Learning from Nature

Don Skidmore, drawing from a talk by Brian LeSage, guided our reflections this Sunday, exploring different ways in which we enrich our practice and our life when we connect with nature as family rather than as spectacle, perhaps even choosing nature as our preferred locale for meditation. . . . Or . . .How to sit quietly in the forest with lions and tigers and bears. Oh my!

You can listen to Brian’s talk here:


Wise Effort, shaping our energy

This Sunday Margaret guided our reflections on Wise Effort, drawing on a talk by Christina Feldman.

In a path that is often interpreted to caution against striving, even in pursuit of awakening, it is remarkable how often the Pali words related to “Effort”, “Energy”, or “Diligence,”  appear in many places in Buddhist texts.  Right effort is the sixth of the eightfold path, energy is one of the ten perfections (paramis) and one of seven factors of enlightenment; there are also several verses in the Dhammapada which explore how to engage in the wise use of effort.

After considering several of these strands, we focused in on the quality of energy (Pali word Virya) that is listed as one of the ten perfections, basing our reflections on a talk by Christina Feldman:

Margaret also read a poem by Julie Cadwallader Staub, entitled Longing, which you can read here.


Time and Self in search of Wise View

“If no one asks me what the time is, I know perfectly well what it is. But if someone asks me to explain it… I haven’t a clue.”

– St. Augustine

This weekend Eric had something a little different to share, beginning with a talk excerpt by physicist Carlo Rovelli, who speaks about time in ways that resemble how Dharma teachers talk about the self. Both time and self seem such fundamental elements of a straightforward world view; yet under scrutiny, they both dissolve into their backgrounds of causes and effects. The perplexity we are left with is not confusion, but rather a Wise View of central factors in our living.

Eric’s notes follow:

I’ve always thought that science and the dharma have a common underpinning: a radical skepticism about what our intuitions tell us to be true. I think this is what is meant by “wise view.” Here is something else common to both scientists and dharma practitioners: we often forget this. It is just as easy for a dharma practitioner to fall into belief about a certain lineage or teaching as it is for a scientist to take their favorite theory to be the true one.

Let’s begin with the philosophical view of the middle way as expressed by the buddha in this story from the Samyutta Nikaya (connected discourses)

The teacher was living at Sāvatthi. Then the good Kaccānagotta approached him, greeted
him, sat down to one side, and said: “You say, ‘complete vision,’ sir. In what respects is
vision complete?”

“By and large, Kaccāna, this world relies on the duality of ‘it is’ and ‘it is not.’ But
one who sees the arising of the world as it happens with complete understanding has no
sense of ‘it is not’ about the world. And one who sees the ceasing of the world as it
happens with complete understanding has no sense of ‘it is’ about the world.

“By and large, this world is bound to its prejudices and habits. But such a one does
not get caught up in the habits, fixations, prejudices or biases of the mind. He is not
fixated on ‘my self.’ He does not doubt that when something is occurring, it is occurring,
and when it has come to an end, it has come to an end. His knowledge is independent of
“In these respects his vision is complete.
“’Everything is’ is the first dead-end. ‘Everything is not’ is the second dead-end.
The tathāgata reveals the dharma from a centre that avoids both dead-ends.” [S. 12:15]

In the history of science, there has always been an argument about what is “fundamental.” This is the stuff that everything is made of and is ultimately real. Going back to the greeks, Aristotle thought that everything was made of cause which was bound up in the 4 elements while Democritus thought everything might be reducible to atoms in the void, which is the view held by most scientists today. However, everytime scientists have thought they discovered the ultimate foundation, we discover something new that forces a rethinking that leads to the conclusion there is something even more foundational. To use the language of the buddha : Even an atom both is and is-not.

There is a beautiful word being used a lot in science these days: emergence. Patterns and properties emerge at a higher level of observation which do not exist at a lower level. For example, an atom does not have a temperature or a pressure. It also would never be described as wet or dry, rough or smooth. A single atom can not be described as a solid, liquid, or gas. However, from a group of atoms we can observe these patterns and properties emerge… and these properties can become more and more complex, culminating in things tables, chairs, selves, nations. Some claim that the atom is real and everything else is not. But this falls into the exact trap the Buddha warned us about.

Here is a quote from Sean Carroll, a physicist – philosopher, which I think gets at the spirit of this skepticism: “we shouldn’t confuse what we human beings can hold in our heads with what nature actually does.” which reminds one of the classic zen teaching “don’t mistake the finger pointing to the moon for the moon itself”

There is a powerful mathematical tool we can use along with this idea of emergence: probability. Emergent properties are probabilistic. For example, the temperature of a gas is a statistical summary of the velocities of all the individual atoms in that gas. The faster the atoms are moving, the higher the temperature. So while we can’t know the exact velocities of all the atoms, if we know the temperature, we can make a pretty good guess about what the velocity of one atom would be. Not-knowing everything about every atom is not an impediment to me deciding whether or not to wear a jacket. This is what make emergence beautiful… we can throw out almost everything we know about a more “fundamental level” of reality and still make coherent sense out of the world. The price is that we can’t use the phrase “everything is” or “everything is not” Instead, we use probabilistic language.

Say you believe it is going to rain tomorrow. But as a good buddhist or scientist, you don’t believe this absolutely.. Say you believe it with 70% certainty. You then get some new evidence… for example you wake up the next morning and the sky is clear. There is a formula, known as Bayes’ rule, which tells you mathematically how to update your certitude based on the new evidence. You start with a prior level of belief, gather evidence and then calculate your new level of belief. This is tricky with things like rain and sky, but is quite rigorous when it comes to things like coin flips and rolls of the dice …. Probability theory got its start because people wanted to understand how to gamble more effectively. Here is the important point : This formula makes it impossible to update your belief if your current belief is 0% or 100%. If you believe with 100% certitude it is not going to rain tomorrow and you wake up and its raining, then you still believe it’s not going to rain and you leave without an umbrella. While this example sounds silly, I think it demonstrates the problem with ideological thinking. As Stephen Colbert once said of the steadfastness George Bush: “He believes on Wednesday what he believed on Monday regardless of what happened on Tuesday.”

This way of thinking has really helped me understand the buddhist concept of annatta. As Joseph Goldstein quips : The self is real, but it isn’t really real. Scientific theories are true, but they aren’t Truely true. Like the self, they are an emergent phenomena. Both are processes of constant Bayesian Updating of beliefs about its environment. If we can keep our beliefs from becoming fixed, the wheel of understanding can spin freely, but if we fix our beliefs at 0% or 100%, we find ourselves on the bad wheel… dukkha.

The recorded talk is available here:



Urgency is all around us. For some people at some times, it is ever-present in our minds and can be overwhelming. Other people at other times may find that it is merely a backdrop of life that rises and falls with our daily experience. Either way, a sense of urgency is typically a product of Craving or Aversion which leads to Restlessness and Worry and a symphony of the Buddha’s Five Hindrances. In the often rare moments that we can control our lives, we can reduce or remove this sense of urgency, but what are we to do the rest of the time? In this week’s first in-person Sangha in a long while, Payton explored the topic of finding stillness in a painfully unpredictable world.

Payton played a talk by Tuere Sala which you can listen to here:


Buddha Nature

The roots of the idea of one’s Buddha Nature are to be found in Early Buddhism; its flowering, in the Mahayana, Vajrayana, and Zen. What is this elusive quality of Being which grounds Awakening, and allows us to step forth into a kind of freedom that’s deeply connected to all the world? Michael guided our reflections on this puzzling and enlivening aspect of our existence.

Some material read by Michael follows:

Born in this World You got to suffer Everything Changes You got no soul

Try to be gay Ignorant Happy You get the blues You eat jellyroll

This is one way
You take the high road In your big Wheel
8 steps you fly

Look at the View Right to Horizon Talk to the Sky Act like you talk

Work like the sun Shine in your heaven See what you done Come down & walk

Sit you sit down
Breathe when you breathe Lie down you lie down Walk where you walk

Talk when you talk
Cry when you cry
Lie down you lie down Die when you die

Look when you look Hear what you hear
Taste what you taste here Smell what you smell

Touch what you touch Think what you think Let go Let it go Slow Earth Heaven & Hell

Die when you die
Die when you die
Lie down you lie down Die when you die

Gospel Noble Truths —Allen Ginsberg

The Four Great Vows

Sentient Beings are numberless, I vow to save them all
Delusion are endless, I vow to cut through them all
dharma gates are infinite, I vow to pass through them all
The Buddha way is inconceivable, I vow to attain it.

To study the buddha way is to study the self.
to study the self is to forget the self
To forget the self is to be enlightened by the ten thousand dharmas to be enlightened by the ten thousand dharma is to free one’s body and mind and those of others.
No trace of enlightenment remains, and this traceless enlightenment continues forever.

From Genjokoan, Dogen

Mary Oliver: “Some Questions You Might Ask”


Making Skillful Decisions

This Sunday, the purpose of our meeting was to arrive at the best ways to sustain and carry forward the work of our sangha, in ways that benefit all. Sam framed our meeting with reflections from Shaila Catherine about dharmic perspectives on arriving at skillful decisions. 

You can listen to Shaila Catherine’s talk here:

In the talk, she mentions the Kalama Sutta, which is available here:


The Crucial Importance of Intentions

Intentions are important, even critical. In our criminal justice system, a trial attempts to ascertain the intentions of the perpetrator. In our everyday relationships our intentions can be obvious at times we wish that they were not. Buddhism treats intentions as crucial to our success along the path.

This week, Jeff facilitated an exploration of intentions using a recent talk given by Tara Brach titled “The liberating power of conscious intention”. Consciously setting intentions and using mindfulness of our intentions can help us manage our unskillful habits. These practices can help us find stable ground, heal, and find freedom.

You can find Tara’s talk here:

In the opening, Tara tells the story of getting a bit lost in the California desert while on retreat. She was able to climb to a higher point where she saw the spire of the retreat center, an old church. Over the course of the retreat she used that spire to find her way back during several outings. Tara uses the analogy of a spire as a tool to help us to return to mindfulness of our deepest intentions.

Tara reminds of a quote from the Buddha:
“We live our entire life on the tip of intention.”

Our intentions are behind our thoughts, our words and our actions. Tara points to two domains of intention which lead to different outcomes:
• The first domain is our deepest intention
• What most matters to us, our liberating aspiration
• Intentions in support of our deepest aspiration
• The second domain includes intentions which lead to suffering
• Ego-level delusions

Mindfulness of our intentions is critical to reducing suffering
• The quality of our relationships is determined by our mindfulness of our intentions
• Intention is the seed that determines our behaviors and creates our experience

The most important thing is remembering the most important thing (what our life is dedicated to).

If we use the reasoning mind to “identify” our deepest intention we will come up with something nice but bland.

Making sincere contact with our deepest intention requires stillness and inner listening to sense what matters to our heart.

We may consider three dimensions of our deepest intention
• Our deepest intention always has to do with manifesting our innate potential (what we are)
• Our deepest intention is embodied. For an aspiration to be awake it needs to be a heartfelt experience and it comes out as sincerity
• Our deepest intention always relates to this moment, is experienced in the here and now.

Training in mindfulness of intention
• Connect with our deepest intention through the practice
• Learn to reconnect when we are lost

When our intentions are ego-centric we feel lacking, disconnected and isolated

Tara suggests a two-part practice:
• Connect with your intentions in the morning before you start your day
• Review your day to check in on whether you remained mindful of your intentions and acted in alignment with your deepest intentions.


Bringing Sila and the Precepts into Life

What does it mean to have your life become the practice and the practice to become your life? How do you do that? Leslie Booker gives a talk about how she has incorporated sila and the Five Precepts to be her north star and how living from the mindset of sila embodies a life lived with the dharma. Sila, or morality/right conduct, is not a set of commandments, but guides to skillful living; there are three stages of sila along the Eightfold Path: right speech, right action, and right livelihood.

This week, Eveline brought together reflections on how the Five Precepts have manifested in our own lives.

The talk Eveline played was by Leslie Booker which you can listen to here:


Refreshing and Renewing your Practice

Almost everyone in our sangha has been practicing long enough to hit a dry patch, where meditation becomes dull and routine.  But then something happens that renews our practice. We go on retreat; we change our method in big ways or small.  Perhaps we take a vow, or discover an ancient mantra’s power.  Someone close to us dies; a teacher calls our attention to what we missed seeing.  We add a simple ritual to our life; a friend shares the secret that has kept her practice fresh for years. . . .
     This Sunday, we reflected and came together to share when practice became difficult and what has been helpful for us in renewing it.  Michael introduced a few readings and a brief video.


Navigating the Dark Ages

How do we process and respond to increasing societal oppression and violence? What helps us transform the energies of fear, hatred and delusion. To help shed light on this discussion, this week Ron drew on a talk by Tara Brach, which you can view at the link below.