Introduction to Mindfulness Meditation @ University of Ottawa

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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:

http://www.continue.uottawa.ca/program_EN.cfm?courseID=213&groupID=35&catID=6

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’.

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Thich Nhat Hanh’s New Translation of the Prajñāpāramitā (Heart Sutra)

It is not often that a great Zen master offers generations to come a radical re-translation of a sacred text.

This new version of the Prajñāpāramitā is now on the Plum Village web site, along with Thay’s explanation for why he wrote this new translation.

To appreciate the greatness of this new translation, there’s nothing quite like reading it side by side with the previous one:

Heart of the Prajñāpāramitā
(Plum Village Chanting Book, 2000)
The Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore
(Plum Village Web Site, 2014)
The Bodhisattva Avolokita,
while moving in the deep course of
perfect understanding,
shed light on the five skandas
And found them equally empty.
After this penetration he overcame ill-being.
Avalokiteshvara
while practicing deeply with
the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore,
suddenly discovered that
all of the five Skandhas are equally empty,
and with this realisation
he overcame all Ill-being.
Listen, Shariputra,
form is emptiness, emptiness is form.
Form is not other than emptiness,
emptiness is not other than form.
The same is true with feelings, perceptions,
mental formations and consciousness.
“Listen Sariputra,
this Body itself is Emptiness
and Emptiness itself is this Body.
This Body is not other than Emptiness
and Emptiness is not other than this Body.
The same is true of Feelings,
Perceptions, Mental Formations,
and Consciousness.
Listen Shariputra,
all dharmas are marked with emptiness.
They are neither produced nor destroyed,
neither defiled nor immaculate,
neither increasing nor decreasing.
“Listen Sariputra,
all phenomena bear the mark of Emptiness;
their true nature is the nature of
no Birth no Death,
no Being no Non-being,
no Defilement no Immaculacy,
no Increasing no Decreasing.
Therefore, in emptiness there is neither form,
nor feeling, nor perceptions, nor mental formations, nor consciousness.
“That is why in Emptiness,
Body, Feelings, Perceptions,
Mental Formations and Consciousness
are not separate self entities.
No eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind.
No form, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch,
no objects of mind.
No realms of elements (from eyes to mind consciousness),
The Eighteen Realms of Phenomena
which are the six Sense Organs,
the six Sense Objects,
and the six Consciousnesses
are also not separate self entities.
no interdependent origins and no extinction of them.
(From ignorance to death and decay).
The Twelve Links of Interdependent Arising
and their Extinction
are also not separate self entities.
No ill-being, no cause of ill-being, no end of ill-being, and no path.
No understanding, no attainment.
Ill-being, the Causes of Ill-being,
the End of Ill-being, the Path,
insight and attainment,
are also not separate self entities.
Because there is no attainment,
the Bodhisattvas, grounded in perfect understanding,
Find no obstacles for their minds.
Having no obstacles, they overcome fear,
liberating themselves forever from illusion
and realizing perfect nirvana.
Whoever can see this
no longer needs anything to attain.
Bodhisattvas who practice
the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore
see no more obstacles in their mind,
and because there
are no more obstacles in their mind,
they can overcome all fear,
destroy all wrong perceptions
and realize Perfect Nirvana.
All Buddhas in the past, present, and future,
thanks to this perfect understanding,
arrive at full, right, and universal enlightenment.
All Buddhas in the past, present and future
by practicing
the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore
are all capable of attaining
Authentic and Perfect Enlightenment.
Therefore one should know that perfect understanding
is the highest mantra,
the unequalled mantra,
the destroyer of ill-being,
the incorruptible truth.
A mantra of prajnaparamita should therefore be proclaimed:
“Therefore Sariputra,
it should be known that
the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore
is a Great Mantra,
the most illuminating mantra,
the highest mantra,
a mantra beyond compare,
the True Wisdom that has the power
to put an end to all kinds of suffering.
Therefore let us proclaim
a mantra to praise
the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore.
Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi, svaha.
Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi, svaha.
Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi, svaha.

Buddhism and God

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.

Kalyāṇa-mitta

“…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”

Mahamangala Sutra

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.

Mindfulness, Concentration and Insight

Screen Shot 2013-08-30 at 10.04.37 AMAt “The Art of Suffering” retreat led by Thay just this week at Blue Cliff Monastery, the first talk (given on August 26th 2013) went right to the heart of the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing (see p. 4 of this issue of the Mindfulness Bell as well as Thay’s commentary “Breathe You Are Alive” available from Parallax Press).

In this first talk Thay draws a Venn diagram to show that Concentration is inside Mindfulness and Insight is inside Concentration. Part of what was intended by Thay is to convey the importance of Mindfulness – without mindfulness there can be no concentration and without concentration there can be no insight (understanding).

I find it helpful to add a few elements to that picture.  First, there is the element of time. I picture this diagram deployed in 3 dimensions.  Concentration, for me, is Mindfulness sustained over time. Concentration is Mindfulness of this moment, sustained to the next and the next. It is the continuity of attention on the object of attention that is Concentration.

To sustain Mindfulness there needs to be another element – something like “effort”, although Thay prefers the word “diligence”.  Personally, I find it is “interest” in the object of mindfulness that leads to concentration, be it interest in the breath, interest in the walking, interest in the experience of eating.

Behind “interest” is a kind of receptive desire to understand – a kind of receptive curiosity perhaps – out of which understanding arises. I don’t think Insight simply arises from Concentration by itself.  The ground for understanding must also be fertile. I think there has to be the capacity to absorb the insight and understanding for it to come about.

For example, the Insight of “no self” or “impermanence” is never merely the cognitive assent to the fact that these propositions are true.  It is more like a non-cognitive, direct realization that arises from seeing clearly what a concentrated mind displays as evidence: the moment to moment changes in all phenomena. Understanding or Insight is then a certain kind of transformation of what is seen in the field of attention.

I like to illustrate this difference between cognitive assent to a belief and the kind of insightful understanding with a small experience I have had with seat-belts.  At country fairs, police safety officers used to educate visitors to the value of seat belts by putting them in a small car that rolls down an inclined plane and suddenly comes to a halt.  Do that once without a seatbelt (it hurts!) and do that again with a seatbelt and you really feel the difference.  Your understanding of what a seatbelt does is not cognitive and theoretical, it’s experiential and direct.

That’s what understanding and insight that arises from meditation is like: direct and unmediated by thought. It is born from a concentrated mind that sees the way things are, without imposing ones views or preconceptions.  But for that, you also have to be willing and open to receive the understanding that arises.  Just being concentrated is not enough.

Why Meditate?

The meditation (introductory and intermediate) classes that I teach for the Centre for Continuing Education at the University of Ottawa are wonderful! For one thing, the students ask such great questions.  One question I had from an experienced student last term was: “why practice awareness of the present moment?”.

I can’t remember the answer I gave when the question was asked but the question is still with me.  One answer that comes to mind is “what else is there to attend to?”

In “Now is the Knowing” Ajahn Sumedho writes

Yesterday is a memory
Tomorrow is the unknown
Now is the knowing

Of course we can know our memories too.  And memories of the past have an impact on our conciousness in the present.  So being aware of the here and now doesn’t mean ignoring the past. Nor does the unknown of tomorrow mean that what goes on in the present isn’t thinking or planning – this is a legitimate function of the mind, perhaps even a characteristically human feature – that we can and do anticipate the future an act accordingly in the present.

Yet all of this (remembering, planning, thinking) takes place now – side by side with breathing, feeling hungry, worrying, tasting…. all these things that are happening in the present.

So what there is to attend to – life – is happening now. It’s actually not possible to attend to the past or the future.  There is nothing else to attend to.

So perhaps the question is: “why pay attention at all?” Why not just watch spend all your time distracting and watching good movies on Netflix?

An experiential answer was once given to me by a teacher to whom I asked that very question.  Her answer was to get me to close my eyes and breathe, whereupon she whacked me on the head with a slipper. It hurt just enough to give me the answer: if you don’t pay attention the result can be painful!

The other answer – the transcendant one – is that awareness is the refuge, the path to a happiness that does not depend on conditions.