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The idea of balance, and mainstream Buddha

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I’m looking forward to seeing people at next week’s dharma talk! If you need directions/want to register just let me know. I thought I’d just do a quick one somewhat on the topic of “balance.” This is probably the number one thing people talk about when I talk to them about Buddhism, thinking it’s a Buddhist idea. It isn’t, exactly. I also wanted to write a bit about how Buddhism shows up in random American places.

So people love to mention “balance” when they talk about Buddhism, assuming they’re interested, and somewhat new to Buddhist practice and so forth. Obviously, it’s wonderful if someone is interested enough to actually take a class, and try to meditate. I don’t want to sound too harsh. The other thing is that finding some sort of balance (say, between work and family time) is natural and healthy. It just isn’t something I think the Buddha, or any important Buddhist thinker ever recommended, particularly.



One interesting thing about this is- the language we use when we discuss spiritual stuff (or anything, for that matter) can be very important. This is partly because a single word carries with it lots of associations, specific to a culture, and a given time. So, balance, as a term, connotes certain things. I don’t think it’s especially deep or helpful, although it’s not terrible.

As Buddhist imagery, Buddhist ideas, even a few Buddhist masters have become mainstream, you get this happening- the stuff is on people’s radar, sort of like the way a subculture becomes infused into popular culture. And like a subculture mixing into pop culture, like rap mixing into pop music, for instance, some stuff gets “filtered out,” some things change, get made more easily understandable, or easily accepted.

I have seen one particular quote from the Buddha so many times, usually in the context of a yoga website or yoga studio. It’s the most famous one at this point, and if you think about it, you can probably come up with it. (It’s the only one most Westerners know.) Not that it’s a bad one, although some translations are dodgy, I think. It has to do with the mind, and how you use the mind, or how you use your thoughts.

“With our thoughts…”

To be pretty general, we’re talking about the idea of balance, in some way, and the power of your thoughts.

The Buddhist tradition is very old. It’s nearing 3000 years at this point. It’s a little more complex than just saying, “Find a balance,” and “Your thoughts are really powerful, you should pay attention to them.”

So, how to deal with this seeming problem, the watering down of Buddhist wisdom in popular culture? I have two ideas. It really is a huge sociological issue, among other things, but here are two ideas.

1. Turn those platitudes into questions.

What is balance? What would this balance feel or seem like? Have you found this before in your life? What conditions supported it? Are there any problems with this kind of approach to life, with finding a balance?


What are thoughts?


How do they work?


How do you know you’re having them?


(By the way, it’s okay to think when you meditate. Common misconception.)


So, if people really really want to stop thinking when they meditate, why is this? What is so terrible about having a thought, or lots of thoughts?


2. Bring it back to some more solid ideas

Here are some more traditional Buddhist takes on those ideas:

There is the idea of a “middle way.” The middle way exists between extremes. Now this is starting to sound like balance, right? However, this idea is traditionally used to describe the way reality exists. That’s one way it is used. So, it’s not quite about finding a stress free life, it’s more about understanding how things are, in reality. The two extremes could be described as “nothing,” and “things.”

Things: the commonplace view- my life is real, my body is real, physical objects are real

Seems okay so far…

Nothing: my life is made of many changing and shifting parts, my body is too, physical objects themselves are changing, shifting, moving



Maybe this makes clear why people prefer to think of balance as not spending too much time at their job. This way of looking at reality, as being somewhere between a dream, and what we normally assume, is not easy at first. The idea of a middle way there, is that somehow it can be helpful to  investigate the possibility that-

people, places, things

are not exactly what we normally assume.

The example I often use is molecules- that chair appears real and solid, but we also accept that, on some level, it’s moving about.


The “middle way” idea manifests in various forms in Buddhist philosophy. A more in depth analysis would take a lot longer. Another time!


Here’s a better one: not too loose, not too tight. This one actually corresponds much more closely to the idea of “balance.”

One of the Buddha’s students was a musician. He played something similar to a guitar. You’ve probably seen someone tuning a guitar before. The student couldn’t understand how to meditate. The Buddha told him to work with his mind just like he tuned his instrument, “not too loose, not too tight.” Importantly, though, this instruction was not about how to schedule your life, but about how to work with your own mind. The question of how busy you should be, or how to order the elements of your life, are something slightly else.

Not that it’s good to spend all day at work, just that this wasn’t exactly a Buddhist idea.


The teachings and compassion

Avalokiteśvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion,...

Avalokiteśvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, 16th century image from Japan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Just making a cup of tea in the kitchen, I had an idea for next week’s talk: the wideness of the dharma, and the wideness of compassion.

The gist of it: sometimes we have limited views about what the dharma (Buddhist teachings) is, and about what compassion is. So, come next Tuesday (4-530pm) and let’s discuss this. How varied and vast is the Buddhist tradition? What does it even mean to be a Buddhist, or to practice Buddhism? What is compassion, and how can we cultivate it?

Thanks very much to the Rowley Public Library for having me lead a discussion/talk last night. It was very interesting, and I was so glad to see some people come out to participate. It was especially nice to have someone ask for meditation instruction. That is something I love, to have someone not only express an interest in meditation, but actually ask how to do it. I hope some of you from last night’s event will go to next week’s dharma talk (Dec. 11th).

Since it often feels stingy to just promote an event here, and not offer any ideas, here’s one regarding compassion. Not that I have any great insight into the matter, this area of the teachings is one I find difficult, more than meditation practice, more than the so-called “wisdom teachings.”

One way you learn about compassion in this tradition is in terms of the “four immeasurables,” or the four “brahma viharas.” They are: equanimity, kindness, joy, and compassion.

They’re immeasurable in that they are practices and feelings that are very large. The intention cultivated becomes very large. I would also imagine that the benefits of this kind of practice are vast. They are practices of the heart, as I see it, so you could say it’s about making your heart bigger. Maybe finding that vastness, in your heart, that’s already there (but for me, it feels more like actually make your heart bigger, expanding your heart, beyond pettiness and defensiveness).

They’re also called “brahma viharas.” This tends to get translated as “divine abodes,” which is nice, but also kind of stodgy. Who says abode these days, outside of a fantasy novel, or a movie set in Medieval England? Brahma is a god, one of the main gods, in the Hindu tradition. That’s where the divine comes in. As I understand it, the idea of these practices being divine dwelling places is that you uplift yourself to a kind of bliss, a kind of superhuman or extraordinary enjoyment. It feels good to cultivate these virtues. This always seems to be the irony of suffering- it feels terrible, but we want it so much, somehow. It’s not easy to let go of things like anger, even if they feel awful (and therefore it seems like dropping them should be a piece of cake).

This is no small teaching, the four immeasurables. As I mentioned, compassion will be one of the foci of next week’s discussion. Here was my thought though. You don’t get them separately. Yes, they are cultivated on their own, in a concentrated way. At the same time, they’re not really separate feelings. You can’t be compassionate and still be unkind. You can’t be levelheaded (equanimous) without being compassionate. They go together. They’re really one thing, with four aspects.

Compassion personified: a statue at the Epcot ...

Compassion personified: a statue at the Epcot center in Florida (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Fall Classes 2012

Recycled Art

This class will be hands-on, and experiential. Learn to meditate, and explore concepts such as interconnection, and mandala. At the same time, we’ll spend lots of class time working with recycled materials to create new art. No prior artistic training required.



Buddhist Psychology

Eastern and Western traditions offer sophisticated ways to understand ourselves. We’ll look at ways they intersect, and what to make of this. Topics will include ego, shadow, conditioning, the subconscious, and society and the individual.




This class will focus on a topic that combines complexity and simplicity at the same time. This concept comes from a body of teachings on the process of transitions within life, and from life to death. However, this model can also shed light on the changes that occur in our minds, as life shifts before our eyes.



Writing the Ocean

For beginning or experienced writers. We will do a little meditating, but will spend most of our time on the writing process. A variety of written exercises will be presented, on basics such as plot, character, and emotion. Overall, our goal will be to discover new ways to bring out a voice, and how to work with this.



Taking Up the Challenge

Recommended for more experienced meditators. Through a variety of traditional practices, we will both meditate in the studio, and out in the world, in a variety of locations. This class will work on “meditation in action” and bridging the gaps between formal practice and in the world practice.



Dharma Talks

These weekly get-togethers will be chances to practice, enjoy the support of community, and hear teachings. These talks will happen on Tuesday evenings. Open to everyone. Five dollars or by donation. There will be time for discussion after each talk.

(free/by donation)


Sitting and walking meditation

Open to everyone. Free public sitting and walking meditation, with some instruction.



Discounts apply. No one will be turned away for inability to pay.

Fall Classes are almost here!



Yes they are.

There will be some free classes, and some classes that are modestly priced this Fall.

Fall Schedule

(subject to change)

Sundays   (Sep. 16-Nov. 4)

10-11:15 am      Sitting and walking meditation (free)

11:30-12:45      Buddhist Psychology

Mondays (Sep. 17-Nov. 5)

1-2 pm    Meditation Basics 1

7-8:30 pm   Recycled Art

Tuesdays (Sep. 18- Nov. 6)

7-8:30 pm   Writing the Ocean

Fridays (Sep. 21-Nov. 9)

6-7:15 pm    Bardo

7:30-8:45 pm   Taking Up the Challenge

More details soon.

Free classes

I’d like to offer two free classes this fall, if there’s interest.

The first would be sitting and walking meditation. It would be about an hour, maybe a little longer. There wouldn’t be instruction or discussion, just a time to sit and practice together.

The second would be a reading group. We could read different books over time together, and discuss them. That would also be about an hour. I’m not sure yet which book we’d start with (and I’d take suggestions there).

Times and dates to be determined.

New Milarepa

Milarepa statue, Pango Chorten, Gyantse, Tibet.

Milarepa statue, Pango Chorten, Gyantse, Tibet. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


What’s new?

Since last time, a new class (the poetry one) has started. There’s a workshop coming up in July. I’ve been thinking about the possibility of longer retreats, if that could work somehow (at the Newbury location).

I’ve been working a little on reworking Milarepa’s songs. Here is some.

This lonely spot where my hut stands

is pleasing to the buddhas, a place where realized  beings live,

a refuge where I live alone.

Above Red Rock Jewel Valley

white clouds glide by.

Below the Tsang river gently flows.

Vultures soar between the two.

Bees are humming among flowers,

intoxicated by their fragrance.

In the trees,  birds play,

filling the air with their song.

In Red Rock Jewel Valley

young sparrows learn to fly,

monkeys enjoy leaping and swinging,

and other animals running and racing.

I practice relative and ultimate bodhicitta and love to meditate.

All you local demons, ghosts, and gods,

my friends,

drink the nectar of kindness and compassion,

and then go home.

Rain of classes


Happy Vesak!


A reminder about new classes:


Tuesdays: Meditation 101

This class will start again. An introduction to Buddhist meditation, with some discussion. We’ll focus on the “mindfulness-awareness” technique as taught in Tibetan Buddhism. It’s a wonderful style of meditation, and one you can keep practicing for years (forever more or less) and keep learning about it, and deepening it.

(June 12-July 10, 8-915 PM)     $75


Wednesdays: Beyond the Basics

This class follows Med. 101. We’ll spend a bit longer meditating. We’ll learn some new meditation practices, including contemplative meditation. You must have completed Meditation 101 to take this class, or have been practicing for a while. This class is required for the third meditation class in the series. Confusing? There are a total of three meditation training classes, beginning with “one oh one.” The third will begin at the end of the summer, or in early fall.

(June 13-July11, 8-915 PM)    $75


Thursdays: Poetry of the Sages

We’ll meditate some in the beginning of class, and then read and discuss poetry. Authors will come from a wide range of times and places. We’ll explore how magic and wisdom manifest in the written and spoken word. The arts have been a part of the meditator’s path for a long time. As this tradition takes root in the West, art is one area where the wisdom and blessings of the tradition can be uncovered.

(June 14-July 12, 8-915 PM)    $75


As always, there are student and senior discounts. Vets can take class free of charge. No one will be turned away due to financial hardship.




Evening Prajna Paramita meditation

Evening Prajna Paramita meditation (Photo credit: key lime pie yumyum)






Classes and meditation

Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana




Sunday meditation is now from 8-9. Not too early!

Classes start soon: Intro to Buddhism, Meditation 101, and Dharma Art.

Here are some brief descriptions.


A look at Buddhist tradition: practice, theory, schools. Learn about the origins of Buddhism in India, and the historical Buddha. Learn about how Buddhism has mixed with the cultures of Asian countries. Learn about core concepts, such as mindfulness, karma, compassion, and suffering. This class will combine history and culture with practical experiential training. There’ll be lecture, discussion, and very short meditation periods.

Mondays and Thursdays, April 23-May 31

6-7:30 pm




This class will explore the basics of Tibetan Buddhist meditation. We’ll focus mainly on mindfulness (“shamatha-vipashyana”) meditation. This technique has been taught for thousands of years. It is common to all Buddhist schools. Many consider it useful in a secular sense: not limited to Buddhists. Certainly, all are welcome, interested beginners, and seasoned practitioners. There will be some discussion, but we’ll spend longer periods in sitting and walking meditation. We will also try some other meditation techniques. However, because mindfulness is the foundation of other practices, we will spend most of time practicing that. This class will be a prerequisite for future, intermediate classes.

Tuesdays, April 24-May 29

6-7:30 pm





Art has been used for ages to express the connection between man and his world. Art and magic are closely related. Buddhism has a long history of both secular and religious art. This tradition invokes wisdom through artistic means. We will not focus on the formal elements of traditional art. Instead, we will learn about how art can transform the mind (through perceiving and creating). Practically this means we’ll learn about Buddhist theory, we’ll meditate, and do art in class. No previous experience required. Basic materials will be provided at no extra cost. Feel free to bring extra art materials.

Saturdays and Sundays, April 28-May 27

Saturdays 10-11:30 am                     Sundays 11-12:30 pm



Ask me if you have any questions! Classes will begin in a few weeks. Discounts do apply, so have a look at the “discounts” page.          978-462-9737                 Newbury MA


meditation 101

meditation 101 (Photo credit: anyjazz65)

A little reminder of the reminders

The four reminders are a basic practice.

As I see it, this means it’s both a starting point, and a potential end point. They say that for a lot of practices, if you really do them well, that’s enough, enough to create realization.

This can be contemplated formally or informally. Formally would be sitting on a cushion, maybe in front of a shrine of some sort, repeating the reminders in your mind, and seeing what thoughts arise. Informally would be just reminding yourself throughout the day. You’d probably be reminded anyway, by things that happen.

1. Precious human life

2. Impermanence

3. Karma

4. Samsara


A very brief explanation:

1. We have a life. This is precious for a number of reasons. It’s not a waste, or a total mess. It’s not utterly meaningless, and it’s not just a chance to indulge. It’s precious.

2. People, places, things, ideas, always change. This includes death.

3. There is cause and effect. Importantly, this affects YOUR mind. You may not know how having an argument with someone will play out in one day, or one year, or a lifetime, BUT it’s pretty easy to know how it will change your mind. Your mind changes things, and things change your mind. It’s a “feedback loop.”

4. This feedback loop sometimes (sometimes?) feels unpleasantly like a whirlpool. Things can get worse. They can get better, and then worse. There’s always the self-conscious and anxiety of having an ego. However, this “samsara,” frustration, suffering, as deep rooted as it seems, is not fate, is not a condemnation, is not something we have to ignore.

Not VERY brief. My apologies for any glibness, mistakes, or errors.

Don’t be a vulcan! Eat faster.

I had a very odd roommate some years back. In my experience, you meet a lot of interesting people having roommates.

He had studied Buddhism with at least one prominent teacher, had learned some things, along with Reiki, and a bunch of other stuff. I remember him standing in the hallway, as a potential future roommate (he moved out after about a month or two) with an electronic cigar device, glowing blue (they’re real, they really are), telling the potential roomie, “X is a sheister.” X being the third roommate, who’d lived there for years, and collected rent. He also, reportedly, said that Buddhists were like Mr. Spock. We’re like vulcans.

The idea being that we try to be too perfect, too disciplined, and maybe are too much in our heads.

I don’t know about how much about Vulcan culture, but they probably have (had? will have? will have had?) music. There’s the classic Buddhist story of “not too loose, not too tight.” It gets told in various various ways, in Thailand, it seems to get a slightly different twist, according to what my students told me.

Here goes.

A vina player was trying to learn to meditate from the Buddha. (Historically he’s known as Shakyamuni, something of a family name, being part of the Shakya family or clan.)

So this musician, almost like a guitarist, was trying to learn to practice meditation. He couldn’t get it. It was so hard to understand. He asked the Buddha for some practice advice. The Buddha told him that learning to practice with his mind was like tuning his instrument. Again, think of tuning guitar strings.

He told the artist, when you meditate, the best way is like when you tune your vina, “not too loose, not too tight.” This is an instruction that’s very helpful.

But back to the Vulcans. I think my odd old roommate had a great point. Of course, Buddhist come in all varieties, but right now I’m thinking of those in the West, the interesting hybrid that’s developing in new places. Buddhists can definitely be uptight: about meditating enough, about being disciplined, about following rules. We hear stories about great meditators and saints, like Milarepa, or Marpa, or Shakyamuni, or more recent teachers, and we feel like we have to measure up. We have to sit for hours a day. We have to be perfect, because they were.

That could be too tight. If someone makes a habit of saying mean stuff about others, so their speech is like some kind of constant pollution, dripping out into the environment, it could be too loose. (In my obviously somewhat biased opinion.)

One last example.

“Mindful eating.”

Everyone knows “our culture” in America, whatever that is, is crazy when it comes to food, diet, body, and so much more. If you read a book on Buddhism, or attend a talk, you will probably encounter the idea of being mindful when you eat. This tends to mean slowing down, not scarfing like crazy, really savoring and tasting.

That’s fine. It must work for some. I felt like I was doing it wrong for years, because I could not force myself to slow down when I ate. It felt unpleasant. I wanted to eat fast! Somehow, I was doing it wrong. I love to eat. Pizza, coffee, curries, eggs, breakfast in general, pies, desserts, chocolate. I love to eat.

Sometimes you can go off track when you get caught up in the “Buddhist way” or the “liberal way” or the “American way” of doing things. These are basically random examples. I hope you get my idea.

About a year ago I stopped caring about eating too fast. I like to eat fast. I try to eat faster sometimes. It’s so exciting and satisfying and visceral. I hesitate a bit less than I used to. I really eat.

Buddhists shouldn’t be too polite.

Eat faster! Have a good time.


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