Volume 8, Number 3, September 2000

Let me begin an introduction to our new friends by reminding you: I am not omniscient. I speak what I know from my own experience. I offer it to you. I ask you to make the decision for yourself of whether my words ring true to your own heart. If what I say is of use to you take it into yourself and use it. I am not saying anything that you do not already know at some deep level of your being. I am not here to teach you but to remind you of who you are, and help you get in touch with the essence of yourselves …

One more brief statement by way of introduction. Who am I? I am spirit, you are spirit. Just that. You have a body. I don't have a body. The essence of who we are is the same. Just as with you, in my many lifetimes, I have lived in bodies of all colors. I have lived in many different kinds of cultures. I have been a follower of many different religious traditions. While Barbara sees me, her image of me is the image I choose to present, simply the being I was in one lifetime, as a bright-skinned older man with long flowing white hair and beard, dressed in white robes. This being was Aaron.



Barbara's Letter

Barbara's Dharma Talk, June 26, 2000

Aaron's Pages

Dharma Talk at the Howell Retreat, June 27, 2000

Wednesday Night Discussion Group, July 12, 2000

Barbara's Letter

Dear Friends,

The passing summer days find me sitting here in the "tree house," surrounded by an ever-changing wall of green leaves, sometimes still, sometimes blowing and tossing wildly, sometimes reflecting the sunshine, sometimes dripping from a passing storm. My visiting mother pointed out to me that the leaves all lie flat, exposing as much surface as possible to the passing sun. I understand that so well as I also reach out eagerly to the light.

These summer days I meditate and meet with students, read and reflect, days punctuated by long dawn swims and loud games of "keep-away" with my collies. This newsletter I've chosen to share a recent dharma talk which reflects some of what I've been thinking about. I hope it's been a fine summer for you too.

With love,

Barbara's Dharma Talk, June 26, 2000

Howell Retreat, fourth night of the retreat.

Last night John talked about the first two Noble Truths, dukkha, or what is sometimes translated as suffering, and the causes of dukkha. Dukkha is an interesting word. "Ka" means the hub of a wheel. "Du" means off-center. So it's the wheel that's off-center. We've got a cart and the wheel is crooked on the axle. It rolls and it lurches. It rolls again and then it lurches. There's an unsatisfactoriness to it if we want it not to lurch. The lurching itself isn't bad. It's just lurching. But we have an expectation, a view, that it shouldn't lurch. We think it should be different. If we don't care whether it lurches or not, there's no suffering, no dukkha. But as soon as there's a craving for it to be different, then there's dukkha.

The Third and Fourth Noble Truths go on to talk about dukkha. The third one is the simple statement, there is an end to it. Just that. If all the Buddha said were that there's suffering and this is its cause, we wouldn't be here. We would be out joyriding with one of the bumper stickers that says, "He who dies with the most toys wins." Have you seen that one? If there's no end to it, then what can we possibly do? But there is an end to it, to this incessant craving and this mind that keeps spinning. And then the Fourth Noble Truth delineates the path. So I'd like to talk about these last two Noble Truths tonight.

I want to read to you something I find very beautiful. This is from the Buddha:

For one who clings, motion exists. But for one who clings not, there is no motion.

Where no motion is, there is stillness.

Where stillness is, there is no craving.

Where no craving is, there is neither coming nor going.

Where neither coming nor going is, there is neither arising nor passing away.

Where neither arising nor passing away is, there is neither this world nor a world beyond nor a state in between.

This, verily, is the end of suffering.

What does this mean? We were talking in dzogchen practice today about the experience of the Unconditioned. The Buddha didn't talk much about this. He said it exists: "There is an Unborn, Undying, Unchanging, Uncreated …" He talked a lot about how to get there, about the practices we can use, but he didn't talk too much about the experience of it. He said, "Taste it for yourself."

We have little clues: a place of peace, a place of stillness, a place of expandedness. There is neither arising nor passing away, neither this world nor a world beyond nor a state in between.

To find the Unconditioned, we may begin by investigating the conditioned. Our path leads us through a variety of different stages of insight. As we observe the arising and dissolution of conditioned objects, we begin to see how everything in the conditioned realm arises because the conditions are present for it to arise, and when those conditions cease, it ceases. So we start to understand what impermanence means: nothing stays the same; it's always changing according to conditions.

Understanding emptiness is a little harder. When we talk about emptiness, we're not talking about a void. For something to be empty, it's got to be empty of something. The glass contains water. When I pour out the water, then I can say it's empty. (holds up a glass of water, then pours the water into the plant and holds up the empty glass) No water there. But space is left. So it's empty of water, but it contains space.

When we say that what arises out of conditions is empty, we need to ask, empty of what? It's empty of a separate self. The thoughts that arise in my mind arise out of conditions. The sensations in my body arise out of conditions. They are empty of self. They are not me or mine.

We can see it in the trees. Look at this one. Is there anything there which is independently "tree"? In the tree is the seed, the bird which carried the seed and the worm on which the bird fed. There's the rain, the clouds which give rain, the ocean from which the clouds arise. In the tree is the soil, earthworms, dead and decayed trees, all kinds of things. What is "tree"?

Yet objects seem to have a certain reality. I can't just say, "It's illusion." I can't turn toward the world and say, "It's all illusion." Look at these animals in the hospital pens, the sandhill crane with a broken beak. Have you seen him? He's certainly not an illusion. He's experiencing some kind of pain and trauma. We look at a little ant crawling across the ground. He's not an illusion. Look at the raindrops. If we go out and stand in them, we experience wetness.

All things have a certain kind of reality. To say it's empty doesn't deny this reality. So we can't just say, "It's all illusion." If we do that we shut ourselves off in a very cold, heartless space. And eventually we get caught there because there's only a certain degree to which we can deny our own pain, deny our own experience.

There's a story about a Zen master who was weeping, wailing, because his son had just died. His disciple said, "But Master, you tell us it's all illusion."

He said, "Yes, and the loss of one's child is the most painful illusion of all."

So our practice is a mix of wisdom and compassion. By our observation we learn about the true nature of arising and dissolving, the nature of impermanence, and we learn that it is not me or mine. And yet we learn also that we must participate in the world in a compassionate, present way.

From Hongzhi, a twelfth century Zen master, "Stepping back with open hands [giving up everything], is thoroughly comprehending life and death. Immediately you can sparkle and respond to the world. Merge together with all things. Everywhere is just right."

These insights deepen. We start to see the flow of experience. Somebody I met with today told me she was seeing objects exploding out of nowhere, from unseen conditions. It just seemed like the whole world was exploding into being. Another person said he was seeing thoughts come up and just dissolve, shatter away. He was seeing all kinds of objects that had no substance left, and it was very frightening. Nothing was solid. Nothing to hold on to. One said "birth and death; birth and death." These are pieces of the path. They're called insight into arising and insight into dissolution.

So, we gain insight into arising, seeing the wonderousness of everything arising, and then there may be a sense of real pain. There's nothing to hold on to. It all dissolves. At this point we're still focused on the conditioned realm and how everything arises and dissolves in the conditioned realm.

As equanimity about this arising and dissolution occurs, we start to find spaciousness about it and trust the process of it. We begin to see through the conditioned realm and get glimpses of the Unconditioned, this ground of being out of which it's all arising and dissolving.

It's rather like watching fireworks in the sky. They're fascinating. We watch them explode, and then fall away, explode again, and burn away. Brilliant colors; brilliant show! We may watch for hours. There's nothing there but fireworks. Then as they explode and dissolve, fascination diminishes. We've seen this before. For how many hours can we watch the same show? It's from this perspective that there is neither this world nor a world beyond nor a state in between. We see how everything is just growing and fading. Attention shifts then to the empty sky beyond. We realize with a start that the empty sky was there all along. We were so busy with the fireworks we never noticed this vast sky, this Ground.

Insight into interbeing develops. An example would be watching plants growing in a garden. As the flowers die, you till them back into the soil. You nurture the soil and more flowers grow. The process just keeps going. (Lifting potted plant.) With any one flower, we don't deny this flower is this flower. But it's also all the flowers that have been tilled into the soil. It's the sun and the rain, the earthworms-it's all there in the flower. Neither this world, nor a world beyond, nor a state in between! In the flower is only the Unconditioned itself. Non-dual.

This is one of the ways that we can start to understand the Unconditioned. We think of it as Ground of Being. Of course, when I talk about the flower, the rain, the earthworm, these are still conditioned objects. But when there's no separation, there's no being or non-being. The flower can't cease to exist, it just takes a different form. First it's the flower; then it's the soil. Nothing can cease to exist. The human is a collection of form, feelings, perceptions, thoughts and consciousness, the skandhas. And yet, all of these skandhas fall away. No form, feeling, perception, thought or consciousness, to quote the Heart Sutra. When all the conditioned aspects fall away, what's left? Therein we find this fullness, empty of self, but not vacuum. So the Buddha says, "This verily is the end of suffering," when we finally break through and see this clearly.

We don't have to break through completely to begin to get to some of these truths, to experience more spaciousness in our lives, more joy, more connection with ourselves and the earth. But we also have the Buddha's word for it: it is possible. He says, "If it were not possible, I would not ask you to do it." There is such a thing as complete liberation. Dukkha ceases. All the conditioned realm continues to arise and fall away as relative experience, but we see that ultimately nothing arises or ceases. Attention shifts to the Unconditioned, this Ground of Being.

The Fourth Noble Truth delineates the path. It's broken into three parts, sila, or moral awareness; panna, or wisdom; and samadhi, which is mindfulness and concentration. I want to read you something here from this little book, No Ajahn Chah: Reflections.

"Virtue, concentration, and wisdom together make up the heart of Buddhist practice. Virtue keeps the body and speech intact and the body is the residence of the mind. So practice is the way of virtue, the way of concentration and the way of wisdom. It's like a piece of wood cut into three sections but it's really only one log. If we want to throw away body and speech, we cannot. If we want to throw away mind, we cannot. We must practice with the body and the mind. So in truth, virtue, wisdom and concentration are one harmonious union that work together."

We can't ignore any of these parts of our practice. One of the things that Aaron has been most insistent about with me as my teacher and insistent that I teach is that we need to integrate the insights that we have into our daily lives. They need to become stable in our lives. Otherwise we create an enormous amount of suffering for ourselves and others. We can't get ahead of ourselves. There's no shortcut to spiritual awakening.

So we work with sila, with right speech, with right action, trying to live our lives without harm and with kindness and goodness to others. We really start to watch because we're concerned with developing sila, and mindfulness grows. Then, with better concentration, more mindfulness, we have deeper insights. We develop a certain wisdom about the relative world and how we relate to the world. And insight develops.

Maybe there's insight about how we're creating a solid self and how there really isn't a solid self. Now, that can be a very important insight. But, if it's not integrated, we can use it as a way to cut ourselves off from the world. If there's no self, and nothing solid, we can use it as an excuse to say nothing matters. We can say that bird with a broken beak doesn't matter. He's just an illusion. So at the same time as we understand from a wisdom perspective how things really are, that nothing has a solid self, that everything is impermanent, we've got to learn compassion. How do we develop compassion for the bird who is no self, who both exists and doesn't exist, whose suffering exists and doesn't exist, who will dissolve as bird and become the earth itself?

Another example is the so-called stories we've been looking at here. People have stories, "he did this/said that …" The stories exist and don't exist. You have got to relate to your own and others' suffering in a kind way. This doesn't mean we buy into people's stories but there has got to be compassion. So the path is really a balancing act, wisdom and compassion.

I want to talk more about how we balance the different aspects of the Eightfold Path. Especially, I want to talk about the stories that came up today both in group and private meetings.

We all have numerous stories, and they create suffering. They may be stories about restlessness, unworthiness, doubt, anger-there are endless stories. Clarity comes when we get to know the story as story and we can differentiate between the story and the bare experience that underlies the story and be present with the experience without letting mind run off into the story.

I do a month-long personal retreat every spring. I was out at my little cabin and the first few days the weather was gorgeous. It was so warm, only the end of March, but I jumped in the lake one 80-degree day. The water was icy cold but it was warm out. Beautiful little spring flowers were just starting to come out. Then I woke up one morning and the cabin was icy cold. The fire had gone out. There had been an ice storm the night before and my screens and windows were coated with ice; I couldn't see out. Everything outside was snow and ice and it was sleeting. A sudden movement of fear came up: "Oh! What am I going to do!" Stories started spinning.

Now, there's no running water in the cabin anyhow. There's no electric heat, there's just a wood-burning stove. I've got several cords of firewood out there and enough water that I'm going to be fine for a couple of days until I can get water again, until I can walk down the road to the lake. I've got candles and oil lamps. So the stories are ridiculous but nevertheless they're there. Fear!

This time I was on to myself! I was able to catch it right away. What is the story about? That's all I asked myself. Nothing. I'm not going to let my mind obsess. If the electricity stays off for a week, it does. A couple of years ago on retreat it did stay off for about a week. We had a terrible ice storm in the middle of my retreat. All the wires were down all over the county, all over the state. Roads were closed. But it was okay. If it happened again, it was fine.

What I saw immediately was just fear of being cut off. It was funny, the most important thing to me was my telephone was out. Now, I'm on retreat, I'm not making telephone calls. It's there for an emergency. But there was this fear, "I can't call anybody." Fear of being cut off, fear of isolation. It's just an old story for me. As I said, I was able not to buy into it, just to know it as it was. "Here is fear of isolation. It's very old habit in me. Fear of being cut off." And I know it's fine. I don't have to get caught up in it. In just a few minutes I started to take delight in the beauty of everything iced over. I couldn't see out my windows at all; everything was just solid ice. Walking outside, it was magnificent, a glittering fairyland.

I saw that the story was a smoke screen for a direct experience, fear, feeling helpless. None of us likes to feel helpless. Instead of allowing the experience of fear of helplessness and watching it dissolve, mind jumped into an habitual story, "woe is me …"

So that's one kind of story and how I was able to work with it relatively skillfully. Thinking about how I related to that story that day, I started thinking about a retreat about six years earlier. I had been in a friend's cabin. I wanted to go for a walk in the woods every day. His cabin was on a dirt road in the country. The entrance to the woods was just a couple of hundred yards down the road. There were only a very few houses and there were no people out there except in one house. Those people seemed to go to work everyday and leave their dog on the front porch.

I love dogs, I'm not afraid of dogs. But this dog came out baring his fangs at me, snarled, barked, ran in circles around me nipping at my feet. He stopped and backed up and looked like he was going to spring at me. I was scared. My mind started spinning. So much anger was coming up. Every day I walked past him and walked into the woods and then I had to walk past him again on the way back. I started looking for shortcuts. One day I actually waded knee deep across a marsh to cut through a back way so I could avoid him. Then I said, "I'm not going to do that any more! I need to walk down the road."

Every day when I would start to put my boots on and walk out, mind would start spinning. The stories were obsessive. In some of the stories I was attacking the dog. I picked up a big stick and I beat him, killed him. And the owners came back and I had to apologize. But I was glad I was rid of him! In some of the stories he killed me, and how terrible the owners would feel when they realized their dog had mauled somebody and killed them. They'll be sorry! Not me! Them!

What I had to ask myself to do almost at every step was to note mind spinning off and say, "No, I'm not going there. This is not skillful." There's a practice which I love called clear comprehension. It's part of mindfulness. Mindfulness and clear comprehension go hand in hand. Clear comprehension has four parts. The first is clear comprehension of purpose. We ask ourselves, "What is my highest purpose here?" If it's to feel comfortable and safe then I might want to do one thing. If it's to learn something, or to serve others, I might want to do another. To feel comfortable I might want to let these stories spin out. They provide a kind of defense where I don't have to feel my fear. But if my highest purpose is deeper understanding and clearer, kinder action, then I have to ask of myself not to use these stories as a smoke screen, to let myself come back and feel the intense discomfort of my fear and anger.

This is the second part of clear comprehension: clear comprehension of suitability. Is what I'm doing suitable to this purpose? If I say that my purpose is developing wisdom and compassion, then letting the stories spin out is not suitable. So I can ask myself, what is my purpose? Seeing that what mind is doing is not suitable to this purpose, can I just come back to this moment and be here with the fear?

So I had to do this almost every three steps. It was like being with a wild animal that wanted to run off in one direction or another and I had to keep bringing it back again and again and again. Stories. Come back. In this moment there is just me walking down the road, and the dog-and some days the dog didn't even appear after all of this. (Laughter.) But when he did, it was just me and the dog. I tried doing metta. "May you be happy. May you have ease of well-being." I said it out loud and he snarled harder when I talked to him like that. He was beyond the reach of my ability to offer metta. But the metta helped quiet my mind.

My retreats are about a month long. Day after day I walked past the house. After a while it got easier. Fear was there, and insight into the whole nature of fear as conditioned. There was spaciousness around the fear; ability to smile at the fear; ability to really know how unpleasant it is to feel helpless, to feel that one can be hurt, that one is in danger; not to feel safe. It woke a lot of compassion in me. It woke a lot of compassion for the dog because of course he was snarling at me because he didn't feel safe. That doesn't mean he's not going to bite me, but at least I had compassion for him.

What this is about is the different kinds of stories that mind can create and the fact that these stories serve as a smoke screen. They divert us from what's really happening. People work with restlessness. They say, "What should I do about restlessness?" as if they had to fix the restlessness. But what we need to do with restlessness is just to be with it. What is the experience of restlessness? If you go into it deeply enough, what's underneath it will reveal itself. Maybe there's grief underneath, fear, enormous rage. Grief, fear, and rage are not stories. There's a direct experience of grief. There may be stories that come out of the grief, but the grief itself is a direct experience. If you cut your arm badly and it's bleeding, the pain and the blood are not stories. Other stories may grow out of it, but right there there's just blood and pain.

When we learn to be with objects as they present themselves, a certain spaciousness develops. It's no longer based on concept. Saying, "whatever arises because of conditions has the nature to arise; it has the nature to cease," that's conceptual. But when we're right there inside ourselves, taking our own direct experience as the ground of investigation, then we really know that there is arising and dissolution, and there is spaciousness too. We don't have to be so identified with what comes up. It is not self, yet here it is. There can be compassion.

Here is where sila, panna, samadhi come together. Here are the holding and penetrating that we talked about yesterday, vitaka and vikara, these vipassana factors, holding mindfulness to the object and going into it deeply. Compassion emerges. Here is a big container for whatever has come up. The sense of solidity starts to disintegrate. There can be enormous pain and still there's nothing solid there.

It's hard to explain what I mean when I say there's nothing solid there. Two years ago I was in the hospital for three weeks with a leg infection. It just kept creeping up my leg. The antibiotics they tried didn't seem to resolve it. My leg was swollen like a club. It was enormously painful. The pain medication they were giving me didn't make a dent in it. I was able to work with it better without the drugged state of the medication so I stopped using the medication. So I was just there with this immensely painful leg and watching the infection creeping up, and wondering at what point do we cut the leg off so it doesn't get into the rest of my body? A lot of fear.

Lying there one night when it was especially painful, something very unusual happened. As I went into the pain, instead of trying to control the pain, just directly into it, the whole leg started to dissolve. There were little bits of stabbing and burning explosions. It was still my leg. There was still the ability to have a lot of compassion for this leg in this situation. But the pain stopped being solid as pain. It just broke into little pieces and I found myself almost floating in a tremendous spaciousness.

I had never experienced this before with strong physical pain but I've heard others talk about it. The same kind of not-solid experience can happen with emotional pain, with grief, with anger, with any emotional state. It's spaciousness which is very present, not disassociation. When we go into it, bringing wisdom in, bringing in all we know of how things arise out of conditions, are impermanent and will dissolve, the experience just starts to break apart. It's not solid any more.

So this insight into dissolution, while scary, is also a great gift. With spaciousness the ability to be present with our experience develops and the stories stop. They don't stop completely but they stop having any ability to catch us and rock us off center. And immediately when they come up we know them as stories.

A lot of different stories came up today in our meetings. One person talked about the idea of clumsy. She said she felt clumsy when she walks, she feels clumsy when she eats, feels clumsy in her body. As we talked about it, she began to look at the child's experience of not being good enough and how much rage there was and how "clumsy" as story became her way of experiencing that rage. The rage felt too uncomfortable to her to experience, but clumsy was safe. Very unpleasant, but safe. And it turned the rage onto herself.

We get into the same thing with "unworthy." Often there's a lot of rage behind it. Often we've picked up this image "unworthy" and all its stories because it didn't feel safe to experience the rage or some other emotion. And then it became a habit. So we go through our lives with an image: feeling clumsy, feeling unworthy. Whatever it may be. Feeling like the victim, feeling like the powerful one, that's another story. When we look, there's something behind it that we can get to know. Then the story unwinds and comes apart into little pieces. It's not solid.

When we do that we start to have freedom from these stories. It's not that they stop, it's that they no longer catch us. We experience them and don't worry about it, just nod and say, "you again." Here's the story about clumsy, here's the story about unworthy. We know them as stories. They still bring up some pain but we know them as stories. We no longer have to act them out. If we know them as stories we no longer have to be the clumsy one or the unworthy one or the angry one or the good one, whatever story might present itself.

They hang on. They'll hang on as long as they will. This year in my Tuesday night meditation class, we've been talking a lot about habitual tendencies and the outflow of those tendencies. Some of these mind states are just habitual tendencies. Judgment, to be the judging one or the non-judgmental one, those are stories. And there also can be habitual tendencies to enact the story, to show our judgment, power or fear. Mind moves into certain patterns and it gets stuck there. We don't have to get into a lot of psychology about it and try to analyze what happened in our childhood, why we experience it, where it comes from. Sometimes that can be helpful. I'm not saying don't do that if it's useful to you. I'm saying we don't always have to do that. We can just say, "The idea of unworthiness arose out of conditions. For whatever reasons, in my childhood I came to the idea I was unworthy, and I've been telling that story to myself ever since. And it's served as a smoke screen. It's kept me from acknowledging how angry I was as a child about certain things that happened. It keeps me from acknowledging my anger now." I'm using anger as an example but it could be grief or some other emotion.

The thing is, we blow its cover. Anger has been hiding behind this smoke screen of unworthiness. When we get onto it and say, "Ah, here is a feeling of unworthiness, somewhere there might be anger," we allow ourselves to know this is a habitual tendency. We know it's very possible that when a specific kind of thought comes up it's because this particular mind state is underneath. So this blows its cover!

Just be aware. Note to yourself, "Well, maybe there's anger. I don't know that there's anger. What if I just acknowledge there might be anger, let go of the story, and come back to whatever the body is feeling. Some kind of tension. Uncomfortable. Unpleasant. Resistance. Without the story, what might be there?" We just stay present, allowing ourselves to experience joy, sadness, fear, tension, heat, cold, anger.

I don't want to harp on the unpleasant experiences. One of the new students over the weekend said to me, "Everybody here looks so somber. I thought meditation was supposed to be a joyful experience. Where's the joy in this?!" Then we spent some time in the group talking about where the joy may be. There are also beautiful and blissful experiences but what we're doing is hard work and we need to honor that. The fruits are enormous. But here at the retreat some people may not be experiencing the fruits so much, but just doing the work. If anybody has some of these fruits, great, enjoy them!

But whatever is coming up, pleasant or unpleasant, just know it for what it is. Be right there, present with it, not trying to make it bigger or smaller than it is, just present with it, noting it, bearing witness to it, allowing a space around it. If it has the nature to arise it has the nature cease. Just letting it be there, a certain wisdom develops, seeing how all dharmas arise and cease and are not self.

And stillness develops.

There's another quote from Ajahn Chah: "When mind objects no longer capture attention, there is stillness. This is the taste of nirvana." We start to directly experience this stillness. As long as we're caught in the stories and not with the object, there can be no stillness, because the stillness is found by moving through the objects, knowing them for what they are, and coming to the Ground out of which they arise.

We begin with the direct experience of this moment in the mind and body. Take the specific object, however it presents itself, as pain, as tension, icy cold, hot, contracted, spacious, smooth, sharp … We find the object is in a container. Watch as I put my hand up here against this white wall. There is an object and space around the object. (moving hands; putting them up and withdrawing them) Shift your focus from the hands to the wall. The hands are still there, but let the wall become primary.

When we start to see how these objects arise and dissolve, part of the wisdom that develops is we begin to experience directly the space around objects. But this space is not yet the stillness Ajahn Chah speaks of in the quote I just read. There's no stillness so long as there is preference for either space or object, because with the preference there may be grasping-new objects.

Slowly we move to a point where we're no longer preferring space over objects. Sometimes there are objects, sometimes there is empty space. They're non-dual. In the objects, we experience the space. In the space, we know objects may come and go. It's the same thing. Do you understand what I mean by that?

I'm going to hold both hands against the wall again. Do you see how they bring the white wall, the space, into focus? The empty space may not be noticed unless it's related to an object. But when we see it in relation to the object, there's a very direct experience of space.

We see the object and we don't get so caught up in it because of the space. Now it's a hand, and space is there also. It could be pain, anger, fear, depression, cold, fever … and space. The stillness is not in the space, but in the non-preference which arises out of seeing how things are: objects arising, objects dissolving, and space remains.

Here is his "taste of nirvana," this first taste of real stillness, where mind is not moved by objects as they come and go but just experiences them. For me it's like the experience would be of standing in a river. Water, very clear water, is flowing by. And then along comes a tree branch. It floats by. If it's about to bump into me, I step back. That would be a skillful thing to do. I don't have to wonder how it got into the river, I don't have to run after it and try to fish it out. It's just a log floating down the river.

Then a glass bottle with a message in it comes floating down. Oh, this one's intriguing. The log was boring; this one's intriguing. Mind wants to get into it. It's just a bottle with a message, let it go. Then, along comes another log and on this log there's a monkey … and it's got a baby clasped in its arms. Its feet are spinning the log and it's screeching in terror. Certainly it's appropriate to reach out, lift it off, and put it on the shore. We're not fixing the situation, we're simply acting in a skillful way. There's nobody doing it. Just kindness happening, so there's no story that comes up. Not, "Oh, it would have drowned without me." Or, "Maybe I should have left it there." "Am I good; am I bad?" None of these stories spins off. We just do what needs to be done.

Things keep floating down. Don't get caught. But if it's something that asks us to act in a skillful way, then we can do that. We can't ignore the world. But there's no self doing it. So this is the experience of it for me. Sometimes objects, sometimes space, acting in a skillful way but free of stories. Very spacious and peaceful.

Repeating the quote from Hongzhi, "Stepping back with open hands [giving up everything], is thoroughly comprehending life and death. Immediately you can sparkle and respond to the world. Merge together with all things. Everywhere is just right."

The nature of the body is to feel sensations; the nature of the mind is to give rise to thoughts. There's always a possibility of physical sensations and thoughts. Whatever comes through, don't get caught but respond to it in an appropriate way. This is the fruit of our practice, the awareness that this is not me or mine, the deep intention to non-harm and to act in ways that are good for all beings. The focus to stay with it. Here are sila, panna, and samadhi.

People ask me, "How do I get to these higher vipassana insights?" You don't "get to them," they reveal themselves. Don't think of them as attainments that you finally get like a gold star in first grade when you've done your work right. These higher insights are always there. They reveal themselves because we are present in our lives, because we've developed sila, because we've developed concentration and mindfulness and have learned how to deal skillfully with all the stories, how to invite that container of stillness. Out of this, the insights will very naturally arise, just revealing themselves. It's a wonderful path. It's an extraordinary, breathtaking, and joyful path.

We talk about faith. People come to me and say, "I'm filled with doubt. I don't know if this is the right path for me. It's not working. I've been practicing for three weeks, or three years, and I'm not enlightened yet."

I've been practicing for 30 years and I'm not enlightened yet. But the fruits are there and they're real and good. However long you've been practicing, just keep doing it.

I'm filled with quotes tonight. From the Dalai Lama, during the conference, "Year after year, life after life, one must improve oneself. That's the way."

Deeper realizations will come. Be where you are, don't try to be someplace else. Attention in this moment, that's the only thing. That will yield all the results that you're looking for. Just be present. Be in your heart. Pay attention. That's all it takes. It's really very simple. Hard to do. It takes a lot of effort. Right effort is one piece of the path. Tensionless effort, not grasping but there and present, paying attention. It all will come.

I hope that through this talk I invite you, tonight and the following days, in your practice to trust your experience, to be present in this moment. Ask, "In what ways am I trying to control or fix things? Instead can I just come back to the experience of this moment. Can I not create so much as find this big container of stillness in which I can rest? Can I find that in my heart? Can I find it through metta, through compassion? Can I allow myself, if there's sorrow, for there to be sorrow? If there's anger, for there to be anger? Greed, for there to be greed? To know these experiences, to know how unpleasant they are, to know how much I want to be free of them, and still to allow the experience of them and allow them to be a ground for compassion? Can I trust myself that I will not enact these mind states in the world?"

One cannot get rid of them by hating them. They'll dissolve on their own when you create space for them. But there is this need to say, "No, I'm not going to get caught up in that story."

Come back again and again and again just to the bare experience of this moment. If you do that, everything else will follow.

Let's sit quietly for a few minutes.

Aaron's Pages

Dharma Talk at the Howell Retreat, June 27, 2000

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Wednesday Night Discussion Group, July 12, 2000

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Copyright © 2000 by Barbara Brodsky