October 20, 2012 Saturday Morning, Howell Retreat

Retreat morning instructions; wisdom, intention and the open heart; release of fear; basis of sila as knowing interbeing; spaciousness; vipassana as present with whatever arises; dependent origination.

Aaron: Good morning. My blessings and love to you all. I am Aaron. In the retreat literature, we spoke of the sacred container of dharma. I like to think of this akin to a braid, where the hair is placed into three parts, but when you braid it together smoothly it becomes one strong whole, each part dependent on the other parts.

The wisdom teachings and insights within the vipassana practice are one strong central piece of this braid, but they cannot stand alone. I have had experiences with vipassana in past lives where it was treated as a practice in which you just “did it right”, with the intention, coming from a place of force, “If I just do it right, I'll get rid of suffering. I'm going to do this right.” There's no kindness in there, just a forcefulness that denies unpleasant experience, and denies the deepest truth, that objects arise out of conditions. Instead of releasing the conditions, this kind of practice enhances some of the negative and contracted conditions. It arises from will, not from spaciousness. It arises from the ego. As the Buddha said, hatred can never be resolved by hatred, but only by love.

Then we have the second piece of the braid, the open heart. If this was something you had to create, it would be much more challenging. But you do not create the open heart; you realize the open heart. You open to it. How could it be anywhere but right where it is, at the core of being? The open heart is always there.

Look at your sky today (the day is heavily overcast). Is the blue sky there? You have to break through the clouds to see it, but of course it's there. Is the sun there? Of course. You don't get up on a day like today and think, “Oh, there's no more blue sky or sun anywhere in the world. It's gone. Some demon has eaten it.” You simply know that when the clouds move away, the blue sky and the sun will reappear, from where they are temporarily hidden.

In the same way, the clouds of fear, habitual negative thought, all of the - the Pali word is kilesas, the negative habitual patterns - these all are temporarily covering the open heart. These all are blocking the innate wisdom of the open heart as well as the kindness of it. Thus, we practice to reveal the open heart, not to create it.

Going back to some of the unskillful practice I observed in some past lifetimes. People would hold a very self-centered intention, “I will find freedom from all suffering. I don't care about anyone else. I will find this. I've had it with suffering! I'm not going to suffer anymore!” What enormous arrogance and suffering to say, “I will not suffer anymore,” as if the egocentric will could control this. It is quite different from the intention held by the Buddha at his enlightenment, when he said “I do this for all sentient beings; I do this based on my karma of many lifetimes of building wisdom and compassion. Now it is ripened.”

The deepest intention needs to be that of the loving heart for the highest good of all beings. We look at the intentions we have that are personal, and it's okay to have personal intentions. But we also look at the deeply heart-centered intention for service to all beings, to live one's life with kindness and with wisdom.

The intention grounds the action. If the intention is contracted and fear-based, the result can only be contracted and fear-based. If you want a result that's openhearted, deeply connected and grounded in true dharma, then the intention must be thus. This is why we start with sila, and with taking the precepts. In many Buddhist countries, people do no practice for many years, except sila practice. For many people, the whole of their practice is to come out every morning and offer food to the monks. They may scarcely have enough food for their families, but love rather than fear prompts them to go out and offer what they can offer. In this way, through the entire lifetime, they are resolving fear and self-centeredness, and developing generosity and loving kindness.

In this country, we often start students with vipassana practice. But it's important to reflect upon sila and the ground for sila, which is the interbeing of all beings, the non-separation. “I cannot do well unless we all do well. We are not separate. We take care of each other.”

Once at a workshop, we did an exercise in silence. It was a one-day workshop with a lovely prepared lunch. Each person had a partner. Each person was to choose a plate of lunch>Plates were exchanged and each person fed their partner. They were not permitted not feed themselves. You may have heard a story where a being arrives at a heaven realm where an enormous banquet is served. Everybody's arms are stiff; they cannot bend them. They can lift food onto their plates, but there's no way they can get food to their mouths. But they are happily feeding each other. The person tells his guide, “This looks like hell, not to be able to eat on ones' own. The guide takes him through a large doorway and says, “No, this is hell.” In that next room, everyone is crying out in starvation and anguish, though the table is filled with food. But no one moves to feed another.

This innate generosity and joy of service to others, joy for caring for others, is the ground of loving kindness and of dharma. So in this retreat we want to develop all three of these strands: wisdom, the loving heart, and the place of deepest intention to be of service to all beings, with kindness; to find that place of purity within you.

What's most important to me here is that negative thought does not have to be demolished to make room for positive thought. That which is aware of greed is not greedy. That which is aware of fear is not afraid. That which is aware of anger is not angry.

If you are determined never to be afraid or angry or filled with greed, and if you hold a contracted state in denial of those experiences when they arise due to conditions, you will never move further, except constantly to do battle with these states, because you will never come to know that which is free of greed, that which is free of anger, that which is free of fear, which are right there in the center of the heart.

Your vipassana practice gives you the perfect place to practice this. When we sit with our practice, we watch physical sensations, thoughts, and feelings arise when the conditions are present for them to arise, and then pass away. There is no trying to stop an object from arising. We note if it's pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. If it's pleasant and grasping comes up, we know there's grasping. If it's unpleasant and aversion comes up, we know there's aversion. And then we watch the texture of response to that experience. If I contract around an unpleasant experience and around aversion with an “I shouldn't feel aversion. No aversion allowed,” that is just more aversion. I might instead note the aversion and the story, “I shouldn't...” and say, “is that so?” If aversion has arisen, it's because conditions are present. As soon as I note the unpleasantness of the experience and the strength of the aversion with kindness, I've broken through it. I'm back into that “That which is aware of...”, back into the ever-open heart.

So we never try to stop objects from arising. And we're not trying to figure out why this or that arose in a way as to control it. We do attend to it. If rage comes up, you don't enact your rage. If greed comes up, you don't enact it. Watch it with spaciousness.

The sitting practice is the perfect place to do this. The instructions for this morning, then, are based on all I have just said. Watch contact. The sense organ of body or the mind contacts an arising object—an itch, a scent, perhaps pulsation in a limb, a memory or some kind of a planning or judging thought. A feeling of tension might arise into the body, contracted energy or simply a block in energy. Any of these objects might arise when the conditions are present for them to arise. There is contact; there is consciousness of that contact. Simply note it.

If it's unpleasant, know it's unpleasant. First there was contact with the object and consciousness of it, and then the feeling-- pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. If it's neutral, boredom may arise. Watch for that. If it's pleasant, grasping may arise. Something cooking later today. Smelling. Contact, scent touching the nostrils. Consciousness of smelling, scent. Pleasant. And then the thought, “Mmm, I wonder what's for lunch.” Liking. “Maybe we've had enough sitting. Let's go into the kitchen.” That “Done with it. Let's go,” energy. If that arises and is predominant, just note it.

A memory of something unpleasant that somebody said to you this week arises and how you felt abused by it; anger comes up. First, there is contact with the memory, then consciousness, and unpleasant feeling. And then almost immediately the mind engages. “I should have said... He shouldn't have said...How can I fix this?” Note how you're getting pulled into the story, that it's simply-- agitation is perhaps a good word. What is the direct experience of agitation in the mind and body? Can we just let agitation be there without trying to fix it or getting engaged in the stories it's presenting? That which is aware of agitation is not agitated. They exist simultaneously. You won't experience it as simultaneous. You'll experience it as one or the other, and that's okay. But as long as you're trying to push away the agitation, there's no space to experience the spaciousness.

Respond with, “Breathing in, I am aware of the agitation. Breathing out, I smile to the agitation. I bow to the agitation. I open my arms and heart to it. I feel it right here in the belly, or right here in the throat. It is uncomfortable; I make space for the discomfort.” Just be with it. Aversion may come; “I don't want this agitation. It's hounding me. It's following me. It's so unpleasant.” Can there be compassion for this human that's caught in this experience. Not scolding the human-- compassion for the human. In this way we part the clouds and let the sun through. We see the conditioned mind, and how it arises and focuses in on this or that experience, without getting caught in self-identity with the experience.

As that self-identity goes, the experience may still be there. For example, an experience of body pain may still be present, pulsating, throbbing, unpleasant. Noting it does not end it, just gives space. At that point you can take care of it better. Perhaps the shoulder is harshly throbbing and you need to just hold the arm up and rest it on a pillow. You attend to it rather than fixing it from a contracted place. Perhaps there's a memory of abusive words. You don't try to figure out what you should say in return or how you can fix it. You simply note sadness, helplessness, and all the different deep feelings that may come, with compassion for all humans who experience such feelings.

What happens as your practice settles in this way is that you begin to see the vast array of conditioned objects arising and passing away, not in a small container of fear and ego but in an extended spaciousness.

Looking around the room, what is the biggest thing you see in the room? Walls? Floor? People?  Reply from group: Air. Space.

Yes, the room is filled with chairs and candles and cushions and people, but space is the biggest thing. If you focus simply on the objects, you can lose touch with that space.

As your practice settles, you're clearly seeing objects arising out of conditions, passing through, and dissolving. Most of you are fairly experienced practitioners so what I want you to do today is, when an object dissolves, rest in the spaciousness. Don't come rushing back to your primary object. The primary object may be the breath, a more mundane primary object, or it may be more of the supramundane such as nada, luminosity, or space.

Some of you use a more conditioned primary object like the breath. When whatever has become predominant dissolves, don't rush back to the mundane primary object. Just rest in the spaciousness of that transparency of the mundane object, if only for a moment. If the mind then begins to wander, come back to your traditional primary object. If something catches your attention, be present with it. See the arising of it. Know the feeling, the mental formations that may come. As the whole container breaks open, just rest in that spaciousness again. Watch all these objects become transparent, so all that remains is the luminosity, the spaciousness of open hearted awareness.

Eventually the spaciousness becomes a very firm resting place from which we watch the conditioned mind itself latching onto various objects with pleasant/unpleasant/neutral feelings, with like and dislike, and so forth. But there is so much more ease with it all, because there's not self-identification with it. It simply has arisen from conditions, is impermanent, not self. By “not-self” I don't mean that the self is annihilated but that the perspective shifts from ego to awakened heart.