May 31, 2007

Shamatha & The Four Immeasurables

Last evening we were treated to a talk by the researchers involved in the Shamatha Project, a joint research project taking place here at SMC to study the effects of shamatha meditation. Dr. Beth Adelson from Rice and Dr. Cliff Saron of UC-Davis spoke about the science and the testing they had designed and conducted. More interesting to me, was the talk by B. Allen Wallace.

Allen has spent thirty-seven years studying Buddhism, including fourteen years as a monk in the Tibetan tradition. He is teaching meditation to the thirty people which have been living, isolated and mostly in silence, in the Rigden Lodge for the last three months. He spoke on the three practices of shamatha and Four Immeasurables. I have heard these thing mentioned vaguely in the past, but never received such an in depth explanation of them before.

There are three distinct practices, or stages, or parts to shamatha meditation. The first, found in the very words of the Buddha as recorded in the Theravada tradition, the oldest of the three, is Mindfulness of the Breath. This I have received instruction on, it being the primary practice of Shambhala Training Level I, and enumerated in many books. The other two have been mentioned, but only as things which may occur during meditation, not as separate practices in their own right.

Settling the Mind in Its Natural State is the second of these. This is found only in the Tibetan teachings. It is a way of allowing our thoughts, emotions, memories, etc. to arise and pass away naturally, without judgment, clinging, or aversion. Allen described it as “space accommodating all that arises,” and recited the Tibetan instruction (predating the Beatles) to “let it be, without preference.”

Shamatha Without Object (or Base) is the third practice, and is also unique to Tibetan Buddhism. It is an awareness of awareness, consciousness of consciousness. He described it as the pinnacle.

The important point to note is that these are not stages in a linear progress. One starts with Mindfulness of the Breath, just as I did, but will find settling and awareness occurring naturally. The mind will flow between the three. When one is accomplished with an success, it will naturally gravitate towards another, though it may return time and again to the other two.

He also spoke of the two outcomes of shamatha, stability and vividness. They are both equally important, but we must cultivate stability first, as primary, because it is the base of vividness. Then he spoke of a third thing we must cultivate, which he finds is unique to Westerners and not in the Tibetan practices. We must also cultivate relaxation. “When you achieve shamatha, you’re effortless,” he said. So relaxation first, then stability, then vividness. This will come from shamatha.

He is also teaching his students The Four Immeasurables: loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity. Firstly because “no matter what galaxy you’re in, they’re intrinsically good. Loving kindness is always better than the alternative, not matter what samsaric realm you’re in.” But also because these four qualities help you balance whatever comes up. In shamatha, we dredge up every possible aspect of ourselves, all our psychoses and neuroses, anger, pain, ecstasy, jealousy, it all comes up. “Shamatha makes you sane, wonderfully sane.” The Four Immeasurables, when applied to oneself, help keep an even keel.

Finally, when the retreatants go home after these three months and resume their busy lives, their shamatha practice might fray, get a little tattered around the edges, but The Four Immeasurables will remain their best friends. “You have to cultivate friendships,” Allen said, “you can’t just say, ‘Oh yes, we’ve been introduced.’” This is why he teaches the cultivation of The Four Immeasurables.

Allen is interested in what is Tibetan and what is timeless? Many of the practices we are importing were designed by Tibetans for Tibetans, a mostly nomadic people who grew up at thirteen thousand feet, herding yaks, and speaking Om Mani Padme Hum as their first syllables. When it all boils down, he just wants to know what works? What works for us, who are not Tibetan?

One of the things that strikes me about accomplished teachers, the few I have seen video of or heard in person, is they always speak very eloquently (even if we are still confused, it never sounds less than articulate). There are no monosyllables, uh, ah, oh, well, though they do pause from time to time. They seem to know always what they are saying. Also, as Allen did, they tend to speak with a voice which is both very gentle, very soft, and yet somehow urgent, fervent, and always humorous. There is much laughter.

Any religion or philosophy which can values humor as an indispensable part of the practice, works for me.

May 28, 2007

And People Still Ask Why....

For more new photos check out the Summer Fun @ SMC 2007 link on the right.

May 26, 2007


The drive down the mountain was lovely. I have never made that drive in the morning and the land sparkled in the bright eastern light. I glimpsed the snowy mountains in my rearview and smiled as I turned onto the paved roads. Traffic was light and I made good time. I stopped at the post office in Livermore.

I headed through Old Town on College, scanning the right side for Target until I found it. They had almost everything I needed. Almost, only one thing was missing. Whole Foods, that land of temptation, would surely have it, but no. Traffic was picking up. It is Saturday after all, and Memorial Day weekend. College is a busy street.

I stopped at the bank to cash a check and borrow the phone book. Only a handful of import shops were listed, nothing Asian and nothing near here. No world markets or Asian markets were listed at all. None of the tellers knew of anyplace. So I tried Safeway, with no luck there either. Finally, the last resort: Wal-Mart.

By this time is was noon. The streets were full, the parking lot was full, the isles were full, with children running everywhere. I didn’t find it in this section or that, but finally, FINALLY, tucked away at the bottom of the tiny Asian foods section, there it was! I got eight boxes. The checkouts were full. Children were running absolutely everywhere. People on their cell phones, families talking, arguing, children crying. Finally, I won free and had to stop myself from speeding out of town.

I hadn’t noticed it on the way down, but traffic on the highways moves so fast! The landscape just blurs by. Even the beat up little gas station outside of town was busy, with an entire school bus full of white water rafters. Finally I made it to the turn at The Forks, then to what I am now thinking of as my own little dirt road. Then past the front gate. It is lunchtime still and Downtown is full of people. I stop to say hello, leave some of my goodies in my snack box in the mudroom, then head to my office. I felt like I was fleeing.

I finally made it to my office, my haven, where everything is just as I left it. These four walls, these two windows, this door, the cluttered desk, full bookshelves, and tatty old chair stacked with the phone books I have been sitting on is still pulled up to the tall drafting table. I can’t think. I am so wound up.

Being in the city, even a small city like Fort Collins, was pleasant at first but soon became overwhelming. Wal-Mart was the tipping point, I think. Even living in a city like I normally do, I avoid Wal-Mart. I’ve sorted out my purchases now, wrapped four of my eight boxes up with shiny green ribbon and a birthday card, and sat long enough to check my email. I think I’ll walk back uptown, get a nice hot chocolate and sit, watch the magpies clean up from lunch, and breath this tension away.

This is the suffering of attachment.

May 25, 2007

Wild Urges

I had the almost undeniable urge to yell "Bear!" in the middle of midday meditation.

I wonder why that is?

Making the Bed

I have never made the bed. It is one of those things my mother tried, in vain, to instill in me at a young age. I felt it was silly because you’re just going to climb in and unmake it in sixteen hours anyway. Nothing has really changed since then. However, recently I have come to understand the origin of the tradition.

As the sun dips below the horizon in the evening, dew forms. When one lives in a dwelling without any form of heating (say, a tent) dew forms on the surfaces of things inside the dwelling as well. Which means the top of one’s bed is covered with a sheen of moisture. If the bed is made and the covers thick (as they are of necessity), only the top of the outer quilt will be a little damp. The inside will be pleasantly dry to and good for snuggling.

We, with our central heating and central air conditioning, humidifiers and dehumidifiers, are really quite spoiled. We have lost touch with the traditions and skills of prior generations. So when a little girl asks “Why should I make the bed?” there is no satisfactory answer. (“So it looks nice,” being of very little concern to a six year old tomboy.)

I probably still won’t make my bed, but at least I know why I should.

May 20, 2007


My slogan card for the day.


Yesterday, we went up to the pasture after dinner to look in on the horses. They were grazing. Midnight’s head came up and his ears swiveled forward. I looked where he was looking and called out “Bear!” There was a smallish black bear with tan markings booking it like a bat out of hell through the meadow just east of the pasture. The others saw him, but by the time we got over the low hill he had long since disappeared. He was heading from north to south, from somewhere near Registration on a beeline to the Stupa heading between Shotoku and Red Feather.

It seemed an odd place for a bear to me, right in the middle of the valley between two major campuses and human habitation all around. He must have been scared, because he sure was trucking. I have never seen a wild bear before. The horses weren’t frightened at all. Maggie didn’t even stop grazing.

May the bear find a nice place to live with lots of food and be free from suffering (and stay out of our tents.)

May 19, 2007


I sat in meditation the other day, on my little red rocker in Pushpa surrounded by friends and coworkers breathing together. The word spirit is descended from a Latin word “spirarae” which means to “breath together.” Isn’t that lovely? So we sat and breathed together for half an hour before lunch.

Usually after about twenty minutes, the squirrel that is my mind starts careening off the walls in a really unpleasant manner. So I let it out, so to speak. I let my mind wander, drop my concentration on the breath, and just hope for the bell to ring. My ego had convinced me there was an inherent limit to how much sitting the mind could take. It lied.

The body, as a physical thing of muscle and bone, has a limit to how long it may maintain any position with comfort, but the mind is free of such influences. The past conditions of the body, sore muscles, painful joints, carry into the future, but the mind exists single-pointedly in the present. This moment is free. If we wish it to be.

My mind has no inherent limit to the amount of time it can be still. It does not build up discomfort. Thoughts do not actually form like water behind a damn. They come and they go. It is up to me to let them go, rather than trying to hold them back. I gave the squirrel a nut (any decent epiphany tastes good) and told it to sit still. It did.

I sat with greater calm once I realized the limits were of my own making and subject to my own un-making.

May 18, 2007

Only Here

Things I find only at Shambhala: The all leather utility kilt. Men who wear kilts (or sarongs if dressing to go out) as a part of their normal daily attire. Prayer flags - on buildings, trees, ledges, trucks, etc. Beat up old pick-ups with the words Ki Ki So So painted on them. Magpies. People who only eat organic food and only smoke organic tobacco. Women who wear mini-skirts over snow pants. Bumper stickers which say: "Honk if you don't exist." "Enlighten Up!" "My other vehicle is Mahayana/Vajrayana/Windhorse." "Ignorance of the law of karma is no excuse." Manic-depressive cats named Karma. Deer who couldn't care less about us carnivores less than five feet away. Random beauty. Senseless kindness.

Spontaneous joy.

May 12, 2007


Yesterday, two cranes flew overhead. Giant and graceful, Tiger-cat and I watched them from out bench next to the kitchen while we waited for the dinner gong. The bold magpie tried for snatches of our fajitas and salads, but settled for the bits of rice which fell on the ground. After, Sylvain and I went up to the pasture and led the horses in to be saddled and bridled using carrots and apples for bait. Susie, Sylvain, Maya, and I rode until dark. Maya, 9 going on 30, rode in front of Sylvain and learned how to control the horse. We watched the sunset over the ridges from the high stupa valley. In the dark we unsaddled them and brushed the dust and sweat off their backs. The cold was creeping up, making me wish for my gloves.

Today is another beautiful day, sunny and warm. As I walked down the trail to breakfast, the horses trotted over to the fence to say hello. I had no food for them, only scratches around their ears. After waffles and a shower, I walked down the dusty, and much pitted, dirt road to work. At the lagoon I stopped and gazed at the water, looking for the ducklings due any day now. None so far.

In my office, I turned on my little space heater, but also opened the window a bit for some fresh air. I’m going to ask the facilities guys to nail up a screen so I can have it open more when the summer heat arrives. On the shelf above the desk sit framed photographs of Chogyam Trungpa and Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche along with a set of slogan cards. The slogan for the today is “Be grateful to everyone.” I added a little desk calendar of impressionist paintings sent to me by my grate-grandmother and the little stuffed cat which meows from the care basket my friends gave me before I left Nebraska. And, of course, Architecture Graphic Standards, 10th Edition.

I think this is the best place I could be this season. I will learn much, love much, be outdoors much, meditate much (I’m trying!), and eat much good food. Gratitude is the greatest thing I can do now. As the summer wears on and I tire of hiking a half mile to shower, sleeping in a tent which rattles when the wind blows, and never knowing if I’m going to like what is set out for lunch everyday, I should have gratitude for those things as well, for they are also part of that ‘much’ I will learn. This place is my teacher, custom designed and built by thousands of sangha members who came before.

I am grateful for this place.

May 09, 2007


The community comes together in the middle of each day. The kitchen has been busy since dawn and now people are enjoying mahi mahi, marinated tofu, fresh green salad, edamame, fruit, and grilled asparagus. The sun shines with a warmth only found at higher altitudes. The wind which so often plagues mountain valleys is quiet for now. The tables outside fill quickly, leaving only a small number in the usually crowded dining hall.

They are a great mixture of humanity, from teenagers to grey haired elders, men and women equally, of all backgrounds and classes. Children are the only absence, there being only a handful living on the land. Lilly, only 16 months, passes comfortably from hip to hip, lap to lap, smiling at everyone.

Plates are quickly heaped full of food and just as quickly cleared. The rota crew goes to work in the dish room. A circle of chairs out behind the kitchen fills up with relaxed smokers who chat away and watch the hacky sack game on the adjacent unused tent platform. Another group of young men start up a football game in the green space down the hill. Vajra, 8 years old, watches until one young man takes time out to show him how to properly throw a football. In the benches set in the pine grove a quiet few sit reading, while others go briskly about their business or chat happily in groups. Many impromptu meetings take places, questions asked and answered, an extension cord or radio, or special piece of fruit exchanged.

Soon enough they start to break up. The set up crew crowds into the back of the beat up silver pickup, some on the tailgate, some on the roof, and sets off to the next campground to be erected. A dozen or so head back up the hill to registration and the front offices, another dozen or so to the maintenance shop by the lagoon, and a smaller handful start the hike south to The Great Stupa of Dharmakaya, which is never finished. The remainder scatter throughout the land and among the cluster of buildings surrounding the dining hall.

The kitchen staff remains to start on the evening meal. The magpies hop around searching for abandoned scraps while the kitchen cat keeps a sharp eye on his own food dish. The sun still shines and the quiet breeze just manages to stir the prayer flags. I head west, back up the hill to grab a shower and a nap. The set up crew passes me in their truck full of tents. I walk slowly and breath deeply the thin air and contemplate happily my soft bed.

Thus passes my first noon meal at Shambhala.

May 01, 2007

Emptiness of Reason

Several weeks ago in sangha I had a greater insight into emptiness. I imagined a web made of strings, each string representing a cause or condition. I plucked each string, each cause and condition, away separately until the space was empty. This is a visual metaphor for all things because all things exist as a result of cause and condition. Or do they?

Our discussion leader once said that consciousness is the only thing which inherently exists, without cause or condition. “We’ll get into that later,” he said. We haven’t gotten into it yet and it has left me wondering.

In a previous meeting, we were discussing the nature of self and I brought up Descartes, whose ideas on the matter of self are greatly accepted in Western philosophy. Our discussion leader told me of a book which presents the (Tibetan) Buddhist idea of non-self in a way which specifically refutes Descartes. He cautioned that it was quite long and convoluted, so I didn’t look into it as it was the middle of the semester. Time has passed.

Descartes’ theory is simply the “I think therefore I am” idea of self, beautiful in its very simplicity. He states that the only thing we can prove beyond any doubt is our own existence. Anything we perceive, feel, or even think (as basic as 2+2=4) can be false. It could be a simple error of perception (something appears small because it is far away) or it could be a dream, illusion, or implanted thought (Matrix style or caverns of Socrates). Therefore the only thing which we can prove is that the self exists because the self is that which thinks, which perceives. We cannot prove in what manner the self exists, that it walks on two legs or four, that it even has a body, let alone a mind or soul, or that anything it thinks or perceives is real or comes from itself, only that it exists.

I have found no way to refute this. Nor do I believe does the Buddhist idea of non-self directly refute it. I believe it is also a question of relative and ultimate reality. Of course in the relative world, the self exists, but in the ultimate truth of things…

However, if it is said that consciousness inherently exists, is this not the “self” Descartes proves? How can Descartes be both refuted and upheld?

Or if everything is empty, consciousness does not inherently exist, so where does it come from? Could this be proof of God? But wouldn’t that mean God inherently exists? Otherwise, where did God come from? If God is the result of cause and condition is he/she really God? If God does inherently exist, then inherent existence is possible, so could not consciousness just as easily inherently exist with or without God? Tricky, tricky….

So here I sit at my keyboard trying to reason my way into an understanding of emptiness. Reason is a tricky thing, however, and probably the emptiest of all things which do not inherently exist. (Bear with me here a moment.)

Often we, myself included, make the mistake of believing those who do not agree with us simply do not understand. We believe their reasoning is flawed. If we could simply explain it better, they would understand, they would agree. It rarely works out that way.

If I asked a person what is their favorite color, and then asked why, they might say blue because it is the color of the sky, because it reminds them of their mother, and because it can be so changeable. But no one would expect to me say “Those sound like good reasons. I think I’ll change my favorite color to blue.” Similarly, no one would expect me to decide on my favorite food because someone else described all the reasons they liked it, especially if I had not tried it myself.

Reason has its limits. It is specifically bounded by experience and by intuition. So in trying to understand emptiness, is my reasoning flawed? Or is it simply that emptiness must be experienced, intuitively or otherwise, in order to be understood? If so, how does one go about accomplishing this? I’ll just add it to my “To Do” list.

Goal Number 4,680 – Experience Emptiness (unless I can reason it out first)