Marissa’s getting a re-trial! Woo-hoo!
for Marissa Alexander, on her birthday, September 14th, 2013
Working with a partner, take a moment to reflect on the nature of freedom & lack of freedom.
Ask your partner, “What makes you free?”
Ask your partner, “What makes you not-free?”
Show your partner his or her reflection in a mirror.
Show your partner a reflection of the boundless sky in the same mirror.
Same mirror, same truth.
Now, tie a string around your partner’s wrist as a reminder that all human beings are all capable of choosing to incline towards freedom, or away from it, for themselves, and for others; and also as a reminder that millions of people are living in this country behind bars - more (by percentage of the population) than in any other country on earth.
Photograph your partner’s hand with the string. Pause quietly for a moment, ask your partner for a short response to what you have just done, and write it down.
Once the string is tied, the photograph is taken, and the response is written down, switch roles until all present have been through both sides of the ritual.
Then, mail your photographs & responses to Marissa Alexander, as a birthday present. If you also email them to 108namesofnow [at] gmail.com, I will gladly post them here.
To send your photos/responses/letters to Marissa Alexander in prison:
Lowell Correctional Institution
11120 NW Gainesville Rd
Ocala, Florida 34482-1479
For more information about Marissa Alexander, try these links:
- Huffington Post article about her sentencing
- blogspot page
- Support for Marissa Alexander FB group
- (do these seem unsatisfactory to you, on the whole? me too. in fact, this is part of why I let my once-beloved New Yorker subscription expire: disappointment at a publication that devotes so much ink to rich old-farty men making money & rich young-farty men playing lacrosse & so little ink to Marissa Alexander. if you know any journalists, or are one yourself, this is a story that needs careful, in-depth & ongoing telling. tell it! please.)
May all beings be free of suffering.
May all beings know happiness and the roots of happiness.
May all beings live at ease in the well being of their own true nature.
- prison walls
- prison doors
- barred windows
- a man kicks his horse because he can
- a woman hits her child because she can
- a child rips the wings off a butterfly because he can
- hiding in the television all day
- blinds drawn at noon
- dark grey staircase smelling of rubber treads
- throwing away bones in the trash
- declawed cats
- dogs with neuticles
- lean cuisine
- veal calves in plastic cages
- scented toilet paper
- obsessive New Age enemas
- Brazilian waxes
- nair for short shorts
- dance songs with only one beat
- Ferragamo shoes with stupid metal-clad bows
- Vuitton bag with stupid logos everywhere
- Mercedes death-wagon
- Tommy Hilfiger everything, except that one skirt I have
- frat house airs of respectability
- frat house casual whore-shooting gallery
- frat house basement vomitorium, with special drains
- special silences around what happens in the basement
- mass graves under soccer fields
- a church that worries the poor might dirty up the new hall
- stopping to pick up those hikers might be dangerous
- stopping to offer that woman some food might be dangerous
- going to sleep now might be dangerous
- faces numbed out of their lines
- orange tans
- selling out the body’s truth
- pretending something is more important
- pretending someone is more important
- pretending there is a better place after death
- pretending what I believe justifies my cruelty
- pretending you matter less than my goals
- pretending you matter more than my goals
- giving with contempt
- receiving with contempt
- ill-formed drawings that don’t listen
- beautifully-formed drawings that don’t listen
- anonymous note left on the windshield
- anonymous note left on the door to the house
- clinging to anything as a formula for beauty
- clinging to anything as a formula for truth
- I am my body
- I am my mind
- I am the way, the truth and the light
- I am a contemptible wretch
- fake-stone siding, though this can be quite beautiful
- faux-leather, though this can be quite beautiful
- fake-blue contact lenses, though it is conceivable these might be quite beautiful
- flattened occipita of neglected babies
- infected track-marks
- overgrown median with cheetos wrappers and old condoms
- furniture that could easily be fixed, but isn’t
- buying sex from slaves
- buying beautiful clothes made by slaves
- pretending not to know where meat comes from
- Christmas orgy of slave-made goods
- men sit and watch football while women do the dishes
- women casually sacrifice themselves to old ideas
- men casually sacrifice themselves to old ideas
- men and women casually sacrifice their children to old ideas
- governments casually sacrifice everyone but the rich to old ideas
- foie gras
- eating the ortolan whole, with a napkin over your eyes
- a bear-bile pill for the businessman’s hangover
- medical science vivisects animals
- the beauty industry vivisects animals
- the food industry vivisects animals
- longevity, at any cost
- clutter of useless, permanent things
- clutter of old ideas
- children dig for food in a mound of burning trash in Brazil
- my old cell phone is in a mound of burning trash in Ghana, and I feel better
- unwanted births
- uncared-for abortions
- unacknowledged paternity
- irresponsible paternity
- forcing sex on anyone
- blaming the one who has been raped
- refusing responsibility
- turning over authority
- how each new war seems like a festival
- how, later, we forget we ever felt this way
- how, even as we withdraw our attention, we hope our new leaders will take care of things
- mole hairs, though these are a sign of health
- lesions, pox & zits
- puncture wounds
- blunt trauma
- brain tumor that erodes the mind’s ability to be with what is
- mental illness that erodes the mind’s ability to be with what is
- severe pain that erodes the mind’s ability to be with what is
- solitary confinement
- forgetting to let go
- blaming & contracting
- clinging to ego as any form of salvation
- I am threatened, starved, and isolated
- lithe-leaping beauty – a young man jumps off the walls, more or less for joy & because he can
- patterned & repetitive beauty – William Morris paper
- sleek-haired beauty – a long black braid down the back
- sustained beauty – the old ballerina hovers to meet the floor before her, legs spread wide
- steady-growing beauty – the huge old beech tree, roots at least as deep as branches are wide
- animal beauty– a dog’s perfectly-applied eyeliner
- elaborate beauty – a wedding dress of lace, with a satin belt in a bow
- beauty of negative spaces locking into positive spaces – Hokusai
- beauty of ugliness – the taste of durian fruit
- beauty of famous art – participating in loving a painting with many others in the same room, looking
- actors’ beauty onscreen – feeling it is impossible not to wonder at the fact that Penelope Cruz even exists
- actors’ beauty offscreen – and how it is always somehow different
- beauty of old people who have not given up
- beauty of children when they don’t think about it
- beauty of domesticated flowers – how they grow from seed, right there in your garden, even though you know so little
- beauty of wild flowers – how they grow profligately & even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed as one of these
- beauty of cold, powerful German cars & glass buildings
- beauty of well-crafted Damascene steel swords
- mountainous beauty – there is nothing useful that can be said about seeing the Himalayas from the plastic window of an airplane
- beauty of the sky at dusk
- beauty of the sky at high altitude
- Himalayan blue poppies
- Prussian blue
- blue glass bottles, whole or broken by the sea
- freaky blue eyes of Irish spotted ponies
- Tibetan clouds, printed on Nepalese sky-blue lokta paper
- the Virgin Mary’s deep blue cloak, with a red shift beneath it
- caput mortuum
- ladies who wear purple every day, including their shoes & nails & amethyst crystals
- purple soil of Utah
- vermilion ink for Chinese stamps
- deepest red of roses
- alizarin crimson
- quinacridone magenta
- cochineal-carmine-red, made of millions of insects
- ripe cherry red
- blood red
- raspberry-dusky red
- pink of John McCracken’s The Absolutely Naked Fragrance
- beet-red risotto
- pink edges of white roses
- scallop-roe orange
- mussel-flesh orange
- gravlax orange
- melon orange
- turmeric-dye yellow-orange
- egg yolk
- cadmium yellow
- naples yellow
- yellow gold torus made by Vikings
- joss paper
- bumblebee covered in pollen
- yellow-green lichen in Yosemite
- jade disc
- Old Holland green-gold paint in a lead tube
- interference green on a dark background
- green eyes in dark-skinned faces
- fern-green in the early spring
- Veronese green
- translucent kelp green on a beach where the winter sun is setting
- alabaster windows
- clear white teeth of young animals
- new paper
- old paper
- skin (pink-and-white)
- skin (blue-black & as dark as skin can be)
- skin (brown with sun & hot places)
- skin (very old and fragile, where you can see through it into the body)
- skin (hairy at the belly and chest)
- skin (smooth at the belly and chest)
- burnished clay black
- black sheep
- brown sheep with black-and-white noses and long tails
- bells ringing noon
- deep bass of the dance club resonating in the body
- bad ideas set to beautiful song
- beauty of empty rooms
- beauty of hidden spaces
- beauty of shared food
- beauty of merciful eyes
- beauty of Zen people in dark robes
- beauty of wedding guests in pink dresses
- beauty of wedding guests in fine houndstooth jackets
- beauty of agreeing to live your life
- beauty of letting go
- beauty of winter afternoon walking meditation, sucking in pellucid green light
- beauty of everything in wave-form
- beauty of everything just as it is
- beauty of realizing this pain is a bridge
- beauty of not-knowing
- beauty of each day’s new litany
Here is how the Buddha describes Right Mindfulness in the Magga Vibhanga Sutta:
"And what, students, is right mindfulness? (i) There is the case where a student remains focused on the body in & of itself — ardent, aware, & mindful — putting away greed & distress with reference to the world. (ii) She remains focused on feelings in & of themselves — ardent, aware, & mindful — putting away greed & distress with reference to the world. (iii) She remains focused on the mind in & of itself — ardent, aware, & mindful — putting away greed & distress with reference to the world. (iv) She remains focused on mental qualities in & of themselves — ardent, aware, & mindful — putting away greed & distress with reference to the world. This, students, is called right mindfulness.
This short paragraph is like the Hartsfield International Airport of Dhamma: from the hub of mindfulness, countless practices for awakening take off in all directions. The Buddha’s teachings on mindfulness can seem almost staggering in their detail and abundance. True confession: I found the experience of reading the chapter on Right Mindfulness in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s book so exhausting that I had to lay down on the grass in the sunlight at the foot of my chair, and recuperate for thirty minutes. So much to do and to keep track of… If any of you had a similar experience of Mindfulness-Based Stress Induction, do not fear! I will begin this talk by going over a few important overall guidelines to keep in mind as you approach your own practice of mindfulness.
First, the Buddha did not teach that we have to master all of the techniques and facets of mindfulness practice. In fact, he often told his students that sincere and thoroughgoing practice of any one approach was all anyone needed in order to awaken. (He particularly recommended mindfulness of body.) Each practice can lead onward into full understanding. Many different practices are offered because people’s kamma & interests & awarenesses are all so different. The Buddha saw that offering multiple versions of mindfulness cultivation meant opening many different doors to the Deathless. Each teaching is a different hand offered up out of confusion, and the teachings vary to suit many different possible forms of confusion and awakening. In the Mahayana and Tibetan traditions, there are frequent depictions of compassionate deities with a multiple arms, each hand holding a different kind of tool. The Buddha’s teachings on mindfulness are like this: for some people, the hand proffering mindfulness of breathing will be the one they clasp as they work through their confusion. For others, the helping hand will be direct contemplation of the nature of desire, or contemplation of impermanence. Most of us will come to clasp a series of hands as our practice progresses. If you think of mindfulness practice as a contradance where all the partners are the Buddha, things feel significantly less intimidating. Trust yourself to sense which partner’s hand fits best in yours, and you will do just fine. Don’t worry about what’s going on elsewhere in the room, and you will dance better with each successive partner.
A second overall guideline to keep in mind is that the Buddha teaches each of the four foundations of mindfulness on its own terms. In the translation I read above, Thanissaro Bhikkhu translates this part of the text as “in & of itself.” The original Pali text says “kāye kāyānupassī,” “vedanāsu vedanānupassī,” “citte cittānupassī,” and “dhammesu dhammānupassī” for each of the four foundations of mindfulness: the body on its own terms; feeling on its own terms; mind on its own terms; and mind-objects on their own terms. The point is that mindfulness practice instructs us to become aware of each of the four foundations of mindfulness on terms that are intimately appropriate to them. We learn to speak the native language of each of the realms of body, feeling, mind, and mind-objects, and thus to develop wise, appropriate attention. So, for example, we consider body on its own terms, understanding physical experience in non-verbal, somatic ways, rather than thinking about the body. Actually, in this culture, our preference would be to think about pretty much everything, and leave it at that, unless feelings get too intense, and then we usually attend to those by more thinking & maybe add in some rationalizing. Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food is an interesting contemplation on what happens when we move what should be a body-based, or at least body-emphasizing activity – eating – into the realms of mind and craving. We forget the wisdom of eating traditional diets and try to think our way out of our craving-based problems – such as obesity & diabetes – by inventing more and more artificial ways of feeding ourselves – using synthetic substances that trick the body by tasting like foods whose nutritious content they lack. Clinging to financial interests adds to craving for pleasant taste sensations, driving the whole processed-food industry to fever pitch. Not-seeing the body on its own terms; not-seeing clinging on its own terms: these (and not “bad fats”) are the true roots of the problems we are currently experiencing around food and diet in the United States.
As another overall guideline we can notice that the Buddha’s teaching emphasizes “putting away greed & distress with reference to the world” as a precondition for all mindfulness practice. I love this expression because it clears the decks so quickly. We can think that we are being good people by occupying our minds with worry, spiritual longing, self-judgment, and righteous indignation, when in fact we are keeping ourselves from the direct, bare awareness we need in order to be mindful in the present moment. I would like to invite each of us to foster and respect an Inner Mop Person to chase away the preoccupations that keep us distracted from meditation & the full experience of our lives in each moment. A few years ago, I went to see HH the Dalai Lama teach in Dharamsala. Very kindly, the Tibetan community had offered tea and biscuits to all 5000 people listening to the teachings. As a result, there was a bit of a mess in the temple aisles, where the tea-pourers had run by carrying their heavy kettles. Along came an old man with a giant mop. Whack! Swoosh! Swack! Sandals & flip-flops & tea-puddles & devout nuns doing prostrations: all gone, swept away. This old man clearing the decks was totally stealing the show, and he knew it. Swack! Nothing left but clear, clean space. We need to be able to attend to our practice, and in order to do that, we need to be able to let go of greed and distress regarding the world. So just do it. When things feel impossible, call on your Inner Mop Person to make some room for practice. It’s not Spiritual Bypassing (which seems to be the current Worst Thing in the Buddhist World) to clear a space for practicing sanity. You deserve it. Your practice depends on it. Swack!
Finally, we can notice the Buddha’s repeated description of the student of Right Mindfulness as “ardent, aware, and mindful.” That’s us! “Ardent” is Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translation of the Pali word chanda – a strong word, connoting excitement, determination, desire, and will. You can have unskillful chanda – in the form of obsessive lust for sense objects, and you can also have skillful chanda – in the form of passionate interest & devotion towards the practice of awakening. The point is that you don’t progress in mindfulness practice by feeling sort of “meh” about the whole thing, or doing it because you feel you ought to, while secretly believing that your true passions lie outside the practice, in some other, safely compartmentalized area of your life.
Believing that there’s any part of your life that is somehow outside the reach of mindfulness is a delusion whose extreme manifestations include the “family values” politician trolling for sex in airport bathrooms. At the other end of the spectrum is Kurukullā, the Red Tara, a Tibetan deity who represents the work of transforming ardent desire for sense objects into ardent desire for awakening. She’s bright red, with fierce, wide-open eyes, and hair standing straight up off her head. She pulls a flowered bow, representing the tension of desire, while dancing on a prostate human form, who represents our limited views of ourselves & our capacities for awakening. Allowing ourselves to be completely awake & on fire can be a scary leap to take. Because Buddhist meditation culture can seem to value being quiet & peaceful & considerate above all else, we can become stuck on a sort of bland nicey-nice level of practice that never really kindles our chanda into action. We need to be willing to engage fully with the practice, to work with lust and anger and revulsion and see how they can be transformed into passionate fuel for mindfulness practice. Are you willing to risk being disapproved-of (if only by yourself) in order to cultivate a practice that really engages you? Are you willing to be ardently honest about your predicament? You need to be.
Body in & of Itself
The first foundation of mindfulness is to abide focused on the body in & of itself, or the body on its own terms. This means entering a felt (rather than conceptualized) experience of body, as we do during walking meditation, body scan meditation, and meditation on the breath. Entering a felt sense of body means leaving behind “I, me & mine” and becoming attuned to physical sensation. We close our eyes and search for the felt boundary between the body and the space surrounding it and feel: unbounded space. We cease interpreting body sensation (“my toe hurts”) and focus instead on knowing what physical sensation is actually like (“throbbing, heat, subsiding”). We let go of thinking about the body as some thing in constant need of restraining, fixing, ignoring, or sprucing up; and we grow to feel the body as a constant flow of experiences, one after another. We come to know the body as a very finely sensitive source of information about the way things are, tracking response to each new moment and situation as it arises. We learn to be aware of bodily postures and processes occurring on their own terms, without the need of any Me to order the body, control it, or cling to it in any way. We learn to relate to our body in a way that is essentially friendly, free of revulsion or attachment.
All of this should be more or less straightforward, but biases within Western culture and Theravadan Buddhist culture interfere in various ways with our ability or even willingness to be mindful of the body on its own terms.
Western religions and intellectual traditions have consistently undervalued body in comparison with spirit, insisting that the two can somehow be separated and ranked. If we believe that what is “spiritual” is somehow superior, disembodied, male, in the sky, and mental, we can implicitly also feel that paying attention to the bodily realm is either a waste of time, or a dangerous flirtation with base elements. We need to let go of this made-up hierarchy in order to experience body, heart, mind, and spirit as different facets of the same continuum of awareness. The Buddha doesn’t teach mindfulness of the body as a beginner’s practice leading up to the good stuff – it is the good stuff.
Distorting objectification of the body can be another obstacle to experiencing body on its own terms. It can be difficult to enter mindfulness of the body if our minds are saturated with pre-existing obsessions about hairiness, baldness, skinniness, fatness, youthfulness, oldness, wrinkliness, pearly-whiteness, hotness, and all the rest. Accepting the body as it is means dropping all those conceptions and simply becoming aware of the body as it is.
In the Theravadan tradition – as in all Buddhist traditions – approaches to the body are colored by the biases of the celibate male monastics who have been in charge of teaching, recording, and transmitting the Buddha’s teaching for thousands of years. While cultivating a sense of gratitude for monastic teaching and preservation of the Dhamma, we also need to be aware of monastic biases and their repercussions. While the Buddha himself may have seen clearly that his students could practice and realize the Dhamma while leading many different kinds of lives – lay and monastic, male and female – his monks have tended to privilege their own practice as the highest, purest, and best, through ignorance of the alternatives, contempt for women and laypeople, fear of sexuality, and need to justify the perceived hardships of monastic life.
With awareness of the differences between celibate monastic practice and our own practice as laypeople, we can bring healthy skepticism to the assertion that “the Buddha teaches that the sexual drive is a manifestation of craving, thus a cause of dukkha that has to be reduced and extricated as a precondition for bringing dukkha to an end.” We can remind ourselves of the Buddha’s declaration (in the Greater Discourse to Vacchagotta) that his lay followers enjoying sensual pleasures are accomplished in the Dhamma. We can consider that sexual appetite is as much a part of the nature of the body as appetite for food, drink, and oxygen. Approaching sexual energy as something to be “extricated” strikes me as perverse from the point of view of lay practitioners living in committed relationships. Our precepts ask us to refrain from sexual misconduct, but not from sex, just as they ask us to refrain from lying and verbal abuse, but not from speech. So, mindfully, we may choose to open to sexual experience as a way of abiding in the body on its own terms, and pay attention to what we find there. Who says wholesome rapture must be confined to the meditation cushion? Celibate monastics certainly do, but we laypeople may happily set about disagreeing with this assumption.
Feelings in & of Themselves
The second foundation of mindfulness invites us to practice with feeling in & of itself, or feeling on its own terms. Here we are dealing with investigation of pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral sense impressions, in each of the six sense spheres of eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind. Again – we are not thinking about pleasant, unpleasant and neutral – we are attempting to become intimately aware of what each of these experiences is like.
Last weekend, I traveled to the coast of Maine with my friend Heidi and her beloved pug, Rune. We were sharing a hotel room, and the situation was generally quite pleasant until bedtime, when Rune started snoring through his poor little squished-in nose. I have a history of being very clear that snoring falls into the unpleasant-sounds category, and of taking evasive action to avoid having to listen to snorers while I sleep. But there was no way to avoid this little dog’s snoring – no canine sleep apnea machine, no semi-polite request to roll over, no other room to flee to; and furthermore, I knew Rune was suffering from bronchitis. So I placed my attention on the pleasant feelings of my hands resting on my heart and belly, and my body resting on the mattress. I let go of clinging to the idea that I needed to fall asleep, and noticed that while I could still hear the sounds, they didn’t seem so unpleasant anymore. I wasn’t really asleep (some kind of involuntary wakefulness response makes it hard for me to fall asleep in a room where there is snoring), but I was relaxed and peaceful. When thoughts arose, I turned them towards sending metta to Rune, Heidi, and myself. In the morning, I felt rested – far less tired than I would have been after a sleepless night of plotting pugicide.
We have all had similar experiences of dwelling with unpleasant, pleasant, and neutral feelings in and of themselves. The first step seems always to be honest with ourselves about what we feel. If we find ourselves in the middle of a root canal, enjoying the feeling of the dentist’s hands on our face, we note that. If we find ourselves in the middle of a special celebratory dinner, distinctly not liking the taste of the food, we note that. Seeing how unpredictable our feelings are, we let go of trying to engineer pleasant feelings and avoid unpleasant ones. We have faith that we can work skillfully with our feelings in whatever situations arise.
Mind & Heart in & of Itself
The third foundation of mindfulness invites us to become aware of mind & heart in & of itself, or mind & heart on its own terms. The difficult-to-translate word in question is citta, and it really does mean both mind and heart, where the two are understood to be inseparable. So again, here we are not thinking about the mood & inclination of the mind & heart – we are developing our awareness of what this is like. We notice a tight, constricted frame of mind for what it is, and so for an exalted state, a bored state, or a restless state. We do not demand that our mind & hearts be always graceful & generous, and we do not beat ourselves up when our hearts feel irritated or resistant. We see how a relaxed heart can receive unpleasant sense data with ease, while a crotchety heart refuses to warm to even the most pleasant of stimuli. Developing a basic friendliness toward mind & heart, we tune in to its fluctuations, opening the possibility of responding skillfully to them.
Mind & Heart Objects in & of Themselves
For those of us who have been waiting for the chance to think & train the discursive mind, here it is! The native language of mind & heart objects is thought. Our well-trained brains leap into action, reflecting on the Dhamma – the hindrances, the Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, the enlightenment factors – all the beautiful conceptual framework of the Buddha’s teaching is included in this foundation of mindfulness. We notice what this realm is like, and what it is like to reflect wisely on mind & heart objects. We feel the Buddha’s teaching unfolding in us in an impersonal way, just as we can feel bodily processes unfolding in an impersonal way. It’s not a case of My Tranquility, but rather of tranquility arising as a natural result of skillful causes & conditions. Seeing that awakening arises as a natural consequence of practice, we continue our efforts on the path. We see the Dhamma unfold in our lives in ways we can neither predict nor control, and we give thanks.
May all beings in all realms be well.
May we continue to grow in the Buddha’s way,
for our good & for the good of all beings.
Here is how the Buddha describes Right Effort in the Magga Vibhanga Sutta:
And what, students, is right effort? (i) There is the case where a student generates desire, endeavors, activates persistence, upholds & exerts her intent for the sake of the non-arising of evil, unskillful qualities that have not yet arisen. (ii) She generates desire, endeavors, activates persistence, upholds & exerts her intent for the sake of the abandonment of evil, unskillful qualities that have arisen. (iii) She generates desire, endeavors, activates persistence, upholds & exerts her intent for the sake of the arising of skillful qualities that have not yet arisen. (iv) She generates desire, endeavors, activates persistence, upholds & exerts her intent for the maintenance, non-confusion, increase, plenitude, development, & culmination of skillful qualities that have arisen: This, students, is called right effort.
And here is how Donald Rumsfeld, as Secretary of Defense, described the nature of terrorist threats to the United States:
There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.
The Buddha speaks of arisen and non-arisen states, and Donald Rumsfeld speaks of known and unknown things. These are related: what is arisen can be either known (experienced with mindfulness) or unknown (experienced without mindfulness). What is not arisen can be either known (it has arisen in the past and been experienced with mindfulness) or unknown (it has either not arisen in the past, or it has arisen in the past, but not been experienced with mindfulness.) There’s a lot to know, and a lot we don’t know. Which brings us to the the Tittha Sutta & the Buddha’s excellent simile of the sightless people and the elephant:
“Once, monks, in this same Sāvatthī, there was a certain king, and the king said to a certain man, ‘Come, my good man. Gather together all the people in Sāvatthī who have been blind from birth.’”
“Responding, ‘As you say, your majesty,’ to the king, the man — having rounded up all the people in Sāvatthī who had been blind from birth — went to the king and on arrival said, ‘Your majesty, the people in Sāvatthī who have been blind from birth have been gathered together.’
“’Very well then, I say, show the blind people an elephant.’
“Responding, ‘As you say, your majesty,’ to the king, the man showed the blind people an elephant. To some of the blind people he showed the elephant’s head, saying, ‘This, blind people, is what an elephant is like.’ To some of them he showed the elephant’s ear, saying, ‘This, blind people, is what an elephant is like.’ To some of them he showed the elephant’s tusk… the elephant’s trunk… the elephant’s body… the elephant’s foot… the elephant’s hindquarters… the elephant’s tail… the tuft at the end of the elephant’s tail, saying, ‘This, blind people, is what an elephant is like.’
“Then, having shown the blind people the elephant, the man went to the king and on arrival said, ‘Your majesty, the blind people have seen the elephant. May your majesty do what you think it is now time to do.’
“Then the king went to the blind people and on arrival asked them, ‘Blind people, have you seen the elephant?’
“’Yes, your majesty. We have seen the elephant.’
“’Now tell me, blind people, what the elephant is like.’
“The blind people who had been shown the elephant’s head said, ‘The elephant, your majesty, is just like a jar.’
“Those who had been shown the elephant’s ear said, ‘The elephant, your majesty, is just like a winnowing basket.’
“Those who had been shown the elephant’s tusk said, ‘The elephant, your majesty, is just like plowshare.’
“Those who had been shown the elephant’s trunk said, ‘The elephant, your majesty, is just like the pole of a plow.’
“Those who had been shown the elephant’s body said, ‘The elephant, your majesty, is just like a granary.’
“Those who had been shown the elephant’s foot said, ‘The elephant, your majesty, is just like a post.’
“Those who had been shown the elephant’s hindquarters said, ‘The elephant, your majesty, is just like a mortar.’
“Those who had been shown the elephant’s tail said, ‘The elephant, your majesty, is just like a pestle.’
“Those who had been shown the tuft at the end of the elephant’s tail said, ‘The elephant, your majesty, is just like a broom.’
Practice feels like this, right? You start off in the dark, just like the elephant-feelers. Someone maybe guides you to feel a certain aspect of meditation or mindfulness. You become familiar with this little section of truth and you think, hoorah! The Dhamma is like a plowshare/basket/jar. I’ve figured it out! But then you talk to someone else, and they say, No, no, no! The Dhamma is like a mortar/pestle/broom. And then depending on your tendencies, you fight, flee, or freeze. You despair, maybe. “What is this whole thing about? I want to be done, already. I’ve been practicing for five years, and I see the part I know I know, and now I’m becoming aware of this known unknown someone else is talking about, and then by definition there are whole tracts of practice in between that neither I nor this other person know anything about.”
The Four Great Efforts, as they are called, help us to interact skillfully with what is known & what is unknown, so that we may grow in the Buddha’s Way. Keeping the Four Great Efforts in mind, there is always some way to respond to any given situation in a way that cultivates the Path and keeps us in line with the intention to grow as the Buddha’s students.
The first of the four Efforts is the effort to keep un-arisen unskillful states from arising. Moment to moment, we have the opportunity to keep habitual unskillful states from coming to fruition. We notice the seeds of a certain habit or behavior beginning to arise in the present moment, and we “generate desire, endeavor, activate persistence, uphold & exert our intent for the sake of the non-arising” of that habit. This is effort on the level of restraining, and it isn’t easy. It means that as the energy of retort, escape, indulgence, withdrawal, or lashing out arises, we stay. We have learned what happens when we follow these unskillful energies, and we’ve become disenchanted with them. We do not feed them. For our own good, and for the good of others, we stay, and do not follow the urgings or un-arisen unskillful states.
The second Great Effort deals with bringing arisen unskillful states to cessation. A glorious example of this is Silvia Boorstein’s practice of stopping mid-sentence and saying, “Oh! I’m sorry! I’m in the middle of making a mistake. Let’s stop here.” Amazing, right? Just because we’ve gone a certain distance into an unskillful situation doesn’t mean we have to carry on in that direction. We don’t have to follow the momentum of bad decisions. This effort reminds us that we are free to make the effort to abandon arisen unskillful states at any point in their arc, from beginning, to peak, to end. There’s a seductive story that says, “Well, I’m already being bad, so I might as well just go ahead and be really bad,” and resists the availability of the second great effort in any moment. Once we start, it can seem delicious just to give in to what we know we shouldn’t do, think, or say, but the truth is that we can always rouse our effort to stop, change tracks, and come back to clarity. We can set down the beer, walk away from the fight, stop the screed, or turn off the movie. We can abandon arisen unskillful states.
The third Great Effort is the effort to arouse un-arisen skillful states. Something in us knows the path of peace, and we can call on this knowing – rather than our self-doubt and defilements – in any moment of our lives. The sincere question, “What would Jesus do?” is Christian shorthand for the third great effort. In her memoir, Bossypants, Tina Fey tells the story of how her father – as a teenager – wound up with a famous jazz musician onstage at a concert. The musician, Lionel Hampton, had been trying to get young women from the all-white audience to come up and dance with him, but they were all too afraid to be seen in public dancing with a black man. Moved by the situation, the boy jumped up onstage for a fast-dance with Mr. Hampton, after which the man kissed the boy on the forehead, to a round of applause. Arousing skillful states can be like this: willingness to act in spontaneous connection with kindness, strength and resilience. In our practice, arousing skillful states also takes the form of deliberate cultivation of the antidotes to greed, aversion, and delusion. We do this through daily sitting, through formal metta practice, through working with the Paramitas and enlightenment factors, and through upholding the Precepts. This kind of training is like a regular workout regimen. Sometimes it can seem abstract or a little arid, but when life suddenly requires strength of us, we find our training has prepared us well.
The Buddha gives the fourth Great Effort the longest & most complex definition. Here we are asked to tend to skillful qualities that have arisen with a range of efforts that reminds me of a skillful gardener’s arsenal: maintenance, non-confusion, increase, plenitude, development, & culmination. This range of efforts is designed to combat our complacency, our tendency to settle in and put our feet up when the most extreme & immediate forms of suffering have abated. “Things are pretty comfortable here,” we can think. “No need to go nuts with the practice. After all, look how crazy everyone else is. I’m doing fine. Pass the pretzels.” But this really is not what the Eightfold Path is all about. First of all, just like a garden, it takes work to maintain what we already have. Leave your garden alone for long enough, and the plants you intend to grow will soon be overwhelmed by weeds. And beyond maintenance, there is the work of culmination. Good soil and weeding alone won’t get you tomatoes: you need to build a framework to support the fruits of your gardening, and you need to know which branches to prune off in order to focus the plants’ energy in the most fruitful way. Our practice is like this: the Dhamma is leading onwards, and we continually discover the appropriate efforts we must make for its fruition in our lives. If we fail to make ongoing effort, the plants are likely to rot and go to ruin, and our efforts will not see culmination.
5. Keep on Trucking
Bhikku Bodhi describes the clearing effect of the Four Great Efforts in this way:
“Mindfulness holds the hindrances in check by keeping the mind at the level of what is sensed. It rivets awareness on the given, preventing the mind from embellishing the datum with ideas born of greed, aversion, and delusion. Then, with this lucent awareness as a guide, the mind can proceed to comprehend the object as it is, without being led astray.”
[Bhikku Bodhi, The Noble Eightfold Path, p. 68]
Our “lucent awareness” keeps showing us the path of skillful response as it opens continually before us. We are “riveted” to the process of awakening. We are aware that we are never done with the effort of cultivating and maintaining our lives and the world around us. The Mahayana Four Great Vows are all about this:
Beings are numberless, I vow to save them all.
Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to extinguish them all.
Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them all.
The Buddha Way is unattainable, I vow to attain it.
These vows don’t mean, “Oy vey! a person’s work is never done.” They mean: to be alive is to be learning and growing. We see that to be open to each moment as it arises is to be aware of our capacity to teach and to know, and to move increasingly into the unknown unknowns. We see into things we’ve been doing for a long time that seemed perfectly fine, and feel a little bit of doubt, and then we begin to see another side, a broader perspective. We find access to skillful states that were previously so far beyond our understanding of ourselves as to be completely inaccessible. We let go of things we thought we could never do without, and in their absence we find ourselves in possession of unimaginable peace.
On the level of training oneself to become free of the hindrances of clinging to sensual desire, ill will, dullness & drowsiness, restlessness & worry, and doubt, Bhikku Bodhi is correct when he writes,
“One is no longer the subject of mind but its master. Whatever thought one wants to think, that one will think. Whatever thought one does not want to think, that one will not think. Even if unwholesome thoughts occasionally arise, one can dispel them immediately, just as quickly as a red-hot pan will turn to steam a few chance drops of water.”
[Bhikku Bodhi, The Noble Eightfold Path, p. 71]
But this statement is also problematic from the point of view of the full unfolding of the practice. Yes, we have to be willing to train diligently on the path of purification, and we also have to be willing to let go of our ego-based sense of control, because the fullness of the practice does not come from conscious control alone. In order to know the ocean of the Dhamma, we need to be willing to touch the water and be immersed in it. We need to be willing to step away from the stove, let go of the red-hot water-zapping pan & go for a swim with the dolphins. As we go along practicing the Four Great Efforts with sincerity and determination, we keep our hearts open to that which is beyond our control and our understanding. We grow in wonder at the unfolding of our lives into shapes we could never imagine, nor control. We enjoy the fruit of the practice. We smile at the sight of the whole elephant, and the elephant smiles back.
That’s a lot of creatures for one talk…
May all dolphins, elephants, and tomatoes be well.
May Donald Rumsfeld be well.
May we and all beings in all realms be well.
May we find the strength and mindfulness to practice the Four Great Efforts wholeheartedly for as long as beings endure.
I’m thinking about Right Livelihood & how it is inextricably linked with Right Consumption (a concept that might have been hard to envision in the more straightforward local economy of the Buddha’s day).
A fantastic example of Wrong Livelihood from the current New Yorker: the guy who pretended to rent out his apartment to dozens of people, simultaneously stealing their money and depriving them of a place to live. It sounds like things aren’t easy for this man, but scams like this erode our capacity for trust & goodwill in the world.
A gruesome example of Wrong Consumption from the NYT: the exploding demand for bear bile, “farmed” by vivisecting thousands of bears confined in tiny cages. Apparently the bile might have medical benefits for people with certain illnesses. Still, this is a case of displacing suffering from ourselves to other creatures, without consent or acknowledgement, and we can do better.
If we’re really committed to Right Livelihood, we also have to be committed to understanding the full cost of our professions, of the things we buy, and of the households we keep. The new sandals I bought yesterday seemed like a good idea: well-made, comfortable, useful for supporting the local shoe-shop-guy, who does a fine job. But they’re leather, no doubt made using horrible chemicals in some factory in China (maybe next door to the bear “farm”?) and I don’t really need them, especially when there are people right around here without any good shoes at all.
Disenchantment takes time and effort.
I think I’ll walk the shoes down to the thrift store on the corner. May some other lady with giant feet walk safely and at ease.
Here’s how the Buddha describes the Right Action part of the Eightfold path in the Magga Vibhanga Sutta:
And what, students, is right action?
Abstaining from taking life,
Abstaining from taking what is not given,
Abstaining from sexual misconduct.
This, students, is called right action.
This is essentially a negative description. In focusing on what actions to abstain from, the Buddha also abstains here from prescribing any particular kind of action. This is interesting in comparison with other sections of the Eightfold Path, which are much more detailed about the right way than they are about the wrong way. For instance, Right Mindfulness is described in terms of establishing awareness based on the suitable objects of body, feelings, mind, and mental qualities. The Buddha could have focused his instructions for Right Mindfulness on abstaining from unsuitable objects of attention (like fantasizing or plotting about the future), but he didn’t. We’ll see later that the Buddha also goes into a great deal of detail in describing the landscape of right concentration, (sammā-samādhi), but as for action, he chooses to say very little in his Eightfold Path description.
It’s worth pausing to notice the sharp contrast of this essentially negative approach with religious practices that instead prescribe specific ritual actions. An extreme, made-up-by-me example of such a ritual might go like this:
in order to purify your sins, as the sun rises on the 21st day of the month, for breakfast you must eat three clover leaves. you must also offer burnt sacrifice of half a male hamster, roasted over a fire built from the twigs of a two-year-old maple grown on the left side of the street.
Admittedly, over time a great variety of cultural rituals have grown up around honoring and practicing the Buddha’s teachings. At root, though, there is a simple three-fold restraint around killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct.
The do-er in me doesn’t much like this.
I want something to tell me what to do with my finely honed skills, ambitions and competencies. “Come on, Buddha!” I rage, “Give me something to work with.” This abstaining stuff’s no fun. I want a special hat, a way to wear my hair, the secret to acting skillfully in life, love, and war. If every self-help & etiquette guru on the planet can prepare a detailed list of what to do, say & wear on any occasion, what’s up with the Perfectly Enlightened One giving such stingy advice? One answer might be that the Buddha’s definition of Right Action transcends conventional notions of individual identity & goes straight to the heart of the matter. If the Buddha had included instructions for specific actions in the Eightfold Path, inevitably:
- we would gravitate to the impression that the difficult, messy, individual work of acting with clarity & integrity can be replaced by a list of do’s and don’ts. human beings seem in general to value certainty over ambiguity, which is why orthodoxies of all kinds thrive.
- given human nature & cultural biases, separate lists of Right Action guidelines would have arisen and proliferated for imagined separate categories of people. thus: Poor People Rules, Women’s Rules, Men’s Rules, Important People’s Rules, Outcasts’ Rules, etc.
- as cultural norms changed, the Buddha’s followers would have been burdened with lists of outdated customs. this in turn would have led to disagreements about whether to resist change and live anachronistically (according to the Great Founder’s wishes), or else discard the outdated rules, and face an ensuing void of meaning. to some extent this has happened in the Buddhist world wherever extensive lists of rules have flourished, as in the monastic orders.
- the presence of lists of right actions would feed the impression that liberation depends primarily on successful performance of certain holy deeds in the world. this was the prevailing religious view of Indian culture in the time of the Buddha, a focus on rites and rituals that he specifically & repeatedly repudiated. the focus of our practice is not creating the prettiest form of samsara that we can. the focus of our practice is learning to work skillfully within the world while practicing non-attachment.
Ani Tenzin Palmo, a British-born nun in the Tibetan tradition who spent 12 years living in a cave in the Himalayas, spells this last and most important point out beautifully:
“Once [during my retreat] the spring snow melted and the cave became completely flooded. It was May and the ground was no longer frozen, and it was snowing and snowing, which meant the snow penetrated through the roof because there was no longer any ice to hold it out. It was just dripping down and everything in the cave was soaking wet. I also had a cold or something. I remember feeling extremely unwell. I was thinking, “Yes, they were right in what they told me about living in caves. Who wants to live in this horrible wet?” It was cold and miserable and still snowing. Then suddenly I thought, “Are you still looking for happiness in samsara? We’re always hoping that everything will be pleasant and fearing that it won’t be. Didn’t Buddha say something about dukkha?” And suddenly I realized, “It doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t matter. Samsara is dukkha. There’s no problem. Why expect happiness? If happiness is there, happiness is there. If happiness isn’t there, what do you expect? It really doesn’t matter.” When I felt that in my heart, this whole weight of hope and fear just dropped away. In that moment, all thought evaporated and it just didn’t matter any more. It was an enormous relief. I felt so grateful to the Buddha because I had realized that it’s so true: samsara is dukkha. And so what? What do we expect? Why do we make such a big fuss when we suffer? It doesn’t matter. We go on.”
Ven. Tenzin Palmo - from “Reflections on a Mountain Lake”
There’s stark, undeniable wisdom in the restraint-based Eightfold Path version of Right Action. Luckily for anyone who’d still like a little more specificity, the Buddha provides other leads. One collection of such advice is the Metta Sutta, the Buddha’s Words on Loving-kindness, with which many of us are familiar. Looked at from the perspective of Right Action, the Metta Sutta reads as a marvelous prescription. Instead of focusing on what is to be abstained from, it emphasizes “what should be done,” from the perspective of cultivating a loving heart & mind.
The Mangala Sutta, the Discourse on the Highest Blessings, is another prescription from the Buddha. Let’s pause to chant this together:
I have heard that at one time the Blessed One was staying in Savatthi at Jeta’s Grove, Anathapindika’s monastery. Then a certain deva, in the far extreme of the night, her extreme radiance lighting up the entirety of Jeta’s Grove, approached the Blessed One. On approaching, having bowed down to the Blessed One, she stood to one side. As she stood to one side, she addressed him with a verse.
Many devas and human beings
give thought to blessings,
Tell, then, the highest blessing.
Not consorting with fools,
consorting with the wise,
paying homage to those worthy of homage:
This is the highest blessing.
Living in a civilized land,
having made merit in the past,
directing oneself rightly:
This is the highest blessing.
Learning, skill in handicrafts,
This is the highest blessing.
Support for one’s parents,
help to one’s partner and children,
consistency in one’s work:
This is the highest blessing.
Giving, living in rectitude,
help to one’s relatives,
deeds that are blameless:
This is the highest blessing.
Avoiding, abstaining from evil;
refraining from intoxicants,
attentiveness in all things:
This is the highest blessing.
hearing the Dhamma on timely occasions:
This is the highest blessing.
discussing the Dhamma on timely occasions:
This is the highest blessing.
Austerity, moral living,
seeing the Noble Truths,
This is the highest blessing.
A heart that, when touched
by the ways of the world,
is unshaken, sorrowless, dustless, secure:
This is the highest blessing.
when acting in this way,
people go everywhere in well-being:
This is their highest blessing.
[adapted from Thanissaro Bhikku’s translation by Julie Püttgen]
I’ve always loved this sutta for its emphasis on a wide variety of right actions. Notice that the refrain is the same for each of the verses: support for one’s family is the highest blessing, just as realizing the Noble Truths for oneself is the highest blessing. If any of us are carrying around any hierarchical ideas about what real, important practice is like, the Mangala Sutta has news for us: right action is right action, period, wherever and however it is done. It doesn’t matter if you’re a monastic or a layperson, on retreat or at home, at work or in the hospital. Not grabbing the bag of chips when you’re tired & fed up? Right action. Letting go of doubt about the Buddha’s teaching and its efficacy? Right action. Going for a walk instead of exploding with rage? Right action. Taking care of an elderly parent? Right action.
3. Flowing into Right Action
“The highest blessings” is also sometimes translated as “the highest protection.” We don’t usually think of these two words as being interchangeable, but it is interesting to think about how this pairing relates to the relationship between restraint (negative action) and engaging (positive action). Protection seems to be more about restraint & absence, while blessing seems to be more about engagement & presence. As wisdom grows, we become more able to sense when a situation demands active response, and when the best that we can do is not to act, and wait for change to come of itself.
The eighth chapter of the Tao Te Ching deals with this specific kind of knowing, using the image of flowing water as a starting point. Here is Ursula Le Guin’s translation:
is like water.
It doesn’t compete.
It goes right
to the low loathsome places,
and so finds the way.
For a house,
the good thing is level ground.
depth is good.
The good of giving is magnanimity;
of speaking, honesty;
of government, order.
The good of work is skill,
and of action, timing.
so no blame.
[translation by Ursula K. Le Guin]
“The good of work is skill, and of action, timing.” Beautiful, right? Another reason the Buddha’s teaching can’t spell out right action for us is that it depends so much on situation & timing & our ability to let go of a separate sense of self, so that we are responding situationally, rather than carrying around an agenda everywhere we go. The Tao tells us water “goes right to the low, loathsome places, and thus finds the way.” Water doesn’t get high and mighty about fixed codes. It doesn’t fear going to painful, humiliating or unimportant places. Water flows, and so can we.
We flow within the boundaries of the precepts: not killing or causing intentional harm. Not stealing or withholding what rightfully belongs to someone else. Not engaging in sexual conduct that causes harm to ourselves or to others.
To keep moving, and not to stagnate, a river needs a clear channel. Mindful awareness is our channel, and the precepts are the boundaries that keep us moving from situation to situation without getting hung up in actions arising from the craving of self-view and leading to the affliction of self-view. There’s a beautiful sutta in which the Buddha’s gives advice on self-reliance to Maha Pajapati Gotami, his aunt & adoptive mother, who became the founder of the nuns’ order. His prescription to her is to be aware of where actions lead:
"Gotami, the qualities of which you may know, ‘These qualities lead to passion, not to dispassion; to being fettered, not to being unfettered; to accumulating, not to shedding; to self-aggrandizement, not to modesty; to discontent, not to contentment; to entanglement, not to seclusion; to laziness, not to aroused persistence; to being burdensome, not to being unburdensome’: You may categorically hold, ‘This is not the Dhamma, this is not the Discipline, this is not the Teacher’s instruction.’
"As for the qualities of which you may know, ‘These qualities lead to dispassion, not to passion; to being unfettered, not to being fettered; to shedding, not to accumulating; to modesty, not to self-aggrandizement; to contentment, not to discontent; to seclusion, not to entanglement; to aroused persistence, not to laziness; to being unburdensome, not to being burdensome’: You may categorically hold, ‘This is the Dhamma, this is the Discipline, this is the Teacher’s instruction.’"
[translation by Thanissaro Bhikku]
Wisdom lies in the constant flow between abstaining and engaging, and in coming to see these as two aspects of our participation in the ground of being. As we become more and more familiar with the experience of dispassion, shedding, modesty, contentment, seclusion, persistence, & being unburdensome, we incline naturally towards our way. We are guided as much by the pleasure of release & skillful engagement as by the pain of entanglement. We flow. We find the way.