Monday, August 30, 2010

September Daily Practice: Wisdom Practice

The Buddha’s model for Yoga practice, the “Noble Eightfold Path,” begins with the two limbs associated with wisdom (prajñā): samyag-dṛṣṭi which can be translated as ‘right’ or ‘appropriate’ view or understanding and samyak-saṃkalpa, which is variously translated as ‘right’ or ‘appropriate’ intention, aspiration, motivation, or thought. This month, our daily practice will be to connect with a basic intention through the practice of two gathas to ‘bookend’ our day: one for waking up in the morning, and one for retiring at the end of the day.

Thich Nhat Hanh describes gathas as “short verses which we can recite during our daily activities to help us dwell in mindfulness.” Without these ‘reminders,’ we often fall into forgetfulness. We forget to look at the people we love and to appreciate them, so lost in our own mental chatter! Even during ‘leisure,’ we seem to not know how to get in touch with what’s happening in our life. To practice mindfulness is to grow in our understanding of what is going on – in our bodies, our feelings, our minds, and in the world. Stopping and coming back to the truth of our life ultimately brings the wonder and mystery of life into full focus.

When using gathas, we return to ourselves, and become conscious of our actions and, importantly, the motivations behind our actions. When we stop and recite a gatha, it’s like a short break in the tumultuous momentum of our life. When we resume our activity, we do so with a heightened sense of awareness. This helps not only us, as we find greater peace, calm, and joy, it helps those we interact with as we then share our peace, calm and joy with them!

In the beginning, we may need to have the gatha written so that we can read it to ourselves. Ideally, we memorize the gatha so that it comes to us naturally, spurred by the conditions of the particular situation the gatha is designed to wake us to.

This month, our practice will be to write out in our own hand the following two gathas: one to read/recite upon awakening in the morning, and the other to read/recite upon going to bed at night.

I suggest you write out the gathas on attractive colored paper, and place them near your bed (on your bed-stand if you have one). When you wake in the morning, sitting up at the side of your bed, read the “Waking Up Gatha” to yourself. If you live alone – or with a supportive partner – it can be helpful to say it out loud at least occasionally. Don’t rush through it automatically just to get it done. Take a few breaths, then read it slowly, fully aware of your breath as you do so. After reading it, take three breaths, then get up and on with your day.

In the evening, sitting up in bed, read the “Gatha On Impermanence” and reflect on your day’s efforts to live mindfully. This is NOT an opportunity for self-recrimination and judgment. Simply review honestly, with the understanding that we are learning day by day. Renew your commitment to stay awake the following day, and enjoy a deserved good night’s rest.

Throughout this month, I invite and encourage those of you who choose to engage in this Daily Practice to share your experience here through the Comment Tool. Feel free as well to ask any questions that may arise. May you enjoy your practice!

Poep Sa Frank Jude

Waking Up Gatha

Waking up this morning, I smile.
A brand new day is before me.
I vow (intend, aspire) to live fully in each moment,
And to look upon all beings with eyes of compassion.

Gatha On Impermanence

The day is now ended.
Let me reflect carefully on how I have acted,
And with all my heart, may I diligently engage in the practice.
May I live deeply, freely,
Always aware of impermanence
So that life does not drift away meaninglessly.


  1. These gathas provide wonderful lenses through which to view the beginning and end of each day! I will keep them at bedside!

  2. In just rewriting them in my own handwriting, I feel already a deeper sense of them. I look foward to this practice. Thank you Jude!

  3. Thinking about this "meaninglessly" thing: I think most of my life I've been rather "attached" the idea that there was some big ultimate meaning in life, ordained by God or somebody. Now that I don't believe in God, I'm sort of ok with meaninglessness. In fact I think it's the emptiness that Buddhism talks about, which is related to impermanence. So I'm not sure what this means, about life drifting away meaninglessly. For me, it does, and that's ok.

    Unless you mean, like Sartre, that humans have to create some kind of meaning in an essentially meaningless universe.

  4. Shannon,

    Thanks for your post, and the question that seems implicit within it.

    There's a wonderful book by Bo Lozoff entitled "It's A Meaningful Life; It Just Takes Practice" that points to an answer to your question. Buddhism does indeed deny the existence of a Creator God, but you posit a false polarity: either there is meaning (ordained by God) or life is meaningless.

    To take the teachings on emptiness and leap to the idea that letting 'life drift away meaninglessly' is to completely misunderstand the teachings! It's, to use the Buddha's phrase, "grabbing the snake by the wrong end!" To take that stance is to fall into one of the two views the Buddha strongly condemned: the Buddha was no nihilist!

    The traditional Buddhist understanding is that life's meaning is found in awakening, liberation! Human life especially is seen as 'precious' because humans have self-awareness that can allow us to 'go against the stream of conditioning' and attain freedom.

    Each individual must create that meaning through their practice. In that sense, meaning is not inherent. Emptiness teaches us that there is no inherent self-nature behind, beyond or above phenomena. But a life free from suffering is understood to be of value, and thus meaning. And you cannot have such a life without practice.

    Please do not let life drift away meaninglessly!

    Every night, in Zen Centers and monasteries throughout the world, the Evening Gatha is chanted just before lights out:

    Let me respectfully remind you,
    life and death are of supreme importance.
    Time swiftly passes by
    and opportunity is lost.
    Each of us should strive to awaken.
    Awaken. Take heed!
    Do not squander your life!

    in metta,
    poep sa

  5. So, you meant that meaning is created by humans. That's what Sartre said too.

  6. Yes, but I also said that a life free from suffering (duhkha) is the value and meaning of life. To not live in such a way as to reduce suffering is therefore inherently meaningless.

    You had said that for you, life does drift away meaninglessly and that you were okay with that. From the perspective of the Dharma, that is nihilism. Is that truly your position?

    I know that many people, hearing that Sartre said that the only meaning is what humans create, feel that this is some kind of 'lesser' meaning; that the only 'real' and 'ultimate' meaning would be one -- as you say -- ordained by God. I see the situation as completely opposite. The only meaning possible is the meaning we create. So the question becomes, "Why would one choose to let life go by meaninglessly?" You didn't address this matter in your response, and I'm curious to hear what you mean by being okay with 'letting life go by meaninglessly.'

    Personally, as one who does not believe in literal rebirth, the 'fact' that this is the one life I've to lead, lends even more a sense of 'urgency' to practice -- as the Zen saying puts it -- as if my hair were on fire!

    poep sa

  7. I meant that I can't "make" the universe have purpose and meaning. Apparently it just came into existence, and stuff just happens. For example, the tsunami of 2005, or the earthquake in Haiti. That stuff just happens; God doesn't make it happen; we can't prevent it. A lot of people die and suffer for no apparent reason. We can't really have a life without suffering: the first noble truth. A lot of this suffering has no redemptive purpose or meaning; it's just suffering. On an even larger scale, climate change could eliminate humans from the earth, and the earth itself will eventually fall into the sun. Contemplating these things makes you realize how powerless you are to make things "turn out ok." So you have to let go of the idea that you can achieve some predetermined "telos," or that humanity as a whole could. This is what I meant by being ok with letting life be "meaningless."

    As much as possible, obviously, we should prevent unnecessary suffering in ourselves and others. Figuring out how to do that without causing more suffering is a big trick, and the work of a lifetime.

  8. So true! The work of a lifetime AND the most meaningful work I can imagine! :-)

    So I think we agree; there is no inherent meaning in the tsunami or earthquakes or waking up in the morning. The meaning is in the conscious action, not the result. Our individual and collective response to suffering redeems the suffering. The suffering itself is empty of meaning.

    When I awake each morning, and renew my vows, I create meaning, and 'my' universe, the one "I" live in, now has meaning. AND it is irrelevant whether my intentions bear the fruit I'd like or not.

    For instance, I may demonstrate for peace and to prevent war. The bombs may fall, but that doesn't negate the meaning of my action. So again, I am not implying that some 'telos' is necessary or even worthwhile postulating.

  9. Thank you, Shannon and Frank Jude, for your conversation here, addressing THE central question of suffering in the world and what, if anything, we, I, can do about it. I was raised in the Catholic Church, which seemed to answer the "suffering question" redemptively: the redeeming social value of suffering is that it can get you to heaven if you suffer correctly. Or at least that is one interpretation of how the Church views suffering.

    Which was not particularly satisfying to me, and is a main reason I am drawn toward the Buddha and wish to find out more about his teachings about all of this.

    Given my experience, I wish, Frank, you would talk a little more about how "our individual and collective response to suffering redeems the suffering," as you state above.

    It's the "redeems" I am having trouble with. Your next sentence makes me think you are using "redeems" in the sense of "gives meaning to" or "gives A meaning to," which are two different things, I think.

    It's also the "meanwhile" that I am (always) having trouble with, as in: I have made it meaningful for me; meanwhile, the people in Haiti and Pakistan are living in squalor and many of them probably starving to death.

    I can send them loving-kindness and the Red Cross hundreds of dollars (two possible responses), but the squalor and the starvation will continue. Intellectually, I understand how that is "irrelevant," but not in my gut.

  10. Hello Mary,

    Thanks for joining in!

    In responding to your comment and questions, I first went to my trusty dictionary and found these relevant meaning of the word "redeem":

    1. to free from what distresses or harms, as in to free from captivity by payment of a ransom; 2. to extricate from or help to overcome something detrimental ; 3. to change for the better; to convert into something of value; to make good; 4. to atone for; to offset the bad effect of; 5. to make worthwhile

    These I believe all make sense from a Buddhist perspective. One meaning, "to free from the consequences of sin" I believe is mostly irrelevant from a Buddhist perspective as the Buddha taught we cannot escape the consequences of our actions. That does not mean, however, that we cannot 'redeem' our actions according to the other definitions.

    One example: the serial-killer Angulimala, upon hearing the Buddha's teaching, renounced his killing and became a monk. He practiced so diligently that he became an Arhant (fully enlightened), and yet he 'suffered' a terrible beating when family members of those he had killed revenged themselves upon him. The Buddha spoke of that as bearing the karmic consequences. Even bearing them with equanimity and compassion for those who were beating him 'redeemed' his suffering in the moment.

    SO, I firmly believe (because of the effects I have experienced through my practice) that my response to various life situations has:

    1. freed me and my loved ones, and even 'strangers' I interact with from distress my actions could have caused had I not attempted to live mindfully

    2. extricated or freed myself and others from suffering I have caused or may have caused through diligent practice

    3. made life better for myself and those I live with and interact with

    4. has offset to varying degrees suffering I did cause (I think of atonement as at-one-ment, meaning, as I wrote previously, that in 'owning' my actions and responses, I take responsibility for them and do not blame others)

    5. and thus have made my life worthwhile.

    The emails I get from those who have read my book; from those who have read articles I've written; and from many of those who have attended my courses, workshops and retreats tells me that I have had the great fortune to touch the lives of others and help free them from some of their suffering. To be able to do so; but even simply to be present to really SEE the tree in my front yard; the smile on my neighbor's child's face; to empathize with the suffering of those who suffer gives meaning to my life.

    And to your last point: I have already said that in coming to see that there is meaning in my response to the suffering, and that while I may work to benefit 'all beings,' there will always be 'squalor and starvation' as long as the conditions for them are there, I generally feel able to go on. This knowledge of cause and effect does indeed mostly keep me from despair. And when I find myself succumbing to despair, my practice reminds me of this truth, and I find renewed strength to go on. This is why the Buddha includes equanimity in his definition of true love. It is only attachment to results that leads to despair. And the Buddha's teaching is about letting go of the attachment that leads to suffering.

    I wouldn't use the word "irrelevant" necessarily to refer to this understanding of equanimity, unless by that word choice you mean the preference of my ego -- which is indeed irrelevant at the ultimate level. Perhaps Suzuki Roshi said it best:

    "We say, to shine one corner of the world -- just one corner. If you shine one corner, then people around you will feel better. You will always feel as if you are carrying an umbrella to protect people from heat or rain."

    And when asked about the nature of nirvana, he replied:
    "Seeing one thing through to the end."

    frank jude

  11. I've been doing the practice daily this month...and I find that it is helping me to stay more aware of the moment not just at awakening in the morning and at bedtime but throughout the day. My feeling is that the "bookend" effect carries throughout the day.

  12. Susan,

    That's wonderful!!! Has this been a completely spontaneous outcome, or do you do anything throughout the day to purposefully recall the intention of the morning gatha?

    In any event, I think you've hit upon the depth of purpose of this seemingly simple practice!

    frank jude