Re-shaping Karma: the power of intention

This past Sunday, Evelien drew from a talk by Sally Clough Armstrong on Intention.

Sally Clough Armstrong led an IMS talk about Equanimity, Intention and Karma. “We are the heirs of our actions” is a liberating realization that our choices along the way have led us to be right where we are. With wisdom and compassion we can understand how we got here and with intention we can choose how to respond, rather than react, to it.

“All beings are the owners of their own actions/karma.  Even though the past may account for the suffering and inequalities in life, our measure as human beings is not in the hand we’ve been dealt but in the way we play the had we’ve got.” 

The talk is available here:

Self and The Path

This past Sunday, Stephen guided our reflections, exploring how effective practice can lead to a mind prepared to achieve insights into the nature of the self.  Using a short talk by Culadasa, we discussed the specific process by which lasting transformations can be achieved.

Karma in everyday life

This Sunday Patrick guided our reflections, on the topic of Karma and Reincarnation, drawing on a talk by Joseph Goldstein about the role that karma plays in our everyday lives and the consequences of our volitional acts, including some consideration of reincarnation. 

We explored the different beliefs people have about reincarnation, the role it might have in our spiritual and meditation practice, and the sometimes confusing fit between the practical and numinous aspects of Buddhism.

The talk Patrick played can be found here:

Are we creating our own reality?

To what extent do we create our own reality with our perceptions and ruminations?  This week Margaret guided our reflections, using excerpts from talks by Christina Feldman to explore the ways in which mindfulness of moods can help us discern when our experience is clouded and when it is sharpened by our mental processes and our conditioning.

The talks that were played were from a retreat, so they are not publicly available.

We began the sitting by reflecting on our underlying mood at that moment, and on how such moods affect how we view and interact with what is around us.  In addition, based on the talk by Christina Feldman, we considered two models that give some insight into how we construct our reality. The first of these goes as follows:

Where there is contact, there is feeling tone; What we feel we perceive; What we perceive, we think about; What we think about, we proliferate about; What we proliferate about, we dwell upon; What we dwell upon, becomes the shape of our mind; And the shape of our mind becomes the shape of our world.

The second model goes as follows:

Where there is contact, there is feeling tone; Feeling tone is the condition for craving; Craving is the condition for clinging;  [identification] Clinging is the condition for becoming. 

Homelessness and Homecoming of the Heart

As well as being experienced in the outer world, the suffering of inner homelessness and and the joy of inner homecoming can be felt acutely as parts of the journey toward spiritual and psychological maturity.  Sam guided our reflections this Sunday, drawing particularly on the insights of Christina Feldman.

We listened to a talk by Christina Feldman, given July 10, 2019 at the IMS, titled “Homelessness and homecoming”. We cannot post this talk here but if you’d like to hear it again, please contact Sam directly.

At the start of our meeting, Sam read two quotes, which follow.

After asking the Buddha ten standard philosophical questions, Vacchagotta receives only the terse response, “I don’t hold that view.” Finally, exasperated, Vacchagotta blurts out,

“Then does Master Gotama hold any speculative view at all?”

“Vaccha, ‘speculative view’ is something with which the Tathāgata has nothing whatsoever to do. . . . With the destruction, fading away, cessation, giving up and relinquishing of all conceivings, all excogitations, all I-making, mine-making and the underlying tendency to conceit, the Tathāgata is liberated through not clinging.”

“But, Master Gotama, a bhikkhu whose mind is thus liberated: Where does he reappear [after death]?”

“‘Reappear,’ Vaccha, does not apply.”

The Island: An Anthology of the Buddha’s Teachings oa, by Ajahn Pasanno & Ajahn Amaro

There is an island, an island which you cannot go beyond. It is a place of nothingness, a place of nonpossession and of nonattachment. It is the total end of death and decay, and this is why I call it Nibbāna.

Samyutta Nikāya, 1092-5

Four Noble Truths

This Sunday the topic for our exploration and reflection was the Four Noble Truths. With teachings from Thich Nhat Hanh and Stephen Batchelor, Ginny led us on an exploration of the foundational nature of this teaching.

We discussed how just “showing up” and witnessing the activity of our mind can often be the hardest and most important thing to do to relieve suffering.

Below are Ginny’s notes from the talk.

Reflection on righteousness, clinging and suffering.

Ginny shared reflections on her own attachment to judgement – in particular, judgment of the old guard of environmentalism. This arising of suffering J began in response to a reference to Henry David Thoreau in Michael’s talk the week before.

Ginny walked us through the exploration of the suffering and the four noble truths and the experience of being free from suffering.

On Thoreau – expanding the view.

On transcendentalists from handy dandy Wikipedia:

A core belief of transcendentalism is in the inherent goodness of people and nature. Adherents believe that society and its institutions have corrupted the purity of the individual, and they have faith that people are at their best when truly “self-reliant” and independent.

Transcendentalism emphasizes subjective intuition over objective empiricism. Adherents believe that individuals are capable of generating completely original insights with little attention and deference to past masters.

Excerpt from Thoreau’s essay Slavery in Massachusetts:

“I wish my countrymen to consider, that whatever the human law may be, neither an individual nor a nation can ever commit the least act of injustice against the obscurest individual without having to pay the penalty for it.” Thoreau

Readings on the Four Noble Truths from:

Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings p. 9-10

Stephen Batchelor’s After Buddhism – where he talks about the Four tasks  p. 55-58

Audio dharma talk:

Gil Fronsdal – The Simplicity of the Four Noble Truths


by Tony Hoagland

Sometimes I prefer not to untangle it
I prefer it to remain disorganized
because it is richer that way
like a certain shrubbery I pass each day on Reba Street
in an unimpressive yard, in front of a home
that seems unoccupied
a chest-high, spreading shrub with
large white waxy blossoms —
whose stalks are climbed and woven
through simultaneously
by a different kind of vine with small
magenta flowers
that appear and disappear inside the
maze of leaves
like tiny purple stitches.
The white and purple combination
of these species,
one seeming to possibly be strangling
the other,
one possibly lifting the other up – it
would take both
a botanist and a psychologist
to figure it all out.


Evolutionary psychology claims that imagination is what makes homo sapiens sapient.  And somewhat surprisingly, imagination is essential in following the Buddhist Path.  This week, Michael guided our reflections as we explored the various ways in which imagination (often discouraged when we first come to meditate) deepens our practice, both on and off the cushion, and the historical context of those who have used it to good effect.

Below are Michael’s notes from the presentation.

imagination and Dharma

When we first come to meditate, we are troubled by fantasies, daydreams, chaotically wandering mind full of images, and so we may come to think of imagination as the enemy.  But Coleridge’s famous writings on the distinctions imagination and fancy can help us out here, and allow us to see that true imagination is quite different from mind-wandering (papancha), delusion, daydreams.  

Both imagination and fancy produce mental images, but imagination is goal oriented, while fancy is free floating.  Imagination is coherent;  fantasy is often whimsical, scattered. Imagination often yields creativity, producing new ideas, and imagination seeks deeper laws to follow, whereas fancy often follows the mood or novel desire of the moment.  

In his recent and widely read book Sapiens, thinker Yuval Noah Harari posits a crucial cognitive revolution which differentiates homo sapiens sapiens from all other hominids.  — namely the capacity to imagine another reality,  a world beyond our own – beyond what we immediately see, the successful hunt, painted on the walls of the Lascaux caves being a familiar example.  

In a much later example Hammurabi’s code, with the laws of his realm inscribed on pillars placed throughout the empire, set up an ideal of justice for all to follow, by imagining how a just king would act in ruling Babylonian Empire, in which all men were subject to the same laws.  His coherent code is rooted in universal and eternal principles, and claims to be dictated by the gods.   .    

The same is true of our own Declaration of Independence:  which states that “All men are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” in the hopes that this imagined picture of human relations may someday become true.   

Buddhism is filled with imagination . . . as well as being suspicious of its charms early on.  

In early buddhism, there were no statues of the Buddha — only footprints, carved into the earth where he might be imagined invisibly to stand — a tribute to the unimaginable quality of buddha’s realization.

So the first images of Buddhism are of Emptiness – quite difficult to imagine.  Emptiness, the fertile void, out of which all emerges, and yet which always rests as itself.  

The Heart Sutra manages by its repetitive intensity to bring forth an image of  world in which the primary fact is emptiness.  “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.  form is no other than emptiness; emptiness is no other than form.  The same is true of feeling, perception, impulses, consciousness.  . . . there is no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body no mind,  . . . no color no sound no smell to taste no touch no object of mind.  No ignorance and also no extinction of it, and so forth. . . “  The whole world is permeated by emptiness.

Zen paintings and calligraphy also see to “capture” emptiness by the use of blank space.  Think of the Enso, the great Zen circle, both open and closed.

 The Buddhist imagination has plenty of other uses for Imagination as well:  Consider the four great Bodhisattva Vows.

  • Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save the all.
  • Delusions are endless, I vow to cut through them all    
  • The Teachings are infinite, I vow to master them all
  • The Buddha Way is inconceivable, I vow to attain it.

These vows are manifestly impossible to fulfill, but they body forth an image of a heaven on earth, in which each person who follows these vows creates a new world, imagined in the perfection of human actions.  This affirmation is imaginatively embodied in japan’s largest Buddhist sect (Jodo Shin Shu) as The Pure Land.

Imagination can make excellent use of hard facts, and in doing so can improve and deepen our lives.  Thoreau, in the “Higher Laws” chapter of Walden, said that he sought to have a diet so clean that his imagination can sit down at the dinner table with him.  To eat a piece of meat honestly would require imagining the slaughterhouse it was killed in (and today would require imagining the cages and maltreatment that are part of agribusiness and meatpacking).  The vegan diet, for example, is supported to a great extent by vivid imagination of the hell we have made for our animals, and the denuding of earth by those those that tend them.

On a more heart-warming note, we have all heard Thich Nhat Hanh’s description of eating an orange—and with it, the whole world from which it comes to us.  As was so evident in Payton’s presentation of tea a few weeks back, imagination brings us vividly into the truth of things.  In a single sip of tea, we swallow the world, and become one with it.


The teachings of the Buddha can sometimes be very heady, satisfying to the mind but not as applicable in our lived experience. The dharma, however, is meant to be a practice which is felt in every aspect of our waking being, not just an intellectual pursuit. This week, Mike B guided the discussion around the topic of the body and the embodiment of the dharma.

Mike played a talk by Akincano, which is available here:

Doubt: The Final Hindrance

This Sunday, Joey drew on talks by Mark Nunberg and Christina Feldman on the topic of doubt, one of the five hindrances.

Where does doubt arise in your life? Do you ever experience self-doubt or as Christina points out, a belief in insufficiency of one sort or another? What prevents doubt from arising? How do you pull yourself out of it, once its compelling presence is there? These teachers explore skillful means of addressing the existential anxiety of not knowing.

Below are the talks which Joey played. (Christina Feldman on Doubt) (Mark Nunberg on Doubt)