Monthly Archives: November 2016

“The darkness around us is deep.”

I didn’t meet the poet William Stafford, but of all the wonderful poets the United States has produced, his voice is closest to my heart. I’ve been thinking during the night that I’m glad that Bill didn’t live to see what happened this day, in his land – how a majority of his fellow citizens failed humanity (yet again) by electing an  empty shell of a man, a man that (as Little Tree’s grandma would say) has “a soul the size of a pea.” In electing as their leader, not really a man but, a machine, the citizens of the United States followed the wrong gods home.

With all of us who care about human qualities nobler than self-serving dishonesty, vengeance, lust for power, material greed, misogyny, and war on nature – who regard Donald Trump’s election as an instance of mass delusion – I join my voice, in encouraging peace-loving activists to see the coming years of darkness as an opportunity to get clear about deep and true values; and, to ensure that our actions are in alignment with those values.

Mass delusions such as this, and such as we regularly witness on our small blue planet, can only happen because people don’t know themselves. The values which Socrates called forth in those who could hear – of self-knowledge, goodness, truth and beauty – can’t be lost, though they can be lost sight of. We know this happens, but we don’t always or readily recognize it happening in ourselves, as well as in others. We need to commit to waking up to the ways of delusion.

We mustn’t forget, too, a virtue praised by the Buddha: fellowship with the good; specifically, community with those who are awake and awakening – the ‘noble’ community. While developing and nurturing our personal integrity, we need to seek such people out and reach out to them; to grow, thrive and to act in noble company.

May you be safe and well, in these dark times.

A Ritual to Read to One Another

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dyke.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider –
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give – yes or no, or maybe –
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

William Stafford

Getting Lost in Resistance

When we are identified with dukkha, we double our pain. In the sutta which I’m presently translating, the Nikaya Buddha is exploring what distinguishes a “well-trained student of the noble ones from the untrained ordinary person,” in respect of experiencing life’s pleasures and pains. If we understand this, we can transform our lives.

He says that we encounter suffering and naturally resist; especially by turning toward pleasure. By the way, when he says ‘sensual pleasure’ he means pleasures of the mind, too – not just of sight, sound, smell, taste, and the bodily senses. These five are what Westerners have been trained to think of as ‘the senses’; but, here, we include the pleasures of thinking, imagining and dreaming.

Furthermore, I should warn you that the point is not to live without pleasure happening – that’s not living – but the point is not to found our deepest well-being in what is changeable and connected with what is changeable. Being identified with what is changeable is a recipe for all the bitter dishes we are serving ourselves all over the groaning planet.

While we are untrained, we don’t know any better. So, in this next passage he goes into how our unaware approach to dukkha works; how our habitual patterns block insight, which is the key to freedom. He points out that if we depend on sensual pleasures, then we can’t have the requisite distance to see what’s going on, can’t have insight into the dynamics of our pervasive frustrations with life:

“While relishing sensual pleasure, the untrained, ordinary person relies on pleasure; and so they can’t know – in the experience as it actually is – its production and its cessation; its allure and its disadvantages; nor the actuality of leaving suffering behind. As they don’t discern these processes, they dwell in ignorance of their neutral experiences.” (Those which are neither pleasant nor unpleasant).

“Experiencing a pleasant sensation, they know it while merged with it. Experiencing an unpleasant sensation, they know it merged with it. Experiencing a sensation which is neither pleasant unpleasant, they know it merged with it.”

Then reminding us of what he’s doing here – inviting us deeper into training of the heart by naming the difference between the untrained and trained person – he finishes this part of his talk, by saying:

“This, I say, is an untrained, ordinary person: a person tied to birth, aging, and death; one fettered by grief, complaint, anguish, distress, and despair – a person bound up with dukkha.”

 

Doubling Our Pain

I am translating a sutta, presently, on the sad fact that we double our pain, unnecessarily. In Buddhism this is referred to with the simile of the ‘second arrow.’ The sutta, from the Samyutta Nikāya, is called ‘The Arrow.’ The sutta opens with a warning about the danger of grasping after limited escapes, in compensation for our raw suffering. There is a better way to be free of suffering.

The Arrow (Sallatha Sutta: SN.36.6)

“Practitioners, an untrained, ordinary person has pleasant experiences, unpleasant experiences, and experiences that are neither pleasant nor unpleasant. A well-trained student of the noble ones also has pleasant experiences, unpleasant experiences, and experiences which are neither pleasant nor unpleasant.

“So, what difference is there – what distinction, what distinguishing factor is there – between the well-trained student of the noble ones and the untrained ordinary person?

“When an untrained, ordinary person contacts suffering, they fret and are wearied, they complain, they cry and beat their breast, and they get confused. So, they have two pains – the physical pain and mental pain.

“Just as if someone were to shoot a man with an arrow, and then, right afterward, they were to shoot him with another one. Hence he would feel the pain of two arrows.

“So, in the same way, when in contact with a feeling of suffering, the untrained, ordinary person frets and is wearied; they complain, lament, and get confused. Hence, they experience two kinds of feelings, the physical and the mental suffering.

“When they are in contact with suffering, they resist. So, given the resistance, they fall into latent underlying patterns of resistance. Touched by this suffering, they are then thankful for sensual pleasures. Why? Because the untrained, ordinary person does not know of any escape from dukkha beside sensual pleasure.”

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