There have been so many nights of Gravity, so many nights of practice, and when we sit together we are expressing our solidarity with those sitters, we are sitting with them, sometimes it’s like walking with the breeze in your back when you can feel the effort, the right effort, of all those sitters. There have been so many nights of sitting, but there is one night that is returned to over and over again, there is one morning that Buddhists return to, because this night and day made the whole project of Buddhism possible.
The Buddha has left his family, his wife and child and parents, and he’s set off with nothing in his pockets. He’s determined to know the truth, he wants to know the truth of this moment. What is happening now, in this room, in this moment. This is the place that the Buddha is trying to arrive at. How does he get here? He doesn’t take a car, he doesn’t use a submarine, how does he travel what he likes to call a path, later on he calls it an eightfold path. How does he travel the eightfold path? I don’t know about you, but when I’m missing something, when I need information, when I need to arrive at a new emotional state, I reach out for something. It might be a friend, a book, a telephone conversation, a smiling face. When I have a problem or a difficulty, it creates a hole in my body, and then I try to fill the hole with something. Some people spend their whole lives filling the holes in their bodies. We all do this to some extent. But the Buddha took a radical approach to the hole he felt. This sense that there was something that he was lacking. He didn’t want to go out and get something more, he felt that he could solve his problem by having less.
How did the Buddha have less in his life? I think he did it by leaving home, again and again. He left the home of his family, but then he left the home of having a roof over his head, of four walls, of a room you call “my room.” He left the home of a reliable breakfast, a reliable lunch, a reliable dinner. He left the home of a place he’d grown up in, a familiar landscape, a familiar sky. He left behind the home of his friends, the home of being dry when it rains, the home of being warm when it’s cold, the home of eating when you’re hungry. Could you leave the home of eating when you’re hungry? Even for a minute or two?
Here is what the Buddha said about the subject of home. “In a home, life is stifled in an atmosphere of dust. But life gone forth is open wide.” It’s as if he’s telling us: this present moment is hidden under a layer of dust. Are we seeing what’s happening in this moment, this instant, or are we seeing what he called “an atmosphere of dust.” What is dust exactly? The OED states: “that to which anything is reduced by disintegration and decay spec. the ashes or mouldered remains of a dead body.” it’s interesting this word “everything,” that “everything” turns into dust. Oh, you too! It’s as if we have this in common, it’s part of our collectivity, our interbeing as Thich Nhat Hahn would say, that we’re all turning into dust. Dust is literally a layer of death, small particles of dead matter that covers over living matter. Could we say that the way the Buddha walks the path is by dusting? He walks the path not by adding more and more, as we’ve already noted, but by taking away. And perhaps part of what he’s taking away, is dust.
Sometimes when I walk into this room I feel a little tight. There’s so many people, I’m tired, it’s been a long day, maybe I’ve had a tricky conversation or a complicated session in the edit room. Sometimes I’m carrying the old rooms into this room. Have you ever done that? There’s all kinds of things happening in here, but I don’t experience any of it, because I’m still living inside a moment that came and went three hours ago. Inn other words I’m covering over the fullness of this moment, this instant right now, with dust. And I can’t see this moment, all I see is the dust.
As someone who did yoga, who did sitting meditation, the Buddha couldn’t help but wondering: what does this look like as a practice? How do I do the dusting? How could I walk my path by dusting? And how can I share this practice with others. The Buddha was always very practical, his head didn’t need to be in the dreamy clouds of far away happiness, because the whole point of his path was to be here, and when you’re all here, when all the dust is gone, he found that what he wanted to do was to help people. As Bernie Glassman says, loving action naturally arises. So the Buddha laid out a sort of mechanism, a formula, a recipe, for how to dust your life. He called it the four, which was translated for centuries as “the four noble truths,” but the Buddha never said they were noble, and he never claimed they were truths. The Buddha wasn’t interested in the stuff of traditional religions, in creating laws for instance, or scripture, or a specific place to practice, or someone that should succeed him. But in order to give what the Buddha simply called “the four” a little oomph, a little underlining, later translators started referring to them as “the four noble truths.”
When we stop calling them the noble truths we can stop hearing them as beautiful laws for beautiful people, and they become instead tasks to perform. The four are not nouns, but verbs, they are things to do. Like dusting for instance. Number one: to fully know suffering. How do we practice the one on the cushion? When suffering arises, oh my back is sore, oh my knees, the one asks us: to fully know suffering. I think that means that instead of running away from the unwanted sensations, to try and meet them with curiosity. Where are the sensations located exactly? What are the nature of the sensations? Can you be as detailed in your report as possible, as if you were a scientist on an expedition. The dharma scientist is the one moving towards the suffering, while everyone else is moving away.
Here is Stephen Batchelor in Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist: “On one occasion, the Buddha and his attendant Ananda visited a monastery and discovered a sick monk lying uncared for in his own excrement and urine. They fetched some water, washed the monk, lifted him up, and settled him on a bed. Then Gotama berated the other monks in the community for not caring for their fellow. “When you have neither father nor mother to care for you,” he said, “you need to care for one another. Whoever would tend to me, should tend to the sick.”
But the one, the first of the four, is not only about shit and piss and illness. It is also about the colour of this wall, the feeling of this floor on your feet, the changing light through these windows. The music of this moment, the music that you’re part of making. What if you’d never walked into this room before, what if you’d never seen a room before, or never heard a dharma talk, or never experienced an inhale. The Zen notion of beginner’s mind is another way of thinking about the one. Shunryu Suzuki said, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, while in the expert’s there are few.” The less dust we bring into the room, the more possibilities, for joy and delight as well as difficulty and suffering.
What is number two? To let go of craving. I want it, I really want it, I need it, I have to have it. I’ll die if I don’t have it, if he doesn’t love me, if I can’t get into that university program, publish that book, teach that course.
In her beautiful book The Wisdom of No Escape, Pema Chodron speaks very eloquently about the four. She says that there is a life energy in each of us, it produces the inhale, it’s the blood flowing in our veins, it’s the way our skin opens to the sun, it’a a quickening of the pulse when we’re excited, it’s the part of us that wants to turn the page. That’s another way of thinking about what the Buddha was saying. Turn the page, turn the page! Can’t you turn the page? Don’t keep reading from the same dusty page. So we have this natural, innate life energy, several months ago during sitting meditation I could feel this as a light inside my chest, it was very clear and vivid. I invite you to try it or not to try it, to know for yourself the way this life force shows up in your body. Oh there it is in downward facing dog, as soon as I plug into my animal life, I plug into my whole life.
Pema says that there is an energy that flows through us but we resist it. “The second noble truth says that this resistance is the fundamental operating mechanism of what we call the ego, that resisting life causes suffering. Traditionally it’s said that the cause of suffering is clinging to our narrow view. Another way to say the same thing is that resisting our complete unity with all of life, resisting the fact that we change and flow like the weather, that we have the same energy as all living things, resisting that is what’s called ego.
Yesterday I began to be very curious about the experience of resistance.” Notice her word here: curious. What is the nature of dusting? Curiosity. How do I dust the room, how do I dust my life? With curiosity. “Yesterday I began to be very curious about the experience of resistance. I noticed that I was sitting there with uncomfortable feelings in my heart and my stomach – dread, you could call it. I began to recognize the opportunity of experiencing the realness of the four elements, what it’s like to be weather. Of course that didn’t make the discomfort go away, but it removed the resistance, and somehow the world was there again.” This is so interesting. She begins with curiousity, she has a bad feeling and she meets it with curiosity and that allows her to get closer, to become intimate with her bad feelings. What is actually going on there. And the hope of her practice is not to get rid of anything or transcend her dread, but to feel how this dread is made up of conditions, or what she calls “the four elements,” and that’s it not the whole world, it’s part of the world, and it’s changing, or it will change.
Pema: “When I didn’t resist, I could see the world. Then I noticed that I had never liked the quality of this particular ‘weather’ for some reason and so I resisted it. In doing that, I realized, I re-created myself. It’s as if, when you resist, you dig in your heels. It’s as if you’re a block of marble and you carve yourself out of it, you make yourself really solid. In my case, worrying about things that are going to happen is very unpleasant; it’s an addiction. It’s also unpleasant to get drunk again if you’re an alcoholic, or to have to keep shooting up if you’re a drug addict, or to keep eating if you have overeating addiction, or whatever it is. All these things are very strange. We all know what addiction is; we are primarily addicted to ME.”
When I read this part of Pema’s book I had to put the book down. It was as if the book was on fire and I just had to put that hot thing down for a moment. Part of what she’s saying, I think, is that we live in a culture of addiction, that everyone is addicted. It’s not so easy to dust the room when you’re addicted to dust. And it doesn’t necessarily change you, or even, as Pema’s book points out: you are so wonderful the way you are, even your crappy, horrible qualities, the worst things about you, are also so wonderful because they’re part of your expression, though we try to use the precepts, our ethical principles, to make sure we’re not just acting out and hurting people, but our qualities don’t have to be shape shifted, and we don’t need to look to our practice to be our savior, the dreamy one who will take me away from all this, the fairy tale gods who will grant us life in the magical kingdom. Instead, Pema doesn’t throw anything away, she reacts to her dread and distress with curiosity, she plunges into the level of sensation, to the physical expression first of all, so she doesn’t have to get tangled up in a lot of ideas about what is happening. The body is such an important arena for the dharma scientist, first you listen to the body, then to the other places. And once you can feel those feelings, to fully know suffering, you try to release, to let go, to exhale. The second of the four is about letting go of craving. You open your hand, your open your heart, and the dust flies off you, and you’re back here again. Here, in this moment, or as Pema puts it, “the world was there again.”
Once you’re embraced, and let go, the third of the four asks us to experience the end of craving. To stop craving. Oh, I didn’t get that dress and I’m still alive. Even though I don’t look as good as I might. How to survive our own frustrations, our own addictions. Perhaps it means that for this minute, you’re not having that cigarette, or checking your phone for messages, or whatever dust gathering techniques you’ve developed in order to bolster the illusion that you have a solid and unchanging self.
Last week I lost connection with the internet again, I have a very cheap plan and it seems to happen over and over. After speaking with four different tech people – I can hear others in the cubicles all around them – I got so frustrated. The story I started telling myself was that I was angry and frustrated at this internet company for not providing the service I had paid for. But the truth was that I was acting exactly like an addict, I was frustrated and angry because they weren’t allowing me to behave like an addict. How dare you keep my internet heroin from me! I could feel my neck get hot, and there was a red line running down my chest, and a constriction of the ribs. These sensations were a little familiar to me, it made me think: I’ve been here before. And then I realized that underneath the anger at being refused my fix, there was fear, who would I be if I wasn’t the other end of the internet connection, and then also a new sense of spaciousness, a new sense of possibility, hours stretched on where I didn’t have to pass every face and name that passed through my head through the google machine, I could just watch them come and go, and that was so satisfying. My internet company is really the worst company, but they give me these breaks where I’m able to feel what is actually happening. Sometimes I wonder if they aren’t working for the Buddha. I love the way that Bernie Glassman says “my boss, Shakyamuni Buddha.” My internet provider – bad is the new good! – gives me the opportunity to practice, to notice what is going on. If they worked properly I would be in the flow, and when you’re in the flow it can feel so fine, but it can be hard to notice what’s happening. That’s why we need the speed bumps, the annoying people in our lives, so that they can help us see where we’re addicted, where we like to collect dust.
A few weeks ago I had this hunger to hear the news behind the news. Do you ever get that? I knew what the headlines said, what I needed was someone who could do the deep work, the deep dig, to give me the heart truth. So I asked my pal Erin Robinsong who said that there’s this young American lady who has written a game changing, paradigm shifting book called Mercury. Her name is Ariana Reines. It is a poetry filled with brio and abasement, it’s hard to think about someone who writes about craving quite like Ariana. This one is called Rite Aid.
“I’m not blind. I see my legs
They are blue-green
Their knees are rouge
With small hairs.
I hate these legs
But they are mine. Built for use
Not contemplation. Like how
About I walk over to you.
The scars on my knees are still there
From kindergarten, and tar
From my bike from today. Bruises too.
If I weren’t so scared of life I wouldn’t be here.
If I loved my legs I could be scared
Of something else, like their eventual decay
And be a woman to buy creams. You men in my life
Are how I love today. I want to be you.
I want to love myself by what I desire
The way you do, instead of seeing
How aspects of myself could be rendered
Other than what they seem when they weigh on me
By virtue of a paradoxical game in which I refuse to try
and the refusing takes up twice as much energy
As the trying would, I think.
I want to love myself for what I want, the way you do
And watch the wanting itself change my life.”
The only way she can want, is through your wanting. Oh you want me, I need that borrowed heat, the second hand feelings. Maybe because when you were a kid you were asked to be a mother to your mother. A mother to your father. Were there needs so large that you had to step in and play a role that you couldn’t play? It’s hard to get over the guilt maybe, but harder still to do the rewiring. How does she put it, “I want to love myself by what I desire…” instead of, for instance, by what you desire. What she’s talking about is privilege, which she can see, which is illuminated for her, which she wakes up to, because she is in a place of non-privilege. It can be so hard for people who enjoy privilege, to see how other people suffer because of their conditions, because it means having to point at oneself, and say: I am part of their suffering. I am part of the conditions that cause a systemic imbalance for anyone who is not white and male. When Jamila and Christi-an came to this room several weeks ago to speak about white privilege, they were exercising, they were demonstrating, they were enacting the first of the four, to fully know suffering. Just like poet Ariana Reines.
What happens when you experience, even for an instant, the end of craving? That’s what they call nirvana. It’s a term that comes from cooking, and it means cooling down. You know when you’re meeting that heady exciting person oh god I hope he likes me, please let him like me. There’s heat involved, there’s heat coming from the body. There’s heat in shame, in anger, in desire. But when you feel the end of craving it’s like you’ve taken the hot pot off the stove and you’re chilling out. Nirvana is the chill out room. And here’s what’s so strange and so often misinterpreted. Nirvana is not the end of eightfold path, the hoped for destination, the Buddhist’s idea of heaven. Nirvana is the beginning of the eightfold path. The third of four asks us to experience nirvana, to experience the end of craving. And that leads us to number four, the fourth of the four, and that is the eightfold path. Appropriate seeing, thought, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration. When the addictions start to cool, when you can stop turning every experience into another story about yourself (Why do I have to wait so long in this line? Why aren’t they calling me back?) you are met with space, and in this new spaciousness, the practice of the eightfold path can begin to unfold.
Here is Pema again: “The essence of the fourth noble truth is the eightfold path. Everything we do – our discipline, effort, meditation, livelihood, and every single thing that we do from the moment we’re born until the moment we die – we can use to help us to realize our unity and our completeness with all things. We can use our lives, in other words, to wake up to the fact that we’re not separate: the energy that causes us to live and be whole and awake and alive is just the energy that creates everything, and we’re part of that. We can use our lives to connect with that, or we can use them to become resentful, alienated, resistant, angry, bitter. As always, it’s up to us.”
Gotama urges us to leave home. How do we leave home? He offers us these four ennobling truths. Four specific actions. This is the way we leave home. What are these actions? The first truth is to be fully known and embraced. The second truth is about letting go. The third truth is about experiencing this stopping, this stillness that we spoke about, that Gotama experienced under the tree, to experience that for yourself. I think this has something to do with pleasure, when you experience this stopping for yourself, it’s often accompanied by a feeling of deep pleasure, and it is a pleasure that doesn’t belong to you, but belongs to this moment. And the fourth task is the cultivation of a path. Has anyone ever followed a path in a forest? There’s a thicket of forest on either side and between the two sides there’s a clearing. How is the clearing made? In part, the clearing is made by walking the path. What if no one walked that path in the forest anymore? What would happen to the path? It would grow over right? It would stop being a path. Cultivating the path, the fourth truth, means: walking the path. Because if you don’t walk it, the path just grows over. And this path leads us away from home, from what we think we know about ourselves, and about this moment that hasn’t happened yet.
We’ve just about arrived at the place where the talk should have started, so perhaps I can stop soon and let you fill in the rest. But I just wanted to say a couple of sentences about the first ennobling truth: to fully know dukkha. In an Australian lecture dished a couple of years back, Stephen Batchelor translates the first ennobling truth like this: to fully know that shit happens. What do we usually do when shit happens? Check email, binge on Netflix, eat ice cream, call a friend. Gabor Mate says that we are a society of addicts, that we are all addicted, to telling certain kinds of stories about ourselves, to overworking, to the internet, to checking our phones, to the repetition of old family riffs. Craving is not the cause of dukkha, but the result. It’s our habitual response to lack. The problem is not how often you check your phone, or your binge eating, or your gambling. Those are symptoms, they’re ways we use to soothe ourselves.
It is so difficult, when we start feeling anxiety, not to vote for one of our addictions. It happens so fast, like a reflex. Usually aversion, the feeling of aversion, makes us turn away, this is the habit pattern. What would your practice look like, as a writer, as a painter, as a father or a mother, as a yoga teacher or a veterinarian or a counselor, what would your practice look like if every time you felt something negative you simply stopped and shut down and zoned out? What kind of a parent would you be to yourself?
The first ennobling truth says: put down the ice cream and walk towards the bad feeling. This is what it means to leave home: to stagger forward, to stumble along, with your eyes wide open looking at the unbearable thing, to fully know, these are the words that Gautama uses, to embrace. To hug your bad feelings, to give them a place, to allow them inside even inside the laptopasana, and let them touch you. And then you can start to feel that these bad feelings don’t just belong to you, they are also inside the person who is giving you these bad feelings. A great compassion might start to build, as you can feel that these forces are not strictly personal, and this is the second ennobling truth, that there is a cause of these bad feelings, and you feel your way towards the cause through the hug of these bad feelings, that allows you to hug others, that gives rise to compassion, as you see others struggling to remain princes and princesses inside their castles, struggling to keep the darkness outside, trying to build their walls a little higher, the moats a little deeper. But as you can taste death in the back of your throat, as you can look out the windows of the dying place, you can see how impermanent those castle walls are, you can already see them fading away. How to fully embrace this moment, even if it’s a difficult moment, especially if it’s a difficult moment? How to leave home?