Six Contemplations for Entering the Path of Living Dharma


The call to live a meaningful and well integrated life is present in all of us.  Too often though, it is eclipsed, covered over by a huge array of compulsive needs and desires that arise from the way our society envisions, educates and organizes itself.  The situation many people find themselves in today can at times seem quite desperate.  It’s as if we had lost our footing and, instead of being rooted firmly in the earth, we were now living in a dreamland of shifting shapes and priorities.  Our lives slide hither and thither as we try to stay afloat in an ocean of ever-changing situations and circumstances.  Perhaps this has always been the case for human beings but during the last sixty years it has become exacerbated by an exponential acceleration of change: more humans, more technology, crumpling infrastructures and failing institutions.  Waves and currents buffet us from many directions so that no sooner has one threat been surmounted, then another bursts in.  It is as if we were corks floating in a turbulent current, autumn leaves whirling on the invisible air streams of the sky, or minnows caught in a flash flood.

Today, the stability of our material base is being challenged with the loss of farmland, loss of species, and the exhaustion of easily extracted minerals, wood, and fuels.   In all directions, double bind situations abound.  Expanding cities demand more land, food and power, hence decreasing arable land, creating more pollution and burning more fuel which contributes to climate change and environmental degradation.  To make matters even worse, we have come to view everything through the lens of a moneyed economy in which everything has a price.  If an activity can’t be seen to make a financial  profit in a short period of time, we can’t afford it.  We have become obsessed with cutting spending, balancing budgets, and at the same time, encouraging consumption in order to ‘grow the economy’ so that we can have sufficient retirement funds to support an aging population.  Funding for education is being cut, social services are being scaled back, and prisons are expanding.  Though everyone wants peace, weapons are increasingly commonplace as we militarize the planet.  If the child who saw that the emperor has no clothes were to look at how we humans are managing our affairs today, he or she would say we were really messed up.

Caught in the pinchers of impossible demands, young people (and old) fall more and more into states of cynicism and or despair.  Drug and alcohol use has expanded far beyond being traditional recreation or spiritual sacraments.  Today, drug abuse has become so deeply woven into the fabric of our economies and our unexamined fantasies of what life is about that we feel we can no longer afford to let go of them.  We need taxes from gambling, alcohol and tobacco to pay for research into addiction and antisocial behavior.  Unable to fix the situation we find ourselves in, we numb ourselves or even worse, knock ourselves out escaping into unconsciousness and sometimes even death.

The big question, of course is how can we turn this state of affairs around?  How can we rediscover a sense of meaningful connection, a sense of competence and a thorough and ongoing sense of empowerment?

Though the social and ecological details have changed through history, this turning around is an absolutely necessary entry point for what might be called, a life of living dharma.  It was the entry or beginning for people at the time of the Buddha, at the time of Christ, of Rumi, and of European mystics in the middle ages.  If we look carefully, we can see that it has also been the beginning for indigenous people the world over as they wrestled with the challenge of living well in constantly changing natural environments.  What is needed is a change of perspective, from one of isolated entities learning the skills of being warriors confronting a hostile environment, to one of being part of a living community with deepening experience of reverence and interconnectedness while, at the same time, cultivating the art of multilevelled collaboration.  This radical shift or ‘about turn’ is one that individuals of all cultures have had to experience in order to come into their full maturity and capacity as human beings.

Emotionally, such a turning point can feel turbulent and full of conflict as it requires that we look into many unconsciously cherished opinions and assumptions concerning what we are as individuals, and where we fit in the rest of the world.  It requires that we examine questions of rights and responsibility and the widely held belief that humans are more advanced and hence more privileged than all other forms of life.  A meaningful turning around requires that we radically transform our sense of who and what we are – from autonomous individuals, to inter-dependent symbiotic communities involving myriad forms and dimensions of life and being.

Difficult as it may be, a true turning around, requires three deep and thorough going recognitions.  The first involves recognizing the mess we human beings are in and the impossibility of resolving it without changing many of our basic assumptions and understandings.  This is inevitably painful.  The second involves a growing intuition or recognition that we are profoundly interdependently connected with everyone and everything, that all of life is part of an essential wholeness.  The third involves bringing forth a strong determination to look freshly and deeply into our situation in order to more clearly understand what is going on.  Together, these three recognitions form the fundamental starting point for a life of awakening wisdom and awakening capacity for skilful and compassionate activity. Taken deeply to heart, these three, working together can bring forth a meaningful experience of turning around.

The mystery and majesty of life is all around us.  It is closer than hands and feet.  If we live in a city, then the mystery will be revealed through our city living.  If we live in a hermitage, then it will be  recognized and realized in a hermitage.  Your life is your path of awakening.  For you, there is no other path!  To fully embrace all that you experience with compassion and awareness is to enter what, in past times, was thought of as the religious life – a life rooted in wholeness – a way or path of living dharma.  After all, if wholeness can’t be found in the midst of the actual living that we are, then where else could it be found?

Here are six themes for contemplation that together will nudge your day to day experience towards a deepening glimpse of wholeness and integration.  Each one of them is an immense topic that could invite a lifetime of serious investigation.  Each one over-laps and interpenetrates the others.  I have presented them here in the form of simple hints, rather than attempting rigorous or convincing explanations.  Hopefully this general presentation will invite your intuition to carry you into avenues of exploration that are intensely personal and directly relevant to your unfolding relationship with family, friends and environment, ultimately with the entire community of life.  You could reflect on all six in one session but you may find yourself following one or two for weeks on end before touching the others.

Throughout, I use phrases such as, ‘contemplate deeply’, ‘consider deeply’ or ‘investigate this deeply’.  Here I mean much more than just quietly thinking about something or ‘mulling it over’.  The following words in verse form may expand your sense of what contemplating, considering and investigating deeply could involve.

Contemplating Deeply
Sampling and savoring
weighing and evaluating
analyzing and measuring
testing, tasting, teasing, and playing,
considering and experimenting
marrying and joining,
dancing and flowing and leaping and growing,
letting be and celebrating through,
contemplating these themes
feeling them in your body
observing them in others
holding the theme, and then,
being quiet enough for it to speak to you in the felt/sense language
of your own direct experience.

Dwelling in a space of love,
tendrils of curiosity reaching forth in all directions,
we feel our way,
softening and sensitizing into the richness of community,
a living world within us, around us and through us.

Apprentices of wonderment and awe,
probing and questioning,
sampling and savouring
with calm abiding and vivid discernment together exquisitely intermeshed,
we touch our home,
this world,
of you and me and all of us together,
beyond words.


Six Themes for Contemplation

1 – Action and Response (Causality)

Everything and everyone is a dynamic intermingling of myriad causes and conditions. Ultimately, every action affects everything else.  I do something and you respond to it.  You do something and I respond to it.  What one person does affects the whole community.  What the community does affects the individual person.  What the humans do affects the plants and animals.  What the other creatures do affects the humans.  Changes in our physical organs affect our thinking.  Shifts in feeling affect our digestion and cellular functioning.  Activity in any realm or dimension of being, reverberates through every other realm and dimension; inner and outer, micro and macro.  Contemplate this deeply.

2 – Interbeing

Each of us is carried and moved by the inspiration, the aspirations, and the life examples, of uncountable dharma teachers, mentors and exemplars, from many backgrounds and traditions – a great river of wisdom and compassion revealing itself through art, poetry, writing and philosophy, and through the examples of their own inspiring lives.  Their lives are part of our lives, shaping our attitudes, the quality of our attentiveness and even the functioning of our physical bodies.  Contemplate this deeply. 

Each one of us is an embodied expression of our parents and our parent’s parents, and that includes their hopes and fears and attitudes to life.  We contain the talents and foibles of an ocean of ancestors; their patterns of speech, their genetic tendencies, their approaches to work, religion, child rearing, politics, property and power.  Each person is a vast treasury of possibility, both positive and negative.  Contemplate this deeply.

Every person is an inter-being of myriad dimensions.  Each of us is a manifesting of a profoundly integrated living world, an evolving planet, arising now as you and me and all of us together.  The green plants, and the water cycles, the sun and the mineral realms, along with all the other creatures, are weaving the fabric of myself and yourself through every shifting moment. Each one of us is part of the other.  We exist because of each other.  Contemplate this deeply.

3 – Personal Activity

Every action of body, communication and mind is the seed for future results.  Every person carries within them the seeds of love and hate, of greed and generosity, of wisdom and confusion, of humbleness and pride.  These seeds were planted through the uncountable actions of ourselves and the innumerable ancestors who preceded us.  How can we water the wholesome seeds in ourselves and in each other?  How can we weed out the unwholesome seeds so that they don’t sprout again in the future?  Consider this deeply.

4 – Individual as Community

Every multi-celled creature is a symbiosis of myriad living beings.  Inwardly, my body is composed, not only of human cells, but collaborating communities of micro beings that live in my gut, in my tissues and on my skin.  Even a single cell is collaboration of myriad molecular communities!  I am a ‘we’ and we together, make an ‘I’.  Outwardly, I mesh, breath by breath, with the photosynthesizing world, breathing in oxygen and breathing out carbon dioxide.  Uncountable realms of responsive knowing – chemical, physical, emotional, conceptual and perceptual – are continuously dancing me into being and this is so for everyone.  We live in and through each other with no absolute beginning or end.  What am I?  What are you?  And what are we?  Contemplate this deeply.

5– Mind and Knowing

Everything that I experience arises in the field my own knowing.  Each moment of perception is a multilevelled collaboration of inner and outer, self and other, that brings forth the world of my experience, a world filled with meaning and import.  At the same time, each being that I meet is, him, her, or itself, also bringing forth an equally vast and meaningful world that is arising as their own unique knowing.  The flavour of my knowing, my overall attitudes, typical emotional states, prejudices and aspirations, helps to mould the universe I perceive and live in, and so too does yours.  The universe that is my knowing shapes and affects the universe of your knowing, while simultaneously, the universe of your knowing is shaping and affecting the universe of my knowing.  Investigate this deeply.

6 – An All-Embracing Matrix of Knowing and Understanding

When we see the vast ephemeral intelligence that each being is, we relate to them differently than when we see them as merely a discrete fragment or object in our own field of experience.  Each being is an expression of immeasurable inspiration, talent and raw material.  Each being is a unique matrix of knowing with their own hopes and fears and aspirations.  Each being is a manifesting of an entire universe of talent and possibility.  The question of wholesome relationship between ourselves and another, needs to consider not only how not to harm ourselves and others, but also how to support all that is good and life affirming in each other.  Contemplate this deeply.


Further Explorations

1 – Each day take one of the six themes and make it your main contemplation for an entire day.  Use it to shine the light of fresh seeing on the ordinary activities of your life, such as relating to your family and friends, to the people you meet at work, to strangers, adversaries, flowers, trees, dogs, cats, birds and other creatures.  At the end of the day review what you discovered and consider what this implies in terms of how you live with others and how you could live with others.  Is there a difference here?  In the light of this contemplation, would you change the way you do anything?  Does this have any implications for how you earn your living, how you relax and in general, how you live your life?

2 – Do the above exercise with a small group of people, between 2 and 5. After exploring a theme for a day or so, come together as a group.  Begin by spending a few minutes relaxing into awareness of your breathing.  Then, if they are meaningful to you, recite the verses for Refuge along with the Bodhisattva Vow.  Having expressed together this shared aspiration, then share your insights with each other.  What did you discover?  Is there anything you feel bad about or regret?  Are there ways that the contemplation has strengthened you?  What do your discoveries imply in terms of how you behaviour helps or harms yourself or others?

© Tarchin Hearn, January, 2013