Monthly Archives: May 2010

Middle Way – Discussion

Last week I talked about The Middle Way. This week we had a discussion, so that together we could find what the Middle Way is for us. Here are some of the questions I posed. As you read this post, answer them for yourself. You might want to reread the last post to refresh your memory.

As you read last week’s dharma talk, did you find yourself agreeing or disagreeing with any of it? Was there some part of you saying, ‘The Middle Way doesn’t sound sufficiently inspiring, fun or challenging?’

Are there any other reactions you noticed? Was there anything you noticed during the week after reading about the Middle Way?

So often the Middle Way is discovered through its opposite. We notice when we are over-extended. Just as in doing exercise, if we over-extend, instead of operating from our core, we run the risk of injury. Can you remember a time when this happened to you? Where you body spoke up loud and clear that you over-extended a muscle?

So too, in our lives, if we live at extremes, we run the risk of injury of a different sort.
Are there any areas of your life, or the lives of people around you, that you can see are extreme? In what areas and in what ways are they extreme? We can learn not just from our own experiences, but from the experiences of others, both people we know personally and people living their lives in public view. Instead of harping on how they should change their lives, we can use their experience to make any needed changes in our own.

In class, the meditators came up with some examples of extreme living and the consequences. One person told about how she had been so busy with her work that she forgot to eat and ended up with violent headaches every afternoon, until someone took pity on her and started feeding her. The headaches stopped and it was only then that she saw for herself what was happening.
One mentioned a young person they knew who believes in the ‘work hard, play hard’ playbook of life. As a group of women on the upper edge of mid-life, we recognized that the unnamed example was a young person with abundant energy. But that playbook only works if the energy is actually there. As it turns out this young person is often getting sick. We talked about our own experiences with the ‘do, do, do’ lifestyle, how a week on the beach was supposed to balance out 51 weeks of hectic paced office life. And how the moment you return to the office, it hits you even worse than before.

If you are caught up in that life and feeling, ‘Easy for you to say, if you don’t have to do the daily grind to make it,’ remember that even within that hectic pace there can be spaciousness. Finding balance means claiming some silence, some alone time for five minutes here and there throughout the day, where you can simply center in and breathe. It means taking walks with pauses in nature, not just running or biking through it at the same fast pace as your work day. It means using all your senses to celebrate any given moment of an experience. For example, as I write this I am aware of the sounds of the rain on the roof, and I have the door open a little so that the smells of moisture waft in. I look up often from my computer screen to gaze out the window.

Balance is not going from one extreme to the other, but finding a true middle way. When we don’t, we risk everything. I did the ‘work hard, play hard’ circuit myself, and ended up with an illness that ended my career in advertising. We are all human. Our bodies are vulnerable and rely on our common sense and compassion for well being.

For the Buddha the Middle Way was initially between over-indulgence and deprivation as he went from a life of material opulence to six years of ascetic self-denial. But these two words can be applied to many areas, not just material wealth. Where do you over-indulge or overly deprive yourself?

Does our culture support the Middle Way, or does it encourage going to extremes? Think about these terms: ‘All or nothing,’ ‘No pain, no gain,’ ’24/7/365.’ For our group, the very idea that anyone would, could or feels they should do anything non-stop around the clock, every day, was exhausting just to ponder!

‘But what about passion?’ asked one meditator. So we discussed the role of passion and if there is room for it the Middle Way. What is passion and where does it arise in your life? Does it mean you need to live at extremes? It reminds me of that old expression, ‘burning the candle at both ends,’ used to describe a person who lived at extremes and, it was understood, would burn out early.

‘Moderation in all things,’ is an expression that sounds both wise and boring at the same time. It could sound uncommitted, neither here nor there, wishy-washy. Does this expression define the Middle Way? Does it speak to you? If not, is there a better expression you can come up with that expresses the principles of the Middle Way?

Extreme living, as voiced in these expressions, has a certain romance to it. Culturally we often admire those who live at the extremes and we dread a life led in moderation. But is the Middle Way this kind of moderation rut?

Let’s return to the body to test the truth of this idea. I’m thinking of how if you did exactly the same amount of exercise everyday, without variation, how that in itself would be a kind of extreme, because it would be so rigid. The body would lose some elasticity. And so would the mind, if it was exposed to the exact same things in the exact same amounts every day. Would this be the Middle Way?

The Middle Way is not a rut. It is the opposite of a rut! The Middle Way is not boring. It is the opposite of boring! The Middle Way is not extreme. Yet it is radical! The Middle Way is opening to the truth of what arises in each moment. It has an aliveness and vibrancy that cannot be found by living life at extremes. When we find the Middle Way, we don’t need to chase, nor get lost in the chase, of extremes in order to feel fully, richly and deeply alive.

Explore for yourself in the coming week what is true for you. We will continue this discussion of the Middle Way.

The Middle Way

On our pilgrimage to the sites of the Buddha’s life, we talked a bit about the Middle Way. So, thoughts about it have come up for me a number of times these past few weeks. As I talk to friends and relatives, I see this undercurrent of seeking balance, finding the Middle Way in all things.

One old friend in her early sixties finds she is still hanging on to the tail of lifelong ambition in her successful career. She has begun to notice the passing scenery and a part of her wants to let go of the tail and experience life at a slower pace. She talked about how much she hates her computer but needs it to stir up business. She talked about chucking it out. I suggested perhaps a middle way, a compromise: setting an intention to spend a set amount of time, like a half hour a day, on the computer. She said she could never spend that little time on it. It could only be one way or the other. Either she chucks it all, abandoning her career for a life of leisure, and feels guilty for doing so, or she slaves away endless hours at the computer and her career, depriving herself of a great deal of the joy readily available in the rest of her life, if only she looked up from her screen enough to enjoy it. But she feels too guilty when she does. Does this sound familiar?

Setting a sensible daily, weekly or monthly time period for doing some loathed but necessary task, like dealing with an emotionally charged problem that needs regular attention, means that any time outside that prescribed half hour or hour is your own to do whatever else you want or need to do, guilt-free! Procrastination saturated with guilt is one extreme; drudgery and resentment is on the other. Finding the ‘Middle Way’ whenever our life feels out of balance is important for our own well being, and the well being of those around us.

In another conversation, a relative in her early 80’s found herself sinking into an energetic funk when suddenly her main source of socializing, her main squeeze in fact, was out of town for a few weeks. How quickly life suddenly seemed less worth living. She even found herself asking her doctor, only partly in jest, whether he’d be willing to over-prescribe her something. Her view was that we all have to go some time and she’d led a good life. The doctor said he could appreciate her feeling, but that wasn’t his job description. Instead he signed her up for a couple physical therapy classes. Thinking about being in a class with other people cheered her up. She realized that perhaps she had gotten out of balance, relying solely on her boyfriend for her social life. Being out and about in groups, learning new things, was stimulating too. Clearly, finding the Middle Way is sometimes a matter of life or death!

In my own life, I notice that I take on projects with a passion, then feel overwhelmed with mostly self-imposed deadlines, as if I don’t have a moment to rest and breathe. I remind myself that I am doing, for the most part, exactly what I wanted, that at every point I have choices. I try to savor the experience, to relax and enjoy the work itself. Sometimes I lose my balance, veer off the Middle Way into over-doing, over-thinking, over-stimulating and I lose sight of just being.

Finding my way back to the Middle Way is a process of noticing. First, I notice the tension in my body and question its source. Second, I make sure that I am giving myself stable patterns of self-care, like my daily meditation practice, yoga, walks in nature and balanced eating. Third, I try to recognize the difference between these stable patterns and negative habitual ruts, like watching too much television, spending too much time on the computer, and spending too much time indoors. The antidote is not to throw the TV and computer out, sell the house and go on a year long camping trip. The prescription is to be present and aware of what’s happening, to recognize it with compassion, not disgust, and to find some Middle Way that broadens and enriches life rather than narrows and depletes it.

I saw a movie the other night called Bright Star, which I am not recommending, but there was one moment that made it worthwhile for me. Keats was asked by the central character to explain poetry, which she was struggling to work out. He said that to read a poem is like swimming in a lake. There is no purpose other than to experience being in the lake fully with all your senses. You don’t have to ‘work out’ a lake or your experience.

This resonated deeply. It helped me when I was hiking in the redwoods yesterday to just experience with all my senses being in the redwoods. As it happened, on this circular trail we ran into another hiker circumambulating in the opposite direction, whom we had earlier crossed paths with on the other side of the circle. “Oh, you’re making good time too!” she called out. This reminded me how often we get caught up in that aspect of our experience in life, thinking more about our pace, our goal and the rewards that await us at the end – the shower, the rest, the meal, etc. – rather than just ‘being in the lake’ or being in the forest with all its deliciousness.

But what if we are not looking forward to the future? What if it seems to be promising something threatening to our happiness? One member of our sangha talked about her mother in her late 80’s whose apparent low quality of life brought fear into both their lives. I suggested she get to know other elders to get some balanced insight into potential futures. We often look to our parents for clues as to what our experience of aging will be like, but they are not us. We share genes but we are not clones, and we have the benefit of meditation and other practices, a greater understanding of the importance of exercising our brains and our bodies, as well as the ever growing wonders of modern medicine. In any given moment we face abundant choices, virtually infinite paths that change the outcome of our future lives. There is no sure thing, which can be scary, but it can also be liberating.

We can easily get out of balance through the portal of fear. It knocks us off our natural course, constricts us, and has a self-fulfilling quality that then seems to confirm our fears. The Middle Way asks us to challenge all assumptions as they arise in our awareness. ‘How do I know this is true?’ we continually ask ourselves. The Buddha encourages us to be ever present, ever questioning, ever testing for ourselves the truth of any belief we may hold, in this case, the belief that a mother’s experience will be our own. This is an assumption worthy of serious exploration, if holding the belief is diminishing our ability to enjoy our present experience.

When the future or the past casts a deep shadow over the present, the Middle Way is to set aside some dedicated time to explore it, cast light on it, question it, and find out the message hidden in the bottle of fear that has landed on the shores of our experience. We can do this on our own or with the help of a therapist.

The Middle Way is accessed through the practice of mindfulness. What at first might seem like balancing on a slippery point of a pin, with intention and practice begins to expand to a larger platform of awareness. Sustained practice creates a spacious open field where arising situations, emotions, thoughts, chores or worries can pass through without threatening our equilibrium. We find inner balance, or at least are able to recognize it when we experience it, however briefly.

This experience of balance, being able to hold all of life in a balanced way is Upekka, the fourth of the Four Brahmaviharas, or Heavenly Abodes that are the gifts of the practice. The Middle Way is the path that leads to this state of Upekka.

May you walk it with an open heart and mind, your senses fully engaged, experiencing each moment of the walk as a destination.

Pilgrimage: Kusinara/Kushinagar

The final stop on our four week pilgrimage is the place where the Buddha died, the place of his parinirvana, the final nirvana which occurs upon the death of the body of an awakened being.
Shown here is the reclining Buddha statue at the Mahaparinirvana Temple.

He died in the small town of Kushinagar or Kusinara in Northern India, in the same Utter Pradesh province where he gave his first dharma talk to those scorning ascetic companions.

The Buddha lived to the age of eighty. We are fortunate that he lived as long as he did, for he had time to refine his message, to correct any errors in understanding in his students so that the dharma he taught could survive over 2500 years. Because he insisted that students sense into their own connection and insights, using the teachings for guidance when they lose sight of the importance of the practice, the dharma hasn’t become dry dogma, but feels as fresh and alive today as I imagine it to have been in his time.

He was such a dedicated and generous teacher that even on his deathbed he is said to have asked his followers if there were any last questions they wanted clarified before he passed on. They were naturally distressed over the impending loss of their dear teacher and leader. They couldn’t imagine, perhaps, how they would go on without him.

According to the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, he told them, “Be a lamp unto yourself, be a refuge to yourself. Take yourself to no external refuge. Hold fast to the dharma as a lamp; hold fast to the dharma as a refuge. Look not for a refuge in anyone beside yourself. And those who either now or after I am dead shall be a lamp unto themselves, who take themselves to no external refuge, but holding fast to the dharma as their lamp, and holding fast to the dharma as their refuge, shall not look for refuge to anyone beside themselves, it is they who shall reach the highest goal.”

‘Be a lamp unto yourself.’ This is a vital core of the teachings that keeps it a living practice. It is what drew me initially to Buddhism. And when I did begin to seriously study and adapt my own meditation to Buddhist Vipassana style practice, I didn’t feel I was discovering anything new. It was more of a homecoming and a reassurance that my own findings were grounded in the dharma. I felt like I was finding a wonderful ready-made structure upon which I could drape my inner explorations, like a dress form for a seamstress. The dharma allows me the freedom to work on my own insights, but gives me a solid foundation.

In these words, ‘Be a lamp unto yourself,’ we are encouraged to practice, and to notice and explore the validity of our own insights. We are reminded not to accept any teachings on blind faith. Another time the Buddha is quoted to have said, “Believe nothing on the faith of traditions, even though they have been held in honor for many generations and in diverse places. Do not believe a thing because many people speak of it. Do not believe on the faith of the sages of the past. Do not believe what you yourself have imagined, persuading yourself that a God inspires you. Believe nothing on the sole authority of your masters and priests. After examination, believe what you yourself have tested and found to be reasonable, and conform your conduct thereto.”

So that reminder to be a lamp unto yourself, given from his deathbed, was core teaching. How different Buddhism would have been without it!

But how did the Buddha die? There are several versions of the story, but recently a medical doctor did a careful analysis of all the accounts and came up with the hypothesis that makes the most medical sense from our current perspective. He said it was unlikely that it was food poisoning, but rather, caused by a mesenteric infarction, an intestinal condition that can be aggravated by eating a meal.

As any of you know who have lost someone near to you, the details of their death, as involving as they were at the time, become less interesting after a while. Instead, the celebration of their life becomes more encompassing. So perhaps we aren’t that interested in how the Buddha died. We are just grateful that he lived.

But the Buddha encourages us to look death in the face and not turn away from it. To be fearless when it comes to recognizing the nature of life and our tendency to act as if it is a given, that it will not be taken away, as if it’s a game of chance that we might just win. How often do people say, “If I die..” as if there was some option. We all die. Life is terminal. It is an incurable condition.

There is a Buddhist meditative practice of sitting in the charnel grounds amidst the cremated remains of the dead. Reality of the temporal nature of this earthly existence is a key acknowledgement. It is not a fascination with death or some death cult. Instead it is accepting the occasional naturally occurring reminder of life’s temporal nature, and is to be valued as such. With each occurrence there is the breaking of the shell of illusion that builds around each of us when we think nothing will change in our lives and that we and those we love will live forever.

I remember in the early days at Spirit Rock there was a skeleton on a stand in the corner of the community hall. It was a great weekly reminder. I wonder whatever happened to it? Did someone become like Siddhartha’s father and decide it was better if we weren’t exposed to it? Were they trying to protect us from the truth of impermanence in a place where the whole point is to remember it?

Did they remove it because they were afraid of facing it themselves? I think about the young Siddhartha’s discovery of illness, old age and death, and I think of my own generation’s plea, as sung by The Who ‘…hope I die before I get old.’ Death is not as scary to youth as old age, because death doesn’t seem real, something casually accomplished repeatedly in violent movies. Youth are known for taking outrageous risks of death, taunting it to take them. Death is more dashing than old age, which is ever present, both frustratingly authoritative and ‘ugly,’ — wrinkled, slow, hard of hearing, holding its own antiquated views of things. One of our family stories is how my father on receiving his granddaughter’s baseball-capped boyfriend into the house, roughly said, “We take our hats off in this house, young man.” Well, thanks for the welcome, you old fart, the boyfriend must have thought.

I remember when I was around twelve and my best friend and I had talks about old age, how horrible it seemed. We would play at being old, stacking our chins or stretching our necks to be fat old lady or skinny old lady, talking with our old lady voices, the ones we used for the wicked witch in Hansel and Gretel. All old age seemed wicked to us. We were more terrified of becoming decrepit than we were of dying. What was death anyway?

Each generation vilifies old age out of terror of growing old. Then each generation ages and becomes the old ones. And suddenly it doesn’t seem so terrible. There are sayings like ‘old age isn’t for sissies,’ recognizing that illness and old age often come together, but not necessarily. I am to the stage now where I am able to see the benefits of good diet and exercise on some friends and family members and the effects of bad habits on others, and though there is no escaping death, and some diseases seem to be the genetic luck of the draw, still, the responsibility people are taking for their well being seems to be paying off. May it continue to be so! And may we deal with whatever arises, whatever losses or limitations, with an open mind that allows us to accept, not resign to, this new vantage point, this ‘new normal’ that is now our life in the present moment.

As we age, death does become more present. We lose more loved ones more frequently. I remember my mother when she was in her early seventies, returning to the dinner table after receiving a phone call that yet another friend had died. I think it had been three that week alone. “Dropping like flies,” she said. I was shocked at her casual statement, so distant was death from my own experience at the time. I’ll never forget that! Within a couple of years, she was dead, too. That was no casually received event for me, of course. Still, twenty-one years later, it breaks my heart all over again to say it. Yet I notice that the little piercings of pain glimmer like jewels. To have known her, to have loved her, to have been her daughter -what a precious gift that was, and still is. Having her only in photos, letters and memory is not the same as being able to hug her, to hear her laugh, to see her full of life. But this is what normal is for me now, and the other day I realized I am looking more like her. I look at my hands and I see how they are a combination of her hands and my paternal grandmother’s hands — an odd pairing, her dry skin with grandma’s wondrous raised veins I loved to push around when I was small. Clearly these are not hand model hands, but for me they hold so much more than any pretty pair of hands possibly could.


Ultimately, how the Buddha died, how anyone died, is not as important as the reminder that death is woven into the fabric of our lives. In nature, we step over the fallen trunks of trees that have succumbed to disease, a lightening strike, a fierce storm or time, reminding us that to everything there is a season.

Awareness of our own mortality can be held in a spacious way, acknowledging any fear or heaviness, and staying with it until we can carry it with true acceptance, even gratitude for the reminder to live fully while we are here.

It helps us to dwell more fully in the present moment, not because we are afraid of the future, but because we know that the only reality is right here and right now. We know that death comes to us all, and we practice in part so that when it comes to us we will be present for the great transition from this corporal body to what we do not know.

A friend of mine was frantic with worry about her step-mother whose doctors could not predict the course of her illness. She wanted to know what would come. But the doctors could not tell her that, and she felt that all the wonders of medical science were failing her.
But none of us knows what the future will bring for our loved ones or ourselves. And finding a way to be comfortable with the not knowing is a huge benefit of meditative practice. It helps us so that if we sense the end of this corporal life is near, we can rest in the moment, in the ‘I don’t know’ mind. We only think we know, based on entries in our appointment book, what lies beyond our next breath at any given moment!

We practice meditation in part because we don’t want to realize, as we recline on our own deathbeds, that we should have been paying more attention, should have been savoring each moment fully. If only we had understood how fleeting it is, this rare and precious gift of life, of breath, of the senses. And so we are grateful for these reminders of mortality, even when they bring painful emotions and sensations. This is the nature of life. This is what it is to be alive in a human body on this earth — a precious fleeting gift.
———————
So we come to the end of our pilgrimage to the places where the Buddha was born, became enlightened, first taught and died. This pilgrimage has not been about devotion to the Buddha. He made it clear that he was not a god. He discouraged his followers from distracting themselves with honoring too much his mortal remains (which, by the way, did not discourage them from dividing up the little bits of bones and teeth and placing them in stupas where to this day devotees come, some doing ritual prostration all the way.)

For us, this pilgrimage is about learning from his life, and in turn from our own. From his youth, we can see ourselves as the young people we once were, and have compassion and understanding.

We can see the pivotal moment or moments in our own lives where we looked at the world with our blinders off. Even now, we can notice where we are still blinded by various causes and conditions, and how we can let the blame go and find our way.

We can take inspiration from his self-discipline in mastering his wandering mind and his intention to awaken in this moment.

We can be inspired by his compassion and generosity, his awareness of the intricate interconnection of all beings, his intense appreciation and valuation of all life, without a sense of entitlement or separation.

And we can remember his words on his death bed to his followers, and be a lamp unto ourselves, not taking the words of any teacher as the truth without giving ourselves the time and space to experience it directly. Each of us has Buddha nature within us, each of us is on our own path to awakening, and in our own way in our own time. We best honor the Buddha by honoring that Buddha nature within ourselves and within all beings.

Pilgrimage: Sarnath

We have been on an imaginary pilgrimage to the places where the Buddha was born and became enlightened. Our pilgrimage continues this week to Sarnath, also known as Sarnātha, the deer park where the newly enlightened Siddhartha gave his first talk.

Sarnath is located in northeastern India in the Utter Pradesh province. The Buddha went there from Bodh Gaya, where he became enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, and then spent a period of weeks on his own savoring the experience of being fully present, freed of all fear and desire, and formulating his insights into something he could share with others, that they too might become enlightened.

His attainment of enlightenment sparked a deep sense of generosity. And really, how could it not? If you come to realize the unity of being beyond any sense of barrier, how would you hoard this precious insight? Who would you hoard it from, if you understand yourself to be intrinsically entwined with all life?

Tapping into this sense of connection we are not just recipients of awakening, but conduits for it. Generosity is the first and foremost expression of enlightenment, by its very nature. And it was a primary focus of the Buddha’s teachings throughout the years. Taking opportunities to develop generosity in ourselves creates the channel for the flow of enlightenment.

Thinking back to Siddhartha’s initial exposure to the realities of life from which he’d been so carefully shielded, we remember that it was always his goal to understand suffering in order to find an end of it, not just for himself but for all beings. That generosity of spirit set his intention so that he could spend those years mastering the concentration practices. And that generosity also helped him to see that, at least for him, the path of the ascetic was not going to bring about the understanding he sought.

Siddhartha Gautama was not the only person ever to be a Buddha. Buddha means awakened and there have been many buddhas. But this particular buddha turned out to have the interest and capacity to see, understand and clearly explain the complex workings of the human psyche. Anyone, upon awakening, might be inclined to share the news, but Siddhartha had a gift for formulating his experience and insights into words that resonated and in turn enlightened others.

He went to Sarnath because this is where he knew he would find his ascetic companions of the previous six years. Despite any disagreement, he sensed that they were the most likely to understand his insights and attain enlightenment themselves. The fact that he chose them, not just any gathered group of people, points to the importance of the concentration practices. The ascetics had been practicing for many years, longer than Siddhartha. If anyone would be ready to understand, they would.

But when they saw him coming, they are said to have mocked him. He no longer had the emaciated quality that was the mark of the dedicated ascetic. He had clearly been eating and he was fully, albeit modestly, clothed. He had not returned to his princely raiment but still, they taunted him for having set aside his ascetic vows.

Reportedly, the Buddha replied, “Austerities only confuse the mind. In the exhaustion and mental stupor to which they lead, one can no longer understand the ordinary things of life, still less the truth that lies beyond the senses. I have given up extremes of either luxury or asceticism. I have discovered the Middle Way”.

The Middle Way
We have seen how Siddhartha lived the first three decades of his life indulged in every possible way. When he left that life behind, he chose the opposite extreme, a life of self-denial of even the most basic of human needs, doing only enough to keep the body barely alive.

These two ways of being, these two extremes, have something in common. They both set up false beliefs and boundaries.

When we surround ourselves with constant luxury, we run the risk of believing that we need luxury to live. We believe that material possessions will protect us from harm, so we make sure we are sufficiently buffered from all that we fear. But wealth does not protect us from illness, old age or death. It does not protect us from loss or heartache. And it puts us in a position of feeling we have more to fear, because we feel we have so much to lose. It also makes us feel fragile and vulnerable, as if the world outside our palace walls might infect us with some contagious virus. The more power we vest in wealth as protection, the weaker we become, and the more we lose sight of our true nature.

So is enjoying luxury wrong? Not at all. The world is full of wondrous pleasures and being able to enjoy them is part of the gift of life. But we need to notice the degree to which we depend on them. Is my having a good sleep dependent on the thread count of my Egyptian cotton sheets? Is my feeling good about myself dependent on wearing designer labels? Is my enjoyment of a meal dependent on it being up to gourmet standards and served in a beautiful setting, preferably by someone else?

Siddhartha’s youthful answer had to be yes, because the luxurious offerings of his time were all he knew. When he left the palace, he felt he needed to go to the other extreme in order to purify himself.

But what happens at the other extreme? We run the same risk of believing that we need to scorn all the sensual pleasures of earthly life in order to be pure or good or enlightened. We believe that material possessions will harm us, so we fear contamination, making all pleasure evil, and all who take pleasure in the delights of the world evil or at least deluded. But self-denial does not protect us from illness, old age or death. It does not protect us from heartache or loss of something much sweeter than any earthly pleasure. And it puts us in the position of feeling we have more to fear, because we are so at odds with the world around us, a world that clamors to be touched and tasted. The more we believe that self-denial is the path to enlightenment, the more judgmental we become, both of others and of ourselves for the desires that rise up within us.

So, having experienced both extremes quite fully, Siddhartha, in his newly enlightened state beyond fear and craving, recognized the truth of these extremes, and found the Middle Way. He discovered that he could eat a meal, enjoying each bite fully in the moment, without caring if it was simple or luxurious. He could enjoy giving his body the nourishment it needed and he could stop eating before his belly felt painful. He could accept what was offered with gratitude, and enjoy being able to give in return. He found a simple way of being in the world.

When we observe other species who seem to have no problem finding a balanced way to be in the world, you have to wonder why this is so often such a difficult hurdle for us? Many books have been written on the subject, especially around eating, and I won’t go into it here today. But it’s certainly something to think about. Next time we recognize that we are over-indulging or over-denying ourselves something, let us set the intention to explore the associative thoughts and emotions that arise with our behavior and beliefs. Let’s question our assumptions and see what happens.

The Buddha’s first discourse was titled the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, which can be translated as the discourse on the Dharma Wheel. Dharma or Dhamma means truth, the way or the teachings. In it he taught about the Middle Way, and how to find it through understanding the Four Noble Truths and following the Eightfold Path. (Both of these have been discussed extensively in this class, and we will be reviewing them in our ‘Summer Reruns,’ per class request.)

His previous companions in asceticism became his first students. One in particular is said to have become enlightened upon hearing this first discourse. Thus the wheel of the dharma was set into motion.

Together they formed the first sangha, that community of practitioners of the Middle Way who support and inspire each other to practice. They spent the rainy season in Sarnath, growing in number, and were disbursed to share the dharma with all who had an interest in learning it.

Engaged Buddhism
This desire to share the teachings is social activism of a sort. Sometimes Buddhism can look like a very self-indulgent escapist kind of path. Social activists get very annoyed with Buddhists who sit and meditate instead of marching and protesting. The two are not mutually exclusive, of course, and there is the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and a whole path of what is called ‘engaged Buddhism’ that speaks to Buddhist social activism. If you are interested in it, read Donald Rothberg’s book The Engaged Spiritual Life: A Buddhist Approach to Transforming Ourselves and the World.

But I think it’s worthwhile to notice that making our own peace is a vital first step to seeing clearly how to best help end suffering in the world. How often in organizations that have all the best intentions do things get bogged down in personality conflicts, striving for power, passive-aggressiveness and hurt feelings? How much of the agenda of activist organizations is reactive, a group of people united by anger against some agreed upon ‘other’, rather than insightful and responsive to the needs of the people they want to help.

However, as with most things, there is a kernel of truth in the accusations social activists make about Buddhist practitioners. You see the truth of it when those who have found peace within themselves, who have come to live more fully in the present and have found the Middle Way, continue to keep the focus solely on themselves and their own contained world, instead of acknowledging their connection with the world and using their wisdom and skills to help end suffering for others, as they have done for themselves. So that is something for us to always keep in mind and to question. How are we expressing our generosity? How are we engaging in the world with our understanding of the dharma? How are we supporting the extended sangha of all beings through our actions?

We ask these questions and perhaps the answer is “It’s too soon, I’m not ready.” But we need to explore further. Even if we are not ready to go forth in the world in support of a larger sangha, we can in our daily activities extend metta in our thoughts to all we encounter. And this is the valuable beginning of engaging in the world. This act of sending metta is the channel of generosity through which enlightenment will flow.