Why Are We So Hard On Ourselves?

Mark Coleman is a Northern California-based meditation teacher, author, and founder of the Mindfulness Institute. Since he began teaching nearly two decades ago, he has led meditation retreats across five continents. The following is an excerpt from his newest book, Make Peace With Your Mind: How Mindfulness and Compassion Can Free You from Your Inner Critic, which teaches how to use meditation practice to soothe our negative inner voices.

When I ask a room full of students, “Who hasn’t caused someone harm through their words and actions?” not a single hand is ever raised. We have all done things we regret. I similarly ask if there is anyone who has not caused harm in some way through their sexuality. Again, rarely does a hand go up. It is the same when I ask if there is anyone who doesn’t regret acting or saying something foolish in a moment of passion and reactivity.

Making mistakes, having poor judgment, and doing things we know we shouldn’t in the heat of the moment are a natural part of the human condition. Why then are we so hard on ourselves? How do we account for all the self-blame? We can trace this pathology of self-recrimination to the critic and to an idealized and impossible standard of human behavior.

One of the things I’ve most appreciated about my years of meditation practice is having made peace with my humanness. It’s not that I don’t aspire to grow and develop and work on myself. But I’m no longer holding myself to some impossible ideal. The less I expect myself to be perfect and never mess up, the more likely I am to make headway toward forgiving myself. I am more able to release the heavy guilty burden I’ve been carrying for painful things I’ve done in the past, for the things I regret.

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Follow Memorial Ceremonies for Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh

Nothing is permanent, so everything is precious. Here’s a selection of some happenings—fleeting or otherwise—in the Buddhist world this week.

Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh Passes Away

The beloved teacher, civil rights activist, and pioneer of engaged Buddhism died on January 22 at midnight (ICT) at his root temple, Tu Hien Temple, in Hue, Vietnam. He was 95. Hanh suffered from a severe brain hemorrhage in 2014, which left him unable to speak, and had been living at Tu Hien Temple. After the Plum Village Community, Hanh’s sangha, announced his passing, followers, dharma teachers, and world leaders, including the Dalai Lama, immediately started sharing remembrances and condolences. The Plum Village Community will host a second day of ceremonies, broadcast online, on January 22 at 8pm EST/5 pm PST. Find Memorial Practice Resources from Plum Village here and a worldwide schedule of memorial services here. Read Thich Nhat Hanh’s full obituary here.

The Rubin Museum of Art Returns Two Stolen Wooden Carvings to Nepal

In a growing movement to repatriate stolen art to its rightful home, the Rubin Museum of Art announced that it will return two wooden carvings that were smuggled from religious sites in Nepal just over 20 years ago. The museum cited the Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign for its role in drawing attention to the theft of the carvings, one a 14th-century flying apsara, or female deity, stolen from Itum Bahal monastery, and the other a portion of a 17th century torana, or sacred gateway, taken from Yampi Mahabihara monastery. The Rubin will pay for the artifacts’ return, which will take place in May. In the past year, six pieces of artwork have been returned to Nepal. Read more about the decision here.

Meditation Teacher Brad Warner Leaves Angel City Zen Center, the Dharma Center He Founded in 2016

On Wednesday, writer and meditation teacher Daniel Scharpenburg wrote on Patheos that Brad Warner, founder of Angel City Zen Center, has quietly left the center. Warner mentioned his departure in passing on his website a few days earlier; his blog post is titled “So You Want to Be a Dharma Teacher.” Angel City Zen Center has not yet publicly mentioned Warner’s departure. Warner, the author of Hardcore Zen and Sit Down and Shut Up, was an early voice in the movement to call out sexual abuse and general abuse of power by Buddhist teachers, and, as Scharpenburgh says, he remains a loud, if polarizing, voice in the community. 

Historic Trans Bhutan Trail Is Reopening After 60 Years

The Trans Bhutan Trail, a 250-mile historic pilgrimage trail that runs the length of the Buddhist kingdom, is set to reopen in March after being closed for 60 years. The Trail’s origins date back at least 500 years, when it connected fortresses and served as a pilgrimage route for Buddhists traveling to sacred sites in western Bhutan and Tibet. Although the Trail’s stairways and paths fell into disrepair in the 1960s, the Bhutan Canada Foundation, the King of Bhutan, and the Tourism Council of Bhutan began restoring the Trail in 2018 to make it accessible again for tourists, pilgrims, and locals. Beginning in March 2022, travelers will once again be able to access the 400 historic and cultural sites along the Trail. 

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The Unbinding

Now and then, when I feel that my practice needs a little inspiration, I turn to the story of the Buddha’s enlightenment. Buoyed by the accounts in the sutras or the many excellent books written about his life, I make space for him in my mind, attempting to walk in his shoes and feel myself as he must have been: a clear-eyed wanderer devoted single-mindedly to the search for liberation, a state he calls “the unbinding.”

Usually I pick up the tale at the point where the former prince has just left his teachers, having realized that their path was not his path and that their teachings would not lead him to freedom. In my mind’s eye, I see him wandering through the Magadhan countryside, where he’s gone looking for a place to practice. Over time, his wandering takes him to the town of Uruvela [now Bodhgaya], where he finds a quiet forest grove with a clear-flowing river, and nearby, a number of villages to do his alms rounds. Deciding it’s the perfect spot, he takes his seat, saying to himself, “‘This is just right for the striving of a clansman intent on striving.’ So I sat down right there, thinking, ‘This is just right for striving.’” (Maha-Saccaka Sutta, trans. by Thanissaro Bikkhu, 2008.)

He must have known that ultimately, the perfect place is not outside but inside. But being the future Buddha, he must also have known that it helps to have a place, a space, in which to do that initial turning. A space like a shrine room, or a gompa, or a zendo. Like the corner of a room with a small altar, a meditation mat and cushion. Knowing that the real power was in his mind, Siddhartha still took the time to choose his seat carefully, a place that would be just right for the kind of intensive practice he was about to do.

Wallace Stevens has a poem, “The Well Dressed Man With A Beard,” that says:

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Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Zen Master, Dies at 95

Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh—a world-renowned spiritual leader, author, poet, and peace activist—died on January 22, 2022 at midnight (ICT) at his root temple, Tu Hien Temple, in Hue, Vietnam. He was 95.

“Our beloved teacher Thich Nhat Hanh has passed away peacefully,” his sangha, the Plum Village Community of Engaged Buddhism, said in a statement. “We invite our global spiritual family to take a few moments to be still, to come back to our mindful breathing, as we together hold Thay in our hearts in peace and loving gratitude for all he has offered the world.”

Thich Nhat Hanh had been in declining health since suffering a severe brain hemorrhage in November 2014, and shortly after his 93rd birthday on October 10, 2019, he had left Tu Hien Temple to visit a hospital in Bangkok and stayed for a few weeks at Thai Plum Village in Pak Chong, near Khao Yai National Park before returning to Hue on January 4, 2020. He had returned to Vietnam in late 2018, expressing a wish to spend his remaining days at his root temple.  

Known to his thousands of followers worldwide as Thây—Vietnamese for teacher—Nhat Hanh was widely considered among Buddhists as second only to His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama in the scope of his global influence. The author of some 100 books—75 in English—he founded nine monasteries and dozens of affiliated practice centers, and inspired the creation of thousands of local mindfulness communities. Nhat Hanh is credited with popularizing mindfulness and “engaged Buddhism” (he coined the term), teachings that not only are central to contemporary Buddhist practice but also have penetrated the mainstream. For many years, Thich Nhat Hanh has been a familiar sight the world over, leading long lines of people in silent “mindful” walking meditation. 

It is difficult to overstate the importance of Thich Nhat Hanh’s role in the development of Buddhism in the West, particularly in the United States. He was arguably the most significant catalyst for the Buddhist community’s engagement with social, political, and environmental concerns. Today, this aspect of Western Buddhism is widely accepted, but when Nhat Hanh began teaching regularly in North America, activism was highly controversial in Buddhist circles, frowned upon by most Buddhist leaders, who considered it a distraction from the focus on awakening. At a time when Western Buddhism was notably parochial, Nhat Hanh’s nonsectarian view motivated many teachers to reach out and build bonds with other dharma communities and traditions. It would not be an exaggeration to say that his inclusive vision laid the groundwork for the flourishing of Buddhist publications, including Tricycle, over the past 35 years. 

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Jhana: The Spice Your Meditation Has Been Missing

“Meditation” is a vague term.

Even in English it has two opposing meanings: thinking and not-thinking. But unsurprisingly, since the word meditation is derived from Latin, the term can be even more confusing when it comes to Buddhist meditation and its recent offshoot, secular mindfulness.

In the Pali canon, there’s no single word for meditation. Mindfulness (sati) is part of vipassana bhavana, or the cultivation of insight. It’s also part of the eightfold path—though the Pali word “sati” may or may not correspond to Jon Kabat-Zinn’s helpful definition of nonjudgmental, moment-to-moment noticing.

But sati is only one of the meditative elements of the eightfold path—the other major one is samadhi, or concentration. And here’s where things get interesting. In most of the Pali canon’s discussion of samadhi, it’s described not simply as one-pointed concentration in general, but as the ability to enter the four jhanas—distinct, concentrated mind states—in particular.

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