More and more, the teaching practice takes me into the community where I engage directly with students. My focus right now is on bringing the continuity of the Dharma into the market place. Although retreating is an important form for self-knowledge, I find myself less interested in the immediate results of a retreat and more interested in helping students investigate their relationship to the ups and downs of their everyday life.
Nature, death and spontaneous freedom continually interweave themselves into my teaching. From the forest of Thailand, where I spent several years, I bring a deep awareness of the healing quality of nature into my teachings. Relaxing into our true nature allows us to realize what it means to be a human being. It is here we find a resting point, a counterbalance to the speed and turbulence of our culture.
My work in hospice brings a sense of urgency into my teaching. Working with the theme of death and dying reveals the here and now of life to us, how important it is to open to each loss, change and transition that marks our path. Life is precious. We need to awaken without hesitation.
Many of us crave to be more calm and centered. We know that life has more to offer than this fleeting material world. For each of us, the Dharma offers an immediacy of freedom for which we do not have to strive or wait. In practice, we can learn to relax deeply into the moment and rediscover spontaneous freedom.
The Buddha once said that his teaching directed us toward three principles: sila (ethical conduct), panna (wisdom), and samadhi (firmness of mind). Samadhi is the fundamental principle of a steady and harmonious mind. During samadhi, consciousness is not wavering with each thought but firm and stationary, allowing attention to be bare and free for observation. There is a component of wisdom within samadhi since the mind is resolute and unperturbed by states of mind, yet there is a difference between samadhi and awareness. Awareness is not a state of mind and samadhi is a conditioned state that changes over time; awareness is more easily acknowledged when the mind is firm and steady.
Any review of the fundamentals must go squarely through bare attention. Bare attention is the essence of our practice, and the single tool that nourishes our wisdom and understanding all along the way. "Baring" our attention is why the practice seems to take so long to mature. We are so used to looking to thought for guidance that we overlay a film of thought on our attention to give a familiar tinge to what we see. Without that film of memory there would be the simple essence of emptiness seeing itself. Many of us feel unprepared for that level of reality so we subtly think about what we see, and our thinking makes this great expanse feel safer and more manageable. Cleaning up our attention becomes our work.
Why did the Buddha say he only taught suffering and the end of suffering? If this is the core of what he taught, how diligently do we practice it? Do our practices attempt to understand the nature of anguish, or do they sidestep that issue and attempt to create anguish-free environments and foster greater dependency on pleasant experiences? Do we see anguish as a fundamental dharmic principle that guides and directs us toward liberation, or do we pull back and adapt a philosophical approach to anguish - "This too shall pass." Suffering provides all that is necessary for a complete understanding of the formation of self, but we must be willing to move toward the difficult for that to be imparted.
In this series we open an exploration of a few fundamental dharma principles. Students will already have some familiarity with many of these topics, and some may seem trivial. But the reality is there is no trivial truth. Any and all truths can only take us as deeply as we allow them to enter. Most of us reach a comfort level with these fundamentals and then build our practice on top of that partial understanding. If our practice is to move forward these principles must be reexamined and thoroughly realized, then the simplest truth can have a profound impact. This first homework is looking at death as an expression of denial - the unwillingness to face facts. Death is an example of the many ways we refuse to face life on its terms, the many ways we turn away and pretend life is other than what it is. But the dharma rests on facing facts without distortion, and unless we renew our commitment and trust to doing just that, our understanding will remain superficial.
In this series we open an exploration of a few fundamental dharma principles. Students will already have some familiarity with many of these topics, and some may seem trivial. But the reality is there is no trivial truth. Any and all truths can only take us as deeply as we allow them to enter. Most of us reach a comfort level with these fundamentals and then build our practice on top of that partial understanding. If our practice is to move forward these principles must be reexamined and thoroughly realized, then the simplest truth can have a profound impact.
Discernment must ultimately understand the nature of self completely. Awareness saw in the Third Foundation how the self was born from a feeling and elaborated on with thought forming the story and image of "I." Even though that process is now understood (wisdom), still, because of its tremendous momentum, there may be a residual belief in the self when it arises. Discernment wears down that residual belief by tracking the sense of self through all its manifestations until there is no longer the belief in self even though there is the occasional arising of self.
Struggling with the hindrances draws us back into form. Each hindrance has to be thoroughly understood so that when it arises we no longer invest reality into its appearance. Discernment is the only tool that can reveal the truth of its emptiness. In seeing the true nature of the hindrance, we see our own and the struggle ends. All other applications of practice reinvest thought into the form and make it more than what it is.
Applying discernment requires an honesty of intent. That honesty is the discernment at work. If you need skillful means to help balance the energy, use it. It can be helpful to back up to the First Foundation and see how the state of mind is affecting the body. Next, move to the Second Foundation and catch the feeling tone and the accompanying story. Moving onto the Third Foundation, settle to see just what this state is in essence. Finally, apply discerning questions that pick apart the solidity and truth of the state of mind such as, "Is there space for this too?" "Where is the "me" in this state?"
What is a skillful or unskillful state of mind? What do those terms mean--skillful for what purpose? Even to know something at this most basic level requires active discernment. The Buddha may have said certain states were skillful or unskillful, but that does nothing for your practice. You have to see its effect on you and know its impact directly.
Questions are the life's blood of the dharma. If we are willing to follow wherever the question takes us, then the question will take us out of our beliefs and opinions into something new and unexplored. Something will end in us and will not arise again in the same way.