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.

may your joy continue..

Mudita : )

The cultivation of the special capacity to revel in another’s joy and current happiness, followed by the wish that the happiness continues, that it increases and even that it never wanes!

This is one of the most joyous wishes there is. Through becoming aware of our feelings, intentions, and thoughts, and actively cultivating expressions of loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy (mudita) and equanimity, we can direct our minds to states of happiness, expansive openness and even liberation. The tactical difficulties in the practice come in letting go of some typical reactions. Upon seeing someone else’s joy, we may experience natural Mudita and happiness, but we may also experience aversion, feelings of jealousy, judgement, envy, etc.

The sense of Mudita is honoring another’s good fortune and well being, being open to it, to see it grow and increase and even to increase and never wane!

It may seem that this asserts that something (joy) dependent upon something else (conditions) could somehow become permanent, but Buddha says, “All things are Impermanent”, so we have a problem here. But consider this: a joy that is based on letting go of it’s object thereby becomes dependent upon nothing. What if this wish for joy in others itself brings a joy to the practitioner that depends upon the practice itself–it isn’t so dependent on fickle, unreliable, impermanent conditions. The joy of wishing well for others–and connecting to their present, natural joy– brings a sweetness to the heart, it opens the heart, which opens the clenched fist of the mind; it is very much a practice of letting go. And based, as it is, on letting go– it can be infinite!

May boundless joy arise and never wane for all sentient beings!

Metta, Karuna, Mudita, Upekka – A beautiful path to freedom.

Slow and steady in the rising wave of mindfulness

The things I’ve learned over the years have come very slowly. This new wave of popularity for mindful practices – typified by this article – brings up two strong thoughts for me.

Part of my practice is cultivating the deep wish that everyone is happy, free from suffering, enjoys well being and is ultimately fully liberated. Non-attachment, equanimity and present moment awareness practiced in meditation leads to this very state of happiness, well being and freedom. Seeing the growth of meditation in our culture can be quite exhilarating.

I remember walking in a park in Berkeley some years ago and I came across a group sitting in a circle. I was just a random person walking by, but they called me over and asked me a question – “What would be the best possible news headline you could imagine?” I’m not sure what the purpose of this group was, but I thought for a second and said, “The last sentient being has been fully enlightened — the work has been completed”. I suppose this notion came from the Bodhisattva Vow, found in Zen Buddhism, that envisions continued rebirth and practice until all beings are fully liberated.

In this grand sense, how wonderful it is that so many people in this day and age will be exposed to the practice of mindfulness! How many of them will resonate with the practice and seek further instruction and read and sit and begin a daily practice or go on retreat! This surge of popularity truly has the potential to set many many people on the path and could even transform society — and ultimately the world.

The other thought that comes to me is that we will be seeing a transformation in how and why mindfulness is taught. This is a very old practice, carefully passed down through the centuries from teacher to student. It is extremely subtle as well as mind-blowingly expansive. It is easily misunderstood. It can be simple, but is not usually simple to teach. It is available to everyone at all times, but not easily put into practice. On the path it is easy to go astray — to formulate a set of beliefs and opinions about the practice and to cling to them. It is easy to identify with the practice and become attached to that identity, sewing the very seeds of clinging and conflict that the practice is meant to uproot. The practice points towards something beyond the surface appearance of things, and can cause students to ask metaphysical, moral, and paradoxical questions. Teachers must be very careful how these questions are approached, whether or not they are answered, and how. It is very easy to get caught in a dead-end discussion and sew seeds of doubt, or inadvertently plant some permanent idea of a self, or lead someone astray in a variety of other ways. Teaching requires a great deal of skill, and a certain depth of experience–so that one’s understanding of impermanence, emptiness, and the path is unshakable.

If the surge of interest in mindfulness brings a variety of practices that aren’t fully grounded in the traditional teachings, the result could be that many people are introduced to a mild form of meditation and turn away, unsatisfied, believing that they’ve “tried it and it didn’t work”. In this way, the potential rise of wisdom, compassion and liberation could turn out to be a dilution and draining of the same.

Right now, my practice is to see these two thoughts arise, reflect on them, not get too caught in either hope or fear; but rather to keep practicing… slow and steady. Maybe I’ll have the opportunity to be a bridge between the traditional teachings and the current demand for the teachings. Maybe this wave will come and go, passing me by completely. Either way, my faith in the importance of the teachings and the effectiveness of the techniques is unshakable.

Heard are the 48 talks of the Satipatthana by Joseph Goldstein

This week I finished listening to the amazing series of talks on the Satipatthana Sutta and I’ve blogged about much of it. It has inspired my practice and deepened my understanding of the Buddha’s Dharma. Above all, I thank Joseph for producing such a fine series of talks.. even though in the first talk he references how it will go “…in the coming weeks” and says he doesn’t know “how long it will stretch out.” Analayo deserves enormous thanks as well for providing the excellent commentary upon which the talks are largely based; and thanks again to the Buddha for laying down such an amazing system for the liberation through these four excellent gates of mindfulness: the body, feelings, the mind and dhammas. It is thoroughly penetrating and skillful. I am sure to have much to say about other sections of the Sutta, as much has gone unwritten.

My highlights were:

  • The talks about remaining “independent” in the refrain;
  • The simple understanding regarding bare attention of the posture and movements;
  • The discovery of pleasant feelings as a motivator of actions;
  • Worldly and Unworldly feelings: the taste of renunciation;
  • The clear and empty mind non-dichotomy;
  • All of the dhammas, the Hinderances, Factors of Enlightenment, Aggregates, SenseGates, Four Truths and the whole of the Dhamma in the last step of the way, the eight fold path.

And I’ll end my gratitude post here with a line mentioned by Joseph in the final talk. It’s a line from the great sage, BodhiDharma, who described practicing the BuddhaDharma thus, he said “the two steps necessary are to start, and to continue…”

Mindfulness of Contact, Feeling and Perception

Getting more precise while tracking experience with mindfulness is starting to open up new areas of exploration, new possibilities for experiencing the same phenomena and shedding some light on the mechanics of attachment and freedom.

The discourse on the Six Sense Spheres* includes mindfulness of the six sense bases and their objects, along with an instruction to be aware of the fetters that arise dependent upon both. This sounds academic, in the sense of technical, and I suppose it is. However, this technical view of our experience gets even more technical than that.. and it’s because of this detailed and precise examination that mindfulness is infused with a steady concentration and penetrates our experience more deeply. This deeper level of examination illuminates the minutiae, the fabric of our being, where some of the most profound attachments and defilements lie. We ultimately have to get in there — to bring mindful awareness into these spaces to unlock (or as Joseph Goldstein says, “unhook”) the chain of dependent co-arising. We have to be able to see exactly how and where we create the patterns of craving and clinging, aversion**.

One concept that is raised in this deeper exploration is that of Contact. What is contact? According to the talks, contact is the coming together or the combination of three elements: the sense sphere, the sense object and the consciousness that arises dependent upon the two. The eye, the object seen and the seeing–all together–make up a moment of contact. This sounds more complicated than it needs to be in order to function in the world, to walk down the street or look at your watch–and it is. But it’s very helpful in deepening the “experience of experience” in meditation. Each moment of experience is acknowledged as a moment of contact. The meditator can become aware of which sense door (eye, ear, nose, body, tongue, or mind) is active, how the experience actually shows up (the quality of the experience itself) and the fact that consciousness is there to experience it. The in breath can be experienced as a rapidly changing flow of individual experiences – each of which are composed of the sensing body (the nostrils), the touch of the air and the consciousness that arises in that moment and dependent upon the other two.

Beyond deepening concentration, there is more to be discovered. What comes next?

In every moment of contact, at least two other factors arise dependent upon the contact. They are feeling and perception. Feeling in the buddhist context specifically means a quality of pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. We’ve written about this before and it’s a very powerful element in buddhist psychology because it is the true factor that conditions craving ( and thus desire, clinging and attachment). Adding an awareness of feeling tone to one’s mindfulness of contact is, at first, quite a lot to juggle. In a way, that’s what strengthens one’s concentration. It’s also bringing mindfulness right to the source of attachment which leads to suffering.

The other factor that arises is perception, which is the mind’s ability to notice distinguishing marks of a moment of contact and store those marks in memory. Perception is the factor that can tell red from green. It also uses it’s past stored qualities and labels to determine that such-and-such experience is “seeing a car” or “feeling the breath”. It can translate the direct sensations into something meaningful, like recognizing those sensations in the belly as “hunger”. If we aren’t able to track contact and the arising of perception dependent upon that contact, the perception can cognition — thoughts about the newly recognized sensation. Now, the sensation becomes “I am hungry”. Two things happened there.. (1) we went from a raw sensation to a concept about the sensation and (2) we attributed the condition to an “I”, who is experiencing the hunger. These progressions can happen if we aren’t mindful of the chain of causes and conditions.  If we bring mindfulness into the process and can see the perception as it arises, we aren’t as likely to automatically build upon it. The other danger of unseen perception is that it leads to thoughts which in turn lead to other thoughts, which lead to more and more. This is called mental proliferation, or in Pali, Papañca. This is known as being “lost in thought” and is basically the opposite of mindfulness.

Using this paradigm to explore experience gives us a lot to work with. When we are mindful of contact, feelings and perceptions the result seems to be increased concentration and a resulting calm. This makes sense, since the mechanisms that would normally lead to desire, aversion and papañca aren’t running amok, as they typically do. They are under a watchful eye and the chain of causation is essentially being cut. Thus a strong sensation, such as pain, can be seen as sensation only with a quality of equanimity–and this can lead to the cessation of the pain itself. I’m sure others have had that experience in meditation. Also, don’t forget that the mind is one of the six sense doors, so thoughts can be seen as moments of contact, where the mind, the thought and consciousness of the thought are each considered. What are the implications there? What if the sense of “I am” can be seen as a thought – a moment of contact? Is this how the roots of greed, desire, aversion and ignorance are weakened? Is this how they come to an end?

*We are still discussing the Satipatthana Sutta as illuminated by Joseph Goldstein’s series of talks.

**Ignorance is also in this list, but I’m still working on that one, which arises from the unskillful and unaware ignoring of neutral feeling.

The happiness of a concentrated mind

It is said that ignorance is one of the three roots of our unhappiness. Ignorance takes many forms. Simply not knowing the joy of a concentrated mind–a mind at ease with itself–is one form of ignorance that causes us to continually search outside ourselves for “something”: something to make us happy, something to make us whole, something to peak our interest, or something that will finally let us ‘get ahead’ of the struggles of life.

During this journey of self discovery I’ve been on I distinctly recall a time when I started to notice this kind of “looking”. I would seek often, if not continuously, for that something. I would seek for it in my mind, thinking “what can I do to finally become successful?”. I would look in the windows of the passing cars for a smile or pretty face, to get a little hit of pleasure. Seeking for satisfaction in the external world of things can cause us to eat things that make us feel bad (after the fleeting taste of sweetness has faded); drink things that make us feel tired and dull (though they temporarily allow us to change the flavor of consciousness and lay down our responsibilities); and buy things we don’t need and cannot afford, just to gratify our grasping mind and feed our habits of desire for desire’s sake alone.

The key to seeing this clearly, to illuminate the patterns and remove the ignorance is to see that it isn’t the objects we are after, as we’ve mistakenly assumed–it’s the pleasant feeling tone that arises dependent upon contact with the object in the mind. If we miss this feeling tone as it arises–or more precisely, if we conflate the feeling tone and the object itself, we will generate an attachment to the object and expect it to provide in us the satisfaction we seek, although it is woefully unable to do so. If we miss this link in the chain, we end up deluded and unable to escape the never-ending cycle of seeking satisfaction in the very things that cause us to overlook our innate happiness.

Once we are lucky enough to have practiced sitting still, breathing in and out, bringing our awareness to the present moment, developing kindness with whatever arises–once we are able to establish some concentration, we discover another whole category of happiness. We discover the happiness of the concentrated mind. We discover the joy of mindfulness and equanimity. Once we start to see that all of the seeking of objects, the chasing of things, the looking in windows, the need for approval and appreciation– all of it is just busy-ness that keeps us from our own innate stillness. It keeps us from being in the present moment–from our very lives as they unfold. Seeking happiness outside keeps us from finding happiness right where we are. Becoming established in this new way of being and seeing the ‘unworldly pleasant feelings’ that come from practice is like turning a corner. This is the current edge of my practice.

The joy of practice

The second foundation of mindfulness, the contemplation of feelings, presents a clear distinction between pleasant worldly feelings and pleasant unworldly feelings (i.e. pleasant feelings associated with renunciation and practice) and has brought about a clarity with regards to the practice and the path that has been very inspiring.

Seeing the benefits of practice directly has always been tricky. I know it’s good for me. I know that somehow I have better days when I’m sitting more often. I know it’s ‘informed my being’, as I like to say, over the many years.  But how? What can I point to? Well, now there is some clarity around it. I’m experiencing the joy that comes not from gaining anything, but from the natural state of the mind that is letting go and allowing the stream of experience to flow without as much interference. There is a joy inherent in the process of letting go–of not grasping, of generosity, of opening to what is.

Clearly seeing this profoundly different kind of happiness is inspiring for practice. Last night, I sat for 45 minutes. At first I felt concentrated, but then by the end, my energy lessened some and my mind felt more contracted. I was able to stay mindful of the contracted quality of the mind, though, and remained alert through the sitting period. This morning, I was lucky enough to have the possibility to sit for half an hour (before catching the bus to work). The mind was focused on the simple in-and-out breathing, knowing it as either long or short. This simple focus is enough to maintain mindfulness and by the end of the period, I was experiencing the “unworldly pleasant feelings” of a calm and open mind and a happy and loving heart. This isn’t something you can buy. This isn’t something you can “gain” in any way. This is the joy of practice.

Fractal teachings & deepening spirals

The Satipatthana Sutta is a brilliant roadmap to meditation practice.  It encapsulates the Buddha’s method of self inquiry–allowing the practitioner to fully come to know themselves, how to abandon that which leads to suffering, and develop the qualities and skills that lead to freedom. I’ve come to see that it may very well encapsulate the whole of the Buddha’s teaching.

The teachings themselves are woven together, not like a flat tapestry, but rather like a fractal design. If you study one of them fully, you encounter all of the others. The last of the Four Noble Truths, for instance IS the Eight-fold path. The Eight-fold path contains “right mindfulness” which leads one naturally to study the “Four Foundations of Mindfulness”, which is the Satipatthana Sutta. The final foundation of mindfulness in the Satipatthana is the “contemplation of Dhammas”, which then contains the Four Noble Truths.

Seeing how these teachings fold into one another, it is clear that it is no accident. In fact, it points to an elegant solution to a problem that has arisen in my own mind while studying this text*.  The method described by the Buddha here is so complete and thorough. It is simple, yet it contains many pieces. While the text is meant to be read, as with any other text, and the words are meant to form perceptions in the mind to extract the meaning–the real purpose of the Sutta is to bring the practice to life. One has to DO the practices, not just read the words. The perceptions that arise from the concepts are important, but mindfulness of that actual flow of a particular category of experience is where the juice is.

The joy that comes from reading the instructions and hearing such a clear interpretation of them is great. The intellectual mind wants to devour it. I want to read to the next section, listen to the next talk. There is a grasping. There is a desire for getting or gaining the knowledge. The practice of any one piece of this technique, however, requires a great deal of time. You have to literally “sit with” each piece in order to bring it to life–to allow mindfulness of that element to deepen. So at once, I have the desire to sit with each piece and go slowly, as well as to forge ahead and hear what comes next!

At times this has led me to re-listen to a talk or re-read a chapter. I also like to re-read the original text from time to time, which is only a few pages long. But what I’m realizing is that the process is going to find it’s own pace. I won’t gleam 100% of the insights along the way on any one reading– or by sitting with a single section until it’s insight has been unlocked. It will have to be the case that each reading will bring a little bit of understanding, each sitting will deepen the mindfulness of it; the different techniques will support each other and at the end of one text– lies the complete body of another, which in turn leads back to the beginning of this one again. I guess that’s why realization is often compared to a deepening spiral that goes down and down in ever widening circles… I think Rumi had a poem about that. If I’m coming to that conclusion by studying the Buddha and Rumi said the same– I must be on the right track.


*I have to clarify, that by “text” I am referring to the Satipatthana as a written text, but also the commentaries by Analayo’s book and Joseph Goldstein’s series of talks).


Bodhipaksa’s 100 Days of Loving Kindness

I’m posting this as a reading reference for anyone interested in the buddhist practices around opening the heart, developing loving kindness, compassion and equanimity.  The writing in this 100 day series is excellent and comes directly from the heart and mind of the dear and wise Bodhipaksa.

I hope you find the posts there as inspiring and wonderful as I do.