October 22, 2012

I want to see you dance again

I was at a wedding celebration tonight, saying my good byes, about to head back to the City, when the band starting playing Harvest Moon. I hope this song always stops me in my tracks and brings tears to my eyes. From the first lyrics:
"Come a little bit closer, hear what I have to say"

Continue reading "I want to see you dance again" »

April 17, 2011

Five Skandhas

Lately I've been tripping over, dripping with, and sipping on the the five skandhas (commonly interpreted as "aggregates"). This is the way Buddha described both how we come to define our existence as an individual, despite lack concrete evidence, and how we perpetuate this fallacy. After some contemplation and reading I feel I understand the first three somewhat.

Number one is form - just what is, whether smells, sounds, sights, or other types of forms. What trips me up about this is that although forms are there, number one isn't our interaction with them, our interpretation, perception, reaction, or anything - that all comes later. It really begs the questions of a tree falling in the forest with no one around. However, instead of grappling with the question any longer, I'd rather move on to number two: Sensation

Sensation is so easily paired with number one that I really wonder why they are separate - but perhaps that is the narcissist in me. I have a hard time believing anything exists that I don't know about. What I love about this aggregate is its simplicity. It is simply the fact of sensing the form. So you have the form, whether it is sound, sight, solid, or all three and then you have the hearing, touching, seeing - and that is all. This one doesn't include how we feel about it - that comes later with "perception".

Number three - perception is also fairly straight forward. This is not the thought but the gut reaction of towards, away, or neutral. After all, with every sensation we respond in one of those three ways - whether or not we are conscious of it (consciousness comes later). What I love about these first three is how well they are connected and how easy it is to imagine one leading to the next. I imagine a baby, first just being, then noticing sensations, and almost immediately going towards some (like warmth), away from others (such as hunger), and leaving quite a few neutral (maybe the sight of auntie's face).

It is numbers four and five that have me stumbling, not comprehending - commonly called "mental concepts/volition" and "consciousness". These have to do with pure awareness and a type of action that is more complicated than perception but not necessarily conscious. It is with mental volition that we create karma but I still don't understand how and the subtleties of this aggregate. Nor do I understand how consciousness fits into the whole puzzle - and how exactly do they fit together? Do they move on a timeline, one after the others in the way they are listed or can they flip and skip? Can we have consciousness without sensation or form without perception? If so, how? If not, why separate them in this way?

I've heard that understanding the skandhas is key to understanding impermanence, interdependent existence, and dukkha. I grew up aware of the aggregates yet with no intimate knowledge of them. Somehow, I felt I understood interdependence and impermanence - yet can I really understand these two concepts without understanding the basis of how Buddha described the arising of our sense of self?

October 29, 2009


Recently I had the good fortune to attend a teaching on the Ngondro - a Nyingma Tibetan Buddhist meditation. The teacher spend much time on the four thoughts and recommended picking one of them each day to meditate on throughout the day. I've had a tough time settling on just one:
1. This precious human birth is rare and difficult to obtain
2. All things born are impermanent and bound to die
3. The results of virtuous and unvirtuous actions are inexorable
4. Cyclic existence has the nature of an ocean of suffering

These four thoughts have provided me much insight as I practice my purification meditations. I keep feeling haunted by how I have caused suffering in others and how others have done me wrong. However, by meditating on thought number 2 I realize I just have to let it go at a certain point. I can look at others' inappropriate actions towards me as opportunities to practice patience, clear communication, compassion, etc. And as to ways I cause suffering in others, when I can make it right I do, when I can't I can feel remorse, vow never to do it again, but then I have to let it go and accept that it will bite me eventually (thought number 3).

And that brings us to thoughts number 1 and 4. With the final of the four thoughts I can quit trying to fix everything and make it perfect - because it will never be perfect and there will always be suffering. Yet, by meditating on the first thought I am very thankful for all that I have; both the opportunities and responsibilities that come with it.

June 20, 2009


At our last Buddhist meetup group we were talking about generosity and lack, the difference between martyrs and bodhisattvas...
One person commented "when you give it is important to be giving because you are already full - not because you'll feel full (or think you'll feel full by doing something good."

I've been feeling pretty full and fortunate lately - seems like a good time to contemplate the my nature of giving.

November 03, 2008

Develop the heart

Advice from His Holiness- it seems pertinent:

Never give up
No matter what is going on
Never give up
Develop the heart
Too much energy in your country is spent
Developing the mind instead of the heart.
Be compassionate not just to your friends but to everyone
Be compassionate.
Work for peace in your heart and in the world.
Work for peace and I say again
Never give up.
No matter what is happening,
No matter what is going on around you,
Never give up.

September 02, 2008

fallacy of self

Probably the biggest discovery in human history was Siddhartha's
realization that the self does not exist independently, that it is a
mere label, and therefore that clinging to it is ignorance. However, as
unsound as the label self may be, destroying it is no small task. This
label called "self" is the most stubborn of all concepts to break.

Siddhartha's discovery of the fallacy of self is symbolized in the
story of the destruction of Mara. Referred to traditionally as the evil
lord of the desire realm, Mara is none other than Siddhartha's clinging
to the self. It is fitting that Mara is depicted as a handsome and
powerful warrior who has never been defeated. Like Mara, the self is
powerful and insatiable, egocentric and deceptive, greedy for attention,
clever, and vain, It's hard to remember that, like illusion of the fire
ring, the self is assembled, doesn't exist independently, and is
susceptible to change.

Habit makes us weak against the self. Even simple habits die hard. You
may be aware of how bad smoking is for your health, but that doesn't
necessarily convince you to stop smoking, especially when you enjoy the
ritual, the slender shape of the cigarette, the way the tobacco
smolders, the fragrant smoke curling around your fingers. But the habit
of self is not just a simple addiction like smoking cigarettes. From
time immemorial we have been addicted to the self. It is how we identify
ourselves. It is what we love most dearly. It is also what we hate most
fiercely at times. Its existence is also the thing that we work hardest
to try to validate. Almost everything that we do or think or have,
including our spiritual path, is a means to confirm its existence. It is
the self that fears failure and longs for success, fears hell and longs
for heaven. The self loathes suffering and loves the causes of
suffering. It stupidly wages war in the name of peace. It wishes for
enlightenment but detests the path to enlightenment. It wishes to work
as a socialist but live as a capitalist. When the self feels lonely, it
desires friendship. Its possessiveness of those it loves manifests in
passion that can lead to aggression. Its supposed enemies-such as
spiritual paths designed to conquer the ego-are often corrupted and
recruited as the self's ally. Its skill in playing the game of deception
is nearly perfect. It weaves a cocoon around itself like a silkworm; but
unlike a silkworm, it doesn't know how to find the way out.

-Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse

August 19, 2008


The Buddhist practice of nonviolence is not merely submissiveness with a
smile or meek thoughtfulness. The fundamental cause of violence is when
one is fixated on an extreme idea, such as justice or morality. This
fixation usually stems from a habit of buying into dualistic views, such
as bad and good, ugly and beautiful, moral and immoral. One's inflexible
self-righteousness takes up all the space that would allow empathy for
others. Sanity is lost. Understanding that all these views or values
are compounded and impermanent, as is the person who holds them,
violence is averted. When you have no ego, no clinging to the self,
there is never a reason to be violent. When one understands that one's
enemies are held under a powerful influence of their own ignorance and
aggression, that they are trapped by their habits, it is easier to
forgive them for their irritating behavior and actions. Similarly, if
someone from the insane asylum insults you, there is no point in getting
angry. When we transcend believing in the extremes of dualistic
phenomena, we have transcended the causes of violence.

-Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse

January 31, 2006


At least in my life, and probably the lives of others, meditation seems to be the Buddhist equivalent to sex. I notice myself talking and thinking about it a lot more than actually doing it.

January 27, 2006


Attending a Ngondro lesson the other night I learned about the ten non-virtuous actions known in Buddhism:

  • Killing
  • Stealing (taking that which does not belong to you)
  • Sexual Misconduct
  • Lying (intentional deception)
  • Divisive Speech
  • Harsh words
  • Idle Gossip (out of ignorance or attachment)
  • Covetousness
  • Ill will/Harmful Thought
  • Wrong view (any view that upholds no law of Karma/ causality.

Although they look similar, these are a bit different from the Christian/Jew/Muslim Ten Commandments. Sure, you can go to Hell as a result, but that is not guaranteed nor is it the end of the story.

Continue reading "Laws" »

January 19, 2006

The Waiting Game

Standing at the back, listening to the Wailin' Jennys, three ordinary looking women with extraordinary voices, I suddenly stopped. Granted I do that all the time – when I meditate, during my walk to work – today when I was biking home and absorbing the weak light emanating from the gray skies. However, just like Jack Kornfield promised, sometimes when we stop bits of wisdom poke through without us even trying. Not always, which is why we need to meditate, bike, and go to concerts – the more opportunity has a chance to knock, the more frequently it will.

During this pause I realized that this is IT. I have been in the “in-between-space? for a year and a half now. Life doesn’t start when I leave the country, it doesn’t wait until I live with my family and definitely not when I meet “Mr. right?. Life is being with right now, whether it is a Mr., a friend, a concert, or a job. This is tough to comprehend as a goal-oriented person in a goal-oriented culture with goal-oriented friends and family.

Life is going to awesome concerts for free because I volunteer, it is getting a bitchin’ personal tour of the Capital and learning a bit more Minnesota History (and politics), a sweet bike ride home on a warm gray day. Life is sharing a movie with two girlfriends and chuckling about naked-cowboys with wicked grins over free margaritas afterwards. It is going to the same job for the 350th time. It is finishing one book and starting another, trying to share the book, an awesome ginger jam, or a personal problem with friends. It is getting over old-loves and wondering about future ones. This is life. It will be the same whether I am in India, England or the Czech Republic.

Life is also feeling three steps behind all the time. As I pointed out earlier, it is Dukkha, the feeling of being out of place, of always missing a note or being slightly out of tune. It is the hopes and dreams that when I leave this planet I will leave the world a better place – perhaps I won’t get as much done as Eleanor Roosevelt did but if I am a happier person in the meantime I will be fine with this. Sigh… even after all the places I have been, all the adventures I have. None is ever more difficult than the present.

November 20, 2005

Dukkha vs Suffering

Commonly interpreted as "Life is Suffering," it took me awhile to agree with this first noble truth. Although introduced to it at a young age, it was several years before I experienced enough ups and downs to agree that while there is certainly joy, there is also regular sorrow. A lot of time would have been saved, had I read this passage first, instead of being told the abbreviated version:

Dukkha, then, names the pain that to some degree colors all finite existence. The word's constructive implications come to light when we discover that it was used in Pali to refer to wheels whose axles were off center or bones that had slipped from their sockets. (A modern metaphor might be a shopping cart we try to steer from the wrong end.) The exact meaning of the First Noble Truth is this: Life (in the condition it has got itself into) is dislocated. Something has gone wrong. It is out of joint. As its pivot is not true, friction (interpersonal conflict) is excessive, movement (creativity) is blocked, and it hurts.

It isn't so much that life is suffering, but rather that we suffer because life is off center. Reading onto the next page, the book explains why life goes off center so frequently:

The Buddha taught that what we usually think of as our "self" is actually an ever-changing product of five co-conditioning components (skandhas), namely, body, sensations, perceptions, dispositional tendencies, and consciousness. Because they themselves are instinctively but ignorantly grasping for a center, a "self" that is not there, they themselves are unsatisfying. "The five groups of grasping are themselves dukkha,"says the Buddha.

We feel off kilter because haven't got a real kilter to stand on in the first place. What may be "your center" one moment, may be something completely different the next. However, there is some continuity that leads us to recall who we were and plan who we will be. Scientists have been trying to find the root of the assumed identity:

The medial prefrontal cortex could be continuously stitching together a sense of who we are. Debra A. Gusnard of Washington University and her co-workers have investigated what occurs in the brain when it is at rest - that is, not engaged in any particular task. It turns out that the medial prefrontal cortex becomes more active at rest than during many kinds of thinking.
 "Most of the time we daydream - we think about something that happened to us or what we think about other people. All this involves self-reflection,"Heatherton says.

Little Christian kids think they have it bad - worrying about going to hell and all. Ha! Little Buddhist kids worry about the fact that they don't exist.

March 21, 2004

Rollin Holy

I sort of kind of went to church today. I mean it wasn't Christian and I wasn't inside but it was Sunday, there was prayer and meditation and lots and lots of people.

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February 28, 2004


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February 24, 2004

Loving Losar

Have any of you heard complaints about how there is no "rite of passage" for young folks in the U.S. these days? Sure we graduate from high school and if we are lucky maybe even from college, and there is always our first paycheck, but none of those are a solid, confidence boosters. In many cultures when a person is ready to enter adulthood he or she faces a test that may be more difficult than most of what an adult actually faces, thus after passing, they know themselves better and feel able to deal with what ever lies ahead, with out resorting to drugs or other escape measures.

Continue reading "Loving Losar" »