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)

The end of Hatred

The Dhammapada reads, “Hatred does not end by hatred; by non-hate alone does it end”. This saying is so pithy it seems indisputable, but what is meant by hatred, and what is meant by non-hatred? Most people who hear this phrase probably think of themselves as mostly without hatred, and yet what if the Pali word Dosa was translated differently? What if it was “hostility”, or “annoyance”, or “frustration”? Then perhaps we might begin to see this poison in ourselves and how it spreads in our culture. But how can we avoid these things? Perhaps we need to look more deeply at the roots of the issue.

Payton guided the Sangha’s discussion this week on the topic of Hatred and its end. We examined how the word “love” is often used in place of “non-hate” in the above quote, but how leaving it as “non-hate” opens up the possibility for many different responses.

Here’s the talk Payton played by Gil Fronsdal:

Touching the Earth

Zac’s talk and reflection this past Sunday revolved around the story of Buddha touching the Earth. It is said that at the moment of his awakening he reached down with his right hand and touched the Earth. Depictions of this moment have become one of the most widespread images in Buddhist iconography.

We visited the story of Buddha touching the Earth, explored its implications, and discussed what touching the earth in our own practice means.

Thoughts Think Themselves

This Sunday Jeffrey presented the topic, “Thoughts Think Themselves”. He presented a quick review of the work of Robert Wright, Why Buddhism Is True, and an article by Max Bertolero and Danielle Basset, “How Matter Becomes Mind”, Scientific American, July 2019. These sources describe “modular” models of the mind, with the overall “managing” function performed by the evolutionarily late frontalparietal control module. Examining the modular nature of the mind can help one better understand and experience the “self” as a fragmented group of connected modules, rather than a single entity.

We listened to a talk by Gil Fronsdal, The Web of Thoughts.

We meditated with the intent of identifying how thoughts arise, and how we become attached to them. 

“When you start doing this, you’ll begin to notice that your thoughts never just appear all at once fully verbalized. They start out much more nebulous.” -Sit Down and Shut Up,  2007 by Brad Warner  

Exploring our individual practice

This week, rather than listen to a talk, Stephen moderated a deep discussion within our gathering. The topics began with how we were drawn to Dharma practice and opened up into practices, experiences, and questions about our paths. A recurring theme was that anything we can do to make our practice a more enjoyable experience will increase our willingness to sit. This is not at all to say that meditation is always a pleasant endeavor, but that a little ritual, place, time, exercise, or external motivation can make a big difference in priming the mind. Many stories were shared and we were reminded that we are not alone.

Intimate Relationships

Lorilee led our exploration of ways in which the dharma can illuminate our intimate relationships this past Sunday.  Drawing on the work of Israeli teacher Zohar Lavie, as well as Americans Tara Brach and Steven Cope, we explored ways in which intimate relationships can offer a clear lens with which to examine the nature of ’selfing’, just as clearly as silent sitting can explore it.  Then we looked into the ways in which diminished attention spans undermine both serious dharma practice and intimate relationships, exploring ways to lengthen and strengthen our attentional connections.  Throughout, the matter of what it took to be a committed and skilled listener provided a thread that united our explorations. 

Here’s a link to the talk by Zohar Levie:

And here’s a link to Tara Brach’s talk:

Steven Cope’s book is “The Wisdom of Yoga: A Seeker’s Guide to Extraordinary Living”

Thriving in Uncertainty

This Sunday Patrick guided our reflections, turning to the topic of living in and with uncertainty.  Anchoring in a talk by  Zohar Lavie called “Anicca, Equanimity, and Bodhicitta,” we explored the roles these three have in working with the uncertainties we experience everyday. We discussed how uncertainty can bring a new way of seeing, and how it provides us opportunities for mindfulness, strength, and thoughtful action. 

Here is a link to the talk we heard:

And here is a link to Zohar Lavie’s organizational website:

Vedana: Attention to Feelings Opens up our Practice in New Ways

This Sunday Denise guided our reflections on vedana, the sensation or “feeling tone” that arises when our senses come into contact with something.  We focused on the challenges and benefits of working specifically with vedana as a part of one’s spiritual practice.

Here’s the references from Denise’s talk:

  1. Analayo. 2018. Satipatthana Meditation: A Practice Guide.
    (Windhorse Publications, UK)217pp.
  2. Analayo. 2016. Interview “Vedana Part 1: Addressing Views and
    Clinging at the Source”. Barre Center for Buddhist Studies.
  3. Analayo. 2016 Interview “Vedana Part 2 Addressing Views and
    Clinging the Source”
  4. Faulds, Danna. 2009. “Nothing More is Needed”. Poem published in
    Limitless: New Poems and Other Writings. (Morris Publising, NE) 120pp.
  5. Goenka, S.N. 2010. “Why Vedana and What is Vedana?”
    Vipassana Research Institute
  6. Sangharakshita. Living with Awareness: A Guide to the Satipatthana
    Sutta . A community audio book read by Suhadra. Paper copy
    published in 2004 by Windhorse Publications, Cambridge UK.
  7. Vidyamala Burch. 2018. Talk on Vedana and Growth. Part of a series
    on Sattipatthana Sutta

Other references that came up during discussion:

  1. Brahm, Ajahn and Chan Master Guojun. 2019. Faliing is Flying: The Dharma of
  2. Facing Adversity (Wisdom Publication, Mass.). 136pp.
  3. Chodron, Pema. 2017 Twentieth Anniversary Edition. When Things Fall Apart: Heart
    Advice for Difficult Times (Shambhala Publication, Colorado).151pp.
  4. Rinpoche, Youngey Mingyur and H.T. Tworkov. 2019. In Love with the World: A
    Monk’s Journey Through the Bardos of Living and Dying (Bluebird, London UK)