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Posts Tagged ‘Against the Stream’

Noah Levine has offered us a new book, The Heart of the Revolution: the buddha’s radical teachings on forgiveness, compassion, and kindness. Noah is becoming one of the leading voices of the American Buddhist movement and in this book he invites us to discover the loving heart. Like so many of us, Noah never believed that he could ever release the anger that was within him, but with time and practice he discovered that compassion was a natural component of the heart that usually lays dormant within all our hearts. This book presents us with the tools to be able to discover our true Buddha nature, this is not a quick how-to guide, but more directions for a long and arduous path. One that can give liberation, but one must work hard to achieve, this is something that we must work at and persevere our whole lives.

I must admit that I really enjoyed this book, Noah has always spoke to me and his teachings have always been accessible and explained to me in terms that I was able to relate. His sharp talk is still very present, but I found that there was an elevated level of reflection and wisdom than what was found in his earlier writings (Dharma Punx and Against the Stream for those of you not in the know). I find that Noah has matured as a teacher but especially as a writer, I was impressed by his writing style that still contained much wisdom and street smarts as always, but there was much more wisdom felt in his statements. In his book Against the Stream I found that Noah was still leaning heavily on his autobiography, I found that in this new book he left more of the autobiography behind and really focused on giving people clear teachings for training the heart and mind. It is not that I don’t appreciate his life and what brought him to the path, and like he has always told me, “Talk about what you know to be true in your own experience”, but it was really great to be able to dive into these teachings of forgiveness, compassion, and kindness and relating it to my life and my practice. I have always found the Brahma Viharas particularly difficult in my practice, maybe it is based on the fact that I spent most of my life thinking the same as Noah, there is no way that we can get all this hate and fear out of my heart and mind. I have experienced a lot of aversion towards loving-kindness, and it is only recently that I have discovered that wisdom and compassion are really one in the same, this practice is more about heartfulness (as Noah puts it) and it is true that the goal is to live a life that is full of the positive and wise qualities of heart. If you were a fan of the Dharma Punx and Against the Stream books, don’t worry his street style is not far away (but more balanced I find) with his notion of the 1% ers.

The 1%ers might make you think of bikers, whom they considered themselves to be outcast of society because of the lifestyle that they chose to live, but Noah here is talking about the committed whom the Buddha sought to convert. Noah is thus aligning himself with fellow radicals who were bold enough to disregard religious pieties and social conformity (hence the reference to the bikers mentioned above). Noah grounds his approach towards joyful awareness that he has gained from his twenty plus years of meditation.

Noah had a hard time forgiving those whom had done him wrong and whom he wronged (I am sure you all remember the part in Dharma Punx when he makes amends), but he admits in this new book that ten years in he realized that something was missing of his meditation practice; and that was an engagement with one’s self and with others that connects with “citta,” the heart-mind of Buddhism. With Noah, meditation is a shovel; the treasure gets unearthed and polished and refined with practices like loving-kindness which them expresses itself as disciplined contemplation which leads to skillful actions. This book can be read one chapter at a time, focusing on the practice offered at the end, or as a series of inspirational teachings to motivate people to start polishing that treasure.

What I appreciate the most of Noah’s teaching, and something that I find in Stephen Batchelor’s writings, is that he relies on a non-theistic reaction to reject “buying merit or worshiping deities or teachers” that deludes most Buddhists. According to Noah we are to turn to the mind and heart instead of obeying power or gurus. The dharma’s direction emanates neither from divine reflection nor appeal to authority, but it is a verified truth tested by its practitioners, as the Buddha directed. He translates more conventional responses of “faith” into more appropriate terms for secular seekers. Ideology or dogma are replaced by terms like inspiration and confidence. I find that Noah is carving more his place in this new American Buddhism, along with writers like Stephen Batchelor that helps us challenge our interpretations of the teachings, but always tells us to go find out for ourselves and only believe what we hold to be true. There is no asking for blind faith and to subscribe to whatever they tell us, but more that we have to experience the teachings first hand if we are to see their benefits.

There is also a chapter entirely dedicated to the Metta Sutta, where Noah goes through it line by line. I found this chapter very useful in my understanding of this important teaching, his no bullshit explications helped me reflect and contemplate on what this Sutta is offering us and how we are to approach it. Like I said earlier, I have always found this teaching the most difficult in my practice and study, but I am finding more and more that it is probably the most crucial teaching that is needed in my practice. I found that there was a need for reflection after every chapter, challenging my own relationship to my heart and mind, even though they are short, I have found them to be full of wisdom geared for the next generation of Buddhists (the children and grandchildren of the sixties, the generation that his father Stephen Levine brought similar teachings to the masses helping to make these Eastern teachings relevant to the West). Every time that I read a new book by Noah I am reminded why he is my teacher and why it is his books that actually got me on the cushion and how I have not strayed since!

Noah might be more from the streets than the retreats, he is still an honest accessible voice that is speaking to an unlikely generation of dharma followers. It is true that within your lifetime you will meet people that will join the path and will with time leave. Noah is encouraging his 1%ers to continue on this arduous path, because you are not alone, support your local sangha and make sure to remain true to yourself on this journey. I mean what’s the worst that can happen to you? Freedom? Go check out this book, I am sure that it will at least make you question your relationship to your heart/mind and that can’t be a bad thing, can it?

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It is a tradition for us to set some resolutions at the beginning of each year, to start the year with ways for us to improve our lives with goals that we set to follow for the year to come. I have never really been big on new year’s resolutions as such, it seems that I would follow them for a month or so and then would break them and then spend the rest of the year feeling like I failed. This feeling of failure and disappointment would come up in spurts throughout the year and give me feelings of hopelessness and failure. It is good for us to want to improve our condition and to create better habits to help us achieve different goals we have. As a Buddhist I have found that the best way to begin the year is to renew my intentions for the coming year, to take refuge in the 3 jewels and renew my commitment to the 5 precepts. I have found this to be a much more productive exercise than the traditional resolutions (exercise more, stop smoking, eat better, etc), this is a time to reflect on our practice and to renew our commitment to it. I will be doing my first intention ceremony with my meditation group this year and find that this will also help build a strong sangha that is committed to this practice and walking this earth with a more tender heart. You may be wondering what it is exactly these intention setting ceremonies that you see different Buddhist centers and groups do every New Years, put simply, it is a time that a sangha will take refuge in the 3 Jewels (Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha) and to take the 5 precepts again (Not Killing, Not Taking what is not given, Right Speech, Not Misuse Sexuality, Avoiding Intoxicants). Intention ceremonies help us to renew our commitment to being more mindful in the world, this mindfulness will help us improve our lives by default, we will be more in tune with our bodies and the world around us.

Taking refuge in the 3 jewels is often done formally in lay and monastic ordination ceremonies, it is also done on a yearly basis so practitioners can renew their commitment to the practice and teaching of the Buddha. The general signification of the 3 Jewels are:

The Buddha;

The Dhamma, the teachings;

The Sangha, the community of enlightened beings (or at least partially), traditionally it was the community of Bhikkhus and Bhikkunis (monks and nuns).

In Buddhism, instead of looking for an external saviour, most Buddhists believe that one can take refuge in oneself. The Dhammapada states:

160. One truly is the protector of oneself, who else could the protector be? With oneself fully controlled one gains mastery which is hard to gain.

165. By oneself is evil done, by oneself is one defiled. By oneself is evil left undone, by oneself is one purified. Purity and impurity depend on oneself — no one can purify another.


The Buddha said in the Mahaparinibbana sutta that the teachings and sangha that he delivered and created would be the teacher when he is gone. Faith is an important element in Buddhism, whether it is Theravada and Mahayana traditions. The Sanskrit word for faith is sraddha; the original word has connotations of trust, perseverance, humility, and steady effort. As opposed to Western notions of faith, sraddha implies thorough reasoning and accumulated experience. The Buddha stated in the Kalama sutta to not simply follow authority or tradition. There is a certain degree of trusting confidence and belief in Buddhism, especially in the spiritual attainment and salvation or enlightenment through the wisdom of the Buddha. In other words, faith in Buddhism centers on the belief in the 3 Jewels. The wording for the refuge in the 3 Jewels goes something like this:

Buddham saranam gacchami (I take refuge in the Buddha)

Dharmam saranam gacchami (I take refuge in the Dharma)

Samgham saranam gacchami (I take refuge in the Sangha)

Dutiyampi buddham saranam gacchami (For the second time… repeat for each of the three)

Tatiyampi buddham saranam gacchami (For the third time… repeat for each of the three)

This taking of the refuge helps to renew our faith in this practice and teachings, it is a time to help us reflect on what brought us to this practice and our determination to free ourselves from the chains of ignorance, greed, delusion, and hate; which is what ultimately makes us suffer. In the Dhammapada, Refuge is mentioned:

Driven only by fear, do men go for refuge to many places – to hills, woods, groves, trees, and shrines.

Such, indeed, is no safe refuge; such is not the refuge supreme. Not by resorting to such a refuge is one released from all suffering.

He who has gone for refuge to the Buddha, the Teaching and his Order, penetrates with transcendental wisdom the Four Noble Truths – suffering, the cause of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the Noble Eightfold Path leading to the cessation of suffering.

This indeed is the safe refuge, this the refuge supreme. Having gone to such a refuge, one is released from all suffering.

– Dhammapada 188-192


Usually during this refuge ceremony, many will take the time to renew their commitment to the 5 precepts, it is usually explained as people making vows to adhere to the Precepts. One does not necessarily have to follow all the 5 precepts (and if you are a monk it can be much more than 5, traditionally monks or very serious lay people will take an additional 3-5 ethical precepts, and some of the five precepts are strengthened. For example, the precept pertaining to sexual misconduct becomes a precept of celibacy). The Precepts are not given in the form of a commandment such as “thou shalt not…”, but rather are promises to oneself: “I will (try)…”

1. To refrain from harming living creatures (killing)

2. To refrain from taking that which is not given (stealing)

3. To refrain from sexual misconduct

4. To refrain from false speech

5. To refrain from intoxicants which lead to loss of mindfulness

If you are in the Montreal area and would like to participate to an New Years intention ceremony feel free to come at the NHC center on the 10th of January. More info on the group is also posted on the Against the Stream Website in the Dharma Punx Nation section. All are welcome no matter what your spiritual or religious affiliations may be, this is a great time to take some time to reflect on our spiritual practices and what we want to bring into the world for this new year. It is a 5$ suggested donation to help cover the costs, but no one will ever be turned away for lack of funds. 2010 was a year that started on a very sour note for me, but shaped up to be a year full of different experiences and accomplishments, I would not trade it for the world. My biggest teachings of 2010? Impermanence, Kindness, and Compassion! What was yours? 2011 is already looking like a year that will bring exciting new beginnings and challenges, keep reading to see what will be happening in the new year! Thank you if you are reading this, your readership and support means the world to me and I hope that you will keep reading in 2011! Here is a wish to all of you for 2011 from our man Sid!

“May all beings have happiness and the causes of happiness; may all be free from sorrow and the causes of sorrow; may all never be separated from the sacred happiness which is sorrowless; and may all live in equanimity, without too much attachment and too much aversion, and live believing in the equality of all that lives.”

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Tomorrow is the release of the book Rebel Buddha, this is a book that I have really been looking forward to reading and I decided that in honour of its release I would talk a little about the book itself and expand on the concept of the rebel in Buddhist/meditation practice. As I am sure is obvious with most of you, I have always been interested in the concept of either going “against the stream” or this idea of us being rebels when we develop this practice. Dzogchen Ponlop is no different, he too shares this vision of us going against fear, greed, hatred, and delusion. This rebel lies in all of us, it is that part of you that knows how to break free from fear and unhappiness. It is the voice of your awakened mind, your rebel buddha, it is this instilled clear intelligence that resists the status quo. It is what wakes you up from your sleepy acceptance of your day-to-day reality and shows you the power of your awakened nature. It is this energy inside of you that compels you to seek the truth. It is an inner revolution that occurs, it is by training the mind and understanding your true nature that you are able to free yourself from needless suffering.

This inner revolution is what speaks to me the most in my practice, I have been always somewhat involved in trying to awaken the population around me to the ills and wrongs that occur everyday in our own backyards and world. I use to get so frustrated when I would see people remain complacent and ignore the obvious truths around them, this frustration caused me so much suffering and anger. I knew that I needed something to help me cope with the sleeping masses, I was lucky enough to stumble upon the book Dharma Punx and Against the Stream, these texts finally spoke to me in a language that was accessible and true, no aura fluffing here (I have always had a hard time with this kind of teaching, but I guess different strokes for different folks).  This notion of the rebel is something that is becoming more and more popular in the new Western Buddhist movement, and I think that it speaks to the people who have come to practice.

The Buddha was a revolutionary, his practice was subversive and message seditious. In our society today, it is very against the grain to take the time to sit on a cushion away from the many different distractions at our disposal (and there is a huge list for us to choose from), focusing on our breath and the layers of this simple physical experience, and to live a life of kindness and compassion. We are wrapped with fear on a daily basis and are unable to truly open to the moment as it is, our need to control the moment as it is happening and what the outcome will be is proof of our unwillingness to accept and open to every moment as it appears. The comparing judging mind is our biggest enemy in this struggle, once we learn to let go of these thoughts, we are able to truly open to this moment and live a more connected and true existence. Going against everything that we have been taught is a very scary endeavour at the beginning, but it ends up being a truly liberating experience, one that is necessary if we are to free ourselves from suffering.

What I truly appreciate from this perspective and approach to practice is that the teachers are bringing their teachings in their own language instead of being boggled down in specialized language, if we want our voice to be true it must come from the heart. Lets be honest, love and compassion is the same in all languages and explanations, it is the essence of the teachings that is most important. If you want to compare practice to a motorcycle, why shouldn’t you if that is how best you can explain it? If this rebel is supposed to represent our own innate wisdom, then it is completely logical that it would sound differently depending on the teacher. This inner rebel is the voice inside of us that tells us that we don’t have to conform to the materialistic status quo (I find that this also applies to Buddhist circles and the way of presenting the dharma), if we listen to this voice we are able to discover the courage to pursue a genuine spiritual life.

The authentic Buddhist path is based on testing for oneself the wisdom attributed to the Buddha that has been passed down through the centuries. Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche encourages his readers to do just that: to investigate any presentation of “spiritual truth” and to apply our own reasoning and logic to analyzing it from top to bottom. When we’ve examined what it means and its implications for us and for others, then we’ll have the conviction to “live up to it”, and serve humanity with generosity and compassion.


I don’t know about you, but I look forward to reading this book and challenging my views and practice. It is always good to be take time to question our practice and evaluate if we are serving the truth the best way possible. Listen to your inner rebel and defy the lies and serve the truth!

 

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With my birthday just around the corner, it is normal to take some time to reflect on just where I am and where I want to continue guiding my life. More and more I find that my life is shaping in a very positive way, becoming more and more involved in service work (in penitentiaries) and hopefully starting teacher training to be able to be a more effective person in society and the dharma. In Buddhist practice it is commonly held that we should live a life of service, to help others and in turn creating a more compassionate world for all of us to live in. For positive change to take place in the world, we have to get our asses off the meditation cushion, we dedicate a time of each day to formal meditation practice, but the rest of the day we can effect change with our actions, speech, and livelihood (which are all integral parts of our practice). Meditation is necessary to create positive change, but if we just practice to get really good at meditation it is not enough, we must bring this practice out into the world, like Gandhi said “Be the change we wish to see in the world”.

If we look at the Buddha’s teaching on a life of service we must remember that we live in a much more global world, the problems are thus different from the ones that the Buddha was confronted with, but we can still take his teachings to heart and create change on our streets and our communities. Noah Levine helps to bring this into perspective I find:

The Buddha spent seven years meditating on the causes of suffering, and through his own effort he experienced the end of suffering. He spent the rest of his life teaching others how to end suffering through wise understanding, intentions, actions, speech, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration. He consistently spoke out against war and all forms of violence. He was an ally to the poor and oppressed as well as a council to the rich and powerful. He acted locally on the issues of his time. He addressed sexism, racism, and war in his society and was a local activist as well as a spiritual teacher. The Buddha founded a community, a sangha in Buddhist terms, of ethical behavior, spiritual practice, and political engagement that eventually led to a radical shift in Indian thought and action. He changed the world then and now.

We could then say that the point of our spiritual practice is to live life with greater ease and well-being, but also to utilize our life’s energy to bring about change in the world. The intention of our practice is then not to spend our lives in silence on the meditation cushion, it is to bring this wisdom and compassion into the world and our relationships with others. This practice teaches us very valuable things to persevere with diligence and be more skillful in our interactions with others. The understanding and compassion that develops from meditative practice is wise action, bringing this practice to the streets and helping the needy, protecting the oppressed, and educating others on the teachings of compassion, kindness, generosity, and forgiveness.

Of course, social change comes from small groups of like-minded people, Gandhi and Martin Luther King jr. were supported by groups of people during their non-violent campaigns against colonisation and racism. By themselves they would not of have had as great an impact. It is their communities that supported them that helped them have the impact that they had. The power of community is the basis for all political, social, and spiritual transformations. This of course brings us back to the Buddhist concept of the sangha, the community, that is always an integral part of a healthy spiritual practice. There is a need to walk with friends the path of awakening, to meditate with, and to serve with. In other words, the sangha is the container for the teachings, the people who you share your experiences and get the support that you need to power on when it gets tough. This community is also very important in continuing the teachings, without these people who live a life of ethical behaviour, meditative discipline, and compassionate action, the teachings would have died a long time ago.

Sangha’s can then get involved in their communities and help create positive social change. It is not common that this eventually occurs, in San Fransisco there is the MBA project that helps bring these teachings to at-risk youth in the Bay areas, in Los Angeles there is the Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society that is constantly developing social programs which vary from working in penitentiaries to helping feed the homeless, and this type of implication is constantly spreading. These acts of engagement are known as the way of the bodhisattva, someone who is committed to personal positive change and helping others find freedom from suffering, Noah Levine helps us see that the purpose of spiritual practice is not just for ourselves:

The way of the bodhisattva recognizes that the goal of spiritual practice is not about what we can get for ourselves or what we alone can experience. Rather, it is about how we can serve the truth of interconnected existence and defy the false belief that life is about serving ourselves and living as if we were separate from all others and from the world itself.

The tools for the bodhisattva are education; resources of money, time, and energy; our capacity to protect others from harm; and our ability to express spiritual change in others. This compassion is natural and cultivated for the bodhisattva. It is the outcome of our internal transformation to use our life’s energy to help others awaken from confusion and to not only respond to our pain with compassion and kindness, but that of others around us. Service-oriented actions help bring about transformation in people, and also helps our gradual awakening. This is definitely the way that my life’s energy is heading, the more that I practice the more I feel the need to help others. My reflection has brought me to the realization that our work is not done in society, we must gather together and help create this change that is so desperately needed. I know that it is not something that can be done on my own, the sangha is crucial in all of this. Why not get a group together in your community to help shift perceptions and create a more caring compassionate society? I have told myself that on a daily basis I will remind myself of this and continue my work to help shift people’s perspective on the poor and the inmates in our prison system.

“May my life’s energy be of benefit to all beings. May I be of service. I commit my life’s energy to compassionate work.”


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I had to write a two page essay for a teacher training that I have applied to take with Noah Levine and Vinny Ferraro this week. We had to describe our practice history, teaching experience, and why we want to take the training and why now. A clear message in this essay was to show how I want to be empowered to serve the dharma, and not make it about an ambition of spiritual authority or an expression of ego. I found the exercise hard but extremely rewarding, it is always good to take time to reflect why we decide to do things in life and to be able to check if we are doing things based on ego or not. This whole question of ego is huge in Buddhism, if we are to be of service to others we should definitely check our egos at the door if we are to be the best teachers possible. When I examine ego from a Buddhist perspective I am always brought back to one of the dharma seals, anatta (non-self), the other two being dukkha (suffering/unease) and annica (impermanence). I find that anatta is probably the seal that most people struggle with the most in Western societies, this is heavily due to the fact that we are in a mostly dominant Christian society where the soul (a static never-changing entity) is of great importance for most. Anatta is not a materialism or against the notion of a soul, it is a truly Eastern concept. Before I continue I think that it is probably best that I explain what anatta is meant to be understood as in the Buddha’s teachings and our day-to-day lives.

Anatta does not necessarily mean a type of materialism, Buddhism does not deny the existence of mental phenomena (feelings, thoughts, etc) which are distinct from physical phenomena. Anatta has traditionally been translated as “no-soul”, hence the confusion about it being a materialist concept or not. Buddhism also does not deny the existence of a soul, in case you were wondering, in general people are described as an ever-evolving consciousness ( or a stream of consciousness), it is just that this consciousness is ever-changing and never a static thing that never changes. Buddhism denies the existence of a permanent or static entity that remains constant behind the ever-changing physical body. It also denies the notion that a consciousness is reborn (re-incarnation) without change, annica is one of the three seals of existence and also present in the other two seals (they are not separate concepts but three that work together…), just like how the body changes from moment to moment and thought come and go; there is thus no permanent conscious substance that experiences thoughts and other experience (we could see this as a blatant opposition to Cartesian thought). When the body dies, the incorporeal mental processes continue and are reborn in a new body. This is because the processes are constantly changing, the being is thus neither the same nor completely different from, that being has died.

Buddhism does deny the notion of a permanent self, it doesn’t reject the notion of an empirical self (which is always in constant change) that can be referred to with words like “I”, “you”, “me”, etc. We have to be careful here, the Buddha gave the teaching of anatta because much suffering is attached to the notion of a permanent self. If we cling to idea of “what we are” gives rise to unhappiness, we must view the self as an ever-changing entity just like all other phenomena around us if we are to achieve enlightenment. This is a concept that I have look at in great detail, and especially how it plays in my life. Coming from a philosophical background, the self is extremely important in all philosophical movements, the study of our essence etc. I have come to realize and see that the more I cling to an idea of what I am the more I suffer, it does not allow us to grow as freely seeing as we automatically pigeonhole ourselves into what we should be doing and where we should be in our lives. I find that when I was able to let go (and this is still a moment to moment exercise for me), I find that I am generally happier.

What am I trying to get at? I guess that this idea of ego in my instructions has made me reflect on what role does my ego play in my practice. What does it mean for me to teach the dharma right now? Will it be the same at the end of the three-year training? More and more I realize that “what I am” is always changing and will continue on this path, I mean, how can we not change with all the experiences that we have? It would be foolish to think that we will be the same in 5 years, so how can I find that teaching will be an expression of my ego? The most humbling experiences that I have ever had have been with the dharma, these teachings have absolutely made me check my ego at the door on a daily basis. For this, I am extremely grateful. I want to be of service to the dharma, not to be a spiritual authority or ego driven teacher that is only looking out for his advancements. I find that it would be hard to be a Buddhist teacher that is ego driven, I know that they are out there, but I think that maybe they are not getting what it’s about. The best way to describe my practice and role in the dharma is this: “Act Justly, Love tenderly, Walk Humbly”. How do you feel about your relationship to the ego? Remember that your ego is a part of you, its conditioned, but it is not your true identity!

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