi Beach, while groups of men work on their tans, standing around beer-filled coolers topped with battery-operated sparkling artificial Christmas trees. Continue reading “December 2015 full moon – In praise of trees”

community, daily life, lay sangha, Noble Eightfold Path, sangha, spiritual friendship

April 2015 full moon – “awakening community” *

Spiritual friendship one-day workshop 29 March 2015 Auckland, New Zealand

Last weekend I ran a one-day workshop in Auckland, New Zealand, on the theme of “spiritual friendship,” and just a few days ago I facilitated a small group discussion in Australia at the Blue Mountains Insight Meditation Centre, on the theme of “awakening community.”

These two topics feel very alive for me at the moment, partly because of spending so much time visiting different insight meditation groups in different parts of the world.  I’ve noticed that when a group is well-established and healthy, the level of dharma practice in those communities feels much stronger, yet in many of the places I visit, access to teachers and good dharma friends is not always easy to find.

This may be because historically, within the Western insight meditation “tradition,” there’s been a strong emphasis on offering silent individual meditation retreats as the main form of dharma practice, so it’s still quite rare to find opportunities for people to engage with each other outside of formal retreat.  Yet throughout the suttas, there’s a strong emphasis on spiritual friendship as being foundational to the development of the whole path to freedom.  Here’s just one example:
“If wanderers who are members of other sects should ask you, ‘What, friend, are the prerequisites for the development of the wings to self-awakening?’ you should answer, ‘There is the case where a monk [practitioner] has admirable people as friends, companions, & colleagues. This is the first prerequisite for the development of the wings to self-awakening.'” AN9.1

Then there’s the often-quoted exchange between the Buddha’s attendant, Ananda, and the Buddha, where Ananda has a sudden realisation of the importance of spiritual friendship.  He goes to the Buddha and tells him how he’s just recognised that spiritual friendship is half of the spiritual life, but the Buddha disagrees with him quite emphatically:
“Don’t say that, Ananada. Don’t say that. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life.” SN 45.2
The Buddha then states that when someone has admirable people as friends, companions, & colleagues, they can be expected to develop & pursue the noble eightfold path.  This path is the core of the Buddha’s teachings, and consists of eight factors: Right View, Right Intention or Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.  Of those eight factors, only the last one, right concentration, needs to be specifically cultivated in meditation practice.  All the others can be developed in daily life, in relational and social contexts.

I wonder then, if by putting so much emphasis on solitary, silent retreat practice, we may have developed an unbalanced approach to the Buddha’s teachings – one that reduces his holistic path to a set of meditation techniques, done mostly for our own individual improvement.

A few years ago, the US dharma teacher David Brazier wrote an article in Tricycle magazine that pointed out some common cultural biases in the way Westerners have tended to approach dharma practice.  I found his critique quite revealing – and a little bit painful – but it’s also inspired me to want to explore more relational and socially-engaged forms of practice alongside traditional silent meditation.  He says:

For many Western Buddhists, a technical approach that says in effect, “You don’t need to believe anything, just do the practice” is very appealing. We are, after all, a culture very much driven by technology. Yet this technical emphasis directed toward Buddhism is something new. …
The idea that one can “just do the practice” is itself based on faith, yet it is easy to miss this sleight of hand. This view of practice does not avoid faith; it simply plays into a faith we already have — that is, faith in a technological approach to life. It assumes that meditation, like penicillin or Windows 7.0, works the same in any context. That is a lot to assume.
Going hand in hand with the idea of context-free meditation is the view, not uncommon in Western convert Buddhist circles, that Buddhism and meditation are virtually synonymous. But the vast majority of Asian Buddhists, now as throughout history, do not meditate, or only do so on rare occasions, and when they do, do so as part of a collective ritual rather than as a personal improvement method. …
This self-focused, technological model of Buddhist practice is not without its virtues. It has made Buddhism widely approachable in a new cultural setting. It has highlighted the richness of its meditative traditions. But a decontextualized dharma can put the spotlight on the private subject in a manner that is quite in line with the alienated, isolated, choice-making individual that is the primary model of the person in our capitalistic society. Is this really what we want? It also makes Buddhism into a set of commodities that can be purchased, and reduces practitioners to economic units. This is dharma that reinforces, rather than challenges, many tendencies in Western societies that are anything but emancipatory. …
Lack of a coherent and meaningful community life and way of relating to others is, arguably, the cause of much of the suffering that people seek to resolve in Buddhism. If what they get is a do-it-yourself, on-yourself, by-yourself, for-yourself, at-a-price technique, this is not going to do the trick, even if it does provide some secondary gains or palliative satisfactions. … [Ultimately] Buddhism flourishes through an other-centered, rather than a self-centered, orientation toward life.

Living Buddhism http://www.tricycle.com/feature/living-buddhism?page=0,0 November 2011

In many of the communities I’ve been visiting recently, people often express a desire to feel more connected to others, but don’t know how to help that happen.  And without some degree of conscious effort and commitment, the default seems to be just a group of individuals who sit together in silence on a regular basis, perhaps having a cup of tea with each other afterwards, and that’s about it.  Maybe that’s more than enough for many people, but somehow, when the Buddha talks about spiritual friendship being “the first prerequisite for the development of the wings to awakening,” I think he was referring to a bit more than that!

It also feels important to acknowledge that many people have experienced hurt through their involvement with – and/or exclusion by – various kinds of communities, and every one of us has known the pain of a broken friendship.  So what might it take for any group of meditators to move closer to being an insight meditation community – a group founded in spiritual friendship, that supports all of its members to deepen their practice, both on and off the meditation cushion?

I don’t have answers, but I do look forward to continuing to explore these questions with whoever might be interested.

(* with thanks to Yael at BMIMC for suggesting this title)

Brahma Vihara practice, compassion - karuna, equanimity - upekkha, friendliness - metta, Insight meditation - vipassana, joy - mudita, Kindness - metta, mindfulness, retreat, Uncategorized

December 2014 full moon – wisdom and compassion

heart forest

This December full moon I happen to be assisting James Baraz with a seven-day retreat in the Yarra Valley, outside of Melbourne, Australia.  Those of you who are familiar with James’ teaching know that he infuses the traditional mindfulness practices that lead to insight, with the “heart practices” known as the four brahma vihara: kindness/metta, compassion/karuna, joy/mudita and equanimity/upekkha.

Practiced together, all of these techniques help to strengthen what are sometimes referred to as the two “Wings to Awakening,” wisdom and compassion.  It’s said that both of these aspects need to be in balance, if we’re going to fly.  And in this metaphor, compassion is an umbrella term for all wholesome mind-states – so it includes the four brahma vihara, but also other skilful qualities such as generosity, gratitude, forgiveness, confidence, and so on.

You may have noticed this need for balance in your own meditation practice, as you look back over the months or years, or perhaps decades.  At times, it’s as if the wisdom gets ahead of the compassion, and we start to see our experiences with an almost painful clarity.  One way this can play out is in seeing our own difficult patterns in glorious technicolour.  I think it was the Tibetan teacher Chogyam Trungpa who said: “Self-knowledge is not always good news!” And in this phase of practice, we can get quite discouraged at the apparent depth and strength of these difficult patterns.  Then, we might need to consciously incline the heart-mind towards compassion and the other brahma vihara, to bring some warmth and kindness into that clear seeing.

At other times, the opposite can be true. The heart opens up wide, and we feel the existential pain of being human so acutely that it seems unbearable.  Then we might need to strengthen the vipassana practice, so we can reconnect to the wisdom that everything is impermanent, everything changes and that nothing needs to be identified with.  So an important part of our own practice is learning to recognise if we’re off balance in some way, and whether we might need to strengthen one of these two wings: wisdom, or compassion.

Just this week, I had a beautiful experience of seeing and feeling both “wings” being in balance.  There have been several times now where I’ve been on retreat when one of the participants or retreat supporters received some kind of difficult news: perhaps the sudden loss of property or financial security; perhaps the diagnosis of a life-threatening illness or disease; perhaps the unexpected death of a close friend or family member.  It happened again on this retreat, and again, I got to see the fruits of our individual and collective practice.  Sitting together in stillness and silence, whether for days, weeks, or sometimes months, the heart and mind open wide to receive what’s difficult, with wisdom and compassion.  Wisdom recognises: “It could have been ME who received that news.”  Or “It could have been me who WAS that news.”  There’s the understanding that this is the human condition.  We’re all subject to loss, to aging, to sickness, and to death, and on recognising the universality of these conditions, compassion naturally flourishes.

Compassion is different from grief, because it’s underpinned by equanimity, stability of heart-mind, which I’m starting to think of as like the keel of a yacht.  To sail, the yacht has to be responsive to conditions, to wind and waves, but it needs the weight of the keel to keep it from capsizing.  In a similar way, equanimity keeps the practice stable, but it is a flexible stability that allows us to respond to the changing conditions of life with as much balance as possible.

Next weekend, I’m going to be exploring equanimity in a couple of day-long workshops in Auckland, then in 2015, I’m looking forward to offering more retreats in Australia, New Zealand and the United States, exploring different ways of practicing the two wings to awakening.  You can find more information about these events on the Retreats and Courses page here: https://jill0shepherd.wordpress.com/upcoming-retreats/

(And if you’re not able to make it to a retreat, James Baraz’s online Awakening Joy course is one very accessible way of engaging with the brahma vihara practices in daily life.  More info about that here: http://www.awakeningjoy.info/ )

Brahma Vihara practice, compassion - karuna, daily life, equanimity - upekkha, Equanimity - upekkha, friendliness - metta, joy - mudita

Reflections on the Brahma Vihara practices

Kuan Yin sunbeam

This article (with minor amendments) was first published in the March 2014 BMIMC newsletter.

Since returning to Australia and New Zealand from the United States eighteen months ago, I’ve been teaching several weekend retreats, day-long workshops and evening classes in New South Wales and Auckland.  Alongside the insight meditation practice, I’ve usually included some focus on the four brahma-viharas: the meditative development of good will, compassion, joy and equanimity (or metta, karuna, mudita and upekkha, to use the Pali terms).
At the beginning of my own meditation practice, I tended to avoid the brahma-viharas because I found them so incredibly challenging. As I’ve supported other meditators over the last few years, I’ve observed many people going through similar struggles. And yet, I’ve also often noticed that there seems to be a direct relationship between how resistant a person is to exploring the brahma-vihara practices, and how much benefit they eventually end up receiving from them!
Much of the resistance seems to come from the misunderstanding that the purpose of these practices is to cultivate positive emotions. And so there’s a tendency to try to force or manufacture an idea of how that emotion is supposed to feel, which often leads to the exact opposite: unskilful emotions of frustration, self-judgement, tension, irritation, boredom, and various other flavours of aversion.
Rather than trying to manufacture positive emotions though, the purpose of these practices is to cultivate the intention to wish well to others, to care about their suffering, to appreciate their joy, and to stay even-minded in the face of life’s “ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows.” Sometimes a positive emotion arises naturally as a result of that intention, but this is a side effect rather than the main goal. Understanding this can take the pressure off, reduce performance anxiety and help develop more patience for the organic development of these skilful mind-states.
“Think not lightly of good, saying, ‘It will not come to me.’ Drop by drop is the water pot filled. Likewise, the wise man [or woman], gathering it little by little, fills himself [or herself] with good.”
Dhammapada chapter 9 verse 122
A more contemporary metaphor I like to use is that of the Hubble telescope. My understanding is that this highly sophisticated piece of machinery is constantly scanning the universe in search of the faintest signs of life. In a similar way, when I practice the brahma viharas, at times it feels as if I’m turning my own Hubble telescope inwards in search of the faintest signs of metta, karuna, mudita and upekkha. There’s a deep listening that has to happen to access these tiny pulses of good will, compassion, joy and equanimity, but when they’re recognised, the metaphorical Hubble telescope transmits them into consciousness so they can be amplified. Once recognised and amplified, these skilful mind-states become resources that help to develop the deep calm and concentration necessary for insight to arise.
There are several suttas which describe the kind of chain reaction that happens when wholesome mind-states such as joy, tranquility, and happiness develop naturally into “vision and knowledge with regard to Deliverance,” e.g. AN10.1. The brahma vihara practices are a powerful way to jump-start that development, so if you have found these practices a struggle, I encourage you to persevere, with patience, and be open to the transformations that may arise!

For information on new retreat opportunities in Australia and New Zealand, see here:
https://jill0shepherd.wordpress.com/upcoming-retreats/