Thursday, September 30, 2010

Twenty-One Ways To Turn Ill Will To Good Will

From Patheos--As The Wheel Turns:

21 Ways To Turn Ill Will to Good Will

September 30, 2010 by Rick Hanson

My recent posts have highlighted two very powerful, yet opposing forces in the human heart: in a traditional metaphor, we each have a wolf of love and a wolf of hate inside us, and it all depends on which one we feed every day.

On the one hand, as the most social and loving species on the planet, we have the wonderful ability and inclination to connect with others, be empathic, cooperate, care, and love. On the other hand, we also have the capacity and inclination to be fearfully aggressive toward any individual or group we regard as “them.” (In my book – Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom – I develop this idea further, including how to stimulate and strengthen the neural circuits of self-control, empathy, and compassion.)

To tame the wolf of hate, it’s important to get a handle on “ill will” – irritated, resentful, and angry feelings and intentions toward others. While it may seem justified in the moment, ill will harms you probably more than it harms others. In another metaphor, having ill will toward others is like throwing hot coals with bare hands: both people get burned.

Avoiding ill will does not mean passivity, allowing yourself or others to be exploited, staying silent in the face of injustice, etc. There is plenty of room for speaking truth to power and effective action without succumbing to ill will. Think of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, or the Dalai Lama as examples. In fact, with a clear mind and a peaceful heart, your actions are likely to be more effective.

Ill will creates negative, vicious cycles. But that means that good will can create positive cycles. Plus good will cultivates wholesome qualities in you.

So let’s get started!

How to prevent or transform ill will

1. Be mindful of the priming, the preconditions for ill will. Try to defuse them early: get rest, have a meal, get support, talk things out, distract yourself, etc.

2. Practice non-contention to undermine the heat that creates ill will. Don’t argue unless you have to.

3. Inspect the underlying trigger, such as a sense of threat. Look at it realistically. Was something actually an “injury” to you? Be skeptical of your justifications.

4. Be careful about attributing intent to others. We are often just a bit player in their drama; they are not targeting us personally. Look for the good intentions beneath the action that made you feel mistreated. Look for the good in others.

5. Put what happened in perspective. The effects of most wrongs fade with time. They’re also part of a larger whole, most of which is usually fine.

6. Cultivate positive qualities like kindness, compassion, empathy, and calm. Nourish your own good will.

7. Practice generosity. Much ill will comes when we feel taken from, or not given to, or on the receiving end of another person’s bad moment. Instead, consider letting the person have what they took: their victory, their bit of money or time, etc. Let them have their bad moment. Make a gift of forbearance, patience, and no cause to fear you.

8. Investigate ill will. Take a day, a week, a month – and really examine the least bit of ill will during that time. See what causes it . . . and what its effects are.

9. Regard ill will as an affliction upon yourself. It hurts you more than anyone.

10. Settle into awareness, observing the ill will but not identified with it, watching it arise and disappear like any other experience.

11. Accept the wound. Experience the feelings of it. Do not presume that life is not supposed to be wounding. Accept the unpleasant fact that people will mistreat you.

12. Do not cling to what you want instead of what you’ve got.

13. Let go of the view that things are supposed to be a certain way. Challenge the belief that things should work out, that the world is perfectible.

14. Relax the sense of self, that it was “I” or “me” who was affronted, wounded.

15. Do religious or philosophical practices that cultivate love and goodness.

16. Resolve to meet mistreatment with loving kindness. No matter what. Consider the saying: In this world, hate has never dispelled hate. Only love dispels hate.

17. Cultivate positive emotion, like happiness, contentment, or peacefulness. Positive feelings calm the body, quiet the mind, buffer against the impact of stressful events, and foster supportive relationships — which reduce ill will.

18. Communicate. Speak (skillfully) for yourself, regardless of what the outcome may be. If appropriate, name your experience to release it; feel it as you speak it.

Try to address the situation with openness and empathy for the other person. Then you’ll be freer and calmer to be more skillful.

19. Have faith that they will pay their own price one day for what they’ve done, and you don’t have to be the justice system.

20. Realize that some people will not get the lesson no matter how much you try. So why burden yourself with trying to teach them? Further, many people will never actually experience your ill will – such as politicians. So why carry it toward them?

21. Forgiveness. This doesn’t mean changing your view that wrongs were done. But it does mean letting go of the emotional charge around feeling wronged. The greatest beneficiary of forgiveness is usually yourself.


Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist and founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom. A summa cum laude graduate of UCLA, he teaches at universities and meditation centers in Europe, Australia, and North America. His work has been featured on the BBC and in Consumer Reports Health, U.S. News and World Report, and other major magazines.

Rick’s most recent book is Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom (with Rick Mendius, M.D.; Foreword by Dan Siegel, M.D. and Preface by Jack Kornfield, Ph.D.), which has been praised by numerous scholars, therapists, and teachers, including Tara Brach, Ph.D., Roger Walsh, Ph.D., Sharon Salzberg, and Fred Luskin, Ph.D., and is being published in nine additional languages. An authority on self-directed neuroplasticity, he edits the Wise Brain Bulletin, and his articles have appeared in Tricycle Magazine, Insight Journal, and Inquiring Mind; his Your Wise Brain blog is on Huffington Post, Psychology Today, and other major websites. He has a chapter – 7 Facts about the Brain That Incline the Mind to Joy – in Measuring the Immeasurable, as well as several audio programs with Sounds True. His first book was Mother Nurture: A Mother’s Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships (Penguin, 2002)

Rick is currently a trustee of Saybrook University. He also served on the board of Spirit Rock Meditation Center for nine years, and was President of the Board of FamilyWorks, a community agency. He began meditating in 1974, trained in several traditions, and leads a weekly meditation gathering in San Rafael, CA. He enjoys rock-climbing and taking a break from emails. He and his wife have two children. For more information, please see his full profile at You can find him on the social web at and

The Heart Sutra

From Tricycle:

The Heart Sutra

Translations and Commentary

Perhaps because of both its profundity and its brevity, the Heart Sutra is the most familiar of all the original teachings of the Buddha. (The Sino-Japanese version comprises a mere 262 characters.) Recited daily by Buddhists in China, Korea, Vietnam, Japan, Tibet, Mongolia, Bhutan, Nepal, the Heart Sutra is now also recited by many Buddhists in North America. The Sino-Japanese and monosyllabic Korean versions lend themselves well to chanting, and there are now several English translations. The basic text of the Zen tradition, it must also be the only sutra to be found (in Japan) printed on a man's tie.

According to Buddhist lore, the Heart Sutra was first preached on Vulture Peak, which lies near the ancient Indian city of Rajagraha, and is said to have been the Buddha's favorite site.

In this sutra, the Buddha inspires one of his closest disciples, Sariputra, to request Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion, to instruct him in the practice of prajnaparamita, the perfection of wisdom. Avalokitesvara's response contains one of the most celebrated of all Buddhist paradoxes "form is emptiness; emptiness is form." And the sutra ends with one of the most popular Buddhist mantras-gate gateparagate parasarngate bodhi svaha: gone, gone, gone beyond, gone completely beyond:(When chanted, gate has two short vowels with the accent on the first syllable.)

The tradition of composing commentary on the Heart Sutra goes back to at least the eighth century, and includes many of the great Buddhist philosophers and meditation masters. What follows here are versions of the sutra and excerpts from some contemporary commentaries addressed to Westerners.

English translations of Buddhist language are not standardized. Variations of, for example, "Avalokitesvara" or "sunyata" or "sutra" reflect differences between Pali and Sanskrit, as well as the national origins of the translators.--Ed.


Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva doing deep Prajna Paramita Perceived the emptiness of all five conditions, and was freed of pain.

O Sariputra, form is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than form;

Form is precisely emptiness, emptiness precisely form;

Sensation, perception, reaction and consciousness are also like this.

O Sariputra, all things are expressions of emptiness, not born, not destroyed,

Not stained, not pure; neither waxing nor waning.

Thus emptiness is not form; not sensation nor perception, reaction nor consciousness;

No eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind;

No color, sound, smell, taste, touch, thing

No realm of sight, no realm of consciousness

No ignorance, no end to ignorance

No old age and death, no cessation of old age and death

No suffering, no cause or end to suffering, no path

No wisdom and no gain. No gain-thus

Bodhisattvas live this Prajna Paramita

With no hindrance of mind--no hindrance therefore no fear

Far beyond all such delusion, Nirvana is already here.

All past, present, and future Buddhas live this Prajna Paramita

And attain supreme, perfect enlightenment.

Therefore know that Prajna Paramita is

The holy mantra, the luminous mantra

The supreme mantra, the incomparable mantra

By which all suffering is cleared. This is no other than truth.

Therefore set forth the Prajna Paramita mantra,

Set forth this mantra and proclaim:

Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate Bodhi Svaha!

- From the sutra book used by The Zen Community of New York.

Perhaps because of both its profundity and its brevity, the Heart Sutra is the most familiar of all the original teachings of the Buddha. (The Sino-Japanese version comprises a mere 262 characters.) Recited daily by Buddhists in China, Korea, Vietnam, Japan, Tibet, Mongolia, Bhutan, Nepal, the Heart Sutra is now also recited by many Buddhists in North America. The Sino-Japanese and monosyllabic Korean versions lend themselves well to chanting, and there are now several English translations. The basic text of the Zen tradition, it must also be the only sutra to be found (in Japan) printed on a man's tie.

According to Buddhist lore, the Heart Sutra was first preached on Vulture Peak, which lies near the ancient Indian city of Rajagraha, and is said to have been the Buddha's favorite site.

In this sutra, the Buddha inspires one of his closest disciples, Sariputra, to request Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion, to instruct him in the practice of prajnaparamita, the perfection of wisdom. Avalokitesvara's response contains one of the most celebrated of all Buddhist paradoxes "form is emptiness; emptiness is form." And the sutra ends with one of the most popular Buddhist mantras-gate gateparagate parasarngate bodhi svaha: gone, gone, gone beyond, gone completely beyond:(When chanted, gate has two short vowels with the accent on the first syllable.)

The tradition of composing commentary on the Heart Sutra goes back to at least the eighth century, and includes many of the great Buddhist philosophers and meditation masters. What follows here are versions of the sutra and excerpts from some contemporary commentaries addressed to Westerners.

English translations of Buddhist language are not standardized. Variations of, for example, "Avalokitesvara" or "sunyata" or "sutra" reflect differences between Pali and Sanskrit, as well as the national origins of the translators.--Ed.

Commentary by Thich Nhat Hanh

PERFECT UNDERSTANDING is prajnaparamita. The word "wisdom" is usually used to translate prajna, but I think that wisdom is somehow not able to convey the meaning. Understanding is like water flowing in a stream. Wisdom and knowledge are solid and can block our understanding. In Buddhism, knowledge is regarded as an obstacle for understanding. If we take something to be the truth, we may cling to it so much that even if the truth comes and knocks at our door, we won't want to let it in. We have to be able to transcend our previous knowledge the way we climb up a ladder. If we are on the fifth rung and think that we are very high, there is no hope for us to step up to the sixth. We must learn to transcend our own views. Understanding, like water, can flow, can penetrate. Views, knowledge, and even wisdom are solid, and can block the way of understanding.

Avalokita found the five skandhas empty. But, empty of what? The key word is empty. To be empty is to be empty of something.

If I am holding a cup of water and I ask you, "Is this cup empty?" you will say, "No, it is full of water." But if I pour out the water and ask you again, you may say, "Yes, it is empty." But, empty of what? Empty means empty of something. The cup cannot be empty of nothing.

"Empty" doesn't mean anything unless you know empty of what. My cup is empty of water, but it is not empty of air. To be empty is to be empty of something. This is quite a discovery. When Avalokita says that the five skandhas are equally empty, to help him be precise we must ask, "Mr. Avalokita, empty of what?"

The five skandhas, which may be translated into English as five heaps, or five aggregates, are the five elements that comprise a human being. These five elements flow like a river in every one of us. In fact, these are really five rivers flowing together in us: the river of form, which means our body, the river of feelings, the river of perceptions, the river of mental formations, and the river of consciousness. They are always flowing in us. So according to Avalokita, when he looked deeply into the nature of these five rivers, he suddenly saw that all five are empty.

And if we ask, "Empty of what?" he has to answer. And this is what he said: "They are empty of a separate self." That means none of these five rivers can exist by itself alone. Each of the five rivers has to be made by the other four. They have to co-exist; they have to inter-be with all the others.

Avalokita looked deeply into the five skandhas of form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness, and he discovered that none of them can be by itself alone. Each can only inter-be with all the others. So he tells us that form is empty. Form is empty of a separate self, but it is full of everything in the cosmos. The same is true with feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness.


Thus have I heard. Once the Blessed One was dwelling in Rajagriha at Vulture Peak mountain, together with a great gathering of the sangha of monks and a great gathering of the sangha of bodhisattvas. At that time the Blessed One entered the samadhi that expresses the dharma called "profound illumination," and at the same time noble Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva mahasattva, while practicing the profound prajnaparamita, saw in this way: he saw the five skandhas to be empty of nature. Then, through the power of the Buddha, venerable Shariputra said to noble Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva mahasattva, "How should a son or daughter of noble family train, who wishes to practice the profound prajnaparamita?" Addressed in this way, noble Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva mahasattva, said to venerable Shariputra, "O Shariputra, a son or daughter of noble family who wishes to practice the profound prajnaparamita should see in this way: seeing the five skandhas to be empty of nature. Form is emptiness; emptiness also is form. Emptiness is no other than form; form is no other than emptiness. In the same way, feeling, perception, formation, and consciousness are emptiness. Thus, Shariputra, all dharmas are emptiness. There are no characteristics. There is no birth and no cessation. There is no impurity and no purity. There is no decrease and no increase. Therefore, Shariputra, in emptiness, there is no form, no feeling, no perception, no formation, no consciousness; no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind; no appearance, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, no dharmas; no eye dhatu up to no mind dhatu, no dhatu of dharmas, no mind consciousness dhatu; no ignorance, no end of ignorance up to no old age and death, no end of old age and death; no suffering, no origin of suffering, no cessation of suffering, no path, no wisdom, no attainment, and no nonattainment. Therefore, Shariputra, since the bodhisattvas have no attainment, they abide by means of prajnaparamita. Since there is no obscuration of mind, there is no fear. They transcend falsity and attain complete nirvana. All the buddhas of the three times, by means of prajnaparamita, fully awaken to unsurpassable, true, complete enlightenment. Therefore, the great mantra of prajnaparamita, the mantra of great insight, the unsurpassed mantra, the unequaled mantra, the mantra that calms all suffering, should be known as truth, since there is no deception. The prajnaparamita mantra is said in this way:


Thus, Shariputra, the bodhisattva mahasattva should train in the profound prajnaparamita." Then the Blessed One arose from that samadhi and praised noble Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva mahasattva, saying, "Good, good, O son of noble family; thus it is, O son of noble family, thus it is. One should practice the profound prajnaparamita just as you have taught and all the tathagatas will rejoice." When the Blessed One had said this, venerable Shariputra and noble Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva mahasattva, that whole assembly and the world with its gods, humans, asuras, and gandharvas rejoiced and praised the words of the Blessed One.

The Nalanda Translation Committee, under the direction of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, translated this version of the Heart Sutra from Tibetan. Reprinted with the permission of the Nalanda Translation Committee, Halifax, N.S. @ 1978 Chogyam Trungpa.

Perhaps because of both its profundity and its brevity, the Heart Sutra is the most familiar of all the original teachings of the Buddha. (The Sino-Japanese version comprises a mere 262 characters.) Recited daily by Buddhists in China, Korea, Vietnam, Japan, Tibet, Mongolia, Bhutan, Nepal, the Heart Sutra is now also recited by many Buddhists in North America. The Sino-Japanese and monosyllabic Korean versions lend themselves well to chanting, and there are now several English translations. The basic text of the Zen tradition, it must also be the only sutra to be found (in Japan) printed on a man's tie.

According to Buddhist lore, the Heart Sutra was first preached on Vulture Peak, which lies near the ancient Indian city of Rajagraha, and is said to have been the Buddha's favorite site.

In this sutra, the Buddha inspires one of his closest disciples, Sariputra, to request Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion, to instruct him in the practice of prajnaparamita, the perfection of wisdom. Avalokitesvara's response contains one of the most celebrated of all Buddhist paradoxes "form is emptiness; emptiness is form." And the sutra ends with one of the most popular Buddhist mantras-gate gateparagate parasarngate bodhi svaha: gone, gone, gone beyond, gone completely beyond:(When chanted, gate has two short vowels with the accent on the first syllable.)

The tradition of composing commentary on the Heart Sutra goes back to at least the eighth century, and includes many of the great Buddhist philosophers and meditation masters. What follows here are versions of the sutra and excerpts from some contemporary commentaries addressed to Westerners.

English translations of Buddhist language are not standardized. Variations of, for example, "Avalokitesvara" or "sunyata" or "sutra" reflect differences between Pali and Sanskrit, as well as the national origins of the translators.--Ed.

Commentary by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

CUTTING THROUGH our conceptualized versions of the world with the sword of prajna, we discover shunyata-nothingness, emptiness, voidness, the absence of duality and conceptualization. The best known of the Buddha's teachings on this subject are presented in the Prajnaparamita-hridaya, also called the Heart Sutra; but interestingly in this sutra the Buddha hardly speaks a word at all. At the end of the discourse he merely says, "Well said, well said," and smiles. He created a situation in which the teaching of shunyata was set forth by others, rather than himself being the actual spokesman. He did not impose his communication but created the situation in which teaching could occur, in which his disciples were inspired to discover and experience shunyata. There are twelve styles of presenting the dharma and this is one of them.

This sutra tells of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva who represents compassion and skillful means, and Shariputra, the great arhat who represents prajna, knowledge. There are certain differences between the Tibetan and Japanese translations and the Sanskrit original, but all versions make the point that Avalokiteshvara was compelled to awaken to shunyata by the overwhelming force of prajna. Then Avalokiteshvara spoke with Shariputra, who represents the scientific-minded person or precise knowledge. The teachings of the Buddha were put under Shariputra's microscope, which is to say that these teachings were not accepted on blind faith but were examined, practiced, tried and proved.

Avalokiteshvara said: "Oh Shariputra, form is emptiness, emptiness is form; form is no other than emptiness, emptiness is no other than form." We need not go into the details of their discourse, but we can examine this statement about form and emptiness, which is the main point of the sutra. And so we should be very clear and precise about the meaning of the term "form."

Form is that which is before we project our concepts onto it. It is the original state of "what is here," the colorful, vivid, impressive, dramatic, aesthetic qualities that exist in every situation. Form could be a maple leaf falling from a tree and landing on a mountain river; it could be full moonlight, a gutter in the street or a garbage pile. These things are "what is," and they are all in one sense the same: they are all forms, they are all objects, they are just what is. Evaluations regarding them are only created later in our minds. If we really look at these things as they are, they are just forms.

So form is empty. But empty of what? Form is empty of our preconceptions, empty of our judgments. If we do not evaluate and categorize the maple leaf falling and landing on the stream as opposed to the garbage heap in New York, then they are there, what is. They are empty of preconception. They are precisely what they are, of course! Garbage is garbage, a maple leaf is a maple leaf, "what is" is "what is." Form is empty if we see it in the absence of our own personal interpretations of it.

But emptiness is also form. That is a very outrageous remark. We thought we had managed to sort everything out, we thought we had managed to see that everything is the "same" if we take out our preconceptions. That made a beautiful picture: everything bad and everything good that we see are both good. Fine. Very smooth. But the next point is that emptiness is also form, so we have to re-examine. The emptiness of the maple leaf is also form; it is not really empty. The emptiness of the garbage heap is also form. To try to see these things as empty is also to clothe them in concept. Form comes back. It was too easy, taking away all concept, to conclude that everything simply is what is. That could be an escape, another way of comforting ourselves. We have to actually feel things as they are, the qualities of the garbage heapness and the qualities of the maple leafness , the isness of things. We have to feel them properly, not just trying to put a veil of emptiness over them. That does not help at all. We have to see the "isness" of what is there, the raw and rugged qualities of things precisely as they are. This is a very accurate way of seeing the world. So first we wipe away all our heavy preconceptions, and then we even wipe away the subtleties of such words as "empty," leaving us nowhere, completely with what is.

Finally we come to the conclusion that form is just form and emptiness is just emptiness, which has been described in the sutra as seeing that form is no other than emptiness, emptiness is no other than form; they are indivisible. We see that looking for beauty or philosophical meaning to life is merely a way of justifying ourselves, saying that things are not so bad as we think. Things are as bad as we think! Form is form, emptiness is emptiness, things are just what they are and we do not have to try to see them in the light of some sort of profundity. Finally we come down to earth, we see things as they are. This does not mean having an inspired mystical vision with archangels, cherubs and sweet music playing. But things are seen as they are, in their own qualities. So shunyata in this case is the complete absence of concepts or filters of any kind, the absence even of the "form is empty" and the "emptiness is form."

Excerpted from Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism and reprinted with permission from Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Perhaps because of both its profundity and its brevity, the Heart Sutra is the most familiar of all the original teachings of the Buddha. (The Sino-Japanese version comprises a mere 262 characters.) Recited daily by Buddhists in China, Korea, Vietnam, Japan, Tibet, Mongolia, Bhutan, Nepal, the Heart Sutra is now also recited by many Buddhists in North America. The Sino-Japanese and monosyllabic Korean versions lend themselves well to chanting, and there are now several English translations. The basic text of the Zen tradition, it must also be the only sutra to be found (in Japan) printed on a man's tie.

According to Buddhist lore, the Heart Sutra was first preached on Vulture Peak, which lies near the ancient Indian city of Rajagraha, and is said to have been the Buddha's favorite site.

In this sutra, the Buddha inspires one of his closest disciples, Sariputra, to request Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion, to instruct him in the practice of prajnaparamita, the perfection of wisdom. Avalokitesvara's response contains one of the most celebrated of all Buddhist paradoxes "form is emptiness; emptiness is form." And the sutra ends with one of the most popular Buddhist mantras-gate gateparagate parasarngate bodhi svaha: gone, gone, gone beyond, gone completely beyond:(When chanted, gate has two short vowels with the accent on the first syllable.)

The tradition of composing commentary on the Heart Sutra goes back to at least the eighth century, and includes many of the great Buddhist philosophers and meditation masters. What follows here are versions of the sutra and excerpts from some contemporary commentaries addressed to Westerners.

English translations of Buddhist language are not standardized. Variations of, for example, "Avalokitesvara" or "sunyata" or "sutra" reflect differences between Pali and Sanskrit, as well as the national origins of the translators.--Ed.

Commentary by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi

IN THE PRAJNA PARAMITA SUTRA the most important point, of course, is the idea of emptiness. Before we understand the idea of emptiness, everything seems to exist substantially. But after we realize the emptiness of things, everything becomes real-not substantial. When we realize that everything we see is a part of emptiness, we can have no attachment to any existence; we realize that everything is just a tentative form and color. Thus we realize the true meaning of each tentative existence. When we first hear that everything is a tentative existence, most of us are disappointed; but this disappointment comes from a wrong view of man and nature. It is because our way of observing things is deeply rooted in our self-centered ideas that we are disappointed when we find everything has only a tentative existence. But when we actually realize this truth, we will have no suffering.

This sutra says, "Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara observes that everything is emptiness, thus he forsakes all suffering." It was not after he realized this truth that he overcame suffering-to realize this fact is itself to be relieved from suffering. So realization of the truth is salvation itself. We say, "to realize," but the realization of the truth is always near at hand. It is not after we practice zazen that we realize the truth; even before we practice zazen, realization is there. It is not after we understand the truth that we attain enlightenment. To realize the truth is to live-to exist here and now. So it is not a matter of understanding or of practice. It is an ultimate fact. In this sutra Buddha is referring to the ultimate fact that we always face moment after moment. This point is very important. This is Bodhidharma's zazen. Even before we practice it, enlightenment is there. But usually we understand the practice of zazen and enlightenment as two different things: here is practice, like a pair of glasses, and when we use the practice, like putting the glasses on, we see enlightenment. This is the wrong understanding. The glasses themselves are enlightenment, and to put them on is also enlightenment. So whatever you do, or even though you do not do anything, enlightenment is there, always. This is Bodhidharma's understanding of enlightenment.

Excerpted from Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind and reprinted with permission from Weatherhill Press.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Working With Desire

from Tricycle:

Working With Desire

Three approaches from Tibetan Buddhism

By Matthieu Ricard

In Tibetan Buddhism, there are three traditional approaches to disturbing emotions, including afflictive desire. The first method is to develop an antidote. In the case of desire, one such antidote is the cultivation of nonattachment to desired objects. This way, the practitioner can neutralize afflictive desire. With the second method, the practitioner, rather than focusing on a desired object, instead examines the nature of desire itself, and in discovering its insubstantiality, frees himself of its pull. With the third method, which is said to be a powerful catalyst but also the most difficult and dangerous technique, the practitioner uses desire as path, turning its energy into fuel for practice. The metaphor commonly used for the latter method is the peacock, which eats poisonous substances only to make its feathers more brilliant.

Buddhism does not advocate the suppression of all desires, but rather offers the means to gain freedom from afflictive emotions. The desire for food when one is hungry, the aspiration to work for peace in the world, the thirst for knowledge, the wish to share one's life with dear ones, or the yearning for freedom from suffering: all of these can contribute to lasting happiness as long as they are not tainted by craving and grasping. Like the other emotions, desire can be experienced either in a constructive or in an afflictive way. It can be the catalyst for a meaningful life—or the maelstrom that wrecks it.

Usually, when a desire arises, we either satisfy or repress it. In the first case, we surrender our self-control; in the second case, a painful conflict builds up. The problem with merely satisfying a desire is that we set into motion a self-perpetuating mechanism: the more salty water we drink, the thirstier we feel. This is how we become addicted to the causes of suffering. But once we know how to have a dialogue with our emotions, the intensity and frequency of the mental images that trigger desire will diminish, and having to repress it in any way. The few images that still arise will be like fleeting sparks in the vast expanse of the mind.

If we lack inner freedom, any intense sensory experience can generate strong attachments that entangle us. On the other hand, if we know how to perfectly maintain our

inner freedom, we can experience all sensations within the pristine simplicity of the present moment, in a state of well-being that is free from grasping and expectation.

When desire is particularly intense and is experienced as an affliction, we begin by using antidotes. Two diametrically opposed mental states cannot arise at the same time toward the same object. For example, we cannot wish to harm and benefit another person at the same instant, just as we cannot shake someone's hand and give him a punch in the same gesture. The more we generate inner freedom from attachment, the less "room" there will be for craving in our mental landscape. If we use the antidote of nonattachment each time a craving arises, not only will it be effectively counteracted, but also the very tendency to crave will gradually erode until it eventually disappears.

The crucial point is to maintain constant vigilance over and awareness of our mental state so that, at the moment that afflictive emotions rise up, they will not trigger a chain of deluded thoughts. Thus, we neither let desire overwhelm our mind, nor do we repress it while leaving it intact in a hidden corner of the mind. We simply become free from its alienating power.

In the second method, instead of trying to counteract every afflictive emotion with a particular antidote, we act on a more fundamental level and use a single antidote to deal with all afflictions. If we examine our emotions and trains of thought without suppressing their natural activity, we find that they are nothing but dynamic streams devoid of intrinsic existence. So, instead of trying to block desire, we can simply examine its true nature. In such a practice, we focus our attention on desire itself, rather than on its object. Does desire have any shape or color? Where does it come from? Where does it dwell? Where does it go when it vanishes from the mind? Is it burning us like a fire, or pulling us like a rope? All we can say is that desire arises in the mind, stays in it for a while, and dissolves in it. The more we try to find any intrinsic characteristics in desire, the more it melts away under our gaze, as frost under the morning sun.

In Buddhism this is called liberating desire by recognizing its empty nature. By doing so, we deactivate its power to cause suffering. Once we have gained some degree of experience, this liberation will happen spontaneously and effortlessly, like the dissolution of a drawing made with the finger on the surface of water. In this way, thoughts will no longer perpetuate in an obsessive stream. Rather, they will cross the mind like birds passing through space, without leaving any trace.

The third method is the most subtle and difficult. If we carefully examine our emotions, we discover that, like musical notes, they have various harmonics. Just as anger has an aspect of clarity, desire has a component of bliss that is distinct from craving. If we know how to distinguish these aspects, it becomes possible to experience a blissful state of mind without being affected by the deluded aspect of grasping. We become aware that emotions are not intrinsically afflictive but only become so when we identify with them and grasp onto them. If we succeed in avoiding such a fixation, there is no need to use external antidotes: the emotions themselves act as catalysts that allow us to disengage from their negative influence. When a good swimmer falls into the sea, it is the water itself that allows her to swim to safety.

Thus, for those who are able to master the most intimate mental processes, passions can be used as wood to fuel the fire of spiritual realization and altruism. Such a practice, however, requires great skill in the language of emotions and is not free from dangers: to let powerful emotions express themselves without falling prey to them is like playing with fire. If one succeeds, one will greatly progress in understanding the nature of mind; if one fails, one is enslaved by the ordinary ways of experiencing desire.

The different methods to free oneself from destructive emotions are like keys: it does not matter whether a key is made of iron, silver, or gold, as long at it opens the door to freedom. The question is not which approach is "superior" to the others, but which one fulfills for us the essential goal of the path of inner transformation. When we suffer from a particular ailment, the best medicine is not the most expensive one, but the one that works best.

Matthieu Ricard holds a doctorate in molecular biology from the Institut Pasteur, in Paris. A monk, photographer, and translator, he has lived in the Himalayas for thirty years and now resides a Shechen Monastery, Nepal.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Rosh Hashanah Torah Reading

From Patheos:

Rosh Hashanah Torah Reading

September 07, 2010
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By Talia Davis

This week, the week of Rosh Hashanah, we are breaking with tradition. There isn't an assigned portion (in the cycle) this week, but rather specific Rosh Hashanah Torah readings. On the first day of Rosh Hashanah we read Genesis 21:1-34 and on the second day we read Genesis 22:1-24.

The Torah and Haftorah portions for this holiday are very female oriented. They deal with mothers and their sons, life and death. In the first parsha, we read about Abraham and Sarah. Abe and Sarah wanted so much to have child. They prayed for a child for so long and finally, the Torah says, "G-d remembered Sarah." This doesn't mean that G-d literally forgot about her, but simply that it was her time. Odd timing though . . . Sarah was 90 years old and Abraham 100. Regardless, Isaac was born and was circumcised at eight days old. Why is this fact important? Well, Abraham was not born Jewish. He got involved with G-d starting at the age of three. He was our first Jew. He was circumcised when he was much older. So here we have the first example of a Jewish child and this section let's us know what we are to do for our own sons.

There is more to this section, however. Also, here, we talk about Hagar and Ishmael's banishment. Who is Hagar? She was Sarah's maid. In those days, it was common to share your maids with your husband, if you so chose. When Sarah couldn't have a child, she gave Hagar to her husband and hoped they would conceive, assuring that, in this way at least, Abraham's line would continue. The child of this marriage was Ishmael. However, Ishmael was not the model son. In Genesis 16:12, it recounts that he was a wild man who was violent with the others in their group. So Sarah has had enough and demands that Abraham banish Hagar and Ishmael. But G-d reminds Abraham to listen to his wife and so they are banished. In this parsha, we pick up when they are leaving.

Hagar and Ishmael set off heading roughly in the direction of Egypt, but they don't have much food or water or money and soon they are in a bad spot. They are hungry and thirsty and Ishmael thinks he is going to die. Rather than comfort him, his mother, Hagar, pushes him under a bush because she can't be around her son when he is in pain. The dying man calls out to G-d and G-d saves his life. G-d even saves the life of his mother who couldn't be bothered.

On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, we come to another important child/parent moment. G-d tells Abraham that he must go up to Mt. Moriah in Jerusalem and sacrifice his son Isaac. This child that he prayed for is now being requested by G-d. The two of them hike to the top, wherein Isaac gets a big surprise. His dad starts tying him up and sharpening his knife! Just as Abraham is raising his knife to kill Isaac, G-d calls out to him, "Abraham, Abraham . . ." G-d says his name twice. G-d informs Abraham that there is a lovely ram caught over on the side and while G-d appreciates his show of faith, G-d would appreciate it more if he would go over and use the ram instead of his son as the sacrifice. This is one of the reasons why we use a ram's horn as our shofar on Rosh Hashanah.

Yom Kippur Torah Reading

From Patheos:

Yom Kippur Torah Reading

September 13, 2010
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By Talia Davis

This week, the week of Yom Kippur, we are again breaking with tradition. There isn’t an assigned portion (in the cycle) this week, but rather specific Yom Kippur Torah readings. On Yom Kippur we read Vayikrah (Leviticus) 16:1-34 and 18:1-30. Chapter 16 is read in the morning section of the service and chapter 18 is read in the afternoon.

Additionally, there are special Haftorah portions for Yom Kippur morning and afternoon. These are assigned portions from the rest of our Tanach (Bible beyond just the Torah, including the Niveim-Prophets and Kituvim-writings) that align with the messages of the Torah portion or holiday. In this case, we read Isaiah 57:14 - 58:14 on Yom Kippur morning and the book of Jonah along with Micah 7:18-20. I know this seems like a lot of information but we will break it down here for you and there is a great music video about Jonah from our friends at at the end!

Vayikrah (Leviticus) 16 and 18 are segments of the Achrei Mot parsha that we read in April. Here’s a refresher. This parsha picks up after two of Aaron’s sons die because they drink too much and bring a sacrifice to G-d’s Tabernacle. At this point, G-d sends us (through Moses) a manual on how to behave to prevent this from happening again. There are three sections of this manual -- meat (how to eat when and where), sex (who and when), then atonement for the "oops" moments that are inevitable. See, G-d knows us and doesn't expect us never to make a mistake. What we read on Yom Kippur deals mainly with the rituals of Yom Kippur (which seems like a good idea to read) as well as the sexual practices. We leave out the food section and the talk about the blood.

G-d gives Moses some instructions for Aaron after Aaron’s sons died. He was not to enter the Kodesh HaKodashim (the Holy of Holies) because G-d, G-dself, was appearing there. Aaron had to bathe (a mikvah) then dress very specifically according to G-d’s instructions, then bring several sacrifices. He had to bring a bull as a sin offering, two rams as a burnt offering, and two male goats as sin offering. These offerings are called Korbanot. The parsha goes into painstaking detail about what Aaron was to do at this time. Then Aaron was to put his hands over a goat and confess all of Israel’s sins, then send the goat off into an unknown, inaccessible area. The last part of this section tells us that on the tenth day of the seventh month, all Jews were to observe a Yom Kippur. This is a day like Shabbat where we don’t work but also we atone for our missteps.

On Yom Kippur afternoon, we read the 18th chapter of Vayikrah. This is the section that deals with sex. This is a biggie with some clear and obvious prohibitions, like you can't sleep with a sibling, but this is also part of the parsha that is oft quoted in relation to homosexual relationships. Here is my drash. First, the language is clearly referring to men. You can't make the inference that it also applies to women or lesbians in the same fashion. So the language is very important in all of the Torah, and that doesn't change here. The text says you shouldn't sleep with a man as with a woman. Nowhere else does it say you don't do this like you do that. So why here? My theory is that it is reminding us that we can't just throw things around without thought. You can't thoughtlessly do this. It is easy for a man to sleep with a woman but it becomes harder for a man to sleep with a man. Harder in many senses. This is not a simple decision. We have to put thought behind our actions. Don't just take the easy way; be mindful. I don't read this as a condemnation of homosexuality.

Both of these chapters are about discipline and order, however the Hebrew text, as always when it comes to Hebrew, is open to interpretation. In many of these prohibitions we see G-d reminding us that we are not like our neighbors; we are the chosen people, we are the tested people (the Hebrew word for chosen is bahar but becherah means tested; same shoresh or root), and we cannot go through our lives mindlessly. This wasn't just a reaction to the death of Aaron's sons but a gift of pro-action for our future.

The Haftorah for the morning is a section in Isaiah that discusses teshuvah (lit. “to return”) and fasting. Isaiah talks about a practice of fasting for show or not completely fasting. In that vein, Isaiah teaches us how to fast properly. Essentially, he tells us to let go of all of our material concerns and show kindness to those around us. If then you call and cry out to G-d, then will G-d say, “Here I am.”

For the afternoon we read the whole book of Jonah. Perhaps you are familiar with it? G-d asked Jonah to go to Nineveh and tell the people that they were being so nasty that G-d was going to destroy them. Jonah wasn’t so thrilled with the idea so he ran away on a boat. But can you truly run away from G-d or your problems? Not really. There was a crazy storm and when Jonah admitted to being the probable cause for the crazy weather, he offered to take a long walk off a short plank and they tossed him overboard.

After landing in the water, full of melancholy, he was swallowed whole by a very big fish. Good thing it was a big fish because he spent some time in there feeling pretty sorry for himself. After a while, Jonah realized the power of G-d and that G-d was probably right and so Jonah asked G-d if he could be forgiven and return to G-d’s good graces. The fish promptly tossed his cookies (or should we say, tossed his Jonah), and Jonah headed to do the job he was charged with.

When he arrived in Nineveh, he told them that they had forty days until G-d was going to destroy them and “boy was this G-d character not kidding, remind me to tell you about the time I was swallowed by a fish!” The people of Nineveh decided that this crazy, fish-smelling fellow might be on to something and they decided it was better to fast, repent, and change their ways. Since they did what G-d (through Jonah) asked, G-d decided that this place and people would be spared. And, Jonah was pissed. WHAT?! I spent time in a fish’s tummy for this!? And Jonah stormed off.

He went to the outskirts of the city and sat pouting, and during his pout he watched a worm destroy a tree that was providing him with shade. G-d said to Jonah, look dude, you took pity on this tree that you didn’t even plant or water or shine sunlight on it to make it grow. But I can’t take pity on the city of Nineveh or the more than 120,000 people who live there?! G-d created everything; if G-d chooses to spare us, who are we to criticize?

We conclude that haftorah with a section from Micah that talks about G-d’s love and kindness toward the people G-d has created . . . how forgiving G-d can be even with our missteps. "G-d does not maintain G-d’s anger forever, for G-d is a lover of kindness. G-d will have mercy on us, G-d will grasp our iniquities and cast all our sins into the depths of the sea." Just like we went to the water to toss our own sins into the depths of the sea, so will G-d and they will be no longer accessible to us. Total and complete forgiveness.

Gamar Chatima Tova -- may you be inscribed in the book of life for a good life. I hope your fast is an easy one. Happy 5771!

Note: Some congregations have the minhag (tradition) of changing these readings. In general, a Reform machzor (holiday prayer book) has a reading from Devarim (Deuteronomy) 29:9-14 and 30:11-20 for Yom Kippur. Also, some Conservative congregations read Vayikrah 19 instead of 18 in the afternoon. Bonus -- most shuls have a machzor that has the Torah portion printed in it with an English translation so you can read along with the rabbi.

A Soul Check-Up: Preparing For The New Year

From Patheos:

A Soul-checkup: Preparing for the New Year

September 06, 2010
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By Talia Davis

This is always a busy time of year. Most non-Jews notice when their Jewish neighbors, colleagues, and schoolmates are missing from view for many days in a row, several times over the next couple of months. As Jews, this is one of our big holiday seasons. In rapid succession we celebrate Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Simchat Torah.

Rosh Hashanah is one of our four new years. This is our biggie. We ask for forgiveness and start the next year with a clean slate. Our calendar changes over and we begin reading the Torah from the beginning again.

Yom Kippur is the day of atonement, but don't let the name fool you. We don't only have one day to atone for the missteps of the previous year. Yom Kippur is the culmination of a month of slichot or forgiveness. It is on this day that the final decisions about our fate are made for the year to come.

Sukkot is a festival to celebrate the fall harvests. We build little booths outside our home and eat, drink, sleep, and hang out in them for seven days.

Finally, Simchat Torah is a celebration of our Torah. We have reached the end of the scroll and must roll it back to bereshit or Genesis to begin our cycle again. There is much dancing and singing with the Torah scroll.

But let us talk about the time leading up to these holidays. Rosh Hashanah takes place on the first day of the month Tishrei. Jews view the preceding month of Elul very seriously. Some view it with sadness and a heavy heart from the very first day, and some find a joy in the month. So what is so special about Elul? Elul is our chance to reflect on the past year, review our deeds or misdeeds, and ask for forgiveness.

There are many things that might be clear missteps in our lives. You didn't tell the clerk when she gave you too much change, you ate all of your brother's cereal and didn't replace it, or perhaps more serious transgressions. How do you know it was a transgression? As my parents would tell me and my father's father told him, "If you would be embarrassed about telling me something, that is a clue that you aren't happy with it." But there are additional things that not only mar our souls but our subconscious as well. The time your friend asked for help and you just didn't feel like it so you said you were busy. When someone gave you a gift and you forgot to say thank you. Even deeper, there is another level, the transgression you weren't even aware was happening. In your hurry to get out of class you stepped on someone's foot and didn't notice. You totally forgot that you didn't follow up with that friend who really needed your help.

With so many levels of transgressions, wait . . . I dislike that word. Perhaps I should say smudges or tears (tiny and large alike) in our souls. With so many options of smudges, how do you know how to make amends? And do I really have to?

The answer is yes, unequivocally. But here's the upside: a Jew must forgive every Jew. You cannot hold the grudge into the next year, for that will mar your own soul. So how to make amends . . . first apologize. You can send an email to your brother/sister and say, "I am sorry if I did anything to harm you in the past year." But, you say, I am not walking into a shop and apologizing to a clerk. I can't remember whom exactly it was I wronged. Good point. In that case, you need to ask G-d to forgive you and, very importantly, you need to forgive yourself.

Frankly, the easy part is asking friends and strangers to forgive you. The hard part comes when you have to forgive yourself. Even Hashem, G-d, will forgive you if you ask for it. No questions asked there; you just have to ask. The part that most of us struggle with is forgiving ourselves. Not only is it a struggle to forgive ourselves but also, when you start thinking about those things, you start piling them on. I didn't give enough to charity, I didn't go to the gym, I said I would pray every morning and I got lazy. The point of Eluling isn't to beat up on your soul. It is to clear your soul to lighten you up for the New Year.

The process can be intense if you really give it your attention. Many times I have seen people burst into tears at the first sound of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah because it is such a release. With the toots and bursts of the shofar, the sins, the mars, the blemishes wash away. While Rosh Hashanah is a festive two days, it is not a time for idle chatter and games. Our souls are still in limbo and will be until G-d seals the book of life on Yom Kippur. Therefore, it is suggested that you don't nap or have a lot of conversation in your home during this time; rather turn your mind to reading tehillim or psalms to keep your energies focused on the right idea.

Beyond all the trappings of honey and hearing the shofar, the end of Elul and the holiday of Rosh Hashanah provide us with two non-corporeal things.

1) A brand-new, fresh-out-of-the-package, new-car-smelling soul. No bumps, dents, dings, or blemishes. It's yours for the year to bump and ding and scratch; you just have to remember to clean it up next year.

2) Rosh Hashanah is a marker in time, a line on the doorpost measuring your growth. Compare the you of today and the you of last Rosh Hashanah. Have you grown in self and spirit?

The Sacred Third

From Patheos:

Sacred Third

September 15, 2010
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By Raven Kaldera

The Gods:Dionysos, called The Womanly One, dancing in a woman’s chiton with the symbol of his castrated masculinity on a staff.

Shiva, the Lord Who Is Half Woman, whose priests wear their hair up on one side and down on the other, as a sign of His nature.

Lilith, the Hairy Goddess who spawned the sex-changing incubi and succubi.

Agdistis, the sacred hermaphrodite who was maimed like so many intersex infants today.

Aphrodite Urania, the Bearded Aphrodite of Cyprus who gave her title to masculine women and feminine men in Victorian-era Germany.

Obatala, who is hailed as Great White King, Great White Queen.

Ellegua, who appears with an enormous phallus or as a little girl.

Coyote, who removes his penis and lends it out, having adventures as a woman.

Loki, who turns into a mare and births children.

Athena, the archetypal stone butch who dresses as a man and allows no one to touch her.

The kurgarra and galatur, sacred third-gender beings who rescue Inanna from the underworld.

Baphomet, the ultimate divine gender-transgressive BDSM dominant.

They all weave their way through our Pagan mythology. When I went in search of Them, I was amazed at how many I found. Of course we are here, They said. We are part of the earthly experience, just like all the other Gods. Just like I am part of the human experience, even if modern humanity would prefer to ignore that.

I stand to give the invocation, and the long skirt that I wear blows around my ankles. My hair is long, and so is my beard. My voice is a light tenor that sounds male but could pass as female. My chest is bare -- flat, covered in a thick pelt of hair that hides the scars from where my breasts were removed. What’s under my skirt is not visible . . . but it is not normal for either man or woman. My hormones have been all over the spectrum. I am a being of the in-between, two-in-one, the Sacred Third, one of the earthly images of the Gods I began this piece by saluting. And I am, for many people, a truly terrifying creature.

In medical terms, I’m a transgendered intersexual. What that means is that I was born with one of many intersex disorders (in my case, secondary congenital adrenal hyperplasia) that sculpted me with both male and female hormones from puberty onward, and I was raised in one social gender and chose to transition into the other one. In shorthand . . . I’m both, raised female, now living as male, but still and always both. The Gods that I work with have taught me that this is a sacred path, a way of being in the world that is desperately needed. The rift between male and female has grown to confusing and epic proportions, and someone needs to stand in the middle, extracted from the gender war, and tell each side about the other.

I am a Neo-Pagan, and a Northern Tradition shaman. In Old Norse, the word for me was ergi or argr, an ambivalent word with a host of meanings: one who transgresses social gender norms, one who engages in gender-inappropriate sexual practices, one who is a sorcerer, one who is a coward (meaning a man who chose not to be a warrior), one who is an oath breaker (refusing to abide by the ordinary rules of society). Connecting some of those threads is a constellation of meaning that is reflected miles away in the same circumpolar range -- Siberian shamans who changed gender as part of their path to gaining spiritual power. They combined social and sexual gender-crossing with magic and service to the community, a community which at that time had roles for them that were limited to neither gender. When I realized, after a near-death experience and an onslaught of spirits, that I was to be a shaman in my tradition (we don’t have the word for what I would have been in those ancient times anymore, so we borrow that word), it was a breakthrough for me to realize that my gender was hardly an anomaly in that position. Far from being a challenge, it was the only career in which it seemed to be a definite advantage.

This is not to say that all people who live physically in between male and female are shamans; at least in my tradition that’s a much more specific job that requires, among other things, coming very close to death. However, there is deep spiritual power in living in the space Between, which seems to be part of the reason for the high numbers of us in that role -- and not just in the circumpolar area, but in many places in the ancient and modern world. However, even third-gendered non-shamans have a special role to play; just being someone who is in-between in this world can be an important part of one’s spiritual path.

I pass as male, without question, but I’ve lived as female, male, both, neither. I know what it is to be seen and treated by people who place you in each role. I know what it is to understand the spiritual essence of female and male as expressed viscerally in the body through the magical workings of estrogen and testosterone, something that no one understands until they’ve been pushed hormonally to each side. I’ve experienced the miracle of shapeshifting -- quite literally, watching the flesh morph from one set of gender characteristics to another. I understand why this is a path of great power, giving a perspective outside of the unthinking “programming” that most people plod through about their gender. Which fish discuss water? asks the Zen proverb. The answer: The drowning ones.

Many modern Neo-Pagan denominations feel that in comparison to “patriarchal” male-deity-only majority faiths, they are being exceptionally liberal to have a Lord and Lady figure (in the case of Wiccan and Wiccan-derived groups) or both male and female deities (in the case of eclectic, reconstructionist, and reconstructionist-derived groups). While it’s certainly an improvement, a separate duality is still a separate duality. When Gods with third-gender characteristics are trotted out with their gender-transgressive natures in the forefront, duality-protectors wince. That’s a metaphor, they say. Symbolic. Hermaphroditic and androgynous Gods are an abstract concept of bridging male and female; they don’t embody anything real and physical that can be touched, unlike “real” bodies that are, it is assumed, only male or female.

But it isn’t abstract for me, not one little bit. It is as real and concrete as the body I look at in the mirror. It is my reality. I am the Sacred Third when I am taking out the trash, when I am renewing my driver’s license, when I am standing in line at the deli. I, and others like me. . . and there are more people like me every year. We will be slowly challenging people’s narrow conceptions of gender (human and divine) in many religions, but Neo-Paganism, which already has more than a solely masculine or abstractly asexual conception of deity, is first in line for the shapeshifting. We come bearing a spiritual perspective that casts an entirely different light on the weary war between the “two” sexes, and we believe that the monogendered majority might even be able to learn something from us.

“We are all sacred,” I tell the others of my tribe, the ones who live Between. I am the shaman of their tribe, and I tell them of their sacredness, not in spite of but because of what they are. Many are damaged from living in this society that is so abusive to our kind. Some have been genitally mutilated as children, some have been abused for being what they are, some have been abandoned by family or assaulted or denied housing or jobs or kind medical care. For some, hearing this makes the difference between choosing to live and choosing to die. “We are all embodiments of the Sacred Third,” I tell them, and they hear, and they spread the word. Someday you will all believe it as well.

Shaman says.

Raven Kaldera is a queer polyamorous transgendered FTM intersex activist, Pagan minister with the First Kingdom Church of Asphodel, Northern Tradition shaman, astrologer, homesteader, and walking controversy. He is the author of too many books to list here, including Hermaphrodeities: The Transgender Spirituality Workbook. His various websites all emanate from the hub of ‘Tis an ill wind that blows no minds.

An Ancient Take On A Modern Question: Morality In Our Changing World

From Tikkun:

An Ancient Take on a Modern Question: Morality in Our Changing Worldby: Michael Hogue on September 23rd, 2010

Consider the story of the ancient Greek philosopher Cratylus, who was influenced by the philosophical vision of Heraclitus. Though the name Heraclitus may be unfamiliar, his dictum that “you can’t step into the same river twice” is probably very familiar. Heraclitus was one of the original philosophers of process and flux – everything is dynamic, whatever is, is in motion.

Cratylus was deeply influenced by this idea and followed it to what he deemed to be some of its logical consequences: he argued that not only can one not step into the same river twice, but one can’t step into the same river once.

For Cratylus, if everything is in constant motion, then nothing very precise can be said or claimed about anything. Once a claim is made about some thing, the thing about which we are making that claim has already changed. The flux of the nature of things, according to Cratylus, always destabilizes our claims to certain knowledge about them.

In other words, for Cratylus, flux makes knowledge impossible (at least the kind that aspires to certainty). The changing nature of things continuously subverts our claims to knowledge. In light of this, Cratylus entirely gave up speaking and resorted to merely pointing.

Though change is one of the only constants in our world, pointing at it just won’t do. For Cratylus, the constancy of change presented problems for reason and language. Those are important concerns, no doubt. But what I’m concerned with, and what I was “pointing” toward [with words] in the previous post, has more to do with a moral problem. Though concern with change is ancient, its moral character is peculiarly complex in our time.

Change is not new. What’s new is the velocity of change. Moral concern with change is not new. What’s new is the scale and urgency of our moral concerns amidst the increasing pace of change. The questions of moral responsibility (what is right?) and moral value (what is good?) in a changing world are not new. What’s new is that these questions are complicated by both the velocity of change (in all aspects of nature and culture) and the scale and urgency of moral problems in our world.

On the velocity of change, consider our technological transitions from oral to literate cultures, from literate to digital, from digital to…we know not what – virtual telepathy? (whatever that would be). The velocity of change from one communication age to the next is increasing and the span between them is shrinking.

Consider another example: the planetary climate system. The climate system is and has always been a dynamic, changing system. But the rate/pace/velocity of change since the industrial revolution is out of sync with historic natural fluctuations. This increasing pace of change is at the heart of the case for anthropogenic climate change.

On the increasing scale and urgency of our moral challenges, consider our broader ecological crisis. The Jewish philosopher Hans Jonas argued that never before in the history of humanity has the whole of the biosphere been an object of moral concern. The moral scale of biospheric demise exceeds the scale of all previous moral challenges. So too does its urgency.

The problem is that the increasing velocity of change in our world, and the scale and intensification of our moral problems may be out-pacing (velocity) and out-spacing (scale) and out-deepening (intensity) our existing moral visions.

Until recently, the range and impact of human alterations of the world were relatively limited. Further, the scope and concerns of traditional moral systems have been calibrated to the relatively short reach of human power. But if the range of human power is dilating and the impact of human power is intensifying then our moral systems may need recalibrating.

Are we up to it? Are our moral and religious traditions capable of the radical changes called for by our contemporary challenges? If we’re up for it, how will we go about it? Might there already be changes underway in our moral and religious communities that can generate the kind of collaborations our new challenges demand? Religious and moral revolutions are not about tweaking things; they are not simply about adjusting principles and norms or reinterpreting symbols and rituals. They emerge through deeper change – change in the deeper infrastructure of religious consciousness and moral practice: changing the world depends on changing lives (minds, hearts and hands).

“Changing lives to change the world” is what I take to be the contemporary challenge of progressive religion. At Meadville Lombard Theological School, where I teach, this is our pivotal concern. On first glance, it may not sound like an especially profound idea, but it is. It’s a radical commitment stitched together by a number of implicit theological threads.

Being committed to “changing lives to change the world” implies something about the nature and tasks of human becoming (theological anthropology): we and our world are not usually or often the way we should be; we need to change our lives to change the world into what we hope for ourselves and our world to become.

There is also an implicit theological claim about the nature and tasks of religious community (ecclesiology): the church (in my tradition) exists as a gathered assembly called together and called out to represent, imagine, and embody (imperfectly) what we and the world hope to become. Our religious communities and institutions are some of the most powerful channels for “changing lives to change the world”.

Of course not all change is morally constructive, and religious communities have an ambiguous moral history. But our religious communities and institutions, for good and for ill, are the world’s most powerful transformers of cultural imagination and moral practice. “Changing lives to change the world” is a social commitment, deeply linking personal transformation and social change as reciprocal imperatives.

Along with these commitments, there is also an implicit theological view of the nature and tasks of human culture and history (eschatology): though “the arc of the universe may be long, it bends toward justice” (King, paraphrasing Theodore Parker). This is a faith commitment more than an empirical claim. And as a faith commitment, it’s also a call to action, for the arc doesn’t bend of its own accord. History and the future are open. Justice is co-created through the joining of deep neighbor-love with delight in the holy.

“Changing lives to change the world” is a hard gospel. But in the face of the constancy of change, amidst the swirl and flux of existence, if we care to repair the world, we must not resign merely to pointing.

The Helper Syndrome

From Tricycle:

The "Helper" Syndrome

Ezra Bayda cautions us to take a closer look at our true motivations.

By Ezra Bayda

In the movie Groundhog Day, the main character wakes up every morning in the same exact place, at the same exact time, always having to repeat the same day—Groundhog Day. No matter what he experiences, he still wakes up having to repeat the day. No matter what he does, he can’t get what he wants, which in this case is the sexual conquest of his female colleague. Although he tries all of the other classic strategies of escape, nothing works; he still wakes up the next day to the same mess.

In the meantime, another part of him is growing. He starts moving from just trying to fulfill his own desires to doing things for other people. For example, every day he saves the same child from falling out of the same tree at the same time. He even starts using his once egodriven accomplishments, such as playing the piano, to entertain others, not just to serve himself. Finally, not through purposeful effort or even awareness, he becomes more and more life-centered, less and less self-centered. And in typical Hollywood fashion, he gets the girl. However, his real success lies in breaking free from the repeating patterns of his personality.

One of the themes of practice is the gradual movement from a self-centered life to a more life-centered one. But what about our efforts to become more life-centered—doing good deeds, serving others, dedicating our efforts to good causes? There’s nothing wrong with making these efforts, but they won’t necessarily lead us to a less self-oriented life. Why? Because we can do these things without really dealing with our “self.” Often our efforts, even for a good cause, are made in the service of our desires for comfort, security,and appreciation. Such efforts are still self-centered because we’re trying to make life conform to our picture of how it ought to be. It’s only by seeing through this self—the self that creates and sustains our repeating patterns—that we can move toward a more life-centered way of living.

Frequently, our natural impulse to do good deeds is confused with other motives. This is not surprising, considering how often we’re given the message, especially in our early years, that to do good means to be good.

In being told we’re good when we’re helpful, we receive the praise we crave. Yet once we confuse helpful behavior with our own needs, we’re locked into a pattern that undermines our genuine desire to do good.

When I was six years old, I lived in an apartment house on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, New Jersey. My father owned a retail store about two miles down the boardwalk. During the tourist season, he would work fourteen hours a day.Since he couldn’t come home for supper, every night my mother would make him a hot meal and put it in a brown paper bag. My job was to carry this bag in the basket of my tricycle and deliver it to my father while it was still hot. I can still see myself—a very earnest little boy single-mindedly speeding down the boardwalk on my tricycle so that my father could have a hot supper.There’s no doubt that I felt a natural desire to do good. But somewhere along the line, perhaps from repeatedly being praised as a “good boy,” my natural desire to do good became enmeshed with getting my father’s approval and love.

We all have our own version of this syndrome because when we’re children we have a biological imperative to maintain the approval and love of our caregivers, whatever it takes. The problem arises when, as adults, we’re still living out of the same old pictures—particularly of how we should be—without awareness of what’s behind our need to help. Do we need to be seen as a helper? Do we need to feel and believe that we are, in fact, a helper? Do we need to see people as benefiting from our help? Or do we serve in order to be seen as a worthy person? Are we helping out of a sense of “should”? Can we see how attached we are to our self-image, our identity? Who would be we without it? What hole are we trying to fill with it? How are we trying to avoid the insecurity of groundlessness?

Ezra Bayda cautions us to take a closer look at our true motivations.

By Ezra Bayda

When our cover identity starts breaking down because the hole isn’t being filled—for example, when we don’t get the recognition that we want or the results that we hope for—we react emotionally, with some form of disappointment or anxiety. This reaction is an infallible practice reminder that we’re still attached in some way. We’ve gone from being a helper to experiencing the core hole of helplessness. But we must reside in and practice with this helplessness in order to become free.

Most of our life is spent using behavioral strategies to cover or avoid our pain—the deep sense of basic alienation that takes the form of feeling worthless, hopeless, or fundamentally flawed in some way. When our strategy is to help, when we need to be helpful, this requires that we need to find people who seem helpless, or situations that seem to call for help. It’s true that we may also have a genuine desire to help—one that isn’t based on our needs—but whenever we feel an urgency or longing to help, it’s often rooted in the fear of facing our own unhealed pain. If our basic fear is that we’ll always be alone, what better way to avoid it than to find someone who needs us? If we have an underlying feeling of worthlessness, how better to prove that we’re worthy than by doing good deeds? If we’re trying to avoid the feeling of being fundamentally powerless or ineffectual, doesn’t it make sense to take on the identity of someone who can affect people and outcomes positively through service?

The “helper” syndrome I’m describing is not outwardly harmful. What makes it dangerous is its potential to keep us blind to what is really going on. Yet it’s easy to see how this lack of awareness, multiplied throughout our society, could lead to the social and political chaos that we live in. Failure to work with our inner turmoil—our need for power, our self-centered desire to possess, our fear-based greed and need to control—results in hatred, aggression, and intolerance. This is the source of all conflicts and wars. Without inner understanding, individuals as well as societies will continue to flounder. This is why it is so important for each of us to come back again and again to the practice of awareness.

We first must recognize that we’re using our identity to live a life based primarily on finding some measure of comfort and security. But we also have to experience the core pain out of which this drive arises. The more we can learn to reside in this core pain, the more we connect with our innate compassion. Interestingly, this experience may not manifest as what we conventionally consider compassion. There is one story of a seeker who, upon clearly seeing the truth—where he was no longer defined and confined by his self-images—became a cab driver. Like a white bird in the snow,he was able to give himself to others simply through his own presence, his being. There was nothing special about his situation.

The question is: Where in our life do we do good, at least in part, to subtly solidify the self? Where do we get in our own way? Where do we use even our identity as a spiritual seeker,or the comfort of being part of something bigger,to cover the anxious quiver of being?

In a way, we all keep waking up to the same repeating day, living our hazy notion of life—often clouded by our unending confusion and anxiety. Simply doing good deeds, or even being a devoted meditator, doesn’t mean anything without the painful honesty that’s required to look at what we’re doing. We must take our heads out of the ground and look at all of the ways we get in our own way—fooling ourselves and obstructing the possibility of living a more open and genuine life.

Ezra Bayda has been a student f Zen since 1978. He currently leads a meditation group in Santa Rosa, California. Excerpted from At Home in the Muddy Water, © 2003 by Ezra Bayda. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications.

31 Flavors Of Craving

From Tricycle:

31 Flavors of Craving

Phillip Moffitt explains the three categories of desire.

By Phillip Moffitt

The Pali word for craving is tanha, which means “thirst.” The Buddha identified three distinct kinds of tanha that you repeatedly experience; they are often unnoticed, because they arise and then are quickly preempted by yet another and then another. First is your craving for the six kinds of sense desires, or kama tanha: craving for certain food tastes or for pleasing sounds or for silence; craving for sexual, affectionate, or comforting touch or simple physical comfort in your body; craving for attractive, pleasant, comforting, inspiring sights as well as for pleasant, refreshing smells; and finally, craving for thoughts that are confirming, useful, stimulating, and reassuring to you. Just think of how many different sense desires you have in any given moment!

The second type of craving is the desire for existence and for becoming what you are not. In Pali this is called bhava tanha. You may want to be wealthy, or more athletic, or sexually desirable, or a better musician. The craving to “become” can be wholesome—to be a good parent or a better friend to others, or to be more generous, healthier, or more disciplined—yet still cause suffering. Even your longing for spiritual growth can be bhava tanha! It, too, can create suffering in the untrained mind: Will you get there? Are you going about it the right way? And it can result in greed, uncontrolled wanting, envy, impatience, selfjudgment, temptation of all sorts, and unskillful words and actions.

Bhava tanha is one of the most common causes of suffering in modern culture. You are exhorted to achieve and to accumulate to the point that you take birth as “one who does and gets.” Thus what might be healthy goals decay into obsession and compulsion. A tragic example of this is a story that was widely reported in the media in which a tennis father was so desirous of his children winning their matches that he drugged the water bottles of the young people with whom they competed. The dad could not stand the possibility of his children losing; it was torturous and drove him to act unskillfully. His behavior continued until one young man had an extreme reaction and died. It is easy to say the father was just crazy, but you, too, can become obsessive in a manner that causes suffering, only not as extreme. When you take birth in outcome, it is so torturous to you that even if you can refrain from acting unskillfully, the mind is still tormented.

The third type of tanha arises when you are so disillusioned with something in your life and want to get rid of it or want it to cease with such intensity that you crave nonexistence. This state of mind is called vibhava tanha. For instance, you may be so overwhelmed by chronic back pain or a difficult emotion that you are flooded with aversion to life itself. Or you have such antipathy toward your physical appearance, aging, or disease that life seems unbearable. In each of these instances, your nervous system is overcome by the energy generated by the craving, and it seems as if your whole being is rejecting existence. Vibhava tanha is annihilation. If you have ever felt suicidal, even briefly, then you have had flashes of vibhava tanha in the extreme. In its milder manifestations, vibhava tanha is part of everyday life. For example, you can feel so humiliated when you make a big mistake in front of others that for a brief moment your mind is filled with this craving.

Often students discover that before starting a vipassana practice they had been aware of cravings associated with sense desires but much less aware of suffering coming from the other two tanhas. One meditation student told me that upon hearing about the types of craving, he quickly realized that he was organized around bhava tanha— always judging himself on the basis of wanting to be someone he was not. He could see that it had caused him endless, needless suffering that he had been aware of without knowing its source.▼

From Dancing with Life: Buddhist Insights for Finding Meaning and Joy in the Face of Suffering, © 2008 by Phillip Moffitt. Reprinted with permission from Rodale.

Feeding Your Demons

From Tricycle:

Feeding Your Demons

Five steps to transforming your obstacles—your addictions, anxieties, and fears—into tranquility and wisdom, from Tsultrim Allione.

Artwork by Andrew Guenther.

By Tsultrim Allione

Social Group III, 2007, acrylic and oil stick on canvas, 60 x 50 inchesDEMONS are not bloodthirsty ghouls waiting for us in dark places; they are within us, the forces that we find inside ourselves, the core of which is ego-clinging. Demons are our obsessions and fears, feelings of insecurity, chronic illnesses, or common problems like depression, anxiety, and addiction. Feeding our demons rather than fighting them may seem to contradict the conventional approach of attacking and attempting to eliminate that which assails us, but it turns out to be a remarkable alternative and an effective path to liberation from all dichotomies.

In my own process of learning and applying the practice of Chöd, which was originated by the eleventh-century Tibetan yogini Machig Lapdrön , I realized that demons—or maras as they are called in Buddhism—are not exotic beings like those seen in Asian scroll paintings. They are our present fears and obsessions, the issues and emotional reactivity of our own lives. Our demons, all stemming from the root demon of ego-clinging, but manifesting in an infinite variety of ways, might come from the conflicts we have with our lover, anxiety we feel when we fly, or the discomfort we feel when we look at ourselves in the mirror. We might have a demon that makes us fear abandonment or a demon that causes us to hurt the ones we love.

Demons are ultimately generated by the mind and, as such, have no independent existence. Nonetheless, we engage with them as though they were real, and we believe in their existence—ask anyone who has fought an addiction or anxiety attacks. Demons show up in our lives whether we provoke them or not, whether we want them or not. Even common parlance refers to demons, such as a veteran who is home “battling his demons” of post-traumatic stress from the war in Iraq. I recently heard a woman say she was fighting her “jealousy demon.” Unfortunately, the habit of fighting our demons only gives them strength. By feeding, not fighting, our demons, we are integrating these energies, rather than rejecting them and attempting to distance ourselves from disowned parts of ourselves, or projecting them onto others.

The Practice of the Five Steps of Feeding Your Demons

WHEN I began to teach the Chöd practice in the West twenty-five years ago, I developed an exercise of visualizing and feeding “personal” demons so that the idea of demons would be relevant and applicable for Westerners. This exercise evolved into a five-step process, which began to be used independently of the Tibetan Chöd practice. My students told me that this method helped them greatly with chronic emotional and physical issues such as anxiety, compulsive eating, panic attacks, and illness. When they told me the five-step process also helped in dealing with upheavals such as the end of a relationship, the stress of losing a job, the death of a loved one, and interpersonal problems at work and at home, I realized that this exercise had a life of its own outside of teaching the traditional Chöd practice.

When we obsess about weight issues or become drained by a relationship or crave a cigarette, we give our demons strength, because we aren’t really paying attention to the demon. When we understand how to feed the demon’s real need with fearless generosity, the energy tied up in our demon will tend to dissolve and become an ally, like the demons that attacked Machig and subsequently became her aides.

Feeding a demon will take about half an hour. Choose a quiet place where you feel safe and comfortable. Arrange a time when you won’t be interrupted. Set up two chairs or two cushions opposite each other: one for you and one for the demon and ally. Once you’re set up you will want to keep your eyes closed until the end of the fifth step, so put the two seats (chairs or cushions) close enough to each other that you can feel the one in front of you with your eyes closed. Keeping your eyes closed will help you stay focused and present as you imagine this encounter with your demon. However, until you know the steps by heart, you may need to glance at the instructions.

Begin by generating the motivation to do the practice for the benefit of all beings. Then take nine deep abdominal breaths, which means breathing in deeply until you can feel your abdomen expand. Place your hands on your stomach and notice it rise and fall. As you inhale during the first three breaths, imagine your breath traveling to any physical tension you are holding in your body and then imagine the exhalation carrying this tension away. During the next three breaths release any emotional tension you might be carrying with the exhalation and in the last three breaths release any mental tension such as worries or concepts that are blocking you. Now you are ready for the five steps.

Social Group I, 2006, acrylic and oil stick on canvas, 48 x 48 inches

step one: Find the Demon

In the first step you will find where in your body you hold the demon. Your demon might be an illness, an addiction, a phobia, perfectionism, anger, depression, or anything that is dragging you down, draining your energy. So first decide what you will work with. Finding the demon in your body takes you out of your head into a direct somatic experience. Think about the issue or demon you’ve decided to work with and let your awareness scan your body from head to toe, without any judgments, simply being aware of the sensations that are present. Locate where you are holding this energy by noticing where your attention goes in your body when you think about this issue. Once you find the feeling, intensify it, exaggerate it. Here are some questions to ask yourself: What color is it? What shape does it have? Does it have a texture? What is its temperature? If it emitted a sound, what would it be? If it had a smell, what would it be?

step two: Personify the Demon and Ask It What It Needs

In the second step you invite the demon to move from being simply a collection of sensations, colors, and textures that you’ve identified inside your body to becoming a living entity sitting right in front of you. As a personified form appears, a figure or a monster, notice its color, size, expression and especially the look in its eyes. Don’t try to control or decide what it will look like; let your unconscious mind produce the image. If something comes up that seems silly, like a cliché or a cartoon character, don’t dismiss it or try to change it. Work with whatever form shows up without editing it. Then ask three questions aloud in the following order: What do you want from me? What do you need from me? How will you feel if you get what you need? Once you have asked these questions, immediately change places with the demon. You need to become the demon to know the answers.

step three: Become the Demon

In the third step, you will discover what the demon needs by putting yourself in the demon’s place, actually changing places and allowing yourself to see things from the demon’s point of view. With your eyes still closed, move to the seat you have set up in front of you, facing your original seat, and imagine yourself as the demon. Take a deep breath or two and feel yourself becoming this demon. Vividly recall the being that was personified in front of you and imagine you are “in the demon’s shoes.” Take a moment to adjust to your new identity before answering the three questions.

Then answer the three questions aloud in the first person, looking at an imagined form of your ordinary self in front of you, like this: “What I want from you is . . . What I need from you is . . . When my need is met, I will feel . . .”

It’s very important that these questions make the distinction between wants and needs, because many demons will want your life force, or everything good in your life, or to control you, but that’s not what they need. Often what they need is hidden beneath what they say they want, which is why we ask the second question, probing a little deeper. The demon of alcoholism might want alcohol but need something quite different, like safety or relaxation. Until we get to the need underlying the craving, the craving will continue.

In response to the question “What do you need?” the stress demon might respond: “What I actually need is to feel secure.”

Having learned that beneath the stress demon’s desire to hurry and do more lies a need to feel secure, you still must find out how the demon will feel if it gets what it needs. This will tell you what to feed the demon. Thus, having been asked “How will you feel if you get what you need?” the stress demon might answer: “I will feel like I can let go and finally relax.” Now you know to feed this demon relaxation. By feeding the demon the emotional feeling that underlies the desire for the substance, we address the core issue instead of just the symptoms.


2004, acrylic and oil stick on

canvas, 24 x 22 inches

step four: Feed the Demon and Meet the Ally

Now we’ve reached the crucial moment when we actually feed the demon. Return to your original position and face the demon. Take a moment to settle back into your own body before you envision the demon in front of you again.

Begin by imagining that your consciousness is separating from your body so that it is as if your consciousness is outside your body and just an observer of this process. Then imagine your body melting into nectar that consists of whatever the demon has told you it ultimately will feel if it gets what it needs, so the nectar consists of the answer to the third question in step three. For example, the demon might have said it will feel powerful, or loved, or accepted when it gets what it needs. So the nectar should be just that: You offer nectar of the feeling of power, love, or acceptance.

Now feed the demon this nectar, give free rein to your imagination in seeing how the nectar will be absorbed by the demon. See the demon drinking in your offering of nectar through its mouth or through the pores of its skin, or taking it in some other way. Continue imagining the nectar flowing into the demon; imagine that there is an infinite supply of this nectar, and that you are offering it with a feeling of limitless generosity. While you feed your demon, watch it carefully, as it is likely to begin to change. Does it look different in any way? Does it morph into a new being altogether?

At the moment of total satiation, its appearance usually changes significantly. It may become something completely new or disappear into smoke or mist. What happens when the demon is completely satisfied? There’s nothing it’s “supposed” to do, so just observe what happens; let the process unfold without trying to create a certain outcome. Whatever develops will arise spontaneously when the demon is fed to its complete satisfaction. It is important that the demon be fed to complete satisfaction. If your demon seems insatiable, just imagine how it would look if it were completely satisfied; this bypasses our tendency to hold on to our demons.

The next part of step four is the appearance of an ally. A satisfied demon may transform directly into a benevolent figure, which may be the ally. The ally could be an animal, a bird, a human, a mythic god or bodhisattva, a child, or a familiar person. Ask this figure if it is the ally. If it replies it is not, then invite an ally to appear. Or the demon may have disappeared, leaving no figure behind. If so, you can still meet the ally by inviting an ally to appear in front of you. Once you clearly see the ally, ask it the following questions: How will you serve me? What pledge or commitment will you make to me? How will you protect me? How can I gain access to you?

Then change places and become the ally, just as you became the demon in step three. Having become the ally, take a moment to fully inhabit this body. Notice how it feels to be the protective guardian. Then, speaking as the ally, answer the questions above. Try to be as specific as possible in your answers.

Once the ally has articulated how it will serve and protect you, and how you can summon it, return to your original place. Take a moment to settle back into yourself, seeing the ally in front of you. Then imagine you are receiving the help and the commitment the ally has pledged. Feel this supportive energy enter you and take effect.

Finally, imagine the ally itself melting into you and feel its deeply nurturing essence integrating with you. Notice how you feel when the ally has dissolved into you. Realize that the ally is actually an inseparable part of you, and then allow yourself to dissolve into emptiness, which will naturally take you to the fifth and final step

step five: Rest in Awareness

When you have finished feeding the demon to complete satisfaction and the ally has been integrated, you and the ally dissolve into emptiness. Then you just rest. When the thinking mind takes a break for even a few seconds, a kind of relaxed awareness replaces the usual stream of thoughts. We need to encourage this and not fill this space with anything else; just let it be. Some people describe the fifth step as peace, others as freedom, and yet others as a great vastness. I like calling it “the gap,” or the space between thoughts. Usually when we experience the gap we have a tendency to want to fill it up immediately; we are uncomfortable with empty space. In the fifth step, rather than filling this space, rest there. Even if this open awareness only occurs for a moment, it’s the beginning of knowing your true nature.

Although the method of personifying a fear or neurosis is not unfamiliar in Western psychology, the value of the five-step practice of feeding your demons is quite different, beginning with the generation of an altruistic motivation, followed by the body offering (which works directly with ego-clinging) and finally the experience of nondual meditative awareness in the final step of the process. This state of relaxed awareness, free from our usual fixation of “self” versus “other,” takes us beyond the place where normal psychotherapeutic methods end.

Direct Liberation of Demons

Once we have practiced feeding the demons for some time, we begin to become aware of demons as they form. We learn to see them coming: “Ah, here comes my self-hatred demon.” This makes it possible—with some practice—to liberate demons as they arise without going through the five steps, by using what is called “direct liberation.” This most immediate and simple route to liberating demons takes you straight to the fifth step, but it is also the most difficult to do effectively.

Direct liberation is deceptively simple. It involves noticing the arising energy or thoughts and then turning your awareness directly toward it without giving it form as we do in the five steps. This is the energetic equivalent of turning a boat directly into the wind when sailing; the boat travels because of its resistance to the wind and stops when its power source has been neutralized. Similarly, if you turn your awareness directly into an emotion it stops developing. This doesn’t mean you are analyzing it or thinking about it but rather turning toward it with clear awareness. At this point, if you are able to do it correctly, the demon will instantly be liberated and vanish on the spot. The technique of direct liberation is comparable to being afraid of a monster in the dark and then turning on the light. When the light goes on we see that there never was a monster in the first place, that it was just a projection of our own mind.

Let’s take the example of a demon of jealousy. I notice, “Ah, I’m getting jealous, my heart rate is increasing. My body is tensing.” If at that moment I turn toward the energy of jealousy and bring my full awareness to it, the jealousy will pop like a balloon. When we feed a demon using the five steps, by the time you get to the fifth step both you and the demon have dissolved into emptiness and there is just vast awareness. Here we are short-circuiting the demon as it arises by meeting its energy consciously as soon as it surfaces, going directly to the fifth step.

Another example of a situation in which you might practice direct liberation would be an interaction with other people. You might be sitting with your lover, for instance, when you discover that something he committed to doing has not even been started. You feel irritation welling up. But then if you turn your awareness to this sensation of irritation, looking right at it, it disappears.

One way I explain direct liberation at my retreats is through an experiment. You might try it. Consciously generate a strong emotion—anger, sadness, disappointment, or desire. When you get this feeling, intensify it, and then turn your awareness directly to that emotion and rest in the experience that follows. Liberation of the demon can be so simple and instantaneous that you will distrust the result, but check back on it, and, if you have done it correctly, the emotion will have dissolved.

With considerable practice the next stage becomes possible: Here immediate awareness, clear and unmodified, is already stable, not something you just glimpse periodically. At this stage, you don’t have to “do” anything; awareness simply meets emotions as they arise so that they are naturally liberated. Emptiness, clarity, and awareness are spontaneously present. Emotions don’t get hold of you; they arise and are liberated simultaneously. This is called instant liberation. An emotion arises but finds no foothold and dissolves. At this point we have no need for feeding demons, because we are governed by awareness, rather than by our emotions.

The process of acknowledging our collective demons begins with our personal demons—universal fears, paranoia, prejudices, arrogance, and other weaknesses. Families, groups, nations, and even society as a whole can create demons that are the sum of unresolved individual demons. If we do not acknowledge these personal demons, our weaknesses and fears can join those of others to become something monstrous.

Through shifting our perspective away from attacking our enemies and defending our territory to feeding our demons, we can learn to stay in dialogue with the enemy and find peaceful solutions. In this way we begin a quiet revolution. Drawing on the inspiration of the teachings of an eleventh-century yogini, we can change our world

The Story of Chöd Practice

The great eleventh-century Tibetan yogini Machig Labdrön (1055–1145) received empowerment from her teacher, Kyotön Sonam Lama, with several other women practitioners. At the key moment when the wisdom beings descended, Machig magically rose up from where she was sitting, passed through the wall of the temple, and flew into a tree above a pond.

This pond was the residence of a powerful naga, or water spirit. These capricious beings can cause disruption and disease but can also act as treasure holders or protectors. This particular naga was so terrifying that the local people did not even dare to look at the pond, never mind approach it. But Machig landed in the tree above the pond and stayed there in a state of profound, unshakable meditation.

Young Machig’s arrival in this lone tree above the pond was a direct confrontation for the water spirit. He approached her threateningly, but she remained in meditation, unafraid. This infuriated him, so he gathered a huge army of nagas from the region in an attempt to intimidate her. They approached her as a mass of terrifying magical apparitions. When she saw them coming, Machig instantly transformed her body into a food offering, and, as her biography states, “They could not devour her because she was egoless.”

Not only did the aggression of the nagas evaporate but also they developed faith in her and offered her their “life essence,” committing not to harm other beings and vowing to protect her. By meeting the demons without fear, compassionately offering her body as food rather than fighting against them, Machig turned the demons into allies.

There is a story, also about a water creature, in Western mythology that stands in stark contrast to the story of Machig Labdrön and the naga. The myth of Hercules exemplifies the heroic quest in Western culture. Accompanied by his nephew Iolaus, Hercules goes to the lake of Lerna, where the Hydra, a nine-headed water serpent, has been attacking innocent passersby. Hercules and Iolaus fire flaming arrows at the beast to draw it from its lair. After it emerges, Hercules discovers that every time he destroys one of the Hydra’s heads, two more grow back in its place.

Iolaus uses a burning branch to cauterize the necks at the base of the heads as Hercules lops them off, successfully preventing the Hydra from growing more. Eventually only one head remains. This head is immortal, but Hercules cuts through the mortal neck that supports it. The head lies before him, hissing. Finally, he buries the immortal head under a large boulder, considering the monster vanquished.

But what kind of victory has Hercules achieved? Has he actually eliminated the enemy, or merely suppressed it? The Hydra’s immortal head, the governing force of its energy, is still seething under the boulder and could reemerge if circumstances permitted. What does this say about the monster-slaying heroic mentality that so enthralls and permeates our society?

Although the positive aspects of the myth can lead to important battles against hatred, disease, and poverty, it also poses terrible and largely unacknowledged dangers. Among these is the ego inflation of those who identify themselves with the role of the dragon-slaying warrior hero. Another is projecting evil onto our opponents, demonizing them, and justifying their murder, while we claim to be wholly identified with good. The tendency to kill—rather than engage—the monster prevents us from knowing our own monsters and transforming them into allies.

For more on Chöd, the Tibetan practice that inspired "Feeding Your Demons," check out "The Most Generous Cut" by Alejandro Chaoul.

Tsultrim Allione is a former Tibetan Buddhist nun and author of Women of Wisdom. She is the founder of the Tara Mandala retreat center in Colorado ( This article has been adapted from her new book Feeding Your Demons, © 2008. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY.