Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Eightfold Path, In Order

The Eightfold Path is the outline for a buddhist's spiritual practice, encompassing views, techniques and actions. What I learned last night at Craig Swogger's lecture at Dharma Punx was that there is a general order in which it is executed. The Eightfold Path is typically grouped into three trainings:

1st Training -- Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood
These steps have to do with one's external behaviors. One simplifies and purifies one's life not because a higher power commands it, but because leading a simple moral life where one lives responsibly and guilt-free creates a stable mental foundation for the practitioner in their spiritual practice.

2nd Training -- Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration, Right Effort
This second training pertains specifically to meditation technique. One becomes an expert at getting into, staying, and getting out of calm, blissful meditative states. This, along with the first training, gives the practitioner a stable mental foundation, which is very important because the 3rd and final training is the toughest to approach.

3rd Training - Right Orientation, Right Motivation
This final training is a shift in one's deep-seated paradigm for life, and includes changing one's essential motivations for living and one's views on reality. The buddhist view of reality is unflinching -- it includes the impermanence of all things, the insubstantiality of the self, and the Four Noble Truths which says that life is suffering caused by our clinging to ourselves and things that are impermanent. But it's not enough to give lip service to these beliefs, they need to be understood and felt deeply, which can cause great distress, or on the other extreme apathy, to someone who is untrained in meditation and undisciplined in their personal life. So the 1st and 2nd Trainings provide a foundation for realizing the 3rd Training.

When the beliefs and attitudes of the 3rd Training are held by one who is able to be happy and peaceful anyway because of one's mental and physical discipline, then one achieves a deep-rooted, untouchable peace and happiness that buddhism calls Enlightenment. After all, if one can learn to be happy and peaceful in a world one fully accepts as impermanent and insubstatial, then there's not much the world can do to make life anything other than happy and peaceful. It is a very difficult thing to do, but even if one doesn't achieve enlightenment, one can make his life pretty damn nice, whatever it may be.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

The Buddha's Spirit Body Teachings

There are generally considered to be three main branches of Buddhism -- Theraveda, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. The difference between the branches is mainly what meditation techniques they focus on and what teachings of the Buddha they use.

Theraveda is the oldest school and focuses on the teachings the Buddha gave during his lifetime. The main techniques focused on are breathing meditation and insight meditation.

Mahayana has a relationship with Theraveda in a similar way that the New Testament has with the Old Testament in that it recognizes the teachings of Theraveda but also recognizes later teachings of the Buddha. So it uses additional meditation techniques like compassion cultivation practice. However most Theravedan schools also teach similar techniques so the differences are more subtle.

Vajrayana is a tantric form of Buddhism that holds valid the teachings of the other two schools but introduces advanced meditation techniques taught by the Buddha, many of them visualizations of various forms of deities.

It should be noted that of all of these cited teachings by the Buddha, only the Theravedan teachings are from Buddha's lifetime. Both the Mahayana and Vajrayana teachings are claimed to be taught by the Buddha after his death via a spirit body, and taught only to elder monks. If one doesn't believe in spirit bodies, one might consider this to be an indication that the later Buddha teachings are a sham, and only the Theravedan teachings should be taken seriously. However, regardless of the validity of the source of Mahayana and Vajrayana, the later teachings are valuable in and of themselves. It is important to experience the various meditation techniques directly and make one's own judgement as to their value.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Humorous take on Sex Appeal

My favorite humorous social theory on dating was authored by none other than the esteemed Dr. Martin, who proposed the Easy Access Panels model while we were playing basketball at his house one afternoon. His theory went that the reason females in skirts are so appealing is because of the potentially miniscule time it would take to get into copulation mode with said female. The female's skirt, which can be flipped up by a mere gust of wind or a curious dog for example, is essentially an easy access panel, and the easiness of this access makes the female's presence more tempting. The underlying principle of this, of course, is that males are inherently lazy, so the more quickly and easily copulation can occur, the more appealing the mate. So I think a more general theory of sexual relativity can be summed up as the following relationship:

attractiveness / effort = sex appeal!


Friday, January 13, 2006

The Greased Pig

At a wedding I attended on Long Island, one minister told a story that I think is one of the best metaphors I've heard about marriage.


I could talk to you all about how these two people come from different cultures, and how the interaction between those cultures will affect their union. But I don't know anything about those cultures. So instead I'll talk about something I do know, from my own culture.

In the village where I'm from there's a game we play sometimes called Catch The Pig. You take a pig and grease him up really good from head to toe, then set him loose in a giant mud puddle. Then you go in there and try to catch him. The pig is all greased up so he slips out of your hands every time you try to grab him, so inevitably you find yourself covered completely with mud and grease.

The thing is, all your friends will be watching you do this, friends that would never go in there and do it themselves, but they're all happy to holler out advice to you. "Don't grab that leg, grab the other leg!" "Go left, go left!" "You're doing it wrong!" Your friends have never played the game so they don't know how hard it is, but they'll give you an earful on how it should be done.

So marriage is just like Catch the Pig. Don't listen to your single friends, they've never done it so they don't understand the work that needs to go into it. Talk to those who are married and learn from them. You'll learn that in marriage, you have to roll up your sleeves, get dirty, and go catch that pig.


Friday, January 06, 2006

Insight Meditation Practice - Gil Fronsdal

I recently listened to a podcasted recording of Gil Fronsdal's talk on mindfulness meditation. I hope you will find the notes I took helpful to your own understanding of the vipassana, or insight, tradition of buddhist practice.


mindfulness meditation

when you sit
pay attention to what is happening
be in the present
though the mind drifts off

more than being present,
notice what is happening in the present
every thing happening in the present
is a possible subject for meditation

other meditations focus only on the breath
and other data is distraction

in mindfulness meditation
all of life is the domain of practice
there are no distractions
nothing outside the realm of meditation

the most sacred of realities
is awareness itself
awareness without an outside
you stop distinguishing between
good and bad data

pay attention to what is happening
in the full show -- achieve big mind

you give some emphasis to breath
to anchor the meditation
until another experience comes that
is more compelling
feelings, sounds, thoughts

then use that data as the topic of meditation
you follow and flow with your awareness
and meditate upon it

couple mindfulness with concentration
extend from sitting into daily life
meditate all the time
ideally one has constant mindfulness, concentration,
clarity, presence

develop greater concentration
extend into daily life
sitting practice is a foundation

calm but alert
calmly conscious upright
follow up the spine
let tension go
breathing in deeply
relaxing on exhalation
later, let breath return to normal
normal easy breath
scan your body, see what parts
you can settle and relax
soft relaxed belly
the anchor of awareness is breath

when thought arises
let go of it as best you can
say to yourself "not now"
and gently move back to breathing

be in the present
with a simple awareness of
sounds, thoughts, body sensations
clearly acknowledging without judgement
it's all okay

no matter what is happening
it can be acknowledged openly
and named in awareness

sometimes this practice
is described as acceptance practice
but this is not a naive approval of everything

this is an acceptance within awareness
the awareness does not contract or resist
data that comes into our awareness
but our intelligence and wisdom still comes into play
we can still resist physically or make mental decisions
but we face everything up front
and are openly aware

to be open-minded does not mean lack of action
but to be open, present, still and calm
even in times of great challenge
it is the capacity to let in all data
to enable one to make good decisions
conscious, clear, deliberate decisions
not habit or knee-jerk reactions

the capacity for non-reactive open awareness
is a stepping-stone for understanding
our normal observation is coarse and distracted
mindfulness lets us look more deeply
coming from a place of calm more closely

accepting awareness allows us to look
more clearly and not clouded over

it is very difficult for those who don't meditate
to understand how our reality is painted by concepts
we live in the painting not seeing the colorations
vipassana meditation lets you look through to
the thusness the suchness of things as they are

properties are not inherent in an object
they are comparative qualities we add to it
to describe, judge, and manipulate it
but comparative thought does not let you take in
the fullness of the experience of a thing
one of the great sources of suffering
comes from inflexible concept of self
and unhelpful comparing of self to others
so we do not see our own suchness and thusness
the world of comparative thinking
lets people do terrible things to themselves

the opportunity of mindfulness practice
is stilling the mind enough
to see things as they are

this can be frightening to those
who anchor their ego in comparisons
to others and things in the world
but you can find rest with who you are
without need of comparison
and such is a taste of true freedom

as your focus gets subtler and gentler
the conceptual part of the mind quiets
and tremendous clarity arises
the insight is not into your psychology
but insight into universal qualities of life

greater stilling
requires fair concentration
which partners with mindfulness
there are strong elements of both

practice meditation every day
and the mind will stabilize
and with regularity comes
capacity for full concentration

meditation retreats are a buddhist tradition
silent retreats are a helpful way to let go
of the social concept of ourselves

practicing concentration exercises is helpful
focus only on one thing such as the breath
and do not widen awareness like in mindfulness
this develops mental discipline

another helpful practice is
application in daily life
be in the present
really present
draw focus gently into whatever activity you are doing
when driving, just drive
when sitting, just sit
find calm, fully aware open concentration
cue yourself to focus again to what is happening
pay attention to the now
and achieve fully conscious living

mindfulness, presence, concentration
is a delight to live in

time is a concept
make time for meditation
and time will be found to do it
time will be more spacious
in a more timeless present
you will have all the time you need

a useful practice
is to extend your mindfulness
to the time immediately following
your meditation session
so you can follow how and when you
first lose calm and contract
learn to extend mindfulness into daily life
by watching the first moment of tension
or contraction, or getting caught up
in the time following meditation
and stop and meditate again for a moment
to pay attention to what happened
question in a deep way whether it was necessary
to become contracted in that moment
catch it right at the beginning
and learn to let go of it

slowly learn to stay mindful
at that first moment
extend further into time
and progress into daily mindfulness

in closing,
develop mindfulness
develop concentration
practice meditation regularly
and incorporate into daily life


Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Beginner's Guide To Meditation by Goswami Kriyananda

This is a gem of a book that I found randomly while at a bed and breakfast in New Hampshire. It's not a fancy-looking book but the narrative is both multi-disciplinary and transparent and it cleared up many of the confusions I had about the nature of meditation. I will share with you one of the stories that helped me the most.

Back in the days where biofeedback studies first started, they tested a group of students as well as Albert Einstein to measure the alpha wave activity of their brains during thought. Alpha wave activity is thought to be an indication of thoughtful concentration, whereas when not thinking about something the mind gives off a rest-state pattern. Well, they would ask the students simple math questions and the alpha wave patterns would go off as they thought about the question. But with Albert Einstein, they would ask him a very difficult question and no alpha wave state would go off. He would sit in silence for a few minutes, the biofeedback machine still showing a rest-state, and then the alpha waves would go off right before he spoke to give the answer.

The critical difference between Einstein and a normal student is that Einstein approached problems from a meditative state. He didn't intensely concentrate like the students, hence no alpha wave activity. He just calmly reflected on the problem and found a solution, and only when it came time to convert the answer into words was alpha wave activity necessary. The author of this book argues that this is the approach Buddhism urges one to take with all problems in life. The purpose of meditation is not to sit and chant mantras then go back to living like one has always done. You should over time be able to live and solve your problems in the meditative state -- to be able to tackle life's challenges with a calm and peaceful eye, to be aware without concentrating, and to let answers naturally come to you.

This has obvious similarities with Taoism, which urges a natural and easy approach to thinking about life's problems and "going with the flow" of one's mind instead of forcing things too much.

The Celestine Prophecy

Framed inside a very badly written fictional conspiracy drama, this book has some really interesting ideas about the human condition. It talks of 9 steps of progress towards enlightenment, and step one is acknowledging that modern life isn't particularly fulfilling. The rest of the steps lead you to a worldview that understands humans in terms of chi energy, which we tend to steal from each other through power struggles and negativity, and which we can gain by changing our outlook on life and learning to appreciate human and natural beauty.

As I tend to do, I borrowed from this book the ideas that were useful to me while disregarding some of its weaker aspects, not limited to but including poor character development, awful dialogue, and a tendency towards self-importance. It is useful to acknowledge that part of a person's happiness arises not merely from the answers we find, but from the questions we choose to ask and the approach we choose to take towards life. The Celestine Prophecy offers an alternate approach to life that is New-Agey and chock-full of re-tooled Eastern and Western thought, but it's worth a read.