Remembering a Noble Friend


The Buddha said that noble (spiritual) friends are the whole of the path. The other evening, John Fowle, a noble friend, slipped away from this world, and now I understand what the Buddha meant. As a teacher said (actually roared) to me many years ago, “We don’t share what we know; we share what we are.” John shared kindness and openness.

At such moments, certain truths that are usually obscure become very clear. We dwell in mystery. We strive and strive and strive, but very, very, very often we can’t make things go the way we think they should, beloved people slip away, and there is nothing we can do about it.

Suddenly it seems clear that we are all just bumbling along clueless to the real situation, hurrying and worrying and somehow convincing ourselves that all of our enterprises are urgently important. Then something like this happens. Someone like John Fowle slips out of the world and it becomes clear what a life COULD be for. We can spend our time here cultivating the capacity to open our own hearts and minds. This is the way John came to use his life, especially at the end. He found the inner door in suffering and he opened it and passed through.

What that teacher said to me turns out to be true! In times like these we realize that there really is such a thing as presence—we spend all this time listening to words and views and the whole time it was some other ineffable quality of kind attention and well, presence, that was supporting and informing us, making us feel met.

My friend John’s presence is so palpable in the wake of his leaving, as if he has taken off his human mask and revealed his true radiance and the scope of his kindness, the way it shined and and spread to the back of the room and noticed the smallest things. A few weeks back, I visited John in the hospital, finding him very weak and in great pain, eyes closed. I sat close to the bed. “You look good in blue,” he said suddenly, commenting on my shirt. “You should wear blue.” Stories like this abound about John.

John served on the boards of the Insight Meditation Society and New York Insight Meditation Center, and his wise and compassionate support of both centers and its practitioners proved essential to their flourishing. John Fowle was not a saint, which is exactly what is so lovable and inspiring about him. In his own way, he showed there is no fixed self, that we are open systems, ever changing and evolving. Many friends knew John’s boyish twinkle (“You look wonderful,” he said to me after a sitting one day. “Have you been drinking New Castle Brown Ale?”) But I think of him as porous–light shined through him . John understood the power of kindness. How wonderful it felt to be welcomed into a space by him–as if you were met and more, literally led parched to drink from a well.

Born in Lincoln, in the North of England on November 19, 1942, John grew up knowing the loss and pain of war; his father died a month before his birth. A brilliant man, he helped his mother while working and studying the law, earning his qualification with a Distinction. He built a successful career in law and investment banking in England, the Bahamas, and finally New York, where he met his beloved wife, the Dharma teacher Gina Sharpe, ultimately retiring to study and practice Buddhist meditation full time.

John often spoke about his love and gratitude for all the people who helped “keep this body alive.” He actually marveled at the goodness in people. One day before his death he said, “There is generosity in each of us, longing to come out. When it takes the opportunity, it pours out.”

He spoke of becoming as helpless as a baby in terms of the ordinary business of making and doing. But here is the thing–all that while he was engaged in the great if very, very small work of making himself available to others and to life.

“I am a five-year-old who is growing, not a 71-year-old who is past learning,” John said during his last year. “I’m still learning new stuff all the time. I never realized how deep love is. I feel the love a child has—no boundaries, no limits. I’ve never felt the depth of love for things and people the way I do now. “

He taught me about getting around the tendency of the mind to worry and plan and think:

“A doctor of Chinese medicine told me I think too much. I wondered what senses I could move to instead. I took a walk. I smelled manure from nearby horses, grass, the breeze. I hadn’t noticed! There was hearing—gravel, the grass against my trousers made a noise. My hearing is heightened now. I hadn’t realized there was an orchestra—flies, birds, and animals talking to each other. There was sensing—it felt soft walking on the grass, hard on the gravel. There was seeing, of course. I was so grateful that I still had these functions and my legs were moving. Before this illness, I wouldn’t have noticed sensing it all.

Gina (his wife, Dharma teacher Gina Sharpe) is an angel. I never realized before how much we love each other and how connected we are. It’s incredible what we have to go through to appreciate such simple things. “

Another time, at gathering at New York Insight Meditation Center, he commented on how wonderful it was to hear words spoken fresh in the moment, from the heart, alive. The group of us happened to be sharing about painful and difficult things, about racism and violence. He understood about not running from pain. He understood that no matter what is going on there is a greater force of love and compassion in the universe, and that we know this when we open and allow it in.

On what turned out to be John Fowle’s last day, I was at a lunch in Manhattan, speaking with friends about the difference between fate and destiny (it was a Parabola lunch so we were speaking of such things). Drawing on ancient sources, my lunch companion said (and I paraphrase) fate is what happens to you; destiny is something higher—it is your ultimate human potential. It was John’s fate to die on Tuesday, July 29, 2015, surrounded by friends and family. But John also touched his destiny, his ultimate human potential, which is to be fully available to life, fully part of it, responsive in heart and mind. He showed those of us who knew and loved him that fulfilling our destiny is not accomplished by great deeds act but in small moments many times.

May we all have such friends.


Walk the Path

That there is a path to the end of suffering, to freedom, is the Fourth Noble Truth.  We walk the Path as our life practice—to cultivate and develop WISDOM, live in INTEGRITY with Wise Speech, Wise Action (harmlessness) and Wise Livelihood and in MEDITATION (cultivating continuous wise presence in all activity, feeling directly the body and breath, knowing intimately our emotions and thought process).  The Noble  Eightfold Path is a Middle Path, a path of balance.

“If it were not possible,” said the Buddha, “I wouldn’t ask you to do it.” It is possible. It’s possible for each and all of us to follow these clear guidelines to practice, live, and awaken into freedom.

From the Dhammapada:

“As the bee takes the essence of a flower,
and flies without destroying its beauty and perfume,
So you too can wander in this life as free, carrying only blessings.”

Like the bee, we live in a kind of simplicity, with what is. This path to freedom is letting go, opening, understanding and being with what is, in meditative wisdom and integrity.   It is a very courageous thing we do as practitioners. On the Path we endeavor to face our fear and confusion, our longing and loss. We witness with tenderness, kindness and compassion, the joys and sorrows of this world. This is the journey we undertake.  This is the Fourth Noble Truth—that there is a Path to the end of suffering and we can journey on it; we can let go, awaken, be free.

Let Freedom Ring

The purpose of the teachings and practice is freedom, the “sure heart’s release.” It is the cooling and extinguishing of the fires of greed, hatred and delusion that rage in the heart.  Knowing the genuine possibility of freedom for every being, the Buddha taught that the heart can be free and loving in every circumstance. And he assured us that if it were not possible, he would not ask us to realize and embody it. This is the Third Noble Truth—suffering can cease and that sure heart’s release must be, and has been, realized: freedom, right here, in the midst of the 10,000 joys and the 10,000 sorrows known in every human life.

Seeing the inevitability of pleasure and pain, light and dark, gain and loss, praise and blame, all appearing for a time and changing from their own karmic momentum, we understand everything as process—thoughts constantly appearing and disappearing, feelings changing, bodies aging, transforming, shifting and moving. This is how it is—no solid self, nothing permanent or irretrievably, unchangeably me or mine—like bubbles in a stream. This understanding mandates letting go, not clinging inwardly or outwardly.

It is important that the notion of liberation not be made a thing or place that one gets or gets to at some point. It’s not in Burma, Tibet or elsewhere. And if you think you’ve got “it,” there’s “it,” you, and the reassertion of clinging, disconnection.

Inexorable and inevitable freedom is thus the essence of the Third Noble Truth.  In the words of Martin Luther King, “Let freedom ring.”


Greed, Hatred and Delusion

The Second Noble Truth is that the clinging mind—grasping, hatred and ignorance—protecting what we think is “ours” from loss—are the cause of suffering, individual and worldwide, internally and externally.

The ground of the clinging mind is ignorance—taking what is unsatisfactory, impermanent and insubstantial to be satisfactory, permanent and substantial, despite mountains of life evidence to the contrary.  It is the delusion that what we keep, guard, possess and cling to will win the mythical race to happiness.  Out of grasping, possessiveness and aggression come wars, racism, tribalism, “us and them,” and much of the misery in the world.  There is enough medicine and food.  We just don’t think it’s our responsibility to see it gets to the “other.”  Ignorant of our interconnectedness, we believe there really is “us and them,” and ignore that how we treat each other may be a more effective measure of global happiness or suffering than how much we have accumulated.

We grasp at “how it should be,” ignoring how things lawfully unfold, and that everything is dependent on causes and conditions. Our own response to experience makes the difference between suffering and contentment. Instead of attending to our thoughts, words and actions, we place blame externally, trying to fix circumstances without attention to the quality of our relationship to them.

Considering this, I invite you, when you’re suffering, to intimately understand attachment, aggression and ignorance—see whether the more we cling, the more we suffer.  Is there an opportunity to unclench—even a little?

The Way Things Are

I’ve been reflecting lately on the profundity of the Four Noble Truths.  These Truths underpinned all 45 years of the Buddha’s teachings.  We sometimes think we already know this as a beginners’ teaching.  And we want the juicy stuff, the more complex and meaty philosophical or intellectual challenges.   My experience with these Four seemingly simple Truths is that as our practice settles and we reflect more deeply, they reveal the profound reality of being human in unexpected ways.  This is not surprising, as they have endured as a guide leading to the liberation of the heart/mind for 2600 years.

The Four Truths can be stated simply—First, there is dukkha; Second, there is an origin or cause of dukkha—the mind that clings; Third, dukkha can cease; and Fourth, the Noble Eightfold Path leads to the cessation of dukkha.

To find freedom, the Buddha says our first task is to understand the First Noble Truth—that dukkha exists (suffering, insecurity, unsatisfactoriness, stress are all different translations), with the taking on of a human body—there is unavoidable pain, change, sorrow, lamentation, loss, despair.

It becomes more and more visible through practice as we give up hiding from the way things actually are—sickness, loss, depression, confusion, anger, jealousy, competition, guilt, betrayal. Even in pleasure, there’s dukkha—we get what we want and we’re afraid it won’t last; we grasp after what inevitably changes; things are insecure; no matter where we look, they change.

Can you identify dukkha in your own life?


Unselfish Joy

Mudita, a Pali and Sanskrit word, has no precise counterpart in English. The third Brahma Vihara, it is variously translated as sympathetic, altruistic or unselfish joy, finding joy in the good fortune of others, or pure joy unadulterated by self interest.  HH the Dalai Lama observed that if we cultivate mudita, “our chances for happiness multiply by 7 billion!” Yet mudita is perhaps the least discussed and practiced Brahma Vihara.  Is it that difficult?

The opposites of mudita are jealousy, envy or schadenfreude, (a German word that means taking pleasure in the misfortune of others), negative emotions marked by selfishness and malice. We may tend to emphasize our negative impulses over our positive tendencies. Yet, we can activate and develop our positive potential. “If it were impossible to cultivate the Good, I would not tell you to do so,” said the Buddha.   Methodically cultivated, the seed of mudita will flower into other virtues, as a kind of beneficial “chain reaction”: generosity (emotional and material), friendliness, and compassion; and many tendencies that lead to suffering such as jealousy and envy, ill will, cold-heartedness, and miserliness (also in one’s concern for others), will naturally die or lessen.

Mudita is an antidote to indifference and boredom. The joyful heart gains more easily the serenity of a concentrated mind:  “… thus the [disciple] continues to pervade [the whole world] with a heart of unselfish joy, abundant, grown great, measureless, without hostility or ill-will.”  It is a calm mental state open to deep insight, an important prerequisite for enlightenment.  Does that inspire your curiosity?


The Tender Raw Heart

Compassion (Pali: karuna) is the second of the four Brahmavihara or Boundless States.

Suffering is universal and not foreign to human  experience.  How we relate and respond is the very essence of our Buddhist mind/heart training.  Often we recoil and armor the heart, believing that something has gone terribly wrong, or someone is to blame for this very human experience.  Yet, the heart can be trained to respond with compassion, based on mutual resonance and natural connectedness in the face of loss and pain. Compassion is sensitivity, not grounded in pity, repulsion or fear, arising from the heart’s fearless inclusive capacity to recognize universal kinship and belonging, especially in suffering.

Compassion for our own suffering transforms resentment into forgiveness, hatred into friendliness, and fear into kindness for all beings. It mandates that we extend warmth, sensitivity and openness to all sorrows in a truthful and genuine way.

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche called this the spiritual warrior’s tender heart of sadness. He said:

“This sadness doesn’t come from being mistreated.  You don’t feel sad because someone has insulted you or because you feel impoverished.  Rather, this experience of sadness is unconditioned.  It occurs because your heart is completely open, exposed.  It is the pure raw heart.  Even if a mosquito lands on it, you feel so touched…. It is this tender heart of a warrior that has the power to heal the world.”

Can we move through the world with that open, exposed, raw heart?  Can your tender heart of compassion flutter in the face of universal and individual suffering?


Let the Teachings Fall into Your Heart (Fearless Love)

The gift of mindfulness practice is that in any moment of anxiety or fear, we are called to open our hearts, to have the courage to be with even our deepest, darkest fears.  An old Hasidic story says teachings are placed on, not in, our hearts, so that when the heart breaks, the teachings fall in.  We hear, reflect on and put into practice the teachings, so that in the turmoil of anxiety and fear, loving awareness, is our response—trusting that loving, compassionate, peaceful presence is what is most healing in the experience of the broken, anxious or fearful heart.

These days, I have been experiencing directly with great gratitude the power and profound healing of community support in difficult times.  Reflection naturally emerges on the indispensible nature of the boundless, universally empathic mind/heart capacities at the ground of human experience.  They are timeless and transcultural: love, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity.  Called Brahmavihara, these qualities are, happily, capable of cultivation and development.

These teachings and practices train the heart into feeling life fully and tenderly, intuitively sensing how to reach out and connect with our own and others’ hearts with clarity and sincere caring.  They encourage intuitive wisdom and courageous, loving presence in the face of the joys and sorrows all humans know.  We allow the teachings to fall lovingly into our heart and trust what we find there.  Can you open your broken heart so the experience of boundless loving awareness can fall in?


Presence With Equanimity

In these past days, sitting in a hospital room with my dearest one very ill, I have frequently recollected these words from Suzuki Roshi:

“You don’t really know what it means to sit in meditation until there is some great difficulty in your life.  Not until something happens like the grave illness of someone you love.  And then you are tearing your hair out and pacing back and forth in the corridor of the hospital and there’s nothing you can do.  And finally you take a seat in the midst of your fears and your sorrows and thoughts and worries.  And you just sit in the middle of it all.  And that’s the moment that you begin to understand the power of your practice.”

Contemplation and experience of these words have deepened understanding that practice can be most easily developed when there is no present great disaster or catastrophe in our life. When we are in the depths of difficulty, cultivation and development of the equanimity needed to meet the exigencies of life may seem impossible.  Yet, if we are consistently diligent and dedicated, no matter our present experience, our love of Dhamma and that consistency and dedication bring great power and sustain us, as Roshi says, “in the midst of our fears, sorrows, thoughts and worries.”  This is our foundation and our omnipresent support—the great power of our practice.  Having practiced, equanimity (balance based on wisdom) incrementally and surely develops, sustaining us through the inevitable undulations and exigencies of this human life.  May it be so for you.