Article: The Sitting Buddha by Gil Fronsdal

Seated on the ground with legs crossed, hands resting in the lap, torso upright, shoulders balanced, eyes half open in a relaxed gaze, and with a soft, gentle smile, the image of the Buddha in meditation is the most universal and easily recognized Buddhist symbol. For many Buddhists the image represents their deepest aspirations, values and potential. For others it signifies the profound hope and support they find in Buddhism. The image of the seated Buddha conveys calm and peace, which may be why Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike often have the image in their home or garden.

Statues of the Buddha are much more than lumps of clay, stone, or wood. Some of the core ideals of Buddhism are taught through the symbolism found in the meditating Buddha. The statues can be a work of art in which an artist conveys human emotions and states of mind that may awaken meaningful inner states for those who view it.

Because we have no idea what the Buddha actually looked like, the statues and paintings of him are all idealized portrayals that thereby express the ideals of the artist or, more often, the Buddhist tradition of the artist. Not all Buddhists view the Buddha image in the same way. By changing some of the details in the image, different Buddhist traditions have conveyed different symbolic teachings.

The Theravada Buddhist tradition’s view that the Buddha was a human being is symbolized by the Buddha meditating on the ground, in contact with the earth. Depictions of the meditating Buddha are meant to show him meditating as he was on the night of his Awakening, outdoors under a tree. For some people, this close connection to the earth and nature symbolizes how Awakening is a natural event arising from a deep insight into our human nature. The peace experienced by the Buddha did not belong to some divine world separate from this world. It was a peace found within this world.

The cross-legged posture symbolizes the stability that supports the calm exhibited by the rest of the image. The Buddha’s chest is neither puffed up nor collapsed; rather it conveys confidence and openness. The erect torso expresses strength without conceit. His shoulders are evenly balanced and relaxed which symbolizes the ability to maintain mental balance in the face of any challenge. The straight back represents uprightness and self-reliance — the Buddha did not depend on anything outside of himself for his awakening.

In the images of the Buddha meditating, his hands are held together with palms facing up, the right hand slightly rounded resting openly in the palm of the left hand. This open gesture conveys a sense of ease, free from clinging to anything, pushing anything away, or closing up. Perhaps the open hands point to a receptive attitude that can maintain calm and balance in any circumstance.

The classic image of the Buddha meditating shows him with a subtle half-smile, showing that happiness is an important aspect of the Buddhist path. His eyes are half open symbolizing he was equally aware of himself as he was of the world. The Buddha did not make a sharp distinction between attention to his inner personal life and to the outer world around him. It is also said that his eyes are open so as to see, with compassion, the suffering of the world.

All these qualities together represent the possibility of living with peace, uprightness, strength, and self-reliance. They depict our ability to have a calm happiness while having compassion for those who suffer. In this way, through physical expressions, the Buddha image represents qualities that are cultivated with Buddhist practice

The image of the Buddha meditating is not, however, of merely symbolic value. It is also an instruction in meditation practice. Assuming a posture like the Buddha’s helps bring forth the qualities expressed in the idealized Buddha image. When we create a stable physical base while meditating, it is easier to relax the body. When we hold our selves upright with spine straight, we are not leaning forward into the future nor leaning back in aversion. If the shoulders are kept balanced and aligned it is easier to find the middle way between giving in to what we are feeling or pulling away from it. When the chest is open and strong, confidence has a chance to support us.

A wonderful mutuality exists between our posture and our inner psychological life. A balanced, aligned posture for meditation helps bring forth the mental qualities that are strengthened along the Buddhist path. With the growth of these qualities, it becomes easier to sit upright. Whether we meditate in a chair or cross-legged on the floor, approximating the posture of the Buddha images invites the best of human qualities to arise.

The Zen Master Suzuki Roshi once said that when we bow to a Buddha image, we are bowing to ourselves. A Buddha image is not something to worship. Rather it is a mirror through which we can see something in ourselves. When we offer our respect to the Buddha we respect what is good in us. When we bow down to the Buddha, we are lowering our conceit so what is good in us can grow.

Article: Skillful Ways to Evaluate Your Practice by Gil Fronsdal

After a person has been meditating for some time, it’s important that he or she evaluate how the practice is developing. Is it working? Does it need adjustment? Is it the right practice to be doing? Can it be improved? Some of this evaluation can be done on one’s own, some with a teacher or with friends.

Taking a step back to assess our meditation shouldn’t be seen as a difficult task. We are evaluators by nature. We evaluate all the time, even if subconsciously. We decide what clothes to wear after considering a number of factors, not least of all the weather. An activity as simple as going for a walk requires a variety of considerations: How far will I walk? Does the walk require preparation? Do I need to pace myself if it is a long walk? What is the best route? Which are the best shoes?

In the same way, we can evaluate our practice. This should be done in a balanced way: not too little and not too much. Sometimes we don’t evaluate enough—maybe because of complacency, or excessive reliance on faith in the practice, or teachings that downplay the role of intelligent reflection. At other times, we might over-evaluate and tie ourselves up in knots. Over-evaluating can undermine our progress, like the farmer who pulls out a corn seedling to see if it’s growing yet. Imagine trying to learn to ride a bike while obsessing, “Am I doing this right? How do I look?” We may be looking for approval when we should be looking for balance, or expecting perfection when what is needed is lots of repeated practice.

Below is a useful list that can serve as a guide for evaluating your practice. While no two practitioners are exactly alike, these are general areas you can check that will give you a good idea where you are.


First, ask yourself what your motivation is. Why are you practicing? Meditation practice flourishes when it is supported by clear intention.

There are many answers to this question. Because no one should decide for you what your goals are, it is useful to spend some time reflecting on this. I regularly advise people to discover what their deepest intention is. What do they really want? What is the heart’s deepest wish? While some people have worthwhile intentions for their meditation, the practice can have greater value when it is clearly connected to what is most important to us.

At times our intention is well-articulated; at other times it may not be obvious. Chances are you’ve experienced both of these ways. Sometimes, early on, I intuitively knew I wanted to sit, but I didn’t know why. I just knew there was a strong pull towards practice. At other times, the reason was clear: I knew I suffered and that I wanted to be free of my suffering. Sometimes I was aware of conventional suffering; sometimes, although free of conventional suffering, I had a clear insight that there was a deep, inner dissatisfaction, that suffering was at the core of the way my mind worked. I wanted to somehow find it, touch it, and understand it. Meditation was the only route I knew to reach this core, and I was highly motivated to do so.

Our motivation can be to awaken and cultivate beautiful qualities of the heart and mind—love, peace, courage, compassion, insight, understanding, the pursuit of the truth and liberation. Developing these qualities does not need to be for oneself. Sometimes my primary motivation to practice has been not for my own sake but for other people. In fact, I believe that if you do it only for yourself, you are unlikely to sustain your motivation over many years. A significant way to fuel meditation practice is to do it with the wish that it will somehow benefit others as well as yourself.

There are long-term and short-term motivations. Experiences of realization may be worthy long-term goals, but in the short term it can be useful to have modest aims such as cultivating small but noticeable improvements in concentration, non-distraction, compassion, or patience, as well as small, immediate movements toward letting go and experiencing freedom. I have found there is a beautiful way in which practicing with immediate, realistic goals allows for a steady maturing into some of the more developed areas of meditation practice.

It’s also important to know if your aspiration is appropriate for yourself given your present life situation. If for reasons of time, opportunities, abilities, or disposition you are not suited for the goals you have set for yourself, the primary result will be frustration, a state that is counterproductive to a practice meant to increase freedom from suffering. While it can be important to allow for grand aspirations – there is no need to be afraid of our heart’s deepest wish – it is important to consider which steps are realistic. For example, if our body carries a lot of tension, it may be important first to focus meditation on deep physical relaxation. Or, if our minds are easily distracted, it might be helpful to cultivate mental discipline before hoping for enlightenment.

Understand Yourself

There’s always more room for motivation, but does your aspirationg match who you are? You can read a book feeling convinced that you should do A, B, and C, but it may not suit your life at this time. Or maybe what your teacher is telling you is not a fit. For instance, if we should be focusing on our personal ethics, it may not be appropriate to spend a lot of time with a teaching that emphasizes ultimate liberation.

Do you know how you learn best? Some people learn best by reading, others by listening, others by watching, and others by doing. Some people do best when there is discipline and structure. Others learn best through playfulness, self-direction, or intuitive experimentation. Some people find reading and studying helpful; others may not. Extroverts might find it helpful to discuss their meditation with friends; introverts may find they work best when they have quiet time for personal reflection. By knowing yourself in these ways, it may be possible to find an approach to meditation that suits you. Since it is important not to tailor a meditation practice around personal preferences and attachments, it can be useful to ask a meditation teacher or another meditation practitioner for feedback about your approach to the practice.

Understanding the Instructions

You may be strongly motivated but not know how to do the practice. I meet plenty of meditators who are vague about what they are actually doing in meditation beyond relaxing and trying to have some focus. Some people know the basic instruction but not much about how to practice with the difficulties that may occur while attempting to act on that instruction. Some people who do mindfulness meditation may know how to be mindful of their breath or their body sensations but have little understanding about how to be mindful of emotions or mental states. In insight meditation there are whole series of instructions for working with the breath, body, emotions, thoughts (quality of mind), and intentions, as well as for walking meditation and mindful speaking. It is useful to know them all.

Do you understand what the relationship is between meditation practice and your daily life? Hopefully, for Buddhists, one’s whole life is one’s practice. Do you know how to live your daily life so that it supports your meditation? And do you know how to meditate so that it benefits your daily life? The poet Gary Snyder wrote:

All of us are apprenticed to the same teacher that the religious institutions originally worked with: reality. Reality insight says, “Master the 24 hours, do it well, without self-pity.” It is as hard to get the children herded into the carpool and down the road to the bus as it is to chant sutras in the Buddha hall on a cold morning. One move is not better than the other; each can be quite boring, and they both have the virtuous quality of repetition. Repetition and ritual and their good results come in many forms: changing the oil filter, wiping noses, going to meetings, picking up around the house, washing dishes, checking the dipstick. Don’t let yourself think these are distracting you from your more serious pursuits. Such a round of chores is not a set of difficulties we hope to escape from so that we may do our practice, which will put us on the path. It is our path.

You might understand the instructions but not know how to do the practice. For example, if your practice is to follow your breath, do you know how to do it? If it is done with striving, expectation, hesitation, or laziness, meditation probably won’t unfold well. One might not know what specifically to focus on when concentrating on the breath, so the mind never settles into concentration.

One’s attitude toward practice is very important. Is there adequate patience, equanimity, kindness, energy, and discipline? Do you understand the balance between having a goal in practice and at the same being present without being preoccupied with the goal?


Is your life balanced enough to support a regular and useful meditation practice? It can be counterproductive to add meditation to a life already packed with too many activities. Do you have a healthy balance between work and time off? Is there an appropriate balance between time with others and time alone? Do you get enough exercise so that a good sense of vitality supports your practice? Do you get enough sleep to stay awake during meditation? Some people need sleep more than meditation.

A number of factors need to come into balance during meditation itself. There is the balance between faith and wisdom or confidence and understanding. There is the balance between energy and concentration. Some classic teachings stress the importance of balancing the quieting forces of calm, concentration, and equanimity with the activating forces of investigation, effort, and joy.

The balance between the body and the mind are important. Ideally, meditation practice engages both. One of the very useful things to cultivate in meditation is a balanced meditation posture that allows for a dynamic interplay of physical relaxation with physical alertness or uprightness. It is possible to cultivate a body that is both soft and strong. It is lot easier to work with the mind in meditation if the body has been included from the start.


What are your obstacles in meditation practice? Where are the attachments? Where do you get stuck? Are there any regular patterns to the challenges you have in meditation?

One of the important ways to sharpen your meditation practice is to understand the difficulties in meditation. Among the many challenges are obsessive thinking, desires, aversions, sluggishness, restlessness, psychological or emotional issues, fear of altered states, boredom, complacency, and excessive striving. Attachment to pleasure or resistance to discomfort may also interfere.

Unethical or unskillful behavior can also be a significant obstacle to deeper states of meditation. Here’s a story that points to this idea:

A few years ago, at an alcohol treatment center in the suburbs of Chicago, staff members reported an intriguing discovery. Many of the counselors lived at some distance from the facility, each day commuting via a tollroad. Then one day the state of Illinois instituted an honor system in the toll collection booths in the area. No attendant, no barrier gate, just a basket into which motorists were expected to toss their coins. Staff at the treatment center made observations that soon added up to an axiom: counselors who don’t throw their money in, their patients don’t get well. As one counselor phrased it, “How can you instill honesty in a program if you’re not honest yourself? Honesty is indivisible.”

Another interesting thing to look at is how much self is involved when you practice. Self-judgment, self-criticism, self-image, self-definition are among the forms of self-concern that when used excessively undermine meditation practice. All meditation practices require that one relax self-preoccupation. Just like being too tense to ride a bike, when people are too concerned with themselves it can be very difficult for the mind to be soft enough to settle into meditation.

Every meditator has challenges. Rather then taking the obstacles as problems or as unfortunate distractions, a more useful attitude is to patiently and contentedly learn the skills and insights that can transform them into stepping stones along the path of practice. Every meditation tradition has its own approach to working with meditation obstacles. When one learns to recognize one’s own obstacles then one can ask a meditation teacher what her or his approach is.


An important part of practice is appreciating the insights that come with it. It’s not just a matter of becoming calm, but also understanding how your mind works, how your heart works, and what the causes and conditions of suffering and liberation are. As you look more deeply, can you see how you create a sense of self?

We often take the self for granted. But Buddhist practice shows us that much of what you think of as self is a construct, an activity shaped moment by moment. If you see this creative aspect, you’ll gain an insight that is freeing.

There’s also insight into beautiful states of mind: how compassion works and its value; lovingkindness and how to cultivate it. Insights into these states help to cultivate and strengthen them. One of the purposes in meeting with a teacher is not to discuss your difficulties but to discuss your understandings and insights. “This is the understanding I’ve come to. What do you think of that?”

The most important insight is to understand how clinging works—the nature of grasping and clinging in all its gross and subtle forms. All of Buddhism will open up for you if you understand the nature of clinging, what you cling to, and how to let go.

Understanding the Benefits of Practice

Sooner or later our practice brings benefits. Sometimes you have to be patient; sometimes, the benefits are immediate. Ideally, you see how even a single moment of meditation has immediate benefits. At the same time, I hope practitioners have some sense of how it can lead to deeper possibilities of liberation.

Over time, meditation should bring some clear benefits such as greater compassion, joy, ease, and self-understanding. Some people discover greater capacities for courage and resolve. Others feel increased appreciation and gratitude. And hopefully, one finds increased experiences of freedom. If after a of couple years of regular meditation practice one doesn’t experience any of these benefits, it is important to reevaluate what one is doing. Perhaps the criteria given above could help to discover some way that the meditation can be improved. Or perhaps it is time to discuss one’s meditation practice with a good teacher. However, sooner or later I hope that all meditators can become their own teachers. Learning to evaluate one’s own practice wisely is an important step toward such independence.

Article: “The Relational and the Non-Relational Dimensions of Buddhist Practice” by Gil Fronsdal

Buddhism offers teachings, practices, and profound realizations for two different dimensions of life: the relational and the non-relational. Classically, these two were referred to as the conditioned and the unconditioned dimensions. A modern way of distinguishing them is to point out that the first has to do with that which occurs or exists only in relationship to other things. The second is that which is independent of any relationship to anything else. In human terms, the first involves all the ways of behaving and thinking which are relational. The second are the non-relational ways of being. When these two ways are emphasized equally they complement each other in creating a balanced life. Sometimes, however, one dimension is emphasized while the other is neglected, or even belittled.The cost of doing so is often a painful segregation of these two important aspects of life.

In the Buddhist analysis, almost everything we do and think involves being in relationship with something. Our concerns can be focused on other people, the external world, and ourselves, including the complex inner world of ideas, opinions, feelings, preferences, and desires. This is not surprising since our very existence depends on being supported by things that exist in relationship to us. Normally when we care for our physical, emotional, and social needs we are acting in relationship to the sources of satisfaction for those needs. When we care for someone who is suffering, we are relating to that person.

Many aspects of the relational world are quite beautiful and inspiring; compassion, love, and generosity are among the most meaningful attitudes that arise in relationship to others. Appreciating how our lives are thoroughly dependent on the supportive relationships of innumerable people, mostly unknown, can give birth to a gratitude that is experienced as deeply spiritual. Direct realizations of how interconnected everything in the world is can be among the most significant experiences in a person’s life. At the upper reaches of healthy relationships to the world are powerful, mystical experiences of oneness, and unity. These can include pervasive feelings of universal love that some people see as the pinnacle of their spiritual life.

Many, if not most, Buddhist teachings are concerned with creating healthy relationships within the relational world. This is certainly the case for the foundational practices of generosity, ethics, loving-kindness and compassion. Many of the inner practices, such as meditation, involve transforming how we relate to ourselves so that we don’t undermine our life with negative attitudes and instead regard ourselves with respect and loving-kindness.

One of the most important insights of Buddhism similarly concerns the relational world. The understanding that allowed the Buddha to become liberated was his insight into how things of the world arise in dependent relationship with other things. Nothing that appears exists alone. Everything exists in relationship. By understanding this, when the Buddha saw that suffering exists in a dependent relationship to craving, he could then see how suffering could be brought to an end when the craving ceases.

While Buddhism puts great emphasis on developing healthy and wise relationships to the world, it also includes an understanding of the drawbacks of the relational world: Interconnectedness is dangerous when a tick infects us with Lyme disease or we lose our job because it is outsourced abroad. Unity can be oppressive when a person feels trapped in a social, economic, or political structure where what one can and can’t do is controlled by others.

Buddhism never tires in pointing out that the relational world is unstable and unpredictable. The relationships upon which our life depends can change or even disappear in a moment. This includes our relationships to other people, to things, to activities, to our bodies, and to all the other various aspects of ourselves. If our happiness is dependent on the relational world, then our happiness will be as unstable and changeable as is the world.

When someone meditates it becomes clear that most of our mental activity is concerned with things and people we are in relationship with. It can be quite humbling to realize how compulsive and stressful this mental activity is. Even when our thoughts and feelings about others are healthy and appropriate ones, in meditation even these can hold us back from a deeper, abiding sense of peace. To experience the fullest possibility of peace and freedom we need to put to rest all our preoccupations and concerns, at least temporarily. Our mind does not need to be constantly relating to something. It is possible to still the activity of the mind and so experience a peace that is a radical alternative to how the mind usually operates. For this purpose, Buddhism points to the non-relational dimension of consciousness.

When someone experiences how nourishing the non-relational way of being is, they realize there is a happiness that is not dependent on the conditions of their lives or of the world. If someone believes happiness is only found in particular relationships with the world, then it makes sense to try to control, change, and cling to people, things, and circumstances. When an alternative is known, it is a lot easier to relax the grip of clinging and dependency. It can be a lot easier to meditate when we realize we don’t have to always be thinking about things.

The non-relational dimension of the mind is found through a not-doing, and so involves letting go of our efforts to do, accomplish, avoid, and change what is happening. Most often, this is a gradual process of calming down and quieting the mind. As the mind becomes more still, a point is reached when the meditator realizes that wanting further deepening of the peace is the very thing that stands in the way of this peace. At some point even letting go can be too much doing. Letting things be becomes the only possibility.

As we calm down it is possible to sense a way of being in this world which is non-relational. That is, our minds are not operating with any concerns or relationships to anything. With this comes a deepening sense of well-being. As our mind becomes less preoccupied with the relational world, deeper wellsprings of loving-kindness, empathy, and insight can arise. Our relationships tend to become healthier, simpler and more straightforward.

As the mind becomes simpler, more peaceful and less caught up in things, a time comes when all the intentional and relational activity of the mind comes to a stop. Awareness can exist without it being brought into the service of the mind’s desires and aversions. It just is. This non-relational way of being defies exact definition. It is impossible to cling to this state or to claim it as one’s own because to do so is to leave the non-relational state and return to being in relationship to something. It is a little like grabbing an open hand with the hand itself – the open hand disappears as soon as the hand closes around itself. We can know that we are experiencing the mind that is not relating to anything but we can’t touch it with thought, description or any form of self-appropriation.

To have a full experience of the non-relational state of mind is to experience one of the most profound forms of well-being, peace, and liberation. To have confidence in this possibility, and even better, to feel the continued background presence of this dimension in one’s mind, allows one to live in the relational world with ease and wisdom. It also opens our hearts to greater compassion, which is one of the most valuable emotions of the relational world. In Buddhism the combination of these two – liberation and compassion, non-relational and relational – is considered the ultimate relationship. Ideally the two dimensions go hand in hand, and as your practice matures you get the best of both worlds.

—Gil Fronsdal

Article: “The Dharma and the Path of Harmlessness” by Gil Fronsdal

“A wise person does not intend harm to self or to others. A wise person intends benefit for self, for others, and for the whole world.”

-The Buddha

The full scope of Buddhist practice is conveyed through the word ‘Dharma.’ This word has a number of meanings that depend on the context in which it is used. Sometimes it refers to the teachings and practices of the Buddha, but its most significant meaning is the natural truths, laws and processes of the path of practice he taught.  For many Buddhists the Dharma is the object of their greatest commitment and devotion.  It is a source of refuge, guidance, and ultimate meaning, and, most importantly, it is what allows for the Liberation taught by the Buddha.

The Dharma is characterized by and expressed through non-harming, and the path of the Buddha is a path of harmlessness.  The Dharma of the Buddha can help us discover a peace we only experience when we aren’t causing suffering to ourselves or others.  This peace is called Liberation or Awakening when it includes, if even for just a short time, a full cessation of suffering.

The Dharma is not something outside of oneself; it is not an external power working through our lives. Nor is it something personal that we can claim as our own. It is not a ‘thing’ that exists by itself.  Rather, it is a process that exists only when activated. Just as a fist appears only when we clench our hand, so the Dharma only emerges when we behave in certain ways.  However, unlike a fist, we don’t create the Dharma directly; we create the conditions that allow it to appear.

The way the Dharma arises can be compared to floating in freshwater.  When we float, we may say the water supports us, but, in fact, the water alone is not sufficient to keep us from drowning.  If we don’t know how to float, and we thrash around in fear or only relax and trust, the water won’t hold us up.  Floating is a learned skill that depends on our having both the intention to float and the skill.  Once the skill is mastered, being supported by the water can seem almost effortless. But since floating safely does not depend only on our skill and intention, it doesn’t make sense to take complete credit for it. The dynamic interplay of the water, our bodies, intention, and skill creates the floating.

Floating is like the Dharma.  As a support for our lives, the Dharma is not found in the external world nor is it some inherent essence of our human nature.  It appears in the interaction of the world, aspects of our human nature, and particular skills and behaviors.  The Dharma is neither separate from us nor something we are solely responsible for. Just as part of the skill of floating is relaxing and letting go of activities that interfere with floating, so too, the skill that allows the Dharma to arise and support us includes letting go of what undermines that support.  But the Dharma is not found simply by letting go any more than floating safely in water simply requires relaxing. Certain skills and intentions need to be present for the Dharma to appear and to function.  It is through the way we live that the Dharma can have a role in our lives.

The essence of this way of life is a devotion to non-harming.  It is all too easy to harm others and ourselves with our thoughts, self-concepts and emotional reactions and quite difficult to overcome the causes of these mental activities.  For this reason, it is important to have something that helps us minimize such harm and its causes.  For Buddhists this something is the Dharma.

An important Dharma teaching is the Four Noble Truths.  These pragmatic perspectives are based on a seemingly simple way of being in the world: if you stop doing something that is causing harm, the harming ceases. What makes this principle challenging are all the forms of self-harm which are not easy to stop.  Addictions to desires, compulsions toward anger, obsessions with fear, and attachments to self can be so deeply rooted in the mind that they are hard to recognize, let alone stop.

In Buddhist shorthand, these addictions, compulsions, obsessions, and attachments are referred to as clinging or craving.  When the contraction of clinging is pervasive it leads to stress, which makes us vulnerable to such human instincts as fear, aggression, and greed. When these qualities are activated it can be easy to behave in ways that lead to further harm to ourselves or others.  Buddhism emphasizes that craving is a condition for further craving and that intentions to harm tend to motivate more of the same.

In contrast, letting go of clinging creates conditions for further letting go, and non-harming motivates more non-harming.  Stress decreases with the lessening of clinging which then leads to relaxed states of being.  Calm and relaxed states, in turn, activate our human instincts for empathy and caring and our capacities for creativity and wisdom, all of which support our practice on the Buddhist path and help bring forth the Dharma.

As for Dharma practice, it is helpful to appreciate that empathy, caring, attention, and wisdom occur not only because we consciously decide to have them occur, but also because conditions are in place to activate them.  When we practice the Dharma we create the conditions for our best qualities to function.  As these beneficial faculties are expressed more actively in our lives, we discover that our lives are being supported by forces independent of our self-conscious efforts and self-centered attachments.  As these forces protect, guide and liberate, people often feel increasing confidence in the power of the Dharma in their lives.

The Buddhist practices of non-harming that bring forth the Dharma in our lives are encapsulated within the Eightfold Path.  These eight practices include wise understanding of what causes suffering, living ethically so we don’t cause harm, and developing mental capacities such as mindfulness and concentration so that we can let go of the deep mental roots of clinging.  Initially, these are trainings we intentionally undertake. With practice, these become less something we undertake and more who we are.  They become how we naturally act. When someone has fully matured in the Dharma it is said they become the Eightfold Path, they become the Dharma.

The more our practice reveals the Dharma the less sense it makes to take credit for the Dharma working through us, just as we don’t take credit for a refreshing breeze on our palm when we open our fist.  It is our task to open the fist in our heart so we can be refreshed by the Dharma, by the winds of compassion, wisdom, and freedom.

Article: Letting Go by Gil Fronsdal

Letting go is an important practice in everyday life, as well as on the path of liberation.  Daily life provides innumerable small and large occasions for letting go of plans, desires, preferences, and opinions. It can be as simple as when the weather changes, and we abandon plans we had for the day. Or it can be as complex as deciding what to sacrifice, when pulled between the needs of family, friends, career, community, or spiritual practice.  Daily life provides many situations where letting go is appropriate, or even required.  Learning how to do so skillfully, is essential to a happy life.

Buddhist practice leads to a letting go that is more demanding than what ordinary life usually requires. Beyond relinquishing particular desires and opinions, we practice letting go of the underlying compulsion to cling to desires and opinions. The liberation of Buddhism is not just letting go of outdated and inaccurate self-concepts; it also involves giving up a core conceit that causes us to cling to ideas of who we are or aren’t.  Liberation is releasing the deepest attachments we have.

The practice of letting go is often mistrusted. One good reason for this mistrust is because, without wisdom, it is easy to let go of the wrong things; for example, when we let go of such healthy pursuits as exercising or eating well, instead of our clinging to those pursuits.  Another reason for mistrust, is that letting go or renunciation, can suggest deprivation, weakness, and personal diminishment if we think we have to abandon our views and wishes in favor of the views and wishes of others.

It is possible to let go either of a thing or of the grasping we have to that thing.  In some circumstances, it is appropriate to give something up. In others, it is more important to let go of the grasping.  When someone is addicted to alcohol, it is necessary to renounce alcohol.  However, when someone is clinging to the past, it is not the past that needs to be abandoned, rather it is the clinging. If the past is rejected, it can’t be a source of understanding.  When there is no clinging to it, it is easier to learn the lessons the past provides.

At times, it is important to understand the shortcomings of what we are clinging to before we are able to let go.  This may require investigation into the nature of what we are holding on to. For example, many people have found it easier to let go of arrogance when they see clearly the effect it has on one’s relationships with others.  When we see clearly what money can and can’t do for us, it can be easier to let go of the idea that money will give us a meaningful life.

Sometimes it is more important to understand the shortcomings of the grasping itself rather than the object of grasping.  Grasping always hurts. It is the primary source of suffering.  It limits how well we can see what is happening.  When it is strong, clinging can cause us to lose touch with ourselves. It interferes with our ability to be flexible and creative and it can be a trigger for afflictive emotions.

By investigating both the grasping itself and the object of our grasping, it becomes possible to know which of these we need to let go of.  If the object of grasping is harmful, then we let go of that.  If the object of grasping is beneficial, then we can let go of the grasping so that what is beneficial remains.  Helping a neighbor, caring for your own health and welfare, or enjoying nature can be done with or without clinging.  It is accomplished much better without the clinging.

The Buddhist practice of letting go, has two important sides that fit together like the front and back of one’s hand. The first side, which is the better known, is letting go of something.  The second side is letting go into something.  The two sides work together like letting go of the diving board while dropping into the pool, or giving up impatience and then relaxing into the resulting ease.

While letting go can be extremely beneficial, the practice can be even more significant when we also learn to let go into something valuable. From this side, letting go is more about what is gained than what is lost.  When we let go of fear, it may also be possible to let go into a sense of safety or a sense of relaxation.  Forsaking the need to be right or to have one’s opinions justified can allow a person to settle into a feeling of peace.  Letting go of thoughts might allow us to open to a calmer mind.  By letting go into something beneficial, it can be easier to let go of something harmful.  At times, people don’t want to let go because they don’t see the alternative as better than what they are holding on to.  When something is clearly gained by letting go, it can be easier to do so.

We can see the Buddhist emphasis on what is gained through letting go by how the tradition understands renunciation.  While the English word implies giving something up, the Buddhist analogy for renunciation, is to go out from a place that is confined and dusty, into a wide open, clear space. It is as if you have been in a one room cabin with your relatives, snowed in for an entire winter.  While you may love your relatives, what is gained when you open the door and get out into the spring, probably feels exquisite.

One of the nice things about letting go into something is that it has less to do with willing something or creating something than it does with allowing or relaxing. Once we know how to swim, it can be relaxing to float by allowing the water to hold us up.  Once we know how to have compassion, there may be times when we not only let go of ill-will, but also let go into a sense of empathy.  Letting go of fear, may then also be resting back into a sense of calm.

A wonderful result of letting go is to experience each moment as being enough, just as it is.  It allows us to be present for our experience here and now with such clarity and freedom that this very moment stands out as something profound and significant.  We can let go of the headlong rush into the future, as well as the various, imaginative ways we think, “I’m not enough” or “this moment is not good enough”, so we can discover a well-being and peace not dependent on what we want or believe.

A fruit of Buddhist practice is to have available a greater range of wholesome, beautiful and meaningful inner states to let go into.  In particular, one can come to know a pervasive peace, accessible through both letting go and letting go into.  The full maturity of this peace is when we let go of our self as the person experiencing the peace.  With no self, there is just peace.

Article: Friendship on the Path by Gil Fronsdal

It can be easy to think Buddhist practice is individualistic and solitary.  Teachings on being mindful of oneself and taking responsibility for one’s actions can seem to emphasize a focus on oneself.  The practice of sitting in meditation with one’s eyes closed can also suggest that Buddhism is about separating oneself from society.  While certainly an important part of the practice is personal and inwardly focused, this is only a part of what Buddhist practice is about.  A much more significant part of the practice is interpersonal; it concerns the rich world of our relationships with others.  In fact, the interpersonal teachings and practices of Buddhism create the context and the foundation for the inner, personal practices such as meditation.

Though many people don’t start Buddhist practice this way, traditionally it is said to begin with creating healthy relationships with others.  This part of the path is usually called training in sila or virtue.  Sila is concerned with all aspects of our everyday behavior, especially in the ways that our actions involve relating with others.  It is about having all our relationships be helpful and supportive for others as well as for ourselves.  In some descriptions of the Buddhist path, sila begins with the practice of generosity.  Done wisely, practicing generosity creates a healthy relationship between the giver and receiver.  As this is at the beginning of the Buddhist path, it underscores that our social interactions are an important part of Buddhism.

The practice of living by the precepts, as one aspect of sila, is also about our interpersonal relationships.  It is the practice of training to develop caring, compassionate relationships with others rather than harmful ones, generous ones rather than greedy ones, honest ones rather than dishonest ones.

The Buddhist emphasis on cultivating loving kindness, compassion, appreciative joy, and equanimity includes developing caring and empathic attitudes toward others.  With practice, these attitudes become the orientation for everything we do and the very motivation for doing the more solitary practices.

An important part of the interpersonal aspect of Buddhist practice is having spiritual friendships.  The Buddha emphasized this when he said that the precursor for the Eight Fold Path is having good spiritual friends (kalyana mitta).  These are the people with whom we share the practice and who support us in the practice.  While it includes our peers on the path, the term kalyana mitta is also a common expression for a Buddhist teacher in our Theravada Buddhist tradition.  For us, a teacher is more a friend than a guru, more a supporter than an authority figure.

The idea that good friendships are the precursor for the path of practice was particularly important in the pre-literate times of the Buddha.  Since there were no books that would introduce people to the teachings and practice, the introduction always came in person, through a “good spiritual friend.”  In our times, the easy availability of books on Buddhism makes it possible for people to begin their practice without personal contact with another person.  While this is certainly a useful development, it is easy to lose sight of the important context that direct human relationships create in learning about the Buddhist teachings and practice.

It can be very helpful to have examples of other people’s practice.  Undoubtedly, some people can learn to play a musical instrument through instructions in a book.  But to watch how others play the instrument can enhance their learning.  In the same way, seeing people demonstrate how Buddhist teachings can be practiced and expressed can provide important lessons for how we can practice.

Friends on the path also provide support and encouragement.  Without practice friends, one can feel isolated and even a bit odd in one’s community for being the only person who meditates, or doesn’t gossip, or doesn’t drink alcohol.  Knowing others who practice and who share the same values can sometimes make the difference between practicing and not practicing.

Good friends are important sources of feedback.  This can happen gradually as we see ourselves mirrored by others.  Our mindlessness can be seen more clearly if we are around mindful people.  Our lack of ethical behavior can be highlighted by being with more ethical people.  Our conceit about our understanding or our practice can become clear when we are with people who hold themselves lightly or who show no support or interest in our conceit.

Feedback can also occur explicitly.  By developing friendships we can create the trust and goodwill that allows for frank discussions about our behavior, our practice, and our understanding.  It is quite common for others to see things about ourselves that we don’t see.  Having these things pointed out can be extremely helpful.  The longer the friendship, the better our friend knows us and so the more likely the feedback is well informed.

Dharma friendships are also wonderful places to have Dharma discussions.  To explore the teachings and our experiences in practice through conversations with others can deepen our understanding in many ways.  It can bring us new perspectives, questions and areas for further investigation.  To have these discussions with people who know us well adds to the value of these conversations.

Often enough it is not easy to create good spiritual friendships.  It requires both patience and deliberate effort.  Probably the single most helpful way to create friendships is to be friendly.  Try to cultivate some authentic acceptance, warmth, interest, and caring for others.  Become a good listener, and when asked, be willing to reveal yourself to others.  Spiritual friendships grow with honesty.  If we pretend to be “spiritual” or if we hide what we are really feeling or thinking, real friendship can’t grow.  If we share how we are practicing, including both our successes and our shortcomings, then people will have a better chance of getting to know who we are.

It is interesting that the near enemy of friendship is flattery.  In Buddhism, a near enemy of an ideal is that which looks like the ideal but actually detracts from it.  A flatterer can seem like a friend but actually is undermining the possibility of a real friendship.  Honesty nourishes friendship, undeserved praise does not.

Friends create an important context for any individual’s Buddhist practice.  Hopefully, friendship shows that we don’t just practice for ourselves.  We also practice with and for our friends, community and others.  Friendships also teach us that the fruits of practice are not something we keep for ourselves.  They are something that we share.  We can be good friends to others. As we become freer we are thereby granting greater freedom to others, at least in terms of liberating them from having to contend with our greed, hatred, and prejudices.  Mindfulness, love, and the path of practice can be the channels through which we have meaningful relationships with others. And meaningful relationships, in turn, support us on the path to greater mindfulness, love and awakening.  It is my hope that we all cultivate friendships that support us in our practice.

—Gil Fronsdal

Article: Awakening with Dependent Origination

A person who was lost in the jungle may not have learned the way out if he or she accidentally stumbles out. Lost in the jungle again, the person may be no wiser about how to get free. On the other hand, if a lost person carefully studies the jungle and learns the way out, he or she may never become lost in that jungle again. The person may even become a guide helping others out.

The Buddha didn’t stumble out of the jungle of suffering; he learned the skills, signposts, and path that led out. He spent many years, in many ways, teaching the way to freedom. In contrast, he said little about what the experience of freedom actually is. He focused mostly on how one becomes free and what one becomes free from or what one no longer experiences. Perhaps freedom cannot be described as any particular experience. It is like two people who are lost in the jungle together for a long time. When they both find their way out, they both experience the same freedom from the jungle. However, what they do and experience once out of the jungle may be very different from each other. What they may have in common is knowing how to avoid getting lost again, and they may both have strong confidence in the path out of the jungle.

One of the useful descriptions the Buddha gave for the way out of suffering is the twelve steps of what is called “Liberative Dependent Origination” (LDO). These steps are successive mental states, each dependent on the presence of the preceding one, which create the conditions for not only becoming free, but for really knowing one is free. The Liberative Dependent Origination sequence is offered in contrast to the more commonly taught twelve-fold dependent origination sequence that describes the main causal conditions that lead to suffering.

Just as one must first know oneself to be lost in order to search for a way out of the jungle, so one must know one is suffering in order to start a process that frees one from that suffering. Because this recognition is so important, the sequence of Liberative Dependent Origination begins with an honest confrontation with our suffering. Many alternative descriptions other than ‘suffering’ can be used for what is understood in this first, underappreciated step. For some, it may take the form of know- ing oneself to be ignorant, that one doesn’t yet know what it takes to be liberated from one’s distress. For others it might be an understanding of how the way one has been living doesn’t really work.

Between knowing one is suffering and starting to walk a path to freedom there needs to be adequate confidence in the path and in one’s capacity to walk it. Ignorance or doubt about the path can lead to inaction or to other pursuits. While even a modest amount of confidence can be enough to start, the stronger the confidence, the greater resolve one can have for engaging in the process of liberation. Dependent on confidence, the second step in the LDO, there can arise delight, the third step.This is gladness in knowing there is a path one has the capacity to discover and follow.

The fourth step is a joy that depends on the delight of the previous step. It is a joy that arises in direct proportion to how enthusiastically absorbed one is in practices that are a part of the path to freedom. Particularly important is meditative joy, since the next four steps are usually developed most fully in meditation practice.

Confidence, delight, and joy, by dispelling anxiety and agitation, help a person become tranquil, which is the fifth step. When the excitation of meditative joy diminishes while its clarity and concentration remain, this tranquility becomes a pervasive calm and stillness. Since the exuberance of joy can be quite attractive and meaningful, it sometimes takes a long time before a person feels ready to move on to more tranquil states.

Tranquility makes possible the arising of happiness, the sixth step in the LDO. This happiness is a broad sense of well-being which is calmer and more satisfying than joy.

This well-being is important for the development of concentration, the seventh step. This is because concentration depends on lessening agitation while the mind becomes unified in its ability to stay focused. As tranquility reduces agitation, happiness supports the unification.

The eighth step is the ‘knowledge-and-vision-of-things-as-they-are.’ This involves profound and direct insight into the transient and impersonal aspect of our experiences and how unsatisfactory it is to cling to any of it. It can also involve a clear realization of the Four Noble Truths. Sometimes at this stage there can be a complete, but temporary release of all grasping. This experience is quite important because it shows that liberation is possible and worthwhile. Perhaps it is like climbing a hill- top where, standing above the jungle, one can see the end of the jungle in the distance. Though one must descend again into the jungle, one is now certain about the direction to be taken. Experiencing a thorough, but temporary, release from clinging strengthens confidence, which in turn helps develop the succeeding steps of Liberative Dependent Origination.

Dependent on having seen things-as-they-are, there follows a grow- ing disillusionment with the idea that there is anything worth clinging to. This in turn encourages a gradual weakening of the tendency to cling. In the sequence of LDO this disillusionment is called ‘disenchantment’ and the weakening of clinging is called ‘dispassion.’ These two are the ninth and tenth steps in LDO. As the thinning of the trees indicates one is coming to the edge of the jungle, so with the weakening of clinging a practitioner can have a clear sense that freedom is near by.

When grasping has weakened enough, a time comes when it is fully dropped. This eleventh step in the twelve-fold sequence is what the Buddha called Liberation. Since suffering depends on clinging, with the cessation of clinging, one is liberated from both clinging and suffering.

The final step in LDO is to understand what forms of clinging have come to an end with the experience of liberation. For the Buddha, liberation is not enough. It is important to understand what has changed when one is liberated. In part, this is a safeguard against believing one is enlightened when one isn’t. The final step in the awakening process is not described as any particular state—and certainly not as some form of annihilation or void. Rather the sequence ends with knowledge. One knows through personal experience the path that led to this freedom. A person who walks a path without understanding this may not be able to teach it to others.

The twelve-fold steps of LDO are not so much a step-by-step approach to Buddhist practice as they are a description of how the fruits of the practice lead naturally all the way to liberation. It is a reminder that the path to liberation is a gradual progression that unfolds if one can use the recognition of suffering as an inspiration to develop confidence and skill in Dharma practice. Even more important, it teaches that liberation is not a mysterious process dependent on forces outside of our own heart and mind. The Buddhist path clearly depends on our own efforts to cultivate personal qualities that enable deep insight and release. While the right conditions have to be in place for liberation to occur, when one cultivates those conditions, a time comes when self-effort can fall away and the Dharma can flower in our hearts and minds.

— Gil Fronsdal

Suffering → Confidence → Delight → Joy → Tranquility → Happiness → Concentration → Seeing things as they are → Disenchantment → Dispassion → Liberation → Knowledge

Article: Awakening to Dependent Origination

Deep, indeed is this dependent origination. It is through not understanding and penetrating it that people become entangled like a tangled ball of threads.

—The Buddha (Long Discourse No. 15)

When the Buddha awakened, he awakened to something. With the stilling of his mind and the dropping of his attachments, he awoke to Dependent Origination and attained liberation. This insight is the foundation of everything else he subsequently taught.

The principle of Dependent Origination is that when anything arises dependent on particular conditions, it ceases with the ceasing of those conditions. So, for example, rain is dependent on clouds; when the clouds vanish, the rain stops. The Buddha used the principle of Dependent Origination to understand human suffering and how to bring that suffering to an end. According to the principle, if suffering depends on some thing, and that thing is eliminated, the suffering will come to an end. With his awakening, the Buddha understood the causes and conditions of suffering and how to remove them. It is with this insight that the Buddha could then teach a path to liberation.

By understanding the concept of Dependent Origination, the Buddha’s teachings become clear. By personally seeing Dependent Origination, the Buddha’s teachings become liberating. The importance of this insight is emphasized in the ancient saying, “One who sees Dependent Origination sees the Dhamma; one who sees the Dhamma, sees Dependent Origination.”

The Buddha’s first, succinct way of teaching Dependent Origination was with four Noble Truths which explain the cause of suffering and the conditions required for the ceasing of this cause. The first truth concerns knowing when suffering is occurring. The second truth is understanding craving as the cause of suffering. The third points to the possibility of ending that suffering. And the fourth truth describes the path to do this.

When suffering seems impenetrable and the Four Noble Truths seem too simple for penetrating the complex tangle that gives rise to the suffering, it can be useful to investigate further with the Buddha’s teaching known as the Twelve-Fold Dependent Origination. This teaching lists a sequence of twelve psycho-physical processes where each process is presented as a necessary condition for the arising of the next process. When suffering, the final link, is seen as a condition for ignorance, the first link, the twelve links are often depicted as a circle. The image of a circle is useful in that it suggests that when the processes are not interrupted, people can all too easily loop around and around in cycles of suffering.

However, all twelve processes seldom operate in a neat twelve-step sequence. More often they all also interact and shape one another in complicated ways. Instead of a circle, it might be useful to see each as different threads of a matted ball of threads. The task of mindful investigation is to discover some of the individual threads and the connections between them. It then becomes possible to begin unraveling the tangled ball of suffering. Because of the way they are all intertwined, loosening any one thread loosens the rest.

Beginning with ignorance, the first seven processes in the twelve-fold list are the conditions that give rise to craving, which is the eighth item on the list as well as the second Noble Truth. The ninth to eleventh processes are those that build on craving to create the necessary conditions for suffering, which is the twelfth process in the sequence of Dependent Origination and the first of the Noble Truths.

Ignorance, as the first step in the sequence, refers specifically to “ignoring”, or at least not understanding, our experience through the framework of the Four Noble Truths. When we are ignorant of our suffering or its cause, it is easy to look for happiness and peace in the wrong places. For example, pleasure can be mistaken for happiness; clinging and aversion can be assumed to be helpful strategies; and depending on a self-identity can be seen as important. One of the most significant symptoms of ignorance is believing that our psychological suffering is caused by external events. The teaching on Dependent Origination acts as a corrective to this by pointing to the role that our inner mental life has in suffering.

Because ignorance is the first process in the Twelve-fold Dependent Origination, all the subsequent processes are dependent on it. In other words, ignorance runs through the other eleven processes. It is said, therefore, that applying the Four Noble Truths to any of the twelve processes can untangle the ball of suffering.

Ignorance has consequences when it is the basis for how we react to the world. Ignorant reactions shape or “form” us, and this is why the second step in the twelve-fold cycle is called “formations“. Most prominent are the array of intentions and dispositions that arise dependent on ignorance. They can include such mental reactions as anger when a craving is frustrated, or anxiety when we are attached to a particular self-identity. Some of these may be momentary intentions; others may be pervasive motivations that shape both our personality and how we experience the world.

The third step, usually called ‘consciousness‘, consists of the mental processes by which we cognize or pay attention to things – processes influenced by our dispositions and conditioning. How we are mentally disposed can shape how we pay attention and what we pay attention to. Our awareness is seldom unbiased. When connected to suffering, our awareness is selective and colored by our ignorant dispositions.

How we pay attention has an influence on how we experience our ‘body and mind‘, the fourth step. So, for example, if I get angry at my suffering, this anger activates my body and mind in particular ways: I tense up, get hot, and become impatient. In addition, I might focus my attention so that I mostly notice what I don’t like about my body and mind.

The first four processes are powerful conditions for how we use our ‘senses‘, the fifth step in the sequence. For example, if the first four links are shaped by selfishness, then we may use our senses to notice only things that have an impact on our self-centeredness. If they are shaped by anger then that may filter how we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch the external world or how we ‘perceive‘ our inner world.

How the senses are directed conditions how we directly experience the world. Sixth in the sequence is ‘contact‘, the meeting of our senses with the outside world or with thoughts and feelings. People often assume that the world they experience through the senses is how the world actually is. The teaching on dependent origination suggests that when we suffer, we do not perceive accurately and the way our senses connect to the world is biased.

The seventh link is the ‘feeling tone‘ associated with any sense contact or perception. It is the seemingly impartial way in which we experience things as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. However, the feeling tones that are part of the twelve-fold sequence are influenced by the preceding six links and are therefore not necessarily objective.

Feeling tone is a condition for the arising of ‘craving‘, the eighth link in the dependent origination of suffering. In other words, craving is a reaction to feeling tone. It can be quite humbling to discover how many of our desires, even seemingly sophisticated ones, are responses to feelings of pleasantness and unpleasantness.

Craving is a necessary condition for ‘grasping‘, the ninth process. We are not going to cling to something unless we crave it.

The tenth step, ‘becoming‘ refers to the creation of states of being or states of mind based on grasping. It is called ‘becoming‘ because it is an ongoing process of coming into being. If I grasp onto anger, it is more than a passing reaction, it can ‘become’ a habitual response, or even a pervasive and enduring mood.

Based on my ongoing anger, I may define myself by it: ‘I am an angry person.’ Giving birth to an identity based on our state of being is the eleventh process of Dependent Origination, and is called ‘birth‘. A fixed identity is a very significant condition for suffering because of all the expectation, assertion, disappointment, fear, and anger that can be triggered as we try to support or defend ideas we hold about ourselves.

The combined working of the first eleven processes is the dependent condition for suffering, the final process in the sequence. In looking carefully at suffering it is important to remember we are always investigating the particular form it is taking. The word ‘suffering‘ is an abstraction and abstractions are difficult to explore. As a reminder to look into the particular expressions, the twelfth link has a long name: “aging, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair.”

Each link is dependent on all the preceding links. This means that if a particular step is removed, the subsequent links cannot occur. If one of the links is occurring, it will cease when any of the earlier processes are stopped.

As we explore the tangled ball of our suffering, some threads are easier to discover than others and some can be addressed more directly. Using the framework of the Four Noble Truths helps untangle ignorance; insight into how our dispositions shape our experience can help us see more clearly; learning to not react to the feeling tones of experience lessens craving; not acting on cravings, lessens grasping which, in turn, lessens becoming. When the tangle of suffering is tightly woven, all these approaches may be needed. When the threads have become loose enough, a gentle tug on one strand may be all that is needed for the whole ball to unravel. And when suffering is untangled, what’s left is profound and peaceful. What’s left is not dependent on anything.

—Gil Fronsdal

(1) Ignorance → (2) Formation → (3) Consciousness → (4) Body & Mind → (5) Senses → (6) Contact → (7) Feeling Tone → (8) Craving → (9) Grasping → (10) Becoming → (11) Birth → (12) Suffering