Yes, we are meeting 'in-person'

Exciting News! For those of you in the Vancouver / Camas area we are meeting again in-person at the Breathe Wellness Company. If you are comfortable meeting with us in-person at this time then please join us at 7pm on Sundays. Plan on arriving ten minutes before to get settled. We will be following all current WA State guidelines and I ask that you are mindful and respectful of other people's comfort levels. I will be wearing a mask but will remove it once we are settled and distanced to lead the meditation. For now we will not be having after-meditation tea but hopefully soon. I will be updating our website with the latest details so check back here if you are unsure.

Note that we will NOT be meeting on Sunday 31st October (Halloween).

Saturday, October 23, 2021

Ignorance May Be Bliss...

Ignorance May Be Bliss...

If you are reading this it is likely that you are a meditator, or have meditated in the past, or you are considering meditation. If you are already a meditator you probably remember what it was like when you first sat on the cushion and closed your eyes...

In his advice to beginner meditators ("Meditation Takes Gumption") Bhante Henepola Gunaratana gives this warning:

Somewhere in this process, you will come face to face with the sudden and shocking realization that you are completely crazy. Your mind is a shrieking, gibbering madhouse on wheels barreling pell-mell down the hill, utterly out of control and hopeless. No problem. You are not crazier than you were yesterday. It has always been this way, and you just never noticed. You are also no crazier than everybody else around you. The only real difference is that you have confronted the situation; they have not. So they still feel relatively comfortable. That does not mean that they are better off. Ignorance may be bliss, but it does not lead to liberation. So don’t let this realization unsettle you. It is a milestone actually, a sign of real progress. The very fact that you have looked at the problem straight in the eye means that you are on your way up and out of it.

I love the humor and candor that Bhante uses here, and you can probably more than identify with what he says. The 'monkey mind' that he describes is familiar to all of us, and even though practice helps us tame it,  it sometimes makes a re-appearance, often at the most inconvenient times.

However, the part of Bhante's advice I want to focus on here is this:

You are also no crazier than everybody else around you. The only real difference is that you have confronted the situation; they have not. So they still feel relatively comfortable. That does not mean that they are better off. Ignorance may be bliss, but it does not lead to liberation.

The point here is that right from day one - from the very first time we choose to sit to meditate, we start to peel away the delusion and ignorance that we have embraced.

As we progress on our path we continue to strip away at this delusion. Sometimes it is bit by bit, sometimes it is through a major revelation when the 'penny drops.'

This realization - that from the very beginning of our meditation journey we have been working on removing our delusion - is an important one. Wherever you are on your journey this continues to be our endeavor. Ignorance may be bliss, but it does not lead to liberation.

Metta, Chris.

PS: For those of you who live in the area and who join our Sunday night group note that we will not be meeting on October 31st (Halloween) as I will be out of town.

PPS: This also means that there won't be a Metta Letter next week - I will send the next one in two weeks' time

PPPS: I have linked below a fully guided thirty minute meditation on this passage from Bhante Gunaratana - please feel free to use it in your own practice in whatever way helps.

"Meditation Takes Gumption" by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana|, September 15, 2020,

Photo by Simon Infanger on Unsplash

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Skillful Words

Skillful Words

A recurring theme in what I write is that we can all agree that if everyone else was more loving and compassionate in their words and actions then this world would be a better place. Of course the corollary to this is that the only person I can actually change is my self - that at the end of the day it is incumbent on each of us to choose to be more loving and compassionate.

With everything that is going on in the world at the moment it is easy to focus outwards, to concentrate on where we think the blame lies. We see the actions and speech of others and condemn them. This is especially true at the moment when we think of the influence of social media, where continued intentional and unintentional mistruths and divisive words seem to be tearing us apart.

And yes, we can all agree that if everyone else was more truthful and compassionate in their words and actions the world would be a better place. But of course, once again, we each have to take responsibility that it is our own words and actions we have to look at, we can only change our selves.

The good news is that in the Pali writings there is very clear and guidance for how we should post on social media. Yes, you heard that right - some two thousand year-old writings can give us clear guidance on social media behavior.

In the Abhaya Sutta Prince Abhaya asks The Buddha (who here refers to himself as 'The Tathagata') a tricky questions about speech:

...Prince Abhaya took a lower seat and sat to one side. As he was sitting there he said to the Blessed One, "Lord, would the Tathagata say words that are unendearing & disagreeable to others?"

"Prince, there is no categorical yes-or-no answer to that."

[1] In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial (or: not connected with the goal), unendearing & disagreeable to others, he does not say them.

[2] In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, unbeneficial, unendearing & disagreeable to others, he does not say them.

[3] In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, but unendearing & disagreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them.

[4] In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial, but endearing & agreeable to others, he does not say them.

[5] In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, unbeneficial, but endearing & agreeable to others, he does not say them.

[6] In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, and endearing & agreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them. Why is that? Because the Tathagata has sympathy for living beings."
Now, as is typical in these older writings, there is a lot of near-repetition here, where just a few words are changed in each paragraph. If you read carefully you will see that there is a clear logic to the words (the programmer in me sees this as a classic IF...ELSE or CASE statement!).  If you find this a little dense then the translator, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, gives a very clear summary in his introduction:

In this discourse, the Buddha shows the factors that go into deciding what is and is not worth saying. The main factors are three: whether or not a statement is true, whether or not it is beneficial, and whether or not it is pleasing to others. The Buddha himself would state only those things that are true and beneficial, and would have a sense of time for when pleasing and unpleasing things should be said. Notice that the possibility that a statement might be untrue yet beneficial is not even entertained.

As I say, this is very clear advice and can be directly applied to all of our speech and interaction with others - and is directly relevant to how we might choose - or not choose - to post on social media. Ask three things - is what I am going to say true? Is it beneficial for the reader/hearer? Will it be pleasing to them?

If the words are untrue or not beneficial then we should say nothing. If they are true and beneficial then we ask whether they will be pleasing to hear. Having determined that, we ask whether this is the right time to say them. Note that something can be true, beneficial and pleasing, but we still choose not to say them. If they are true and beneficial and unpleasing (disagreeable) then we take extra care in what we say. Why? As we are told "Because the Tathagata has sympathy for living beings" - in other words, we choose whether or not to say something through a sense of compassion. If we are posting from anger or indignation then that is not right speech.

I have done my best to ensure what I say here is true, and I hope that it is both beneficial and pleasant to read. Hopefully I got the timing right too!

Metta, Chris.

I have linked below a meditation on being skillful (Kusala) in our speech. Feel free to listen and use it in whatever way supports your practice.


"Abhaya Sutta: To Prince Abhaya" (MN 58), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, .


 Photo by Nathan Anderson on Unsplash




Saturday, October 9, 2021

Not Just a Happy Place

Not Just a Happy Place

Sometimes, when we are stressed, the ability to sit and calm ourselves can be incredibly healing. When we practice meditation we almost always start with centering, calming and being present in a way that we don't usually experience in our daily life. Of course as we practice the hope is that this calm will pervade more and more of our life so that we can be centered and present even when we are not on the cushion.

But meditation is surely much more than just finding that place of peace, and can offer more than reading The Little Book of Calm can. Finding that point of peace, calm and presence is part of the journey, not the destination. Meditation is not just about finding your 'happy place.' As Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche says in his book "What Makes You (Not) A Buddhist":

Prince Siddhartha, who sacrificed all the comforts and luxuries of palace life, must have been searching for more than passivity and shrubbery when he set out to discover enlightenment.
The key insight we can have, when we find that place of presence and calm, is that 'Things Look Different From Here.' We can in the moment of presence have a clarity of view that we cannot reach when we are distracted.

We live in a time where the most influential words and actions seem come from a place of noise and distraction. People read a Facebook post,  hear a TV pundit or watch a YouTube Video (or twelve) and then shout their received viewpoint. Action comes from an ever-growing snowball of outrage and indignation, and for that reason they only increase suffering.

In contrast, when we are in a place of calm and presence we can instead cultivate compassion, goodwill and wisdom. Having cultivated these we can get clarity - and use that clarity to inform our actions.

Things really do look different from here.


Metta, Chris.

I have linked below a fully guided thirty minute meditation on finding Clarity in that place of calm. You are welcome to use it in whatever way helps your own practice.

Saturday, October 2, 2021

I Am Water


I Am Water

The other week I was driving through Portland when we hit some traffic as we were merging on to the freeway. Above us I noticed a piece of graffiti (graffito?) written on a bridge that said, simply:

You Are the Traffic

This simple sentence really got me thinking. I had not come across it before - though subsequent searches showed it is not an original thought, having even been used as a slogan by a GPS company. But it is a powerful one, and one that can teach an important lesson.

When we sit in traffic we usually think about 'us' and 'them' - our car has a legitimate right to be on the road, with an important reason for getting wherever we are going. Everyone else is 'the traffic' and their motives, and the motives of the city planners, are at best suspect. The traffic is bad, and gets in the way of our own desire to be somewhere.

Of course this is obviously foolish, but we have all felt it. This separation of 'me' versus 'traffic' seems very real. Despite the fact that even a small piece of reflection shows that it is a deluded way to think we continue to think that way. For most of us the state of traffic only matters to us when we are in our car, and then we are, by definition, part of the traffic. I am Traffic.

This is a very clear example of the delusion of a separate self. In the concept of anatta (not-self) we see that our concept of our selves as completely independent separable entities is delusion. Not seeing ourselves as part of the traffic is delusion.

In his book "Selves & Not-self - The Buddhist Teaching on Anatta" Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu teaches:

Take an example from your childhood. Suppose you have a younger sister, and someone down the street is threatening her. You want to protect her. At that moment she is very much your sister. She belongs to you, so you will do whatever you can to protect her. Then suppose that, when you've brought her home safely, she begins to play with your toy car and won't give it back to you. Now she's no longer your sister. She's the Other. Your sense of your self, and of what is yours and not yours, has shifted. The boundary line between self and not-self has changed.

You've been doing this sort of thing — changing the boundaries of what's self and not-self — all of the time. Think back on your life — or even for just a day — to see the many times your sense of self has changed from one role to another.

Normally we create a sense of self as a strategy for gaining happiness. We look for what abilities we have in order to gain a happiness we want. Those abilities are then ours. The hand we can use to reach for the object we want is our hand; the loud voice we can use to scare off the bullies threatening our sister is our voice. This is why the element of control is so essential to our sense of self: We assume that the things we can control are us or ours. Then we also try to think about which part of ourselves will live to enjoy the happiness we're trying to gain. These things will change depending on the desire.
This idea of our shifting sense of self, dependent on what we believe will bring happiness is exactly what is going on when we separate our self from the traffic.

There is a widely-quoted saying from Thích Nhất Hạnh that says:

Enlightenment, for a wave in the ocean,
is the moment the wave realizes it is water.
Thay often used this analogy of the wave and the water, especially in the context of our limited life spans. The analogy speaks to how we are all part of many processes, and how having a sense of self that separates us from those processes is a delusion. We are traffic, we are our neighborhood, we are society, we are our family, we are sangha- we are water.

Metta, Chris.

PS. I have linked below a fully guided meditation on traffic, water and how we cannot separate ourselves from the process we are part of. Feel free to use it in your own practice if you wish.

PPS. The Thích Nhất Hạnh quote is widely quoted on the internet but I was unable to identify the original source. Normally I do not use quotes that I can't definitively source but in this case there are many examples of Thay using the same or similar analogies that I could source. I take sourcing seriously, so if you know exactly where the quote I used came from please let me know - I would be very grateful! As Abraham Lincoln said, you shouldn't believe everything you read on the internet.

"Selves & Not-self: The Buddhist Teaching on Anatta", by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition),
30 November 2013, .

Saturday, September 25, 2021

Wisdom and Compassion

Wisdom and Compassion

In the Tibetan or Vajrayana traditions it is common to see the symbolism of the Bell and Dorje. You may well have seen these on Tibetan shrines or, commonly, for sale in Nepalese market stalls. If you are not familiar with them the Bell is a small hand-bell and the Dorje is a double-ended dumbbell-like object. The Dorje represents a lightning bolt or jewel (both of which are commonly known by their Sanskrit name 'vajra').

The objects are always treated as a pair. The bell represents wisdom (I have had it explained to me as the sound coming from the emptiness of the bell), while the dorje represents compassion (or compassionate action). The pair also represent feminine and masculine aspects, with the bell representing the feminine and the dorje masculine.

What is useful about these symbols is that they are designed to be contemplated together - wisdom and compassion, compassion and wisdom. They represent how the insight and understanding we develop goes hand in hand with the emotion of compassion that we cultivate. Wisdom and compassion together can be powerful drivers of growth for ourselves and those around us. Compassionate action without wisdom can be unskillful ('akusala') while wisdom without compassion can be cold or merely intelectual.

In his essay 'Head & Heart Together - Bringing Wisdom to the Brahma-viharas' Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu teaches:

If we think of the heart as the side of the mind that wants happiness, the head is the side that understands how cause and effect actually work. If your head and heart can learn to cooperate — that is, if your head can give priority to finding the causes for true happiness, and your heart can learn to embrace those causes — then the training of the mind can go far.

...if you get your head and your heart to respect each other, they can take each other far. Your heart needs the help of your head to generate and act on more skillful emotions. Your head needs your heart to remind you that what's really important in life is putting an end to suffering. When they learn how to work together, they can make your human mind into an unlimited brahma-mind. And more: They can master the causes of happiness to the point where they transcend themselves, touching an uncaused dimension that the head can't encompass, and a happiness so true that the heart has no further need for desire.

I think this is an important teaching - that as we cultivate compassion and lovingkindness we should also develop wisdom. It is wisdom that allows us to move beyond the emotion of compassion to actual compassionate action.

As you go through your week I would like to encourage you to contemplate what it means for wisdom and compassion to go hand in hand. If you come across someone who is suffering, or if you are experiencing suffering yourself, then practice both wisdom and compassion together. For example, there is a lot of homelessness around us at the moment. Many people are reacting with fear and anger. Even if we move beyond these negative emotions it is sometimes easy to feel just pity - the distancing emotion that is the 'near enemy' of compassion. Or we can ask ourselves 'what does it mean to have both compassion and wisdom here?' Compassion sees the person as a person, and acknowledges their suffering. Wisdom recognizes that the situation is an outcome, not a cause - that the situation says more about us as a society than it does about the individual. I'm not saying that this realization alone can 'solve' anything, but it can be the foundation for true compassionate action. Meeting suffering with both wisdom and compassion changes our relationship with the world.

Metta, Chris.

I have linked below a fully guided audio meditation on the Bell and the Dorje, and how they can remind us to cultivate both compassion and wisdom together.

 "Head & Heart Together: Bringing Wisdom to the Brahma-viharas", by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 17 April 2011, .

Photo by Wonderlane on Unsplash




Saturday, September 11, 2021

Find Your Theme

Find Your Theme

When we talk about our meditation practice and our path we often use the analogy of 'The Middle Way" - so much so that the phrase has been co-opted by many other groups and used to describe political doctrines, military strategies and industrial compromises. Often there is a fundamental misunderstanding that taking the middle way is at best a compromise or, at worst, weakness.

Of course taking the middle way is anything but weakness - it is a path of wisdom, not compromise. It's not trying to thread the needle between extreme passion and indifference, instead it is the recognition that those are both unfruitful approaches, and that they are not the only choices. It's an active choice of finding balance, not a failure to commit.

My favorite example of this active choice is the story of the Venerable Sona. Sona was a monk who, we are told, meditated with such ferver that 'his feet bled.' Sona becomes discouraged, as despite his extreme effort he feels like he has made no progress. Sound at all familiar? He thinks to himself that he was well-off before he became a monk, and wonders if he should return to that lifestyle. The Buddha suddenly appears to him and they have the following exchange:

The Blessed One said to him, "Just now, as you were meditating in seclusion, didn't this train of thought appear to your awareness: 'Of the Blessed One's disciples who have aroused their persistence, I am one, but my mind is not released from the fermentations... What if I were to disavow the training, return to the lower life, enjoy wealth, & make merit?'"

"Yes, lord."

"Now what do you think, Sona. Before, when you were a house-dweller, were you skilled at playing the vina?"

"Yes, lord."

"And what do you think: when the strings of your vina were too taut, was your vina in tune & playable?"

"No, lord."

"And what do you think: when the strings of your vina were too loose, was your vina in tune & playable?"

"No, lord."

"And what do you think: when the strings of your vina were neither too taut nor too loose, but tuned to be right on pitch, was your vina in tune & playable?"

"Yes, lord."

"In the same way, Sona, over-aroused persistence leads to restlessness, overly slack persistence leads to laziness. Thus you should determine the right pitch for your persistence, attune the pitch of the [five] faculties [to that], and there pick up your theme."

"Yes, lord," Ven. Sona answered the Blessed One. Then, having given this exhortation to Ven. Sona, the Blessed One — as a strong man might stretch out his bent arm or bend his outstretched arm — disappeared from the Cool Wood and appeared on Vulture Peak Mountain.
This analogy is a wonderful way to think about the middle way. It's not that having the strings too taut or too loose are reasonable choices - they are not. The vina (often translated as 'lute') is unplayable in these states. Tuning the vina correctly is not weakness or compromise but wisdom. There is a place where the strings are perfectly in tune - and this is the only state that will allow the instrument to make beautiful music.

I love the translation Thanissaro Bhikkhu uses here: "you should determine the right pitch for your persistence, attune the pitch of the [five] faculties [to that], and there pick up your theme." This idea of Ven. Sona being able to 'pick up his theme' once he has found the right level of effort for his practice is both poetic and practical - after all, aren't we all trying to 'find our theme?'

Sona did manage to find his theme - we are told:

So after that, Ven. Sona determined the right pitch for his persistence, attuned the pitch of the [five] faculties [to that], and there picked up his theme. Dwelling alone, secluded, heedful, ardent, & resolute, he in no long time reached & remained in the supreme goal of the holy life for which clansmen rightly go forth from home into homelessness, knowing & realizing it for himself in the here & now. He knew: "Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for the sake of this world." And thus Ven. Sona became another one of the arahants.

It's easy to get discouraged in our practice, and we would all love to 'pick up our theme.' Finding the middle way in our practice is not a matter of some weak compromise between ardent fervor and indifference, but is instead working to find a point of perfect tuning in our practice and in our lives.

 Metta, Chris

I have linked below a fully guided meditation on the stroy of Ven. Sona and the Lute. Please feel free to use it if you wish in any way that supports your practice.

"Sona Sutta: About Sona" (AN 6.55), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, .



Saturday, September 4, 2021

Not What We Want

 Not What We Want

 There's a lot going on in this world, and for each of us there's a lot going on in our own life. Big stuff. Small stuff. Some of it is good, some of it is bad. And with everything that is happening it's easy to feel overwhelmed.

A common feeling is that things aren't how we would want them to be - a wish that things were different, that things were 'otherwise.'

The First Noble Truth describes this situation succinctly:

Now this, monks, is the noble truth of stress: Birth is stressful, aging is stressful, death is stressful; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair are stressful; association with the unbeloved is stressful, separation from the loved is stressful, not getting what is wanted is stressful. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are stressful.

The words 'stress' or 'stressful' here are translations of the Pali word dukkha, which is often translated as 'suffering,' but which has a more subtle meaning than that. People sometimes use the rather awkward 'unsatisfactoriness' or the more colloquial 'suckiness.' However we translate it we can all resonate with this feeling. When we are separated from what we love or when things go wrong we are stressed and it feels like things suck.

The Second Noble Truth explains the cause of this stress or sufferings - not from the things themselves but from our clinging and wish for things to be otherwise. And we are then taught that the way to overcome this is to move beyond that clinging. This is important, we don't move beyond stress or suffering by removing the unpleasant things, we move beyond it by removing our clinging to things being 'otherwise.'

This seems counter-intuitive at first - if my pain is causing me to suffer, then I should free myself of that pain, right? Instead what this says is that root of our suffering is not the pain but our desire to be without the pain. And what is freeing about this is that the desire - the cause of our suffering - is within our control - even if the cause of the pain is not.

Pema Chödrön explores this distinction further in her book "The Wisdom of No Escape: How to Love Yourself and Your World":

There is a common misunderstanding among the human beings who have ever been born on earth that the best way to live is to try to avoid pain and just try to get comfortable. You see this even in insects and animals and birds. All of us are the same. A much more interesting, kind and joyful approach to life is to begin to develop our curiosity, not caring whether the object of our curiosity is bitter or sweet. To lead to a life that goes beyond pettiness and prejudice and always wanting to make sure that everything turns out on our own terms, to lead a more passionate, full, and delightful life than that, we must realize that we can endure a lot of pain and pleasure for the sake of finding out who we are and what this world is, how we tick and how our world ticks, how the whole thing just is. If we are committed to comfort at any cost, as soon as we come up against the least edge of pain, we’re going to run; we’ll never know what’s beyond that particular barrier or wall or fearful thing.

I find this incredibly freeing. I cannot control what is happening in the world, or the ageing of my body, or how others treat me. I can, however, realize that I am stressed and suffer not because of these things but by my wish for things to be otherwise. And I can, as Pema Chödrön suggests, use that awareness to live a more full, kind and joyful life.

Metta, Chris.

P.S. One of the ways we can work with this in our meditation practice is by cultivating awareness of bodily and mental sensations as they arise. As we become aware of a sensation we identify it as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. Then we let go of it, practicing not clinging to the pleasant sensations and non-aversion to the unpleasant. I have linked below a fully guided 30-minute meditation where we practice this. You are welcome to use it in your own practice.

P.P.S. I do want to add that the equanimity we cultivate in this practice is not the same as indifference. We can recognize pain in our leg without aversion, but still move our leg with compassion. In the same way if there is injustice we can practice acceptance - and at the same time work compassionately for the removal of that injustice. It is not an either-or.



Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion" (SN 56.11), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, .


Photo by Trym Nilsen on Unsplash




Saturday, August 28, 2021

The Empty Boat


The Empty Boat

Last week I wrote about how we can have a gentle awareness of our breath - or whatever object we are using in our meditation. This 'gentle awareness' contrasts with the tendency we sometimes have to grasp at our breath - to concentrate as hard as we possibly can. As I was doing some background reading for that I came across this quote from Lama Yeshe which I found particularly appropriate:

Many meditators emphasize too much on concentration: if you are squeezing, then there is no control of anger if someone disturbs you. The beauty of real meditation is, that even if you are disturbed, you can allow space and time for this.
What struck me about this was not only that he warned against the kind of grasping concentration we are discussing - or 'squeezing' as he calls it - but that he outlines a specific danger of this - that we open ourselves up to anger.

This may seem a little strange at first, but it is worth contrasting the control we have when practicing gentle awareness versus the lack of control we have when we grasp or 'squeeze' at the object. When we concentrate as hard as we possibly can our minds are unbalanced. The slightest thing can send us off, and we open ourselves up to negative emotions such as anger. When we have gentle awareness and our minds are balanced we can meet disturbances and interruptions with equanimity.

As I was reading further around this I was reminded of the story of The Empty Boat that Thích Nhất Hạnh tells:

A monk decides to meditate alone. Away from his monastery, he takes a boat and goes to the middle of the lake, closes his eyes and begins to meditate.

After a few hours of unperturbed silence, he suddenly feels the blow of another boat hitting his. With his eyes still closed, he feels his anger rising and, when he opens his eyes, he is ready to shout at the boatman who dared to disturb his meditation. But when he opened his eyes, saw that it was an empty boat, not tied up, floating in the middle of the lake...

At that moment, the monk achieves self-realization and understands that anger is within him; it simply needs to hit an external object to provoke it.

After that, whenever he meets someone who irritates or provokes his anger, he remembers; the other person is just an empty boat.

Anger is inside me.
This story, which I believe is a re-telling of a story from the Zhuangzi, is really interesting. When we realize that our reactions - whether we allow anger to arise or not - depends on an unknown, then we learn something about that anger. We say 'that person made me angry' - but what if there is no person? Think of it as Schrödinger's Boat - If there's a cat in it we get angry with the cat, otherwise we don't get angry. Contemplating this allows us to strip away the delusion that anger is external to us, that it is something others enforce on us, and instead allows us to own our anger. Once we own it, we can choose to move beyond it.

In his essay "Happiness and Peace are Possible," Thích Nhất Hạnh gives us the following advice for how to approach our meditation:

You don’t have to struggle with your breath. You don’t have to struggle with your body, or with your hate, or with your anger. Treat your in-breath and out-breath tenderly, nonviolently, as you would treat a flower. Later you will be able to do the same thing with your physical body, treating it with gentleness, respect, nonviolence, and tenderness.

Like Lama Yeshe he is showing how this gentle approach to our meditation carries over to our day-to-day lives, and allows us to approach this world with equanimity and kindness.

Metta, Chris.

I have linked below a fully guided meditation on the story of The Empty Boat. Feel free to use it if you wish in your own practice.


Photo by Oliver Cole on Unsplash




Saturday, August 21, 2021

Gentle Awareness

Gentle Awareness

When I was a kid I tried meditating. I didn't really know what meditation was, but I knew it somehow involved concentrating as hard as I could on something. For me the 'something' was a candle. After a few goes I gave up - nothing really happened, the candle was the same and I just felt frustrated. My first meditation experience probably lasted all of three minutes, and it would be a few decades before I tried again.

I laugh at this nowadays, but at the time my attempt was sincere. What I hadn't realized - and nobody told me - was that meditation didn't in fact start with straining to concentrate on something. Instead our meditations start with a simple, gentle, awareness.

The Pali term for simple breath meditation is anapanasati - literally the 'recollection of breathing in and out.' 'Recollection' is an interesting term here and can seem strange at first but it is a great place to start. Instead of concentrating as hard as we possible can on the breath we instead just recall that we are breathing. When we recall something we bring to our mind something that we know, but had not been conscious of. It's not that you didn't know you were breathing, it's that you did not have that fact in your consciousness.

The great thing about meditation is that it is empirical, that we can experiment with it and see for ourselves the effects of changes in approach. And part of that is experimenting with the lightness of touch of our awareness. As we progress in our experience we can make that awareness ever more gentle, lighter and more subtle.

Even though awareness of breath is for most of us the first form of practice we learn it is important not to see it as a 'basic' or 'junior' meditation. It is often used as the foundation of other forms, but we shouldn't skip past it and rush to those other forms. The calmness, centering and presence we can cultivate from a gentle awareness is not something to be rushed past but something to be experienced.

Sometimes it's good to go back to the basics, and a gentle awareness of the breath is a beautiful place to return to.

Metta, Chris.


I have linked below a fully guided meditation on cultivating a gentle awareness of the breath. You are welcome to use it in whatever way helps you in your practice.



Photo by Eli DeFaria on Unsplash





Saturday, August 14, 2021

In Silence


In Silence

I first learned to meditate many years ago at a small center in Bristol, England. The room where we were taught was a small one on the second floor above a store on a busy road from the City Center. It was on a main bus route and people would mill around outside waiting. The buses that stopped there were double-deckers and from the windows we could see the people in the upper decks. In the summer the center's windows would be open as there was no air-conditioning, and the noise from outside would be loud and often raucous.

One could say that it wasn't an ideal place to learn to meditate - but I would disagree. In many ways it was perfect. You couldn't get angry with the sources of the noise, they had as much or more right to be there than we did. It was an urban meditation center and we quickly got to realize what that meant. We learned to accept the noise, and the people shouting and the deep growling sounds of the diesel engines (and the fumes) simply became part of our meditation.

I have been thinking a lot about silence lately. We like to think that when we meditate we go into a quiet room and shut out all the noise - but of course we can't always do that, and even when we can we quickly find we are simply replacing one kind of sound with another.

In 1952 composer John Cage wrote his most famous work, a piece called 4'33". The score is in three movements, with the instructions for each movement being simply "Tacet" - don't play your instrument. So for the duration of the piece (which happened to be 4'33" for the first performance) the performer, or performers, play nothing on their instrument.

Now many people interpret this as 4'33" of silence, and consider Cage a fraud and/or the piece a joke, but of course this is not the case. Simply because the instruments aren't being played doesn't mean that there is silence. Instead the sounds that come to the fore are the ambient, environmental sounds. And because of that the piece sounds different when played on a piano, or by an orchestra, or by a death-metal band.

One way to look at what Cage is saying is that when we strip away the intentional sounds of the instruments, there is still sound. It will come as no surprise to you that Cage's inspiration for the piece came from his own practice of Zen Buddhism.

When we sit on the cushion we usually chose to be away from intentional sounds, from people talking and from music. But sounds are still there - whether they are the normal ambient sounds or the buses on the street. And part of our practice is to be able to have awareness of these sounds but to not cling to them. To be aware of the sensation of hearing the bus but not to get caught up in our mental formations of buses.

We can also go deeper. When we strip away (or avoid) the intentional sounds we are left with the ambient. What is left when we strip away the ambient? What is left is the sound of our own bodies, our own ears, of our internal psycho-acoustic mechanisms.

There is a meditation form, known as nada-yoga (practice on the inner sound) that works with these sounds. There is a wonderful overview of this form by Ajahn Amaro called "The Sound of Silence," which I highly recommend reading. In it Ajahn says:

To detect the nada sound, turn your attention toward your hearing. If you listen carefully to the sounds around you, you’re likely to hear a continuous, high-pitched inner sound like white noise in the background. It is a sound that is beginningless and endless.

There’s no need to theorize about this inner vibration in an effort to figure out exactly what it might be. Just turn your attention to it. If you’re able to hear this inner sound, you can use the simple act of listening to it as another form of meditation practice, in the same way one uses the breath as an object of awareness. Just bring your attention to the inner sound and allow it to fill the whole sphere of your awareness.
He does give some words of caution that are worth repeating for those of you who may suffer from tinnitus or similar:

In a small number of people, the inner sound is oppressively loud, usually for an organic reason. In these cases, inner listening is unlikely to be helpful as a meditation practice, since the subjec­tive intensity of the sound makes it less useful as an object to encourage peace and clarity.
So, if this practice bothers or upsets you then it is best to avoid this as a practice. However if that is not the case for you then it can be eye-opening (or ear-opening?) to meditate on these sounds. It allows us to center on a phenomenon - like the breath - that is always with us but seldom brought into our awareness.

Whatever level you wish to meditate on we can raise our awareness of all the sounds we experience - the intentional sounds, ambient sounds, and the subtle nada of our own bodies and minds.

As I delved into the subject of silence over the last weeks I learned and became aware of many things that had been below my awareness - more than I can put in this short newsletter but things I will maybe write more about in future. In the meantime I'd love to encourage you to experiment with more subtle awareness of sounds in your own practice.

Metta, Chris.


PS. Sadly John Cage is mostly remembered nowadays for the controversial and misunderstood 4'33". I don't want you to think that was all there was to him - he wrote a lot of wonderful music, some challenging, some beautiful, some both. Here is one of my favorites.

PPS. If you would like to follow a fully guided nada-yoga meditation please use the link below.




Saturday, August 7, 2021

For Our Mentors

 For Our Mentors

The last few weeks have been a difficult time for our family. Last Sunday my Father-in-Law passed away after a few months of illness. Obviously there has been much sadness, but as always there is the accompanying joy and gratitude of having had the opportunity to know this wonderful man.

For me I have great memories of the times we spent together - the most memorable of all being the times that the two of us would stay up late after others had gone to bed, drinking excellent Scotch and generally setting the world to rights. The subjects would always be a combination of spirituality, religion and politics - often to a soundtrack of Jazz, C20th classical, electronic and generally weird music. I loved those times, and looking back on them now I realize how formative they were to me over the years as I developed my own ideas and viewpoints.

You can probably relate and bring to mind the people in your own life who have had similar effects on you. Not exactly teachers, but people who have been influential by who they are, what they said and how they caused you to question and think. We often use the word 'mentor' or 'influence' for these people. As we discussed last week, having gratitude for those who have had a positive influence on our life is an important part of our path. Without gratitude we play into the delusion of our separate self. With gratitude we realize the myriad events and influences that make up our present being.

When we practice Metta Bhavana - cultivation of lovingkindness and goodwill - we often use four specific people to practice with: Our self; A friend; A neutral person, and An enemy. In the older forms of the practice (which goes back to around the 5th Century c.e.) there is an extra person to include - the 'benefactor.' This is a person who has, one way or another, helped you on your path. For a monk it was explicitly the person who had provided financial support to allow them to practice. For us the benefactor can be thought of more broadly as our mentors - those who have supported us on our path. Again, this is more than just your teachers and can include all those who provided insight or support that contributed to your own evolution. It can be the person whose kind words kept you on the path. It could be the person who welcomed you to your Sangha. It can be the person whose dedication to practice was an inspiration. It can even include those secular authors who have made you think and question things that should be questioned (GNU Terry Pratchett).

So I would like to encourage you this week to think about your own mentors and benefactors, and express gratitude for them. If they are still with us maybe express that gratitude to them. If they are no longer with us then hold that joy and gratitude in your heart. That is what I will be doing this week.

Metta, Chris

 I have linked below a fully guided Metta Bhavana meditation where we focus on generating metta for our Mentors. Feel free to use it if you wish in any way that helps.


Photo by Ben White on Unsplash


Saturday, July 31, 2021

Gratitude for What Matters

 Gratitude for What Matters

Over the past few weeks I have written about a couple of meditations that help us to get some perspective on how each one of us is deeply connected to each other, and how even the smallest actions can have wide ranging consequences. The first meditation, on the simple phrase 'how did I get here?' opens our eyes to the many ways our interactions and history shape our present. The second meditation, suggested by Pema Chödrön, asks the question 'does it matter?' for each of our own thoughts and actions.

We can think of these two contemplations as complementary view of the same web of interconnectedness that we are all part of - the one looking backwards to the causes of where we are now, and the other looking forward to the possible causes that our current thoughts and actions might have.

So if one is looking backwards and the other is looking forwards, it becomes natural to ask ourselves the question 'how should we be right now?'

I think there are many good answers to this. The whole point of these insight meditations is to gain a perspective that informs our present thoughts and actions. So I am going to offer one positive way to work with this insight - to have gratitude for the things that have mattered to you.

By examining the things that have mattered to us in our own path, having gratitude for them, and by recognizing that our own thoughts and actions matter to others we can start to 'model' our own behavior on the things that we are grateful for ourself. If we are grateful for the kind words someone gave us when we needed them, we can choose to offer kind words to others.

In his essay 'The Lessons of Gratitude,' Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu starts by quoting from the Dullabhā Sutta:

Monks, these two people are hard to find in the world. Which two? The one who is first to do a kindness, and the one who is grateful for a kindness done and feels obligated to repay it. These two people are hard to find in the world.

This one short paragraph sums up what we can do beautifully. By being grateful for the things that have mattered to us, we can learn to repay them, or - in the more modern phrase - pay it forward.

You will have noticed that I use Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu's translations and teachings a lot - they are things that have mattered to me, and I am hugely grateful for his rigor, clarity and insight. Many of you probably resonate with that, or have your own teachers that you owe gratitude for. And it isn't just for our teachers. Even the passing smile from a stranger can matter to us at the right moment, and can be the cause for gratitude.

So, as you go through this week I would like to encourage you to be aware of the things that have mattered to you and have gratitude for them. Starting from this place of gratitude provides a strong foundation for your own thoughts and actions.

Metta, Chris.

I have linked below a fully guided meditation on Gratitude for What Matters. Feel free to use it in your own practice in any way you wish.

Dullabhā Sutta [Hard to Find] AN 2:118. (Translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu). Retrieved from

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Does It Matter?

 Does It Matter?

A few weeks ago I wrote about a powerful contemplation on the phrase 'How Did I Get Here?' I find this simple meditation opens our eyes to our interconnectedness and what Thích Nhất Hạnh describes as 'Interbeing.' By simply contemplating a few of the myriad of causes that allow us to be in exactly this state at exactly this time we start to break down our delusions of separateness and realize how many thoughts, actions and events have lead us to where we are.

Recently I read Pema Chödrön's "Welcoming the Unwelcome." It's a lovely book with some deceptively simple but challenging teachings. One of the things she recommends in the book is to ask the question "Does It Matter?"

"When we start to ask ourselves, “Does it matter?” we realize how many aspects there are to every situation. We begin to appreciate how interconnected we are to the rest of the world, and how even our thought patterns can lead to a whole series of consequences.


When we ask ourselves, “Does it matter?” we can first look at the outer, more obvious results of our actions. But then we can go deeper by examining how we are affecting our own mind: Am I making an old habit more habitual? Am I strengthening propensities I’d like to weaken? When I’m on the verge of lying to save face or manipulating a situation to go my way, where will that lead? Am I going in the direction of becoming a more deceitful person or a more guilty, self-denigrating person? How about when I experiment with practicing patience and generosity? How are my actions affecting my process of awakening? Where will they lead?"

Again, this is a simple but powerful contemplation. When we ask 'Does It Matter?' before an action or thought we have the opportunity to visualize what the effects and outcomes might be. We can't know the future, but we can imagine what might come about. When we snap at someone, write a snarky email, push past someone - all of these things will have consequences, whether small or large. And it's not just about the low-level aggressions. It's about the good stuff too - smiling at a person, taking the time to listen, thanking them. All of these may have consequences beyond the immediately obvious.

This is where what we learn from 'How Did I Get here?' comes in to play. Having spent time with that, looking backwards into the past, we learn how even the small things may have a direct responsibility for how things are. A throw-away comment someone made, a dream, even the first time your Father smiled at your mother. I exist because many years ago a young man offered to walk a young woman home from church. Did it matter? Obviously, yes.

Contemplating these small things that got you here is how we begin to open up to the web of actions and effects that brought us to where we are. And with that understanding we can start to answer the question 'Does It Matter?' for all of our thoughts and actions. Having contemplated the past we can use that insight to understand the possible effects of our actions. Again, we can't know the future, but we can understand the potential for what we do, say or think to have life-changing effects on others.

So as a pair these two contemplations can be enormously valuable - asking 'How Did I Get Here?' to open our eyes to our interconnectedness and our 'interbeing,' and asking 'Does It Matter?' to apply that understanding to realize the potential consequences of what we do. While this can feel a little overwhelming at first - webs going forward and backward! - overall it opens our eyes and sheds the delusion of our separateness. Which to me is a comforting thing.

Metta, Chris.

I have linked below a fully guided meditation on 'Does It Matter?' - you are welcome to use it in any way you wish as part of your own practice.

Quotes from Pema Chödrön, Welcoming the Unwelcome: Wholehearted Living in a Brokenhearted World

Photo by Ana Municio on Unsplash

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Master Your Senses


Master Your Senses

For many people their first encounter with Pali Scripture is through the Dhammapada - a collection of sayings of the Buddha. In many ways it is like a Buddhist equivalent of the 'Sermon on the Mount,' in that each one is a collection of teachings that probably were never given together historically, but as a collection they form a good and accessible introduction to the teachings. Originally part of the Khuddaka Nikāya it now has a life of its own and many of us have owned and loved small booklet versions of it.

There are many English translations out there, ranging from the accurate to the 'poetic,' and one I would recommend if you don't already have one is the freely available translation by Acharya Buddharakkhita - not least because of the excellent introduction by Bhikkhu Bodhi.

In his book "Teachings of the Buddha" Jack Kornfield offers the following as a quote from the Dhammapada:

Master your senses,
What you taste and smell,
What you see, what you hear. 
In all things be a master
Of what you do and say and think.
Be free. 
Are you quiet?
Quieten your body.
Quieten your mind. 
By your own efforts
Waken yourself, watch yourself,
And live joyfully. 
Follow the truth of the way.
Reflect upon it.
Make it your own.
Live it.
It will always sustain you.

Now this is a beautiful and inspiring set of verses. Sadly, however it can't really be presented as an accurate translation from the Dhamapadda - the verses are a few scattered verses that Kornfield has selected from Thomas Byrom's version, which is more of a poetic retelling than a true translation.

Despite it's flaws I do find the selection useful. I was first introduced to this set of verses many years ago as a passage for meditation and contemplation, and I have used it in this way many times and found it valuable. So I was interested this week to go down the rabbit-hole of 'where exactly did the version I was using come from?'

This proved to be a little more difficult than I hoped, due to the fact that Byrom's version is poetic but loose, and Kornfield jumps around a bit in his selection, but I finally managed to get a 'parallel' translation that is closer to the Pali original. I used the (always excellent) translation by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, found the corresponding verses and re-ordered them to match:

Restraint with the eye is good,
good is restraint with the ear.
Restraint with the nose is good,
good is restraint with the tongue.
Restraint with the body is good,
good is restraint with speech.
Restraint with the heart is good,
good is restraint   everywhere.
A monk everywhere restrained
is released from all suffering & stress.

Calmed in body,
calmed in speech,
well-centered & calm,
having disgorged the baits of the world,
a monk is called

You yourself should reprove yourself,
      should examine
As a self-guarded monk
with guarded self,
mindful, you dwell at ease.

Dhamma his dwelling,
Dhamma his delight,
a monk pondering Dhamma,
calling Dhamma to mind,
does not fall away
from true Dhamma.

So does all this matter? Am I just being a little anal? Reading the two versions above you might gravitate to one over the other, and you may find value from either or both. Personally I find it important to be clear about what we have - a poetic retelling is fine as long as it is presented as just that, and we are aware we may be receiving ideas from the author that are not in the original. If I want to get close to the original teachings then I shouldn't look for that in the poetic readings. I will probably continue to use Kornfield's selection as a base for contemplation, but with this awareness. What is also clear however is that there are depths and subtleties in the more accurate translation that are simply missed in the poem.

What do you think? I know this is a touchy subject for some and that there is currently ongoing controversy around some recent publications, and I really don't want to be stirring that pot. But sometimes we accept a pithy quote or a beautiful poem without question when we should be looking deeper. What I can say is that when I do look deeper and get closer to the original teaching I always find that the profundity and beauty of the teachings always surpasses any beauty of prose.

Metta, Chris.

I have linked below a fully guided audio meditation where we use the Kornfield selection as a base for contemplation. You are welcome to use it in your practice in whatever way you feel helps.

The Teachings of the Buddha edited by Jack Kornfield, selected from the Dhammapada translated by Thomas Byrom

 "Bhikkhuvagga: Monks" (Dhp XXV), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, . Verses used:  C25, vv 360-361, 378, 379, 364

Saturday, July 10, 2021

Independence and Interbeing

 Independence and Interbeing

Last Sunday was July 4th - Independence Day - and while it was somewhat muted here in the PNW due to fire danger and the firework ban it still was an opportunity to reflect on what independence and freedom mean. These are things I have written about before - see for instance the letter on the idea of 'One Taste.'

When we embark on a meditation path one of the things that starts to fall away is the strong sense of an independent self. We start to move beyond the feeling of 'self' and 'other' and realize that we cannot adequately draw a solid line between the two. This is the realization of 'anatta' - often translated as 'no-self.' However, the realization is not that the self doesn't exist - that is a misconception that often leads to a rather nihilistic reading - but rather that we are unable to separate the self completely from all that is around it. We are all part of a process, not boxes stacked on a shelf.

So when we think about Independence it is a relative thing not an absolute. When a young adult leaves her parents and gets an apartment we say she has become independent - but the causes for her existence, her social and psychological status, her values and attitudes are all still framed and dependent on her experience - even if they are reactions to those experiences. Similarly when a country ceases to be ruled by another there is a level of independence but it is not complete - the country still has to participate in the global order, still has the experiences and traumas of the past and has to build its path in concert with other countries - including the country it became independent from.

One way of understanding our interdependence is to start to think more deeply about things and their causes and connections. In his essay The Heart Sutra: the Fullness of Emptiness Thich Nhat Hanh coins the term 'interbeing' in the following way:

If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. We can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are. “Interbeing” is a word that is not in the dictionary yet, but if we combine the prefix “inter-” with the verb “to be,” we have a new verb, “inter-be.”

If we look into this sheet of paper even more deeply, we can see the sunshine in it. If the sunshine is not there, the forest cannot grow. In fact, nothing can grow. Even we cannot grow without sunshine. So we know that the sunshine is also in this sheet of paper. The paper and the sunshine inter-are. And if we continue to look, we can see the logger who cut the tree and brought it to the mill to be transformed into paper. And we see the wheat. We know that the logger cannot exist without his daily bread, and therefore the wheat that became his bread is also in this sheet of paper. And the logger’s father and mother are in it too. When we look in this way, we see that without all of these things, this sheet of paper cannot exist.

One of the first meditations I was taught is a very simple one where we sit and contemplate the question "How did I get here?".  This seemingly straightforward contemplation opens up our mind to understand how we are not independent entities, that our 'self' doesn't end at our skin and that we are part of a process. The beauty of the question is that it can be answered at many levels, from the mundane ("I came here by car" - how is it that I own a car..?) to the philosophical ("By committing to meditate" - why and what lead up to that..?). I have done this meditation many, many times and every time the realization is different.

It's a powerful meditation and one I would like to encourage you to try yourself. I have linked below an audio recording from last week of a group of us meditating in this way - if you find it useful in your practice I would encourage you to use it however you wish. 

Wishing you all a wonderful week,


P.S. For the music lovers among you I go into a fun story about connections and interbeing here.

Excerpt from The Heart Sutra: the Fullness of Emptiness From “Awakening of the Heart: Essential Buddhist Sutras and Commentaries,” by Thich Nhat Hanh.

Saturday, June 26, 2021




Last week marked a bit of a milestone, as for the first time in over 15 months a small group of us met together, physically, in the same room to share in meditation together.  It was a little strange at first, with some awkwardness and some laughs, but it felt wonderful to be back.

The occasion got me thinking about how we often think of our lives as progressing in 'chapters,' where we turn a page and move on to the next phase of our life. Meeting together again felt a bit like that. We weren't going back to where we were before, but starting anew.

Of course the world and the nature of time isn't quite as simple as that, but it certainly represents how we often feel. As we stand at the point of a new chapter we can easily become tied up in the memories of the past and our hopes, fears and wishes for the future. When we do that we can become disconnected from the reality of the moment. We can be so caught up with the shift that we end up being anywhere but the present.

There are two different Pali words that are usually translated as 'equanimity.' The one we are most familiar with is Upekkha, one of the four Brahma-Viharas. In his wonderful article on Equanimity Gil Fronsdal describes the other Pali word used in this way:

The second word often translated as equanimity is tatramajjhattata, a compound made of simple Pali words. Tatra, meaning “there,” sometimes refers to “all these things.” Majjha means “middle,” and tata means “to stand or to pose.” Put together, the word becomes “to stand in the middle of all this.” As a form of equanimity, “being in the middle” refers to balance, to remaining centered in the middle of whatever is happening. This balance comes from inner strength or stability. The strong presence of inner calm, well-being, confidence, vitality, or integrity can keep us upright, like a ballast keeps a ship upright in strong winds. As inner strength develops, equanimity follows.

I love this way of looking at things, and I think it tells us how we should be as chapters change in our life. Without clinging or aversion for what has happened in the past, and without clinging or aversion for what may be in the future. Instead we 'stand in the middle of all this.'

Reading this reminded me of the lovely mantra meditation that Ram Dass taught. The mantra is a simple one - "And This Also." This is a mantra that speaks to equanimity, especially equanimity where we 'stand in the middle of all this.'

I have linked below the recording of our gathering last week. It includes a fully-guided 30 minute meditation using the mantra "And This Also." You can also hear me struggle to pronounce Tatramajjhattata! If you think it may be of use to you in your practice please feel free to use it whenever you wish, and to share it with any others who might find it helpful.

Wishing you all a wonderful week - stay cool and in the middle of all this!

Metta, Chris.

Photo by Will Tarpey on Unsplash