Incontinence, Violence, Fraud: Dante’s Buddhist Inferno

Incontinence, Violence, Fraud: Dante’s Buddhist Inferno

For several months, I’ve been studying Dante’s Comedia, and I’m struck by the parallel between the Inferno‘s circles of misery and the Buddha’s description of suffering. In Dante’s scheme, the nine levels of hell are grouped into three areas: incontinence, violence, and fraud. Incontinence is lack of self-restraint; in circles 2, 3, and 4, the lustful and gluttonous are buffeted by winds and rain, and hoarders and squanderers roll heavy boulders, endlessly clashing with each other. Deeper down, in the seventh circle, the violent — against themselves, others, and God — are boiled in pitch, transformed into snakes, and repeatedly dismembered. The freezing lowest circles are inhabited by those who have committed fraud: various ilk of liars and traitors who “cut off the bond of love that nature forges” between men.

It’s gruesome stuff, to be sure, but Buddhism, while decidedly more reserved, points to the same categories. The Buddha identified a triad of “defilements” or kilesas, that cloud the mind. Incontinence is the Buddha’s lobha, usually translated as greed or sensual desire. In The Noble Eightfold Path, Bhikkhu Bodhi describes lobha as “the desire for pleasure and possessions, the drive for survival, the urge to bolster the sense of ego with power, status, and prestige.” Violence parallels dosa, or aversion, which shows itself as “rejection, irritation, condemnation, hatred, enmity, anger, and violence.” Bhikkhu Bodhi calls delusion, or dosa, “mental darkness”; it is fraud, in which the truth is twisted, subverted, or denied.

Through Virgil, Dante (the author) asserts that the most serious sin of all is fraud, explaining that “God finds it more displeasing.” He later equates it to “mad bestiality”; although it is “man’s peculiar vice,” it reduces a human to an animal. The Buddha, too, emphasized the fundamental importance of truthfulness for any liberating path. Delusion underpins all three kilesas. If liberation is clear-seeing, then delusion is the tap root of suffering.

What is so remarkable about Dante is that his medieval Christian lens recognizes the primacy of the sinner’s mental state, just as Buddhism does. Lust feels like being swept around by a storm; sullen rage is like drowning in mud. In Dante’s hell, the sinners spend eternity in the conditions manifest by their mind state. This resonates with the Buddhist idea that our reality is largely created by our state of mind. What’s more, Dante’s sinners often don’t realize how bad they have it. They’re so wedded to their ideas of what constitutes pleasure and their self-righteous blame of others for their pain that they don’t make the connection between their conditions in hell and the conditions of their own minds. We don’t need to die to relate to Dante’s sinners. It is our commonplace experience not to see how much we suffer and to blame conditions outside our minds for our pain, all the while misapprehending our own agency. I think Dante and the Buddha would have gotten along.

Those of us who require a nonpunitive religion might balk at Christianity’s take on sin and hell. Buddhism is remarkably free of notions of punishment: the Buddha simply pointed to the sources of happiness and suffering and encouraged us to find them for ourselves. Hell is here on earth, he seemed to say, in every moment that the mind is swept away by the kilesas. Christianity and Buddhism usually part ways in their difference in focus on this world vs. the next, but Dante even mixes that up. In the frozen depths of the eighth circle, he meets traitors who he knows are still alive. He learns that the sinners’ bodies have been possessed by demons and their souls sent to hell before their bodies have died. The barrier between living and dead — already weakened by Dante’s ability to travel through hell as a living person and Virgil’s ability to interact with him physically (hugging, carrying, etc.) even though he is but a “shade” — is knocked down. Apparently, the living sometimes occupy hell too. This should come as no surprise to anyone, Buddhist or Christian, who has ever looked deeply into their own mind.

The Messy Business of Spiritual Practice

The Messy Business of Spiritual Practice

Recently, in classes and sitting groups, I’ve been quoting the transpersonal psychologist and prolific author Ken Wilber on the place that spiritual practice occupies in our lives. From his book No Boundary:

Real spiritual practice is not something we do for twenty minutes a day, for two hours a day, or for six hours a day. It is not something we do once a day in the morning, or once a week on Sunday. Spiritual practice is not one activity among other human activities; it is the ground of all human activities, their source and their validation. It is a prior commitment to Transcendent Truth lived, breathed, intuited, and practiced twenty-four hours a day.


Their source and their validation. That is, our practice is the source, the ground, from which everything else in our life originates, and the measure by which we evaluate how we spend our time. Meditation is not separate from other activities but integral to them. This orientation towards integration is, in my opinion, the number one sign of a mature spiritual practice.

As moving and wise as this passage is, though, it feels a little too neat. As with most quotable wisdom, it makes the whole endeavor feel just a bit too easy. And so I have also found myself wanting to quote from Wilber’s Grace and Grit, a book about the life and death to an aggressive breast cancer of his wife, Treya Killam Wilber. Grace and Grit is a combination of personal memoir and Wilber’s signature intellectual style, and the mixture elevates both strains. It is also full of Treya’s own words, excerpted from her diary. Both Wilbers were serious practitioners, and the result is a deep and compelling investigation of practice — of life — during a time of terrible difficulty.

The passage that best exemplifies life’s messiness occurs a year and half into Treya’s diagnosis. She has undergone an operation, radiation treatment, and a mastectomy, and is in the middle of chemotherapy. She requires 24-hour care, and Ken has stopped writing, quit three editorial jobs, and stopped meditating. What’s more, they have just moved into an unfinished house at Lake Tahoe, so they are effectively trying to build a house while taking care of Treya. That’s the ground situation. Here’s the scene:

It is 7:00 A.M., a bright, beautiful morning in North Lake Tahoe. Our house is situated about halfway up the mountainous hills that rise dramatically from the most beautiful lake in North America. From every window in our south-facing house you can see the entire lake, the stunning white beaches edging it, the black mountains in the background, covered with snow nearly year round. The lake itself is a color of azure-cobalt blue so intense, so deep, so electric, I wonder if there isn’t some sort of huge power generator hidden somewhere in its depths: This lake doesn’t look like it is just blue, it looks like a switch has been thrown and it has been turned on.

Treya is sleeping quietly. I take a bottle of Absolut vodka from the shelf and I very carefully pour four ounces into a cup. I drink it in one quick gulp. This will last me until exactly noon, when I will have three beers with lunch. Throughout the afternoon, I will drink beer — maybe five, maybe ten. For dinner, a bottle of wine. Brandy through the evening. I will never get drunk. I will never pass out. I will rarely even get tipsy. I will never neglect any medical problems that Treya has, nor will I shirk any fundamental responsibilities. If you meet me, you will not suspect that I have been drinking. I will be alert, smiling, animated. I will do this every day, without fail, for four months. And then I will walk into Andy’s Sporting Goods, on Park Street in South Lake Tahoe, to buy a gun meant to vaporize this entire state of affairs. Because, as they always say, I can simply stand it no longer.


So much for hewing to the path. Wilber’s dedicated spiritual practice seems to be nowhere in sight, much less “the ground of all human activity.”

Wilber does not buy the gun, and those four months turn out to be the low point from which he rises. But I wonder if, even in this time of such darkness, his practice is not also there. He watches himself sink into despair, observes his decisions to cope through alcohol and numbness. He notices, to paraphrase Ajahn Sumedhodarkness is like this.

His story is great reminder that living a conscious life does not exempt us from making bad decisions, from plunging into darkness, even from completely going off the rails. Our spiritual practice will never exempt us from being human. Wilber’s No Boundary passage is still just as essential, just as true, even though we will all go through times of Grit.

Books to Support Your Practice

Books to Support Your Practice

A member of our weekly meditation group asked for book recommendations to support her practice, so I compiled a list of some of my favorite books on Buddhism, meditation, and contemplative practice. Here it is:

Books by monastic scholar-practitioners:

Books by Western lay teachers:

  • My abiding favorite book on meditation is Jack Kornfield‘s A Path With Heart. Its broad scope and accessible wisdom make is appropriate for practitioners at all phases of practice. Jack is a rare bird, my most influential teacher, and his books are a gift.
  • Gil Fronsdal, a remarkable teacher with a background in both Zen and Theravada, wrote a lovely little volume of essays covering various aspects of mindfulness practice called The Issue at Hand
  • Phillip Moffitt‘s Dancing With Life is a thoughtful and nuanced contemporary treatment of the four noble truths, the one teaching central to all sects of Buddhism.
  • Joseph Goldstein‘s Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening is an incredible book — an extended commentary on the Satipatthana Sutta inspired by his close reading of Analayo’s Satipatthana: The Direct Path to Realization (see above).
  • My new favorite is by Culadasa, a neuroscientist and meditation teacher with a long history of both Tibetan and Theravadin practice. His book The Mind Illuminated describes meditation in ten classical stages, with wonderfully lucid explanations of how the mind works.

Next on my list:


The Pleasure Principle

The Pleasure Principle

Many meditation teachers emphasize finding pleasure in our experience, both on and off the cushion. Ajaan Geoff, a monastic teacher from the Thai forest tradition, instructs his students to find pleasure in the breath as a means for increasing concentration. The neuroscientist and meditation teacher Rick Hanson encourages people to notice moments of pleasure throughout their day, noting the brain’s “negativity bias” and how paying attention to positive experiences can rewire it.

Culadasa, a neuroscientist who has practiced in both the Therevadin and Tibetan traditions, describes in The Mind Illuminated how, although every part of the mind desires happiness, its various parts become divided over how to achieve that goal: “One part of the mind may want to meditate while others want to ponder, plan, or fantasize. These different “minds” share the same goal — personal satisfaction and happiness — but because your expectations [about meditation] have been disappointed, they disagree on how best to achieve that happiness.”

Unfortunately, one part of the mind cannot simply force the other parts to concentrate. “The best way to avoid or resolve impatience is to enjoy your practice…. a good start is to consistently focus on the positive rather than the negative aspects of your meditation. Notice when the body is relaxed and comfortable, or when the mind is focused and alert…. Savor a fleeting sensation of physical pleasure, the satisfaction of following a whole breath-cycle, or the sense of accomplishment that comes with just sitting down and making the effort to meditate. As these pleasurable feelings grow, relish and encourage them so they grow stronger still.”

I have largely ignored this advice for most of the fifteen years of my practice. Focusing on pleasure feels like cheating at best, or more fundamentally, like delusion — purposely distorting reality instead of seeing things as they are. The problem with my logic is that it assumes that experience is inherently unpleasant, so that noticing pleasure somehow misses the “real” experience. My doom-seeking mind tends to highlight the negative instead of to, as the song says, accentuate the positive (apparently, as Hanson suggests, my mind is typical).

But the truth is that in every moment there are countless facets of an experience, some of which are pleasant, some unpleasant, some neutral. In meditation we are constantly choosing to bring some aspect(s) of experience to the foreground and let others fade into the background. What these teachers suggest is that it is skillful to allow the satisfying aspects to the fore, as long as we are not suppressing the unsatisfying ones. All facets of our experience are still known in awareness, even if they’re not where we focus. “By making meditation satisfying and enjoyable, the part of the mind that wants to meditate can get the other parts to stop resisting and join in,” Culadasa explains. The outcome is one of the main goals of meditation: unification of mind, which is just the activity of the mind’s various parts harmonizing. This is not liberation — it won’t, by itself, achieve wisdom — but a unified mind is fertile ground for insight. And unification is much easier to achieve if we settle attention on what is pleasant and satisfying at the moment.

(Note: the image is Rene Magritte’s The Pleasure Principle (Portrait of Edward James).)

Three Reasons to Love the Dark

Three Reasons to Love the Dark

This time of year, we descend steadily into darkness. During October and November, the LA day shortened by two hours, shedding a couple of minutes a day, a rate that will continue until December 21st. We fell precipitously on November 1st; with the end of Daylight Savings Time, the sun set at five o’clock instead of six.

All this darkness can be disconcerting. Biblically, darkness often connoted sin, evil, and separation from the divine, and those associations permeate our secular language as well. We entertain “dark thoughts”, live in “dark times”, and go through “dark nights of the soul”. But, as Barbara Brown Taylor points out in her lovely Learning to Walk in the Dark, darkness is necessary — physically, psychologically, and spiritually. Here are three reasons why:

  1. Our bodies need it. “Every time we turn on a light after dark, receptors in our eyes and skin send messages to our adrenal, pituitary, and pineal glands to stop what they are doing and get ready for the new day. …Even the light from a cell phone charger or glow-in-the-dark clock can cue your body that morning is on the way.” These mixed messages compromise our sleep, which has been shown to compromise our immune system, our memory, our mental health, even our relationships. Instead of fighting the long dark evenings with artificial light, we could take the season’s cue and rest. This is a natural time of year for slowing down and letting our bodies rejuvinate.
  2. Our psyches need itThrough exploring her own aversion to darkness, Taylor arrived at this: “when the sun goes down, it is time for another natural thing to happen, as the slower, quieter, and more tactile rhythms of night time open doors that remain shut during the day. No doubt there are frightening things behind some of those doors, but there are also stunning things, and eventually, with some practice, one learns that all these doors open on the same room.” Those doors often reveal fear, grief, loneliness, and anger. But to the extent that we dull ourselves to painful emotions by refusing to enter the psyche’s dark places, we also dull ourselves to joy. “To want a life with only half of these things in it” — only the happy half of the human experience — “is to want half a life.”
  3. It’s where the light isIn the Bible, when Moses went to the top of Mount Sinai to meet God, he walked into a huge cloud enveloped in darkness. Moses’ entire encounter with the divine occurred within that dark cloud. “The darkness in this story … is so different from what other Hebrew words mean when they say ‘dark’, that it has its own word in the Bible, araphel, reserved for God’s exclusive use. This thick darkness reveals the divine presence even while obscuring it….” The counterintuitive idea here is that the divine light is in the darkness. They arise together, and instead of the light dispelling the dark, they simply coexist. Gregory of Nyssa echoed this when he said that “those of us who wish to draw near to God should not be surprised when our vision goes cloudy, for this is a sign that we are approaching the opaque splendor of God.” All of this reminds me of the Buddha’s description of the inner brightness of the mind: “Luminous, monks, is the mind, and it is colored by defilements. … Luminous, monks, is the mind, and it is free of defilements.” (AN 1.49-52) The mind’s intrinsic quality, apart from the states that visit it, is luminous. As Thanissaro Bhikkhu noted, “To perceive its luminosity means understanding that defilements such as greed, aversion, or delusion are not intrinsic to its nature….” Instead, the mind is a mirror for whatever states — skillful or not — arise in it. This is the inner brightness we can find when we close our eyes in meditation, shutting out the light around us, and venture into the araphel — a potent, dazzling darkness.


VisionLA – Climate Action Arts Festival

VisionLA – Climate Action Arts Festival

To coincide with the 21st Conference on Climate Change happening in Paris right now, the visionary Cheryl Slean and Guy Zimmerman have led the creation of the VisionLA ’15 Climate Action Arts Festival happening through December 11, all over Los Angeles. There are close to 100 performances, screenings, concerts, workshops, and family-friendly events; a big art show at Bergamot Station; and a closing celebration of music and dance from String Theory Productions and poetry from LA’s poet laureate Luis J. Rodriguez. Most events are free. All support the mission of “calling for a swift response to the climate crisis and creatively envisioning LA’s sustainable future.”

By engaging the international dialogue on climate change, imagining creative responses and building momentum for change, artists and storytellers have a crucial role to play in shaping a better future.


Cheryl and Guy are both dedicated meditation practitioners. When I spoke with Cheryl a couple of months ago at the height of the festival’s creation, between a long day of meetings and a long night of work, I was struck by how seriously she cleaved to the Buddhist principle to work without attachment to outcome. Her excitement and devotion to the project, and her acute understanding of the problem of climate change, were evident. And yet, she understood that she could not control the outcome of her labors, and to try to do so would be to suffer. She was working ardently, ceaselessly, to create the festival, and still managing to position her mind to let go of the results. It was inspiring to witness, and the results, it appears, are spectacular.

The festival is a creative and hopeful response to a daunting problem. Go!