Bodhisattva 4: Going Out on a Limb


Notes on a talk by Michael Stone January 29, 2012

Upside Down
There’s an old Zen saying: The whole world is upside down. At least, from an ordinary perspective. What we think of as permanent turns out to be impermanent. What we thought was stable and reliable, turns out to be unreliable.

The Thai forest monk Ajahn Chah offered this teaching. He picked up a teacup, perfectly fine in every way, and announced, “This teacup is broken.” This might be a good practice for when you buy a new car, you can already imagine it bruised up in someone’s driveway. It might be a good practice for when you get a gleaming new husband to say: “This husband is broken.” So when it happens, when they disappoint you, you can hold that, it will be OK.

The ordinary way we look at things seems to be upside down. The way the world looks from the conventional point of view is really the opposite of how things are.


Tree Life
Once there was a Zen Master who was called Birds’ Nest Roshi. He would walk around the forest looking for abandoned bird’s nests. Then he would climb the tree and do sitting practice in the nest. One day the poet Su Shih (who was also a government official) came to visit him. Standing on the ground far below he asked, “What are you doing up there? It’s really dangerous! What possesses you to live and practice way up on that branch? In a bird’s nest?” The Roshi answered, “You call this dangerous? What you are doing is far more dangerous!”

Living in the world, ignoring death, trying to make impermanence permanent, avoiding loss and suffering. What we do with our deep grooves is more dangerous than going out on a limb and meditating.


The first chapter of A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life said that the most precious thing we can have in our life is Bodhicitta. The desire to awaken. To awaken ourselves and to awaken others. It is the clearest and most profound gem we can have in our life. Many of us here are trying to find livelihoods so that we can extend our practice to others, and we’re working (is it work?) to support our friends (I call it: having-a-good-time practice), to live in a sustainable way. But the most important thing is bodhicitta.

My son is nine years old. For the first time he’s at an age where he likes to spend hours in his room by himself. Sometimes when he’s sitting in front of me, I don’t know what he’s thinking. So I worry about him. But we all have this seed, this passion to awaken. What consoles me as a worried parent is knowing he has that, the passion to awaken.


In the first chapter it says that the highest goal is to be awake – to see ourselves as a jewel in a vast net. This is true, but it’s also a bit idealistic. It’s possible that the wish that all sentient beings awaken can become sentimental or just a sentiment, something that rolls off the lips. Oh that. One of the ways to get rooted, to ground the passion for awakening, is in the honest conduct of our lives. To feel the profound human capacity for awakening can be too glossy if it’s not grounded in our misdeeds. We can cause so much harm, is it possible to look at the way we’ve behaved today, this week, this year, and see where our actions haven’t been skillful? Where we’ve been busy spinning old stories in mind that contribute to fear.

If we can’t see how we harm then bodhicitta is a joke. We need to confess and to atone for our mistakes. The self has built into it the nature of unforgiving. The self wants to stay addicted to a world view where we are good all the time and never make a mistake. It’s always some else’s fault. How perfect we are! And if you ask anyone else: they’re perfect too! So many perfect people in this world you wonder why it isn’t a better place sometimes. It’s always someone else’s fault, especially our parents. The buck stops there. It can be hard to ask someone to witness your misdeeds. But I don’t think we can do it alone.

The Way of the Bodhisattva offers us five stages of confession. 1. Calling on all Buddhas to witness, to be present for me. 2. To make offerings to those that witness us. 3. To prepare my heart to receive witnesses and know they are there. 4. To look inside my heart and say, “Yes, it’s true. I admit it. I offer it up to you. To say it out loud. 5. Forgive me.

The chapter goes on to speak about death and dying. Why is it important to do this practice of asking for forgiveness? Because we’re going to die, how much time do we have left? We have to get on with this! The practice of forgiveness is so contrary to capitalism where we produce and consume but we don’t think of offering our lives. Some years back on a retreat I happened to be sitting near the altar and I became obsessed with it. I realized that the altar was all about offering. The candles offer their light. The incense offers scent and smoke. How can I sit on my cushion to make my practice an offering? That way, when you screw up, you can offer yourself.

Hug the Bear
One of the best ways to do this is to be alone. It can be lonely at first, or boring, but that’s ok. Get into the raw solitary place and see what comes up, allow your feelings to come to the surface, and then reflect on your actions. Then give all that away. Go all the way. Peter Levitt, the Beat poet all star (who turned to Buddhism like so many of his comrades) describes the process like this: It’s like you’re in a forest and you come across a bear. What do you do? You don’t run away, you hug the bear with everything you’ve got and you don’t let go…. Hearing this story makes me hope I’m never in the forest with Peter.


One of the practices we focus on in yoga asana is to finish our inhale and exhale. The end of the exhale is like soft dynamite. It quietly breaks up all the rigid plates, the old emotions, the hardened opinions, the ancestral inheritances.

Richard Freeman taught me an exhaling practice.  You exhale, really feeling the end of the exhale, over and over until you’re clear and balanced and can find it easily. This might take a few months. Then you exhale and pause, just pause at the bottom of the exhale. This practice might take a while too. Then visualize your saliva dropping down, all the way down to the pelvic floor. You inhale and at the top of the inhale there’s a small gathering of saliva, and then it drops right down the central channel, and along the way it attracts all the crusty emotions, the old holding patterns that you want to avoid. This creates a sensation of squirming for the first few months. You just want to get out of that place, to leave that place, until one day the squirming and being uncomfortable gets really interesting. We need to feel our way into our lives, we need to know what we actually feel.

Throughout beginingless cyclic existence
In this life and others,
Unknowingly, I committed transgressions
And ordered them to be done (by others).

I studied briefly with Kenpo Tsultrim, and asked him a question, I can’t remember what it was now. And he gave me this reply, which meant nothing to me at the time, but it grows larger with every passing day. “You’ve been a mother, and a murderer and a president and a farmer. A bank teller, the street car driver, a person who walks with a cane.” If we can’t feel that, then in confession we could say: “I haven’t stolen anything this year. I haven’t lied this week.” But if you’re also the person driving the car and also a man and also a woman, then we can say: we’ve killed this year. We’ve stolen this year. All blindness becomes our blindness and you can acknowledge that. Karma means that our actions arise from beginingless time, they started long before you were born. ¾ of the money invested in Canadian banks supports mining. Some part of us doesn’t want to look at that. All blindness is one blindness. All harm by troops and banks and refineries. I have benefited from their actions. I suffer from their actions.

Overwhelmed by the deception of ignorance
I rejoiced in what was done,
But now, seeing these mistakes
From my heart I confess them to the Buddhas.

Now, thanks to your support, Buddhas, I am strong enough to see, to feel, to say this out loud. I am willing to take responsibility for what I have done. The way I blamed him for rape. The way I blamed her for murder. All those things I openly declare as having happened to me. How to recognize the shadows of your own life and acknowledge them?

Mark Epstein: “According to Buddhism, it is our fear at experiencing ourselves directly that creates suffering. This has always seemed very much in keeping with Freud’s views. As Freud put it, the patient ‘must find the courage to direct his attention to the phenomena of his illness. His illness itself must no longer seem to him contemptible, but must becomes an enemy worthy of his mettle, a piece of his personality, which has solid ground for its existence and out of which things of value for his future life have to be derived. The way is thus paved for the reconciliation with the repressed material which is coming to expression in his symptoms, while at the same time place is found for a certain tolerance for the state of being ill.” (Thoughts Without a Thinker by Epstein)


Six Realms
There are six realms in Buddhism.
The realms of so-called Unacceptable desires: The hell realm (fear, aggression), animal realm (instinct gratification, biological drives of sex, hunger), hungry ghosts (rage and desire, insatiable appetites, attached to the past, satisfaction causes pain).
The realms of ego function and dissolution: god realm (sensual bliss, aesthetic pleasure, subtle bodies, peak experiences, in Gestalt: confluence, infant and breast (a temporary refuge), jealous gods (aggressive force necessary to approach, destroy, assimilate obstacles).
Human realm (search for self, creativity).

In Buddhism there is no God, but evil and sin are realms. Realms are karma, which is a natural force like water and wind. In Buddhism sin is not permanent, it’s empty, and the hell realm is good for you. The hell realm is a gymnasium where you work out your patterns. Blame in/out, harm in/out. Most of us spend a long time in this gymnasium. You might say to yourself: I’m in the envy gymnasium and I’m going to learn the patterns here and the counter patterns. Sometimes I need to have someone witness me in the hell gymnasium. In the greed gymnasium. Addictions and hellish states are places to train. Buddhist hells have insubstantiality and humour. Addictions are like this, aren’t they? A little bit of humour and a lot of terror. Oh, that again. And again.


Taking refuge in the Buddha means taking refuge in your capacity to be awake. Taking refuge in the dharma means what you’re awake to (spiritual medicine). Taking refuge in sangha means taking refuge in spiritual friends, community. Dogen says that the term “kie” (to take refuge) is made up of two characters. The first, ki, means “to keep returning to” and the second, e, means “to submit ourselves devotedly to.” Thus kie, “to take refuge,” literally means “to devote oneself to returning to.” The form of this returning is like that of a child returning again and again to its parent. In other words, this term is synonymous with “to be rescued by” or “to be freed by”.

Taking refuge is immediate. Stop, allow, confess. Being able to be witnessed. It all happens right now. To take refuge is to seek protection, to step into the autumn wind. To find the breath is a means of taking refuge. Some of you came to see the monks from Sri Lanka who had been forced out of their country, their bodies suffering from post-traumatic stress, one had been imprisoned and tortured. They loved being in Chinatown because they said it reminded them of home. I asked them, “How do you deal with what you’ve seen? How do you digest that, how to take the next step?” And they said, “Once a month we sit in a circle at twilight and say out loud anything we’ve done wrong. There is no blame, no one gets in trouble.” There’s something about confession that’s so powerful.

Stretch and Sweep
Carina and I are taking hypnobirthing classes, we’re such keeners, it’s a little embarrassing. They went round the room and asked everyone if they’d visited the hospital where the birth would happen, but we’ve decided to do a home birth, so when Carina was asked if she had breezed by the hospital she said, “I’d rather give birth in a car.” Anyways, as part of a labour inducing method, the midwife can put her fingers into the cervix and moves them back and forth in a U, eventually separating the amniotic membranes from the cervix. This is called stretch and sweep. Mechanically, this can produce labour, and it also stimulates the release of prostaglandins. Meditation can act like that, it can go into the body and separate the membranes, so that your birthing body can open.