Saturday, April 14, 2018

Healing Trauma with Meditation

Many Buddhist practitioners who have experienced trauma seek relief, consciously or unconsciously, in their meditation practice. The range of traumatic experiences is broad and can include being the victim of or witness to violence, such as sexual or physical abuse, rape, assault, torture, or military combat. Trauma can also occur following a serious illness or accident. Victims of trauma may experience feelings of powerlessness, low self-esteem, and self-blame. Trauma can also affect the ability to trust, form intimate relationships, and find motivation and meaning in life.

According to clinical psychiatrist Paul J. Fink, one out of every four girls and one out of every six boys worldwide suffer significant trauma before the age of eighteen. The National Comorbidity Survey of 1992 found that 8 percent of all Americans will experience a traumatic incident at some point in their lives that will result in a condition known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD is characterized by significant distress and psychological impairment.

At first, symptoms may arise as prolonged feelings of panic while meditating. One
practitioner recalls, “Initially, I felt an inexplicable terror. I

would sit in the meditation hall, and all the hair would stand

up on my body. I described it as ‘terror from another planet’

because there was no story, but it was still completely

debilitating.” Following this, the practitioner experienced a

series of kinesthetic flashbacks, including involuntary physical

contortions related to acts of sexual abuse. Later, visual

flashbacks surfaced. Family members eventually verified the

traumatic experience that had spurred these flashbacks, and

the meditator was able to heal significantly through therapy and meditation practice.

When flashbacks of memories arise, they tend to occur spontaneously during periods of concentration. They can be experienced through any sensation, and are commonly visual or kinesthetic. For some, a whole scene is played out moment by moment, while others experience only broken images. When a meditator experiences a flashback, often the intrusion of these painful memories into conscious awareness can be an indication that the meditator needs to stop practice and address the trauma through psychotherapy; a teacher is usually the best person to make this determination.

Survivors need to consider the potential effects the silence of a retreat environment might have on the resurfacing of traumatic experiences. On the one hand, it can reenact the feeling of being isolated and silenced by the perpetrator, the family, or society. But a retreat can also provide a stable and safe space in which they can begin to relax—often for the first time. There is a predictable schedule, no intrusions from the outside world, and a communal agreement to follow basic ethical rules. One practitioner noted that a retreat was “the first time in my life I felt without fear.”

In addition to the safety of the retreat environment, the practice of meditation offers a variety of effective tools for healing trauma. While the suggestions here are aimed at meditators with trauma histories, they can apply to any practitioner coping with difficult emotions. The following are five mindfulness tools that can help practitioners navigate traumatic experiences.

1. Awareness of Body and Breath
The body and breath are anchors for awareness that can be returned to again and again. Mindfulness of the breath is especially useful for trauma survivors, who tend to hold their breath as a way of not connecting with the present moment. Holding the breath is an unconscious response to anxiety, and may also be part of the process of dissociating from the experience. If, however, the trauma was related to the act of breathing (such as choking or oral sexual abuse), then the breath is obviously not the best meditation anchor. In these cases, during “sitting” periods, try listening meditation, body sweeping, mantras, or touch points (for example, notice the sitting bones touching the cushion, the hands touching the legs or each other, and the feet touching the mat, and rotate your attention among these points).

Body awareness needs to begin gradually. One way to start is by observing the body during times when it feels comfortable. One woman found that the only safe place in her body was her hands, and she would mindfully watch every sensation in each hand for hours at a time. Feeling comfort is a simple thing that trauma survivors often overlook—or sometimes aren’t even aware can notice the sensation of gravity. Feel the weight of your body on the bed. How does gravity feel?
”Scan your body for a place that feels relaxed and even a little bit comfortable. Perhaps it is a finger, a toe, or somewhere deep in your body. Focus on that place. Notice what “comfortable” feels like. See if you can describe it.
2. Reverse-Warrior Teachings
People with trauma histories often have a tendency to push themselves to extremes; they are more than willing to stay up all night, fast for days, or sit for many hours without moving. Unfortunately, practices that override the body’s natural signals of discomfort can end up creating further trauma. One therapist explains, “The way trauma folks survived was that they taught themselves to persevere and to be driven. It’s what they learned worked. They didn’t learn about kindness to themselves or their internal signals. There wasn’t the sense that internal signals could be a support or were worth trusting. It takes survivors a long time to come to listen to internal, intuitive messages and believe them.” One practitioner discovered, “The difficulty with trauma as it unfolded was how compelling the story was and how I was driven by the thought, “I’m going to work through this.’ I had to watch this combination of fascination and drivenness and remind myself to back off.”
As a result of this overzealousness, it can be helpful for survivors to practice in a way that seems contrary to the traditional Buddhist teachings. In the sutras, the Buddha advocated a warrior-style practice: “Let only my skin and sinews and bones remain and let the flesh and blood in my body dry up; I shall not permit the course of my effort to stop until the end is reached.” Instead, trauma survivors need to learn what one teacher calls the “reverse-warrior” practice:
Practice for shorter periods of time. Get plenty of sleep and eat regularly. Focus on balance and equanimity rather than effort and progress. Build in breaks, and remember that it’s not a weakness to be gradual. Working with trauma is like having two jobs: You’re doing the practice of meditation and

the practice of healing at the same time. In

this regard, the meditative focus needs to

be on simple, small steps. One therapist

notes: “Trauma survivors always feel they

are not working hard enough and that’s

why they are stuck. But this isn’t true. It’s

okay to relax and stop constantly trying to change.”

3. Experiencing Strong Emotions
The core practice in healing trauma is learning how to feel strong emotions without becoming overwhelmed by them. During meditation practice, survivors often respond to overwhelming emotions by dissociating, a relic of the psychological defense they used to remove their awareness from the trauma while it was occurring. One meditator described dissociation this way: “My mind enters a state outside my body, captive in some dimension where it is at least safe and alive, yet also powerless and terrified. To settle on the breath is impossible. To get up or move in any way is impossible. After some time, my mind returns enough so that I am able to pull my blanket around me, draw my knees up, and just sit.”
How does a meditator learn to feel strong emotions and bodily sensations without dissociating from them?
”When a difficult emotion, sensation, or memory arises, learn to touch up against the pain in small increments. To do this, bring your attention to a place in your body that feels comfortable or neutral (see “Awareness of Body and Breath,” above). Feel this comfortable place for a few minutes. Then slowly move the attention to the difficult emotion. Feel that for a minute, then move back to the comfortable place again. Keep moving the attention patiently back and forth between these two areas. This gradual re-experiencing can modulate the intensity of the emotion and create a sense of mastery over the feeling.
”Train the mind to listen to the body with tenderness and intimacy. Throughout the day, when you are engaged in activities, check in with your body, asking yourself, “Does my body like this or not? What does my body want? Is it okay to keep going, or do I need to stop now?”

4. Awareness of Mind One of the characteristics of severe trauma is that past emotions and experiences invade the present and become overwhelming. A Vietnam veteran recalls, “When the memories hit, they literally knocked me off my cushion. Through meditation, I eventually found balance with them.” The practice of mindfulness develops the ability to observe these memories in a way that facilitates equanimity and balance by learning that all thoughts come and go.
”Notice “trauma mind,” the habit of always looking over one’s shoulder, expecting the worst to happen. When fearful memories arise, ask yourself: “Am I okay in this moment? And this moment?” Remember, you have resources and choices now. Try breathing in compassion and breathing out fear.
”Take a day to observe positive emotions as they occur. When did you feel joy today? Curiosity? Humor? Because healing from trauma can involve repeated focus on difficult emotions, it’s important to train the mind to notice the positive emotions that exist.
”Try microlabeling stressful thoughts and feelings: When they arise, meticulously note your reactions as “thinking,” “imagining,” “fear,” and so on.
”Question self-judgments and negative beliefs: “Can I absolutely know this is true? Who would I be without this thought?”
”It’s also useful to identify neutral moments. Were there moments today when you didn’t feel difficult emotions? When you were brushing your teeth? Drinking a glass of water? Reading? Sleeping?
”If you feel completely overwhelmed, try distraction. One meditator went to a 24-hour Wal-Mart and walked the aisles at 2 a.m. The noise, the lights, and the stimulation shifted his focus away from self-hatred.
5. Learning to Love Again
Metta (lovingkindness) and compassion practices offer essential ways to mend the heart after trauma. Trauma survivors are often plagued by a sense that they are unworthy or inherently flawed. They may have trouble doing the “normal” meditation practices or fear that they are not mindful, diligent, or concentrated enough, which can lead to self-hatred and shame.
Trauma victims have had their trust and sense of connection shattered, and often have a hard time feeling kindness toward themselves and others. Metta practice can slowly rebuild these connections.
”An image from Buddhist textst that one can use to generate metta is that of a mother cow looking at her newborn calf. Imagine a young animal or pet and try extending lovingkindness toward it.
”Feel your heart center and breathe from this. Gently offer metta phrases to yourself such as: “May I love myself just as I am,” or “May I be happy, may I be peaceful, may I be safe, may I be free of suffering.” Some people find it useful to bring to mind an image of themselves as a young child when saying these phrases.
It’s important not to force the metta. At certain points, working with the metta can feel like silencing the pain. In this case, try the following compassion practices instead.
”When difficult emotions arise, try holding each one as you would a crying child.
”One trauma survivor uses a form of tonglen (the Tibetan practice of giving and receiving): “In tonglen I was taught to breathe in the heavy, dark air and breathe out the light, clear air. When I meditate, as the memories come I breathe in the silence and terror of the mute six-year-old. I breathe in her inability to speak and her terror. On the out-breaths I send the aspiration that one day she will be able to tell her story in her own words, and I send her a feeling of my holding her—safely, protectively. She is so little that it takes feelings, not words, to reach most of her, and this takes time.”
Through steady patience, facing trauma can become part of the awakening process itself, and difficult emotions can become workable. Healing trauma is a day-by-day journey requiring courage, persistence, and faith. Buddhist meditation practices offer positive ways to transform trauma. Although not a substitute for psychotherapy, meditation can be a crucial support in the journey from trauma to wholeness.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Heart Sutra

I read this article about the Heart Sutra and thought it was worth sharing. It discusses the meaning of emptiness in an interesting way...

This dharma talk is by Karl Brunnhölzl,
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Penetrate the true meaning of the Heart Sutra, says Karl Brunnhölzl, and nothing will be the same again. The secret is to make it personal.

There is no doubt that the Heart Sutra is the most frequently used and recited text in the entire Mahayana Buddhist tradition, which still flourishes in Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Tibet, Mongolia, Bhutan, China, parts of India and Nepal, and, more recently, also in the Americas and Europe. Many people have said many different things about what the Heart Sutra is and what it is not, such as being the heart of wisdom, a statement of how things truly are, the key teaching of the Mahayana, a condensation of all the Prajnaparamita Sutras (the Buddha’s second turning of the wheel of dharma), or an explanation of emptiness in a nutshell. In order to understand the actual words of the Heart Sutra, it’s helpful to first explore its background within the Buddhist tradition as well as the meanings of “prajnaparamita” and “emptiness.”

When we read the Heart Sutra, it sounds nuts, but that is actually where the wisdom part comes in.

One thing we cane  safely say about the Heart Sutra is that it is completely crazy. If we read it, it does not make any sense. Well, maybe the beginning and end make sense, but everything in the middle sounds like a sophisticated form of nonsense, which can be said to be the basic feature of the Prajnaparamita Sutras in general. If we like the word “no,” we might like the sutra because that is the main word it uses—no this, no that, no everything. We could also say that it is a sutra about wisdom, but it is a sutra about crazy wisdom. When we read it, it sounds nuts, but that is actually where the wisdom part comes in. What the Heart Sutra (like all Prajnaparamita Sutras) does is to cut through, deconstruct, and demolish all our usual conceptual frameworks, all our rigid ideas, all our belief systems, all our reference points, including any with regard to our spiritual path. 

It does so on a very fundamental level, not just in terms of thinking and concepts, but also in terms of our perception, how we see the world, how we hear, how we smell, taste, touch, how we regard and emotionally react to ourselves and others, and so on. This sutra pulls the rug out from underneath our feet and does not leave anything intact that we can think of, nor even a lot of things that we cannot think of. This is called “crazy wisdom.” I guess I should give you a warning here that this sutra is hazardous to your samsaric sanity. What Sangharakshita says about the Diamond Sutra equally applies to all Prajnaparamita Sutras, including the Heart Sutra:
…if we insist that the requirements of the logical mind be satisfied, we are missing the point. 

What the Diamond Sutra is actually delivering is not a systematic treatise, but a series of sledgehammer blows, attacking from this side and that, to try and break through our fundamental delusion. It is not going to make things easy for the logical mind by putting things in a logical form. This sutra is going to be confusing, irritating, annoying, and unsatisfying—and perhaps we cannot ask for it to be otherwise. If it were all set forth neatly and clearly, leaving no loose ends, we might be in danger of thinking we had grasped the Perfection of Wisdom.
—Sangharakshita, Wisdom Beyond Words

Another way to look at the Heart Sutra is that it represents a very condensed contemplation manual. It is not just something to be read or recited, but the intention is to contemplate its meaning in as detailed a way as possible. Since it is the Heart Sutra, it conveys the heart essence of what is called prajnaparamita, the “perfection of wisdom or insight.” In itself, it does not fuss around, or give us all the details. It is more like a brief memo for contemplating all the elements of our psychophysical existence from the point of view of what we are now, what we become as we progress on the Buddhist path, and what we attain (or do not attain) at the end of that path. If we want to read all the details, we have to go to the longer Prajnaparamita Sutras, which make up about twenty-one thousand pages in the Tibetan Buddhist canon—twenty-one thousand pages of “no.” 

The longest sutra alone, in one hundred thousand lines, consists of twelve large books. The Heart Sutra is on the lower end, so to speak, and the shortest sutra consists of just one letter, which is my personal favorite. It starts with the usual introduction, “Once the Buddha was dwelling in Rajagriha at Vulture Flock Mountain” and so on, and then he said, “A.” It ends with all the gods and so on rejoicing, and that’s it. It is said that there are people who actually realize the meaning of the Prajnaparamita Sutras through just hearing or reading “A.”

Besides being a meditation manual, we could also say that the Heart Sutra is like a big koan. But it is not just one koan, it is like those Russian dolls: there is one big doll on the outside and then there is a smaller one inside that first one, and there are many more smaller ones in each following one. Likewise, all the “nos” in the big koan of the sutra are little koans. Every little phrase with a “no” is a different koan in terms of what the “no” relates to, such as “no eye,” “no ear,” and so on. It is an invitation to contemplate what that means. “No eye,” “no ear” sounds very simple and very straightforward, but if we go into the details, it is not that straightforward at all. In other words, all those different “no” phrases give us different angles or facets of the main theme of the sutra, which is emptiness. 

Emptiness means that things do not exist as they seem, but are like illusions and like dreams. They do not have a nature or a findable core of their own. Each one of those phrases makes us look at that very same message. The message or the looking are not really different, but we look at it in relation to different things. What does it mean that the eye is empty? What does it mean that visible form is empty? What does it mean that even wisdom, buddhahood, and nirvana are empty?

Besides being a meditation manual, we could also say that the Heart Sutra is like a big koan. But it is not just one koan, it is like those Russian dolls: there is one big doll on the outside and then there is a smaller one inside that first one, and there are many more smaller ones in each following one.

From an ordinary Buddhist point of view we could even say that the Heart Sutra is not only crazy, but it is iconoclastic or even heretical. Many people have complained about the Prajnaparamita Sutras because they also trash all the hallmarks of Buddhism itself, such as the four noble truths, the Buddhist path, and nirvana. These sutras not only say that our ordinary thoughts, emotions, and perceptions are invalid and that they do not really exist as they seem to, but that the same goes for all the concepts and frameworks of philosophical schools—non- Buddhist schools, Buddhist schools, and even the Mahayana, the tradition to which the Prajnaparamita Sutras belong. Is there any other spiritual tradition that says, “Everything that we teach, just forget about it”? It is somewhat similar to the boss of Microsoft recently having publicly recommended that PC users should not buy Windows Vista any more, but instead go straight from Windows XP to Windows 7. Basically, he was advertising against his own product. The Heart Sutra is similar to that, except that it tells us only what not to buy, but not what to buy instead.

In brief, if we have never seen the Heart Sutra and we read it, it sounds crazy because it just keeps saying “no, no, no.” If we are trained in Buddhism, it also sounds crazy (maybe even more so) because it negates everything that we have learned and try to cultivate.

How does our mind feel when we are not grasping at anything, when we are not trying to entertain ourselves, and when our mind is not going outside (or not going anywhere at all), when there is no place left to go?

The Heart Sutra and the other Prajnaparamita Sutras talk about a lot of things, but their most fundamental theme is the basic groundlessness of our experience. They say that no matter what we do, no matter what we say, and no matter what we feel, we need not believe any of it. There is nothing whatsoever to hold on to, and even that is not sure. So these sutras pull the rug out from under us all the time and take away all our favorite toys. Usually when someone takes away one of our mental toys we just find new toys. That is one of the reasons why many of the Prajnaparamita Sutras are so long—they list all the toys we can think of and even more, but our mind still keeps grasping at new ones. 

The basic point is to get to a place where we actually stop searching for and grasping at the next toy. Then we need to see how that state of mind feels. How does our mind feel when we are not grasping at anything, when we are not trying to entertain ourselves, and when our mind is not going outside (or not going anywhere at all), when there is no place left to go?

Usually we think that if a given phenomenon is not something, it must be nothing, and if it is not nothing, it must be something. But emptiness is just a word for pointing out the fact that no matter what we say or think about something, it does not really correctly characterize that something because our dualistic mind just gets stuck in one extreme or the other. Thus, we could say that emptiness is like thinking outside of the box, that is, the box of black-and-white thinking or dualistic thinking. As long as we stay within the ballpark of dualistic thinking, there is always existence, nonexistence, permanence, extinction, good, and bad.

 Within that frame of reference, we will never get beyond it, no matter if we are religious, a scientist, a Buddhist, an agnostic, or whatever. Emptiness tells us that we have to step out of that ballpark altogether. Emptiness points to the most radical transformation of our entire outlook with regard to ourselves and the world. Emptiness not only means the end of the world as we know it, but that this world never really existed in the first place.

Without developing a soft heart and compassion, which like water softens our mental rigidity, there is a danger that the teachings on emptiness can make our hearts even harder.

Why is it called the “Heart Sutra”? It has that name because it teaches the heart of the Mahayana, primarily in terms of the view. However, the basic motivation of the Mahayana is also implicitly contained in this sutra in the form of Avalokiteshvara, the great bodhisattva who is the embodiment of the loving-kindness and compassion of all buddhas. It is actually the only Prajnaparamita Sutra in which Avalokiteshvara appears at all, and in it he is even the main speaker. Thus, the Heart Sutra teaches emptiness through the epitome of compassion. It is often said that, in a sense, emptiness is the heart of the Mahayana, but the heart of emptiness is compassion.

 The scriptures even use the phrase “emptiness with a heart of compassion.” It is crucial to never forget that. The main reason for Avalokitesvara’s presence here is to symbolize the aspect of compassion and to emphasize that we should not miss out on it. If we just read all the “nos” and then get hooked on the “no path” of “no self” and “no attainment,” it gets a little dreary or depressing and we may wonder, “Why are we doing this?” or “Why are we not doing this?”

 In fact, the heart essence of the Prajnaparamita teachings and the Mahayana is the union of emptiness and compassion. If we look at the larger Prajnaparamita Sutras, we see that they teach both aspects extensively. In addition to teaching about emptiness, they also speak about the path in great detail, such as how to cultivate loving-kindness and compassion, how to do certain meditations, and how to progress through the paths. They do not always say “no,” but also sometimes present things in a more positive light. Even the Heart Sutra, toward the end, comes up with a few phrases without “no.”

Without developing a soft heart and compassion, which like water softens our mental rigidity, there is a danger that the teachings on emptiness can make our hearts even harder. If we think we understand emptiness, but our compassion does not increase, or even lessens, we are on the wrong track. Therefore, for those of us who are Buddhists, it is good and necessary to give rise to compassion and bodhichitta before we study, recite, and contemplate this sutra. All others may connect with any spot of compassion that they can find in their hearts.

In yet another way, we could say that the Heart Sutra is an invitation to just let go and relax. We can replace all the words in this sutra that go with “no,” such as “no eye,” “no ear,” with all our problems, such as “no depression,” “no fear,” “no unemployment,” “no war,” and so on. That might sound simplistic, but if we do that and actually make it into a contemplation on what all those things such as depression, fear, war, and economic crisis actually are, it can become very powerful, maybe even more powerful than the original words in the sutra. Usually we are not that interested in, for example, our ears and whether they really exist or not, so with regard to contemplating what emptiness means, one of the basic principles of the Prajnaparamita Sutras is to make the examination as personal as possible.

 It is not about reciting some stereotypical formula or the Heart Sutra without ever getting to the core of our own clinging to real existence with regard to those phenomena to which we obviously do cling, or our own egoclinging. For example, the Heart Sutra does not say “no self,” “no home,” “no partner,” “no job,” “no money,” which are the things we usually care about. Therefore, in order to make it more relevant to our life, we have to fill those in. The Heart Sutra gives us a basic template of how to contemplate emptiness, but the larger Prajnaparamita Sutras fill in a lot of stuff, not only saying “no eye,” “no ear,” and so on. They go through endless lists of all kinds of phenomena, so we are welcome to come up with our own personal lists of phenomena that map out our personal universe and then apply the approach of the Heart Sutra to those lists.

There are accounts in several of the larger Prajnaparamita Sutras about people being present in the audience who had already attained certain advanced levels of spiritual development or insight that liberated them from samsaric existence and suffering. These people, who are called “arhats” in Buddhism, were listening to the Buddha speaking about emptiness and then had different reactions. Some thought, “This is crazy, let’s go” and left. Others stayed, but some of them had heart attacks, vomited blood, and died. 

It seems they didn’t leave in time. These arhats were so shocked by what they were hearing that they died on the spot. That’s why somebody suggested to me that we could call the Heart Sutra the Heart Attack Sutra. Another meaning of that could be that this sutra goes right for the heart of the matter, while mercilessly attacking all ego trips that prevent us from waking up to our true heart. In any case, so far nobody has had a heart attack here, which is good news. But the bad news is that probably nobody understood it either.

From “The Heart Attack Sutra, by Karl Brunnhölzl, published by Snow Lion, 2012.
Categories: Buddhadharma, Buddhism, Featured, middle-Home, Teachings & Practice, top-Home
Tags: Buddhadharma - Fall '12, Heart Sutra, Karl Brunnhölzl, Mahayana
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Saturday, February 18, 2017

Nichiren Buddhism and Attachment

Needless to say, a life controlled by desires is miserable. In Buddhist scriptures, such a way of life is symbolized by “hungry demons” with giant heads and huge mouths, but narrow, constricted throats that make real satisfaction unattainable. The deliberate horror of these images grew from Shakyamuni Buddha’s sense of the

need to shock people from their attachment to things—including our physical existence—that will eventually change and be lost to us. Real happiness does not lie here, he sought to tell them.

The deeply ingrained tendencies of attachments and desire are often referred to as “earthly desires.” However, since they also include hatred, arrogance, distrust and fear, the translation “deluded impulses” may in some cases be more appropriate.

But can such desires and attachments really be eliminated? Attachments are, after all, natural human feelings, and desires are a vital and necessary aspect of life. The desire, for example, to protect oneself and one’s loved ones has been the inspiration for a wide range of advances—from the creation of supportive social groupings to the development of housing and heating. Likewise, the desire to understand humanity’s place in the cosmos has driven the development of philosophy, literature and religious thought. Desires are integral to who we are and who we seek to become.

In this sense, the elimination of all desire is neither possible nor, in fact, desirable. Were we to completely rid ourselves of desire, we would end up undermining our individual and collective will to live.
The teachings of Nichiren stress the transformation, rather than the elimination, of desire. Desires and attachments are seen as fueling the quest for enlightenment.
The teachings of Nichiren thus stress the transformation, rather than the elimination, of desire. Desires and attachments are seen as fueling the quest for enlightenment. As he wrote: “Now Nichiren and others who chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo...burn the firewood of earthly desires and behold the fire of enlightened wisdom...”

In the same vein, the Universal Worthy Sutra states: “Even without extinguishing their earthly desires or denying the five desires, they can purify all of their senses and eradicate all of their misdeeds.”

Nichiren’s approach has the effect of popularizing, humanizing and democratizing Buddhism. In other words, by making the aspirations, dreams and frustrations of daily life the “fuel” for the process of enlightenment, Nichiren opens the path of Buddhist practice to those who had traditionally been excluded by the demands of a meditative withdrawal from the world—those, for example, who wish to continue playing an active role in the world.

It is thus not a coincidence that this attitude toward desires should be central to the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism, with its emphasis on the role of lay practitioners. For people living in the midst of ever-changing, stressful realities, those challenges are a far more effective spur to committed Buddhist practice than an abstract goal of “enlightenment” through severing of all desires and attachments.

Overcoming problems, realizing long-cherished goals and dreams—this is the stuff of daily life from which we derive our sense of accomplishment and happiness. Nichiren Buddhism  emphasizes the importance not of severing our attachments, but of understanding and, ultimately, using them.

Buddhism divides the benefits of practice into the “conspicuous” and the “inconspicuous.” The new job, the conquest of illness, the successful marriage and so on are not separate from a deep, often painstaking process of self-reflection and inner-driven transformation. And the degree of motivation generated by desires can lend an intensity to our practice which ultimately reaps spiritual rewards. Bonno soku bodai—literally, “Earthly desires are enlightenment”—is a key tenet of Nichiren Buddhism.

Through our Buddhist practice, even the most mundane, deluded impulse can be transformed into something broader and more noble, and our desires quite naturally develop from self-focused ones to broader ones concerning our families, friends, communities and, ultimately, the whole world.

In this way, the nature of desire is steadily transformed—from material and physical desires to the more spiritually oriented desire to live the most fulfilling kind of life.

Nichiren Buddhist thought speaks to the existence of another kind of human desire, the basic desire, and  believes that it is the force that actively propels all other human desires in the direction of creativity. It is the source of all impelling energy inherent in life; it is also the longing to unite one’s life with the life of the universe and to draw vital energy from the universe.”

Attachment and the Lotus Sutra

I originally posted this in May 2012. Nichiren Buddhism is a branch of Mahayana Buddhism based on the teachings of the 13th Century Japanese priest Nichiren (1222-1282) and belongs to the schools of "Kamakura Buddhism".

Buddhism is a teaching of liberation, aimed at freeing people from the inevitable sufferings of life. To this end, early Buddhist teachings focused on the impermanence of all things. The Buddha realized that nothing in this world stays the same; everything is in a constant state of change. Pleasurable conditions, favorable circumstances, our relationships with those we hold dear, our health and well-being—any sense of comfort and security we derive from these things is continually

threatened by life’s flux and uncertainty, and ultimately by death, the most profound change of all.

The Buddha saw that people’s ignorance of the nature of change was the cause of suffering. We desire to hold on to what we value, and we suffer when life’s inevitable process of change separates us from those things. Liberation from suffering comes, he taught, when we are able to sever our attachments to the transient things of this world.

Buddhist practice, in this perspective, is oriented away from the world: life is suffering, the world is a place of uncertainty; liberation lies in freeing oneself from attachment to worldly things and concerns, attaining a transcendent enlightenment.

The Lotus Sutra, is revolutionary in that it reverses this orientation, overturning the basic premises of the Buddha’s earlier teachings and focusing people’s attention instead on the infinite possibilities of life and the joy of living in the world.

Where other teachings had regarded enlightenment, or the final liberation of Buddhahood, as a goal to be attained at some future point in time, in the teachings of the Lotus Sutra each person is inherently and originally a Buddha. Through Buddhist practice we develop our enlightened qualities and exercise them in the world here and now for the sake of others and for the purpose of positively transforming society. The true nature of our lives at this moment is one of expansive freedom and possibility.

This dramatic reorientation effected by the Lotus Sutra is distilled in the key and seemingly paradoxical concepts of Nichiren Buddhism that “earthly desires are enlightenment” and “the sufferings of birth and death are nirvana.” The image of the pure lotus flower blossoming in the muddy swamp is a metaphor that encapsulates this perspective—freedom, liberation, enlightenment are forged and expressed in the very midst of the murky swamp of life with its problems, pains and contradictions.

It is impossible to live in the world without attachments, or indeed to eradicate them. Our affections for others, the desire to succeed in our endeavors, our interests and passions, our love of life itself—all of these are attachments and potential sources of disappointment or suffering, but they are the substance of our humanity and the elements of engaged and fulfilled lives.

The challenge is not to rid oneself of attachments but, in the words of Nichiren, to become enlightened concerning them. The teachings of Nichiren thus stress the transformation, rather than the elimination, of desire. Desires and attachments fuel the quest for enlightenment. As he wrote: “Now Nichiren and others who chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo . . . burn the firewood of earthly desires and behold the fire of enlightened wisdom...”

In their proper perspective—when we can see them clearly and master them rather than being mastered by them—desires and attachments enable us to lead interesting and significant lives. Our Buddhist practice enables us to discern their true nature and utilize them as the driving force to become happy.”

It is our small ego, our “lesser self,” that makes us slaves to our desires and causes us to suffer. Buddhist practice enables us to break out of the shell of our lesser self and awaken to the “greater self” of our inherent Buddha nature.

This expanded sense of self is based on a clear awareness of the interconnected fabric of life which we are part of and which sustains us. When awakened to the reality of our relatedness to all

life, we can overcome the fear of change and experience the deeper continuities beyond and beneath the ceaseless flow of change.

The basic character of our greater self is compassion. Ultimate freedom is experienced when we develop the ability to channel the full energy of our attachments into compassionate concern and action on behalf of others.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Moment in Love. How to Live in a Relentlessly Impermanent World. #3

Before we can live a life centered in the present, we have to let go of the past. Easier said than done, right? I can only tell you how I go about staying in the moment and what works for me. It requires the acquisition of wisdom and a lot of determination. I have to do it even when I don't want to. When I can live in the present moment, I am happy. I am very well acquainted with the fact that pain resides in the past and fear resides in the future. Truly the only place I can be comfortable is in the present moment.

Letting go of the past does not mean forgetting the past - it means letting go of the emotional baggage that we have accumulated in our many experiences. It seems like our minds have been conditioned to think and act in a certain way, hanging on to everything emotion (especially unpleasant ones) and we bring all of it into our lives everyday. It is
as if we recreate the past in the present moment.

For instance, if we had a relationship several years ago that ended sadly and we still feel the pain when that person comes to mind, maybe great pain, we can ask ourselves why we feel so much emotion over something that does not exist anymore. How can we feel so bad today over something is totally gone? I think the reason is that we are recreating the past in the present. Its not what happened in the past that is the source of the problem, its what's happening in the present.  Dragging the past into the present and reliving it as if it were real is a very bad habit. It will flavor our minds with sadness and it will make it very hard to do anything truly new, truly fresh and it will cast a shadow over our joy.

I have heard people say, and I have said it myself, that when you suffer a painful loss you never get over it completely. Today I find this idea horrifying. If it is true that you never completely get over losses, then life will always be filled with pain piled upon pain. By the end of our lives, we will be very, very sad.

Buddha's teachings on impermanence and subtle impermanence contain a powerful method to counteract the habit of hanging on to past pain. Habits can be changed - we can replace pain from the past with a day by day happiness in each moment. Again, easier said than done. I have all of the societal thoughts and training most Americans grow up believing about loss and pain. Its takes concerted effort and a lot of time to change these habits. But its so worth it.

Friday, December 30, 2016

The Moment in Love. How to Live in a Relentlessly Impermanent World #2

I hate everything today. I'm in the past I'm in the future I'm feeling like shit.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Moment in Love - How to Live in a Relentlessly Impermanent World. #1

These clouds on this windy day, remind me how beautiful
(and sometimes fleeting) a moment can be. - R.M.
Anyone who reads my blog knows that I'm a lesbian working the program of Alcoholics Anonymous, that I believe the Buddhist path is the right path for my life and that I believe in God, a power greater than myself that knows my name and loves me. I struggle with impermanence, living in the moment and with loneliness. When I am diligently staying connected to God and living my path the three things I worry with the most fade into the background and I experience a freedom that is truly wonderful. I have recently learned that impermanence and living in the moment are intimately connected and vital to each other. Living in the present moment, this instant here and now, is a way to survive and thrive in what seems to be a relentlessly uncertain world.

Having said all of that, I had a love affair that has ended but it changed me and propelled me forward in my understanding of impermanence, living in the moment and loneliness. My top three. I learned incredible things about what exists in the moment when I stop and pay attention. The moment contains more life, more dimensions, more feeling and emotion, more possibilities than I ever knew about. The wide and abundant life currently existing in the moment all around us truly amazing. This is a very large statement I am about to make - I think all of life, more life than I ever knew existed and access to new levels of experience are contained in the moment. If I am reliving the past or tripping into the future, this new illuminated knowledge is not available to me.

Impermanence is a fact of life. Everyone dies, everything changes, nothing stays the same, at this writing I am not the same person who woke up this morning and this is my truth. Everything is continually flowing and changing. How are we to cope with this? Is there a way to feel anchored in anything or do we have to always be floating or floundering? I think one answer to living in an impermanent world is simply living in the moment. The simplest answer is usually the right one. Where am I right now? What is happening in this exact moment? Where are my feet? Do I want to just float along letting things happen to me or do I want to stay awake and be a part of something much larger?

This intro is short, but it took me all afternoon to write. I'm going to take a nap and pick this up tomorrow.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Living in the Moment

Mindfulness can be seen as the practice of “being in the moment” – but what does this actually mean? Does it mean that if we’re mindful we should never think about the past or the future, never try to plan or to reflect on our past experience?

Being in the moment means being mindfully aware of what is going on right here and now, in our experience, and this includes any thinking we do about the past or future. Much of the time our experience does not have a quality of  mindfulness. A lot of the time we are like robots, automatically living out habitual patterns of self-pity or anger, future-tripping or fear, etc. These habitual tendencies take us over and run our lives, and we aren't able to stand back and decide whether this is what we actually want to be doing. It's shocking when we realize just how habitual and automatic our lives are and when we realize how much robotic  thinking leads to emotional pain -- suffering.

When we’re in this robotic state, we’re not mindfully aware of what’s going on. We may know on some level that we’re in fear, but we probably don’t realize that we have the option not to be afraid. We fantasize without any discernment of whether what we’re thinking about is making us happy or unhappy. In fact, a lot of the time when we are letting our unexamined, automatic thoughts dominate our minds, we are not making ourselves or anyone else happy – usually its the opposite.

Being in the moment is another way of saying that we are aware of what is. When we aren't in the moment, we're re-living the past or tripping into the future. We might be dwelling on the past – brooding about some past hurt. Or we may be fantasizing about a future were we have won the lottery and are living in some imaginary paradise, or daydreaming about being in the perfect career. Often these fantasized pasts and futures are not even real possibilities but simply fantasies of how things might be or of how we would have liked them to be. As with all unmindful activity, we have no idea this fantasizing is pointless. All it does is reinforce unhelpful emotions that can never truly enhance our lives.

There are ways of mindfully thinking about the past or future. Being in the moment does not mean that we are stuck in the moment. We can mindfully and creatively call to mind past events, or imagine what might happen in the future. We can think about the past and think about how we might have acted differently, or wonder why something happened the way it did. We can think about possible futures, and of how the actions that we commit now will make those futures more or less likely. When we are thinking about the past or future while being in the moment, we are conscious that we are reflecting and we’re not lost in thought. We don’t confuse fantasy with reality. We don’t stray from thinking about the past in order to construct imaginary pasts in which we said or did the right thing. We think about the future, but rather than it being idle daydreaming we’re thinking about the consequences of our actions or maybe thinking about where we want to go in life.

Sometimes mindful daydreaming can be creative. It can be wonderful to relax the reins of consciousness and give the creative unconscious mind the opportunity to express itself. But it’s generally far more useful to have a part of our conscious mind standing by, watching for any sign that the unconscious creative expressions turning into repetitive and reactive expressions of old and unhelpful emotional patterns. The conscious mind can intervene at such moments with a light touch, a gentle redirection of our thoughts so that we stay in the present and be aware, mindful, and creative.