Week 1: Life and Practice


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Alex Kelly's picture

I thought Larry's talk was engaging.

I am not so sure about the link between the two themes that Larry cites though: impermanence (anicca) and skilfulness (kusula) as giving a complete picture of the Buddha's teachings. Another difficulty is to do with the meaning of anicca, which is often translated as impermanence. An alternative translation for anicca is inconstancy. Something that is 'nicca' is constant and regular - one can depend on it to always be there. The difference between impermance and inconstancy is clearer from this. Phenomena that are anicca are inconstant, liable to change, not necessarily disappering completely as impermanent sugguesrs but subject to alteration. This is an important difference because when the Buddha talks about anicca as experienced it is because things are not dependable that is real problem - its a cause for dukkha precisely because poeple do depend on them.

Certainly skilfulness is central to the Buddha's training (as it is found in the Pali canon) but the role of impermanence is almost always presented in a skewed way I think. Anicca is often presented in western traditions as a kind of metaphysical reality that we need to be aware of and that when were not aware of it then that is a large part of the reason why people suffer. The case the shrimper which Larry starts to talk about is a good example of this understanding. Certainly it is true that when change occurs and it lead to stress because it goes against habitual ways of doing things. But people never needed to be told that there this impermanence; it is self evident throughout experience. The case is often put that it is because people dont see impermanence correctly or that it hasnt been seen deeply enough to effect ones habitual grasping. If you go back to the Pali canon, the teaching on anicca (and also dukkha and anatta) are perceptions to be developed as antidotes, not metaphysical statements about the nature of the universe. The teaching on inconstancy is focused on developing the skills that lead to the production of genuine happiness. It employs the developing the themes of inconstancy, stress, and not-self — not as abstract statements about existence, but as inducement for mastering skills (in body, speech and mind) and as guidelines for measuring your progress along a path to a more and more dependable happiness (that is ultimately unshakeable).

The theme of skilfulness is of central importance to the Buddha training because it points directly at another central theme of the teachings which is sometimes played down not essential or as peripheral: kamma. The main thrust of developing skilfulness is precisely because of kamma, action. One of the basic necessities of following the Buddha's teachings is having a degree confidence that one actions give results in the present and future. On that basis its possible to have a practice which aims at developing skilful actions and abandoning unskilful actions (of body, speech and mind). The eightfold path as the Buddha set out is presented as the highest practice of skilfulness as it is the kamma that leads to the end of kamma.

Larry's analysis of the problem of retreat practice as compared to daily life is a good one. Again when one looks at the Pali canon and the Buddha's teachings to lay people one gets the sense that its a whole practice that's being taught. He teaches, generosity, the five precepts, right livelihood, and tries to straighten out peoples views, especially as regards the efficacy of action (kamma). You see teachings on meditation practice given a lot less to the laity in the pali canon. The basis of the training is sila (skilful conduct) and right views, concentration practice relies on these being well developed to be beneficial. But really there are not three practices here (sila, sammadhi, panna) it is all one practice: developing skilfulness with kamma – its just at different levels – more and more refined as the path is developed. The learning of a meditation technique is never going to be a complete practice, no matter how good at it you get, if the foundation is lacking in daily life. Having different 'times' in the practice, so that one time is sitting concentration practice or reatreat time and other times are work or leisure times is not going to give consistent results. Making the practice timeless (akaliko) is bringing all the factors of eightfold path into play.

Larry mentions the practice as a kind of therapy: (the root of the word Theravada?) this is closer to what the teachings are actually about as opposed to just giving people a better outlook on life for instance. Recognising that there is an illness that needs to cured is the first stage of a therapeutic treatment, and the Buddha is sometimes known as the supreme physician.

zarno's picture

Refreshing . I'm looking forward to some fresh perspectives.

Richard Fidler's picture

Where's Larry?

Michael Jaquish's picture

Hello Larry. Thank you very much for sharing your insight and wisdom on this very important topic. 

The challenge of transferring insight gained from sitting meditation to daily life for lay practitioners has been a vital focus of concern for me for some time (and I attempt to address these challenges to some degree in my book: A Monk Without a Monastery). Asian Buddhism is evolving into something different as it moves slowly but inexorably into the Western cultures and teachers like you are providing us with methods and tools to live each day as Susmita Barua in India (who comments here) says:  My whole life has been a contemplation, and I really never thought about practice as anything separate than [from] 'Life’”.  This is indeed the goal of all serious practitioners… to alter our perspective through meditation and mindfulness until our meditation does not stop when we arise from the cushion, but continues as we go about our daily routines.

 I am looking forward to hearing how you suggest we accomplish this goal.


 Michael Jaquish

swastan's picture

Thank you Larry. First I want to let you know that your book "Breath by Breath" has been my dependable guide for years in my meditation practice. Thank you so much for this selfless contribution. 

Buddha has both ordained and laypeople disciples. His teachings covers various aspects at various levels across the four groups of disciples. If there is a problem in trying to fit in (contemporary and daily living), the problem is inside us. If we are honest with ourselves, we will come to understand that the Dhamma never fails us, we only fail the Dhamma. 

I look forward to your on line retreats. Thank you.

deborah.baggesen's picture

Yes, how can we incorporate this into our daily life with all of it's tugging, pulling, struggles and activity. 

Thank you for the first session.  It was exciting to hear.  Looking forward to listening to it again and the next session. 

Also I like the short length, 20 minutes.  It was easy to carve out a few moments to view it, especially with my 6 year old that demands much of my attention.

sdbourque's picture

Very well done. Thanks for your insight .

atomicmonky's picture

Thank you, Larry.   I want to be able to incorrporate practice in my daily life.  I admire your being conservative and radical for the sake of the laity, and it is very inspiring to see where this will lead.  So often, while sitting on the mat, I couldn't help but wish I were a nun to have the priviledge of practice etc...  I couldn't help but yearn to be able to somehow incorporate practice in my own daily, secular life.  And then I would get depressed because there's no sangha near me and couldn't help but mope that westerners will never have the same access and relationships with their Sangha the way they did and do in India and Asian countries.  My Sangha is just too, too far away.  :(    And of course, it is not a temple like the ones in Asia  where there's mutual dependence between the monks and the laity.   Wish we had that here.  But we don't.  So I spend my days reading books on how to do this on my own.  And now I see you here, on my favorite magazine's website, and I have a teacher before me speaking of how the western laity can incorporate buddhist practice in their daily lives and I'm over joyed and filled with hope.  Can I really, really?  Thank you, thank you Larry and Tricycle Magazine.  I look forward to my next retreat with you, Larry.  :)  Too bad your center is not in L.A.; I'm so glad your center is where it is meant to be.  It's just wonderful.  Hope one day you open one here, and that it's close by me ;)

Richard Fidler's picture

Having participated in these forums before, I have become aware that there are strict limits about what questions may be asked and what kind of language can be used to frame those questions.  In general open questions are not open; they are entertained from a Buddhist viewpoint only.  The collision of secular ideas with Buddhist ideas is ignored by both retreat leaders and other participants.  

You say we need to be both conservative (and radical).  What are the limitations to our discourse here?  Are non-Buddhist participants welcomed?  And what is the position of the teacher?  Are teachers revered or are they regarded as wise persons open to dialogue with students?  An Asian view of the teacher-student relationship would discourage such familiarity as informal dialogue.  A Western perspective might welcome it.  It's hard to figure how participants are to relate to the discussion leader in this online format.  Hope you have some thoughts in this regard.  

rerb's picture

Larry's take on the Kalama Sutta -- http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/rosenberg/righttoask.html -- suggests he might be open to all questions.

I'm interested in the "collision of secular ideas with Buddhist ideas" that you mention.  Would you provide an example?

Richard Fidler's picture

It is my understanding that Buddhism regards the sensory world as maya, an illusion that has no real basis.  This goes against what we accept in science: there is a physical basis to all phenomena; it is not illusion; we can build valid conceptual models of it; those conceptual models approximate the truth.  In other words, there is structure "out there"--it is not just a bunch of constructs.  Although all of this sounds quite philosophical, it isn't--at least to me.  As a former teacher of biology, I have devoted much of my life to having my students understand (and appreciate) the implicit order of the universe.  To say there is no such order would go against what I have sought to accomplish over many years.  That is important.

sharmila2's picture

This is a common fundamental misunderstanding of Buddhist doctrine. By "illusion", what is meant is that there is no permanenet unchanging fixed entity - that all is in flux (waves and vibrations rather than stationary particles). this fits in quite well with quantum physics, and certainly nothing in biologic systems contradicts it. The Buddha did not intend to provide a complete cosmologic unifying theory - he dismissed such pursuits as unfruitful, and not conducive to the end of suffering, which was the only thing he taught (by his own admission). Therefore different techniques - so called skillful means - were employed to help people reduce their attachment to ego. none of these teachings were ever intended to be a treatise on "the way things are"; rather, they are intended to help dispel specific delusions on the part of his listeners.

Richard Fidler's picture


A fine reply.  I do not know enough about early Buddhist writings to make any judgments about your interpretation of maya, but you've made a fine answer to my question.

I do wonder about your statement that there is no permanent unchanging fixed reality: Protons have been around for 13 billion years.  That's pretty permanent...Even the basic structure of our brains has been around for a million or more years--not permanent by a long shot, but stable.

The deepest difference between Buddhism and science has to do with verification.  In Buddhism a person's experience of awakening is subjective, but verified--usually by a teacher.  (Sometimes people check their experience against Buddhist writings).  Truth in science is obtained through adherence to a scientific method and through replication of results by independent researchers.  

The purposes of science and religion are, of course, different (though there are areas of overlap): Buddhism seeks to relieve suffering; science seeks to find out the truth wherever it leads (or even if insights have nothing to do with human betterment).  

My original post contained a question about what form of dialogue is appropriate on one of these retreats, given that an Asian view of the teacher is dominant in Buddhism (i.e. The teacher has a profound understanding, gained and certified by previous teachers going all the way back to Gotama).  From such a perspective, discussions such as you and I are carrying on are somewhat out of order.  Do you have any insights as regards this question?

Alex Kelly's picture

Discussing the dhamma (phenomena, truth, the teachings of the Buddha) is recommended by the Buddha as it encourages qualities of mind which are beneficial for developing the Buddhist path. Discernment, analysis of qualities, evaluation, confidence in ones ability to know what is skilful and not skilful. So I don't think it could be considered to be 'out of order' at all. There are problems with such discussion which without the presence of a skilled teacher could mean the discussion can go way off track and are not helpful (in terms of Buddhist practice). But even when a teacher is present to verify or guide still that is not grounds for certification. There is a fairly famous sutta about this problem of verification of truth (truth here being what is the rightness of ones understanding rather than in the scientific sense of the word) called the Kalama Sutta. I am going to quote from Thanissaro Bhikkhu's preface to his translation of the sutta as it answers this question very well:

"Although this discourse is often cited as the Buddha's carte blanche for following one's own sense of right and wrong, it actually says something much more rigorous than that. Traditions are not to be followed simply because they are traditions. Reports (such as historical accounts or news) are not to be followed simply because the source seems reliable. One's own preferences are not to be followed simply because they seem logical or resonate with one's feelings. Instead, 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. The ability to question and test one's beliefs in an appropriate way is called appropriate attention. The ability to recognize and choose wise people as mentors is called having admirable friends. According to Iti 16-17, these are, respectively, the most important internal and external factors for attaining the goal of the practice. For further thoughts on how to test a belief in practice, see MN 61, MN 95, AN 7.80, and AN 8.53. For thoughts on how to judge whether another person is wise, see MN 110, AN 4.192, and AN 8.54."

As regards the statement "that there is no permanent unchanging fixed reality: Protons have been around for 13 billion years." This highlights a pitfall of trying to apply modern ideas of empirical scientific truth and truths of a phenomenological variety. If one wanted to to try and interpret the Buddha's teachings in modern terms then this might be useful to see it as a kind of "radical phenomenology, a mode of perception that looks at experiences and processes simply as events, with no reference to the question of whether there are any 'things' lying behind those events, or of whether the events can be said really to exist. Because of this resemblance, the word 'phenomenology' is useful in helping to explain the source of the Buddha's descriptions of the workings of kamma and the process of dependent co-arising in particular. Once we know where he is coming from, it is easier to make sense of his statements and to use them in their proper context."
Wings to Awakening, An Anthology from the Pali Canon by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (Geoffrey DeGraff)

Another problem is the translation fo the word anicca as impermanent as more helpful translation is perhaps inconstant ('nicca' is what is constant and one can depend on it to always be the same). So rather than vanishing entirely there are phenomena that are changeable. I am not certain about applying this teaching to protons but is it not the case that subatomic particles behave differently when there energy levels change? I dont know enough about the physics to form a rock solid argument here but the Buddha did treat the issue of form 'rupa' as it appears under the khandas (aggregates) as a theme for contemplation. Here 'form' is not so much material form as science would have it - discrete objects or particles - but as activities/phenomena. When the Buddha talks about, he says it is made up from the form primary qualities -earth, water, fire, wind. He also says that form is subject to rubbing and wearing away. What seems a rather strange interpretation of form (from a modern perspective) has to do with how we actuality experience form. Thus the quality of earth is hardness and the quality of wind is movement - these are experiential evaluations not objective statements about reality. The idea of form being subject to rubbing and wearing has also to do with ones actual experience of form as when the result of activities. This particular pertinent to the problem of dukkha. Wherever there is clinging in terms of the five aggregates (which includes the aggregates of form) then there is a basis for stress (dukkha).

"He discerns: 'This body of mine is endowed with form, composed of the four primary elements, born from mother and father, nourished with rice and porridge, subject to inconstancy, rubbing, pressing, dissolution, and dispersion. And this consciousness of mine is supported here and bound up here." Digha Nikaya 11 Kevatta (Kevaddha) Sutta

The whole issue of form is tied to the experience primarily of ones own body - as this primarily where clinging is strongest and thus as basis for stress. The issue of external forms is secondary as one is not as strongly attached to external forms as one is to ones own body. Although its wherever there is clinging to form whether external or internal, far or near, past, present or future that there is a basis for dukkha.

mitaky's picture

Having born raised as a Buddhist in India, I could not easily answer when a 'Sangha member' asked me what is your 'path and practice'. My whole life has been a contemplation, and I really never thought about practice as anything separate than 'Life'. The label engaged buddhist might fit me, but again I don't seem to fit in the current understanding of it. So what does it mean being a "Buddhist' in US. I don't know. Looking forward to join this first online retreat here.

Larry Rosenberg's picture

your words sound fine BUT it is not a matter of words but of bringing mindfulness and an interest in learning from what such seeing brings to our attention that is transformative. USA is a large diverse country; there seems to be many buddhisms. What is called engaged buddhism often does not seem to include substantial contemplative practice.

kimaz2412's picture

Thank you so much Larry, what a wonderful discussion and a great talk to begin with.  My practice has become a refuge from me from the turmoil and craziness of my life, but as you say, my life is part of my practice.  How to better take the teachings and mindfulness into my day and make more of a difference there?  I particularly am interested in finding ways to help myself through situations that I seem "stuck in" and can't seem to let go when clearly they have happened and are as they are.  I know I cannot change them, but I want to change my reaction to them.  

Thank you again.

Larry Rosenberg's picture

The "craziness" is not an obstacle to practice ------ it IS your practice. Instead of trying to let go, bring sustained, not reactive observation to being stuck. Investigate, learn from as clear seeing as you can manage right now.

rerb's picture

Nice Freudian slip there, kimaz:

"My practice has become a refuge from me . . ."


1thankful2's picture

Shalom from Bala...[not the Bala in Wales.]

 It strikes me that almost all trainings...personal, technical, vocational, educational...have these two aspects: the moments 'on the cushion', or in the classroom, or with the Tzaddik, or with the violin teacher, or...or..., and then, elsewhere, often called 'in the real world' [which phrase also seems quite unhelpful to me]...better, perhaps, simply elsewhere.  The teacher, or whomever, can watch, listen, etc., to what the student is doing within the teaching, and not elsewhere.  I was once in a group where the leader claimed no interest in the elsewhere, and I believe[d] him...and that's quite unusual.  In response to Larry's wonderment about why so little formal training deals with the 'elsewhere'...as he undoubtedly knows, many teaching methods believe that their methods are so strong and deep, that, automatically, or almost automatically, thoughts, feelings, behavior in the world will be changed in the expected direction. [As in, no one ever trained me specifically  me about this, or questioned me about it, and as I was editing this paragraph I caught and put outside a moth, rather than killing it.]

Apparently, Larry does not believe that 'just sitting' will have that generalizing power, and so has developed another approach with the two aspects he so attractively  describes.  

We'll be interested to see where we go with this.

Larry Rosenberg's picture

My observation over a period of more than 35 yrs is that "just sitting" has not prevented some serious hurtful behavior on the part of even some "enlightened" people. Of course intensive contemplative practice has immense value, but does it automatically take care of everything else?

Maura High's picture

Thank you, Larry and everyone, os gwelwch yn dda (that's for Derek from Wales). The subject is familiar, but it's good to hear it addressed with such straightforwardness and thoughtfulness. We are constantly urged to integrate daily life and meditation practice, but the questions remain (as Ellen notes) where and when, in small things or large, in the new and unexpected or the familiar, how to be alert to the boundless gates and walk up to them and then through them. I guess the answer is Yes, and maybe Mu.

derek_a's picture

Thank you.  An insightful first video.  I don't think of it as therapy. Yes, therapy is "fixing people". I have never found Zen fixes me. It's caused me a whole load of trouble!  My aim once was to open such a retreat here in Wales, UK but it seems that is not what it was all about for me. In fact I don't know what it is all about for me!  :-D

ehoffserf's picture

Shalom from Jerusalem,

Thank you for this fine intro to the retreat and teaching.

The issue of how to bring the practice into daily life is the most intriguing for me--I have actually not been on retreats longer than a day, but I think it is so challenging to try to bring daily sitting practice and what I learn into my life. 

I also wonder--if we make the changes in our lives, vs. managing unexpected and unplanned changes, is there a difference? I think back to when I moved from a secure career and job in the US to Israel, no job, no support system....I made the change voluntarily with certain hopes for a future, but what I encountered was probably even more challenging than what occurs in the everyday stream of living. 

And your talk made me think about the small changes in routine, how they often "jar" my world, even for a few moments...(internet not working in the middle of an "important" assignment; car breakdowns).  When they occur, how I handle those moments, in honor of my practice, or in contradiction seems to speak worlds about how we bring our sitting practice and study of the dharma into our daily lives.