Why Buddhism is True

This past week, Jeffrey presented an overview of  the work of evolutionary psychologist Robert Wright, with a focus on Wright’s provocative book, Why Buddhism is True. His notes follow.

Wright claims that the Buddha’s path to become free from suffering actually addresses the inherent insatiable imperatives of our brain that developed through natural selection. The discussion will focus on the question of how emerging developments in neuroscience affect our practice, or whether they are ultimately, irrelevant.

Jeffrey presented the Modular Model of the Mind, as outlined in Robert Wright’s book, Why Buddhism is True. Wright’s argument is that our brains evolved bit by bit through natural selection, and as a consequence, we are prone to self-delusion and anxiety, leading to suffering. We are hard-wired to experience pleasure as fleeting, leading to constant cycle of craving, sating and dissatisfaction. Wright agrees with Buddha that there is no “CEO” style of self that is in control of our thoughts, feelings and actions. He contends that our minds are made up of “modules’, each with a specific evolutionarily-driven goal, such as satisfying hunger or spreading our genes. There is no overall self, instead, whichever module is most highly stimulated by information in the environment will tend to become dominant for a period of time. Because buddhism shares very similar notions about craving as the source of suffering, the buddhist prescription for relief from suffering makes sense to Wright. 

Wright presents his ideas and explores new territory on his “vidcast” show.

Finding Freedom in the Heart of Vows

On this last session of 2018, Michael led the Sangha discussion on the topic of vows. Below are his notes.

At this time of year many are formulating resolutions for the next 12 months. Research has shown that while these intentions are admirable their average duration is short, and they falter and disappear as enduring motivations in between 4 to 12 days.

There are of course many ways of setting a direction for our lives: wish becomes inclination, aspiration, intention, promise, vow, oath.

Vows have a prominent place in most forms of buddhist practice, and form a kind of framework in which we view the nature and success of our commitments. Our happiness and sense of meaning in life is affected by living according to vows we have set – and they are often keys to our sense of identity.

A relevant example: recently a large hospital surveyed all its workers, asking them to relate their degree of job satisfaction. To the surprise of the HR department, menial workers in the hospital – those who swept the floors, changed the bedpans, freshened the sheets, and the like – had among the highest degrees of job satisfaction in the hospital. This merited further investigation, and when those conducting the survey met with these workers, among the questions they asked was “How do you define your work here?” A large percentage (and those among the most satisfied with their jobs) responded, “I am a healer.”
They went on to explain: “When I come in to clean, even if the patient is said to be in a coma, I talk to them just as if they could hear and react as anyone would. You never know what’s going on inside, and being treated like they are human is bound to help them at some level.” Or, “When I go into the room of someone who’s been there for a few days, I switch the pictures around in the room, so they have a change – or if they have a favorite picture, I make sure it’s the one in prime space to see.” And so on. These people had formulated their own vows to be Healers, participating deeply in the care the hospital gave.

In Buddhism, we might focus on two sets of vows, and bring these beyond ritual repetitions and into life-shaping commitments.
The Refuge Vows are
I take refuge in the Buddha
I take refuge in the Dharma
I take refuge in the Sangha

These vows constitute are, in fact, the commitments one makes to “become” a buddhist. A great deal could be said about each one, and much was said in our sangha session about these; here we can simply indicate some possibilities of the ways in which they can penetrate and shape our lives.

We can take refuge not only in appreciation of the spiritual genius of Shakyamuni Buddha, but in the profound fact that a human being in no way supernatural can achieve complete freedom and clarity. In Dogen’s famous description of enlightenment as “The Moon in the Dewdrop,” we see an image of full and complete enlightenment as embodied in each of us, each sentient being, even though our lives are as ephemeral as dew.

When we take refuge in the Dharma, we not only commit to study the teachings of buddhism, but to appreciate his distinct position in the philosophical culture of his time, which strongly resembles our own. Teachers then made their livings by going from village to village offering their perspectives and disciplines, and thus even ordinary people could be exposed to a variety of spiritual viewpoints. Today we have a similar situation with the internet, meditation centers, and the wide diffusion of spiritual teachings. But the Buddha distinguished himself from other teachers by an unswerving emphasis on causal and effect, both in his investigations, and in the disciplines he recommended people follow to lead them to realization of their own fullest being. In this he was distinct from the nihilists who said that no values were worth adhering to, to the fatalists who said our lives were predestined and we could have no effect on their course, the ritualists who felt their performance of sacrifices kept the world turning and assured their place in it, and the magical thinkers who thought they could change the course of the world by appealing to the gods in prayer. The Buddha asked his followers to see the facts of their lives, including their sufferings, as results of causes that could be discovered, and then worked upon, to eliminate the life poisoning effects of greed, anger, and delusion.

And finally, refuge in the Sangha means associating with people who will support your own integrity in walking the spiritual path — whether those people are identifiably buddhist, or whether they are simply others who are committed to clarifying their lives and expanding their compassion.

The second set of vows which loom large in the buddhist community are the Bodhisattva vows, which we see mainly in the various kinds of Mahayana buddhism, such as Zen and Pure Land. But many Vipassana practitioners, in the Theravada school find them meaningful as well.

Sentient Beings are numberless; I vow to liberate them all.
Delusions are endless; I vow to abandon them all.
Dharma gates are countless; I vow to enter them all.
The Buddha Way is inconceivable; I vow to embody it fully.

What distinguishes these vows is their almost incomprehensible sweep. In a sense, one could spend one’s whole life trying to fulfill them. I personally remember taking up the first vow with my Zen Master, and explaining that it was of course impossible for me to liberate all beings. Hmmm, he said, looking as if he was considering my special case, and hearing this reservation for the first time. “Well, perhaps you could liberate them from your opinion of them.” I need hardly say how deeply that struck me, and how much it changed my orientation toward life.

And even if we think these are impossible goals – we can in fact see them actually being fulfilled around us, by people in all faith disciplines.

Taking the Bodhisattva Vow implies that instead of holding onto our individual territory and defending it tooth and nail we become open to the world that we are living in. It means we are willing to take on greater responsibility, immense responsibility. In fact it means taking a big chance.

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche – https://tricycle.org/magazine/bodhisattva-vow-eight-views/

Wholesome Desire

Today Payton led our Sangha discussion on the topic of Desire and its role in our daily life and our practice.

This is a season of classic desire, and while the Buddhist path suggests that we try to find a way to be without desire, that instruction isn’t meant to be applied all the time. Rather, if we can find a way to quiet the strong pull of desire in our minds, this gives us the opportunity to recognize when desires arise and choose whether to follow them. And how do we know when to follow them?

Gil Fronsdal sums it up nicely:

Any circumstance you’re in, don’t make it worse; improve on it….

If you haven’t yet made it worse, don’t make it worse. If you’re making it worse, stop doing it. If you haven’t made it better yet, start doing it. If you’re making it better, keep doing it.

Gil Fronsdal

Payton played a talk by Gil, which is available here:

The Five Strengths

Ginny led our reflections this past Sunday morning, focusing particularly on The Five Strengths outlined by the Buddha, which can support us in our practice.  Of particular interest are the ways in which these Strengths support healing, cultivating joy and connection.

Probably thinking of the monkey mind, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche once said, “In the garden of gentle sanity, may you be bombarded by the coconuts of wakefulness.”  Other insights from Trungpa and Pema Chodron were used to support the presentation. 

Here are Ginny’s notes:

Last week in my morning reading/practice I read the chapter on Strengths in Pema Chodron’s book The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times and thought – ah ha!  It was like getting struck by a coconut… practice!, by working with these inherent capacities joy is accessible regardless of our relative experience. I had this flash of how my own experience of joy was connected to my ability to stay present with what was right in front of me – without attachment. And beyond that, my capacity to be present in this way allowed me to bring lightness and spaciousness to my practice. I saw this in stark relief to my “striving” for perfection, approval and an experience of goodness that was outside of me. 

The Five Strengths – (Five Faculties – that when cultivated and practiced become strengths)

  1. faith or conviction or belief (saddha, Shraddha)
    1. strong determination
  2. energy or persistence or perseverance (virya)
    1. familiarization
  3. mindfulness or memory (sati)
    1. Seed of goodness 
  4. stillness of the mind (Samadhi)
    1. reproach (story of the Geshe Ben – and the grain)
  5. wisdom or understanding or comprehension (pañña).
    1. aspiration

The story that captured my attention initially was one that Pema shared to describe the 4th strength as defined in her tradition – Reproach. 

Here is a talk that Ginny played by Gil Fronsdal, entitled Being the ant or the elephant – cultivating the 5 spiritual strengths


Poem for closing sit


What is the difference
Between your experience of Existence
And that of a saint?

The saint knows
That the spiritual path
Is a sublime chess game with God

And that the Beloved
Has just made such a Fantastic Move 

That the saint is now continually
Tripping over Joy
And bursting out in Laughter
And saying, “I Surrender!”

Whereas, my dear,
I am afraid you still think
You have a thousand serious moves.

Joy in the Rise & Fall of All Experience

Sam led our reflections this past Sunday, focusing on the way in which the rise and fall of the Five Aggregates — the elements of all experience — can actually bring us joy. 

Sam played the talk “Intoxicated with Reality” by Eugene Cash, given at Spirit Rock:


Some quotes he read too:

Whenever he sees with insight the rise and fall of the aggregates, he is full of joy and happiness. To the discerning one this reflects the Deathless [Nirvana]

“Treat every moment as your last. It is not preparation for something else.”

 Suzuki Roshi

When I realized that no moment can be repeated, then I became enlightened.


“The dharma I have reached is deep, hard to see, difficult to awaken to, quiet and excellent, not confined by thought, subtle, sensed by the wise.   But people love their place (alaya):  they delight and revel in their place.   It is hard for people who love, delight, and revel in their place to [see these two grounds;   the ground of conditioned arising and the ground of nirvana (the stilling of inclinations, the relinquishing of bases, the fading away of reactivity, desirelessness, ceasing). ] 

From the Buddha

The mind and the self

This week, Zac guided our sangha discussion. He played an excerpt from a dharma talk by Rob Burbea and read a very insightful chapter from the book “I Am That” by Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, some of which is quoted below.

The talk by Rob Burbea is here: https://dharmaseed.org/teacher/210/talk/51513/

Here is an excerpt from “I Am That”:

Maharaj: You were glad when the body was well and you are sad when the body is unwell. Who is glad one day and sad the next?

Questioner: The mind.

M: And who knows the variable mind?

Q: The mind.

M: The mind is the knower. Who knows the knower?

Q: Does not the knower know itself?

M: The mind is discontinuous. Again and again it blanks out, like in sleep or swoon, or distraction. There must be something continuous to register discontinuity.

Q: The mind remembers. This stands for continuity.

M: Memory is always partial, unreliable and evanescent. It does not explain the strong sense of identity pervading consciousness, the sense ‘I am’. Find out what is at the root of it.

Q: However deeply I look, I find only the mind. Your words ‘beyond the mind’ give me no clue.

M: While looking with the mind, you cannot go beyond it. To go beyond, you must look away from the mind and its contents.

Q: In what direction am I to look?

M: All directions are within the mind! I am not asking you to look in any particular direction. Just look away from all that happens in your mind and bring it to the feeling ‘I am’. The ‘I am’ is not a direction. It is the negation of all direction…. Bringing the mind to the feeling ‘I am’ merely helps in turning the mind away from everything else.

Q: Where does it all lead me?

M: When the mind is kept away from its preoccupations, it becomes quiet. If you do not disturb this quiet and stay in it, you find that it is permeated with a light and a love you have never known…

Q: How shall I recognize this state when I reach it?

M: There will be no fear.

Q: Surrounded by a world full of mysteries and dangers, how can I remain unafraid?

M: Your own little body too is full of mysteries and dangers, yet you are not afraid of it, for you take it as your own. What you do not know is that the entire universe is your own body…

Awakening to Joy

This past week Sojun guided our discussion, continuing on the topic of Joy, but focusing this time on practical advice for bringing appreciation to moments of happiness in our lives. Below are his notes on what was a very fruitful talk.

Joy is fundamental to successful practice, but joy does not always come easily. Taking joy as the focus of my practice this last week my experiences ran the gamut from carefree and joyful, to absolutely desolate and miserable. Over the course of the week I developed five approaches to joy, like five medicines of increasing strength, to help relate to joy even when it feels far away.

These five approaches I call:

  1. The Subtle
  2. The Opposite
  3. The Comical
  4. The Absence, and
  5. The Compassionate

The Subtle approach is for days where joyful practice comes easily. We need nothing more than to sit and experience the flow of sensation through the body like birds twittering through our limbs. One practitioner likened this feeling to the title of Walt Whitman poem, “I Sing The Body Electric.” These are the subtle changes in the senses and the world outside us that are constantly with us.

But we don’t always experience these sensations as joy. Sometimes they can appear to us as fear or anxiety. There is an element of interpretation that makes these sensations feel to be either joy or something else. An emotion is after all, a physical sensation matched with certain thoughts or mental images. The sensations themselves are often quite neutral, and as such, we can flip the switch on them and re-interpret negative feelings as their opposite. I like to use this technique in the morning if I’m resisting getting out of bed. I try to experience my anxiety about the day as excitement.

The Comical approach is useful when flipping the switch doesn’t work. We can see ourselves as the curmudgeon, the Mr. Wilson who refuses to see the play of a child as a joyful event.

Sometimes it feels as if we are pushing away joy on purpose. Perhaps we feel that we are not worthy of it. If we find ourselves doing something absurd like this, it is useful to follow this to its logical conclusion. Imagine yourself completely empty of joy. Nature abhors a vacuum. You may begin to feel joy from all around pushing into you like water pushing into a deep sea diving bell. This exercise never fails to make me giddy. This is the approach of absence.

But, of course there are times for all of us when joy seems as remote as the moon. We can’t remember any reason to feel good about anything, and the attempt to find joy is simply galling. At times like this it is helpful to remember the feelings of compassion that are present in you. That you would never wish this suffering on anyone, and that you would like nothing more than to see everyone freed from this misery. There are countless being in the world who wish the same for you. Even when you cannot feel it yourself, you can rely on the compassion of others to awaken joy within you.

The Heart’s Capacity

Joey guided our reflections this Sunday, opening with a guided meditation on grounding — finding the support waiting for us in the Earth and the earth element in our own being.  Weaving together strands from teachings by Chris Cullen and Robin Kimmerer, with her own observations, we explored and cultivated the capacity of the heart as it manifests in our individual and collective lives.

Chris Cullen’s talk is here:


Joey also read excerpts from Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, available here:


The Nature of Insight itself

Stephen guided our reflections this Sunday, centering on the topic of Insight or “Vipassana”. Despite the fact that many of us practice a form of meditation that goes by this name, we may not keep fully in mind the very meaning of Insight to which our meditation might bring us. 

Culadasa (John Yates) website & book info:https://dharmatreasure.org

One portion of his Dharma talks including the Meditation & Insight set of talks:https://dharmatreasure.org/teaching-retreats/

The Mind Illuminated at Amazon https://www.amazon.com/Mind-Illuminated-Meditation-Integrating-Mindfulness/dp/1501156985/ref=mp_s_a_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1541959397&sr=8-1&pi=AC_SX236_SY340_QL65&keywords=the+mind+illuminated


This Sunday, Mike Blouin guided our reflections on the central topic of Generosity, with some additional thoughts from Gil Fronsdal.  Generosity is a foundational and transformational element in the dharmic path, and a cornerstone of practice.

The first talk was here: https://audiodharma.org/talks/audio_player/5163.html

The second talk was here: https://audiodharma.org/series/1/talk/7118/  (parts 3 and 6 from the generosity section).