Welcome my blog page. I am Sarah Conover, author of seven books on topics related to religion and cultural diversity.

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Ask A Buddhist: How did you become a Buddhist?


Sarah Conover has been a Buddhist practitioner for nearly three decades. She’s ready to answer your questions about the faith. What do you want to ask a Buddhist?  Fill out the form below or submit your question online

Sarah, I’m curious how you came to be a Buddhist?

House-Ad_SPO_Ask-a-Buddhist_0521131I became a Buddhist suddenly as well as gradually. But let me back up and tell a relevant anecdote. Long ago, I saw Maya Angelou at a book reading in Berkeley at which she responded to an audience member calling himself a Christian. With a look of dumbfounded astonishment (and perhaps a twinkle in her eyes) she said, “What? Already?”

I keep her words close when I call myself a Buddhist. If we’ve truly found the path of our heart, perhaps it’s not a static state — the “arrival” Angelou was poking fun at — but something that leads us forward and forward in a particular direction. Path and fruit it’s called in Buddhism: the fruit is how you come to know the path. In other words, the benefits of Buddhist practice such as sati, mindfulness, and metta, loving kindness, are felt both immediately and over time. You might hear an overlapping echo with a famous Bible verse (Matthew 12:33): “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit.”

To extend the fruit metaphor just a bit further, I was ripe for a faith path early on. When I was 18 months old, my family experienced a horrific tragedy. The social and religious culture of the 1950’s could neither address nor hold the fallout of grief and chaos of any survivor. In fact, as was the norm of those times, the tragedy was never spoken of. Over the years, that single disaster lengthened into a horizon with no end in sight. By the time I was a teen, I knew that the spiritual solace I longed for lay outside of the barren world of mid-century Presbyterianism surrounding me.

As a religious studies major at the University of Colorado, I explored various religions through the academic route. I also threw myself into pseudo-religion through Japanese martial arts. A sudden bump into Buddhism at a wholly different level occurred while hiking solo in Nepal and encountering a Tibetan Buddhist monk on a tiny path above a roaring gorge (great metaphor in retrospect — immediate death on one side and a tiny path to cling to on another). He smiled at me as no human had before. Unburdened. Something that I would have named love but more pure — without romantic love’s pulls or entanglements or debts. The moment became a compass in my life’s trajectory: an aspiration to be able to smile at the world as freely and openly as the monk.

Years passed, though, before pursuing Buddhism further. The mesmerizing charms of romantic love and its busy result in two beautiful children landed us in the San Francisco Bay area looking for jobs as well as a religion to answer those irksome existential questions every toddler asks: why are we here? Every holiday called into question what and how we would celebrate, so ambivalence can’t linger long. We did a lot of sampling of the Bay Area of faith communities. As is often still the case for me, what I sought was right under my nose. The new Spirit Rock Center, home to Jack Kornfield, a leading figure in bringing Theravada Buddhism to the West (take a look at his books and audio talks), was just down the road from our house in Fairfax. After months of searching for a spiritual home, I returned from the evening meditation and declared to my husband: “I found what we’ve been looking for.”

Whether that’s the sudden or gradual route, I’m not sure. But afterwards, there was no turning back. The more I studied Buddhism, the more I meditated and practiced, the more it made sense deep in my bones. Soon after becoming a regular at Spirit Rock, I heard the famous Kalama Sutta, a recounting of the Buddha’s words to the Kalama people. In it, he gives ten criteria for examining the validity (good fruit?) of any teaching, including his own:

“As they sat there, the Kalamas of Kesaputta said to the Blessed One (the Buddha), “Lord, there are some brahmans and contemplatives who come to Kesaputta. They expound and glorify their own doctrines, but as for the doctrines of others, they deprecate them, revile them, show contempt for them, and disparage them. And then other brahmans and contemplatives come to Kesaputta. They expound and glorify their own doctrines, but as for the doctrines of others, they deprecate them, revile them, show contempt for them, and disparage them. They leave us absolutely uncertain and in doubt: Which of these venerable brahmans and contemplatives are speaking the truth, and which ones are lying?

“Of course you are uncertain, Kalamas. Of course you are in doubt. When there are reasons for doubt, uncertainty is born. So in this case, Kalamas, don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted and carried out, lead to harm and to suffering’ — then you should abandon them…When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted and carried out, lead to welfare and to happiness’ — then you should enter and remain in them.”

(Translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu)

At last, I thought when I first heard this sutta, here is a wisdom path that doesn’t require a giant leap of faith as an entry ticket. Instead, one tests her experience over time. As Thanissaro Bhikkhu says in the translator’s explanation to the sutta: “…any view or belief must be tested by the results it yields when put into practice; and — to guard against the possibility of any bias or limitations in one’s understanding of those results — they must further be checked against the experience of people who are wise.” And so I’ve found myself both a student of my experience as well as the Buddha’s teachings, a student of various Buddhist denominations and a student of a number of teachers, continually checking one against another from the touchstone of my life.

Did I become a Buddhist? Some of us characterize the Dharma, the teachings of the Buddha, as discovery, not pre-packaged answers, not dogma to squeeze experience into, but a gradual, and sometimes sudden, opening to the truths of the human predicament. The Buddha never called himself a Buddhist nor did he label his teachings Buddhism. He was one of the great thinkers the world has known describing a path to happiness he dis-covered through experience. Thus far, much to my delight, whenever I glean an insight through the methods we’ve labeled Buddhism, I’ve always found that the Buddha arrived at that understanding millennia ahead of me.


A Buddhist View of Suicide

Posted by on Mar 7, 2016 in Blog | Comments Off on A Buddhist View of Suicide


Ask A Buddhist: What happens to someone after suicide?

Sarah Conover has been a Buddhist practitioner for nearly three decades. She’s ready to answer your questions about the faith. What do you want to ask a Buddhist? Submit your questions online or if you would rather not take your answer ‘on the air’ please let Conover know by providing your email with your question.

By Sarah Conover

In Buddhism, what happens to someone after suicide?

House-Ad_SPO_Ask-a-Buddhist_0521131What happens to someone after suicide from a Buddhist perspective? My friend, Venerable Chonyi at Sravasti Abbey says, “Rebirth, and then who knows?” It’s a skillful answer. Who can presume to know with certainty the trajectory of a person’s rebirth and beyond?

That being said, the primary ethic of Buddhism is to do no harm. As suicide harms the victim as well as those left behind, it is clearly an act with significant consequences.

Even if a person doesn’t believe in rebirth or an afterlife, the action of suicide rips across the lives of many. Any of us connected to a suicide—even by several degrees of separation—know this truism from experience. We ache not only for the person whose anguish led him or her to this most extreme act, but almost as much for the family and friends left wondering what they could have done to prevent it.

Unlike most other religions, various schools of Buddhism don’t condemn suicide without exception, but exceptions are rare indeed. A human birth is seen as incredibly precious, an opportunity not to be wasted. That the human predicament includes stress and suffering is the First Noble Truth; the Second, Third and Fourth Noble Truths guide our relationship to that suffering.

Not that the transformation of suffering is easy. I don’t diminish the utter anguish that causes someone to end his or her life. Brain scans show that the same pain receptors activated in physical trauma are activated by psychological suffering. In other words, distress and grief can feel exactly like an incapacitating pain assaulting the physical body. I’ve had some experience around this, and I do not belittle the experience. For many, the misery is intolerable and they lack the tools—whether pharmaceutical, spiritual and/or psychological—to see pain’s end on their horizon.  There’s a well-known quote in the field of suicide prevention: “You don’t want to die; you just want the pain to go away.”

From a Buddhist perspective, the reasons for suicide are almost always ripe with erroneous thought, far off the path to happiness and freedom as taught by the Buddha. Andrew Holecek, in his beautiful essay, Relating to Suicide from a Buddhist Perspective, says:

It’s human nature to avoid suffering, how we do so remains the question. In terms of the view, one way to look at suicide…is to understand that suicide comes from a wild case of mistaken identity. In Buddhism, there are two fundamental levels of identity: the relative and the absolute. The relative level is the false level that comes from identifying with the contents of our mind – our thoughts and emotions. Until one enters a genuine spiritual path (where the idea of relative and absolute is first introduced), this is the only level of identity that exists.

In some sense, all spiritual traditions teach that a truer level of identity is available for us to experience other than the complicated and often jarring contents of mind and emotion. Buddhism often uses the metaphor of a cloudless sky to represent our foundational level of being (the absolute) versus the turbulent weather of our everyday life (the relative). Gautama Buddha laid out an eminently practical and gradual path to understanding the truth of ultimate reality while coming to know the storms of daily life as passing, insubstantial phenomena.

In the traditional Buddhist worldview that includes rebirth, if one’s last act is the result a negative mind set, that may affect the person’s best chances for a favorable rebirth. But as Venerable says above, “Who knows?”

In practical terms, she suggests acts that generate blessings on behalf of the dead. Sogyal Rinpoche in the “Tibetan Book of Living and Dying has this to say about these offerings:

Meditation and prayers are not the only kind of help we can give to the dead. We can offer charity in their name to help the sick and needy. We can give their possessions to the poor. We can contribute, on their behalf, to humanitarian or spiritual ventures such as hospitals, aid projects, hospices, or monasteries.

Venerable Chonyi adds that we should do these same things for the dead no matter the cause of their demise.

saraquoteOur goodness is what survives death, and so we cultivate that goodness in ourselves as well as nurture and celebrate the goodness of others around us, continuing to do so when they have passed. Included in a forthcoming anthology of writings by various authors, “The Suicide Funeral (or Memorial Service): Honoring their Memory, Comforting their Survivors,” the Abbess of Sravasti Abbey, Venerable Thubten Chodron has composed a beautiful meditation for survivors of suicide loss that underscores this goodness and love, connecting the survivors with the dead through compassion.

Venerable Chodron also spoke—in non-religious terms—at “In the Spirit of Hope,” the 18th Annual Healing after Suicide Conference. That talk is on-line, and from my research, is far and away the wisest words I’ve heard, Buddhist or otherwise, about what “to do” after the loss of a beloved to suicide. She touches upon many simple and yet radical approaches to transform the love we felt for our special person and our grief at his/her loss. Among her suggestions: recognize the depth of love we shared, rejoice in it, fill our heart with it. Know that, eventually, we will be able share the depth of that love with others in ways we never could have imagined before the death. To transform our grief and love is not dishonoring the dead—it’s honoring them to the fullest.

*Writer’s Note

Fortunately and finally, our country is beginning to come to terms with the fact that suicide, taken out of shame’s corner, can be addressed and mitigated. Only recently has it become state law in Washington that mental health and health care providers must be trained in suicide prevention. Absent such a requirement, mental health counselors, medical professionals—nurses, doctors and even psychologists—are not highly trained in prevention. Someone in crisis seeking help often falls into a chasm of vulnerability due to lack of services. 

Zero Suicide Inland Northwest Conference March 11, 12 Gonzaga University

The great news is that Spokane has recently become visible on the national forefront of suicide prevention. The second Zero Suicide Inland Northwest Conference is being held at Gonzaga University this March 11 and 12. It includes professional credits for various trainings, as well as free programs for lay folks that include: Loss Survivors and Support Groups; “Causes, Myths and Prevention of Suicide;” “What Every Mental Health Professional, Provider, Educator and Parent Ought to Know about the Early Onset of Serious Mental Illness in Children and Adolescents.” Some of the keynote presenters are giants in this field, having dedicated their lives to suicide prevention. Last year’s conference stunned me into an awareness of the depth and breadth of this problem and our feeble national response to it. But all that is beginning to change. Two Washington organizations to stay in touch with for further community involvement: Forefront at, and NAMI Spokane,

Beginning Resources for Beginning Buddhists

Posted by on Nov 4, 2015 in Blog | Comments Off on Beginning Resources for Beginning Buddhists

Sarah Conover has been a Buddhist practitioner for nearly three decades. She’s ready to answer your questions about the faith. What do you want to ask a Buddhist? Submit your questions online.

By Sarah Conover

I’m having a hard time finding anything from the Dharma.  Do you know any sayings, books or any websites that can help?

House-Ad_SPO_Ask-a-Buddhist_0521131Ironically, your question about beginning resources is one of the most challenging to address. This seemed to be true for other long-time practitioners I asked from a variety of traditions—all of us felt a bit stumped. It’s been such a long, winding trail with lots of fascinating side trips that no one quite remembers the entry point! But I guess that fact speaks well for the Dharma—the teachings of the Buddha—that it is truly, as we say, forward leading. You’ll eventually find your way according to your interest and preferences.

There are so many resources these days for Buddhists from entry level to scholar, that indeed, more than one life would be helpful to do them justice. So much is accessible by book, website, audio, classes, and retreats, but don’t let the abundance overwhelm you. Explore it slowly, in small bites, and chew them well. As Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh says, “There’s so much to do, and so little time to do it, we must move very, very slowly.”

These days, most Westerners encounter Buddhism first by reading about it, but there are no shortcuts around the experience of contemplating the teachings in daily life and in meditation. Each person, said the Buddha, must test the veracity of his teachings for him or herself. The adventure will be to feel out which teachers and material fit your temperament for learning and spiritual practice. Many of us base ourselves in a particular school, but read widely from other traditions and experiment with their practice methods.

So where to start?  Resources could be categorized into orthopraxy (methods like meditation) and orthodoxy (the literature, including those sayings you were curious about). More often than not, there is great overlap—a presentation of the beliefs along with methods to guide your greater understanding of them. Within the discussion we’ll further make a distinction between three major denominations of Buddhism most popular in the West—Vipassana, Zen, and Tibetan. Each has a unique flavor so to speak—character, history and tradition—but don’t panic: they each spring from noble lineages dating back to the Buddha’s time. Finally, I’ll suggest a website for those interested in Buddhism, but more as a philosophy than a religion.

Although vast amounts of materials exist for all three schools, my selections will be prejudiced in the Theravada tradition, as I know it best. I’ve asked serious Zen practitioners and Tibetan practitioners for their recommendations.

Vipassana, the word for insight in the ancient Pali language, stems from the “School of the Elders,” the oldest school of Buddhism, still practiced in Thailand, Burma and Sri Lanka. One of the loveliest (and slim) texts is, in fact, a book of sayings entitled, The Dhammapada. If there’s a bible from early Buddhism, this is it. There are many translations, and still new translations coming out, but the one I’ve linked to is a free and very reliable publication by the Buddhist Publication Society, one of the first publishers of Buddhist materials in the West. One needn’t start with the in-depth introduction, but could skip it for now and return to it when you feel your understanding and enthusiasm can mediate the density. Go straight to Chapter One of the sayings entitled, “The Pairs.”  That being said, the monk, Bhikkhu Bodhi, one of the most recognized names in Theravada scholarship, shares this little gem in the intro, and the advice he gives to readers applies to every piece of Dharma you’ll encounter no matter the tradition:

As a great religious classic and the chief spiritual testament of early Buddhism, the Dhammapada cannot be gauged in its true value by a single reading, even if that reading is done carefully and reverentially. It yields its riches only through repeated study, sustained reflection, and most importantly, through the application of its principles to daily life. Thence it might be suggested to the reader in search of spiritual guidance that the Dhammapada be used as a manual for contemplation.

Other Theravada readings, all free, are available on They even have a special section for beginners that gives an introduction to this school of Buddhism, a survey of the Buddha’s teachings, and accessible approaches for newbies: The teachings of Theravada school have become popularized in large part under the subheading of Vipassana (Insight Meditation) through teachers such as Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg and many others. All have authored national best sellers that are readily available, but their talks (and many, many other teachers like Gil Fronsdale) are available for free to stream or download on and An added benefit to this big net of teachers at the click of your mouse, is that you’ll start honing in on the teachers that resonate best for you, and then it’s an easy step to look them up and see if they offer retreats on line and in person.

The data base on all the sites listed above—text and audio—are so large that I would suggest putting in a topic you are most interested in such as mindfulness meditation, or loving-kindness, or beginning meditation instructions, or the essence of the Buddha’s teachings—the Four Noble Truths.  Not only will you find the Buddha’s words on the topic, but also guided meditations on the audio sites.

Speaking of guided meditations, when you’re just starting out it helps to have some guidance and a timer. I use an app on my smartphone daily called Insight Timer. If you pay the whooping $2.99, you not only get choices of lovely meditation bells and the ability to set your meditation period of time, you’ll be able to stream lots of guided Vipassana meditations of varying lengths. Be sure to search these through “most popular,” not “newest” for the most reliable and loved guides.

Lastly, in this camp, I’d like to mention the always-free 10-day Vipassana meditation courses of the legendary teacher of Burmese Buddhism, S.N. Goenka. You can find his international meditation centers in numerous places throughout the Americas, Asia, Europe, Africa and Australasia. That his schools have always offered meditation courses for free, has allowed him to fulfill the Buddha’s belief that neither money nor station in society should ever limit a person’s aspiration for liberation.

From my Zen friends, I was sent the following suggestions below.  Firstly, a website with teachers, study guides, books and poetry, guided meditations, programs and classes called Everyday Zen.  You’ll find talks from Norman Fisher, the founder of the Everyday Zen Foundation—a major network of Zen communities in the US, Canada and Mexico—and many, many other teachers as well.

Another grandfather of American Zen is Robert Aitken, the author of numerous books about the Dharma both in poetry and prose. His book, “Taking the Path of Zen is a tenderhearted and thoughtful introduction to Zen for the beginning student—and aren’t we all? “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki and Trudy Dixon offers the crisp flavor of Zen practice and the simplicity and perplexity of this ancient clear stream of Buddhism. Suzuki was a monk and teacher who founded the first Zen Buddhist monastery in the US, the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, in California.

In terms of grandmothers of American Zen, be sure to check out Charlotte Joko Beck’s most popular books: “Everyday Zen: Love and Work“, and “Nothing Special: Living Zen.” Teacher at the San Diego Zen Center, she offers a warm, engaging, uniquely American approach to using Zen to deal with the problems of daily living—love, relationships, work, fear, ambition, and suffering. Everyday Zen shows us how to live each moment to the fullest.

Last, but most certainly not least, is a collection entitled, “The Hidden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Womenby Florence Caplow (Editor), Reigetsu Susan Moon (Editor), Norman Fischer (Foreword). Caplow is a Soto Zen priest and a Dharma teacher, field botanist, seminarian, essayist, and editor. The book pairs ancient stories from Buddhist texts with responses by contemporary women practitioners of the Dharma from a range of traditions and countries. Because Caplow is from the Zen tradition, there are ample stories that reflect the paradoxical and compassion heart of Zen.

Still with me? Just two more categories to go.

Not until compiling this list did I realize that perhaps some of the best resources in the West of Tibetan teachings are the work of two pioneering female monastics: “our own” Thubten Chodron at Sravasti Abbey in Newport, and the best-selling author, Pema Chodron. The website is a one-stop shop of everything from basic meditation instructions to in depth teachings on wisdom and emptiness and an introduction to Tantra. Venerable Thubten has authored ten books, including co-authoring the recent, “Buddhism: One Teacher, Many Traditions with the Dalai Lama. Pema Chodron, another prolific author and teacher, has authored seventeen books, including: “Start Where you are: a Guide to Compassionate Living,” and the best-seller, “When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times.” One other website worth checking out—tons of content but much, unfortunately, is not free—

And last in line, the newbies on the ancient Buddhist block are some wonderful resources for those who have an interest in Buddhism, but perhaps an allergy to religion, some resources in the secular Buddhism category. A totally captivating speaker pushing against the old-school Buddhists is Stephen Batchelor. (Martine Batchelor, his wife, is a Zen teacher with many publications to her credit).  I’m an old-school Buddhist who is a big fan of the many, many questions he raises in his books such as “Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist,” and “Buddhism without Beliefs: a Contemporary Guide to Awakening.” Stephen is opening the modernism versus traditionalism dialogue on issues such as of patriarchy, ritual, and even what the Buddha’s teachings might mean without their being shaped by his historical audience. Big, important stuff.  I’m also a regular listener to the Secular Buddhist podcast, (the official podcast of the Secular Buddhist Association) as the discussions range wide and deep, from scientists to teachers to philosophers.

So, I’m out of steam, and I bet you are, too. This list should give you and other readers a good ten or twenty years of exploration! I would add that it’s the mission of all Buddhist monasteries and abbeys to not only give out their publications for free (just write and ask and perhaps send in a donation), but also to welcome visitors interested in learning the Dharma. Call them first though to make arrangements. It’s possible to stay in many monasteries for free as long as you practice sincerely and do your share of chores.

And very lastly, no matter what, search out classes and teachers wherever you live as part of your exploration. Direct instruction and feedback from an experienced practitioner is essential. A good teacher can be judged, as the Dalai Lama says, by the quality of the students around her or him. You will need the support of those other students over time, remembering that no matter where you land, the Three Jewels of Buddhism are the Buddha, the Dharma (his teachings), and the Sangha (a community of spiritual friends and practitioners).


The Whole of Spiritual Life

Posted by on Jul 14, 2015 in Blog | Comments Off on The Whole of Spiritual Life

July 13, 2015

The Whole of the Spiritual Life

Two nuns, Thubten Chodron and Ayya Tathaaloka, discuss the vital importance of friendship.

Venerable Thubten Chodron (left) and Ayya Tathaaloka (right) speak at Sravasti Abbey in Newport, Washington.

In the popular imagination the Buddhist monastic is solitary. Hours spent studying, chanting, and meditating leave scant time for that most trying yet rewarding of human pursuits: friendship. Or so the notion goes.

In our far-ranging conversation, the nuns Venerable Thubten Chodron and Ayya Tathaaloka roundly dispel this prevailing conception. Restoring spiritual friendship (in Pali, kalyanamittata) to its rightful place as a central feature of both lay and monastic practice, they encourage aspirants to seek out deep relationships as a crucial site of transformation.

Ven. Thubten Chodron is an American-born Tibetan Buddhist nun who was fully ordained as a bhikshuni (in Pali, bhikkhuni) in 1986. She has since written numerous books and founded Sravasti Abbey, a monastic community in Washington State. Ayya Tathaaloka, also American-born, received full ordination as a Theravada bhikkhuni in 1997. She too founded a monastic community, Dhammadharini, which has an affiliated hermitage in Northern California called Aranya Bodhi. Both women have played instrumental roles in the revival of full ordination for women in their respective traditions.

Sarah Conover

What did the Buddha say about spiritual friendship?

Ven. Thubten Chodron: Knowing that we need support for our practice, the Buddha organized the sangha as a group of spiritual friends. It’s very difficult to sustain the discipline necessary for both keeping up the precepts and regular meditation. In ordinary life we usually think of friends as people with whom we have fun, but friendship in Buddhism, especially in monastic life, is different because it is free of attachment. Its aim is to foster an attitude of long-term well-being between those involved.

People often quote the Buddha as saying, “Friendship is not half of the holy life, but all of it” (Samyutta Nikaya, 45.2). When looked at in context, however, the Buddha’s statement refers to him, the Enlightened One, as the true spiritual friend because he guides us on the path to liberation.

Ayya Tathaaloka: This is the way the Buddha conceives of himself in relation to everyone else: that is, as the kalyanamitta, as the spiritual friend most excellent. In the early Pali texts, the Buddha repeatedly addresses each person he speaks to as a “friend.” There are a few exceptions, but really, he addresses everyone in a very honorable way, from the highest station in life to the lowest, whether monastic or lay, as a friend. 

The Buddha had a tremendous spiritual friendship with the being who became his wife in his final life, and who later became one of the bhikkhuni arhats, Yasodhara Rahulamata. There is also a recurring thread of the Seven Sisters—seven of the Buddha’s foremost women disciples whose life stories of spiritual companionship span eons.

How did you two meet and become spiritual friends? When did you recognize the other person as someone who’d be important to you?

AT: It was at Shasta Abbey in 1996. That is my first memory. Ven. Chodron so encouraged me at that time! I was straight out of South Korea and had just lost my community and my venerable bhikkhuni mentor. I had been on track for full ordination in South Korea, but got expatriated for accidentally breaking visa law, and so returned to the United States. I didn’t know if I could survive this upheaval until I came to the Western Buddhist Monastic Conference and found spiritual friends who were making their way.

I remember meeting Ven. Chodron in the entrance to the hall where the Abbey’s monastic community gathered for their chanting. The great snow mountain, Mt. Shasta, stood just outside the window. I remember bowing with her and knocking heads! She told me that knocking heads when bowing was part of the Tibetan tradition. Yes, I was bumped right on the head with spiritual friendship.

I had been in one of the great Buddhist monastic seminaries in South Korea, and Ven. Chodron told me there should be things like that in the United States. She asked if I intended to be part of developing such seminaries. There I was, a novice who had just been thrown out of her country of training—who knew if I’d even get to ordain? All of a sudden she’s asking if I plan to start a seminary!

By then, I had been living on my own in the West for sometime, so I completely understood what Ayya was going through. It’s not only the experience of being in the West while your community and teacher are in Asia, but of adjusting to the way people in the West view Buddhist monastics. I knew that monastics needed to support each other and be there for each other.

How do you foster spiritual friendship in the monastic sangha?

TC: Community life does not just entail living with other people, but being a community. Living in the same place is very different from being a community. When you are in a community, your awareness goes out to the other people you live with—you see who needs encouragement, who needs guidance, and who needs a laugh.

When you’re just living among other people, your experience is much more about me and my practice, and so a certain kind of self-centeredness is present. I’m here because it’s good for my practice. And as soon as it’s not good for my practice, I leave. Why do we think a situation isn’t good for our practice? Often it’s because our buttons are getting pushed. Our ego can’t get its way, so we’re unhappy.

When you live in a community, you get to know people very well. You get to know each other’s moods and habitual behaviors. This requires you to open your heart and expand your understanding and acceptance. You need to become much more open-minded, more caring.

And how do you facilitate this?

TC: You have to model it.

AT: You have to live it.

TC: In Asia, communities are already established, so when a few new people join they pick up on what to do. They feel it. It transforms them. Everyone has the same precepts, cultivates the same views, and pursues the same goals. We’re not just doing our own trip. In some ways I think this is hard for Westerners, because we’re so individualistic.

AT: We may actually think we are doing our own trip!

How do you facilitate kalyanamittata in lay practitioners?

TC: Discussion groups in which people openly share their reflections on a particular dharma topic are very good for creating community. For example, we’ll select a certain idea, like: “What is the meaning of prayer in Buddhism?” We’ll meditate together on three or four questions related to that topic, so that people can reflect on them in private. Then we’ll share our reflections on these questions. Each person has to speak, and there’s no dialogue until everybody has shared his or her reflections.

This is a good way to teach people how to talk about dharma in a personal way. Otherwise people go to a dharma center, meditate or listen to a dharma talk together, maybe have some refreshments afterwards, and then go home. When they chat, it’s about the movies they saw; it’s not about dharma topics or how their practice is going. These discussion groups create wonderful spiritual friendships because they enable people to talk about what the dharma means in their lives.

How do you prevent lay folks from co-opting the dharma, turning it into something that’s about I, me, and mine?

AT: When you have a deep, deep friendship with someone, you don’t only care, “Is this good for me?” You care for them naturally. I believe it’s completely natural to have such love, compassion, and kindness. It’s right there from the get-go in our relationship, for instance, with our parents. It’s almost always there. And if it’s not there, we feel like there is something wrong.

This feeling transcends lay and monastic communities. It is vital to developing the deep heart of lovingkindness in the context of dedication to dharma. So I am trying to tap into what we have naturally in us that can emerge and guide us.

Non-spiritual friendships can often be on tenuous footing. It seems like everyone is testing: “Can I trust you?” Well, what are we trusting? What is the deep foundation for friendship?

AT: It’s such an important insight that you are mentioning: that is, this seeing and knowing of the tenuous conditions that we so often try to secure. This is the source of stress, of dukkha.

When you see that and then ask, “What else? What else?” that’s where the big opening can come. You start to see what remains when this vast spaciousness opens up. It doesn’t have any flying knives in it; it doesn’t have any poisons in it. Such fears spring from shifting conditions, those fabrications that you’ve been trying to grasp and hold together. The remaining emptiness—so replete and lovely—is safe. It is the ground of spiritual friendship.

What about vulnerability—that feeling of stress that comes from the duality of Me vs. Other?

TC: That’s ego stuff. In the description you gave of testing the waters, asking, “Who can I trust, how far can I trust?” there is definitely a sense of “I” that needs to be protected. We have a notion of who we are and how we should be treated, so we wonder, “Are they going to treat me the way I think I should be treated?”

And will I be seen the way I want to be seen?

TC: Yes! It doesn’t have so much to do with them but with ourselves, because we feel so strongly that there’s a me that has to be defended. As soon as we feel that, vulnerability comes. We seek praise and approval and avoid blame and criticism. Those are two of Buddhism’s eight worldly concerns. But I can’t control what people think of me!

AT:For most people, the avoidance of vulnerability is an attempt to ensure safety, yet it ends up putting them at greater risk. Even if they think they’re entirely secure, something happens to remind them that they’re living in danger no matter what.

Monastic life is based on vulnerability. Our food—and every other material necessity—depends upon the kindness of others. Facing vulnerability in such a direct way, we begin to enter it and know it. The dynamics around it start to transform. It begins to feel safe.

How would you tie that back into friendship? That you’re all looking in the same direction?

TC: Yes. We’re practicing the dharma together, supporting each other in the process, and rejoicing in each other’s successes. In dharma friendship, we leave behind competition and jealousy.

You’re not curating your best self for someone else.

TC: Exactly. We all want to cultivate the same internal qualities. We don’t need to compete, because that competition brings qualities that are the exact opposite of those we want to develop. It takes a lot of courage because although we want to cultivate those wholesome qualities, there is a lot of resistance in us. We have to confront that part of ourselves that wants security, wants to look good in front of other people, and wants to be the best.

Do you consciously avoid idle social chatter? Do you always try to keep your talk to the dharma?

TC: I try not to engage in chitchat, but I also realize that there are certain situations that require it. It is the way that we first connect with people. But my time is my most precious possession, so I am very careful how I use it.

AT:Health has been a great teacher in this regard, because my energy is limited. I can hear the clock ticking. I’ve stopped wanting to talk about unimportant things because it just fritters away my precious life energy, and I know what I’d like to use that for.

On the other hand, we’re human beings. And there’s a level where this dharma is just human dharma—it doesn’t have any special language. It’s just about our hearts—whether they’re suffering or not, and how they can bind or how they can open. There’s this very basic, fundamental level of human dharma that doesn’t need any official language. If we can connect there, then good. If not, then I trust we will in time.


Make my Life Smaller

Posted by on May 5, 2015 in Blog | Comments Off on Make my Life Smaller

Ask A Buddhist: “Make my Life Smaller”


Sarah Conover has been a Buddhist practitioner for nearly three decades. She’s ready to answer your questions about the faith. What do you want to ask a Buddhist?  Fill out the form below or submit your question online. 

By Sarah Conover

How do we deal with the paradox of year by year wanting to go through life with new understandings to live more “fully” when this becomes so similar in many ways to all the other desires we have, and we miss a lot of the present moment because of it?

House-Ad_SPO_Ask-a-Buddhist_0521131Fantastic question Dear Reader. I often find that people ask me just the thing I need to ponder.

Not long ago in Backpacker Magazine I read an editorial that, much to my surprise, adjusted the compass of my life. The magazine’s editor had taken a long-wanted distance hike of several months. He said he’d expected to grow, but instead found that he’d shrunk, shrunk to the size of a single human being and it was a huge relief. I take his words about “expecting to grow” as cousin to what you’ve dubbed, “live more fully.” The take-away for me from the article pointed to an always-out-of reach horizon of accruing experiences. When is enough? I’m never going to get to all the retreats I’d like to, read all the books I’ve put on my Amazon Wish List, see all the movies I want from Sundance, watch all the Ted Talks I’ve tagged or listen to the hundreds of podcasts and Dharma talks available online. With so many possibilities now, where does a person dive in or jump out when garnering experiences to create a fuller life? My guiding mantra since reading the article has been to make my life smaller.

Living more fully seems to me an unexamined ideal (and thank you for prompting me to look at it), one that we can clearly see through when it refers to material comforts, but one that seems to have snuck right past us when it comes to spirituality. The conundrum brings to mind a man from Eastern Europe I met years ago who, having just got out from under the thumb of the USSR, said that we Americans live under our own form of tyranny — that of too many choices. He had a point. Today, those choices have exploded in material and nonmaterial forms. David Brazier in a recent Tricycle Magazine contribution said: “The pursuit of self-advantage and gain has a clear and pervasive logic. It can enter into every crevice of one’s life, not excluding one’s spiritual path.” It’s possible we’ve become greedy in our most intimate arenas—perhaps we need to dust off our old copies of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s “Spiritual Materialsim.”

What truly feeds our heart and not the curating and constucting of self, ego? Trust that I’m asking myself more than making any declarations, hoping I learn something here as well. Can spirituality be chased after or hoarded? “As soon as you desire spiritual attainment you can be sure you’re off its trail,” said a Buddhist teacher in a book I read recently.

Because the tenet of the Second Noble Truth of Buddhism is that cause of human suffering is desire, taṇhā, you’ve opened a very big topic indeed. Tanha, can be translated as “craving,” but a craving so primal that another translation for it is “thirst.” We can go without food for many days, but we cannot put off our thirst for long before we die. Tanha refers to worldly desires, a spectrum ranging from sense pleasures and lust to the myriad ways we cling to our sense of personhood through our preferences and judgments.

However, your question points to a broader Buddhist term than tanha: chanda. Chanda translates as intention, interest and desire to act. It refers to desire for a result that is ethically variable depending on its accompanying mental factors. Thus chanda can either refer to something like base sensual desire (kama-chanda) or the virtuous desire to achieve a worthy goal. Ajahn Karunadhammo of Abhayagiri Monastery told me that the most common use of chanda in the wholesome sense is in reference to the Four Bases of Success, which are chanda, viriya, citta, vimasa (interest, energy/effort, application of mind, review/evaluation). Another Thai Forest teacher, Ajahn Succito states: “Desire as an eagerness to offer, to commit, to apply oneself to meditation, is called chanda. It’s a psychological ‘yes,’ a choice, not a pathology. In fact, you could summarize Dhamma training as the transformation of tanha into chanda.”

My daughter asked a respected teacher in Thailand a similar question to yours — are ambition and desire necessarily bad, or can they also lead to good? He is a man who is rather straightforward (he trained as an engineer in the U.S. and he also seems to have trained in American directness and needs no translator). After he told her that any ambition other than becoming a nun was pointless, he divided experience very starkly between desires that hunger for something outside a person, and a content state of mind within. The former, he said are never fulfilling. He continued:

You have to keep getting more and more, meaning you have to work hard all the time to get this kind of happiness. The other kind of happiness that I told you about is meditation. When your mind settles down, becoming peaceful and calm, you will find real fulfillment where you have no desire for anything. It is yours all the time, because it is within yourself. Everything else outside yourself comes and goes, so if you have any desire for anything in this world, be it fortune or fame or anything, you are just going after bubbles. So try to develop mindfulness; try to bring your mind to peace, to settle down, to become peaceful. Then you will realize this is the real kind of happiness.

It might seem easy to spot the differences in these two chanda camps of desire, but in my experience, not always so. Your conundrum, Dear Reader comes to mind for instance. A number of teachers have told me that you must hone your sense of worldly desire (kama-chanda) versus unworldly desires (those of virtuous chanda), and that you can almost catch the scent of their final trajectories before you take any action. Investigating the difference at a micro-level, through wise reflection and meditation, is essential. In my limited experience, there are no shortcuts. The more I learn to attend, the more I notice that the distinctions might not be subtle after all. One feels like a hunger that can never be satiated (and therefore causes me to suffer); the other feels like I’ve arrived at the home in my heart where restlessness ceases.

I have other personal indicators for discerning the divergence in chandas: for me, kama-chanda (tanha/craving), feels like a grabbing. In fact an image often comes to mind of my daughter’s first words: with both arms reaching outwards and upwards, palms rotating, she’d repeat, “More!” On the other hand, my experience of wholesome desire feels like an emptying out, a freedom — not an acquisition, not a feeling of I, me and mine. Another signal for me of worldly desire — even in the realm of a fuller life and new understandings — is when I notice I’ve been pricked by FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) and find myself obsessing over it. A teacher recently told me that paying attention to one’s state of mind when desiring something will color what camp the desire falls into — worldly or otherworldly.

It may seem cliché, but meditation can indeed turn that yearning for more on its head. Samadhi, the meditation term for a deep unification of mind, is an antidote to addiction — the worst face of tanha, craving. In my practice, I’ve found that the ajahn is exactly right: When our minds and hearts are truly composed, they allow for utter contentment in this very moment. Nothing more needed. Seeking for something else, for a different experience, for a fuller experience and life, drops away.

The great Thai Forest teacher, Ajahn Chah, was once asked for the fastest way to enlightenment. His deceptively simple answer: “Do nothing!” Stop chasing, acquiring, wanting. “Not doing,” says John Tarrant in “The Light Inside the Dark: Zen, Soul and the Spiritual Life,” “is a kind of falling out of our lives…Visible and invisible hands reach out and we find that we have always been supported by much that is unknown and beyond our plans.”

About doing nothing, Jianzhi Sengcan, known as the Third Patriarch of Chan Buddhism (Chinese Zen Buddhism), says: “The great way is not difficult, it just avoids picking and choosing.” Remember that we in the West have a tyranny of too many choices, so perhaps we need to start channeling our efforts to explore more of what’s already before us and within us with great patience. Rather than looking for personal growth outside ourselves, perhaps it is in transforming tanha — through meditation and wise reflection — into virtuous chanda that offers freedom and happiness. Trust that your heart will know difference.


Sarah Conover

The Nature of Nature

Posted by on Mar 19, 2015 in Blog | Comments Off on The Nature of Nature



Ask A Buddhist: Seeing the real “truth of nature”


Sarah Conover has been a Buddhist practitioner for nearly three decades. She’s ready to answer your questions about the faith. What do you want to ask a Buddhist?  Fill out the form below or submit your question online

By Sarah Conover

If the Dharma, the teachings of the Buddha, is so closely aligned with nature, and the two most universal laws of nature are desire and fear, how can the Dharma claim to be true when the essence of its teaching is to overcome desire and fear?

House-Ad_SPO_Ask-a-Buddhist_0521131   Great question Dear Reader, and I’m sorry it’s taken so long to get to it! I happened to take your question to Ajahn Anan, one of the most senior teachers in the Thai Forest Tradition, while I was in Thailand. I’ll start with his answer before I muck around with it. Keep in mind the challenges and issues in simultaneous translation, especially as the monk who was our go-between was fairly new to translation and hence new to conveying subtleties of the teachings. This is what Ajahn Anan said:

One who understands the truth of fear, the truth of desire, understands the truth of us. But if someone sees nature as “us” that means that he or she is not understanding the truth of ultimate reality. One who truly understands the nature of everything as emptiness, sees according to that nature. It is that mind which is in line with Dharma, with nature. An untrained mind is the one that doesn’t yet understand the truth of nature and the one that makes suffering arise.

To be frank, I certainly couldn’t answer your question more clearly and concisely, but perhaps I can forge ahead with unpacking Ajahn Anan’s response a bit. I added the above italicizations of emphasis for clarity. Truth appears italicized in his first sentence three times because he’s not talking about nature as we normally use and understand the word. He’s talking about the truth of nature as a physicist (and the fully enlightened) might understand it — constructed of many elements and relationships, completely interdependent on the presence of all these elements and relationships, and last, but not least, comprised mostly of empty space!

The physicist’s view of the natural world is not what we, in our normal states of consciousness, sense and experience (and likely not what he or she experiences either). When we look at a stone we assume it will feel solid. We lift it and confirm that assumption. When we plunge our hand into a mountain stream we expect it will feel cold and it does. This applies to all our senses for all our waking hours, and thus we negotiate the world by expectations and habit. Although the physicist may realize at an abstract level that the things she contacts in her sensorium are, in actuality, not what they seem to her normal consciousness and senses, she too negotiates the world by these normalized perceptions. As Ajahn Anan says, this way of being in the world is the lot of the untrained mind — untrained in the experience of Dharma and of seeing the real “truth of nature.”

One of the amazing fruits of Buddhist practice I can speak to in a limited way is the fact that over time, it slowly dissolves the misconceptions of mind and body by which we generally go about our business. As we go back and forth from our normal perceptions to other kinds of knowing cultivated through meditation and contemplation, we begin to experience the world with a two-fold vision of the truth of its ultimate nature versus a world we used to believe was solid and unambiguous. I’m guessing that more often than not, a fully liberated person experiences the world as constructed, ephemeral.

Annie Dillard touches on this kind of seeing in “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”, when she writes,  “the effort is really a discipline requiring a lifetime of dedicated struggle; it marks the literature of saints and monks of every order East and West.” She calls it, “another kind of seeing that involves a letting go.” A letting go, an unlearning of habits of perception. In her 1984 novel “The Lover,” Marguerite Duras wrote that, “the art of seeing has to be learned.” Whether or not she references the very same seeing that Buddhism enjoins us towards, my point is that a conscious effort is required to question our fixed interpretations of reality.

The ability to begin to discern the truth of our real nature, is, in the Buddhist worldview, the very most precious aspect of being human. Animals, as you Dear Reader pointed out, act according to desire and fear, or in Dharma terms — desire and aversion. These two modes are the fundamental nature of everything from single-celled critters to those with the most complicated brains on our planet. I am still stunned with this fact when watching a video of infinitesimal creatures coalescing around something they desire, or racing away from a threat. Watching a movie on animals of the African savanna on a long trans-Pacific flight once, I found myself awash in tears for the fact that the vast majority of animals spend their days and nights vigilant and wary of predators.

The gift that the Buddha — the Awakened One — gives to humanity is to awake from a fate of swinging from desire to fear and back again endlessly. As Ajahn Anan says above, it is the untrained mind that falls victim to these pushes and pulls; it is the untrained mind that causes and experiences suffering. The Buddha has offered us a path whereby we have some freedom to be otherwise. We have the ability to cultivate, over time, knowledge and experience of the world that does not have at its core a basic misapprehension of the world, a misapprehension that fuels unhappiness.

I’ll end with another quote from “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery, like the idle, curved tunnels of leaf miners on the face of a leaf. We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here. Then we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise.



Ask a Buddhist

Posted by on Dec 5, 2014 in Blog | Comments Off on Ask a Buddhist

Ask A Buddhist: Where does love fit into Buddhism?

December 4th 2014By Sarah ConoverSarah Conover has been a Buddhist practitioner for nearly three decades. She’s ready to answer your questions about the faith. What do you want to ask a Buddhist?  Fill out the form below or submit your question online

I have always wondered how “heart” fits into, or is addressed by Buddhists. I can’t shake the notion that the practice of Buddhism seems “heady” to me; sort of lacks a heart connection to others. I have studied Buddhism a little bit and I am attracted to it, but I keep coming away with the feeling that it is not a good fit because it seems overly intellectual.  What am I missing? 

Dear Reader:

House-Ad_SPO_Ask-a-Buddhist_0521131First off, the caveat that should begin all my AAB responses: know that my slice of perspective is necessarily narrow. I’m a white, middle-class, happily-married, Spokane mother of two who grew up with no knowledge Buddhist teachings or cultures in a WASP (white-anglo-saxon-protestant-middle-class) suburb of New York City. I studied comparative religions in college, and was a religious “tourist” for a time before committing to a Buddhist path for the last three decades in the Southeast Asian Theravada tradition. Most importantly, I’m not liberated, not even close. However, I’m fascinated that we Buddhists find ourselves in the midst of a quickly evolving global religion, a cross-pollination of the ancient East and the modern West, the modern East and the ancient West. As someone with a love of the Buddha’s teachings, over- blessed with curiosity, I’m willing to ask those who are more experienced, committed and smarter than myself to help me wrestle with the issues raised by readers.

Now on to Buddhist love. I’ve struggled with this same issue, so I’m really glad you asked. It’s a great question and, in my mind, key in terms of how one matures as a Buddhist (and as a human being for that matter!). Indeed, might love—how it’s cultivated and manifested—be key for spiritual growth no matter the religious tradition?

The Buddha described the purpose of the Dharma, his teachings, as “the liberation of the heart which is love.” We in the West have been bombarded with mindfulness this and mindfulness that, and it’s only lately that his many, many teachings on love and methods for its cultivation have come to the forefront of popular attention.

The word, love, has become a thin and worn currency in modern life; perhaps love, so essential to all humanity, should never be spoken without a moment of astonishment and a recognition of its effects. We use the word to denote, and connote, everything from romantic passion to a favorite food. “Love you,” we say as husband or child heads out the door. “Love you, too,” they say in reply, halfway down the stairs, voice buried by the roar of a passing car.

Christian tradition does have a word for love that is more spiritual in nature—the term, agape, which originally meant selfless love, an ideal echoed in Buddhism’s teachings on love. The Tibetan Buddhist tradition defines love explicitly: the wish for someone to have happiness and its causes.

Buddhism cultivates four kinds of love called the Boundless States, or the Four Immeasurables, none of which can be mistaken for romantic love, sentimentality or possessiveness. Boundless, or immeasurable, indicates that we cultivate love for each and every single being without partiality. Specifically, the Four Immeasurables are: loving-kindness (metta); compassion (karuna); empathetic joy (mudita); and equanimity (upekkha). Of these four emotions, metta, loving-kindness, goodwill or love—depending on the translator—is fundamental. For example, the application of loving-kindness towards suffering is compassion; likewise, the application of loving-kindness towards happiness is sympathetic joy.

“Equanimity,” argues Thanissaro Bhikkhu, in his article “Head and Heart Together,” is a slightly different emotion than loving-kindness, in that “it acts as an aid to and a check on the other three. When you encounter suffering that you can’t stop no matter how hard you try, you need equanimity to avoid creating additional suffering and to channel your energies to areas where you can be of help.”  Even so, the Buddha’s instructions regarding all four types of love are the same: a person dwells pervading the entire world everywhere and equally, his heart filled with love, “abundant, grown great, measureless, free from enmity and free from distress.”

The numerous metta, loving-kindness, practices of Buddhism begin with befriending ourselvesThe Buddha taught the heart of a saying we have each heard many times: you can’t truly love anyone else until you love yourself. The Buddha said, “You can search throughout the entire universe for someone who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself, and that person is not to be found anywhere. You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.”

Does that mean the Buddha promoted a narcissistic, navel-gazing love? No. He begins with a radical friendliness and compassion towards ourselves first. This isn’t easy. Look within: our conditioning weights us with judgments of right/wrong /good/bad, and we direct these verdicts more harshly towards ourselves than to anyone else. The Buddha’s antidote to such self-loathing is the standard prayer of loving-kindness:

May I be free from danger

May I be free from mental suffering

May I be free from physical suffering

May I have ease of well-being

Many of us improvise on these words, choosing sentiments we may connect with better. These phrases are then widened outward—more recognizably as selfless love—to include family, friends, those we don’t yet know, those whom we see as enemies, and finally to all creatures, all sentient beings everywhere. The Song of Metta, chanted by monastics and lay practitioners alike states:

Even as a mother guards with her life

Her child, her only child,

So with a boundless heart

Should one cherish all living beings,

Radiating kindness over the entire world:

Spreading upward to the skies,

And downward to the depths;

Outward and unbounded,

Freed from hatred and ill will.

Metta, the wish for true happiness for all, feels much like the quality of unconditional love shared in deep friendship. In fact, the Buddha addressed everyone, from peasant to nun to king exactly the same: Friend. Your best guide in life, he said, is a kalyanamitta, a beautiful friend, a spiritual friend, and he considered himself to be the very best kalyanamitta.

Searching for what love means within my adopted religion has been my beacon.  The more I’ve learned about the Buddha’s teachings on love, the more I’ve intentionally shaped my practice with them. There are many to chose from, and many guided meditations online. I’ve found that undertaking these practices generates a feedback loop eliciting, not surprisingly, more goodwill, more compassion, more joy and more equanimity. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the Buddha’s love teachings is that practitioners find both immediate benefits—an immediate mind-state change—as well as long-term, substantive effects in perspective and emotional health. I only wish I’d understood their importance years ago because the joy felt in their cultivation is exactly what the Buddha describes in the Metta Sutta: a sublime abiding.

Most importantly, just as a farmer cultivates a harvest through toil and perseverance, rooting the Boundless States into one’s life requires long-standing effort. A monastic I spoke with had the following to say: “Speaking personally, I struggled with the issue of love too. I came to realize that my idea of love — and spirituality, for that matter — had an expectation of some feel-good, warm, and fuzzy quality that should arise spontaneously without me having to work at it. But that’s not what the Buddha’s talking about. Or maybe he is, but to develop spontaneous and genuine love for another is a habit we have to deliberately cultivate.“

The issue of love and Buddhism—or a certain lack of its visibility in much popular Buddhist literature and teachings—bothered me for decades. As you observed, Buddhism, as we encounter it in the West, often seems quite heady. Many people’s introduction to the Dharma happens through books, and that’s a radically different context from cultures where the teachings weave into the arc of life and its daily activities. Visit any Thai temple—even in the U.S—and you’ll see such an outpouring of generosity that you’ll feel cocooned in love; listen to a Zen teacher who has worked in hospice for years and you’ll have a taste of compassion that you’ll know in your bones is pure love; listen to a Tibetan monastic’s explanation of the Bodhisattva’s vow of selfless love and you will be moved to tears.

Interestingly, it may have been the Cartesian paradigm of a mind/body split that steered the ship of the Buddha Dharma reaching Western shores into the “heady” mind dock—it might have been the easiest fit for translators of Buddhist texts. Translation is tricky business (so I’ve been told), and this is a prime example. Buddhism uses a single word to denote an inseparability of mind/heart: chitta. As Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg says in Loving-kindness: the Revolutionary Art of Happiness, “Chitta refers not just to thoughts and emotions in the narrow sense of arising from the brain, but also to the whole range of consciousness, vast and unimpeded.”

Is there, then, a great difference between mindfulness practices and loving-kindness practices? Are the mindfulness practices, the ones we hear so much about these days, necessarily heady? Do both access “vast and unimpeded consciousness?” Must counting your breath or noting your passing thoughts be robotic, without heart?

In my experience, after a time, the two categories of practices meld and amplify one another: both invite in experience instead of forcing it away; both steady thought and diminish the push and pull of reactivity; both cultivate a feeling of safety and ease with embodied experience, often allowing an exquisite range of awareness much richer than the tyranny of discursive internal brooding. To quote Sharon Salzberg again: “Great fullness of being, which we experience as happiness, can also be described as love. To be undivided and unfragmented, to be completely present, is to love. To pay attention is to love.”


Can Buddhism Help with Stress and Depression?

Posted by on Oct 22, 2014 in Blog | Comments Off on Can Buddhism Help with Stress and Depression?

Ask A Buddhist: Can Buddhism help with depression?

October 22nd 2014By Sarah Conover

Sarah Conover has been a Buddhist practitioner for nearly three decades. She’s ready to answer your questions about the faith. What do you want to ask a Buddhist?  Fill out the form below or submit your question online

Can Buddhism help you in your everyday life like relieve stress or depression?  I want to learn more about Buddhism because I’m thinking about becoming Buddhist.

House-Ad_SPO_Ask-a-Buddhist_0521131Dear Reader:

Buddhism stands on three foundational legs: virtue, concentration (the meditation practices) and wisdom. The three are inextricable in their effect on each other; however, I’m going to approach your question today through the leg of meditation practice as over the last decade or so a tremendous amount of neuroscience has validated the practical benefits of meditation for mind and body. In fact, achieving lasting contentment by freeing oneself from afflictions (such as stress and depression) is the central promise of Buddhism. I’d like to note, however, that the ultimate goal of Buddhism is liberation, an aspiration much more comprehensive than meditation’s utilitarian aspects: like any religion, Buddhism is a system of salvation and concerns the nature of being, becoming and existence.

Although this article will lean heavily on the available science supporting the positive outcomes of meditation on mind and body, I’m going to juxtapose it with my own experience as a meditator and a meditation teacher for over two decades, offering some cautionary tales to a guaranteed fast and effortless path leading from cyclic depression to a stable contentment. The science is drawn from a summarizing book chapter of scientific findings available on-line titled: “Meditation and Neuroscience: From Research to Clinical Practice.”

To name a few of the down-to-earth meditation benefits supported by science: improving the immune system; growing more grey matter; improving brain plasticity; developing contentment and ease in daily life; increasing compassion; cultivating emotional equanimity; reducing stress; reducing distractedness; improving attention and focus.

First, the present consensual definition of meditation used for its scientific study is: methods that seek to improve self-regulation of attention and emotion. I find this broad description very helpful and clarifying. Under this designation fits the two camps—the attention focusing methods and the receptive methods–of most everything I’ve heard of, read about or experienced across many wisdom traditions. The attention focusing techniques include, but are not limited to, Islamic Zhikr, TM (Transcendental Meditation), Jewish mystic traditions, Tibetan mantra visualizations and yogic breath methods. The cultivation of inward-listening techniques are found in Insight Meditation, Christian Centering Prayer, Zen koan study and Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) to name just a few. That being said, I could probably exchange the examples I just named and put them in the opposite camp because each fosters the cultivation of both.

The great Thai Forest Buddhist master Ajahn Chah says that meditation is like picking up a single stick—at one end of the stick you’ll find the concentration methods (attention regulation through steadying the mind) and at the other end of the stick are the receptive methods (emotional regulation through receptivity and non-identification with thought and emotion). One can safely say that all Buddhist schools offer teachings that include both self-regulation of attention and emotions, but various traditions may weight one end over the other.

No matter the specific meditation technique, scientists have found that meditation can lead to both state and trait experiences involving a deep sense of peace and calm. State changes signal temporary changes in mind states and mood; trait changes are transformations in brain function seen over an extended period of time.

The experience of state-changes during meditation will be familiar to anyone who has meditated regularly or even for a short while; in fact, Buddhist meditation methods are deliberate pathways to state changes. In groups I facilitate, especially when I use a guided format, state changes seem to occur sometimes as quickly as five minutes into a meditation sitting: when I hear a change in the quality of breathing around me I’ll peek and notice that faces and shoulders are relaxing, surrendering to gravity as people drop the preoccupations with which they arrived.

In regards to mind state changes, scientists have identified five major categories of brain waves, each corresponding to different levels of activities. Meditation allows us to move from higher frequency brain waves to lower frequency, affording access to areas of brain function not used in our everyday lives. Among the benefits of lower, slower brain waves, a meditator may find more time between thoughts and thus an opportunity to more intentionally choose what thoughts to invest in and what actions to take (Ashley Turner, Huffington Post, “Meditation 101”).

I confess to being somewhat of a state-change junkie through meditation. Anyone who knows me would peg my normal level of activity in the red zone of any scale, but after over two decades of Buddhist practice (and probably with the helping hand of age), I savor not only the mental ease arising from more restful mind states, but also the capacity to better anticipate what we Buddhists term, “skillful action.”  Meditation abilities develop slowly over time, and to start discerning mind states and their effect on thought and emotion is central to Buddhist practice (see the Satipattana Sutta, the Four Foundations of Mindfulness).

The beneficial state changes from activation to relaxation are validated in numbers of scientific experiments that use objective measurements such as in heart rate variability (HRV)—one of the body’s signals that we have moved from the sympathetic nervous system (the opposite of what it sounds like!), known as the fight or flight response, to the parasympathetic nervous system, known as the rest and digest system. Pressed up against a busy, stressed and distracted world, bumped about by emotions and events, our fight or flight response is the default mode for most of us and over-releases hormones such as cortisol that limit brain function in the moment and over time.

Trait changes are the long-term neurological changes in our brain function noted by scientists studying meditation. Overall, these transformations are distinguished by density increases in gray matter regions and white matter pathways.  “The brain state changes found in meditators are almost exclusively found in higher-order executive and association cortices,” say the authors of “Meditation and Neuroscience: From Research to Clinical Practice.” It turns out that meditation is one of the few pathways that fosters communication between the primitive brain and the brain’s executive functions, supporting the notion that meditation increases self-regulation of emotions and attention.

As regards depression and meditation, meditation may at first intensify both positive and negative feelings. This makes a lot of sense to me: sitting with experience instead of distracting yourself lands you a front-row seat at the mind’s theatre. Episodic depression, as any of us who have dealt with it well know, may have originally occurred with the onset of a traumatic event, but over time, the role the event played becomes more muddled; instead, each new episode of depression seems to have a lower and lower threshold. Ouch. At this point in time, there isn’t much research on meditation’s effectiveness alone vis-à-vis depression: what the stats show is that cognitive therapy that includes a component of meditation can reduce the probability of depressive relapse quite significantly.

And here I’d like to insert some thoughts and observations from personal experience and from a number of people I know that came to meditation for help with recurring depression. Simply said, if you are prone to cyclic depression, you’ll need guidance and you’ll likely need to utilize meditation methods aligned in the attention focusing camp. Without training in self-regulation of attention and emotions (i.e. without meditation instruction), the default mode of the brain is to perseverate rather endlessly, and so the new and experienced meditator may encounter a dark and rather frightening situation. As said above, both negative and positive emotions may intensify when a meditator focuses inward. Scientists call the slide into a space where negative thoughts proliferate cognitive reactivity—the ability of a slight change in mood to degenerate into a series of deeply negative thoughts. The word papancha in Buddhist psychology characterizes the mind’s ability to self-fuel in this way: the etymology comes from the way an ink drop on a cloth spreads outward from fiber to fiber. I’ve encountered this gloom and doom in myself and I’ve seen the same situation for others. Sometimes one is just too raw for that front-row seat without some concentration tools and an encouraging guide

For over a decade, I used to teach a fairly technique-free version of meditation, but over time, I’ve come to understand that people longing for interior solace need some tools to help them achieve peace sooner rather than later. Without some meditational structure, almost everyone is prone to a wandering mind, which it turns out is universally, across cultures, the common denominator of unhappiness (to see the data about this and to track this in your own life go to, a crowd-sourced world-wide scientific experiment). Even in the foundational teaching mentioned above, the Satipattana Sutta, the Buddha taught at least 40 methods. Many of the other wisdom techniques the Buddha taught, such as the Brahma Viharas, the Sublime States, specifically brighten the mind and heart by cultivating universal love for oneself and others.

Our fundamental need for tranquility became quite obvious to me facilitating a meditation group in Airway Heights Prison: certainly there is little peace to be found in “the block,” within the buildings housing large numbers of inmates. When I first began teaching there, I used a very undirected, open format. Whether or not they were dealing with depression (prison inmates have one of the highest rates of suicide of any population), the hunger for interior peace is palpable. My co-facilitator, a teacher trained through the Spirit Rock Center who began the group at the prison four years previously, taught some of the Buddha’s techniques from both teachings mentioned above, so I was able to see the differences in effectiveness between our two approaches. What I saw over time caused me to change my own meditation practice.

The transformation in these meditators, especially after months of practicing the loving kindness methods from the Brahma Viharas, strikes me as almost miraculous. Faces and dispositions are brighter—everyone seems to have a positive testimonial weekly. One inmate was stunned by the fact that he no longer ate alone, but that others had spontaneously begun to join him. Most recently, an inmate said that before he’d directed loving-kindness to himself, he’d assumed all happiness was found externally—from other people, money, and activities. However, he now realizes that a love for self and others generates from within, peace truly comes from within. Can there be a much more important human insight? My time with the inmates, within the four walls of the prison chapel, inspires my own practice deeply.

We come to meditation searching for rest and solace and a chance to consider and perhaps revise how we live. The seclusion of closing our eyes, tuning into and slowing down our internal world, is one of its great gifts. I’ve not found stress to be much fun at all anymore, so my response these days (when I disengage from a situation enough to remember) is to meditate, to cultivate an intimate and compassionate self-regulation of attention and emotion. That moods and emotions affect thoughts, and visa versa—is an old fact described in Buddhist psychology, but a dawning area of research for scientists.

Mindfulness, a core practice across all schools of Buddhism, is the guardian of harmlessness, a guardian of the way we relate to ourselves and to the world. Minds secrete thoughts the way our bodies secrete many things I won’t detail here: the task of meditation is to alter the way we relate to our minds and hearts. Or, here’s another metaphor that Jon Kabat-Zinn uses: in meditation we are learning to stand on the bank of the mind-stream, watchful and curious, instead of being swept away in its rapids. It turns out there are evolutionary neurological roots to both suffering and happiness, and it turns out that many of the Buddha’s teachings are effective pathways to cultivating happiness. So, yes, Buddhist meditation—as well as other kinds of meditation that incorporate the body more directly such yoga—prove to have very practical, beneficial results in daily life in the short and long term.


Posted by on Sep 10, 2014 in Blog | Comments Off on

Ask A Buddhist: Can LGBT people be ordained?

Sarah Conover has been a Buddhist practitioner for nearly three decades. She’s ready to answer your questions about the faith. What do you want to ask a Buddhist?  Fill out the form below or submit your question online

By Sarah Conover

Dear Sarah

I am quite new to Buddhism. I have a question in regards to monk ordination, specifically about LGBT people being ordained. I have read that in some temples and monasteries it is fine and then in others it isn’t. By fine I mean they can be ordained if they remain celibate and the like, and in others they can’t be ordained no matter what.

I just wanted to know what your thoughts were on the issue and if you can shed some light on it. 


Dear Reader:

Questions about sexuality shouldn’t be an issue among Buddhist monastics because of what you noted above: celibacy. However, shouldn’t bedoesn’t mean it isn’t. As with any of the myriad ways we self-identify, the categories of lesbian, gay, bi or transgendered, are among dozens of self-conceptions we are drawn to or burdened with. For most people who identify within LGBT, the label seems to be a primary piece of selfhood, seen as an essential aspect of their personal narrative. Monasticism, with the ultimate aim of liberation, is a committed and extended effort to be free from the suffering caused by all narrowed views of selfhood.

The ordination ceremony and the 230 and more rules monastics must follow afterwards are just a starting point, a clear demarcation of abandoning one’s former identity on symbolic and psychological levels. Among the list of things surrendered in the ordination formalities are one’s autonomy, beautification of the self, posturing of gender, and even one’s birth name. The nun’s (or monk’s) hair is shaved to look like an old man, she’s given robes that were traditionally sewn from scraps found in the charnel grounds, all her possessions must be forfeited, and her choice of activities will no longer be her own. And that’s just a sweeping summary of the fine print. “From the outset,” says Bikkhu Bodhi in his essay, Lifestyles and Spiritual Progress, “the monk’s life is rooted in renunciation. In ‘going forth,’ the monk leaves behind family, possessions, and worldly position, and even the outer marks of personal identity, symbolized by hair, beard, and wardrobe. By shaving the head and donning the yellow robe, the monk has given up — in principle at least — any claim to a unique identity as his own.”

Thus begins the real work of a monastic: cultivating a wisdom that sees through the normal misapprehension of phenomena including the identities most of us cling to life-long (until death do us part). For the new monk or nun, all the badges of selfhood, achievements, and individuality we’ve carried throughout our lives, all the ways in which we curate our uniqueness (pretty much the ways most of us fill our days) are formally surrendered. Buddhist practice, whether for the lay person or the monastic, aims to find a deeper understanding of the nature of identity and the ways it derails human happiness.

My direct experience at several monasteries across several traditions and cultures is that the sangha (the monastic community) tends to be a safe harbor for gay and bi men and women precisely because one of the intentions is to abandon sexuality — its burdens, needs and complications. That task, however, doesn’t mean it happens instantly or easily.

In the specific arena of sexuality, Buddhist monastics follow rules prescribed in a collection called the Vinaya, and not a few target aspects of sexual decorum and activity. For example, in the Thai Forest Tradition in which my son is ordained, women and men must keep a certain distance apart and never touch (in fact an offering cloth is used to pass items back and forth between them). In the sexual activity arena, you can be sure protocol is explicit: wet dreams are “allowed,” but masturbation is an intentional act that must be confessed to the whole sangha; a sexual affair can lead to expulsion from the community.

Why so many strict rules we might wonder? Are they simply conservative formalities from two thousand years ago? It is said that the Buddha only implemented a rule for the sangha when he saw a need for it. The sexual drive is so primary to every human, that the specificity of the rules around sexuality signals their need — almost as protection of virtue. I have heard a number of monastics attest to this. As a twenty-something healthy male, my son has conveyed that certain situations are absolutely “kryptonite” for him and he must keep his distance.

In terms of transgenderism — something I’d never considered in this context — I had to run my response by an ordained monastic. Much to my surprise, the Buddha did give it some thought. Somewhere within one of the Vinayas said my nun friend (not all denominations have the same rule book), the Buddha allowed that if you ordain as a monk and become a woman, you can be considered a bhikkhuni, a nun. (I’m unsure if the opposite was considered a possibility millennia ago).

At the time of ordination, you do have to identify your gender: “I am a man,” or “I am a woman.”  Hermaphrodites, because of the sexual blurring, are not allowed to ordain. Initially, this obstacle seemed unjust to me until I considered how carefully the sexes are segregated to protect the virtue of each.

My nun friend had never heard of someone being unable to ordain who previously identified as LGBT.  Upon ordination the person is not asked, “Are you a hetereosexual?” All monastics are expected to remain celibate.

I’d like to close with a quote from Buddhist teacher and former monk, Jack Kornfield, that circles back to the predicament of self-identification and its confining views: “Without being aware of it, you take many things as being your identity: your body, your race, your beliefs, your thoughts… In opening we can see how many times we have mistaken small identities and fearful beliefs for our true nature and how limiting this is. We can touch with great compassion the pain from the contracted identities that we and others have created in the world.”


Buddhism and Right Speech

Posted by on Jul 1, 2014 in Blog | Comments Off on Buddhism and Right Speech


What is the Key to Meditating?

Posted by on Sep 4, 2013 in Blog | Comments Off on What is the Key to Meditating?

Q. What is the key to meditating? I try, but my mind just wanders.

A. You’ve landed on a central issue for every meditator: what to do with a drifting mind. The question addresses the irony that we have a learning curve to simply be with our experience of being. Meditation is just a circumscribed time of minimal distraction. If you let your mind amble about it can seem pointless, but if you try and force your mind not to wander, you can set yourself up for an unpleasant internal struggle.

— Read more at the Spokane FAVS  blog, “a gathering place for non-sectarian coverage of faith and values news from the Spokane area.”