Dharma 101

Based on Howie Cohn’s talk “Look Up: Wake Up to Reality”

This summarizes the central teaching that the Buddha offered after he began to see things more clearly.

Poem: by David Budbill

Bugs in a Bowl

Han Shan, that great and crazy, wonder-filled Chinese poet of a thousand years ago, said:

We’re just like bugs in a bowl. All day going around never leaving their bowl.

I say, That’s right! Every day climbing up
the steep sides, sliding back.

Over and over again. Around and around.
Up and back down.

Sit in the bottom of the bowl, head in your hands,
cry, moan, feel sorry for yourself.

Or. Look around. See your fellow bugs.
Walk around.

Say, Hey, how you doin’?
Say, Nice Bowl!

Truth is so simple, so accessible, but we tend to complicate it and search for it far away. It is about coming out of the tangle of our self-pre-occupation and opening to the wider gravitational truth of the way of the dharma. The teachings are of use because we are conditioned and habituated in such a profound way that we overshoot the moment.

We only have six basic experiences in our life—seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, sensations in our bodies. In addition we have thoughts, which arise in our minds. We feel like we live a very dramatic life, but if you look at the few days of retreat, where in reality we sit, walk, sleep, listen to talks, eat, our life is pretty simple. But because of the elaboration and embellishment that we create around those simple experiences we have a sense that the days have been very dramatic. Because we get triggered by the cascading reaction to these six experiences we get caught in the narrative and illusion. Because of the compelling way we imagine it, think about it, and the way our body responds to it, the virtural reality takes on a solid sense of being real, and makes it so easy to miss the simple reality of the present moment.

An example of the process that is at work: We sit here in silence, aware of the little sounds in the room, our breath rising and falling, our weight on the chair cushion, or the tension in our upper back. Then our ears register an attention-grabbing sensation of the rumble of the approaching train, or the sounding of the train whistle in the distance. We hear the sound, and almost instantaneously, we picture the light rail advancing on the track north to south. Maybe we wonder if it has many passengers this time of night. Then we remember the last time we rode it and the event downtown we were going to. Or we recall the homeless man sleeping in a window seat, and our reaction to seeing him. First thoughts of compassion, was he comfortable with his head against the hard window, was he cold or hungry. Or we have a flicker of judgment. Why doesn’t he sleep somewhere else? Then we begin the subtle, or not so subtle, process of worrying that we, too, might find ourselves in such powerless circumstances. What if? And you can fill in the blank here… the economy collapses, etc. We feel this fear contract our body, feel the pain in our hearts. Then we realize that we’ve been lost in thought, the sound of the train long-gone, and bring our attention back to the breath and the present moment here and now, just sitting here in this room.

When we live most every moment of our lives down the rabbit hole of these thought and emotional responses, we miss the moment. The simple sound growing in loudness and fading away.

We have moved from the simple experience of hearing to being somebody with imaginary experiences and emotional reactions to them.

In a moment of hearing who are we?

In a moment of seeing who are we?

In a moment of tasting who are you?

Our simple experiences occur outside the drama of me, yet because we get triggered by these sense experiences we play out the script.

Nagarjuna, who is considered to be the founder of Mahayan Buddhism said,

“Blocked by confusion, I survive by forging a destiny, through impulsive acts, self-consciously I enter situations where personality unfolds and world impacts on my sensitive soul. Personality creates self-consciousness, just as attention, the eye, and color and shape create vision. Impact is the meeting of self-consciousness, senses, and the world. It leads to experience I crave to have, experience I crave to avoid. Craving makes me cling to sensuality, opinions, rules, selves. Clinging is to insist on being someone, not to cling is to be free to be no one. To be someone is to be self-conscious, impulsive, thinking, feeling body that is born, ages, dies, and suffers grief and anxiety. Anguish emerges when someone is born, impulsive acts are the root of life, fools are impulsive, but the wise see things as they are. When confusion stops through practicing insight, impulsive acts will cease.”

Everything in the practice is about ending the anguish of suffering. That is not to say that it is about achieving happiness. Though sometimes the by-product is that you have a good time. Truly, we want to be able to live in harmony and be able to tolerate the things that inevitably happen in our lives. The tightness and contraction in our hearts is born of clinging to pleasures and views.  Freedom is the space to be able to see the true nature of things.

So why isn’t this easy? For millions of years the human brain has developed great cunning and strategic thinking. This is why we have survived and flourished. In practicing mindfulness, we need to understand the unbidden nature of thoughts. We have 65,000 a day and 90% are a repeat from the day before.  But because of the immediacy of our thoughts and our tendency to identify with them, we think that there is a little agent in our heads creating them. But upon questions who and where is this thinker, we discover that thoughts arise on their own from our conditioning. Through mindfulness we make the shift from being carried away in the stream of the thought process to being aware that there is thinking. And then slowly we develop a sense of compassion for the situation that we’re all in, that we’re all habituated to living in that virtual reality, mistaking the version that plays in our mind but doesn’t really exist for the real thing. This doesn’t mean that we don’t maintain a functional self, one that continues to use the power of our cunning to survive. When we walk out of here tonight, we might note that we’re hearing the train approaching, but we will recognize its horn for the warning that it is, and know to not drive our car into its path.

Audubon famously said, “If there is a difference between the bird and what the field guide says, believe the bird.”  When we don’t believe the bird, we live in the imaginary world, and doing so manifests in our bodies, contracting us in many ways. When we begin to see our judging mind and comparing mind, it breaks our hearts to see how much we are measuring ourselves to some virtual ideal of perfection. There is a deep sense of peace which is the natural state when we’re not in a state of contentiousness with what is happening.

We have these insights through the practice of insight meditation; we have all kinds of insights. The Buddha used the exact same tool, and what he learned is that when the natural awakeness is directed, it becomes a extreme observing power, a liberating power. He especially emphasized that when it is directed to your body, it becomes the cause of the end of anguish. Here is what he said, “One thing, o monks, if developed and cultivated leads to a strong sense of urgency, to great benefit, to great security from bondage, to mindfulness and clear comprehension, to the attainment of  vision and knowledge, to a pleasant dwelling in this very life, to the fruit of knowledge and liberation. What is that one thing? It is mindfulness directed to the body.” Insight meditation is a practice that is through your body.  It is through this body, letting it be felt, letting your mind be in the same place as the body, that they can come together.

Buddha: “Within this fathom long body, with its inner sense and perceptions, lies the world, lies the cause of the world, lies the cessation of the world, and lies the path that leads to the cessation of this world.”  So without this body there is no world, and it is our reactions to what is triggered in our body through the door of our perceptions, through the senses, that gives rise to this whole internal drama and the sense in our minds that I can’t be happy now. All that springs from little reactions that are triggered in our body and become our world, become our sense of existence. I’m here, I was somewhere else before, I’m passing through here to somewhere else. That’s the world.  All the strategies, all the projects, all that I have to do to become happy.  As humans in the modern world we are consumed by the past and present, and allow the current moment to pass unnoticed. This practice offers tools to cultivate awareness.

However, Adyashanti, the author of Falling Into Grace, cautioned, “Be forewarned, applying these teachings may be damaging to your beliefs, disorienting to your mind, and distressing to your ego. From the perspective of waking up to reality, these are good things to be cultivated. From the perspective of ego, they are to be avoided at all costs. The choice is entirely yours.”

In conclusion this brings us to the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths:

Your life is inseparable from suffering.

There is a cause of your suffering.

You can end your suffering.

There is a path to the end of your suffering.


Recommended materials:

www.dharmaseed.org for talks by Howard Cohn and other Insight teachers (free downloads)

Dancing With Life: Buddhist Insights for Finding Meaning and Joy in the Face of Suffering by Phillip Moffitt