Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Welcome back to the sixth – and concluding dialogue on the series “The Eight Realizations of the Great Beings”. The last dialogue took place on 04/27/2015. I had wanted to have this summary session in May. Unfortunately, it didn’t materialize for various reasons. I’m grateful to Ginger for this opportunity.
Owing to the time lapse, and the number of new attendees present, it would be beneficial to have a synopsis of the previous dialogues. When Thay’s (Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh) health was deteriorating rapidly about a year ago, the sangha prayed for him. In gratitude for the kindness, I initiated this series of dialogues. I thought at first we would just read his booklet “Two Treasures”, and discuss the teaching. It didn’t work out. I wished to bring awareness to and called for actions for two major contemporary issues: immigration, and climate change. Moreover, there are attendees who are not familiar with Buddhism, making it difficult to study from the same text. Thay’s wisdom in the booklet is timeless. As such, his comments are general in nature. I decided to prepare the talks using his book “The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching” for reference, particularly on the Four Nutrients, and some on Giving. I’ve donated two copies of the booklet to the Sangha library, and they’re currently in circulation. This approach makes Thay’s wisdom, and specifics on current issues available unfiltered to everybody. We didn’t have time to cover the Fourth and Fifth Realizations on Laziness, and Ignorance respectively. I urge you to study Thay’s teaching in the booklet. We’ll try to arrange for a group discussion later.
I’ve weaved my life’s experiences as an immigrant into the talks – neither because they’re unique nor do I like to talk about myself – but because I wanted to reach out to you in the context of common humanity. Immigration & refugees present one of the most challenging contemporary socio- political issues in this country, the EU, the Middle East, and Myanmar. Such experiences are fitting in illustrating impermanence, suffering, non-self, interconnectedness, and interdependence, as I explained in the first dialogue (First Realization). The talks are mounted on the web. I stated in that dialogue that the element of the illegal immigrants exists in me. Therefore, if you fear me not, you may be able to accept the illegal immigrants more easily. If you’ve contemplated the subject already, you would see that the same element exists within you also, because we’re interconnected, and we depend on one another for our happiness. (Immigrants and refugees are often the people who produce food for us in the field, or perform other minimum wage labor that most other people don’t want to do). This illustrates an intrinsic in human-to- human relationship which transcends race, religions, and political inclinations.
We discussed addiction next, and incorporated the discussion on desires into the talk on Voluntary Simplicity.
Building on the theme of interconnectedness and interdependence, the subsequent talks addressed the disparity between the rich and the poor, and the importance of giving on personal, societal, and worldwide levels. The discussions cumulated in climate change, with the call for living in simplicity, and support for the Climate Change meeting in Paris this December, in order to save this planet for future generations. I thought Dan summed it up well when he shared with me his thought at the end of the talk in April that “the Buddhist Realizations lead to Climate Realization.”
The First Realization states that if we meditate on impermanence, non-self, interconnectedness, and impurity, we can gradually be released from samsara, the round of birth and death. As the First Realization is foundational, I would like to elaborate on these topics for the remainder of the session.
Impermanence is a constant process of change. Although its nature is neutral, our emotional response toward the change can turn it into happiness, or dissatisfaction. This body of ours comes into being when the right combination of conditions takes place, and it changes constantly. When these conditions are out of balance, we feel ache and pain. If this trend continues, the pain grows stronger, our body deteriorates further, and we can become disabled, or die. If we embrace the outcome as the result of causes and effect, the experience is just as it is. If in this painful moment, we look for conditions of happiness, we can feel better, or become happy. On the other hand, if we deny, resist, resent, become fearful or angry, our suffering will increase. The more we are dissatisfied, the worse we feel.
Let’s consider back pain for example. In terms of neuroplasticity, each time we ruminate, the area representing the pain in our brain expands. There are nine such areas in our brain. It spreads like an oil spill to the neighboring site, making the pain current stronger. Once the pain is chronic, the suffering – physically and emotionally – increases exponentially. This can lead to being physically disabled, mentally depressed, and totally disabled. Now our family, friends, and the society also suffer. Buddhism offers solutions – the Four Noble Truths – for this pervasive mind-added suffering. The First Noble Truth states there is suffering in life – the chronic pain. The Second Noble Truth states there is the root cause of suffering- in this case the specific self-referential thoughts. The Third Noble Truth states there is hope – the cessation of this suffering. And the fourth Noble Truth states there is the path for the cessation of this suffering – the practice of the Eight- Fold Noble Path. It’s equally important that while we look for the root of suffering, we also look for conditions of happiness. We can treat the physical pain with neuroplasticity by observing the sensations, and imagining the areas representing the pain in the brain shrinking back to its normal, no pain condition (2), or with medicines, or physical therapy, or a combination thereof. It should be noted that not having what we want, can cause suffering just like having what we don’t want.
Our body’s impermanence is due to the fact that it is made of different elements, making it not intrinsically independent. In other words, it lacks an intrinsically independent self; there’s just non-self. This non-self must depend on other non-selves- other species- living in the environment in order to survive. That’s to say, we depend on others for our survival, and happiness. And our happiness depends on their happiness. Charles Darwin states that it is the kind tribe that flourishes. Martin Nowak, the famed Harvard professor who has been using games theory to extensively study cooperation, concludes that cooperation offers the best results in group dynamic, and that “cooperation- not competition- underpins innovation”. Studies have shown those who are isolated become depressed, and that residents living in senior centers who are lonely have less longevity than those who have social support
I wrote this poem in Vietnamese in 2010. It sums up the theme of impermanence, non-self, interconnectedness, and interdependence.
The blue sky is vast and high
Bright Autumn leaves sunbathe on the ground
The Zendo gate is wide open
I mindfully walk in empty spots
The old entrance is now a gorgeous rainbow
Serenely radiates the miracle of the Dharma path
The leaves are me, and I’m the leaves
We’ve been interdependent since beginingless time
This morning the leaves are perfect
Tomorrow their shapes and colors will have changed
In the next life when we meet again
Who will be me, who will be the leaf?
IMPURITY OF THE MIND
Thoughts come to our mind constantly one after another. Our mind meanders through desires, regret, anger, envy, jealousy, frustration, depression, fear, etc. The Harvard study mentioned in the previous dialogues reports that 50% of our awaked time is spent in ruminating instead of focusing on our tasks, and that we’re not happy. It concludes that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Every time a thought is repeated, it reinforces the neural circuits in our brain associated with that type of emotion such as depression, desires, and addiction, anxiety, fear, etc. As the thought is repeated frequently and regularly enough, the signal of its circuit(s) becomes sufficiently strong to activate action.
Addicts crave, and the strong craving activates the reward circuit for pleasure; they take drugs, drink alcohol, smoke, or overeat, etc. to satisfy it. They feel lonely, guilty, and shameful after they become sober because they let themselves down. This shame circuit makes them feel so miserable that they seek pleasure again to relieve misery. They are caught in an endless loop, until they become mindful of their behavior, and decide to quit, or they continue to suffer until they die. Mindfulness applications for addiction treatment have proven to be effective and are now commercially available.
On the other hand, positive emotions such as mindfulness, loving kindness, compassion, and happiness are skills that can be cultivated. This has been proven by numerous fMRI studies of long- term meditators. Inexperienced meditators who practice 30 minutes a day for eight weeks experience changes in their brain structures. I’m convinced that the future wellbeing of the planet depends on the degree that the children gain in these skills. I spent a month of my own time this summer surveying the number of children who have been taught these skills in schools in the US and Canada, and examining commercially available programs for training teachers and children. Canada is doing a better job than we are. Please let me know if you can help in this endeavor.
The principle of neuroplasticity discussed above confirms the first pair of teachings of the Buddhist Dhammapada regarding the working of the mind. Thay’s teaching on “watering the seed” fits nicely with neuroplasticity and this principle. Mindfulness is critical in preventing or stopping temptations and delusions.
IMPURITY OF THE BODY
There is a bi-directional pathway between the body and the brain. Studies have demonstrated that exercises, and yoga help those who have depression, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer, etc. On the preventive side, the Buddha teaches us to meditate on the 32 parts of the body to understand impermanence, to get rid of fear, and embrace death. When we’re tempted by sensual pleasure – due to toxins which we have consumed in our body such as alcohol, etc. as discussed under the Four Nutrients, the Second Realization – we can meditate on the impurity of the body, such as a decaying corpse in the cemetery, to subdue passions, as suggested in the first dialogue.
I hope that the above information and the information in the previous dialogues help you in your practice of the Eight Realizations of the Great Beings. May your practice bring loving-kindness, compassion, cooperation, and peace to your family, work place, community, and the world. May the fruit of your practice grow day by day.
Michael Moskowitz, MD, Mill Valley, CA.