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Engaged Buddhism


Meditation on Death

Most spiritual paths begin by recognizing the transiency of human life. Medieval Christians honored this in the mystery play of Everyman. Don Juan, the Yaqui sorcerer, taught that the enlightened warrior walks with death at his shoulder. To confront and accept the inevitability of our dying releases us from attachments and frees us to live boldly. An initial meditation on the Buddhist path involves reflection on the twofold fact that: "death is certain" and "the time of death is uncertain." In our world today, nuclear weaponry, serving in a sense as a spiritual teacher, does that meditation for us, for it tells us that we can die together at any moment, without warning. When we allow the reality of that possibility to become conscious, it is painful, but it also jolts us awake to life's vividness, its miraculous quality, heightening our awareness of the beauty and uniqueness of each object, and each being.

As an occasional practice in daily life:

Look at the person you encounter (stranger or friend). Let the realization arise in you that this person lives on an endangered planet. He or she may die in a nuclear war; or from the poisons spreading through our world. Observe that face, unique, vulnerable...Those eyes still can see; they are not empty sockets...the skin is still intact...Become aware of your desire that this person be spared such suffering and horror, feel the strength of that desire...keep breathing...Also let the possibility arise in your consciousness that this may be the person you happen to be with when you die...that face the last you see...that hand the last you might reach out to help you then, to comfort, to give water...Open to the feelings for this person that surface in you with the awareness of this possibility... Open to the levels of caring and connection it reveals in you.


Loving kindness, or metta, is the first of the four "Abodes of the Buddha," also known as the Brahmaviharas. Meditation to arouse and sustain loving-kindness is a staple of the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement for community development in Sri Lanka, and is accorded minutes of silence at the outset of every meeting. Organizers and village workers find it useful in developing motivation for service and overcoming feelings of hostility or inadequacy in themselves and others.

I first received instruction in this meditation from a nun in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Here is a version that I have adapted for use in the West.

Close your eyes and begin to relax, exhaling to expel tension. Now center in on the normal flow of the breath, letting go of all extraneous thoughts as you passively watch the breathing-in and breathing-out

Now call to mind someone you love very your mind's eye see the face of that beloved one...silently speak her or his name...Feel your love for this being, like a current of energy coming through you...Now let your-self experience how much you want this person to be free from fear; how in-tensely you desire that this person be released from greed and ill-will, from confusion and sorrow and the causes of suffering...That desire, in all its sincerity and strength, is
metta, the great loving kindness......

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Basic to most spiritual traditions, as well as to the systems view of the world, is the recognition that we are not separate, isolated entities, but integral and organic parts of the vast web of life. As such, we are like neurons in a neural net, through which flow currents of awareness of what is happening to us, as a species and as a planet. In that context, the pain we feel for our world is a living testimony to our interconnectedness with it. If we deny this pain, we become like blocked and atrophied neurons, deprived of life's flow and weakening the larger body in which we take being. But if we let it move through us, we affirm our belonging; our collective awareness increases. We can open to the pain of the world in confidence that it can neither shatter nor isolate us, for we are not objects that can break. We are resilient patterns within a vaster web of knowing.

Because we have been conditioned to view ourselves as separate, competitive and thus fragile entities, it takes practice to relearn this kind of resilience. A good way to begin is by practicing simple openness, as in the exercise of "breathing through," adapted from an ancient Buddhist meditation for the development of compassion.

Closing your eyes, focus attention on your breathing. Don't try to breathe any special way, slow or long. Just watch the breathing as it happens in and out. Note the accompanying sensations at the nostrils or upper lip, in the chest or abdomen. Stay passive and alert, like a cat by a mouse hole......

As you watch the breath, you note that it happens by itself; without your will, without your deciding each time to inhale or exhale...It's as though you're being breathed--being breathed by life...Just as everyone in this room, in this city, in this planet now, is being breathed, sustained in a vast, breathing web of life

Now visualize your breath as a stream or ribbon of air passing through you. See it flow up through your nose, down through your windpipe and into your lungs. Now from your lungs take it through your heart. Picture it flowing through your heart and out through an opening there to recon-nect with the larger web of life. Let the breath-stream, as it passes through you, appear as one loop within that vast web, connecting you with it

Now open your awareness to the suffering that is present in the world. Drop for now all defenses and open to your knowledge of that suffering. Let it come as concretely as you can...concrete images of your fellow beings in pain and need, in fear and isolation, in prisons, hospitals, tenements, hunger need to strain for these images, they are present to you by virtue of our interexistence. Relax and just let them surface...the vast and countless hardships of our fellow humans, and of our animal brothers and sisters as well, as they swim the seas and fly the air of this ailing planet...Now breathe in the pain like dark granules on the stream of air; up through your nose, down through your trachea, lungs and heart, and out again into the world net...You are asked to do nothing for now, but let it pass through your heart......Be sure that stream flows through and out again; don't hang on to the pain...surrender it for now to the healing resources of life's vast web......

With Shantideva, the Buddhist saint, we can say, "Let all sorrows ripen in me." We help them ripen by passing them through our hearts...making good rich compost out of all that we can learn from it, enhancing our larger, collective knowing

If no images or feelings arise and there is only blankness, grey and numb, breathe that through. The numbness itself is a very real part of our world...

And if what surfaces for you is not the pain of other beings so much as your own personal suffering, breathe that through, too. Your own anguish is an integral part of the grief of our world, and arises with it

Should you feel an ache in the chest, a pressure in the rib cage, as if the heart would break, that is all right. Your heart is not an object that can break...But if it were, they say the heart that breaks open can hold the whole universe. Your heart is that large. Trust it. Keep breathing......

This guided meditation serves to introduce the process of breathing through, which, once familiar, becomes useful in daily life in the many situations that confront us with painful information. By breathing through the bad news, rather than bracing ourselves against it, we can let it strengthen our sense of belonging in the larger web of being. It helps us remain alert and open, whether reading the newspaper, receiving criticism, or simply being present to a person who suffers.

For activists working for peace and justice, and those dealing most directly with the griefs of our time, the practice helps prevent burnout. Reminding us of the collective nature of both our prob-lems and our power, it offers a healing measure of humility. It can save us from self-righteousness. For when we can take in our world's pain, accepting it as the price of our caring, we let it inform our acts without needing to inflict it as a punishment on others who are, at the present moment, less involved.


This exercise is derived from the Buddhist practice of the Brahma-viharas, also known as the Four Abodes of the Buddha, which are loving-kindness, compassion, joy in the joy of others, and equanimity. Adapted for use interactively in a social context, it helps us to see each other more truly and experience the depths of our interconnections.

In workshops I offer this as a guided meditation with participants sitting face to face in pairs or pausing to meet each other silently as they move about the room. At its close, I encourage them to proceed to use all or any portion of it, as they go about their daily lives. It is an excellent antidote to boredom, when our eye falls on another person, say on the subway or in a check-out line. It charges that moment with beauty and discovery. It also is useful when dealing with people whom we are tempted to disregard or dislike; it breaks open our accustomed ways of viewing them. When used like this, as a meditation-in-action, one does not, of course, gaze long and deeply into the other's eyes, as in the guided exercise. A seemingly casual glance is enough.

The guided group form goes like this:

Behold each other silently and relax. Take a couple of deep breaths, centering yourself and releasing any tension...If you feel discomfort or an urge to laugh or look away, just note that gently with patience, and return your attention, when you can, to the living presence of this being. He or she is unique, different from anyone who has ever lived, or will live…

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Strengthening Our Resolve by Dialoguing with Mara

This exercise can be done on the penultimate day of an intensive.

It takes about 45 mins, plus 15 mins for large group discussion/reflection.

An introduction by Joanna :

“In Buddhism, there are two mudras, or hand gestures, that I cherish. Statues and paintings of Buddhas and bodhisattvas often show them. One is the Fear Not or abhaya mudra--right hand raised at chest level, palm outward. It says, "I will not be afraid of the fear. I will not close down, I stay fully present." It's strikingly similar to the gesture of greeting associated with American Indians. "How!" they said, as I saw in the movies, and later I learned the meaning of that raised empty hand: "See, I carry no weapon, don't be afraid."

The second hand gesture I give you tonight is the Earth-touching one, the bhumisparsa mudra. Its other name is Calling the Earth to Witness, and it connects with the story of when Gautama, soon to become the Buddha, sat down under the bodhi tree. I picture him saying, in effect, "I am not going to get up until I have broken through to the secret of the suffering we cause ourselves and others. Until I wake up to that, I am not going to move." Well, this infuriated Mara, the embodiment of sin and death. Mara sent demons to frighten Gautama and dancing girls to distract him; but the Buddha-to-be didn't waver. Finally, Mara challenged him outright. "By what right and authority do you think you can solve the mystery of suffering? Just who do you think you are?"

And Gautama offered no personal credentials. No curriculum vitae. He didn't say, "I'm the son of a king. I graduated summa cum laude from the Yoga Institute or went to Harvard Business School." He said nothing at all about himself. He just touched the Earth. It was by the authority of Earth that he sought liberation from suffering. “This is my right to be here; this is my right to seek freedom from endless suffering and inflicting of suffering.” The scriptures say that when he did that the earth roared.

So we can make that gesture too. We can touch the Earth. That act, even if only mental, reminds us of who we are and what we are about, as we confront the collapse of our oil-based economy and our oil-damaged climate. We are here for the sake of life. By the authority of our belonging to Earth from the beginning of space and time, we are here.”

The dialogue with Mara strengthens the resolve of Buddha. So often we try to be solely positive in our strength, and push down those voices which throw us off track – the voice of fears and doubts as well as the voice which seduces us into pleasant distractions, away from our clear resolve. But adversaries can help us on our path. This exercise gives a chance to voice all that fearful seduction, criticism, undermining of confidence, and this in turn gives the chance to stand up to Mara, to find our ground. In this way we are grateful to Mara.


Split into groups of 3 people.

Each person takes it in turn to become the ‘focus’ person for 15 minutes, while the other two people are listening allies in this dialogue with Mara.

The focus person has two cushions, which s/he sits on alternately.

Cushion 1 is the place of resolve/determination/confidence.

Cushion 2 is Mara.

The focus person starts in the place of resolve, telling her/his two witnesses of something s/he intends to put into action on returning home. This could be a very small plan, or a much larger project. It is probably something the focus person feels a little fearful of doing, as it is close to their heart and important work. The focus person may need to start by taking a few moments of silence to centre him/herself. Ground yourself in your body and in the earth. Feel the support of the earth and the whole earth community. Trust in your life experience. Don’t hide your dreams – some of the greatest things people have done have grown from seeds of ideas that might have seemed mad at the time. 

After stating their intention, the focus person moves onto cushion 2, and becomes Mara voicing fears, doubts and criticisms (eg who are YOU to think you can stand up and do this, you haven’t got time, you don’t know enough, etc)

Move back to cushion 1 and respond to Mara.

Be aware that you may need to re-centre yourself on cushion 1, you don’t need to respond to Mara immediately. It’s easy to panic in the face of Mara, and feel you have to justify yourself with grand ideas. Find your ground quietly.

Continue the dialogue for about 10 minutes.

The two listening allies who are witnesses to this process can help in two ways:

1) At some points the focus person may wish one of the listening allies to become Mara.

2) At other times, especially if the focus person is finding it difficult to respond to Mara, one of the listening allies may gently move behind the focus person, put their hand on their shoulder, and speak on behalf of the focus person to Mara.

Finish with Mara saying to Focus person: “By what authority are you doing this?” and reply with all resolve you can muster, touching the earth, “By the authority of the earth……and so on”.

Take a few minutes to talk over the exercise together. 

Then move on to the next focus person.

After all three people have had a chance to be focus person, come back into the large group and share reflections on the exercise.

Things to be aware of in the process and to bring to the attention of the group in your instructions:

  • Notice how much energy Mara holds
  • As you go further with the dialogue, both Mara and the place of resolve will change.
  • A word of warning: this is a powerful exercise. Some people have very strong inner critics. The Mara voice may remind the focus person of a critical parent. This can feel particularly upsetting if the focus person is unable to stand up to Mara. It is here that the two allies can be of help, supporting the focus person in their place of resolve. The facilitator(s) can be on hand for anyone who gets stuck in this process.
  • For this reason it’s helpful if the facilitator(s) are available during the process to help any focus person (and their allies) who feels stuck or upset.


Compassion, which is grief in the grief of others is but one side of the coin. The other side is joy in the joy of others--which in Buddhism is called mudita. To the extent that we allow ourselves to identify with the sufferings of other beings, we can identify with their strengths as well. This is very important for a sense of adequacy and resilience, because we face a time of great challenge that demands of us more commitment, endurance and courage than we can dredge up out of our individual supply. We can learn to draw on the other neurons in the neural net, and view them in a grateful and celebratory fashion, as so much "money in the bank."

This practice is adapted from the Meditation of Jubilation and Transformation, taught in a Buddhist text written two thousand years ago at the outset of the Mahayana tradition. You can find the original version in chapter six of the Perfection of Wisdom in 8000 Lines. I find it very useful today in two forms. The one closer to the ancient practice is this:

Relax and close your eyes. Open your awareness to the fellow beings who share with you this this this country...and in other lands......See their multitudes in your mind's eye......Now let your awareness open wider yet, to encompass all beings who ever lived...of all races and creeds and walks of life, rich, poor, kings and beggars, saints and sinners...see the vast vistas of these fellow beings stretching into the distance, like successive mountain ranges......Now consider the fact that in each of these innumerable lives some act of merit was performed. No matter how stunted or deprived the life, there was a gesture of generosity, a gift of love, an act of valor or self-sacrifice? on the battlefield or workplace, hospital or home...From these beings in their endless multitudes arose actions of courage, kindness, of teaching and healing. Let yourself see these manifold and immeasurable acts of merit......

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