1. In 2011, Flint Sparks launched his TedX talk by observing that the challenge is not how to change the world – but how to meet a world that never stops changing. In this episode, Teresa asks Sparks to follows up on this challenge. Sparks is a Zen priest and clinical psychologist who has been a leader in holistic Cancer Care, founded the Austin Zen Center, and currently is a resident teacher at Appamada, a center for Zen practice and inquiry in Austin, Texas.

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  2. Skillful Means and Invitations to Freedom and Applied Mindfulness and the Hakomi Way
    Everyone wants to be free from unnecessary suffering. This was the Buddha’s primary concern and it is the function of the practices he taught. How are we to understand these ancient practices alongside contemporary methods for emotional and relational healing? In meeting this question skillfully, it is not our aim to merely translate Buddhadharma into a method of psychotherapy, nor is it our goal to elevate modern psychotherapy into a vehicle for spiritually liberation. However, both paths have profound transformative potential and this class will be geared toward their shared illumination by engaging these teachings and practices with mindfulness and wholehearted attention.

    In this series we will be drawing on two primary forms of contemporary psychotherapy — Hakomi and Internal Family Systems. These skillful methods weave together mindfulness and multiplicity in such a way that the Buddha’s teachings can be demonstrated as practical tools for personal and relational transformation. We will examine the ways in which our everyday sense of “self” emerges and is sustained. This investigation will include perspectives from child development, attachment theory, and Buddhist psychology. We will also look at the ways in the Buddha’s teachings of mutual causality reveal the centrality of relationship on the path to awakening. We will also study the ways that attention to relationality and mutual care opens the way to a life of freedom.

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  3. Vast is the robe of liberation,
    A formless field of benefaction.
    Wearing the universal teaching
    I realize the one True Nature,
    Thus harmonizing all being.

    Each morning in Zen temples and monasteries, as the bell rings to signal the end of zazen, the practitioners remain in their seats and those who have taken precepts or priest ordination place their precisely folded robes on their heads and chant the verse above. The chant precedes putting on the kesa (formal priest's patchwork robe) or the rakusu (less formal bib-like robe). At one level the chant and ritual are statements about the significance of these religious garments and their meaning. These are Buddha's robes and represent the very body of the Buddha and also the community or practitioners which represent the living body of Buddha. The many strips of cloth sewn together in a beautiful pattern suggests this interweaving of lives, causes, and conditions which manifest as life - our lives - life as it is.
    But the chant is also invoking more than a statement about the fabric of a robe or its symbolic meaning in Buddhist ritual. These lines are also calling us to include the teachings and practices as the very fabric of our lives. When I would sew with my ordination teacher, Zenkei Blanche Hartman, she would tell me wonderful stories about Joshin-san, the Japanese woman and devoted student of Kodo Sawaki Roshi who taught her how to sew the robes. These were Buddha's robes. In fact, Joshin-san would say that each robe was "the whole body of the Buddha" and therefore should be treated as such. Maybe our lives are, in fact, the whole body of the Buddha and should be treated as such. Let's take a look at this chant and this embodiment.
    Buddha Nature - Human Nature
    In the traditional story of the Buddha’s enlightenment, the young Guatma was sitting under the bodhi tree deep in contemplation. There comes a time in the story when Mara, the tempter, has nearly exhausted his many strategies to move the young monk from his steadfast seat. In his frustration, Mara gathers his energy one last time and confronts Guatama by asking him on what basis he could possibly verify his liberation or confirm his enlightenment. In response, the Buddha says nothing. He does not implore the heavens for protection, nor does he does mount an intellectual or theological challenge to defeat Mara. He performs a very simple act. He touches the earth.
    In this story we are offered a powerfully elegant symbol which can be seen as the newly enlightened Buddha’s very first teaching. By touching the earth he counters Mara and demonstrates clearly that enlightenment is not a special state of mind, a sophisticated concept, a holy event, a new philosophy, or core belief. It is a reality closer to the earth, to our bodies, to what is ordinary, whole, and simple. Liberation is freedom from all that we habitually use to define ourselves as separate and special and therefore opens us to the vast, interconnected, impermanent world we live in. And this liberation is found right in the middle of this mysterious, never-ending dance we call life and death. It is no other than nature – Buddha Nature, human nature - our nature.
    Like many of you, I am sure, I spend an inordinate amount of time indoors. I sit at a desk, work in front of a computer, speak with clients and students, or teach in classrooms and retreat centers. I sit in a zendo, which is climate controlled (thank goodness!) and sleep protected from the elements (for which I am deeply grateful). However, in our conventional, comfortable, protected world, we easily become entranced and forget that we are vulnerable animals living on a planet that does not consult us about its changes. Most of the time we imagine we are safe and secure from the randomness and violence of nature’s impersonal movement until something like a hurricane, earthquake or tsunami reminds us that we are not in charge. The teachings we are exploring on the path of Zen express the reality of nature. They are not abstract concepts to ponder. They must be touched and known intimately, just as the Buddha reached down and touched the earth on that clear morning.
    Stephen Mitchell, commenting on the path of awakening said, “On this journey, going means letting go. It’s not all that hard to get enlightened; what is difficult is to keep giving up our sense of the world so that the world can come to us on its own terms, with its vast, pitiless, loving intelligence. At the end of the journey, we return to the simplest things with an immense recognition and gratitude...” (p. ) It is much easier to become entranced by the possibility of gaining something special, called enlightenment, and enjoying exotic states of consciousness which we fantasize must accompany such a radical transformation. But actually, we are called to relinquish everything, not gain anything. Our challenge is to "give up our sense of the world so the world can some to us on its own terms, with its vast, pitiless, loving intelligence." As we enter practice wholeheartedly we come to learn what it means to let go of “my” sense - the relinquishment of me, my self, ego. We then investigate, through ongoing practice, what this “sense of the world” is that both maintains the self and is created by the self. This is a tangled knot that is not easily released.
    A few years ago I was fortunate enough to lead a week-long retreat on the Big Island of Hawaii where, as many of you probably know from your own experience, the raw forces of nature come together in dramatic and powerful ways. I have led retreats in Hawaii for many years and always enjoy the beauty and intimacy with nature that living in that kind of tropical environment affords. However, I had never been to the Big Island and had never seen an active volcano. The day our group planned to hike to the lava flows was a beautifully clear day. The volcano was flowing with great force and we were excited by the opportunity to walk, with our guide, over wild and primitive old flows to reach the coast where the lava met the ocean and actually creating new land. We set out late in the afternoon from the retreat center on the south part of the Hilo side of the island, driving only a few miles to reach the edge of the lava that marked the furthest reaches of the last destructive eruption which had slowly and relentlessly moved across this part of the island. We parked on hardened black rock that, when molten, had devastated farms, homes, and businesses. Highway signs stuck up through the gray folds of cooled lava. We drove on asphalt that disappeared under the flow and reappeared in places that were spared. Finally we reached a place to park. It is hard to describe what it was like being on what seemed like the edge of the earth. We looked out across miles of what a prehistoric landscape must have looked like. This was a world that was unfamiliar, blank, and apparently devoid of life. As far as we could see, there was nothing but the undulating folds of crusty, hardened lava. In the distance to the right we could see the volcanic mountain towering above this wasteland. On the left, we could barely make out the coastline marked by plumes of steam in the distance where the lava was pouring into the ocean. We planted long bamboo poles topped with flashing lights so we could find our way back to the cars in the dark and set out on a two-hour hike to reach the active flows.
    As daylight faded, what had been shadowy valleys on the volcano’s slope began to glow red. The white plumes of steam rising from the ocean's edge began to take on a pink glow. Hiking steadily, we fell into a rhythm, looking for ways to move across the uneven landscape in the fading light. It evolved naturally into a form of walking meditation. For long periods we fell silent, picking our way along the ridges and through the shallow valleys. At other times we spoke about the landscape we were encountering, our weariness, or whatever friendly conversation came to mind. Now and then we would come across a tiny fern tucked in some crevice, growing vulnerable and alone. Other than these tiny immigrants, there were no signs of life and certainly no human reference aside from our small band of hikers crunching along. We were walking across land that was new. Very likely no human had ever walked exactly where we were walking. We were not on the National Park side of the flows and we never saw another human being. At one point I jokingly said, “When do the dinosaurs show up”?

    Finally, we began to feel the heat. We approached the outflow of lava coming off the mountain where it plunged into the ocean. We watched it roll into the waves, dive under the cliffs, cool, buckle and explode. The waves didn’t think about what it would mean to pound into the red magma. The molten rock didn’t consider what would happen as it rolled into the cold water. Nature simply moved. The entire primitive scene didn’t mind our witnessing nor did it take us into account. At one point, along with a few other foolish souls, I decided to walk toward a second tower of steam further up the coast. It was completely dark by this time and we walked by the light of our flashlights. Only a few hundred yards along the way I stopped and slowly turned, shining the beam of my flashlight all around in a large circle. I could then see that we were completely surrounded by small steam vents. The earth was getting hot under our feet and the sulfurous smell was stronger. We were walking directly on top of cooling rock covering rivers of lava. There was no way of knowing how stable the earth was under our feet or if we might fall through the crust if we walked on.
    At that moment I felt a terror and a vulnerability that I had never felt before. This anxiety wasn’t some neurotic worry racing around in my head. It wasn’t even a fear in response to some ordinary outside event. This was a primal knowing that I had no idea if the very ground under my feet would support my weight. My “idea” of all of this didn’t even really matter. It was just exactly as it was. I could see and feel, undeniably, that nothing was permanent or solid around me. Everything was in violent flux and moving perfectly and beautifully along with everything else. I wasn’t special and nature wasn’t particularly concerned about “me”. I was standing there, vulnerable and very alert in the midst of the steam and the wind and darkness. The three marks of existence taught by the Buddha were the simple, concrete truth of that moment – the truth of relentless unfolding of life as it is, the profound dependence of each thing on everything else, and the raw fact of impermanence.
    Fortunately, our little band safely returned to where the more sane members of the group were sitting and joined them. We silently watched the beauty of the shoreline being formed in front of our eyes. I reached down and touched the earth. Splinters of crystallized silica stuck into my fingers as I picked up a small chard of broken lava. I bled a little, a small price to pay for the reality that nature had shown me. It is said that on his deathbed the Buddha admonished his followers to not base their faith on what he had said, but to wholeheartedly investigate for themselves the truth of the teachings through practice. I am grateful for the teachings that were offered that night. I was fine despite a few lava splinters, some fatigue, and several uncomfortable blisters on my feet. The two-hour return hike in the dark was challenging, but we eventually found our way to our cars, patiently waiting.
    We had touched and shared something beyond our ordinary lives that night, and the treasures we were offered were verified by the ways we touched the earth – that unpredictable, beautiful, terrifying, life-giving earth. This was "life as it is" without a filter, with no protection, and no promises. The deepest invitation discovered in practice is to “keep giving up our sense of the world so that the world can come to us on its own terms, with its vast, pitiless, loving intelligence.” The volcanic eruption was not personal. It was doing what volcanos sometimes do, and it was doing so in precisely the way that the current geological and oceanic factors surrounding that part of the island prescribe. It was a dramatic version of “the world coming to us on its own terms.” The problem is that we don’t always like the terms offered by nature. We reject nature. We turn away from life as it is. We relinquish Buddha and cling to our own, small sense of the world. We renounce the reality of Buddha Nature and wonder why we suffer. And we call this habit, “everyday life.”
    Pause and Reflect:
    Everyone can tell stories of life's challenges and the lessons that emerge through meeting these challenges. What is often missed is the ways in which the transformational aspects of these challenges are integrated — digested and incorporated into our lives — so that we no longer think of them as difficult events or even "lessons." They become who we are, just as food, when digested and incorporated, literally become our body. In this path we are often called to practice by suffering and confusion. If we choose to step onto the path we are asked to turn toward and then admit our actual lived experience. To do so requires profound acceptance, without which we just circle back into self criticism, shame, and self doubt. We have the Buddha's core teaching to help us both see and soften the self-centered cycle of suffering. At this juncture the robe chant suggests that we have an opportunity to become the teachings as we ingest them, wear them, and embody them. This is harmony. The practice of paying attention and accepting what you see is harmonizing. Can you see how you are "wearing the universal teaching" in some way that is new or surprising? What is softer, more easily accepted, more fully expressed, or gently released through practice at this point?

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  4. Caught in the self-centered dream, only suffering;
    Holding to self-centered thoughts, exactly the dream;
    Each moment, life as it is, the only teacher;
    Being just this moment, compassion’s way.

    I had the great opportunity early in my Zen Practice to spend some time at City Center in San Francisco at a time when a new abbot was being installed. In traditional Zen monasteries and temples, the installation of an abbot is called a Mountain Seat Ceremony. The new religious leader "ascends the mountain and takes their seat" alongside all the teachers that preceded them. This is a great honor and a beautifully complex ceremony steeped in tradition and full of meaning. As a fledgling student, I was the volunteer help. I offered myself wholeheartedly, cleaning the temple and engaging in the preparations for visiting dignitaries and local members. As I was busy working I was also busy thinking, "I am too old. There are all of these young people here starting out fresh, dedicating themselves to the dharma. They are so lucky. I missed Suzuki Roshi. I missed all the other really cool teachers who came through here in the past. I don't know why I think I can even do this or why the current teachers would even want me as a student." On and on I went, building a case for my pitiful nature and comparing myself unfavorably to everyone and everything. I was in a familiar rut.

    For security reasons, the front door of City Center remains locked. To get in one has to either have a key, be accompanied by a resident, or simply knock and hope someone will let you in. I was sweeping the foyer grumbling to myself in this downward spiral of self-pity when someone knocked on the front door. With some irritation at being disturbed in my misery I went to the door and opened it. Standing in front of me with a big warm smile was Hoitsu Suzuki, the son of the temple's founder, Shunryu Suzuki. He had arrived on the temple's doorstep having just flown from Japan to attend the Mountain Seat Ceremony. He was standing there in front of me with his suitcases on either side of him hoping that someone would grant him access to the building. I looked at him with a shock of surprise because I recognized who he was. He immediately bowed and smiled. I returned his warm gesture and stepped aside so he could enter. He came in and immediately put down his bags, slipped out of his shoes, and made his way into the Buddha Hall adjacent to the entrance. He went to the altar, lit a candle, and proceeded to offer incense and full bows, a gesture of deep respect at the altar of temple his father established so many years ago. I watched all of this unfold with respect and awe.

    My self-centered dream was shattered in those few moments after answering the knock on the door. I had been lost in a self-centered story, fully engrossed in its "reality." Then, with a generous smile and with palms together, this small Japanese man had turned my world upside down. Suddenly there was no such thing as a "missing past." My age and accomplishment in the Zen world had no meaning. It was not as if my feelings were unimportant, they were just not relevant in the moment that was unfolding. Everything I assumed was missing in my spiritual life was manifest in those few moments. I could attempt to stay caught in the self-centered dream and to do so would have meant I would have to stay loyal to my self-centered thoughts. However, the potency of the moment was such that it pierced my dream-like bubble and I was invited into a moment of generous action and effortlessly grace. I was met by great generosity so I was able to respond with unselfconscious receptivity. I was shocked to see how close freedom is when my story falls away. Spontaneous relief and undeniable joy were right there, and I didn't have to work for them or create them. These qualities revealed themselves quite naturally as we met beyond self concern. This was liberating intimacy, unfolding naturally in relational virtuosity.

    Caught in the Self Centered Dream
    John Tarrant speaks directly to this familiar practice of creating and maintaining stories. He says:

    At the heart of Zen, and of all Buddhism, is a story. Even in the simplest life, pain and disappointment accumulate, and at some moment everyone longs to walk through a gate and leave the past behind, perhaps for an earlier time when the colors were bright and the heart carried no weight. The quest for a fresh start is so fundamental that it defines the shape of the stories we tell. Buddha’s story is what’s happening to you now. The journey of the Buddha isn’t a literal journey that happened long ago. And it’s not what your life will become. It’s here now, and paying attention helps you notice that. If you look into the life you have, your looking will lead you into a new life. What you meet on the way is part of the way.

    I read this remarkable statement in an interview many years after that fateful meeting in the foyer of the San Francisco Zen Center. Here was a teacher describing exactly what the experience had begun to show me. Humans are story-tellers and thankfully we can use our amazing capacity for narrative to integrate and make sense of our difficult and complicated lives. However, when we begin to believe that telling our story, which can be enormously healing on an emotional level, is the actual truth of the matter, we begin the creation of suffering for ourselves and others. Our longing for relief from our everyday struggles and our hope for a better future (as well as a better past!) infuses our stories with an entrancing quality which is often shared. We are surrounded by a consensus reality that tells us to hope for the best and avoid all that is unpleasant. We even take the Buddha's story and read it through this same lens. Our enchantment with the dream is what we are shown when we have take a seat in zazen. By taking our seat we demonstrate our willingness to turn toward the present moment with acceptance - to see that we are caught in our self-centered preoccupation with avoiding pain and grasping at pleasure. Part of that profound acceptance is to hold our stories lightly. We will always create them, and I think we need them, but we often cling to them as if they were solid and enduring. We come to have faith in our ever-changing, constructed stories as if they were the reality of the lived moment.

    John Tarrant continues:
    Awakening undermines the stories you live by, as well as the way you make stories – or what you call a story. Switching thoughts is like switching rooms in what is essentially a prison the mind has made. But in awakening you can’t find any walls or bars. Changing your beliefs about what’s bad and what’s good could even be an indicator that a more fundamental change has not taken place... Zen people talk about emptiness because when you awaken, the maps that hold your beliefs are suddenly gone. You also notice that new maps appear in the mind, even without encouragement from you. And as new maps appear, you can take them as provisional.

    This capacity to take things "as provisional" is a fundamental key to realizing freedom from the prison of our own narrative. Peter Hershock says, "We do not suffer because we are in pain. We suffer because something has gone wrong with our story — wrong enough that it threatens the structure of our narration."

    Pause and Reflect:
    1. 1. The first two truths describe the dilemma associated with anguish. How have you come to understand this dilemma in your life? Maybe give an example of being caught in the self-centered dream and how you know you have held to self-centered thoughts. How has this dilemma found expression and how have you met it?
    2. The second two truths describe the resolution of the dilemma. The third line is key — “Each moment, life as it is, the only teacher.” Once again, be specific. Reflect on a time when life got your attention and this bit of awakening blossomed into greater awareness or a more spacious body and mind. You might also notice some of the habitual ways you struggle with “life as it is.” Even this is an important insight. Just the seeing itself is useful.
    3. If you were to write your own version of the Four Noble Truths, how would you write them so that they reflected your actual lived experience and practice experience?

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  5. Profound Acceptance
    (Taking Refuge)

    I take refuge in Buddha
    I take refuge in Dharma
    I take refuge in Sanga

    One cold January evening, early into my new Zen practice, I arrived at the Margaret Austin Center, not far from Houston, Texas, with more than 50 other participants to begin a weeklong silent meditation retreat. The retreat leader, an esteemed Zen teacher from the San Francisco temples where I had been studying, offered advice and encouragement as we entered the silence that first evening. He suggested that we reconsider our usual understanding of the word "retreat." Most commonly we think of a retreat as a time in which we temporarily set aside the responsibilities and concerns of daily life in order to enter into the silence and solitude of contemplation. After "retreating" for some period, we return to "real world." This wise teacher suggested a more challenging possibility. He asked us to "consider that this is a time in which you have the opportunity to retreat from your automatic and habitual ways of retreating from yourself and your life." He reminded us that most of the time, we are too busy and too distracted to look very deeply at ourselves. We retreat from reality and call it ordinary life. This week of silent meditation and teaching was being offered as an opportunity to retreat from this usual form of avoidance. What we typically call the "real world" is actually the ordinary, habitual, predictable dream world. We come to a meditation intensive in order to wake up from this dream and then return to our lives as this more clarified reality. What might it take to have the courage to "retreat" from the habits of daily life and face the illusions we have come to identify with and rely on?

    This way of understanding "retreat" and coming to an answer to this essential question a key function of taking refuge. In Buddhist practice to "take refuge" implies that one is intentionally making a commitment to the teachings and to the practices of the Buddha. This commitment is just short of taking a formal vow, but suggests a wholehearted offering of oneself to place these teachings and these practices at the center of one's life. In taking the refuges seriously we are saying, in essence, "When things get tough, this is where I will turn - to Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha." The root of the English word "refuge" comes from Latin and old French and literally means to "fly or flee back." We often imbue the word with a meaning that suggests a sense of protection from harm or respite from difficulties. To take refuge is to return - to fly back - and in that returning home we discover a peace within the unpredictable and ever changing world. Refuge does not take us away from life, but offers us a way to plunge into life with an unimaginable freedom and peace.

    By taking refuge in Buddha we are offering ourselves up to the wisdom and compassion of the teacher — the Buddha — rather than our own willful and self-centered perspective. Here, "Buddha" is more than the historical figure who lived 2,500 years ago. More fully, "Buddha" refers to "life as it is," so in taking refuge we are making a commitment to turning toward life as it actually is. In doing so we begin to understand what it truly means to retreat from acting solely out of the habits of mind and heart that have been shaped by our past conditioning. To Take Refuge in Buddha can mean that we are making a commitment to the ongoing practice of stopping, or at least slowing down, both our reactive mind and our impulsive heart. Through mindful reflection we find that our habits of retreating from life naturally begin to soften. Slowly, step-by-step, we learn how to turn toward everything. Over time we find we have a greater capacity to gently touch our own bruised and sensitive heart. We also develop the ability to quiet our agitated and worried mind. As a result we become more skillful and patient in navigating the desires and disappointments of our perplexing and entangled relationships. These are the everyday consequences of taking refuge in Buddha.

    In taking refuge we are also making a firm commitment to the teachings of the Buddha - the dharma. Sometimes "dharma" is used to refer to the sutras and recorded sayings of the Buddha. At other times the many commentaries and writings of all the teachers who have descended from the Buddha are included in this vast and beautiful body of teaching. However, like Buddha, dharma has a broader meaning, and taking refuge in the dharma suggests that we are making a commitment to enter the ongoing practice of seeing more clearly how things actually work in the world. This is very close to the way that the tao is sometimes defined. We might ask, "What is the natural order of the universe and how can we come to know the underlying principles of nature and reality." This question may sound esoteric and abstract, but the practical nature of this question arises out of a deeply felt intuition that we are missing the fact that the enitre world is offering itself to us in every moment. Practice helps us to begin to take notice. Taking refuge in dharma also suggests that we might cultivate the capacity to meet the circumstances of our lives with some measure of equanimity, kindness, and clarity. As we come to know the way things actually are and thus begin to drop away our self-centered contractions around our personal histories, our lives simply unfold, full of beauty and full of sorrow. The dharma teaches us to narrow the gap that separates these apparent opposites, and invites us into a intimacy with all things, just as they are. We learn to live in this time, with this body, with these people, in these circumstances, facing these challenges, with these resources, and come to know this very moment as the ultimate, magnificent, confounding, and unknowable gift — the fact of simply being alive.

    Finally, in taking refuge we also learn to turn toward the support of the community of practitioners - the sangha - rather than turning solely toward our ordinary thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. It is a bit shocking when we begin to see how committed we are to relying on things that are totally unreliable. Our actions suggest that we place our trust in what we think and feel as if they were ultimate truths. Of course, the clarification of our thoughts and feelings is hugely important in our everyday functioning and much of psychotherapy is designed to support that clarification and release. However, our inner world and self-identity can be very seductive. It is easy to be captivated by the constructions of our creative and amazing minds and thus deny the grand array in which we live. We exist within an unfathomable and immense network of support that is the actual fabric of our lives. We are not sustained by our concepts about the world. We are sustained by the world, and every single thing in it. Everything is connected. Nothing is separate. Everything is actually not a thing, but relationship. We only exist as a consequence of everything around us and everything that has come before us. We, in turn, are part of what influences everything that comes along with us and after us. To actually know this as the reality of our existence is to take refuge in sangha. The everyday expression of this knowledge is turning toward the relationships which are close at hand. We can choose to not only accept the support of our friends, but offer our support in return. In this shared container of simple human intimacy and care, we come to know the deepest realities of the universe.

    The late teacher and poet John O'Donohue wrote:
    "A world lies hidden behind each human face.....their gaze becomes the vehicle of some primal inner presence...
    something more than the person looks out. Another infinity as yet unborn, is dimly present...
    We cannot seal off the eternal." (and then...)
    The human face....is where the private, inner world of a person protrudes into
the anonymous world.....a meeting place of two unknowns:
the infinity of the outer world and the unchartered inner world
to which each individual alone has access. Anam Cara, by John O'Donohue, (p. 65-67)

    Courage and Faith
    Within the intensive cycle of silent sitting and walking during that retreat early in practice, I began to think for the first time about the kind of courage it must take to face life without my usual habitual diversions. How was I to handle the inevitable sense of anxiety and fear that I assumed would emerge in daily life as I settled into a more intimate relationship with life as it is? How would I possibly manage and what ground would I be able to reliably stand on if I softened my barriers to contacting the present moment? What kind of faith or encouragement was required to endure such a practice? In the early Buddhist sutras (scriptures) the word that is usually translate as "faith" is the Pali word saddha. This word is not a noun but a verb. Faith is something we do and not something we possess. It literally means "to place the heart open" and is seen as an ongoing practice rather than a commodity we either have or don't have. Therefore, the practice of sitting in silence and stillness, and looking at whatever presents itself, requires this kind of active faith. And it requires uncommon courage. It also requires a friend. How do we place your heart open when we are not always so happy with what we find in the opening?

    Returning Home
    The contemporary Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck offers this perspective: "The (so-called) secret of life that we are all looking for is just this: to develop through sitting and daily life practice the power and courage to return to that which we have spent a lifetime hiding from, to rest in the bodily experience of the present moment – even if it is a feeling of being humiliated, of failing, of abandonment, or unfairness." Faith in the Buddhist tradition emphasizes this capacity to offer our heart to the reality of each moment and in doing so to discover the deepest truths on which we can rely. These truths emerge most clearly through dedicated contemplative practice and meditation. In the spaciousness that begins to open over time, we are able to tenderly come to know our true nature, the deepest reality of who and what we are. And it is this nature - Buddha Nature - that is our refuge. In truth, we are simply returning home, but without sincere and dedicated practice we can't and won't know this. We come to discover that not only is there refuge in the truth of our being, we also come to find that to love one person completely is to love everyone, and love seems to be the fruit of this profound and radical acceptance.

    This gives a whole new meaning to the words I read every Sunday morning as a young boy, etched into the face of the podium behind which the Minister stood as he preached: "Do This in Remembrance of Me." Now I hear that message as an invitation which says, "do this ongoing practice of waking up and growing up so you can realize that your fundamental nature, the deepest reality of who you actually are, is Me in you - the divine made flesh." The requirement is to have the faith to retreat from what is easy and ordinary and in doing so, to discover an unending source of wisdom and compassion. I believe this is also what is meant when John Tarrant, another wonderful Zen teacher, suggests that through regular practice we can enter a larger and more spacious perspective in which we become "unfaithful to our sorrows." This lovely and gentle phrase has immensely radical and powerful consequences. To step away from the stories we use to maintain our identities is to shift the very ground we stand on. In doing so we have to enact the root of the word "refuge." We "fly back" to our true nature. Unfaithful to long-held conditioning, core beliefs, and all that we use to organize and maintain our self identities, we enter unknown territory, and it is this courageous journey that let us know we are on the spiritual path.

    A Moment of Reflection
    Joko Beck would often remind her students that "you get good at what you practice." If we practice repeating the same internal voices and the same external behaviors, we will get the same results. Of course we know this, but why, then, do we remain to "loyal to our habits," as Rilke would say? By deeply accepting all we discover in the spaciousness of meditation and abandoning our habits of turning away from our struggles, we have the opportunity to begin to transform ourselves with both wisdom (the clear seeing) and compassion (the heart that does not close down or turn away). Take a moment to begin to make a note of what returns over and over in your meditation. What feelings are repetitive? What thoughts return over and over? What images spring forward and what parts of your body habitually contract in response? Just beginning to note patterns, without judgment, is an enormous capacity as we witness present moment experience. Of course, we can also include in this spacious witnessing all of the judgements and criticisms which will inevitably arise. With enough experience and commitment in practice we find we can un-blend from and witness everything that arises. If you have already been keeping notes in the form of a personal journal, you will no doubt be able to see repetitive patterns in the writing if you look back over time. It can be shocking to find that we may have been writing about the same difficulties and the same questions for decades. And, we can always begin again. We can always start with the next breath and the next moment of softening and release as we profoundly accept what is being witnessed. You might want to make note of the sensations that arise in your body with this more spacious witnessing. Just to begin to see that freedom is an embodied function helps us realize that taking refuge is not a mental or an esoteric practice. It is a practical, human experience of being fully ourselves, possibly for the first time. Sit and walk in mindful awareness of the sensations of allowing, accepting, witnessing, and embracing each moment as it is. This is refuge. This is profound acceptance.

    An Introduction to Buddha
    During one of the month-long training sessions in a three-year program entitled "Psychotherapy as Spiritual Practice," I had the privilege of meeting with a true Tibetan teacher. Lama Lodro had practiced in his native country both in a monastery and as a solitary cave dweller for many years before escaping like so many other Tibetan people. He was kind, clear, and possessed a simple depth that was serenely disarming. He spoke to us individually, gave brief talks to our group, and offered to perform the traditional refuge ceremony for all of us. In the ceremony we would all receive Buddhist names and would "take refuge" in this ancient practice path. I was concerned because I had already decided to follow the Zen training path and I had made a connection with a Zen teacher. I asked to speak privately with Lama Lodro to ask if this might be an improper step to take. He laughed with a child-like joy and said, in his broken English, "Oh, it's O.K., I just introduce you to Buddha." This was such a lovely moment in which my over-concern and fear was replaced with the reality of what this deep teacher was telling me. He was offering me his friendship, a kind of familial introduction, to someone precious and true - Buddha. And in his simple response arising within his gracious and accepting demeanor, he was showing me all of the teachings at once. He was being a Buddha, compassionate and wise. He was reminding me that all he could ever do would be to "introduce" me to this fundamental nature, Buddha Nature, my own True Nature, in which I could take refuge. From one warm heart to another, nothing fancy and nothing holy. Both ordinary and profound, he was inviting me into the great mystery. And it is this incomprehensible mystery that we enter through taking refuge again and again.

    ii The Pali word typically translated into English as “faith,” is saddha, which literally means “to place the heart open.” Salzberg, Sharon. Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience. Riverhead Books: New York. 2002.

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Appamada is a contemporary center for Zen practice and inquiry. Resident teachers are Flint Sparks and Peg Syverson. This channel is for videos related to these teachings. There is more information about Appamada at appamada.org.

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