Confronting the Truly Big Questions

How can we most effectively explore life’s existential questions using Buddhist meditation and mindfulness practices? Will pursuit of greater knowledge and certainty about Buddhist teachings lead to more profoundly meaningful living? Jane guided our reflections this Sunday, with particular reference to revered dharma teacher Stephen Batchelor (author of Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist), who offers another approach, grounded in the capacity of physical experience to open the mind to creativity, imagination and wonder. 

A link to Stephen’s talk is below:

In his talk, Batchelor begins by quoting from what was in time to become a famous letter Keats wrote to his brothers positing a human capacity of the imagination which he names “Negative Capability,” which we might describe as the artist’s ability to erase his/her own personal ego, in order to give place to a multitude of imagined human possibilities. John Keats coined this term in a letter to his brothers George and Thomas (December 21, 1817). He wrote:

several things dove tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.

The displacement of the poet’s protean self into another existence was for Keats a key feature of the artistic imagination.  He attended William Hazlitt’s Lectures on the English Poets (1818) and was spurred further to his own thinking by Hazlitt’s groundbreaking idea that Shakespeare was “the least of an egotist that it was possible to be” and “nothing in himself,” that he embodied “all that others were, or that they could become,” that he “had in himself the germs of every faculty and feeling,” and he “had only to think of anything in order to become that thing, with all the circumstances belonging to it.”  Keats took to heart the ideal of “disinterestedness,” of Shakespeare’s essential selflessness, his capacity for anonymous shift-shaping.  In a letter to Richard Woodhouse (October 27, 1818), he describes the selfless receptivity he considers necessary for the deepest poetry.  He exults in the poetic capacity for total immersion, for empathic release, for entering completely into whatever is being described:

As to the poetical Character itself . . . it is not itself—it has no self—it is everything and nothing—It has no character—it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated —It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen.  What shocks the virtuous Philosopher, delights the chameleon Poet . . . A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity—he is continually in for—and filling some other Body—The Sun, The Moon, The Sea, and Men and Women who are creatures of impulse are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute—the poet has none; no identity—he is certainly the most unpoetical of all God’s creatures.



Metta — loving kindness or friendliness — is a foundational theme  in Early Buddhism and from the beginning has been understood as essential to a balanced practice.  In addition to cultivating the heart, metta has always also been framed as an excellent way to develop deeper samadhi, unity of mind. This week, Sam guided our reflections, drawing on talks by several different dharma teachers to shape our discussion.

Sam read from the original text, the Metta Sutta, of which you can find many translations here:

Here’s the version Sam read:

He who is skilled in good, and wishes to attain that state of Peace, should act thus:
he should be able, upright, perfectly upright, amenable to corrections, gentle and humble. 

He should be contented, easy to support,
unbusy, simple in livelihood,
with senses controlled, discreet,
not impudent, and not greedily attached to families. 

He would not commit any slight misdeeds that other wise men might find fault in him. May all beings be well and safe,
may their hearts rejoice. 

Whatever beings there are —
weak or strong, long or short,
big, medium-sized or small, subtle or gross, 

Those visible or invisible,
residing near or far, those that have come to be or have yet to come, (without exceptions)
may all beings be joyful. 

Let one not deceive nor despise another person, anywhere at all.
In anger and ill-will,
let him not wish any harm to another. 

Just as a mother would protect her
only child with her own life,
even so, let him cultivate boundless thoughts of loving kindness towards all beings. 

Let him cultivate boundless thoughts
of loving kindness towards the whole world — above, below and all around,
unobstructed, free from hatred and enmity. 

Whether standing, walking, seated
or lying down, as long as he is awake, he should develop this mindfulness. This they say, is the divine abiding here. 

Not erroneous with views,
endowed with virtues and insight,
with sensual desires abandoned,
he would come no more to be conceived in a womb. 

Sam also read a passage from The Tassajara Cookbook p.347 (by Edward Espe Brown),  a story about offering food to a statue of the Buddha.   

The sangha then listened to a Pali chant here:

Finally, we heard excerpts from the following two talks:


All Pervading Uncertainty

The times we are living in seem far more uncertain than many of us have previously experienced.  Yet the Buddha’s teaching is that uncertainty is the norm, and that we can learn how to meet it with skill and an open heart.  This week, Ron guided our reflections on uncertainty and its relation to our capacity to remain fully present.  As an aid to discussion we heard from Tara Brach, who explores letting go and beginner’s mind as pathways to discovering timeless presence in the midst of inevitable change.

A link to Tara’s talk is forthcoming.


Buddhist Ecology

Last week we heard from Brian Lesage about not taking things personally. This week, courtesy of Lorilee, we again hear from Brian and deepen our knowledge of the Buddha’s teachings about nature, in a talk he gave May 3rd this year “Being Aligned with the Dharma & Ecological Perception”.

It is prescient that over 2 millennia ago, the Buddha actually taught that one of the conditions “that prevents the rain from falling” is when we people are not aligned with the Dharma.  Whether we are aligned with nature or not, affects our planet. This is not surprising, given that we are not separate from, but part of, nature.  

You can listen to Brian’s talk here:


Different ways of seeing our experience as not personal

How often do we feel harshly put upon when things don’t go according to our liking? A big tree falls on your car. The doctor’s office calls with the seriously bad results of your test. The drain in your shower is clogged. Your computer freezes and won’t do anything. Ants show up at your picnic. Oh, it all seems so unfair.

Do we see these as the results of causes and effects? We should be able to deal with things. We still have our equanimity, right? Maybe we indulge in a bit of self-pity or feel like we are under attack. What kind of habits are we cultivating?

This week’s Sangha was led by Don S. and featured a talk by Brian Lesage. You can listen to the talk here:


Four Truths, Tasks, or Vows

What are the Four Noble Truths? Buddhist practice epouses practice and insight, and yet the core teaching of the path is a short list of statements. How can we look at this teaching from another perspective? Perhaps the Truths are meant to be activity rather than philosophy.

This week Eric played a talk by Stephen Batchelor on the Four Noble Truths and how they are reflected in traditional vows taken by some monastic traditions.

The point is that each of these “truths” is something to be acted upon in a specific way. The point of the Dharma is not to persuade yourself that life is suffering… the point of the practice is to embrace suffering. It’s to fully know Dukkha… To say “yes” to the life situation that confronts you in this moment. These are tasks to be recognized, performed, and accomplished. They are not truths to be believed or disbelieved.

Stephen Batchelor

You may wish to examine this chart as a reference to the comparison of the Four Truths, the Four Tasks, and the Four Vows:

You can listen to Stephen’s talk here:


How Nature reveals dharma

The natural world offers us readily accessible opportunities to become intimate with the wisdom and qualities we work so hard to cultivate in enclosed spaces. Bringing our bodies and our senses into the present, nature reveals the laws of dharma, things just as they are.

Mark Coleman’s talk, “The Wisdom of Nature Practice,” presents a unique way of being in nature. In it he describes the art of being outdoors with a contemplative presence and points us to the insights that can be derived by practicing it. Stephanie brought this talk to our sangha this week.

You can listen to this talk here:


Dharma & the Ancient Wisdom traditions

The time before, during, and after the teaching career of the Buddha were rich in other Wisdom traditions worldwide. Some of these can shed light on the dharma with implications for a richer practice. Michael guided our discussion of these intersections this week and their possible potential.

Some quotes from the talk and discussion:


Stand still. 

The trees ahead and the bushes beside you are not lost.

Wherever you are is called Here. 

And you must treat it as a powerful stranger. 

Must ask permission to know it and be known.

The forest breathes.  Listen.  It answers.  

I have made this place around you.  

If you leave it you may come back again, saying Here.

No two trees are the same to Raven.  

No two branches are the same to Wren.  

If what a tree, or a bush does is lost on you, You are surely lost.

Stand still. 

The forest knows where you are.  

You must let it find you.

—from the Indigenous American tradition

Instructions for Living a Life
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

—Mary Oliver

To be happy you must have taken the measure of your powers, tasted the fruits of your passion, and learned your place in the world.

—George Santayana

Social Anxiety and Buddhism

While it’s not a new phenomenon by any means, the physical distance created between people by the Pandemic has made the topic of social anxiety much more ubiquitous in our culture. The fear of judgement by others, always present in our minds, can suddenly be debilitating. This can make everyday activities become traumatic events and it can be challenging to explain such behavior to our friends and loved ones since doing so reinforces that very fear. We may sense further judgement from ourselves to just “deal with it”. What can Buddhist practice offer us as a real antidote to this experience? In this week’s Sangha, Payton explored the topic of social anxiety, using Buddhism’s practices to see how it functions and what we might be able to do about it.

When I have social anxiety it feels like this:

  • Fear of not knowing what to say and not being prepared.
  • Fear of saying the wrong thing.
  • Fear of what I say causing the other to dislike me.
  • Exhaustion with having to become who the other expects me to be.
  • Fear of disappointing the other or not being what they need from me.
  • Exhaustion with having to read the words and body language of the other in order to understand what they really mean.
  • Exhaustion with having to summarize my experience in a way that others can understand.
  • Discomfort of having to context switch from something I’m focused on.

A summary of my exploration of this topic:

  1. What is happening?
    I am anxious about judgement and work hard to make others comfortable.
  2. Why is this happening?
    A lack of self-confidence and fear of the unknown.
  3. What practices may help?
    Remembering the eight worldly winds, remembering that no one is immune to blame, returning to the body, willingness to stay with suffering and not escape, touching the earth, practices of impermanence, and all practices of not-self.

Verse 227: It is not new, O Atula! It has always been done from ancient times. They blame one who is silent, they blame one who speaks much, they blame one who speaks little. There is no one in this world who is not blamed.

Verse 228: There never has been, there never will be, nor is there now, anyone who is always blamed or always praised.

– Dhammapada, verse 227, 228 from

Looking more deeply at the experience:

  • I want others to feel comfortable but doing so is a lot of work.
  • Why do I want others to be comfortable? Because in their place I would want to be comfortable. For strangers, it’s also because comfortable people are less likely to be dangerous/make me uncomfortable. So the motivation is both kindness and fear.
  • Why is it a lot of work? Because I have to stop paying attention to my own needs and instead read the other and adjust my behavior with all my awareness. Depending on conditions this can be easy or hard. With less information, like when I’m on a phone call, this is more difficult still.
  • Due to the effort required, even thinking about social interaction can be aversive and causes me to avoid interactions entirely, particularly when I am tired or stressed.
  • Underlying beliefs that cause this are a lack of self-confidence and fear of the unknown. I feel inherently unlikable and that my behavior may make others uncomfortable. Uncomfortable people at best don’t want to be friends and at worst may want to cause me harm.

A brief talk on the topic of social anxiety:

Here’s some additional material I gathered as part of the research for this talk:

We need suffering in order to see the path. The origin of suffering, the sensation of suffering, and the path leading to the cessation of suffering are all found in the heart of suffering. If we are afraid to touch our suffering, we will not be able to realize the path of peace, joy, and liberation. Don’t run away. Touch your suffering and embrace it. Make peace with it. Buddha said, “the moment you know how your suffering came to be, you are already on the path of release from it.“ If you know what has come to be and how it has come to be, you are already on the way to emancipation.

– The heart of the Buddha’s teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh

A talk by Maria Straatmann on anxiety and the dharma:

An excerpt from the Attadanda Sutta:

A talk by Gil Fronsdal on anxiety in general:

A report of an experience with anxiety that was helped by the practice:


Unresolved pain in the heart

Last week’s sangha conversation ended on the topic of dealing with the dissatisfaction of our current worldly condition and the ‘death of optimism.’ This week, Evelien played off of that topic and the concept of ‘death and rebirth’ with Mark Nunberg’s talk called ‘Meeting and Healing the Unresolved Pain in the Heart’.  

Mark Nunberg talks about the difficulty of trying to be present when something is asking for our attention.  This could be something from our past, which is Mark’s focus, but it could also be a concern with the present or fear for the future.  Mark discusses that a gratitude, metta, or appreciative joy practice may be the medicine that can help our heart digest and process this pain, not dismissing it, but bringing it to a point of healing.

You can listen to Mark’s talk here: