Last of The Light


The door of the heart opens slowly

then opens wide

into a warm summer night.

Last of the light as fireflies blink

and cicadas pulse the air

with all their might,

sink into my bones

shake me up,

show me who I am.

Living and dying each moment

in silence and sound

twilight passes,

night settles in.



True Nature, No Nature or Buddha Nature?

“The luminosity of the mind, the nature of clarity of the mind, is something that I cannot simply explain in words to you. But if you undertake this kind of experiment on your own, you will begin to understand.” – Dalai Lama

After practicing meditation for 25 years I rely less and less on words to describe the awakened state, such as “Buddha Nature” or “True Nature.” In reflecting on this, I find I’m not satisfied with any word that conjures up an idea of this unconditioned, unnameable experience. There is often some taint of fabrication that tends to accompany these names. That’s inevitable as its how language works: words and ideas mingle and no matter our best intentions, create an inevitable separation from our actual experience.

So what happens when you experience deep peace and interconnectedness, when you encounter incomparable clarity and luminosity? Usually the mind will quickly weigh in with names and labels or try to create a context for the experience. That’s what the mind does; it usually happens so fast we don’t even see it until the clarity and luminosity are obscured. This is actually a matter of capacity – when we first encounter this luminosity, it is so far from any previous experience we’ve had that our mind quickly veers into fabrication. Only after practicing for some time can we simply dwell in this unobstructed peace without trying to label or contextualize. Our capacity to abide without words or labels grows.

“If you’re primed to look for innate natures, you’ll tend to see innate natures, especially when you reach the luminous, non-dual stages of concentration called themeless, emptiness, and undirected. You’ll get stuck on whichever stage matches your assumptions about what your awakened nature is. But if you’re primed to look for the process of fabrication, you’ll see these stages as forms of fabrication, and this will enable you to deconstruct them, to pacify them, until you encounter the peace that’s not fabricated at all.” – Thanissaro Bhikkhu

The key is to be alert to the mind’s tendency to construct and conceptualize. This is another, more subtle stage of mindfulness, to see when we obscure our experience with ideas about Buddha nature or emptiness. As your practice deepens, you’ll begin to see how readily the mind creates names and fabrications, even for that which can’t be named or classified. The awareness will help you to release any clinging to words or explanations and abide in this mind, clear and luminous beyond words.



Freedom and The Demons

White Heron in Open Sky photography by Lisa Ernst

White Egret in Open Sky
photography by Lisa Ernst

I often encourage practitioners who are struggling, tied up in knots and feel stuck with nowhere to run, to surrender and put their heads in the mouth of the demon. Its one of my favorite teaching metaphors because its so vivid and unambiguous. From some this image draws stunned silence or a wince; from a few others a slight smile and a nod. Even though many practitioners reach an intellectual understanding, I’ve found that only a few fully experience the liberation that comes from an intimate view inside the demon’s mouth

This metaphor arises from an anecdote about the Tibetan yogi Milarepa.  Here’s the story from Tara Brach in her book, Radical Acceptance:

The great Tibetan yogi Milarepa spent many years living in isolation in a mountain cave. As part of his spiritual practice, he began to see the contents of his mind as visible projections. His inner demons of lust, passion, and aversion would appear before him as gorgeous seductive women and terrifying wrathful monsters. In face of these temptations and horrors, rather than being overwhelmed, Milarepa would sing out, “It is wonderful you came today, you should come again tomorrow … from time to time we should converse.”

Through his years of intensive training, Milarepa learns that suffering only comes from being seduced by the demons or from trying to fight them. To discover freedom in their presence, he has to experience them directly and wakefully, as they are.

In one story, Milarepa’s cave becomes filled with demons. Facing the most persistent, domineering demon in the crowd, Milarepa makes a brilliant move—he puts his head into the demon’s mouth. In that moment of full surrender, all the demons vanish. All that remains is the brilliant light of pure awareness.”

Most of us have ingrained responses to painful and difficult challenges. Usually these patterns involve resistance and struggle, which worsen our suffering.  As the noose tightens, the problems may grow into unfathomable monsters that we must avoid at all costs.  We create an “other” out of our suffering or we create an “I.” Either way, we start to view these conditions as problems we must solve or personal afflictions we must vanquish.

 As committed practitioners, over time we become more skilled at meeting these challenges. Gradually we’re less fearful of our demons, at least some of the time. We have the space to explore them with less reactivity, maybe inviting them in for tea once in a while. The intensity of our suffering diminishes and the demons disperse. Yet at other times, a particularly menacing demon may return, bearing down on us with full force. At moments like these we may feel that nothing can save us.

The demon is staring us in the face and we’ve got nothing to stop it. We’re sure the demon will devour us if we don’t find a way to protect ourselves or escape. Fear consumes us. At this juncture I’ve found that the full act of surrender, of putting my head in the mouth of the demon is the true way to freedom. It’s not really something I do as something I let go of. I release my need to survive, to protect or preserve the idea of myself in any form at all. I’m willing to let what I dread devour me.

Although this might sound scary, ultimately it’s the opposite. The moment I let go, when the demon has entered me and I have entered it, the demon dissolves into open space.  I dissolve into open space. There’s nothing inside or outside, only the sweet, unobstructed stillness of this moment. Gradually wisdom arises out of this emptiness. The situation reveals itself; the delusion dies.

There’s an important place for compassion in this process.  Sometimes we’re just not ready or able to move closer to the demon or even invite it in for tea. Taking a step back and offering lovingkindness to ourselves and to the fear, even the demon, can soften us. When we’re truly not ready to meet the darkness directly, we need to soften our hearts and minds into kindness and compassion. Then gradually we’ll find our way to the next step, of giving all of ourselves to the demon. At last we see it’s all a grand illusion and the demons of suffering and fear transform into equanimity and openness.

The Sweetest Bite

Many people, myself included, come to Buddhism because we can’t find an escape from our suffering.  Full of fear and uncertainty, we find that Buddha’s Four Noble Truths provide some mental relief.  There is suffering. There is a cause to suffering. There is an end to suffering. The is a path out of suffering (the Noble 8-fold path). As we learn to walk this path, to let go of our resistance to the endless arising and passing away of conditions, we begin to experience this moment just as it is and we see our suffering diminish. The path opens up, we see that Buddha’s teachings are applicable in our own lives. The dharma works. But the mind is a tricky little fox and soon the very path that was leading us to liberation may become yet another thing to cling to, something to keep us safe from the inevitable storms of life. We probably don’t even see this subtle shift until we’ve strayed far from the path.

A man walking across a field encounters a tiger. He fled, the tiger chasing after him. Coming to a cliff, he caught hold of a wild vine and swung himself over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Terrified, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger had come, waiting to eat him. Two mice, one white and one black, little by little began to gnaw away at the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine in one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!

This is our life, we will never be protected from the tigers and the vine will whittle away until we fall to our death. No one has ever escaped death. So what is our response? If we use this practice to keep us safe, it will fail us. Genuine practice isn’t safe.

If you’ve gotten comfortable with your practice, you need to examine with total honesty the boundaries you’ve created. Has the practice become a container or bubble that keeps your heart sheltered from the darkest realms of your own existence? Has it tipped that way without your even knowing it? What happens if you burst the bubble, the boundary that you dwell in? Are you suddenly face to face with what you most fear, what you hoped would protect you from falling, from failing? Can you then, in this very moment, reach for the strawberry right in front of you and enjoy it, no matter what you fate, savoring the perfect sweetness that permeates your whole being? If so, you’ve found your true path, genuine freedom, your home.

The End of The Path photography by Lisa Ernst

The End of The Path
photography by Lisa Ernst

Abandon This Fleeting World

The rain has stopped, the clouds have drifted away,
and the weather is clear again.
If your heart is pure, then all things in your world are pure.
Abandon this fleeting world, abandon yourself,
Then the moon and flowers will guide you along the way.

– Ryokan

Reelfoot Lake Lotus photography by Lisa Ernst

Reelfoot Lake Lotus
photography by Lisa Ernst


Dying to This Moment

In dying to this moment,

We lose ourselves,

but gain everything.

And as Rumi eloquently puts it:

When you lose all sense of self the bonds of a thousand chains will vanish.

A Flock of Egrets - photography by Lisa Ernst

A Flock of Egrets
– photography by Lisa Ernst


The Lotus

First blooming in the Western Paradise,
The lotus has delighted us for ages.
Its white petals are covered with dew,
its jade green leaves spread out over the pond,
And its pure fragrance perfumes the wind.
Cool and majestic, it raises from the murky water.
The sun sets behind the mountains
But I remain in the darkness, too captivated to leave.

– Ryokan

Lotus at Reelfoot Lake photography by Lisa Ernst

Lotus at Reelfoot Lake
photography by Lisa Ernst

Aching with Longing

This is a blog post from Gareth Young, a co-founder of Red Clay Sangha in Atlanta. His sangha, along with the Insight Meditation Community of Georgia hosted a Lovingkindess and Brahma Vihara retreat that I led March 2 – 5 in the North Georgia Mountains. Thanks to all who made this happen. Here’s Gareth’s post:

Aching with Longing

Today I finished a short meditation retreat led by Lisa Ernst from Nashville and co-hosted by the Red Clay Sangha and the Insight Meditation Group of Georgia: Zen-based and Vipassana traditions coming together for an interdenominational Buddhist retreat.  We had invited Lisa to lead the retreat using her own style of practice and she focused the retreat on metta.

Like most Buddhist teachings (for my mind this is actually an attribute of all legitimate Buddhist teachings) metta practice is a set of tools that can be used by anyone regardless of their faith tradition.  In simple terms it is is designed to cultivate loving kindness and compassion for self and other, and it centers upon repeating continuously a series of phrases such as:

May I/him/her/all beings be free from danger
May [I/they] have mental happiness
May [I/they] have physical happiness
May [I/they] have ease of well being.

It may sound banal, even silly, but it is extraordinary and it works – though it does require a lot of patience!  And by focusing on the self first it naturally allows one to deal with feelings of self-loathing, inadequacy, being unlovable and the like that are so common in our culture.  The premise, which I think is correct, is that only from a place of self-loving can one move into the world and unconditionally love the other.

The genesis of this blog post is not metta practice itself – though I commend it to you – but a beautiful poem by Tagore, a giant of Indian literature who I knew shamefully little about until I just read about him.  Lisa waited until this morning after our hearts had been opened up by a couple of days of metta practice before reading the poem to us and it blew the doors open for me.  It is a piece of pure beauty that hopefully will blow a tempting gust of air through your own doors, too:
On the day when the lotus bloomed, alas, my mind was straying, and I knew it not. My basket was empty and the flower remained unheeded.

Only now and again a sadness fell upon me, and I started up from my dream and felt a sweet trace of a strange smell in the south wind.

That vague fragrance made my heart ache with longing, and it seemed to me that it was the eager breath of the summer seeking for its completion.

I knew not then that it was so near, that it was mine, and this perfect sweetness had blossomed in the depth of my own heart.

To read more of Gareth’s blog, go here.

Time Enough to Wake Up

If you’re a regular meditator, chances are that you sometimes feel restless, wishing for the allotted practice time to end. If you have a clock handy you may peek once in a while.  I confess that I have done this myself occasionally when I’ve been in a very busy or challenging time in my life.  But I discovered an antidote to the restlessness that may seem counterintuitive. When I see that I’m checking the clock or longing for the meditation time to end, I extend it. I’ve learned that when I squeeze my meditation into a parameter of time, I cut it off, make it small and constrain my mind from the infinite and unfettered nature of this moment.

Sometimes I may only extend the meditation session five or ten minutes, depending on my schedule, but I’ve extended it longer on mornings when I have time. The actual length of time isn’t that important, even a few extra minutes can make a difference. As soon as I change my orientation from “hurry up” to “I’ll be here for a while,” my entire demeanor changes. I relax and let go of time. I settle into whatever I was resisting. The moment becomes interesting again, no matter how I’m feeling or what I’m thinking. The illusion of some other time or some other place vanishes. There is only this moment, perfect and complete.


Incense close, sandalwood

Just outside insects sing a steady cadence

Dogs bark a few yards down

Cars whisper on a distant road

Each revealing its nature

Full and ephemeral

Like endless breath arising

and fading to nothingness

This moment, perfect moment


– Lisa Ernst