Howell Retreat March 6, 2004
Barbara Brodsky Instruction

First Morning Instruction
from Barbara

The ground for what we're doing here is vipassana. Vipassana brings us to the noting of everyday experience. We're aware of the rising and falling of the breath. We're aware of sensations. We're aware of feelings of pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral. We're aware of the texture of mind, and aware of the arising of thoughts and emotions.

You're all experienced with vipassana; you all have the ground of the practice. We practice in a very dedicated way and become very adept at watching objects arise and pass away. We may develop a great deal of spaciousness around these objects. Body pain might arise, or a strong feeling of anger might arise, and we don't have to suppress that experience, nor act it out. And yet if the conditions are present, strong emotions still arise.

Our habit energy is such that those same conditions time and again give rise to that same response of, "I want this," or "I hate that!" or whatever it might be. There may be real equanimity with the arising mental states, yet it's still uncomfortable for us and sometimes for those around us.

We each have certain tendencies of mind that tend to be frequent visitors: judging, aversion, greed, impatience. Each of us has our own most frequent assortment. I see in myself, part of me would prefer to call it discriminating mind rather than judging mind, but really it's judging! "I like this; I don't like that." I've learned to be very careful not to bring that forward into the world in ways that will harm others, and to work skillfully with that judging energy within myself, not to get caught up in its stories. But judging mind still comes, and it comes, and it comes. Any little thing can tick it off. Looking out at the lake here is a beautiful scene and yet when I first looked out at dawn, the image came to my mind of the summer we had a retreat here and the lake was all infested with weeds. It was so inviting to look at, but you couldn't swim in it. So, I looked down at the lake this morning, and immediately this thought, "But you can't swim in it!" came up!

We can laugh at ourselves when these different textures of mind arise. We're more spacious, Story lines don't develop. But the thoughts still come. The contractions of anger and grasping still come. When we work with them in traditional vipassana practice, we note them, we rest in the space between thoughts, we observe them resolve, and we deepen a lot in the wisdom, "Whatever has the nature to arise, has the nature to cease, and is not self." As the wisdom develops that it all arises out of conditions, we don't take it so personally.

This is helpful, but it does not lead us to liberation. What does?

Think of the earth and the way you experience sunrise and sunset. In the morning, it looks like the sun rises. First it's dark, and then it's light gray, and then there's this band of pink and a red globe rising over the horizon. We understand that the earth is just spinning, but still we think "the sun is up." Then the bright pink band again, and suddenly the sun slips down over the horizon. Sunset. We understand deeply, not just conceptually, how it's happened, but we still think of it in terms of sunrise and sunset.

If you rode away from the earth in a spaceship, and away and away and away, there would come a certain point where you could see the earth, see the sun, see how the earth is spinning, and know without question that the sun never rose or set, the sun is just there, the earth is spinning. Although we understand that deeply from here on earth, it's still semi-conceptual because we've not been in outer space. We can imagine how it would be, but we've not been there. We've got to take people's word that the sun isn't moving around, we're just spinning on our axis. We thoroughly believe that, but it's still not experience. But once you got out there and you see it for yourself, you know without any doubt, this is how it is.

When conditions are present, an object, - let's use anger, something we're all familiar with - anger will arise. When the conditions pass, the anger will pass. And yet there is also that space in us in which there has never been anger. Let us call it pure awareness, or we could say Buddha nature, Christ consciousness, or whatever you want to name it. That which is aware of anger is not angry. We rest in the space before and after the anger, the great space from which it arose and into which it dies away, like a wave rising on the sea and fading , nothing there but water in whatever form it appears.

Let me use another example. The lake out there is frozen. Some of you who have been here in the summer and seen it in a storm have seen it turbulent: waves, white caps. When there's no wind, it can be still. The true nature of the water is the fluidity that allows it to be still or turbulent, responsive to conditions. When nothing is disturbing the water, it stills. Our mind, or Awareness, is like this. It's natural state at rest is stillness, yet it has the fluidity to move.

When the air is cold, the water freezes. If you could light a fire under the lake, it would start to boil and steam. Our energy, our bodies, our minds are like this. Sometimes they steam. Sometimes they're frozen. These are expressions of the essence. Neither of those is the true nature of our being, which is like that still water on a calm day, when nothing is touching it.

Things to come along and touch our minds and bodies, giving rise to tension, giving rise to pain, giving rise to difficult emotions. Because of our habit energy, we're pulled off into thinking, "I have to fix this; I have to fix that." And we do have to attend to it. But we also can rest in that place of stillness knowing the direct experience of it, knowing this true nature of not steaming and not frozen. Still. Clear. Loving.

For me, the direct experience of my energy is an important guide. I can feel when my energy becomes very contracted, when fear comes up or anger. When my mind is feeling agitated, my body is also agitated in an imbalanced way. I can feel when I'm at the other extreme, just totally lethargic, with no energy at all. And I can feel when it's balanced: not too agitated, not too lethargic. Calm, clear, centered. Here is the lake at rest.

We return to the fact that these negative emotions and distorted body experiences do come repeatedly. So long as the conditions are present, these thoughts and sensations are a result. How do we change the conditions out of which they arise? The practice of the Seven Branch Prayer is a wonderful way to relate to these shifts in mind and body experience from both the relative level where we observe what has arisen, offer the balance to it, are fully present with it., and from the ultimate level, where we rest in spaciousness, aware of what has arisen but free of self identity with it, more aligned with the space than the object. From that spaciousness we can watch with dispassion, with clarity and fearlessness. Then the attendance to what has arisen is clear and love based, not frightened and agitated.

I remember a story that I used to read to my children when they were little, "Someone is Stealing the Sun," about a primitive society experiencing a total eclipse of the sun. The people were all terrified. "Oh! Someone is stealing the sun!" When negativity comes, we think we've lost our loving, wise nature. Can anything steal our true nature, this true nature of ability to be present, openhearted, calm, clear, loving. When we think anger has come and stolen kindness, what's happening?

There is a story. "This person is aggravating me! He's stealing my ability to be loving!" But all that's happening is a flow of conditions on the relative level. And on the ultimate level, just as the sun is still there even during eclipse, this true nature is still there. The openheartedness, the clarity, the compassion, they don't go anywhere. Our fear, our shadow, just gets in the way so we can't see them, figuratively speaking.

This practice of the Seven Branch Prayer guides us into working on both levels simultaneously. This is the important thing, that we work in a balanced way with both the ultimate and the relative experience. That leads us to a look at the three kayas, which help us understand the nondual relationship of relative and ultimate. Most of you have studied this so I'll be brief.

"Kaya" means body. Dharmakaya is truth body. Dharmakaya is the Pure Ground Nirmanakaya, "nirmana" means form. It's not just a physical form but a mental form as well, any kind of form. The form body. Looking at the lake, the Dharmakaya level is that still water on a clear, windless day. A nirmanakaya expression of the water is the ice. Right there in the ice is the still, clear water. Sambhogakaya: this is often translated as wealth body. I prefer transition body.

We can use a clear underground spring as an example of the kayas. This is a metaphor of course, because the pure spring is not an ultimate reality. It's also subject to conditions. But it's a good metaphor. Imagine an absolutely pure spring. It's underground; nothing can touch or pollute it. Then it bubbles out of the ground. In that moment where it first bubbles out, that ever-pure underground source touches the plane of conditions. Here, if there are pollutants in the air, right there where the water first comes out, the pollutants touch the pure water. If there is soot coming down from the sky, underground the water cannot be polluted by the soot, but as it comes out, soot touches it.

Then the water rolls down the mountainside and becomes a stream. Ten miles downstream it's a wide creek, a few feet deep, and animals walk in and drink. They stir up the bottom so it's cloudy. There are farm fields and fertilizer and things have washed into the stream. Maybe somebody has discarded a can of oil that wasn't quite empty and there's a small oil slick floating on the surface.

You're thirsty. Where is the ever-pure water from the spring? Do you have to walk ten miles back up the mountain to go to the spring? Well, you're not going to drink from it right there; you've got oil, you've got fertilizer, you've got all kinds of pollutants. But if you have a water filter, the ever-pure water is right there, it hasn't gone anywhere. The pollutants are there, we don't deny the pollutants. And the ever-pure water is there. You take your filter, you filter the water, you drink it. You don't have to walk back up to the spring.

The point I'm making here is that the nirmanakaya expression, the form body expression, is no other than the dharmakaya, but it has changed its form. It's been conditioned by the various things that have touched it.

As analogy, this Buddha nature we've talked about, where would it go? If anger comes up, does that means the Buddha nature is gone? Where would it go? Where is Buddha nature? Does it only arise from conditions or is it always present?

We talk about the conditioned and the unconditioned. The conditioned realm is that which is touched by conditions and is the result of conditions. This plant is the result of conditions. There was a seed, sun, water, good soil. Without those things, the plant cannot exist. If you take away any of those conditions, no matter how much sun and good soil and water we have, if I don't have a seed I'm not going to have a plant. If I have the seed and the sun and the water, but I put it in a pot of sand or clay with no nutrition, I'm not going to have a plant. The plant is the result of conditions.

Everything in the conditioned world is the result of conditions. If that were all there was, there would be no escape possible from this whole cycle of birth and death; there would just be the constant flow of conditions.

There is a beautiful sutra in which the Buddha addresses a group of monks and says, "Oh, monks, there is an Unborn, Undying, Unchanging, Uncreated. If it were not so, there would be no reason for our practice." What is this Unborn, Undying? What we have here is that which cannot be affected by conditions. We call it the Unconditioned. That which is. There are many different names for it: Buddha nature, Christ consciousness. The word God comes to mind, God/Goddess. That which is unchanged by conditions: unborn, undying, unlimited. We are that, or more precisely, we're the nirmanakaya expressions of it.

In other words, we have a lot about us that is conditioned including the physical body itself. If certain conditions cease, the physical body will die. But the basic nature of us as participatory in that which is, is unchanging. This does not include the physical body, the emotional body, or the mental body. There' will be a point where all 3 of these bodies have ceased. At that point, as some of you have experienced in your meditation when you come to a place where the ego dissolves, and the physical body seems to dissolve, there's no more self. But what we call awareness continues. Ajahn Chah used to call it "the one who knows." There are many names for it. In Tibetan Buddhism, they call it rigpa, pure awareness, this deep place of full presence and awareness, unconditioned.

When we experience that in deep meditation, that place of center, it's profound, life-changing. And yet, when we come out of the meditation, the physical body is still there. Discomfort is still there. Judging mind is still there. We have a deeper sense of what the center is, and it becomes very easy to want to cling to that center and deny the physical/mental/emotional body experiences. It's also easy to put that experience aside and re-immerse ourselves in attending to arising sensations and thoughts.

The practice that we're working with this weekend is the place where both of these come together, to be deeply present with the physical, mental, emotional experiences with as much skill as we can, making space for them, attending to them, but not self-identified with them, and resting in that place of Ever-Perfect. You can't deny the experiences happening in body and mind. You can't lose yourself into them. With the 3 kayas, the point I made with the stream is the ever-perfect water is there, and the stream, with all its distortions, is there. They're part of the same thing.

This is the third kaya, sambhogakaya. "Sambhoga" is defined as "wealth", wealth body. Transition body is another definition for it. Neither of those translations phrases it clearly for me, because transition gives you the sense of a bridge from the dharmakaya to then nirmanakaya, and it's not a bridge, it's more like with the foundation of the building, the 7th floor is also right there. Without the foundation you can't have the 7th floor. The whole structure of the building is built up from the foundation. So there's no transition. But the seventh floor is not the foundation. Only the foundation is the foundation.

Let's use the term co-emergent. Sambhogakaya is the co-emergent body. It contains the base, the dharmakaya, and it contains the expressions. It's the container that holds it together. This is its wealth!

This sambhogakaya is what we're really working with in this practice, the place where we don't lose touch at all with the dharmakaya or the nirmanakaya expressions. We literally become that container that holds both, with an awareness of both.

This has been my primary practice for the past 3 years. For longer than that, it's been part of my practice, but it's been my primary practice for the last 3 years. This is the first retreat where I've really attempted to teach it in an ongoing way. I've found this practice to be both profound and life-changing. My meditation for many years had led me to a place of deep resting in the Unconditioned many times with very deep experiences into the Unconditioned. My practice had led me to a lot of skill in working with the difficult, everyday expressions of life: the body pain, the emotions. So that I had reached a point where I'm confident of my ability not to bring those out into the world in ways that do harm. But I was struggling looking at how to bring these two together.

I could rest in that spaciousness, nothing but light, no body, no emotions, blissful, far beyond bliss, very deep peace. I could come back from that space, remember that space, and use the inspiration of that space to live my life more skillfully. And yet, there was still a somebody that came back from that profound experience and was subtly trying to do: to fix this, to control that, to balance. How do I find the place where they really come together?

Aaron first taught this Seven Branch Prayer, and we created the book Awakened Heart in 1996, 8 years ago. So this is when I first met this practice and worked on it quite a bit. His teaching then was about the relative practice. In the years between, I worked in depth with dzogchen, resting in awareness. Four years ago I began to bring these together more. What I've found here is that it has become an almost intuitive practice for me. For example, this morning as I looked out at the lake, saw its beauty, and said, "Ooh, that's pretty, but it has too many weeds!," when the judgment came up, there was just the noting, "Judging, judging." There was awareness of judging mind, and a little laugh, "Still here, judging mind. I smile at you.". Then into the Seven branch Prayer. I go through the whole process in a minute.. In the beginning it used to take me 10 minutes, but now I go through it in about a minute.

First, the asking of support. I asked you each to try to personalize this practice. You don't have to go through the entire Seven Branch Prayer. You can choose the parts of it that are most significant for you. Personally I find the whole practice has value, but I want to be sure it doesn't become mechanical for you, a rote ritual. You can simplify and then add steps later. But there are certain parts that need to be included. First, the seeking of support. I like to combine the seeking of support with the gratitude step, and I find gratitude to be an essential piece of it because it's impossible to feel aversion to something and to feel gratitude at the same time. When you deeply touch on the consciousness that knows gratitude and openheartedness, that's a very strong response to the aversion.

So, I call forth the support, just inviting all those beings of the past who truly have reached that level of enlightenment where such negative thought doesn't arise any more, I invite their support and I offer gratitude that such teachers are present. Then I also bring in the judging mind itself, relating to that as teacher, reminding myself, "Here is also just this judging mind; I can have gratitude for that." Not gratitude in the sense that I want to encourage it; gratitude for the whole experience as teacher. There is something that has brought forth anger or discomfort. Instead of saying, "I don't like this!" I can note, "Thank you for reminding me I still have work to do here." So it's the offering of gratitude to the whole experience instead of fear and trying to control the whole experience.

The reflection, "This still arises. This habit energy is still here in me, alive and well." Compassionate regret. This is very different from self-criticism. Compassionate regret says, "I deeply regret that this still arises. I know it arises out of conditions and it's my intention to resolve these conditions." A sadness. This is still arising and it doesn't have to keep arising. It's possible for it not to keep arising.

Then, the core of the practice. This is the two-level, relative/ultimate piece of the practice. The resolve to bring in the balances or antidotes. For me, for that judging mind this morning, it was just to come back into appreciation of the direct scene. That was a good balance to the judging energy. The perfect lake. Remembering the way that the weeds were able to teach me patience as I was trying to swim in that water. After the first few days of frustration, wanting to swim and finding weeds everywhere, I began to just relax in it and float on my belly. I put on my swim goggles and just looked, just relaxing into, "It's perfect just the way it is.".

Whatever comes up is where we start If there's a feeling of greed, then giving, generosity, might be the balance. If there's fear, whatever balances that fear. Sadness is balanced by joy. Anger is balanced by lovingkindness. This has to be intuitive; you know what will bring balance in that moment. At the same time as I'm doing work with the resolve to bring balance, am stating the willingness to invite the antidotes to this negative energy, there's the shift into the place where it's already resolved. I note anger and rest in that which is not angry, not choosing one over the other, not creating an either/or duality.

This is a little bit hard. It requires us to shift into that outer space perspective where we really see that at some level this has been resolved long ago; it's just old habit energy.

You've all heard me say countless times, "That which is aware of anger is not angry. That which is aware of fear is not afraid. That which is aware of impatience is not impatient." We're asked to come back to our own deepest experience of our truth, our radiance, our beauty, our calm. So much of the habit energy involved here is from that which wants to keep the self going by having more opinions, stirring the cauldron of being, of becoming. I experience it as keeping this fire burning through the stories, so there's still a sense of self. So much of the habit energy involved in the perpetuation of emotions is an expression of the fear of no self. When you can acknowledge that fear and come back to the deepest experiences of selflessness, of emptiness, clarity, radiance and love, you call those states forth.

That's why we request the support of great beings, because these awakened beings give us the clear message, "We've done this and you can do it. It's possible." Turn to whatever being most models that true nature to you. The Buddha's or the Christ's true nature, and our own true nature are no different. We need the reminder, "I also am that."

So there's the willingness here not to be so caught up in the ego self and who I am, and the old habit energy that keeps the "Who I Am" stories going. But to let go of that so the whole ego structure becomes transparent. It's like coming to that polluted stream and filtering the water. The pure water is there with the sediment. True awakened nature is there with the ego self. We filter out the pure water. We shift attention to the already present enlightened nature.

If you get worked up over it, you can go on a big campaign about how polluted the streams are or how bad the personal characteristics are, greed, anger and so forth. This is the ego saying, "I'm going to have a mission. I'm going to get this stream cleaned up." Can you see how that creates more self? On a real level in our world, we do need to clean up our streams and rivers. I'm not saying we don't. But no-self can do that a lot better than self. We do need to attend the arisings of greed and aversion. Again, no-self, clarity and love can do that attending with far more wholesome results than if we bring fear to these energies.

So this is the practice. We come to that resolve/resolution level. And for me now, after working with this for quite awhile, as soon as I bring forth that resolve/resolution level, I come immediately into that place where the whole mind state collapses or at least weakens. The anger, or judgment, or whatever it was, goes. There's nothing left to hold it in place. At which point I offer gratitude to all the awakened ancestors, to whatever helped support this opening into clarity, and I just come back to my breath and mindfulness.

We will have time for more discussion of this later. What I'd like you to do in this sitting is start by bringing attention to the breath, to the body. As you're sitting, if there is something that comes up sharply and draws attention away from the breath, I want you to work with it first on the noting level. Be aware of it. Here's an example. Maybe some of the geese start honking out on the deck. (as Barbara is talking, three geese are looking in the window at us, tapping noses on the glass) You're sitting with your eyes closed and suddenly there's a loud, unpleasant noise. "Hearing. Unpleasant." Feeling the tension grow if aversion enters. It may not. There may be just "hearing", and then the return to the breath. Don't create a mind state here.

But if there is a shift from pleasant/ unpleasant feelings into grasping or aversion, be with that arisen texture of mind. "Hearing, hearing. Unpleasant. Tension." Then, be with whatever is predominant, maybe the judging mind spinning out a story, "Why isn't somebody doing something about this?" or aversion, "I hate those geese". Feel that energy - judging, aversion, or just tension. Our usual practice is just to note this texture of consciousness, the third foundation of mindfulness, stay present with it until it changes or dissolves, then return to the breath.

At this point, what I want you to do is to begin to work with the Seven Branch Prayer. First noting, this has arisen in me. In this mind and body, there is this strong aversion that has contracted in the body, or is felt as agitation in the mind, which ever is predominant. This has arisen. The conditions are still present for this to arise, not only the external conditions of the honking geese and the organ of hearing, but the internal conditioning of this mind and body. The sound of honking geese doesn't have to give rise to anger. But the conditions within are still present so anger has arisen.

Begin with the reflection, this texture of mind arose, and compassionate regret. Then go through this process. Invite in the support, whatever that means for you. It will vary on who you are and your background. Turn to those models of enlightenment, whoever they may be for you. Ask for their support and offer gratitude that such teachers exist. Offer gratitude for this whole situation, that the honking geese exist, offering you this opportunity for practice. Then, work with the resolve to find a balance on the relative plane, and also with the resolution level.

Working with resolve, the antidote is whatever brings balance. There are different ways of working with it. Mostly, I find it's best not to have a balance sheet written in one's mind, but to be intuitive. If I feel enormous tension in the body, for example, what might work best for me at that moment is just a kind of physical body release, even literally touching the body at the place of tension. Bringing direct attention with the intention of inviting softening of that area. If the mind feels very hard, obsessing with thoughts and agitated, just breathing and offering metta, "may I have well-being." Breathing out, "may all beings have well-being." "May I be calm and at peace; may all beings be calm and at peace. May the conditions for peace be present in this mind and body; may the conditions for peace be present in all minds and bodies."

Another kind of antidote can simply be clarity and mindfulness. For example, noting agitation, I bring attention directly to the experience of agitation. This can be a balance for agitation. Singleness of focus stills agitation. The experience of agitation itself becomes the primary object and as mind settles into observing that experience, the stories quiet down. So practice needs to be a bit intuitive, just asking, "What will bring balance best here?"

One of my favorite practices, and I don't want to go into this deeply because I think it will add too much complexity this morning, but I work a lot with the four elements. Agitated energy is very fiery. So I literally breathe in and feel calm, I feel the water element in my body, I feel the presence of that water element. I visualize blue, deep quiet colors. So, I feel the very fiery agitated energy, and I literally bring in the water energy. Usually with anger energy there's a lot of both the fire element and the wind element. So I bring in more earth and especially more water. I do that literally by recognizing the earth element in my body, the solidity of the body and bringing attention to it. I note the fluid in the body. I feel the saliva in my mouth and I swallow it. I take a sip of water or whatever I have with me. I invite in the balance in the body. This is something that works for me. I'm not suggesting that this is the primary practice that people should be doing. Simply, this is one possible way to bring in the antidote.

So there can be any of a number of practices to bring balance. I know that's not very precise, but I think we have to be intuitive about it and trust ourselves. The important thing is the intention to bring balance, rather than to perpetuate this negative or obsessive thought as an habitual way to maintain a self.

On the resolution level, I remember, "That which is aware of this anger isn't angry". Can I be aware of and rest in that spaciousness at the same time as I also work on the relative human level with the balances, inviting metta, and so forth. There's no denial or avoidance of the relative plane experience, but a willingness to go beyond it too. There is a definite shift here, seeing both object and the space around the object and the intention to hold that space as primary, temporarily releasing the object. We don't deny the experience of the anger and the need to offer metta. We don't deny the reality of that which is not angry. We bring both together.

And as you feel the tension release, offer thanks and return to your breath. You might do this 5 times in a sitting; you might do it 50 times. As often as it comes up, repeat the practice.

Let us sit.

Copyright © 2004 by Barbara Brodsky