Sunday, January 30, 2011


For this month’s Daily Practice, I thought I’d share a practice with you that I have been doing for close to 20 years: Telephone Meditation. Then I thought that rather than limit it to just the telephone, I’d expand it to include e-mail and texting (which, though done on a phone, is still a different medium for communication).

First, let’s review Telephone Meditation. For many of us, the phone is at times a distraction, at times a task-master and oppressor. When the phone rings, many of us have been conditioned to jump and answer on the first ring. Yet, we often find ourselves distracted during the phone conversation when we do so, because we haven’t stopped or turned away from what we had been doing when the phone rang, and we aren’t really fully present to the person on the other end of the line. We are caught in a kind of in-between place, and whenever we have called someone who is in a similar situation, we can find ourselves irritated with the half-hearted attention we are getting from the person we called.

So, next time the phone rings, stop what you are doing, and take a breath or two or three, depending on how slowly you breathe. Just stop, breathe in, breathe out, mindfully pick up the phone and answer. You will be offering your full presence to whomever has called. You will have stopped being a slave to the phone.

The practice is similar whenever we hear our phone signal that we’ve received a text message, or when our computer ‘pings’ the arrival of an e-mail. Stop what you’re doing, take three breaths and then read the message or e-mail. Again, you will be more fully present, undistracted, and free.

If you wish, before answering any of these “invitations” to communication, you can recite the following gatha, a variation on the “Listening to the Mindfulness Bell Gatha:”

Listen, listen.
This sound brings me back to my true home.
In the here; in the now.
This is the ultimate in which I dwell.

AND, when it comes time to make a phone call, send a message or e-mail, take a few breaths, and recite to yourself the following gatha before making the call or hitting “Send:”

Words can travel across thousands of miles.
May my words create mutual understanding and love.
May they be as beautiful as gems,
As lovely as flowers.

And please, share how – if at all – your communication is effected by this simple practice this month.

poep sa

Saturday, January 29, 2011

January Round-Up

There's just two more days of this month and the "sitting challenge," before we move on to a whole new Daily Practice. I'd love to hear from those of you who had committed to sitting every day as to how it went. What kind of resistances did you find? Were you able to begin again if you missed a day or two or three? What keeps you from sitting when it's something you want to do?

I'll be posting a new practice for February tomorrow morning, but I do hope that you will continue to sit every day. And remember, consistency is perhaps more important than the quantity of time you put in. While it seems that for most of us, a good solid 15 - 20 minutes is a good minimum for touching the stillness that is possible to touch in sitting practice, it is still better to sit every day for five minutes than for one or two or three times a week for an hour.

Thank you for practicing!

frank jude

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Book Club: Brahma Viharas, Emptiness and Ethics: Conclusion by Christopher Key Chapple


In a way, this penultimate section, being the most personal, is one I feel less inclined to comment upon. After all, each person’s yoga is ultimately uniquely their own. And after all is said, I am moved by the examples Chapple is willing to share in this section.

Interestingly, the first example he gives as an example of the Brahma Viharas, from the more Classical Yoga approach of categorizing questioners leads to a similar response I would tend toward having from the broader understanding of compassion, empathetic joy, friendliness and equanimity. When I find myself confronted with an aggressive questioner (thankfully, relatively infrequently), I remind myself that perhaps the person is venting anger or criticism because they are suffering, perhaps the teaching is hitting them in a tender spot and they are resistant; I try to connect with my wish that the person be happy; I am happy if they are comfortable with their own understanding and/or practice; and finally, I remind myself that whether they are happy or suffering, that ultimately they alone are the heirs of their karma and only they can make themselves happy or unhappy.

Chapple’s example of “emptiness” practice takes it from the rarified heights of philosophy into a very down-to-earth understanding. I appreciate this, but also think it may overly simplify the radical liberating power of this teaching. Seeing emptiness of oneself is an important step; we must then go on to see all beings as empty of self, for it is this that opens the heart to unconditional compassion.

And finally, the ethical teachings are truly best understood as lived experience. This is why I appreciate Thich Nhat Hanh referring to the Five Precepts as “Mindfulness Trainings.” Through keeping them in mind throughout the daily activities we join in, we grow in mindfulness, understanding and compassion. As mindfulness, understanding and compassion grows, our lives become more exemplary of the trainings.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Suffering And The End Of Suffering

The title of today's post is a quote attributed to the Buddha, said to have often repeated, "I teach only one thing: suffering and the end of suffering." Some smarty-pants once said, "Isn't that two things?" But obviously, if you understand -- truly understand -- suffering, you understand its causes and thus its ending.

Susan wrote asking: "Help me here with this idea of the end of suffering being the goal. I have turned that around over and over and can't seem to grasp what that would mean. The human condition is so completely tied up with suffering and the idea of suffering. Bearing suffering well is a virtue in our culture. Heroic...."  I can't imagine a being free from suffering. Can you? So it struck me this morning on the cushion reciting "May I be happy. May I be peaceful. May I be safe. May I be free from suffering." What am I saying? I look around and I think that really I don't suffer from much. Relatively, my sufferings are really nothing. But the conditions still exist for great suffering. I am not grieving the loss of loved one. I have my health. I have a home. I have a job. But any of these things could change instantly and I would suffer. But I suppose that sort of suffering is temporary. It is certainly to be expected and to bear it well is the most that I can hope for. So is the freedom from suffering on some other level? Is it an attainable goal? Is it the "holy grail"? 
So again - back to 'What would freedom of suffering be like'?"


Now, part of my response hinges on what exactly do you/we/the tradition mean by "suffering?" The word generally translated as "suffering," duhkha, literally means "wrong" or "bad hole." It would be used to describe a wheel misaligned on its axle. Others have tried to avoid the histrionic and dramatic sounding "suffering" by translating duhkha as "discontent," "dis-ease," "dis-satisfaction," "painful" and "stress." The Yoga Tradition -- including Buddhism -- asserts that life, the human condition is duhkha. And when we turn away from the 'over-the-top' sounding "suffering," and think of it as stressful, painful or unsatisfying, who can argue?

Now, in the earliest Buddhist understanding, a yogi can transcend and end duhkha by completely eradicating the causes of duhkha: craving, aversion and ignorance. An arhat is a being who has 'gone all the way' and 'done what must be done' to purify his or her mind of these 'taints' and thus is free from duhkha. Traditionally, as birth itself is understood as duhkha, this was also taken to mean that the arhat would never be reborn into samsara again.

Others, who reject the teaching of rebirth, offer that duhkha is only present when there is grasping in the mind. For instance, the traditional understanding seems to say that birth, aging and death are inherently duhkha. Thus, the practitioner wants to end having to be reborn again and again. A more modernist understanding is that birth, aging and death are only duhkha when the mind is grasping and resisting. If the mind is not grasping, then these phenomena are not duhkha.

Finally, there is a radical, naturalist understanding that says duhkha is inherent in life. All life is afflicted. Thus duhkha can never end or be escaped from. However, how we relate to it will determine whether we live a free, unbound life or if we 'suffer' through life's unavoidable challenges.

This is a short, perhaps simplistic response. If you are interested in a more developed review of the concept of duhkha and some various interpretations, please check out my essay on duhkha and the Four Noble Truths at my other blog: Zen Naturalism.

Thank you!
frank jude

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Brahma-Vihara, Emptiness and Ethics by Christopher Key Chapple (Part Three)

In this third section of his essay, Chapple examines the similarities between the Buddhist and Classical Yoga traditions – and points out how these ethical principles are shared with the Jain tradition as well. He argues that the intent of ethical practice is constant across these three yogic cultures: release from suffering. I think this is an important, and often over-looked point. The ethical teachings and practice across the board of all yogic traditions is not about simply being a “good” person; it’s not about following some external code. Rather, all yogic ethical teaching has moksha, freedom as its purpose. In this sense, yogic ethics are ‘transcendental’ and purpose driven; in a sense ‘teleological’ or ‘soteriological.’

An interesting point of distinction between Buddhist Yoga and Classical Yoga and Jainism is the emphasis in Buddhism on “non-intoxication” rather than “nonpossession” or, as I prefer, “non-grasping.” Of course one  can “stretch” the implications of “non-intoxication” to include “non-grasping:” in intoxication, we grasp after another way of perceiving, experiencing and being. However, the purpose of including “non-intoxication” as an ethical principle both high-lights the emphasis on maintaining clarity of mind that is paramount in the Buddhist tradition, as well as the understanding that the other ethical principles are more likely to be broken while in an intoxicated state, so by maintaining sobriety, we are more likely to successfully practice non-harm, non-stealing, sexual responsibility and truthfulness. A final point that is necessary to understand is that we should not fall into the trap of thinking of intoxication as being only about drugs. We can easily – all too easily! – intoxicate ourselves with television, gossip, Facebook, novels, exercise, yoga-practice, and even meditation! As Thich Nhat Hanh says, if we meditate to avoid our suffering, then we are using it like a drug.

I am less interested in Chapple’s attempt to parallel the six paramitas with the niyama. Overall, it seems like a bit of a forced stretch, though I can understand how some might find it interesting.

One of our correspondents commented on her wish for more practical applications of the concepts Chapple writes about in this chapter. The next section of Chapple’s essay is entitled “Practice,” and I will save comment about it till tomorrow.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Book Club: Emptiness: Shunya and Shunyata by Christopher Key Chapple

Forgive me for not getting this out the next day; things got a bit 'hairy' here in Tucson on January 8th.

This is a fairly short section, but we mustn’t take that as indicative of the importance of this subject! The teaching on ‘emptiness’ is arguably the most important among the teachings of the Buddha. Chapple draws the similarities with Patanjali well, though other scholars argue that Patanjali’s use of “empty” is not the same as the Buddha’s meaning.

That aside, I think it important to keep in mind that the word most often used by the Buddha in the Pali Canon is “empty,” and that in time we find the use of the word “emptiness” growing in importance. However, when a word goes from adjective to noun, we can all too easily fall into the error of reification, and indeed this has happened repeatedly in the history of Buddhism.

So, here I’ll take a page from Thich Nhat Hanh. In his commentary on the Heart Sutra, which Chapple quotes in this section, Thay says we should not take the bodhisattva Avolokiteshvara at his word without asking first, “Empty of what?” All phenomena are empty of self-nature is the response. That is, no phenomena exists from it’s own side, independent, autonomous, persistent, unchanging. There is no ‘essence’ behind, above or below phenomena. However, many Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhists have reified this description of phenomena as empty into the ‘emptiness’ of phenomena being their essence. So it is important to remember that not only form is empty, but also emptiness is empty!

As Chapple points out toward the end of this section, ultimately there is a major distinction between Patanjali and the Buddha, despite all their similarities. Chapple says Patanjali suggests that the realization of the empty nature of phenomena delivers one to a higher state of awareness, which the Buddha denies. I think this is both unclear and perhaps not fully accurate. The Buddha of the Pali Canon, at least seems to posit some kind of awareness that is present in the state of nibbana, but the Buddha strongly asserts that even nibbana is empty of ‘self.’ That is, while all phenomena are seen as impermanent, unsatisfactory and not-self, nibanna is permanent and ultimate satisfaction, but remains ‘not-self.’ The state of liberation for Patanjali, kaivalya is said to be that which occurs when Purusha realizes its ‘self-nature.’

And though this is a small quibble, I do want to make clear that the Buddha did not proclaim that suffering results from desire. The word he used, tanha, meaning ‘thirst’ is more accurately understood to refer to the more urgent grasping and clinging to objects of desire than desire itself. In fact, the Buddha said desire for liberation was necessary for anyone to even consider yoga practice!

Friday, January 7, 2011

Book Club: Brahma Viharas, Emptiness and Ethics by Christopher Key Chapple

“Brahma-Vihara, Emptiness, and Ethics”
by Christopher Key Chapple

Well, the holidays have passed, and I hope those of you who have been reading Michael Stone’s Freeing the Body, Freeing The Mind with me as part of this ‘virtual book club’ are still sticking with me in this new year!

Christopher Key Chapple is a professor of Indic and Comparative Theology and one who has done much wonderful work on Patanjali and other Yogic texts, so again I was looking forward to reading his contribution, especially as just last year I had written over 7,000 words on the Brahma-Viharas for Yoga Journal. As Chapple begins his chapter, he points out that along with the Viharas, emptiness and ethics are “three points of contact between Buddhism and classical Yoga.”

However, I was much surprised – and a bit dismayed – to find that Chapple takes the Classical Yoga approach to the Brahma-Viharas and implies that this is the same understanding in the Buddhist Yoga tradition. The translation from Yoga-Sutra I.33 he uses reads:

Be friendly with the happy, compassionate toward those who suffer. Celebrate the success of the virtuous, be even-minded toward those who lack virtue.

While I was happy to see how he translates upeksha as “even-minded” instead of the (to my mind) awful “disinterest” and “disregard” favored by many other yogis from the (Hindu) Classical Yoga tradition such as B.K.S. Iyengar and Swami Satchidananda, I felt dismay that he takes that tradition’s contextual conditions as crucial and central to the practice of the Four Brahma-Viharas! 

In fact, in the Buddhist Yoga tradition, these four qualities are also often referred to as the Four Immeasurables, and are to be practiced toward all beings, as we see in the translations of people like Georg Feurstein and Chip Hartranft who translate this same sutra thus:

The projection of friendliness, compassion, gladness and equanimity towards all objects -- <be they> joyful, sorrowful, meritorious or demeritorious -- <bring about> the pacification of consciousness.  – Feuerstein

Consciousness settles as one radiates friendliness, compassion, delight, and equanimity toward all things, whether pleasant, or painful, good or bad.  – Hartranft

I hasten to say that I am not saying the classical tradition is ‘wrong.’ For the Classical Yoga emphasis on one’s own ‘inner peace,’ cultivating these states of mind is a way of restraining or reversing what Patanjali calls vikshepa, the tendency of the mind to be distracted and outwardly directed. Patanjali tells us that when we react haphazardly or callously to what people do around us, inner disturbance is the result. These four attitudes combat that disturbance and bring us closer to a state of balanced equilibrium.
When we see happy people, cultivating a friendly attitude toward them will help forestall feelings of jealousy and envy. When we encounter those who are suffering, we should compassionately do what we can to help—for our own sake as much as for the person who is suffering. "Our goal is to keep the serenity of our minds. Whether our mercy will help that person or not, by our own feeling of mercy, at least we are helped," Satchidananda says.
Appreciating and delighting in the qualities of virtuous people will inspire us to cultivate such virtues ourselves. And finally, when we are faced with those we deem nonvirtuous, the classical yoga tradition teaches that we should strive to have an indifferent attitude toward them. Often, we indulge in judging and criticizing those who we feel are misguided. This hardly helps us maintain a serene state of mind! Commentators in the classical yoga tradition point out that the yogi should not divert attention from his or her own practice in order to try to reform those who are unlikely to heed advice. As Satchidananda points out, "If you try to advise them, you will lose your peace."

However, the broader view is the one emphasized in the Buddhist tradition, where the brahmaviharas, as I mentioned above, are also known as "the Four Limitless Ones" and "the Four Immeasurables," reflecting Buddhist yoga's emphasis on social relationships and the interdependent nature of all beings. Both of these perspectives are valuable; reflecting on the intention and purpose behind each gives greater depth to our own practice. I only wish that in the desire to emphasize the similarities between the two Yoga traditions of Classical Yoga and Buddhist Yoga, we don’t blur, bury or soft-pedal the real differences.

Other than this, I do find Chapple’s emphasis on the significance that the terms for each of these qualities have a feminine ending very interesting! Patanjali is often criticized (most often correctly, in my view) as being male-centric, so it is helpful to see a way in which the importance of the feminine principle can be found in the practices Patanjali offers.

Tomorrow I will post on the section on “emptiness,” but for now, I’d love to hear from those of you who have been reading along any thoughts you have about the Four Brahma-Viharas. For those of you who are interested in reading my articles on them from Yoga Journal, here are the links:

Sunday, January 2, 2011

JANUARY DAILY PRACTICE: Some words of encouragement

If you are relatively new to sitting meditation practice, it may help to consider the following: Create a comfortable, private space to sit. It could be a corner of your bedroom, a walk-in closet or wherever you can have privacy. After even only a few days, the consistency of sitting in the same place will lead to a greater ease in letting go of other concerns and settling into 'just sitting.' The same thing goes with time: it's best, if possible, to sit at the same time(s) each day.

Sit so that your knees are lower than the top of your pelvis (the iliac crest). If you are sitting on a cushion, sit toward the front of it so that your pelvis tilts slightly so that your lumbar spine maintains its natural curve. If you are sitting on the floor, and your knees do not come to the ground, bring the ground up to your knees by supporting your outer thighs with rolled blankets or yoga blocks. You want to feel completely supported. As Patanjali describes asana, your posture should be stable and easeful.

Let your jaw be relaxed; perhaps your lips are even slightly parted. Eyes can be closed or partially open, but in either event, have your eyes rolled downward, as this helps stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system responsible for the relaxation response.

Rest your hands on your thighs, palms up or down, whichever you prefer OR use a traditional meditation mudra.

Decide before you sit how long you plan to sit and then sit there that long! Don't cut it short 'because it's not working' or because you're bored or think of something better to do! If at the end of the time, you'd like to sit longer, that's fine.

Sitting quietly, feel what is sitting. Feel the body 'in the body.'
Observe the ever-changing sensations and see if you can stay at the level of sensation and not rush to judge or mentally describe them.

Go into the sensation and see if you can realize the subtle presence of that which senses. Feel the sensation within the sensation.
Rest in just sitting.

Can you locate that which senses? Is there a defined boundary of that which is aware?

Let this be simple. Don't try to be 'spiritual.' Just sit free of any inner seeking for attainment. Let go of strategizing and simply be present to your life breath by breath. Practice radical acceptance.

Remember, there's room for all of it on your cushion (or chair).

frank jude

Saturday, January 1, 2011


For the beginning of a new year (and new decade at that) I think it could benefit all of us to get back to basics. A daily practice of sitting meditation has been shown to offer numerable benefits – most recently, a study shows that meditators age slower than the general public, most likely because of higher levels of telomerase, an enzyme that has to do with longevity.

And yet, though we know sitting is “good” for us, we find resistance to actually doing it! But the other day I read the following from Cheri Huber to my Mindfulness Yoga class:

Sitting in meditation opens our hearts. What wants to sit? Who we really are. What wants to be still? Stillness. The quiet, the peace, the well-being wants to be with itself, wants to experience itself. So when we sit, even if it’s a fidgeting, wiggling, hate-every-moment-of-it sit, what is sitting is that deepest part of us.

Continuing to sit reinforces that part of us who wants to sit. It also reveals the nature of the ego onslaught. Seeing that, our hearts open a little bit, and as our hearts open, there is more kindness. There is more ability to be present, to be open to and aware of something other than the conditioned structure that is maintaining itself against the inherent goodness of life.

It can certainly seem as if the person who wants to sit disappears as soon as we hit the cushion. We are bombarded with everything in the world, all our conditioned patterns, all our resistance, all our suffering. But that is all right, because there is room on that cushion for all that to be there, along with who we really are.

I love this passage because it reminds me of what Dogen Zengi says: that our sitting is already the expression of our inherent buddha-nature. We do not sit to become buddha, but express our awakening nature by and through sitting – even if a storm of emotion and thought is also happening!

So, if you have been thinking of starting a sitting practice; or if you have one that feels ‘stalled’; or if you sit regularly, let January be the month you really commit to ‘just sit.’ Don’t even think of it as something special: “I’m meditating now.” You don’t have to sit on the floor. Sit on a chair if your uncomfortable sitting on the floor. Don’t make a big deal of it. Just sit.

Take the next 30 days as a “Sitting Challenge.” You can commit to whatever you wish, but stick to it. Your commitment might be to sit one hour a day, either in one 60-minute block or two 30-minute sits or even three 20-minute sits. You can commit to sitting for ten minutes or even five minutes. At the very least, you can commit, as Jack Kornfield suggests, to ‘get your ass on the cushion.’ You will most likely find that getting your ass on the cushion is the hardest part, but once you do get onto the cushion (or chair) you’ll find you can indeed sit still for at least five minutes!

Please share your experiences, insights and questions.

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meaness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
-- Rumi