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Sandra S. Murray: Growing in wisdom

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Last September I began writing about meditation, the fifth of the six Buddhist paramitas; I focused on shamatha meditation, which has the qualities of slowing/stopping, calming, and resting. Much of shamatha can be and is taught as secular practices, often called “mindfulness-based.”

Shamatha is very helpful for me in easing an anxious mind and remembering to be present. But after years of practice, I complained to a Dharma Teacher that meditation had to be more than just following my breath. His answer was, “Oh, you’re ready for investigative meditation.” He was talking about vipashyana (or in Pali, vipassana).

Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh often calls this “deep-looking.” Deep-looking needs a quiet mind; then we may pose ourselves a question for contemplation. We allow space for an insight to arise, without pushing or analyzing – we’re not using our intellect to solve a problem, we’re seeking understanding at a different level.

Here’s a mundane example: I have struggled with my weight for the past 20 years. Since January 2020 I’ve been working with a health coach; progress has been slow but steady. Part of the coaching has been to look at why I overeat. By deep-looking I’ve recalled messages from early childhood to clear my plate; I’ve noted fear of not having enough, and greed of wanting more; I’ve been mindful of how different foods affect my moods and my body. Deep-looking is a process of searching for the roots and determining a more wholesome way of living.

Often we use deep looking to transform personal dissatisfactions and suffering, but it equally can apply to understanding social and political conditions, the nature of reality, and cultivating happiness. A couple of Dharma Teachers leading retreats here in Montana have given guidance in deep-looking. One offered these questions to begin: What is this made of? (What are its parts?) How did it come to be? She further cautioned to release any ideas of me, my, and mine during this process. Another gave a trio to ask ourselves tenderly, as if talking to a best friend: What am I practicing in this moment? Where is kindness? What is needed to be at peace?

When might we use deep-looking meditation? A senior nun in the Plum Village tradition said she thinks of meditation in terms of a truck – sometimes it comes in loaded and sometimes it comes in empty. When something is already there, we need to look at that first. What might that load be? For the example above, in meditation I might ask “what were the causes and conditions that led to me to overeat yesterday?”

At other times, we might look at the condition of our mind – anxious or having repetitive thoughts, maybe dull or sleepy. Sometimes it might be an emotion – fear or anger. Sometimes we feel upset with ourselves because of a habit we wish to change – like too much screen time or yelling. Sometimes we are having difficulties in a relationship. When we clearly see what is going on within us, we can choose a teaching or practice that can help us transform the situation; or if we don’t know what can help, we can ask a Dharma Teacher or someone more practiced in the Buddhist path. Over time we develop an inner teacher who can guide us.

What’s important is to keep unloading the truck. Sometimes it’s tempting to ignore what’s arrived, but doing so would sidestep self-understanding and forego insight into how beings think and act. Soto Zen Master Dogen said 800 years ago, “To study the Buddha way is to study the self.” In this analogy, by unloading the truck and looking deeply we see how our mind works, how our actions and thoughts bring consequences. He went on to say “to study the self is to forget the self.” Unloading our truck eventually may help us see how our lives, thoughts, and attitudes interweave with other beings and the whole world.

Imagine that your mind is a warehouse, and when you start to meditate you’re stepping out on the loading dock. If the truck comes in unloaded – your mind is calm and clear, nothing tugging at your stability – then you have the opportunity to rest and enjoy open awareness (shamatha) or to go into the warehouse and choose a topic on which to look for insight. Shamatha and vispashyana aren’t separate, sequential processes. Sometimes when quieting ourselves with shamatha, insight arises. Sometimes in vipashyana we find we need to stop and rest.

Understanding and insight are the hallmarks of wisdom, the sixth paramita. They arise in meditation, and also can arise when engaging in any of the other four paramitas: offering generosity, practicing patience, extending yourself in diligence, and acting ethically. Each brings an understanding born of the experience. Being mindfully aware while in the experience, wisdom blossoms in our hearts.

Sandra (“Zan”) Murray began this series on the 6 Paramitas in February 2019. She is an ordained lay member of the Order of Interbeing established by Thich Nhat Hanh and a founding member of Flowing Mountains Sangha, an Open Way Community of Mindful Living. Currently, Flowing Mountains meets weekly via Zoom for meditation and programs. To contact us, please use the email form on the website (



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