Category Archives: emptying

Suffering… End of Suffering

I’ve read a lot of Dharma books and have felt time and time again that I Get It, I know what to say and what to think, I Am A Good Buddhist ™.

But I haven’t been “getting it”. When JB was dying and I was angry and sad, I felt like a bad Buddhist. “The Buddha wouldn’t have gotten so attached,” I thought. “The Buddha would have realized that JB is impermanent and wouldn’t be so upset at the news of JB’s impending death.” “The Buddha wouldn’t be sad like this.” “I’m not a good Buddhist because I’m sad, angry, irritable.”

And then a couple of weeks later, I accepted that my emotions were what they were and let go of the idea that they should be something else. Yet still, deep inside, I felt disappointed that I “wasn’t as far along the path to enlightenment as I thought I was”. Yet this disappointment was easily overshadowed by the grief that followed, especially the day of JB’s death.

Tonight I attended a dharma talk at my local sangha, which was given by a lay teacher in the Insight Meditation tradition who leads the local sangha. (The sangha itself is unaffiliated with any particular tradition, but the leader happens to be trained in Insight Meditation.) Tonight’s dharma talk was about the Noble Eightfold Path. During the talk, the teacher spoke about the benefit of having an intention, such as the intention to end suffering.

I made the intention to end suffering in myself and all others when I took my Refuge and Bodhisattva vows almost a year ago. But it suddenly struck me tonight that ending suffering doesn’t mean what I’ve always thought it meant.

I’ve always thought that ending suffering meant ending those emotional states that we find unpleasant and painful: anger, agitation, irritability, jealousy, rage, sorrow, despair, sadness, boredom, loneliness, etc. That when I feel any of those unpleasant emotions, it’s because I’m not enlightened yet.

But what is suffering, really? The day that JB died and I cried for almost an hour, was I suffering? No. I was full of sorrow, but I was not suffering.

Why not? Because I had given up the judgment. I wasn’t adding something to my emotion that wasn’t there. I was just experiencing that emotion–grief–completely.

I read a book a few months ago titled “How to Be Sick”, written by a Buddhist who is disabled. In this book, she makes a powerful argument that physical pain doesn’t always lead to suffering, that the suffering comes in when we judge our pain as good or bad, i.e., when we add something extra to the pain. This made a lot of sense to me at the time, since I’ve certainly experienced being in pain and being happy at the same time.

Tonight I realized that emotions are like physical pain and discomfort. They come and go. They’re not good or bad. Suffering doesn’t come from having emotions; it comes from feeling that the emotion you’re having isn’t right, from judging that emotion and labeling it. Just as one can be in physical pain and not be suffering, so one can be in the throng of despair and also not be suffering.

As Pema Chodron wrote, “Nothing is what we thought.”

And that is perfect.



Filed under buddhism, daily life, death, discernment, emptiness, emptying, grief, impermanence, love, mindfulness, pain, physical pain, simplicity

Death… and Life

JB—the being that I mentioned in an earlier post who’s dying—is wonderfully still alive and not suffering.

I am so grateful for this extra time.

Some days after I wrote that post, I realized something important that sounds simple but isn’t always. I’d noticed that I’d been irritable for a while, snapping at people I normally wouldn’t snap at, feeling like I just couldn’t settle in my own skin. Meditating during this period was incredibly challenging. I often would give up before my cell phone alarm would go off, often just minutes before, convinced that I hadn’t really set the alarm. I got angry at one of my cats and while I didn’t harm her in any way, she was nervous around me. I made snide comments to my undeserving husband and snapped at my sister who was only calling me to chat.

I wasn’t okay with being this way. I felt it was wrong: I’ve experienced losing those I love before; that means I should be over it; It shouldn’t bother me, I should just accept it as part of life.

But that day, as I was thinking about the impending death of this being I love and the anxiety I was having surrounding that, I suddenly realized that it was okay to be upset. No, I shouldn’t take that anxiety out on others: but once I accepted that how I was feeling wasn’t wrong or bad or somehow a failing, I felt enormous relief. What I was feeling wasn’t right or wrong, bad or good. It just was.

And, unexpectedly, the anxiety got better after that realization.

Today, I am grateful for all this extra time I’ve had with JB. It’s so much more than I hoped for. It’s so much more than anyone expected.

I know JB will die, likely sooner rather than later. But the true miracle is that JB has lived at all. Life is itself a miracle, one which I’ve taken for granted in the past. Death reminds me to stop, pay attention, and wonder at the uniqueness of each life.

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Filed under cats, daily life, death, emptying, gratitude, inspirations, peace

“Only Breath” By Rumi (As Translated By Coleman Barks)

Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu
Buddhist, sufi, or zen. Not any religion

or cultural system. I am not from the East
or the West, not out of the ocean or up

from the ground, not natural or ethereal, not
composed of elements at all. I do not exist,

am not an entity in this world or in the next,
did not descend from Adam and Eve or any

origin story. My place is placeless, a trace
of the traceless. Neither body or soul.

I belong to the beloved, have seen the two
worlds as one and that one call to and know,

first, last, outer, inner, only that
breath breathing human being.


There is a way between voice and presence
where information flows.

In disciplined silence it opens.
With wandering talk it closes.

This pretty much sums up my faith.

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Filed under convergence, different faiths, emptying, faith, images, inspirations, poetry, statement of faith, universalism

Emptiness and Compassion

The Tibetan Buddhist practice of tonglen is perhaps one of my favorite Buddhist practices, and one of the first Buddhist practices I incorporated into my daily life. This practice is an act of breathing in someone else’s pain or suffering and then breathing out the remedy or relief of that pain or suffering. I’ve often thought of this process as a way of opening oneself to the potential everyone has for reducing suffering in others. The idea is that you open yourself to another’s suffering and share what you can to reduce suffering. Taken more broadly, the practice encourages one to reduce suffering in the world by practicing non-attachment to one’s own joys.

This morning, as I was practicing tonglen, I let images of those who were suffering rise up. First on my mind was those who are suffering from the oil spill, especially those beings who live in the water.

“Oil,” I thought as I breathed in deeply. Then, “water” as I breathed out.

Then on to more general suffering: “Suffering” breathe in; “Peace” breathe out.

Then I thought of a dear friend of mine who is recovering from a painful surgery and whose daily life is filled with pain: “Pain” breathe in; “Relief” breathe out. I let my own pains act as a way of empathizing with hers.

Then I felt my stomach growl with hunger, and I thought of all those in the world who suffer from hunger: “Hunger” breathe in; “Food” breathe out.

As I alternated between these 4, I began seeing a connection between the last 3. Instead of imagining that I was transforming suffering into peace through breathing (what I consider a metaphor for actions), etc., I began to see how suffering pointed or led to peace. For example, when one is suffering, one becomes drawn to end that suffering. And the lack of suffering feels most potent when one has experienced suffering in the past. Pain always leads to relief, one way or another. No pain is permanent. Any pain will either end on its own, or the person with the pain will find some way of relieving the pain, or, in the worst case scenario, the pain will stop when the person dies. When one is hungry, one seeks food. If one does not find food and one dies of hunger, one’s body becomes food.

I used to have a concern that the practice of tonglen encouraged dualistic thinking, which is contrary to the Buddhist philosophy of emptiness. But now I see that tonglen is not only a practice in developing compassion, but also a practice in understanding emptiness. The relief of suffering is bound up in the experience of suffering. They cannot be separated.

“Form is emptiness; emptiness is form.”

(You may have noticed I was unable to see this kind of connection in the first formulation of breathing in oil and breathing out water. But perhaps the oil spill will lead us to take better care of our ocean’s and the water resources on this planet.)

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Filed under buddhism, compassion, daily life, emptiness, emptying, environment, humanity, love, meditation, pain, physical pain, speak and listen with love


Someone in my family is going through a tough time right now. I found myself thinking last night about whether I should reach out to her or not. It seems like it should always be a good thing to reach out to help someone, but I thought I should test it first. “I want to help her,” I thought. But then, as I let the sentence echo in my mind, I heard something else: “I want to be the one who helps her.”

“I want to help her.”


“I want to be the one who helps her.”

Not the same at all. And with that realization, I realized that I’m not in a place right now where I can help her, because I’d be doing it to build up my ego instead of doing it out of real compassion for her.

Two weeks ago, I had a scheduling conflict with my Meeting’s Worship and Ministry committee. It seemed very possible that I’d have to withdraw my membership from this committee. I found myself thinking, “I want to serve my Meeting.” Now, thinking back, I wonder:

“I want to serve my Meeting.”


“I want to be the one who serves my Meeting.”

I’ve been in a period of discernment about whether to take on a second term with this committee (my first term ends this December). While eating breakfast several weeks ago, I offered up the following prayer: “May I do Your will, Lord.” And then I thought about what I’d just said and was struck with discomfort.

What if God doesn’t want us to do His will all the time? I couldn’t help but think that if God had wanted us to do His will all the time, He wouldn’t have given us free will. He would have made us as puppets. Is it even right to ask God always, “What do you want me to do here?”

I’ve found myself recently saying things like, “I’m waiting to see what God says,” or “I’m waiting for a leading about this” when I’m asked a question that I already have an opinion about, but know that my answer isn’t the one the questioner wants. I used to do this with Rob, too: blaming unpopular decisions on him when it was me who made them.

Before I can follow God’s will, I have to be able to stand up for and follow my own.


Filed under compassion, daily life, discernment, ego, emptying, faith, family, God, leadings, obedience, pride

Kyrie eleison

This song is speaking to my condition so thoroughly right now that I want to share it with everyone:

There are a few posts I’ve been considering for awhile, but I don’t feel clear yet about writing them. But I will be posting again soon.

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Filed under emptying, music, worship

Attachment: A Slogan Post

Self-liberate even the antidote.

Pema Chodron’s explanation:

Don’t cling to anything.

This reminds me a bit of a Quaker slogan I got last week that said “Consider the possibility that you may be mistaken.” Buddhism really focuses on attachment and letting go of attachments. This can be kind of hard to understand. But I think the point is that if you’re clinging to something–an idea, a faith, an experience–you’re not allowing yourself to be open. For example, if you walk into Meeting for Worship with the determination that you are or are not going to speak, you shut yourself off from God. How can you follow His will if you’ve already decided what it’s going to be? Likewise, how can you truly experience anything if you’re already bogged down with what you think life should be like?

Attachment is like wearing a pair of tinted glass all the time. To really be open to the world around you, the glasses must come off.

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Filed under buddhism, emptying, slogans

Late Night Thoughts

This is something that popped into my head late last night:

Meeting for Worship isn’t about silence. It’s not about being quiet in that “Shh! Be quiet!” parental way. It’s not about silencing voices that need to speak; nor is it about having a quiet, peaceful time.

Meeting for Worship, like all forms of prayer, is about a conversation, a conversation between the mortal and the immortal. Silence in a conversation — when it’s a good, open conversation — is a waiting for the other to speak, or a time to reflect on what has been said.

It’s not a silence of emptiness, but of fullness.

I had a very powerful image given to me in a dream this morning. I had to kill Voldemort (the evil one in the Harry Potter series), but his death was unusual. As he died, every horror he’d committed rose from his stomach and then dissipated into nothingness. When all had left, he stayed alive. When I asked how he wasn’t dead, I was told: “He cannot die; he can only be emptied”.

I find in this a metaphor for mistakes we make and pain we cause. We can never kill off that part of us that causes sin, but we can empty ourselves of our past sins so that they are not so heavy and do not become such a strong influence in our lives. We can empty ourselves of sin and start again.

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Filed under emptying, meeting for worship, prayer, quakerism, silence, sin