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I will be teaching a series of 4 evening classes at the University of Ottawa Center for Continuing Education entitled “Buddhist Meditation and the Gentle Art of Letting Go” on May 26, June 2, 9, 16, 2015 and there are still some places available. It is possible to register from the web site:
The course focuses on the Anapanasati Sutra: the Discourse on the Full Awareness of Breathing. Although participants are not necessarily expected to have taken the earlier introductory course (see the previous post) some previous meditation experience will be helpful. Each two-hour session will include two guided meditation periods that run from 30 to 45 minutes, and participants will have time to ask questions about their own meditation practice.
Laureen Osborne will be teaching a series of 4 evening classes at the University of Ottawa Center for Continuing Education entitled “An Introduction to Buddhist Meditation” on April 21, 28, May 5, 12, 2015 and there are still some places available. It is possible to register from the web site:
Laureen Osborne is a Buddhist teacher. She has been a practising Buddhist in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh for over ten years. She has taught a workshop on mindful eating. Her other passions include a love of dogs and vegetarianism. She has worked as an editor, writer, and seminar speaker and is the author of four books including a cookbook titled ‘Vegetarian for a Day’.
A retreat with monastics from Blue Cliff Monastery is being held in Ottawa in May 2015.
Please go to http://pagodasangha.org/retreats/ for registration and details
Peace and Healing is in Every Step
A Retreat with the Nuns and Monks of Blue Cliff Monastery
in the Tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh
May 8 – 10, 2015
St Paul University, Room L120,
223 Main St, Ottawa Ontario, K1S IC4
I will be teaching a series of 4 evening classes at the University of Ottawa Center for Continuing Education entitled “Buddhist Meditation and the Gentle Art of Letting Go” on November 25, December 2, 9, 16, 2014 and there are still some places available. It is possible to register from the web site:
A question that often arrises with Thich Nhat Hanh’s phrase “Present Moment, Wonderful Moment” is this: what if the present moment is not a wonderful moment – what if it is one of great difficulty or pain or anguish?
The first thing to say is that this phrase does not mean “don’t worry, be happy” – at least not in the sense of Mad Magazine’s Alfred E. Newman. There is no denying that there is suffering in life.
However this phrase of Thay is an assertion that suffering can be transformed – that happiness is possible and that it is possible right here and now. I experience “the present moment is a wonderful moment” to be true because the awareness of the moment is wonderful, not because whether what is happening in the present moment is pleasant or unpleasant.
Thay often suggests “enjoy your non-toothache” and encourages all his students to remember that “we already have more than enough conditions to be happy” (see the 7th Mindfulness Training in the 14 Mindfulness Trainings reproduced below). In the 7th Mindfulness training Thay’s encourages us to touch the “wondrous elements…[available] in all situations”. But for me, the most wondrous element of every moment is the awareness of this moment. And every moment of awareness has that element in common with every other moment, regardless of what is happening in it.
The ability to be fully aware of the present moment is also the ability to be “non-discriminating” between the experiences we like (because they are pleasant) and the experiences we don’t like (because they are unpleasant). Awareness is non-discriminating because awareness does not want to get and does not want to reject, it just is aware, and accepting of everything that manifests.
Thay has often also said “no mud, no lotus”. This can be understood in at least two ways. One is: “without the mud, there can be no lotus”. Thus, if you want the lotus, you have to accept the mud because it is necessary for the lotus. This is often a difficult teaching to really practice sincerely because some muds can be quite difficult to bear and the incentive to bear with them is the promise of the lotuses (in the future). So Thay emphasizes that we learn to focus our mindfulness on all the wonderful lotuses that are there even when there also appears to be a lot of mud at times.
Many other meditation teachers also give the instruction, for example, that when a pain in the body arises during meditation – that the meditator should focus on a part of the body that is pleasant or neutral to encourage the development of mindfulness of the experience of the “pleasant” (or neutral) phenomena in the body that is available.
Another meaning to “no mud, no lotus” is: true happiness requires neither mud nor lotus. Or to put it another way, true happiness encompasses both mud and lotus and does not depend on them being beautiful or not beautiful.
True happiness is rooted in awareness which is only happening in the present moment. This is why happiness is possible in every circumstance. The real “joy” in the enjoyment of our tea, our breathing and our non-toothache is the joy that springs from the light of awareness itself.
The Seventh Mindfulness Training: Dwelling Happily in the Present Moment
Aware that life is available only in the present moment, we are committed to training ourselves to live deeply each moment of daily life. We will try not to lose ourselves in dispersion or be carried away by regrets about the past, worries about the future, or cravings, anger, or jealousy in the present. We will practice mindful breathing to be aware of what is happening in the here and now. We are determined to learn the art of mindful living by touching the wondrous, refreshing, and healing elements that are inside and around us, in all situations. In this way, we will be able to cultivate seeds of joy, peace, love, and understanding in ourselves, thus facilitating the work of transformation and healing in our consciousness. We are aware that happiness depends primarily on our mental attitude and not on external conditions, and that we can live happily in the present moment simply by remembering that we already have more than enough conditions to be happy.
I few weeks ago I learned that you are no longer with us – in body anyway. It had been 15 or 20 years since we had spoken last, I think. On Salt Spring Island, if I remember correctly. It seemed like the perfect place for you – soft delicate clouds amid the pine trees and near the gentle sea.
Thank you for being one of my spiritual guides – your no-nonsense, down-to-earth, the-dharma-is-everywhere teachings will stay with me. Like the time I chided you for being a smoker – how could a Dharma teacher smoke cigarettes after all? You said it made you more ordinary – less other-worldly, perhaps. Like the way you reached out to children by playing video games with them.
My favourite moment with you was in Ottawa at the beginning of my journey. I asked you – “what’s the point of practicing mindfulness”: what good does it do, I wondered. You instructed me to close my eyes and then proceeded to whack me on the head with your moccasin slipper. “Pay Attention or There Will Be Harm” was the title of that short Dharma lesson.
Perhaps your kindest and most compassionate teaching was the time I was really struggling at a retreat with you – I was striving and striving and not getting anywhere and my body was in pain and it all felt quite pointless and hopeless. Your instruction to me was: “take your car, drive down the road to the nearby lake and go for a swim”. I remember that swim vividly – particularly the soothing love of the water on my body and the disolution of the boundaries of “me”.
Whenever I read the Aghata Vinaya Sutra (Anguttara Nikaya 5.162) that image and experience comes to mind. The Sutra ends with this passage:
“My friends, suppose that not far from the village there is a very beautiful lake. The water in the lake is clear and sweet, the bed of the lake is even, the banks of the lake are lush with green grass, and all around the lake, beautiful fresh trees give shade. Someone who is thirsty, suffering from heat, whose body is covered in sweat, comes to the lake, takes off his clothes, leaves them on the shore, jumps down into the water, and finds great comfort and enjoyment in drinking and bathing in the pure water. His heat, thirst, and suffering disappear immediately. In the same way, my friends, when you see someone whose bodily actions are kind, whose words are kind, and whose mind is also kind, give your attention to all his kindness of body, speech, and mind, and do not allow anger or jealousy to overwhelm you. If you do not know how to live happily with someone who is as fresh as that, you cannot be called someone who has wisdom.”
Thank you for being this lake of kindness and compassion, Cecile. I am grateful that I had the wisdom to have you as a companion on the path.
Love – Andre
You know when the practice of mindfulness has entered into the mainstream of North American culture when it has been given the Time Magazine front cover treatment. This Time article follows in the footsteps of Mindfulness Is A Useful Business Skill in Forbes Magazine (late November 2013) and the New York Times essay Mindfulness: Getting Its Share of Attention (in early November 2013).
In short, mindfulness is trending.
I found the article in Time rather unsatisfying mostly because it portrays mindfulness as a “coping strategy”, a “survival skill” and a “key to success” to be used for personal advancement. This isn’t in spirit of how Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction is taught, in my experience. The journalist also describes Jon Kabat-Zinn as someone “selling meditation and mindfulness to America’s fast-paced, stressed-out masses”.
I had always thought that Mindfulness was about helping to alleviate suffering! Or cultivating happiness, kindness, love, compassion and generosity.
Buddhist teachers and writers have been worrying about the popularizing of mindfulness for months. In June 2013 David Loy and Ron Purser wrote a provocative article in the Huffington Post criticizing the corporate appropriation and commercialization of “McMindfulness”. In this article they say:
Uncoupling mindfulness from its ethical and religious Buddhist context … [decontextualizes] mindfulness from its original liberative and transformative purpose, as well as its foundation in social ethics [and this] amounts to a Faustian bargain.
It’s a compelling argument. Mindfulness, when taught exclusively as a “stress reduction” technique – while undoubtedly valuable – is limiting both to the student and the teacher. The key to real happiness is not only mindfulness but a lifestyle that supports it and an understanding of its broader purpose beyond its service to the self.
The McMindfulness article concludes:
One hopes that the mindfulness movement will not follow the usual trajectory of most corporate fads — unbridled enthusiasm, uncritical acceptance of the status quo, and eventual disillusionment. To become a genuine force for positive personal and social transformation, it must reclaim an ethical framework and aspire to more lofty purposes that take into account the well-being of all living beings.
I hope they are right about the fate of mindfulness as a corporate fad. But I also feel quite sure that one need not start out the practice of mindfulness with the well-being of all sentient creatures foremost in mind. My own practice began as a “mental hygiene” practice and evolved over many years into a transformation of lifestyle and world-view.
Thich Nhat Hanh offers a reassuring counterpoint to worries about McMindfulness trends in his January 2014 interview You Have the Buddha in You in the Shambhala Sun:
We don’t have to worry whether meditation is being misused to make money. Meditation can only do good. It doesn’t just help you calm your own suffering. It also gives you more insight into yourself and the world. If your business is causing environmental problems and you practice meditation, you may have ideas about how to conduct your business in such a way that you will harm nature less. When you experience the wisdom brought about by meditation, then naturally you want to conduct your business in a way that will make the world suffer less.
So don’t worry about whether meditation is serving a wrong cause. It can change a wrong cause to a good cause.”
Thay is right: any amount of mindfulness anywhere is better than none.
Nevertheless, I think there is a middle way. While mindfulness can transform a wrongly motivated intention to practice, starting out with the motivation of greed – be it for attainments or self improvement – may not be the most helpful way to start off. But neither is it necessary to begin with the desire to free all sentient beings from suffering. Most people’s initial motive for practicing mindfulness is usually to be free from one’s own suffering – and that is a perfectly valid Dharma Door. Maybe greed is too – but only, I suspect, if you have a great master to help you be free from it. Otherwise, I expect, it will be a tricker journey.
Many westerners are drawn to Buddhism because it is not a theistic religion. Believing in God, prayer to God, worshiping God or even talk about God is just not present in Buddhism. The basic FAQs about Buddhism are emphatic about Buddhism having nothing to do with God at all.
Yet there are also (several) allusions to God-like ideas in Buddhist texts, if only in negative terms. Verse 21 of the Dhammapada says:
Mindfulness is the way to the Deathless (Nibbana)
and in the Samyuta Nikaya (43.14) there is
I will teach you the far shore … the subtle … the very difficult to see … the unaging … … the undisintegrating … the unmanifest … the unproliferated … the deathless … the sublime … the unafflicted
But what is it that is ageless, unchanging and out of time if not God?
I have heard Thay Nhat Hanh say on more than one occasion:
“I know the address of God – it is here and now”
I don’t know why more people aren’t pierced to the core by that statement. The implication is – awareness of the present moment can bring you in touch with that which is out of time, unbound by conditions and transcendent. What greater incentive could there be to practice mindfulness?
Ajahn Sumedho has said as much too when he paraphrases the Buddha:
There is the Unconditioned, Unborn, Uncreated, Unoriginated: Amaravati – the Deathless Realm, which is timeless, apparent here and now.
It’s true that Buddhism has nothing to say about a creator God or a personal God, but it does make reference to a metaphysical God, contact with which is possible by humans and which is the door to liberation from suffering.
The conclusion must be that the practice mindfulness is not secular. Minfulness is a method that leads to liberation from the conditioned realm by bringing us in touch with Nirvana, the Deathless Realm, God.
“…what are the greatest blessings
which bring about a peaceful and happy life.
Please, Tathagata, will you teach us?”
(This is the Buddha’s answer):
“Not to be associated with the foolish ones,
To live in the company of wise people,
Honouring those who are worth honouring”
A friend and I have been debating what is of greater value: friends that do things with you and for you (drive you to the airport, help you in times of material need) or friends that show you the way to unconditional happiness and spiritual freedom. Naturally, these are not exclusive – being driven to the airport can be done with love and that love can be spiritually awakening. All practical aspects of life have a spiritual dimension, whether that is explicitly recognized or not.
The comparative “greater value” may not be appropriate either. Why compare them even. A friend you help by driving them to the airport benefits even from just the drive – and the driver benefits from the giving. Giving and generosity are a practice of liberation too, so even just giving the ride is of great value.
Yet the gift of Dharma is of immeasurable value and the friends on the path who share it with you are invaluable friends. They are rowing with you to the other shore. Friends who are not on the path will help you in worldly ways – lend you money, fix problems, resolve conflicts. This is good. But it is a greater good, I think, is to know how to be truly happy in ways that do not depend on whether your problems are fixed, how much money you have or whether all conflicts are resolved.
Spiritual friendship (Kalyāṇa-mitta) is embodied in your Sangha. And the Sangha is one of the “three jewels” for this reason: it is the vehicle to freedom from all suffering. Hence it is to be treasured above all else.