Buddha's Brain

"Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without." ~ Buddha

Iron Mountains of Fear

Posted on January 19, 2015

My Teacher Sudharma once explained that life should never be hindered by fear. It seems the older we get, the more fearful. Children rarely question climbing a tree…..but something changes in us. Perhaps our minds become overwhelmed with what might happen….we let fear take control.
For all the horror and trauma that terrorism creates, its lasting power resides in the largely irrational fear we create and then magnify with our minds. Today, statistics show that airplanes are twenty-two times safer than automobiles, yet many people have stopped flying because of the fear that the September 11 attacks engendered. We are afraid of death by biological attacks, yet in America some 20,000 people die of the flu each year, and only half of those most at risk get vaccinated. Clearly, the fear of terrorism will not be appeased by providing information, rationalizations, or statistics. It resides in a deep aspect of our consciousness. In order to work with it, we need to understand how it develops.
The force of so many horrific recent events (beheadings, schoolgirls being kidnapped, students being killed in Pakistan, Ebola, attacks in Paris….I could go on) has created a series of reactions that many of us are going through.
The first is a numbness precipitated by the trauma to our bodies and minds. At this stage, all we can do is sit with the numbness until we’re ready to open up and let our feelings arise. When they do, we need to allow them to come up and not suppress them. Because these feelings will be powerful, we may be able to deal with them only briefly. That’s okay. We then need to consciously let them go and return to the center of our being, to our still point. After some time, we can begin to work with our feelings again. Depending on the intensity of the trauma, we may need to repeat this process over months or even years.
Some people may have to deal with anger. When we’re overwhelmed, an alternative to going numb is to become angry. We set up a target to deflect our feelings away from ourselves, thus avoiding any responsibility for them. Yet, like fear, we create anger by a series of thoughts that result in a particular emotional and physiological state. Anger doesn’t just happen to us. If we’re able to catch an angry thought as it’s budding, we can let it go. The same is true of despair or hopelessness. And when letting go is too difficult, a good medicine for dealing with these emotions is to reach out and help others, healing them and ourselves.
This is not an easy process to go through. The strength to engage it arises out of our meditation practice, our vows to awaken, our commitment to wisdom and compassion, and our spiritual fearlessness.   The fearlessness of the great spiritual teachers like Moses, Jesus, Gandhi, Saint Theresa, Buddha, and Bodhidharma was the fearlessness of the spiritual warrior. Different from stoicism, naïveté, or arrogance, this fearlessness is selfless, generous, and compassionate. Fearlessness is not a matter of ignoring fear, but of really acknowledging it and being empowered by it. We’re confident that we can deal with whatever presents itself to us, regardless of the outcome.
In the martial arts, falling down and getting up are not two things; they are one reality. Falling down…..failure…..is a dimension of returning to one’s feet…..success. Instead of seeing these two aspects as inseparable, most of us set them against each other, fearing them both. And so we spend our lives caught between two iron mountains: We’re afraid of dying, and we’re afraid of really living. How do we break free from this prison to advance without hesitation?
When we do not separate ourselves from our fear, we transcend it. Each one of us is born with this same kind of fearlessness, but we need to realize it as our own lives, the life of all buddhas, all beings.
We are living in painful times. From the point of view of the Buddha-dharma, crises are also opportunities to transform our lives. We can shy away from the difficulties, hoping that if we ignore them long enough, they will fade into the cobwebs of our mind. Or we can convince ourselves that we are dealing with them in our practice, while simply suppressing them. Until we honestly go through the process of working with our feelings as they arise, they will just fester within us, waiting to resurface.
We can choose to get lost in our personal terror, but the fact remains that we are the only ones who can heal fear, anger, and pain by the way we use our minds. The ten thousand things, all the barriers, all the peace and the joy of this world, are nothing but the self. The question is, how do we understand it? Now, more than ever, we need to trust ourselves and let the years we have put into our practice come alive.

The Real Scientist

Posted on January 8, 2015

The Buddha was the foremost scientist of mind and matter (nama and rupa). What makes him a peerless scientist is his discovery that tanha, or craving, and by extension, aversion…..arises from vedana, or sensation on the body.
Before the time of the Buddha, little if any importance was given to bodily sensation. In fact, it was the centrality of bodily sensation that was the Buddha’s great discovery in his quest to determine the root cause of suffering and the means to its cessation. Before the Buddha, India’s spiritual masters emphasized teachings that encouraged people to turn away from sensory objects and ignore the sensations that contact with them engenders.
But the Buddha, a real scientist, examined sensation more closely. He discovered that when we come into contact with a sense-object through one of the six sense doors (ears, eyes, nose, tongue, body, mind), we cling to the sensation it creates, giving rise to tanha (wanting it to stay and to increase) and aversion (wanting it to cease). The mind then reacts with thoughts of either “I want” or “I do not want.” Buddha discovered that everything that arises in the mind arises with the sensations on the body and that these sensations are the material we have to work with.
The first step, then, is to train the mind to become so sharp and sensitive that it will learn to detect even the subtlest sensations. That job is done by anapana…..the practice of awareness of the breath…..on the small area under the nostrils, above the upper lip. If we concentrate on this area, the mind becomes sharper and sharper, subtler and subtler. This is the way we begin to become aware of every sort of sensation on the body.
Next, we feel the sensations but don’t react to them. We can learn to maintain this equanimity towards sensations by understanding their transitory nature. Whether pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral, gross or subtle, every sensation shares the same characteristic: it arises and passes away, arises and passes away. It is this arising and passing that we have to experience through practice, not just accept as truth because Buddha said so, not just accept because intellectually it seems logical enough to us. We must experience sensation’s nature, understand its flux, and learn not to react to it. As we reach deeper states of awareness, we will be able to detect subtler and subtler sensations, or vibrations of greater rapidity, arising and passing with greater speed. In these deep states, our mind will become so calm, so tranquil, so pure, that we will immediately recognize any impurity accompanying the agitated state and make the choice to refrain from reacting adversely. It becomes clear to us that we can’t harm anybody without first defiling ourselves with emotions like hate or anger or lust. If we do this, we will come to an experiential understanding of the deep truth of anicca, or impermanence. As we observe sensations without reacting to them, the impurities in our minds lose their strength and cannot overpower us.
The Buddha was not merely giving sermons; he was offering a technique to help people reach a state in which they could feel the harm they do to themselves. Once we see this, sila, or ethics, follows naturally. Just as we pull our hand from a flame, we step back from harming ourselves and others.
It is a wonderful discovery that by observing physical sensations on the body, we can eradicate the roots of the defilements of mind. As we practice more, negative emotions will become far more conspicuous to us much earlier; as soon as they arise, we will become aware of sensations and have the opportunity to make ethical choices. But first we need to begin with what is present to us deeply in our minds at the level of sensation. Otherwise, we will keep ourselves and others miserable for a very long time.


Posted on December 22, 2014


This past weekend, I had the great honor of hosting a very special visitor to our humble monastery for our annual Interfaith Peace Ceremony. Her name is Gitanjali and she came a long way from Mumbai, India to visit with us, and also relatives she has not seen in decades. It was her first time in America and her excitement gleamed…..the life and freedom so obvious to us here in the US, was pouring into all her senses.

Gitanjali and I met earlier this year in Ladakh, India…a small Himalayan village that is also a “Protected Area” in India. She was there to assist with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama’s Kalachakra ceremony and was a part of the translation committee for the United Nations. We seemed to connect immediately.

Gitanjali is an aid worker for UNICEF and works closely with Kailash Satyarthi, child activist and 2014 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. Her work is inspiring, tireless and truly from the heart.

After yesterday’s Interfaith Ceremony, Gitanjali asked if it would be possible to go to the town. She wished to find a small souvenir of the first place she visited in America. Later in the afternoon her family would take her to their home in New Jersey, so her time in New York was very limited.

As we walked the streets of Cold Spring, NY, she explained that she didn’t get to walk like a New Yorker in Mumbai, striding along fast and free, everyone going everywhere without fear, or so it seemed. People seemed determined…pushy and of course frantically shopping for their upcoming Christmas events. “You don’t need Google Earth to find the way?” I explained there was no need as the town is relatively small and simple, but her perception of this small NY town was that which she sees on TV…Manhattan. As we walked the streets of Cold Spring, Gitanjali seemed to lose some of the excitement in her eyes….she had already been pushed and shoved two to three times and when asked a local vendor a question about pricing, was rudely referred to the back of a line that was about 35 people deep and spilled out onto the sidewalk. She placed the item back on the shelf and we proceeded to leave. As we strolled closer to the center of town, Gitanjali seemed to be drawn in by a shop commemorating the National September 11 Memorial. There were photos and videos of the actual Memorial in Manhattan…..“We were all so scared when it happened,” she said simply. “We thought that if it happened in America, then it could happen to us.” And it did happen there, in Mumbai in 2008.

We lingered at the Memorial Center, watching a video of the water spilling down into the two huge fountain pools that fill the footprints of the twin towers. The pools themselves are dark and still and seemingly bottomless, so that it feels as if the water is spilling down into mystery, into stillness. We stood still for a time. “Now they are all together,” said Gitanjali, opening her fingers in a gesture of release. At that moment, I thought of something I heard in Ladakh, where I first met her. As we learn to practice selflessness, we become empty in a way that is full of life. “We go from emptiness to oneness.”

As we stepped out of the Memorial Center, the noise of bustling shoppers invaded our senses…..people pushed and shoved us out-of-the-way. One woman literally shoved Gitanjali backward as she obliviously made her way to the next boutique. “It seems a busy and anxious time here,” Gitanjali said quietly. “Such busy-ness…..even when one does manage to peel oneself away from the centrifugal force of life and sit to meditate, we can still feel the momentum. It’s as if we are afraid to be alone with ourselves, dreading what we may see.”

Karma literally means deeds, movement and action, and sometimes when we are still we can feel the momentum of it. We can feel like Scrooge’s partner Marley’s ghost, wearing the chains we forged in life…..caught in habits of thought and reactivity that we may not even believe in. Being still is a quietly daring act. “Abandon all hope,” a Teacher of mine once said. When sit down, we abandon the hope that we can escape from our lives. Yet when we dare to do this, we discover a deeper kind of hope or faith or aspiration. It is the hope that we can stop running, that we can be still and know that we are meant to be whole and part of a greater whole. Most of us have felt this at moments. It feels as if we come into a new alignment, as if we put down the chains of what we used to be or think we are and breathe free, in a loving exchange with life.

The ancient word “veda” which was so important in the Buddha’s time (and long before) means both to know and to feel. It is knowledge coupled with the feeling of knowing. Last week in our sangha, someone asked if it was possible to feel rather than think, since thinking is so quick to claim credit for, well, everything. There is a kind of higher feeling that leads to the joy of knowing the truth and more. When we sit down to meditate, sometimes, we can be afraid of what we will feel. We can get caught up in a force field of thinking and inner posturing and reactivity. It can feel as if our ego is defending us to the death. We think important thoughts, engage in impassioned inner arguments, we picture ourselves engaged in urgent tasks. What is it we so desperately don’t want to feel? Vulnerable, perhaps, or helpless or unseen or something without words.

Yet when we dare to be still and let the feelings come, even if we fear they will pounce on us like panthers, we find something surprising. Sometimes it’s easy to see that we are almost always in movement….almost always moving away from what is, always planning, improving, even trying to make what is stay. When we dare to be still, we stop our karma. What does this mean? It means we slow down our actions long enough to be mindful. We can adjust our future karma in this moment. It means that in this moment, we understand what “celebrating a holiday” truly means…..being kind to others, our family, ourselves. It means we understand that there are others in the world who are truly, truly suffering and who are not celebrating. It means we aren’t sentenced to live out the same old thoughts and fears. We discover that there is a force of love and compassion that comes with feeling the pain we fear in the same way a hand flies up to cradle a bumped head. And we discover that things are not as we fear, that we are not alone, that awareness and stillness and compassion are not just a words but forces, that we each have the capacity to hold. As you go through your Holiday week, please try to remember that the world is a big place…a place where many lack the freedoms you and I may take for granted.

This morning, I meditated in silence. The monastery was/is so cold in the winter months that we often wear winter coats. At the end of the meditation, I bowed, including several full bows, head to the floor. There is something about touching your head to the stone floor of a monastery that reminds you that another order exists, that another alignment with the truth of life is possible, one that doesn’t place thinking…or at least our frantic, ego-defending kind of thinking…on top.


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