A look at dependent co-arising in “The Shape of Suffering”

Dependent Co-Arising is one of those buddhist topics that I know exists, but isn’t typically central to (or even acknowledged within) my understanding of buddhism. That is changing.

I’m knee deep in Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s book “The Shape of Suffering“. The main theme is the 12 factors of Dependent Co-Arising. The analysis is very instructive — not only describing the complexities of the interactions between these twelve factors, but also placing dependent co-arising in context with the 4 noble truths and 8 fold path. Much like his book, “Right Mindfulness”, the whole of the dharma seems to be laid out, encompassing both a broad overview and delving into practical, practice-based details that point inevitably towards absolute freedom.

Early on in this book, the explanation centers around how the 12 factors create “cycles of suffering” or cycles that lead to suffering, so that going through cycle after cycle– suffering arises. In any case, one can see by his illustrations that these cycles happen on multiple levels – microscopic and nearly instantaneous as well as macroscopic, lasting lifetimes!! This alone is illuminating as one ponders the dharma. I often get caught up thinking about how the dharma functions — and on what scale — and this makes it very clear that there is no one right answer to that question. The dharma is functioning on every scale simultaneously!!

The 4 noble truths are like the 4 cornerstones that make up the foundation of buddhism — they are the bedrock. Dependent Co-arising is a functional look at Suffering – the first of these cornerstones. In fact, the second, Clinging is also one of the factors of dependent co-arising — and seeing it function in this way can give some real insight into how important and central it is – and how it works!! The whole cycle of dependent co-arising — which produces suffering so long as it is occurring in ignorance — does just the opposite if it occurs in the presence of awareness and knowledge of the 4 noble truths. In this way, it is a formula for how to “abandon the craving” that causes suffering. This IS the 3rd noble truth! Dependent co-arising, then, allows one to explore 3 of the 4 noble truths in a very experiential way.

Reading Thanissaro’s work feels like it is it’s own form of practice. It exposes the very heart of Theravada.

Don’t cling to anything as “I”, “me”, or “mine”

It has been said that the Buddha spoke this teaching, “Don’t cling to anything as ‘I’, ‘me’ or ‘mine'” and claimed that upon hearing this, one has heard the whole of the dharma; practicing it, one has practiced the whole of the dharma; and upon realizing the fruit of this practice, one has realized the fruit of the path–liberation.

Howie made this a central part of his talk this week at MissionDharma. It is nice to occasionally boil all of the dharma down into a tiny jewel. It’s something the mind can hold onto when the practice and the dharma seem too complex or overwhelming.

Spending some time on this in the last few days has been fruitful. The practice is one of letting go — but it also inspires some dharma investigation, such as, “what is clinging”? Can I remember to keep this in mind and apply it to whatever comes up? What am I clinging to, typically? Can this reminder help me let it go?

Being in the world, moving in my typical patterns while keeping this in mind I had to clarify the difference between craving and clinging. In some ways they are deeply related — I am habitually clinging to patterns of craving! One of the 4 things to which we cling are “rituals”. I originally took this to mean religious rituals — practices — but I see that it applies equally to habits and patterns. Identifying a pattern and applying this formula to let it go in the moment is quite powerful. I’m reminded of how flexible and responsive the mind can be.

The “process of selfing” is another teaching that resonates with this one. Watching a thought arise and bringing this teaching to bear on it causes the mind to investigate how we are including that particular thought as part of our self definition. It challenges us to immediately let it go, uncoupling the thought from our sense of self right then and there. It is very freeing. Of course our habits and self definitions are more resilient and will keep coming back — but you can really see the work of loosening their grip.

This triggers so many elements of practice for me.. it’s quite interesting! Another piece that this practice touches is Bhante Vimalaramsi’s “relax step”. I find myself consciously relaxing the tightness in and around my head when I am letting go during this exercise. There is a feeling of softening, relaxing, and coming back to the moment associated with this. It’s also pleasant and encourages further relaxation.

Don’t cling to anything as ‘I’, ‘me’, or ‘mine’. A tiny dharma jewel that’s worth remembering and practicing. It’s clearly quite central to the teaching — being equated with the whole of the teaching by the Buddha himself — and also illuminating many other dharma jewels I’ve encountered along the path.

Where things stand..

I haven’t posted in a while. I’m having one of those dharma-downtimes that happen every so often. I haven’t lost faith in what the dharma is all about… in fact, I think I’m seeing just how important it is.

A few months ago, I applied for a retreat with Gil Fronsdal. I was very excited to sit with him and my motivation to sit was quite high.. until I got wait listed for the retreat.. and then didn’t get into it at all. My dharma balloon took a bit of a hit.

Then, my schedule changed for a few months and my Tuesday night sit, at Mission Dharma, became my once-a-month sit — only when it was my night as “lead volunteer”.

Our morning routine, which used to have my wife taking my daughter to school and me sitting for 3″ of incense every workday, shifted.. and I started going with them in the morning to drop Lucy off at school or camp and then going to work with Sara.

So, in the course of just a few months, my daily sitting, my weekly Sangha sitting and my retreat sitting all became a little wobbly. And I have to say that my state of mind has become a bit wobbly as well.

I see how important practice is for me. My weekly sits are back on track, thanks to another schedule change which frees up my Tuesday nights. The sits are actually pretty good, though I have been losing my concentration before the end of the 45 minutes. It feels very grounding to show up and sit.. and to be with the sangha, too.

I hope to get my daily sitting back on track as well, though I haven’t quite figured out how just yet. Mornings are busy. It’s not easy to find 25 minutes to ‘just sit’. But I’ll work on it.

The retreat for the year… that’s still up in the air. I’ll see what I can find. Having a retreat on the calendar is always very helpful for me.

We’ll see if the blog posts pick back up when the sitting does… sitting doesn’t guarantee insights — but there’s a better chance for insight when you establish a rhythm with the practice.

[ ___ ] is being known.

Once again, I’ve found inspiration for my practice from the Satipatthana series of Joseph Goldstein.

One simple suggestion is made with reference to “bare knowledge” of an object. It is suggested that we regard any sense object simply as “… being known”. This is deliberately a passive construction. In practice, registering each sight, sound, sensation, thought, taste and smell with the label “…is being known” has some unique qualities. Here are some that seem very useful/helpful so far:

(1) As a mindfulness label, this is the lowest possible bar. Anything that comes into awareness “.. is being known”. There is no other requirement; everything is included.

(2)The simplicity of it seems to avoid a layer of doubt that can occur when noticing very subtle experiences. Instead of using thoughts to understand the object of awareness before acknowledging it, it can “be known” just as it is, with it’s ambiguity or it’s clarity.

(3) This passive construction avoids calling out a subject. There is no “I” needed. The very subtle, but nearly all pervasive selfing process is not supported by labeling in this way. Only the object being known and the knowing of it are present, and eventually these two may collapse as well.

(4) The mind’s movements and overall state “can be known”, though it is hard to place this into any of the six classic senses. The activity of the mind seems distinct from the thoughts and images that comprise the “thought” category, or sixth sense gate. Rather than being a sense gate, noticing the mind’s shifts and searches or it’s steadiness; it’s wide focus or narrow focus; the presence or absence of desire, etc. points directly at the 3rd foundation of mindfulness: the mind.

(5) As the mind settles and becomes more concentrated, Knowing itself becomes the object. This has the One Taste of seeing into one’s own mind, or doing a koan.

(6) Anything that is “being known” is necessarily in the present moment. It’s not possible that something from the past or future “.. is being known”. It becomes quite evident that any such thought of something from the past is a thought and that it’s the thought that “is being known”. Likewise, any thought of the future is known immediately to be a thought. Any fear, desire, confusion or other reactions to this thought are also “being known” just as they are during this practice–because the arising of the known and the knowing of it are being laid bare. Thus exposed, these reactions and stories have less power to distract awareness and spin the mind into another fantasy, perpetuate the story, and reinforce the conceit of self.

This has been a very simple, direct and effective tool in service of mindfulness. I am very grateful for concepts like this that can really help the practice unfold.

Thanks, Yvonne

Tonight,Yvonne Ginsburg spoke at Mission Dharma. She talked about awareness of thinking in a very new and refreshing way. She talked about the ability to see thoughts as they arose–giving us the opportunity to let them go. This is a commonly sited benefit of mindfulness practice–disrupting Papanca. What was interesting was that she wasn’t just talking about Papanca–she was talking about disrupting and letting go of highly ingrained patterns of thought. Our habitual thought patterns. When these thoughts are seen at their root and let go we not only avoid Papanca– we have the opportunity to think entirely new, fresh thoughts. Youthful, playful, imaginative thinking becomes possible where typically we replay some old tired pattern! How wonderful!! She likened this to a stream of water that had formed a deep rut being diverted and allowed to flow freely over surfaces that were entirely new and fresh.

Another thought for the night was that we can do just fine without our thinking minds constantly “hovering” over our every move making sure we do everything right. What we have previously learned and done can spontaneously flow just how it needs to in situations without our minds having to worry, plan, guide and direct every move. I think there is a very deep insight in this that I only just got a glimpse of during her talk, but it was a very pleasant one–an insight into non-doing.

Concentration, tranquility and the malleability of the mind

One of the main take-aways from the Concentration Retreat was the active encouragement of a particular state of mind. Rather than just being exactly with what is and observing it, in concentration meditation one actually invites or encourages a state of calm, relaxation and contentment.

Following the breath very precisely, one is encouraged to drop any distractions. The phrase used a lot was to incline the mind to calm. Suggestions to relax the body, quiet the thoughts and calm the mind can be very effective when a certain state of concentration has already been achieved. During Samadhi meditation, it is said that the mind becomes very “malleable” or “flexible” and open to suggestion. Much to my amazement, I found this to be very much the case. Dropping in words or phrases like “not now” to let go of a thought, or “calm” to settle the mind further really did have the intended effect. “Relax, Quiet, Calm” became a very effective shortcut to a more tranquil state. The “quiet” and the “calm”, it should be pointed out, are different. Quiet refers to dropping verbal activity while Calm can sooth restless or unsettled mental energies. This language isn’t very precise, but in practice, there is a calming that can be sensed beyond simply quieting the mental talk.

Once the mind had settled to a greater degree and there was truly some aspects of the mind that were quiet and still, we were encouraged to focus on the calm part of the mind itself– to pour our attention on that still part of the mind. There may have been some gentle talk or the noticing of body sensation.. but once the mind is directed towards the quiet aspect of it’s own experience – that aspect could be allowed to grow and fill more of the space of awareness and the result was a more calm state.

In order to encourage the mind to stay with something subtle and not revert back to fabricating new content or seeking stimulus, another major concept used was contentment. Dropping in the word “content” seemed enough to get the mind to rest with something simple, like the texture of the breath. Resting there allowed for the mind to become more focused on the subtle aspects of the breathing. Any movement by the mind that is a distraction from simple awareness of breath is released by “not now” or labeling the movement a “fabrication of mind”. This label is a little long and cumbersome, but it’s so accurate it wakes the mind up immediately to the nature of the movement and encourages a non-clinging and dropping of the fabrication immediately.

At one point, the texture of the breath was so fine that the movements of the breath were taken as movements of the mind.. the subtle texture filled awareness.. the minute sensations appearing and ceasing were magnified to the point were they were taken as movements of the mind and an attempt was made to drop them, too. Realizing that the movements of mind and the sensations of the breath were in that instant one-and-the-same lead to a short experience of unity with the breath — a merging of subject and object.

During other sitting periods, a focus on “calm” lead to experiences of vivid awareness emerging into some kind of interior space. It was as if my awareness folded in on itself and discovered a new space of empty calm within and could inhabit that interior space. Of course attention remained on the breath, but keeping it there was effortless, as the breath and attention were all that existed within that space. Had I stumbled onto a Jhana? Access consciousness? I can’t say for sure. Perhaps it was just a “meditative phenomena”. More experience with this will be required to understand it. I didn’t get much feedback on this particular experience in teacher interviews.

Relative Silence

The blog has been silent for a while, but I’ve been practicing and I’ve been on retreat and there is much to write about:

– The Concentration Retreat – collecting and unifying the mind

– Relax the body. Quiet the thoughts. Calm the mind. Cultivating contentment with what is.

– Energetic activity in the body understood as a form of Piti, or rapture.

– Balancing the Jhana factors and not getting caught up in attachment to Piti

– The malleability of the concentrated mind

– Merging or unifying with an object of consciousness

– Bringing the mind to the heart space and feeling the expansive quality of Metta

– Learning to seek balance instead of focusing attention on Piti and getting attached and out of balance

Preparing one’s whole being

Somehow, through the web, I stumbled upon this writer, Peter Holleran. He was writing, in quite a bit of detail about his understanding of how enlightenment comes to unfold. He talks about stages of development and purification, ripening, moments of realization, oscillations between clarity and falling back into our old patterns, etc., and how these patters occur across several traditions. The one piece that stood out for me was that when we do have our moments of realization – of Satori – it is possible for that enlightenment experience to only “flow into” the parts of our being that have been properly prepared or purified through practice. Here, quoting Paul Brunton, he says:

“The mystic may get his union with the higher self as the reward for his reverent devotion to it. But its light will shine down only into those parts of his being which were themselves active in the search for union. Although his union may be a permanent one, its consummation may still be only a partial one. If his intellect, for example, was inactive before the event, it will be unillumined after the event. This is why many mystics have attained their goal without a search for truth before it or a full knowledge of truth after it. The simple love for spiritual being brought them to it through their sheer intensity of ardour earning the divine Grace. he only gets the complete light, however, who is completely fitted for it with the whole of his being. If he is only partially fit, because only a part of his psyche has worked for the goal, then the utmost result will be a partial but permanent union with the soul, or else it will be marred by the inability to keep the union for longer than temporary periods.”

This isn’t the language I typically use, but the idea behind it really resonated with me. Upon further reflection, it shed some light on the Satipatthana Sutta’s broad set of practices. Breaking up the self into Body, Feelings, Mind, and Dhammas and then further breaking each into categories such as the 4 elements of the body, the clear comprehension of postures and movements and actions of the body, the worldly/unworldly pleasant/unpleasant/neutral feelings, the sense bases, and the aggregates– all of that, if practiced, could not help but provide a suitable ground for the realization of satori within one’s whole being.

Bhante Vimalaramsi: The Relax Step

This week at Mission Dharma, we had a guest teacher: The Venerable Bhante Vimalaramsi. I got to introduce him.*

I got several things out of the talk by Bhante: a new and useful definition of Mindfulness; the importance of the tranquility, or calming steps found in the Anapanasati Sutta (what he calls the relax step); and the importance of dependent origination: both the impersonality of that process and the ability to interrupt the chain of causation by letting go of thoughts and intentionally relaxing before returning to the object of meditation.

Intellectually and functionally, these concepts fit so nicely together and are so easy to put into practice that this could form a fundamental shift in practice for many (myself included). Here are some quotes taken from the talk.

A definition of Mindfulness that “works in every situation..”

“[Mindfulness is] observing how mind’s attention moves from one thing to another. That’s what it is.” “When you start watching closely you’ll start to observe how the links of dependent origination actually do work.

Letting go of thoughts:

The first thing we need to do when we notice a distraction, is to not feed on that distraction. By feed, I mean you don’t give it nutriment. How do you give thoughts nutriment? By indulging in them. … So the first thing we have to do is let go of the thoughts. How do you let go of thoughts? By not keeping your attention on them. Right? Just let it be there. It’s not your thought anyway. You didn’t tell that thought to come up.. it came up by itself, so why do you think that it’s your thought? It’s just a thought. Allow it to be. Relax the tension caused by mind’s attention moving to those thoughts. How do you do that? You notice the tightness in your head around your meninges**… and you relax. As soon as you relax, your mind is going to be very clear, very bright, and there’s not going to be any thoughts in your mind at all. Why? Because you’ve let go of the craving.

More about the “relax step”

“If you just add this one step – of relaxing – it will change your entire meditation and your progress in meditation will be amazing.” “Even if you want to do straight vipassana, if you add that relax step along with that, that will change your meditation and you will see amazing progress.” “When you start recognizing that tension and tightness in your head, in your mind, and you relax, you are purifying your mind. Why? Because you have let go of craving at that time.”

A working definition and use of the Chain of Dependent Origination

“I’ve been talking to you about dependent origination and how it works.. There is Contact. The Eye hits Color & Form– Eye Consciousness arises. The meeting of these three things is called Eye Contact. With Eye Contact as condition, there is Eye Feeling: pleasant, painful, neither painful nor pleasant. With Eye Feeling as condition, there is Eye Craving; Eye Craving is: I like it or I don’t like it.  When your awareness becomes sharp enough, you can see that start to get tight and you can relax right then, and then the rest of the links of Dependent Origination do not arise. So there is no sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair. When you start getting that balance of recognizing that tightness in your head and relaxing.”

The way to practice Samatha Vipassana, or Tranquil Wisdom Insight Meditation:

“Recognize when your mind has been distracted. You release the distraction by not keeping your attention on it. You relax the tightness caused by that. You smile. You come back to your object of meditation; stay with your object of meditation. Repeat.”

I could say much more about how I see these concepts fitting together, but I’ll leave it here for now; keep practicing and revisit this teaching more in the future. Happy sitting!!

* My intention was to link to the recording of the talk, but Howie has not released it for inclusion on the Mission Dharma site, so I can’t link to it at this time. However, I transcribed some of the main points related to sitting practice in this post.

** When Bhante talked about the meninges, he held up a little model of the brain and talked about a band around the brain that contracted when thoughts, sensations, likes and dislikes or any other distracting stimulus was introduced. This band is tight, holds tension and is where he seemed to suggest one would relax the “tightness in your head, in your mind”.  He literally called this tightness “craving” — the very craving that causes suffering.


Contemplating generosity

I have joined the Sangha Planning Committee of Mission Dharma here in San Francisco. Along with helping get things set up on Tuesday nights, recording Howie’s talks and posting info online, the volunteers on the committee have taken on the weekly Dana talks. I will have the opportunity to give the Dana talk soon, so I’ve been contemplating what generosity means on the path and how it supports the Sangha and in turn, how it supports the Dharma.

Dana means generosity and it’s one of the “ten perfections” in the Buddha’s teachings. In fact, it is the first of the ten perfections.

This dynamic of giving and receiving is central to the Sangha and the transmission of the Dharma. It allows the Sangha to function, on all levels — from paying the rent and supporting the teachers to providing a regular opportunity to practice the very essence of the teachings of non-attachment in an authentic and tangible way.

Looking at how the Sangha works, it’s evident that we are all giving-and-receiving.

First and foremost, we all show up. We all come together to support each other’s practice. There are other things we could be doing. Showing up is very much an act of good intentions and right effort – cultivating the wholesome and turning towards freedom and liberation. By showing up, we are giving to ourselves as well as others in the Sangha and in the community at large.

Volunteers come early to unlock the doors, turn on the heat and arrange the chairs and cushions. We upload the talks, tend to the web site and make sure there is tea.

The teacher shares with us his understanding of the Dharma. He or she gathers teachings, stories and poems; leads us into our meditation period with skillful words inclining the mind towards being present, open and compassionate with whatever arises; delivers a thoughtful Dharma Talk to help us develop wise understanding; and answers questions from practitioners. All of this is done in a spirit of metta and karuna. The teacher is showing us the way to happiness, the path that leads to the cessation of suffering.

Beyond just showing up, those who come to hear the teachings and sit together can also give freely – in many forms. First, by practicing what we are learning — bringing the skillful qualities of mindfulness and equanimity into their everyday lives. One can give by welcoming new Sangha members with a friendly face, helping with the chairs or bringing one’s own tea cups. And the Sangha members can support the Sangha with donations, which pay for the room rental and support the teacher.

Contemplating Dana in this way it seems that the whole circle of the Sangha is nothing but giving and receiving. All of it done in the spirit of non-attachment, lovingkindness and generosity. It is just this quality of openness and giving that has supported the transmission of the Dharma since the time of the Buddha.

No wonder the Buddha put generosity first on the list.