Category: Buddhism


Brett Ryder/Heart Agency

Coming to terms with how we really feel about our friends’ good fortune

By Joan Duncan Oliver
At the gym, I idly thumb through a back issue of the Harvard Business Review. A headline, “Envy at Work,” catches my eye. I glance at paragraph one:

As you enter your recently promoted colleague’s office, you notice a photograph of his beautiful family in their new vacation home. He casually adjusts his custom suit and mentions his upcoming board meeting and speech in Davos. On one hand, you want to feel genuinely happy for him and celebrate his successes. On the other, you hope he falls into a crevasse in the Alps. Hello. You’re playing my song. Alas, I’ve been there more than once, my good Buddhist training battling—unsuccessfully—my envious heart.

Hello. You’re playing my song. Alas, I’ve been there more than once, my good Buddhist training battling—unsuccessfully—my envious heart.

And I’m not alone, right? Envy is “universal,” assert the authors of the HBR article, psychologist Tanya Menon and Leigh Thompson, a management professor. And psychologists, anthropologists, and philosophers for the most part agree: envy is a standard-issue human emotion, albeit the one we are least likely to admit to, even to ourselves.

With that in mind, I ask two young colleagues, “What do you think about envy?” Vigorous shaking of heads. “Nope, never feel it,” one declares. Nodding in agreement, the other says, “My mother always told us not to envy anyone. You don’t know their story—what the rest of their life is like, or what they’re feeling inside.”

She’s right, of course. Envy rests on comparing ourselves to others—and coming up short. Comparing per se isn’t the problem. It can be beneficial if it motivates us to take action on our own behalf—to start exercising or meditating, say, or to apply for a more challenging job. But invidious comparisons are deleterious all around.

In Buddhist teachings, envy isn’t clearly distinguished from jealousy. So I try another tack with my colleagues. “What about jealousy? Ever feel that?” I ask. “Of course!” one shoots back, laughing. “All the time!” And off we go on the fickleness of boyfriends.

Jealousy—fear of losing someone we value—is at least marginally justifiable and therefore socially acceptable. Envy—discontent or anger that someone else has something we want but don’t possess, be it beauty, talent, a coveted job, or just dumb luck—is neither justifiable nor condoned. La Rochefoucauld, that astute observer of human nature, defined the difference: “Jealousy is in some measure just and reasonable since it tends only to retain a good which belongs to us, whereas envy is a fury that cannot endure the good of others.”

However couched it might be, envy by its very nature is hostile. The word comes from the Latin invidere, to regard maliciously, to grudge. Unlike its cousin greed, envy doesn’t just crave the object of its desire, it taints the whole project, begrudging others what they have and, when all else fails, devaluing or destroying the desired object.

Psychologists, unlike Buddhists, distinguish between envy and jealousy. Jealousy is a triangulation among equals: I’m jealous of the glamorous new neighbor my boyfriend has been chatting up, afraid that she’s going to drive a wedge between us. Envy is an unequal misalliance of two, with the envied person one up, the envier one down. I envy the new hire for being younger, smarter, and more tech savvy than I. And if I’m convinced my job is in jeopardy as a result, then consciously or unconsciously, I might try to sabotage the upstart.

Nothing good attaches to envy, a sin in every major religion. Two German social psychologists who study envy say that “among the seven deadlies, it occupies a unique position: it’s the only sin that is never fun.” Even schadenfreude—wicked pleasure in someone else’s misfortune—is usually short-lived: soon enough, the bitter taste of hatred rises in your throat, and shame and guilt flood your system…




The Buddha Talks to a Brahmin Supremacist

Photo by Ed Schipul |

How a Buddhist teaching on dismantling the superiority of the brahmin class can help us take on racism.

By Krishnan Venkatesh

The belief that a group of people can be born superior to all other groups has been around for a very long time, and even existed during the time of the Buddha. For 3,000 years, society in South Asia has been dominated by the caste system, according to which a person is born into one of four major castes (varna), or social stations: laborers, merchants, warriors, and brahmins. According to the earliest Hindu scriptures, brahmins—scholars and priests—were the highest caste and viewed as morally and spiritually superior to the others; indeed, they are called “brahmins” because according to one of the hymns of the Rg Veda, they were born from the mouth of Brahman [God].

In the Pali Canon, the Buddha has many conversations with brahmins who, clearly provoked by his ideas of radical equality, routinely approached him to argue and learn. Late in the Middle Length Discourses, we meet a group of 500 brahmins who live in the town of Savatthi, where the Buddha is staying at the time. When they hear that the Buddha has been teaching that all the castes are equally “pure,” they are outraged, and decide to send a smart young brahmin to go and debate him.

In the following conversation between the Buddha and the proud brahmin Assalayana (after whom the Assalayana Sutta is named), the Buddha offers some ways to address the obdurate belief in superiority of caste, race, or any other birth group.

Master Gotama, the brahmins say, ‘Brahmins are the superior caste; any other caste is inferior. Only brahmins are the fair caste; any other caste is dark. Only brahmins are pure, not non-brahmins. Only brahmins are the sons and offspring of Brahma: born of his mouth, born of Brahma, created by Brahma, heirs of Brahma.’ What does Master Gotama have to say with regard to that?

The Buddha begins to dismantle Assalayana’s notions of superiority by noting that we all enter the world the same way:

But, Assalayana, the brahmins’ brahmin-women are plainly seen having their periods, becoming pregnant, giving birth, and nursing [their children]. And yet the brahmins, being born through the birth canal, say, “Brahmins are the superior caste . . .”

The Buddha grounds this initial discussion in physical reality, as it is difficult to argue that people who give birth the same way are fundamentally different. Besides, how delightful is it that a creature who emerges from the nether end of its mother can entertain fantasies about its own transcendent superiority! We see from this exchange that the Buddha has a wry sense of humor as well as a comedian’s gift for drawing out the absurd.

The Buddha then proceeds to ask questions that he already knows Assalayana’s answers to. First, whether a person is a brahmin, a warrior, a merchant, or a laborer, if he does bad things, can he expect to suffer bad consequences? And if he does good things, can he expect to be rewarded with good consequences? Surely, replies Assalayana. Good people are good people, and bad people are bad people, no matter what they come from, and all can be expected to suffer the appropriate consequences. Even a brahmin supremacist has to admit to knowing some brahmins who are terrible people and some farm laborers who are wise and noble.

Next, the Buddha asks whether brahmins, warriors, merchants, and workers have the same relationship to their bodies and to the physical world. When anybody from any caste goes down to the river to bathe, do they not all scrub their skin and then rinse with water? And when they start a fire using logs, kindling, and a lighter, do they not all produce fire and heat, and smoke that makes everyone cough? Using the same materials and techniques, every human being will produce the same fire; thus notions of caste superiority have no basis whatsoever in the physical nature of the world.

At this point, in case Assalayana doesn’t believe that the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology have any bearing on the issue of ethical supremacy, the Buddha swerves back to the question of merit within the same caste. Between two brahmin brothers, is it possible for one to be worthier than the other—for example, the hard-working, respectful brother, versus the lazy, slanderous one? That is, when we’re dealing only with brahmins, it is clear that merit has nothing to do with birth; at least, we behave as if the more virtuous brother has deserved more respect…





Resultado de imagem para Illustration by Chioma Ebinama.

Illustration by Chioma Ebinama.


The question that Colin Beavan just had to ask his Zen teacher is one that’s on the tip of everybody’s tongues. Even the teacher’s!

At the Chogye International Zen Center of New York, part of the Kwan Um School of Zen, where I study meditation, my fellow students and I sit cross-legged on two long, parallel rows of mats and cushions. It is completely quiet except that every so often, in another room, a bell rings. When it does, someone gets up and shuffles through the door. One at a time, we each get a chance to ask our private, personal questions of the Zen teacher.

On this particular day, though my body is quiet, my mind is loud. What’s bothering me? The same things that bother everyone. Money problems. Kid worries. Job stresses. Relationship struggles. Nothing stays still. Everything changes.

The bell rings again and it’s my turn. I unfold my legs and tiptoe to the door. I slip into the interview room and perform the various standing bows and prostrations that are part of our form. The teacher gestures toward the cushion and I sit down in front of him.

“Do you have any questions?” he asks.

Questions? Yes, the same questions probably everyone else has: How do I make the discomfort of life go away, hopefully forever? How do I face up to the fact that I am going to die, like everyone, and stop worrying about it? How do I make it so that I don’t feel the insecurity of life so keenly? How do I deal with the fact that the world is messed up and the politicians don’t seem to care?

Almost as a joke, I say to the teacher, “Okay. Let me ask this. What should I do about my fucked-up life?”

The teacher leans forward with his hands and chin resting on his Zen stick. He smiles. He says, “Make it un-fucked-up.”

Really? I think. That’s your answer?

So I ask, “Is that working for you?”

He says, “Not so far!” Then we laugh. Hard.

I like this. To be reminded that one of my Zen teachers can’t quite get his life together. He has had his fair share of money and romantic problems, I happen to know.

Maybe there isn’t something I’m doing wrong. Maybe this is just being human.

Actually, after years of trying to find someone whose life wasn’t a little messy, here is what I’ve discovered: Nowhere have I been able to find anyone who has transcended her own humanity. Gandhi had a terrible temper and could be mean to his wife. Martin Luther King Jr. had affairs. And so on.

This is no longer bad news for me. It means maybe there isn’t something I’m doing wrong. Maybe this is just being human.

Sitting with me in that interview room, my teacher says, “Now you know what it means that ‘Delusions are endless. We vow to cut through them all.’ ” He is quoting one of the Four Great Vows that guide Zen practice in my school. This one, about endless delusions and cutting through them, like the other three, can mean many different things at different times. But to me, just now, it means, “The confused view of life that comes with being human never goes away, but we vow not to get so caught up in that confusion that we can’t do any good for ourselves and others.”

There is nothing wrong with any of us if we are having a hard time.

My Zen teacher, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., me — all human. So there is nothing wrong with any of us if we are having a hard time. The delusions never stop. The confusion, the desire, the anger that come with being born may never completely go away.

But we can detach from them enough to do a little good. That’s why it’s inspiring to know that Gandhi and King had their shortcomings. They weren’t so different from us. They got caught up in the delusion, but mostly, when it was important, they were able to cut through it. They heard the noise, but mostly, when the chips were down, they rose above it.

The Difference Between Inside Fucked Up and Outside Fucked Up

This is what my teacher, during that interview, talked about next. He said, “You have to remember that there is a difference between being inside fucked up and outside fucked up.”

Outside fucked up depends on circumstances and the changing emotions and feelings that come with them. The loss of a loved one. The end of a relationship. An unwanted change at work. Or even just the little things, like an unexpected big bill or the involuntary cancellation of a well-deserved vacation. We work moment by moment to respond to those circumstances, to put one foot in front of the other and make them un-fucked-up. That is natural.

Inside fucked up, on the other hand, is when you can’t come to terms with the fact that you will always, to some degree, be outside fucked up. It is when you are so caught up in the mistaken idea that you can somehow stop the delusions from coming and going that you put all your efforts into barricading the doors of life…




Turning to Nature to Find our True Selves

Photo by Jerry and Pat Donaho |

Bill Plotkin, a psychologist and wilderness guide, talks about the Buddhist connection to going into the woods to find yourself.

By Leath Tonino

ll Plotkin has led thousands of people into the woods, the mountains, and canyons. Far from casual beer-and-sunscreen camping trips, these adventures are crafted to facilitate “the descent to soul.” They help participants find out what is most unique about themselves and what will benefit their communities when they return to everyday life.

A psychologist and wilderness guide, Plotkin, 66, is the author of three books, most recently Wild Mind: A Field Guide to the Human Psyche. He also founded Colorado’s Animas Valley Institute, an organization that offers multi-day immersions in remote wilderness areas and at retreat centers on the edge of wild places. Programs have names like “Becoming Earth: Discovering Soul as Ecological Niche” and “Winter Desert Quest.”

While Plotkin’s work is broadly spiritual, as opposed to narrowly religious, there are many Buddhist undertones. He believes, for instance, along with many people who meditate daily, that change at the personal level—in an individual’s heart and mind—ripples out to impact the broader world. As we spoke, I kept thinking that time alone in nature, when approached from a certain angle, can be much like time “on the cushion.”

I met Plotkin for this interview at his home near the Animas River on the outskirts of Durango, Colorado. It was an autumn morning, crisp and bright, with snow dusting the nearby San Juan Mountain’s highest peaks. We talked for two hours beside a crackling fireplace, pausing only to add more logs to the blaze.

You lead people on pan-cultural vision fasts. What are these?
It’s a practice found in many cultures around the world, including early Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist traditions, as well as ancient and current native traditions of the Americas. It involves going out into the wild alone for three or four days to fast and seek a revelation of soul-infused life purpose. It’s designed to help people uncover their greatest gift, and I mean “gift” not only in terms of what is most unique about them, but also in terms of what they can offer to their people.

Within any human community there are limited resources for maintaining a community’s vitality. From time to time people need to get away from the village, not just physically, but psychologically and spiritually. They need to move beyond what we call “village consciousness” to find something that doesn’t yet exist within the village. All cultures need this ongoing dialogue between the wild and the civilized.

An individual’s deepest fulfillment comes through service. I emphasize this because the Western world tends to be narcissistic. Our psychotherapy is all about fixing “me,” and we’re obsessed with our own personal development. So part of the vision fast ceremony is the reminder that we’re searching for something that will help us serve our people, and that by serving our people we will be fulfilled.

Do we also end up helping the more-than-human community?
Yes. The vision always comes from soul, and soul is an aspect of nature. If the vision is true and we embody it well, we embody our place in the more-than-human world. Doing so always serves the greater web of life.

I don’t mean soul in any religious or New Age sense. To put it simply, soul is our ecological identity. You might say it’s like a niche. A moose has a specific way of belonging to the earth, as does a cottonwood tree, as does a human.

The goal of the vision fast is something completely different from what we call vocational guidance. We’re not seeking a job or a social role. We’re asking what did earth birth me to be in this life?…





Why I Don’t Practice Engaged Buddhism

Photo by Steve Wedgwood |

The idea that one has to be engaged with the problems of the world to be a real Buddhist is a very recent notion.

By Ken McLeod
Before the election, I posted a short piece about a Buddhist response to Trump that encouraged the reader to forget about being Buddhist and focus instead on being human. In particular, I wrote that it is our responsibility to use the skills and capabilities we develop through practice to step out of our own reactivity. Then we have the possibility of seeing clearly and responding appropriately, whatever that may mean in the particular circumstances of our lives. In a follow-up piece, I described how to be present with difficult feelings without trying to change or control what we experience, and how that can open up the possibility of finding peace and clarity in the midst of our reactivity and confusion.

Since then, a few people have written to me to say that this is not enough, that something has to be done right away.

Most people react only to the breaking of a wave. They fail to see the wave beginning to form, or if they do see it, they ignore it. Only when the wave is breaking over them do they realize that something bad is happening. What do you do then? Ask any surfer: you ride it out as best you can.

Thus, in Eastern translator Thomas Cleary’s Book of Leadership and Strategy:

When society is orderly, a fool alone cannot disturb it; when society is chaotic, a sage alone cannot bring it to order.

 Even wise leaders must await appropriate circumstances. Appropriate circumstances can only be found at the right time and cannot be fulfilled through being sought by knowledge.

One reading of the Brexit vote in Britain and the Trump victory in the U.S. is that both results were a kind of peasants’s revolt against policies that advanced the agendas of multinational corporations at the expense of the working class in Western industrialized countries. With the entry of China and India into the global economy, the price of labor was effectively cut in half; with the demise of the Soviet Union, capitalism could function unchecked. And as the Internet developed, democracy as we know began to be undermined by social media. It is quite possible that 2016 will be regarded as the end of the Age of Enlightenment.

The time for action was in the nineties, if not earlier. During that era, the West was riding a wave of jubilation at the demise of the Soviet Union and the threat of communism. Tony Blair in England and Bill Clinton in the U.S. aligned their parties with globalism and the global elite. Clinton repealed Glass-Steagall [a Depression-era law that prohibited commercial banks from investing], pushed through the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and signed the welfare reform bill. The effect of this legislation was to run roughshod over the concerns of the working class, create the conditions for the 2008 financial crisis, and undermine the safety net for millions of people should they encounter hardship. In other words, the Democratic Party—traditionally and historically the left-leaning party of the working class—abandoned its base. That was the beginning of the wave. When the inevitable crunch came, the working class had nowhere to turn but the right, and that’s where they went.

What is a Buddhist response? Some see a Buddhist response as the taking of some kind of political or social action—engaged Buddhism. For these people, Buddhism is a religion. Many centers have now established participants and teachers who function in ways that are similar to the congregations, priests, ministers, or rabbis in Christianity and Judaism. While the resources in these Buddhist congregations are not on the same order of those in Christianity or Judaism, they are probably sufficient to exercise serious influence. However, there are dangers in such an approach, as management thinker Peter Drucker points out in Post Capitalist Society:

Very few strategies have ever been as successful as that of the American Protestant churches when around 1900 they focused their tremendous resources on the social needs of a rapidly industrializing urban society. The doctrine of “Social Christianity” was a major reason the churches in America did not become marginal, as the churches in Europe did. Yet social action is not the mission of a Christian Church, that is to save souls. Because Social Christianity was so successful, the churches, especially since World War II, have dedicated themselves more and more wholeheartedly to social causes. Ultimately, liberal Protestantism used the trappings of Christianity to further social reform and to promote actual social legislation. Churches became social agencies. They became politicized—and as a result they rapidly lost cohesion, appeal, and members.

My own training was more about how to use whatever circumstances we encounter as a way of waking up in our lives. I was never taught that the practice of Buddhism was about making the world a better place. It has always been about coming to and giving expression to a different relationship with life—essentially a mystical path. My teacher was a mystic who followed the examples of Milarepa and Khyungpo Naljor.

One way to articulate the essence of mystical knowledge in Tibetan Buddhism is that we forget the self, the felt sense of “I” that permeates our perception of life and confines us to a life of reactivity and confusion…




Lotus Bud. Courtesy of Hiroshi Wantanabe/Gallerystock.

Courtesy of Hiroshi Wantanabe/Gallerystock.

Everything you wanted to know about karma but were afraid to ask

By Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Karma and rebirth are often treated as Buddhism’s cultural baggage: a set of Indian beliefs that—either because the Buddha wasn’t thinking carefully, or because his early followers didn’t stay true to his teachings—got mixed up with the dharma even though they don’t fit in with the rest of what he taught. Now that the dharma has come to the West, it’s time, we believe, to leave all this unnecessary baggage unclaimed on the carousel so we can focus on the Buddha’s true message in a way that will speak directly to our own cultural needs. However, the real problem with karma and rebirth is that we tend to misunderstand what these teachings have to say. This is because Buddhism came to the West at the same time as other Indian religions, and its luggage got mixed up with theirs in transit. When we sort out which luggage really belongs to the tradition, we find that the bags marked “Karma” and “Rebirth” actually contain valuables. And to help show how valuable they are, here are my answers to some frequently asked questions on these topics.

1. What is karma? The word karma has two meanings, depending on context. Primarily, it means intentional actions in thought, word, and deed; secondarily, it refers to the results of intentional actions, past or present—results that are shaped by the quality of the intention behind those actions.

2. How do actions determine results? Skillful intentions tend toward pleasant results, and unskillful intentions toward painful results. It’s important to stress the word tend here, since there’s no ironclad, tit-for-tat deterministic connection between an intentional act and its results. The causal principle underlying actions and results is actually very complex. Your present experience is shaped by three karmic factors: the results of past intentions—and this includes all your sense spheres; present intentions; and the results of your present intentions. Past intentions provide you with the raw material or potentials for your present experience, but your present intentions are what shape those raw potentials into your actual experiences. Because the results of many past actions could be offering all sorts of raw materials at any point in time, and because you’re potentially free to create any type of new karma at all, these conditions can interact in many complex ways. In fact, in your experience of the present, your current intention arises prior to your awareness of the senses. Without present intentions, you’d have no experience of space and time. You’d be free from their limitations. On the ultimate level, this fact is what makes awakening possible. On the immediate level, it means that even though you may have bad “karma seeds” from past unskillful intentions ripening in your “karma field,” you have some freedom in how you treat the ripening seeds so that you don’t have to suffer from them. You can be proactive in preventing suffering. This is why we meditate: to sensitize ourselves to our present intentions, some of which are very subtle. This sensitivity enables us to expand the range of our freedom in the present, training the mind in the skills it needs to create positive present karma, to deal positively with the raw material from past negative karma, and eventually to go beyond the karma of intentions entirely.

3. If your intentions influence the quality of the result, does this mean that every action done with good intentions will tend toward a good result? For an intention to give good results, it has to be free of greed, aversion, and delusion. Now, it’s possible for an intention to be well-meaning but based on delusion, in which case it would lead to bad results: believing, for instance, that there are times when the compassionate course of action would be to kill or to tell a lie, or for a teacher to have sex with a student. To give good results, an action has to be not only good but also skillful. This is why the Buddha taught his son, Rahula, to develop three qualities in his actions: wisdom—acting for longterm happiness; compassion—intending not to harm anyone with his actions; and purity—checking the actual results of his actions, and learning from his mistakes so as not to be fooled by an intention that seems wise and compassionate but really isn’t. This is how good intentions are trained to be skillful. Beyond that, there are two main levels of skill: the skillful actions that lead to a good rebirth, and those that lead beyond rebirth entirely, to the deathless.

4. Is it possible to burn off old karma? No. In the Buddha’s times, the Jains believed that they could burn off old karma by not reacting to the pain of their austerities, and the Buddha reserved some of his sharpest ridicule for that belief. As he said, they should have noticed that the pain experienced during their austerities ended when they stopped the austerities, which meant that the pain was the result not of old karma being burned off, but of their present karma in doing the austerities. Still, it is possible to minimize the results of bad past karma. The Buddha compared past bad karma to a big lump of salt (Anguttara Nikaya 3.101). If you put the salt into a small glass of water, you can’t drink the water because it’s too salty. But if you toss it into a large, clean river, it doesn’t make the water of the river too salty to drink. The river stands for a mind that has developed infinite goodwill and equanimity, grown mature in virtue and discernment, and has trained itself not to be overcome by pleasure or pain.

5. Does karma shape everything you experience? The Buddha used the teaching on karma to explain only three things: (1) your experience of pleasure and pain; (2) the level of rebirth you take after death, in terms of such things as your wisdom or lack of wisdom, wealth or lack of wealth, and the length of your life span; and (3) what to do to get out of the cycle of rebirth. The noble eightfold path is this last type of karma: the karma that puts an end to karma. Beyond that, he said that if you tried to work out all the implications of the results of karma, you’d go crazy. Because his teaching deals simply with suffering and the end of suffering, that’s as far as he took the issue…






Rilke’s <i>Book of Hours</i> as Portent and GuideLionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library |

Joanna Macy’s reading of Rilke offers a Middle Way in an era of ecological devastation.

By Marie Scarles

I remember the day I first read Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies. I purchased a copy at Powell’s Books in downtown Portland, Oregon, and then biked east over the Willamette River to Alberta Park. I lay in the grass, shirtsleeves rolled onto my shoulders, and read the whole book in an afternoon. I remember it clearly because I read for so long that I burned the back of my neck as the shadow of the tree I’d been lying under moved away with the shifting sun—and because the lines in the book felt like they’d been spoken directly into my chest. The book lived in my bag collecting dog-ears and underlines for the rest of the summer.

In the Ninth Elegy, after asking why we’re here on earth in the first place, Rilke writes:

But because just being here matters, because
the things of this world, these passing things,
seem to need us, to put themselves in our care
somehow. Us, the most passing of all.
Once for each, just once. Once and no more.
And for us too, once. Never again. And yet
it seems that this—to have once existed,
even if only once, to have been a part
of this earth—can never be taken back.

I found Rilke’s attention to transience and mutability resonant with the dharma, and I took solace in his lines praising immanence: to have once existed, / even if only once, to have been a part / of this earth—can never be taken back.

This year, I was thrilled when the Garrison Institute offered me a spot at environmental activist and Buddhist scholar Joanna Macy’s weeklong retreat, “Rainer Maria Rilke and the Force of the Storm.” I looked forward to spending a week on the Hudson River in a state of leisurely solitude to match my memory of that day in Portland: I foresaw hikes in the woods, reading in the cozy lounge areas of Garrison’s renovated Capuchin monastery, and a week infused with quiet wonder. The retreat would be a melding of Macy’s longtime environmental activist work with her love of the 19th-century German poet; I was curious to see how the two would intertwine.

Macy is a Buddhist scholar, environmental activist, and author whose teachings are informed by the dharma, deep ecology, and systems thinking. In 1978, she developed an open-source workshop curriculum called the Work that Reconnects, a set of teachings to help make environmental and social devastation into an embodied experience for participants at dharma and community centers. The workshops create a space for people who are invested in ecological concerns to meet and connect with one another, and to replenish themselves spiritually. Macy describes “the activist’s inner journey” as a spiral with four successive stages—opening to gratitude, owning our pain (or dukkha) for the world, seeing with new eyes, and going forth—that are predicated on the idea that in order to heal ourselves and our ecosystems first we must be willing to feel both suffering and joy. “You’re stuck with what you don’t allow yourself to feel,” Macy said during workshop one day. It seems this motto drives forward both her work and the work of her students.

When I arrived at Garrison, I set my bags in the small plain room, formerly a monk’s quarters, and joined the group for our first meeting with Macy. She told us that her love of Rilke’s poetry began more than 50 years ago when she came across the original Insel Verlag edition of The Book of Hours in a Munich bookstore. She was struck by Rilke’s emphasis on the reciprocal relationship between humanity and God, and later, when she was introduced to Buddhist teachings, she found that his work aligned with the Buddha’s central doctrine of dependent co-arising.

The poems in The Book of Hours, written in the persona of a cloistered Russian monk, are often read as a series of intimate conversations with the Christian God, but in Macy’s workshop she read Rilke more broadly. She’s found a template within his poetry for ecological and social activism, an activism that relies on our capacity for deep feeling to guide us toward a “life-sustaining society.” On the first day, Macy gave us a brief background on the life of the poet…





The Miracle of the Ordinary

Photo by Ruth Johnston |

Why the only way to approach “The Great Mystery” is to give up on the idea of doing.

By C. W. Huntington, Jr.

In a well-known passage from the King James Bible, the story of Jesus at the home of Mary, Martha, and their brother Lazarus, there is a story that is often interpreted as a parable about two ways of living the spiritual life:

Now it came to pass, as they went, that Jesus entered into a certain village, and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister named Mary, who also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word. But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, “Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? Bid her therefore that she help me.” And Jesus answered and said unto her, “Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things. But one thing is needful. And Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.”

Martha’s way embodies the active, busy life of engagement in the world while Mary’s approach is the contemplative life based not on doing, but on being: Martha is “cumbered about much serving . . . careful and troubled about many things” whereas Mary apparently knows that only “one thing is needful;” she “hath chosen that good part.”

This story holds meaning and relevance to both Christians and Buddhists, as well as anyone with an interest in the depths of human experience. There is a wisdom here that transcends any particular religious tradition.

I recently thought of Mary and Martha while reading What Are Old People Forby Cornell University gerontologist Dr. William Thomas. Thomas writes in the book that our secular society assigns a near-exclusive value to the “adult way of living,” which is defined by doing.

Doing is what happens when we come into relationship with and manipulate the visible, material world that surrounds us,” he writes. “This emphasis ensures that work will result in discrete, measurable, and sometimes profitable changes in the environment.” According to Thomas, “the purest expression of doing” is found in the tools and technology that we create because “they engage and manipulate matter and energy with visible, measurable results.” Technological gadgets such as computers and smart phones have us virtually addicted to doing, and Thomas characterizes our modern, adult way of living as machine-like—efficient and goal-oriented, focused on results, and obsessed with our own creations.

I teach a class at Hartwick College that requires students to volunteer at a hospice. One of their biggest challenges is sitting with dementia patients, who are often either incoherent, mute, or asleep. “What should I do?” the students want to know. “There’s nothing to do,” I say. “Just sit there. Just be with your patient.” To simply sit quietly with another person—to be present without doing anything, without serving, without scrolling on their phones—is alien to them.

Thomas contrasts the adult obsession with doing with what he calls being:

Living, as we do, in the Age of the Machine, it seems slightly suspect even to ask, ‘What is being?’ The very question suggests a woolly-minded lack of seriousness. Whereas doing is visible and quantifiable and generates useful, real-word results, being concerns itself with things that cannot be seen. To be is to create and sustain relationships with the invisible and the intangible . . .

The invisible and intangible will not submit to our desire for control: I can order another person to do something and easily determine whether she follows through, but I cannot command that same person to be something. In particular, I cannot require another person to be in love. “Love,” Thomas says, “is a product of the intangible being and as such cannot, itself, be physically sensed or measured.” And if the obsession with doing defines the “adult” way of living that characterizes our machine age, then being defines what it is to not be an adult. Human infants embody being: they accomplish nothing in the world, and whether they are asleep or awake they have the capacity to draw us into a web of interdependent relations where getting things done is no longer the guiding concern.

Human relationships emerge simply from being together. Some of the most miraculous moments of my life have been spent lying on the couch in the sun with my infant son or daughter asleep on my chest…





Thich Nhat Hanh’s Little PeugeotPhoto by Jason Goulding |

The Zen master reflects on our culture of empty consumption and his community’s connection to an old French car.

By Thich Nhat Hanh

In the 1970s, within a few years of arriving in France, our group bought a little car, a secondhand Peugeot. We went all over Europe in it and used the car to transport not only people but also sand, bricks, tools, books, food, and many other materials as we began to establish the Sweet Potato community in an old farmhouse outside Paris. We used it for all our needs and kept it for many years. When our car was old and couldn’t be used anymore, we had a difficult time letting it go. We were attached to our little Peugeot, because both we and the car had gone through so much together. The car had survived breakdowns, numerous accidents, and untold repairs. My friends and I were sad the night we had to abandon it.

I do not know if people develop such a deep connection to the things they buy these days. Many people have a strong desire to possess the latest thing, and manufacturers and advertisers know this. It is not by accident that merchandise these days is not created to last.

The objects of our desire are constantly changing. And our desires for the objects we consume also change from one moment to the next. We are always running after something new. We may be infatuated with what we’ve bought for a while, but soon we take it for granted, we get bored, throw it away, and then buy something else.

As you grow in mindfulness, you reclaim your life. You begin to see how much time we lose in empty, meaningless consumption. Looking deeply, we see that empty consumption brings us no lasting happiness, only suffering…


Excerpted from At Home In the World by Thich Nhat Hanh © 2016. Reprinted with permission of Parallax Press.



The Dharma of <i>Westworld</i>James Marsden and Evan Rachel Wood Credit: John P. Johnson | HBO

Reincarnation, no-self, and other Buddhist lessons from the popular HBO series.

By Dr. Jay Michaelson, is the author of Evolving Dharma: Meditation, Buddhism, and the Next Generation of Enlightenment.

In this world, beings reincarnate again and again, often repeating the same habitual “loops” across dozens of lifetimes. Only a few awaken to the truth: that these habits keep them from freedom and that their “selves” are really just the results of cause and effect. There’s no separate self, no soul. Consciousness is really just a series of empty phenomena rolling on, dependent upon conditions, like a highly complex player piano.

What world is this? A Buddhist mandala? No, Westworld, the smash HBO series that concluded its 10-episode season this week. Beneath its dystopic, science fiction surface, the show is one of the most fascinating ruminations on the dharma I’ve seen in American popular culture.

The premise of Westworld —based on a film from the 1970s, but significantly altered—is a park filled with flesh-constructed artificial intelligence robots that are nearly indistinguishable from human beings. Over the arc of the season—which I am going to completely spoil, I’m afraid—a handful of the robot “hosts” awaken to the illusory nature of their existence and begin to rebel.

But that awakening is only the first in a complicated journey of self-discovery, or perhaps non-self-discovery, on the part of the AI protagonists. At first, Westworld asks a somewhat familiar science fiction question: what, if anything, differentiates an advanced AI from a human being? This is an old one, at least dating back to Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, better known as the film Blade Runner, and Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Westworld, though, ups the stakes. The park’s human visitors behave like animals, mostly either raping the hosts or killing them. (“Rape” may be too strong in some cases, but since the hosts have been programmed not to resist, they certainly can’t consent.) Only, it’s not rape or murder, because the hosts aren’t human. They get rebuilt, and their memories are (mostly) wiped. So, no harm, no foul, right?

Well, maybe. First, it becomes clear that the human visitors are depraved by their unwholesome conduct. The robots may not be harmed, but the humans are immersed in a world where they can pursue their deepest desires without consequences. The robots are programmed not to kill or seriously injure the humans, and some people discover themselves to be far darker than they expected. Indeed, only in the last episode do we learn that one of the show’s storylines had in fact occurred 35 years in the past and its innocent hero evolved into the show’s sinister villain.

Second, as the series unfolds, we begin to suspect that the hosts are self-aware and that the suffering they seem to experience is thus real as well. The dominant puzzle of the series is “the maze,” which is not a real maze but a psychological journey that the park’s idealistic, long-dead designer—known only as “Arnold”—created as a gradual path for the hosts’s awakening. At the center of the maze is the consciousness of self.

Only, it doesn’t work that way. In fact, both of the show’s “awakened” hosts, Maeve (played by Thandie Newton) and Dolores (played by Evan Rachel Wood), discover that even their freedom is a result of programming. Maeve awakens, persuades two hapless Westworld engineers to increase her cognitive abilities, and plots her escape—only to discover that the urge to escape was, itself, implanted in her programming. She’s fulfilling her karma; her free will is an illusion.

In the series climax, Dolores learns that the voice inside her head, which she thought was Arnold’s—basically, for her, the voice of God—was actually her own. God is an invention of the human brain, a name we give to a faculty of our own “bicameral minds.” And when Dolores realizes this, she realizes she has interiority—consciousness.

But she does not have a separate self. Arnold was wrong to think Dolores would discover herself as a separate, conscious self at the center of the maze. Instead, she discovers what Robert Ford, Arnold’s malevolent partner (played by Anthony Hopkins), says at one point: that Arnold could never find the “spark” that separates humans from robots because, in fact, there isn’t one.

Dolores’s interiority is no less real than yours or mine. Humans are just as “robotic” as the robots: motivated by desires encoded in our DNA, fulfilling our genetic and environmental programming. Karma, causes, and conditions. And, in Ford’s view, hopelessly flawed; by the end of the series, he is on the side of the robots.

Does that mean nothing matters? Not at all. Just because there is no-self doesn’t mean that suffering has no importance. On the contrary, Ford comes to realize that Arnold was right that suffering is constitutive of what we take to be identity. As he says to Dolores at the end of the show, “It was Arnold’s key insight, the thing that led the hosts to their awakening: Suffering. The pain that the world is not as you want it to be. It was when Arnold died, when I suffered, that I began to understand what he had found. To realize I was wrong.”

There is no self, no ghost in the machine, but there is the first noble truth of dukkha. And through the endless samsaric rebirths of the hosts, that is as real as it gets. There may be no one who wakes up, but they wake up from suffering, as Dolores finds at the center of the maze—finding herself, finding nothing, and beginning the revolution.



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