Archive for October, 2012

Full Moon of Paravan

Full Moon of Paravan

by Jeffrey Brooks

If we would like to use the Buddha’s instruction to rescue people who are in danger we need to train consistently.

In martial arts we may train each day for an hour or two. To truly save people from harm we will need to devote at least that much time.

But that time is not deducted from the rest of our lives. In every moment is a moment of training. If we train well under controlled conditions, such as in the meditation room and the class room, then we can train well under more difficult conditions, such as in the flow of daily life, or during a special moment at the boundary between life and death.

Our minds crave objects. The technical term for this in Pali is “dhammatanha.” When our senses are not stimulated, such as in periods of meditation or waiting for a bus, our minds will prowl around for something to grab onto – fantasies, mental imagery, abstract ideas, intellectual systems, feelings or emotional states of mind such as anger or desire.

If we are unable to put down mental objects at will we will be unable to practice well. We will lack the presence of mind to deal with reality as it unfolds. And we will be unable to place our minds where we want them, at will. We will become off balance and preoccupied. In martial arts this can cause a lapse in attention or timing which will get us hurt. In our work as bodhisattvas it is a dead end.

We can practice a technique which will end the craving for mental objects. A calm, clear, luminous mind will arise as a result. Developing this gives us real poise and balance.  We can respond to conditions without hesitation or hurry. We never need to substitute rudeness for strength, or impulsiveness for spontaneity.

The technique is to place the mind on our breath as it enters our nostrils and moves over our upper lip.  As we experience some distraction, through our senses or through our craving for mental objects, we can return our attention to the motion of our breath. It is hard to do at first. If you persist it becomes easy.

Then we can easily practice it for a moment or an hour.  When you get good at it, you can place your attention where you want it, wherever you need it. Training in this way frees you to act skillfully, with no hindrance in the mind.

This provides a basis for your practice of the path to enlightenment. It is a first step. It is a practice we can do anytime and anywhere, along our path through life.

The Anapanasati Sutta, called “Mindfulness of Breathing,” includes the classical presentation of this idea.


Mom and Apple Pie

Mom and Apple Pie

by Susan Downing

I’ve been writing in recent posts about how using gratitude meditation can help us when worry or fear or sadness grip our mind. This practice can help us regain peace of mind and replace mental distress with gratitude and joy.  But it isn’t the only way to transform our state of mind and free ourselves from our disturbing emotions.  Some people manage to do this taking productive action to help others.  Not long ago I met someone who takes this approach, and I want to tell you about her, because I think she might be as great an inspiration for you as she is for me.

Michele Cabral of West Springfield told me that when two of her three sons decided they wanted to join the army, she was concerned, as any mom would be.  And when the first of them deployed, she felt overwhelmed with worry.  She didn’t know what to do with herself or how to best deal with her fear so that it didn’t just consume her.  I imagine she developed her own inner methods for handling that fear when it would come up, but I don’t know about those.  What I do know is that she figured that she might worry less if she could find a productive way to honor the choice that her sons and other American troops had made and to support them in a visible way, on a large scale. And so she founded Care for Our Troops – Western Massachusetts.

Care for Our Troops sends out monthly care packages to American service men and women serving abroad.  I found out about CFOT from my friend Marianne, whose family has been involved with the group.  I started attending the monthly “packing parties” last month.  How it works is this:  volunteers gather together once a month in West Springfield, armed with whatever food or health and beauty aids or reading material they’d like to donate.  They lay everything out on the tables and then fill large Priority Mail boxes with as much stuff as will fit inside them.  The boxes are pre-addressed: anyone in the area who knows someone who’s serving can submit his or her name and address, and CFOT will send them packages for as long as they’re deployed.

When I began taking part, I immediately understood how helping out with this effort immediately transforms your state of mind.  Simply going shopping for food and other items to donate is very moving to me.  Knowing that these troops are far from home, it seems so important to choose items I think they’ll enjoy. I always want to send things that will help them feel cozy and pampered.

Michele clearly feels that way, too: this is a woman who devised a way to send out mini apple pies. Volunteers donate the apples, and then she makes up the pie filling.  She puts this filling into small canning jars, topping each one with a layer of crust, and bakes them, then seals them.  She told me, “We tested them on ourselves before we ever sent any.  We made them, let them sit on the shelf for six months and then tested them to make sure they were okay.”  Michele baked enough of these tiny pies for this month’s packing party that we were able to put six of them into each box we sent!

Next month the theme for the packages is Christmas cookies. Michele collects cookies that the volunteers have baked, then she and her helpers shrink-wrap them, so that they’ll make it to their overseas destinations intact and fresh.  Michele’s thinking maybe 500 dozen will go out this year.  Unbelievable.

The mood at the packing parties is both joyous and purposeful.  Everyone seems so glad to be doing something that will make the soldiers happy, grateful to have a way to show their gratitude and appreciation, even if they don’t know any of these men and women personally.  The people packing these boxes do it carefully, mindfully, with love. At the end of the party – which only lasts about half an hour – everyone is smiling and laughing. Uplifted by this act of caring for others.

And so, as a way to avoid being overwhelmed by fear about her sons, Michele devised this marvelous, active practice.  Then shared it with all of us, so that we, too, could transform our worry or fear or sadness into a heartfelt gift that brings joy not just to those who receive the care packages, but to us, too.

Thank you, Michele.

(If you would like to make a donation to CFOT or participate in the packing parties, you can contact Michele at, or visit the group’s Facebook page.)


Before He Reached Enlightenment

Before He Reached Enlightenment

by Susan Downing

Who was the Buddha?  Every day I think of him and give thanks.  I am so grateful that he gained enlightenment and gave us the precious teachings that we can use to make our way out of life’s sufferings.  And until recently, this was pretty much the extent of how I thought of him – as an enlightened being.

Sure, we know the Buddha was an actual historical personage, and we are told that when he attained enlightenment, he was able to see all his past lives.  These have come down to us in the form of the Jataka tales, and these tales show us that even in the lifetimes before he gained enlightenment, the Buddha was able to act with a degree of compassion and equanimity that seem unimaginable to us. (See Jeff’s post, “Hunting Trip” on this topic. )

Reading these stories colored my impression of the Buddha: I realized recently that I’ve always thought of him as someone who was pretty much immune to suffering, or who at least had a super-human tolerance for pain and suffering.  So it made sense to me that since the Buddha was free of suffering, he could teach the rest of us how to be free, too.

Then I was listening to a talk by the Dalai Lama in which he was discussing the qualities a suitable teacher.  (Jeff talks about these in detail in his recent post, “Ten Qualities of a Suitable Teacher.”)  It really struck me when His Holiness said that for any teacher to be able to teach us effectively about how to overcome suffering, he has to have overcome it himself.

That got me thinking about the Buddha.  As I noted, until now I’d only ever thought of him as an enlightened being.  But he didn’t come into that lifetime enlightened, having already overcome suffering.  It’s just that he apparently didn’t encounter it when he was growing up as a prince in a palace.  Accounts of Gautama’s early life tell us that his father, the king, took great care to protect him from seeing any suffering at all, much less experiencing it.  It wasn’t until curiosity about life outside the palace led Gautama to make a series of secret forays beyond the palace walls that he came face to face with the reality of human suffering – he saw the old, the sick and the deceased.  And it upset him! As the story usually goes, on his final secret visit to the outside world, Gautama saw a spiritual practitioner – an ascetic in saffron robes – and this vision inspired him to devote himself to the spiritual path.

I always viewed this series of events mostly as evidence of Gautama’s bodhicitta: he saw the suffering of others and was so moved by it that he resolved to find a way to help people overcome their suffering.  But after listening to His Holiness, it occurred to me that the Buddha couldn’t learn how to do this by studying the topic second hand.  He wouldn’t be able to judge whether he’d overcome suffering unless he himself had suffering to overcome.

So, here we have Gautama, living the luxurious life of a prince, with a beautiful wife and a newborn baby son, both of whom he loves deeply.  And he sincerely wants to find a way to help other people end their suffering.  And thus we’re told that he slips out of the palace one night under cover of darkness, without telling his wife, and goes off in search of a solution.

Now, I’ve never come across any discussion of what was in the future Buddha’s mind when he crept out of the palace that night, or what he experienced in the years between the night he left and the night he reached enlightenment.  The accounts of Gautama’s life that cover that period do little more than fill out the timeline with descriptions of the methods he pursued and ultimately rejected: years of study in meditation with the renowned ascetic teachers of that period, followed by 5-6 years practicing asceticism together with 5 other ascetics.

I began to reflect on what the Buddha’s life in that period might actually have been like, and suddenly I began to see him differently than I ever have before. I began to see him as a person like the rest of us, in the sense that he must have experienced suffering, too, and a variety of types of it.  Given that Gautama was not yet enlightened when he left his royal life behind, and given that he really loved his wife and son (and probably really enjoyed the palace life, too!) we can guess that this must have been a very difficult step to take.  Later on, when the Buddha taught the dharma and was describing the types of suffering we endure, one of those he listed was being separated from those we love.  We can assume that he himself must have felt that suffering very acutely, and that would have given him great motivation to find a way out of it.

Yet, he didn’t discover the solution easily or quickly.  During his years practicing asceticism, the emotional and psychological pain of being separated from his loved ones would certainly been compounded by the pain of hunger, the pain of living outdoors with no protection from the elements, and the pain of illness which he would inevitably have experienced.  It was only when he was quite literally on the verge of death from starvation and exposure that (as one of the versions tells us) a young girl convinced him to come to her village and accept food and shelter.  So, we can assume that Gautama also had a very good idea of the suffering one endures when facing death.

Now, once in that village, Gautama turned away from asceticism. We read in the accounts of the Buddha’s life that he did so because he realized that pushing his body to its limits clouded his mind rather than clearing the way for insight, as he’d hoped it would do.  And with a clouded mind, he was unable to continue his inquiry into the nature of suffering.  That explanation sounds so objective and technical in a way, as if the future Buddha was simply measuring the tolerances of a machine and how it would perform in certain conditions. But I am sure that he wasn’t sitting out in the forest, musing abstractly about his practice and thinking, “This seems like a method that might help people who are suffering.” Rather, I think he spent those years enduring the pain of his separation from those he loved, the intense physical pain of hunger and cold, and the fear of being set upon by wild animals.  And when he realized that asceticism could not help him overcome this terrible suffering, his own personal suffering, he gave it up and looked for another practice that would do so.

Finally he found it.  Then he set about teaching others to practice in a way that would allow them to end their suffering, too.  But he wasn’t able to do that until he’d experienced and conquered suffering, in all the forms it took between the time when he walked out of the palace and when he reached full enlightenment.

Realizing this, I feel so encouraged in my practice. I experience suffering, just as the Buddha did, and I’ve certainly travelled down some dead end paths, too, seeking a way out of it.  But knowing that the future Buddha made use of his suffering to gain insight, instead of being destroyed by it, inspires me to do the same.  He not only showed me how to do it.  He showed me it can be done.  And I am so grateful for that.