The Wisdom Podcast

Shaila Catherine: Mastering the Jhanas

Shaila Catherine

In this episode of the Wisdom Podcast, we meet Theravada Buddhist teacher Shaila Catherine, author of Wisdom Wide and Deep and Focused and Fearless. Shaila was introduced to transcendental meditation in high school, and then later entered the path of Theravada Buddhism. She shares the difficulties she encountered on her first meditation retreat as well as what she encountered on that retreat that inspired her to continue practicing. She then shares how she spent a decade practicing in India, studying with meditation masters including H. W. L. Poonja (Poonjaji). She shares what it was like to study with Poonjaji and the phenomenal mind-to-mind connection he had with students. Shaila then reflects on how important the “ordinary” is as a part of spiritual practice. She also tells us about how she began going on longer retreats, during which time she began exploring the jhana states. We hear about the powerful and useful application of jhana practice, and how it enhances insight meditation and brings stability to the mind—as well as some common misunderstandings some people have about jhana practice. Host Daniel Aitken and Shaila then discuss how a practitioner can move from using the breath as the anchor to using mental states as an anchor through the “precise technology” of jhana practice. They also discuss how to use the breath as a focus for concentration. Shaila then describes in depth the first jhana and how it can be used for insight meditation, and how concentration practice illuminates the causes of suffering. Shaila also reflects on the difference between conceptually understanding impermanence, and really understanding it on a deeper level. She also shares her thoughts on the conditions needed to enter the jhanas, and whether we can access the jhanas in the midst of our busy lives, rather than simply on long retreats.

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Steve Armstrong: Insight Meditation in America

In this episode we meet Steve Armstrong, a teacher in the vipassana tradition who has studied the dhamma and practiced insight meditation since 1975. Steve is a co-founding teacher of the Vipassana Metta Foundation’s dharma sanctuary on Maui, and guided the creation of the new book Manual of Insight, the classic collection of teachings by the renowned Mahasi Sayadaw.

Steve Armstrong begins with the story of how his spiritual practice started in a commune in Maine for followers of Pink Floyd and the Grateful Dead. He then shares his first meditation retreat experience and how he began seeing the impact of meditation in his everyday life. We hear how he first encountered the experience of faith in Buddhist practice. Steve tells us how he was there for the very beginning of the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in 1977 and shares the powerful experiences of the early years of IMS, including meeting many great teachers like Dipa Ma, Mahasi Sayadaw, and Ajahn Chah.

Steve tells us about the first time at U Pandita came to the United States and what a large impact his teaching had on the IMS community. He tells us about the experiences of meditation that he has found the most challenging. We then hear how he became inspired to go to Burma for the first time, where for years he practiced from 3AM to 11PM every day. He tells us the phenomenal effects this had on his practice, almost immediately. Among these effects was the experience of what Steve calls “spiritual goodies” such as bliss, serenity, and so on. He discusses these experiences in relation to recreational-drug-induced states and reflects on some of the most noticeable differences between intoxicated states and meditative states. He also tells us about the role of the teacher in the Burmese Theravada tradition.

We also hear from Steve how the new book Manual of Insight, edited by the Vipassana Metta Foundation, came into being. Steve also reflects on what the truly transformative potential of insight meditation practice is–how it takes the practitioner beyond a basic practice of mindfulness.

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Bhikkhu Bodhi: The Buddha on Social Harmony

Bhikkhu Bodhi

This episode of the Wisdom Podcast features our second interview with renowned Buddhist scholar-monk Bhikkhu Bodhi. Ven. Bodhi tells us about the process of creating his forthcoming book, The Buddha’s Teachings on Social and Communal Harmony, and how it arose from a real need in various Buddhist communities. Bhikkhu Bodhi shares what “right view” means in the context of social harmony, explaining the meaning of “mundane right view” and its usefulness in promoting social harmony.

Ven. Bodhi then tells us how Buddhist teachings hold the key to promoting communal peace, tolerance, and understanding. He also reflects on how changing our consciousness can produce changes in our society. Then he tells us about the types of government at the time of the Buddha, and how that affected the development of the Buddha’s thoughts, including his ideal of the “wheel-turning king”–the king who ultimately serves the Dharma. Bhikkhu Bodhi then shares his thoughts on which of Buddhism’s three poisons is causing the most suffering in our time.

Bhikkhu Bodhi then advises us how to understand and use the teaching of “right speech” in the present day, and shares what the Buddha taught about how to be a good friend. He also imagines what advice the Buddha might give world leaders today, especially when dealing with conflict and social strife in their own countries. Ven. Bodhi reflects on what the Buddha might have thought about how to approach ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant).

Bhikkhu Bodhi then tells us how he came to found Buddhist Global Relief, a nonprofit organization that focuses on addressing global hunger. He also shares what he’s working on now: a translation of the Sutta Nipata, which includes advice for both lay life and monastic life. Bhikkhu Bodhi imagines, based on his studies of the Pali canon, what the Buddha’s daily life might have been like. Bhikkhu Bodhi also shares with us the different words that the Buddha used for meditation, and what the subtleties are between different terms such as jhana, samadhi, vipassana, and bhavana. He then reflects on modern definitions and understandings of mindfulness. At the end we hear Bhikkhu Bodhi’s own definition of mindfulness.

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Gerry Stribling: Buddhism for Dudes

Gerry Stribling

This week on the Wisdom Podcast we meet Gerry Stribling, the author of Buddhism for Dudes. Gerry shares how he got into Buddhism when he was volunteering Sri Lanka. He first worked at a nonprofit that protected elephants and soon came across insight meditation. He reflects on how Buddhism helps people become tough and shares what about Buddhism appealed to him, a “tough-guy” ex-military man. He talks about his work with veterans and addicts. He talks about the theme of sacrifice in Buddhism and the military. We also hear Gerry’s thoughts on what a Buddhist’s response to violence might look like. Gerry shares his personal experiences of sitting with dying World War II veterans, and how he sees them relating to death. Gerry and host Daniel Aitken also discuss different ways to respond to ideological violence such as ISIS and the November 2015 attack in Paris. Finally, Gerry shares the incredible international response he’s received to his book Buddhism for Dudes, and what his writing schedule looks like.

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Pascal Auclair: Living Buddhism from the Heart

Pascal Auclair

In this episode of the Wisdom Podcast, we meet Pascal Auclair, a teacher in the Theravada Buddhist tradition. Pascal starts by telling us how he came to Buddhism when he was traveling in Asia with his partner and ended up at Buddhadasa Bhikkhu’s monastery in Thailand. He was touched by this experience of intimacy with reality. He was struck by the realization that reality is not completely easy and satisfying. He was also deeply affected by the simplicity of the practice of following the breath.

We then hear about another deep inspiration for Pascal’s practice. When he was twenty-five, before he went to Asia, Pascal learned that he was HIV-positive. At that time, there was no medication for HIV. He says that this experience made him more open to the teachings of Buddhism. In good health today, he recalls how this diagnosis was his encounter with the “Heavenly Messengers” of old age, illness, and death. He reflects on what his refuge was then, and how he faced his diagnosis. At that point he felt certain he would not live to the age of forty, and with this sense of time as precious, he set out to go to Asia.

Pascal tells us about the specific practices he learned on that first retreat in Asia. In these early days of practice, he was touched by the light, almost playful way that one can engage with awareness. He then shares the story of an early retreat he did at the  Insight Meditation Society with famed Theravadin teacher Ruth Denison, and another retreat with S.N. Goenka. We hear about Pascal’s experience of being mentored by Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. He also shares his own feelings and thoughts about being a dharma teacher, and his memories of how his grandmother was a profound teacher for him.

He shares his personal daily practice, from morning productivity to afternoon contemplation. Finally, Pascal reflects powerfully on the meeting of dharma practice and social justice. Just like the individual human system, the communities and societies are alive systems that can produce hardship and suffering or well-being and freedom. Pascal speaks of how he feels that he has a personal responsibility to increase his awareness and compassionate action in relation to social strife.

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