Derek's Dharma Blog

A blog about meditation, Dharma and activism

Amitabha, Community and Ecology: A Retreat with Tarchin Hearn in Morin Heights, Quebec (June 21-26, 2014)


Tarchin Hearn, a great Buddhist writer and teacher from New Zealand will be teaching across Canada this summer, and he is kicking off his tour with a one-week retreat in Morin Heights.  Tarchin’s approach to dharma is non-sectarian and universal in nature, linking personal healing with a deep ecological perspective in ways that have inspired a wide range of people from a variety of diverse backgrounds and traditions. He has taught in many countries and has helped establish a number of centres for retreat and healing since 1997. For more than 40 years he has studied and practiced in both Theravadin and Mahayana schools of Buddhism with 12 of those years as an ordained monk (he was originally ordained by the Ven. Kalu Rinpoché, and received the full Gelong/Bhikkhu ordination from H.H. the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa, and trained extensively with the Ven. Namgyal Rinpoche and the Ven. Sayadaw U Thila Wanta of Burma). Tarchin is a wonderful and compassionate teacher who rarely teaches in Canada so this is a great opportunity.  There is more about Tarchin here

All are welcome to attend this retreat; there are BnB’s and camping possibilities in Morin Heights. The teaching is always offered for free; there will be a dana bowl for the teacher.  Please contact Jane Marenghi for details at

More detailed info from Tarchin’s website Green Dharma Treasury, is posted below. Sarva Mangalam.

June 21 – 26, 2014, Morin Heights, Quebec
The Meditation of Amitabha:
A Practice of Deep Ecology, Community, Boundless Wonderment and Love
– heart teachings of a modern buddhadharma –

Tarchin writes: “We are living in a time of great fragmentation where the seamless mystery of life has largely slipped from public view, replaced by a chaos of separated parts that often appear in conflict or competition with each other. Yet, from a biological perspective, and from a Buddhist perspective, 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 societies, 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.

Buddha Amitabha represents the wisdom of of simultaneously understanding the infinite diversity and profound unity of all that is. During this week we will use the Meditation of Amitabha to explore in a contemplative way, a path of deep ecology, community, boundless wonderment and love. This is a way of living that is totally inclusive yet radically ordinary; embracing birth and death, self and other, inner and outer, mundane and spiritual. These are heart teachings of a modern buddhadharma.”
For more information contact Jane at


June 29 – July 6, 2014, Teaching in Ottawa, Ontario
Living Dharma, Reverence for Life
The Path of Natural Awakening
a week of contemplative exploration

In Buddhism, wisdom is not a knowledge of ultimate facts or truth but an ever deepening process of understanding, life enhancing connectivity, and communion.

We radically intermingle; cells and organs, minds and bodies, creatures and communities, beings and environments, the so called animate and the so called inanimate. This is a broad and all-encompassing view.

Learning the art of compassionately embracing this multi-leveled dynamic of interpenetrating realms and times, is to master the craft of meditation.

Maturing this craft, until the hint of wholeness permeates all our actions, and we discover a sense of utter at-homeness in the mist of everything we do, is the fruition of this work.

In the temple of this living world, we are deeply intermeshed with the lives of our families, friends, neighbours, strangers and adversaries, and the myriad other species and beings that we travel with from birth to death. Our bodies and minds are rivers of evolving life – landscapes of unfolding communities. What could it mean to be fully human?

During this week, Tarchin will outline a flow of caring enquiry that opens our bodies and minds into a place of understanding and experience that is immensely inclusive and rich with reverence and awe for this world in all its abundance.
for further information contact Samaya: bgordon [at] magma [dot] ca

July 11 – 27, 2014, Dharma Centre of Canada, Kinmount Ontario
Mahamudra, Deep Ecology and Natural Awakening
a residential retreat

Mahamudra is a name given to the Buddhist path of natural awakening. Although commonly associated with Tibetan teachings, its ancestry goes back to traditions of contemplative science and yoga found in ancient India, which themselves drew inspiration from a diversity of religious sources. Spacious and open, profoundly inclusive, and luminous with the recognition of the interdependence of all manifestation, mahamudra path and practice integrates myriad aspects of dharma exploration including investigations into mind, consciousness and perception while at the same time developing skilful and compassionate ways, of participating in the unfolding community of all life. This is deep ecology, in action. It is what I am. It is what you are. It is a path and practice of natural awakening in action.

During this mostly silent meditation retreat we will cultivate the ancient arts of loving-kindness and clear-seeing presence and enquiry. We will explore how bodies and minds of myriad species weave together a mystery suffused with nowful intelligence. We will draw on the mindfulness teachings of Buddhism and the wisdom teachings of radical wholeness found in the Avatamsaka Sutra, and mesh them with science, personal healing and social responsibility to find a way of living, that in this age of economic/ecological anxiety and uncertainty, is wondrously inclusive, joyously life affirming and profoundly freeing.

The retreat will involve much sitting and walking practice, group exploration, and body awareness work, punctuated with experimental exercises to cultivate inner and outer clarity, presence and compassion in action.

Tarchin has asked that participants come prepared to practice outdoors. It would be good to bring a magnifying glass and a notebook for jotting down observations.

for more information contact
or e-mail

Tarchin will also be teaching in Edmonton and Winnipeg this summer, check Green Dharma Treasury for details.

June 10, 2014 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Cecilie Kwiat’s Gifts

Cecilie Kwiat

My first meditation teacher, Cecilie Kwiat, passed away yesterday. A few of us gathered to share stories of her joy and compassion and share prayers.

She was a living example of the exuberance and drive to awaken and help others awaken. Of the many teachings she gave, one line stands out as so so helpful.

One day Cecilie was teaching about the Buddha’s ‘earth touching mudra’, which is when the Buddha, sitting in meditation, put his right hand down to touch the earth with the tips of his fingers. I’ve always thought of this as him plugging into the earth like an electric plug into a socket. Cecilie was taking about compassion and equanimity when she drew our attention to this image, and she said:

“There is an expression from the SouthWestern US, from the Navajo or Hopi people, and it perfectly describes what this experience is, it captures the embrace of the Buddha’s compassion, an embrace which excludes no one and no thing. It is symbolized in the image of him touching the earth and it’s what I think of when I sit in meditation and do this mudra.

The line is: ‘He has given so fully of himself, there is no place that he is not.'”

Today, around the world, Cecilie’s students will recite the Amitabha Sadhana, recall her wonderful gifts and share merit.

“She has given so fully of herself, there is no place that she is not.”

February 16, 2014 Posted by | Uncategorized | 3 Comments

New Year’s Retreat on The Four Immeasurable Loves (Brahmaviharas)


The Buddha’s favourite word for meditation was ‘cultivation’ (bhavana, in Pali); wouldn’t it be great to start the New Year cultivating sympathetic joy, and the other boundless types of love? Please consider joining us in Morin Heights for a four day retreat on what in Buddhism are called the Four Immeasurables: friendliness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity (aka. the Brahmaviharas). The Teaching will be free.


Retreat starts Thursday Jan. 2nd 10am till lunch Sunday, Jan. 5th, 2014.
All are welcome.
There is limited accommodation at the Dharma House (for a nominal fee $20/pers/night), and other accomodation like B+Bs close nearby. There are also two nice sauna/spas down the street. The retreat is open to newcomers and experienced meditators; it will be offered in ‘social silence’ (that is: silent without being oppressively so); meals and non-class time will be in silence.
Food should either be brought or prepared on site with the possibility of shared pot-luck style meals. Marche Vaillencourt, a lovely grocery store is a 1/2 block walk down the street.

Please contact Jane if you are planning to attend  or if you have any questions:

Jane Marenghi (450) 226-6453

If you want to join us, it would be ideal if you can come at the beginning rather than part way through so as to get the benefit of easing into the experience with the group. However, if that is not possible, do not hesitate to come at the time that works in your schedule but be aware that social silence might then be well in progress and will need to be respected.

Classes in the Theravada (Burmese) and Tibetan Buddhist tradition will be offered by Derek.  The Teaching is free.

Donations (dana) will be accepted according to tradition.

November 18, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Chomsky: higher tuitions are about controlling students by trapping them in debt

An excerpt from an excellent interview Michael S. Wilson did with Noam Chomsky for Modern Success magazine. (posted here at AlterNet)

Chomsky: Well one of the main problems for students today — a huge problem — is sky-rocketing tuitions.  Why do we have tuitions that are completely out-of-line with other countries, even with our own history?  In the 1950s the United States was a much poorer country than it is today, and yet higher education was … pretty much free, or low fees or no fees for huge numbers of people.  There hasn’t been an economic change that’s made it necessary, now, to have very high tuitions, far more than when we were a poor country.  And to drive the point home even more clearly, if we look just across the borders, Mexico is a poor country yet has a good educational system with free tuition.  There was an effort by the Mexican state to raise tuition, maybe some 15 years ago or so, and there was a national student strike which had a lot of popular support, and the government backed down.  Now that’s just happened recently in Quebec, on our other border.  Go across the ocean:  Germany is a rich country.  Free tuition.  Finland has the highest-ranked education system in the world.  Free … virtually free.  So I don’t think you can give an argument that there are economic necessities behind the incredibly high increase in tuition.  I think these are social and economic decisions made by the people who set policy.  And [these hikes] are part of, in my view, part of a backlash that developed in the 1970s against the liberatory tendencies of the 1960s.  Students became much freer, more open, they were pressing for opposition to the war, for civil rights, women’s rights … and the country just got too free. In fact, liberal intellectuals condemned this, called it a “crisis of democracy:”  we’ve got to have more moderation of democracy.   They called, literally, for more commitment to indoctrination of the young, their phrase … we have to make sure that the institutions responsible for the indoctrination of the young do their work, so we don’t have all this freedom and independence.  And many developments took place after that.  I don’t think we have enough direct documentation to prove causal relations, but you can see what happened.  One of the things that happened was controlling students — in fact, controlling students for the rest of their lives, by simply trapping them in debt.  That’s a very effective technique of control and indoctrination.  And I suspect — I can’t prove — but I suspect that that’s a large part of the reason behind [high tuitions].  Many other parallel things happened.  The whole economy changed in significant ways to concentrate power, to undermine workers’ rights and freedom.  In fact the economist who chaired the Federal Reserve around the Clinton years, Alan Greenspan — St. Alan as he was called then, the great genius of the economics profession who was running the economy, highly honored — he testified proudly before congress that the basis for the great economy that he was running was what he called “growing worker insecurity.”  If workers are more insecure, they won’t do things, like asking for better wages and better benefits.  And that’s healthy for the economy from a certain point of view, a point of view that says workers ought to be oppressed and controlled, and that wealth ought to be concentrated in a very few pockets.  So yeah, that’s a healthy economy, and we need growing worker insecurity, and we need growing student insecurity, for similar reasons.  I think all of these things line up together as part of a general reaction — a bipartisan reaction, incidentally — against liberatory tendencies which manifested themselves in the 60s and have continued since.

Wilson:  [Finally, ]I’m wondering if you could [end with some advice for today’s college students].

Chomsky: There are plenty of problems in the world today, and students face a number of them, including the ones I mentioned — the joblessness, insecurity and so on.  Yet on the other hand, there has been progress.  In a lot of respects things are a lot more free and advanced than they were … not many years ago.  So many things that were really matters of struggle, in fact even some barely even mentionable, say, in the 1960s, are now … partially resolved.  Things like women’s rights.  Gay rights.  Opposition to aggression.  Concern for the environment — which is nowhere near where it ought to be, but far beyond the 1960s.  These victories for freedom didn’t come from gifts from above.  They came from people struggling under conditions that are harsher than they are now.   There is state repression now.  But it doesn’t begin to compare with, say, Cointelpro in the 1960s.  People that don’t know about that ought to read and think to find out.  And that leaves lots of opportunities.  Students, you know, are relatively privileged as compared with the rest of the population.  They are also in a period of their lives where they are relatively free.  Well that provides for all sorts of opportunities.  In the past, such opportunities have been taken by students who have often been in the forefront of progressive change, and they have many more opportunities now.  It’s never going to be easy.  There’s going to be repression.  There’s going to be backlash.  But that’s the way society moves forward.

July 21, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Qallunology: First Cease to Do Evil; Then Learn to Do Good…

20090224_freeland_03(A couple of recent posts I’ve written at Buddhist Peace Fellowship…)

“Indigenous people are at the front lines of some of the largest environmental battles of the current era, from tar sands in Alberta to rainforests in the Amazon. Naturally, some non-Indigenous people want to help out. The well-intentioned and progressive point of view seems often to be, “we need to understand Indigenous cultures better, and help them in their struggle.”

But before we set out to help Indigenous people, maybe we should stop hurting them in the first place? “First, cease to do evil,” said the Buddha, “then learn to do good, and then purify the mind.” The order is important. Hippocrates reiterated it 100 years later with his oath: “First, do no harm.”

The first step—”ceasing to do evil”—is understanding what one is currently doing. This is our ‘Pedagogy for the Oppressor.’ Before the non-Indigenous can act in a way that values Indigenous peoples and cultures, we need to better understand how Euro-Americans became non-Indigenous, and how we seem hell-bent on making everyone else do likewise.”

Read More at Buddhist Peace Fellowship here.


Non-Indigenous studies

“Mature Indigenous civilizations are with us and around us now. They are not ‘weird’ or ‘exotic.’ The only reason they feel that way to us is because we see so little familiar or recognizable in their way of life. And that’s not because they are aberrant; it’s because we are.

We non-Indigenous are the weird, exotic ones.

Thanks to the external muscle of fossil fuels and our ideology of possessive individualism (in bulk you might call it ‘capitalism’), we are the first civilization not enmeshed within networks of communities and relations with the land. We are the first to try to split ourselves off. This is a “stunning innovation in human affairs, the sociological equivalent of the splitting of the atom,” according to anthropologist Wade Davis. “Ours is a new and original culture that celebrates the individual at the expense of family and community.”

There has never been a non-Indigenous civilization on planet earth before.”

Read More at Buddhist Peace Fellowship  here.


“Land is something inside you”

Let me add this keen and important observation by John Amagoalik, known as the “Father of Nunavut” for his role in negotiating the Nunavut Land Claim Agreement (NLCA).

Tommy Akulukjuk and David Joanasie showed me an archived video of ‘John A’ (as he’s known up north) one day when we were hangin out at the Nunavut Sivuniksavut ‘college’ in Ottawa. They emphasized how important John A’s comments were, and we all wondered why no one had transcribed them before. So that afternoon we did.  Here’s an excerpt, ‘John A’ on CBC TV in 1976, explaining the difference between Inuit and Qallunaat (Euro-Canadian) views of land ‘ownership’:

John Amagoalik:I think it’s very important for people to remember the original intent of land claims. Over the past few years people seem to think that we’re after money, that we’re after services, but the original intent was, very simply, the survival of our people as a unique race in Canada; we want to save our language, our heritage, our philosophy—our whole way of life.”

Gordon Sinclair:Would you say John, would you say that perhaps your land isn’t for sale?”

John Amagoalik:Yes, that’s very true. You know, you cannot really sell your heritage, you know. We don’t look at land as something to be owned, something to be given away or to be sold. It’s a heritage, it’s something inside you.

CBC Front Page Challenge; Dec 13, 1976;

[For a Qallunaat approach to land-claiming, see the zine: “How To Get Free Land in Five Easy Steps.”]


Summer 2013: The Compassionate Earth Walk and the Tar Sands Healing Walk

I hope many folks will be able to join or help out with the Compassionate Earth Walk this summer. This is a lovely endeavour initiated by Zen priest Shodo Spring. She and hopefully many others will be walking the the (mostly unbuilt) Keystone XL route through the Great Plains, from Hardisty, Alberta to Steele City, Nebraska. They’ll walk from July to September, starting just after the 4th Annual TAR SANDS HEALING WALK, JULY 5- 6TH, 2013 – in Fort McMurray, Alberta.

As Shodo writes: “The ancient practice of pilgrimage responds to present and future environmental catastrophe, focusing on its causes in our own culture. We walk as a blessing to the earth and to those we meet, and as a prayer for all earth’s children.”

The route for the Compassionate Earth Walk

April 27, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Upcoming Meditation Classes in Toronto, Ottawa

Upcoming Meditation classes with Derek

May 8 & 9, 2013 – Toronto

Dharma talks: Loving Kindness and Compassion Meditation

Often in social justice work, as in daily life, we experience fear, anger, loneliness or despair: how then do we nurture a seed of compassion?

Wed. May 8, at 7:30 pm

Thurs. May 9, at 7:30 pm.

In Parkdale near Sorauren Ave and Marion St.

ContactTracy for info: sherlap[at]

OR 416 534-5726

Classes are free – all are welcome.

No prior meditation experience necessary.


May 15 & 17, 2013 – Ottawa

Wed. May 15. 10-11am

Meditation on Love

(The Buddha’s teaching on the four types of love)

Fri. May 17. 10-11am

How to do Love and Compassion Meditation

(with a focus on doing walking loving-kindness meditation for your neighbourhood)

Classes At Dragantail Bookstore (Books)

107 FOURTH AVE – 2ND FLOOR, The Glebe,

Contact Dave at

or telephone at 613-565-2749

Classes are free – all are welcome.

No prior meditation experience necessary.


June 2013 -Morin Heights, Quebec

Dates to be announced

Contact Jane for more information: janemarenghi[at]

Classes in English and French.


Aug. 18-23, 2013   Retreat, Kinmount ON


Sunday PM Aug. 18 – Friday AM, Aug. 23

Dharma Centre of Canada – Kinmount, Ontario.

With Tracey Sheridan and Derek Rasmussen

5 nights, 4 full days on the 400 acre forested property of one of the first meditation centres in Canada (founded 1965). Traditional Buddhist meditation practice, plus yoga instruction each day, plus plenty of time to walk and explore the property.

$50 per night accommodation; we’ll arrange food together, and the teaching (as per tradition) is free. Please come and join us.  All are welcome.

No prior meditation experience necessary.

Contact Tracy for info: sherlap[at]

or Derek: dharma_eh[at]


Fall, 2013- Classes in British Columbia

More info soon.

April 23, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Depression, meditation, friendship

One of my closest friends from Buddhist seminary school was telling me about being on retreat recently.  In the group discussion that followed the end of the retreat she mentioned that she had been depressed. But she almost didn’t mention it because as a long-term meditator she was so embarrassed to admit to being susceptible to depression.  “We’re all supposed to be past all that; all ‘fixed’ up; but that’s not how I feel,” she said. “And somehow this makes me feel like I’ve failed.”

The teacher thanked her for her bravery in speaking up.

He admitted that he had also struggled with depression and that he’d found it extremely difficult to find dharma folks to talk to about it; because depression is one of the biggest taboos in dharma circles.

I was in the magazine store in Ottawa yesterday when this tiny article from the Spring 2013 issue of Buddhadharma Magazine jumped out at me. A short beautiful piece by Hozan Alan Senauke, called “In the Darkest Moments”. Alan is a priest and vice-abbot at the Berkeley Zen Center, and he writes with naked honesty about depression and its antidotes: what works and what doesn’t.  Alan concludes that meditation works, but if meditation can’t help, then friendship works best.

A slightly longer version of his piece appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of Inquiring Mind.

Here t’is….

“Tangled Up In Blue” by Hozan Alan Senauke


As for me, after nearly thirty years of meditation I have come to no great enlightenment. I haven’t seen the cosmic light shows or transcendental visions of reality. This is not to say I do not feel changed or even free and joyful at times. But freedom is momentary. I appreciate it for what it is. I just don’t stay there, and that is okay with me. That’s a loaded word—”stay.” In terms of the law of anicca or impermanence, one does not stay anywhere. But I digress.

What I mean to say is that I have come to think that given my propensity toward depression—biochemical, hereditary, or karmic—the settledness of meditation, the sense of relief in just sitting down, may be as good as it gets for me. There is a phrase I love from Eihei Dogen, in our Zen tradition: “When Dharma fills your body and mind, you realize that something is missing.” That is, the very incompleteness of our being, actions, aspirations, is a manifestation of Buddhanature itself. Everything is broken. No regrets.


Over the years I have tried to ‘deal with’ (that means get rid of) depression in various ways. I have done talk therapy and acupuncture. I’ve sampled organic remedies like St John’s wort, SAME-e, homeopathy, and most recently, Vitamin D. I have been on and off a modest amount of fluoxetine (Prozac).  Actually, Prozac seemed to work for a while.  When I began to take it—twenty years ago, on the advice of my therapist and in consultation with a psychiatrist—it was as if a dark cloud that had always circled my head just disappeared. It was a great and joyous relief. But the relief seemed to be only temporary.


So I return to what I trust, meditation—and to that other reliable remedy: friendship. Actually, the two are not unrelated. Meditation is not a cure, but if I can sit down in a quiet space and follow my breath, the weight of depression usually lifts while I am sitting. If sitting is not possible, I will take a long walk. Either way I have bridged the internal disconnect; I am, for this time, friendly toward myself.

The power of friendship multiplies when extended beyond oneself. I keep in mind E. M. Forster’s famous epigraph to Howards End: “Only connect.” In the darkest moments, when I feel least able to do so, I know this is necessary and true. So I leave my room and seek a friend. In depression, friendship is an alkahest—the alchemist’s universal solvent that brings forth light and energy. It’s the best remedy.

Thank you Alan.

Joan Tollifson has been writing recently on her facebook page about depression and dharma.

Wonderful posts and reflections.

She apparently stumbled onto Alan’s piece too. Here’s part of what she says…

“I found (Alan’s) article deeply enlightening. Enlightening because it offers no big, splashy promises of a life filled with continuous bliss and flashing blue lights, but instead, something so simple and real. I loved Alan’s honesty, his humility, and his settledness in the ordinary (which is truly the extraordinary). The Zen practice he embodies is about being right here with life as it is.”

“It makes me very happy to see that more and more teachers seem willing to openly acknowledge and reveal their own humanness and brokenness—their on-going struggles with depression, anxiety, addiction, jealousy, anger, or whatever it might be. We tend to idolize and idealize spiritual teachers, wanting to believe that they are perfect and that maybe someday we will be perfect. Disillusionment is often a hard lesson, but it can be the greatest lesson of all, when we discover the teacher’s imperfections and understand that no one else can save us. […]”

“I wish we could all get beyond the Final Enlightenment Mythology and the Awakened Person Mythology in which we imagine that we (or others) have crossed some finish line and arrived at some final place where all problems have been permanently solved. …”

Amen Sister.

And one more story….

Several years ago, I went down to Berea, Kentucky to a small Christian College, to meet Ivan Illich. Illich gave a public talk to maybe 200 students and activists from the area. Illich had abandoned the podium and climbed down from the stage. He said he refused to use the microphone because it privileged one voice above the many and thus this technology was inherently anti-democratic.  Preferring instead to speak with his unamplified voice, he stood and spoke to us from the first row of seats in the auditorium. We all moved in closer to hear him.

After the hour-long talk, he said there was a time for a few questions…

An African-American woman in the third row stood up, “Given the difficulty of improving things in society, and given how often there is frustration and failure, how do we keep from despair? How do we keep going?” she asked.

Illich didn’t have a pat answer.

There was a long pause while he considered her question. Time passed.

We all waited quietly.

Then Illich motioned to Lee Hoinecki, his best friend, who was sitting in the front row.

Lee got up and went to stand beside Ivan.

Ivan gently leaned into Lee and put an arm around his shoulders.

He smiled at the woman who had asked the question.

Then he said one word:


March 6, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Valentine’s Week Retreat at the Morin Heights Dharma House on the the Four Immeasurables

“The Most Contagious Activism is Linked to Celebration and Joy”–Alice Walker

“My activism – cultural, political, spiritual – is rooted in my love of nature and A.Walkermy delight in human beings. It is when people are at peace, content, full, that they are most likely to […] be a generous, joyous, even entertaining experience for me. I believe that people exist to be enjoyed, much as a restful or engaging view might be. As the ocean or drifting clouds might be. Or as if they were the human equivalent of melons, mangoes, or any other kind of attractive, seductive fruit. When I am in the presence of other human beings I want to revel in their creative and intellectual fullness, their uninhibited social warmth. I want their precious human radiance to wrap me in light. I do not want fear of war or starvation or bodily mutilation to steal both my pleasure in them and their own birthright. Everything I would like other people to be for me, I want to be for them.”

That’s Alice Walker writing in her book Anything We Love Can Be Saved. I can think of no better description for the emotion of ‘sympathetic joy‘–one of the four boundless emotions cultivated in Buddhism. Howard Zinn, commenting on Walker’s book in 2006, wrote that Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr, Fannie Lou Hamer and Rosa Parks all “represent activism at its most contagious, because it is linked to celebration and joy.” (Original Zinn, p. 103)

The Buddha’s favourite word for meditation was ‘cultivation’ (bhavana, in Pali); wouldn’t it be great to spend more time cultivating sympathetic joy, and the other boundless emotions together? The week after next is Valentine’s Day, a time usually focused on our ‘bounded’ specific love–not a bad thing in and of itself–but why not try something new? Next week is also Losar, Tibetan New Year (Feb.11), a time for new beginnings, so what better time for a…


I’ll be leading a retreat at the Morin Heights Dharma House on the Boundless Emotions, aka the Four Immeasurables–friendliness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity (the Brahmaviharas) from noon Sunday Feb. 10, till the morning of Fri. Feb. 15.
All are welcome.
There is limited accommodation at the Dharma House (for a nominal fee $20/pers/night), and other accomodation like B+Bs close nearby. There is also a nice sauna+spa down the street. The retreat is open to newcomers and veterans; it will be offered in ‘social silence’ (that is: silent without being oppressively so).
Food should either be brought or prepared on site with the possibility of shared pot-luck style meals. Marche Vaillencourt, a lovely grocery store is a 1/2 block walk down the street.

Please contact Jane if you are planning to attend  or if you have any questions:

Jane Marenghi (450) 226-6453
If you want to join us, it would be ideal if you can come at the beginning rather than part way through so as to get the benefit of easing into the experience with the group. However, if that is not possible, do not hesitate to come at the time that works in your schedule but be aware that social silence might then be well in progress and will need to be respected.

Chenrezig (Compassion)

Avalokiteśvara (Tib: Chenrezig, Buddha of Compassion); each of the 4 arms represents one of the Immeasurable Emotions

Classes in the Theravada (Burmese) and Tibetan Buddhist tradition will be offered by Derek.  The Teaching is free.

Donations (dana) will be accepted according to tradition.

PS. here’s a lovely post by Susan Kaiser Greenland describing Paul Simon’s look of sympathetic joy during a Toronto concert when he spontaneously invited a shocked audience member on stage to play and sing a song.

February 3, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Science of Loving-Kindness Meditation

Let’s talk about meditate on love…

It was a rare opportunity: one of the world’s top brain researchers and one of the most esteemed Buddhist monks in the room at the same time, talking about the effects of loving-kindness and compassion meditation on the brain. Here’s my report from this first-of-its kind course offered by the University of Minnesota last month, a summary of the latest findings on neuroscience and meditation.

Meditating on love and compassion leads to a sharp increase in brain gamma-waves, a significant decrease in inflammation, and a significant increase in immune system response.

These are just a few of the results that physiological tests and fMRI scans have revealed in long-term and beginner meditators who meditate on love and compassion for all beings. Dr. Richard Davidson (“Richie”) from the University of Wisconsin shared these compelling findings from the rigorous peer-reviewed research done at their ‘Centre for the Study of Healthy Minds’.  He and his talented group of grad students use a functioning Magnetic Resonance Imaging system (fMRI) to take ‘snapshots’ of brain activity of veteran and novice meditators. One of the veteran test subjects (logging between 10,000-50,000 hours of meditation) is Tibetan Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, who was the other presenter for the course in Minneapolis, and the meditation leader for the 400 of us who attended. (BTW, I talked to over two dozen of these folks during breaks, and although hardly a representative sample, it’s interesting to note that almost all were non-Buddhist, many were Catholic, and over half were health professionals—mostly nurses).

Science and meditation’s shared goal: an unfabricated understanding of reality

Richie’s opening comments set the theme:

“Science is dedicated to investigating reality in a radically honest way; Dharma uses different methods, but the aim is the same: an unfabricated understanding of reality.”

“In our research lab in Madison, dedicated to contemplative neuroscience, we have a meditation space for 25 people where we do weekly sittings”, said Davidson, while his projector showed us a slide of the lab’s futuristic meditation pod that looked like something from Star Trek.

“We feel this type of meditation training should be available to scientists who wish to study the mind.”

His senior researcher, Antoine Lutz, didn’t attend the course, he was away on 6-week meditation retreat.   It was cool to hear Davidson say, “we need a very different model for training grad students, one that allows them to do meditation as part of their school work”.  Davidson said retreat work should not be viewed as a luxury but as a necessity.

His co-presenter Matthieu Ricard, is no stranger to retreat work, having done over a decade of secluded practice in Nepal under the supervision of the esteemed meditation master Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche.  Ricard reminded us that our motivation during the course should be to “above all, to gain the capacity to free beings from suffering”.

“The Buddha’s first talk after his enlightenment linked suffering to a distorted view of reality”, said Ricard.

“So unfortunately, people think Buddhism is all about suffering – as if a doctor was a pessimist for looking at your illness.” 

“But the Buddha was not merely describing obvious suffering, he wasn’t speaking about toothaches or war, we don’t need the Buddha to figure that stuff out.”

“What he really was referring to was the suffering of change; that if a situation is wonderful, we grasp at it and want it to be permanent and so really the most important invisible and deep cause of suffering is our distorted perception of reality.”

“Wanting things to be permanent and thinking that reality is made up of independent autonomous entities, which leads us to reify reality, this causes us to suffer, because it leads us to hope, reject, fear, and so on.”

Socioeconomic background can affect perception

Davidson then chimed in with an example from Jerome Bruner’s earlier research on how socioeconomic background affects perception.  Bruner had found that when asked to draw from memory five or ten cent pieces, children from poorer backgrounds judged them to be physically bigger than children from wealthy backgrounds.

“These distortions are potential targets for contemplative practice” said Ritchie.

“Meditation can help diminish these biases so that our perception is less confounded, or at least so we become aware of the bias.”

At this point Ricard reminded us that although many of our projections and perceptions may distort reality, as Dharma practitioners the ones we must address are the distortions that cause suffering.  We attach one of three view-points to every object we perceive:  pleasant, unpleasant, neutral – these labels clearly do not belong to the object.  But these viewpoints need not cause us suffering in and of themselves.  They only cause us to suffer if we believe this quality to be permanent and if we try to grasp or reject the object because of the label.

“A physically beautiful person may be an object of attraction to another person,” said Ricard, “but to a tiger they are a meal!” (laughter) “And to a bacterium, they are an entire environment!”

“The classic example is stepping on a rope in the dark: if your mind instantly jumps to label it ‘Snake!’, then you get the follow-on emotions of anxiety and fear.”

“However, when you turn the light on, the distortion in your perception is removed and you relax, ahhh.”

“But when you turned that light on, did you change the rope in some fundamental way? No. Turning the light on does not change the nature of the rope. You didn’t get rid of some permanent identity of the rope nor did you get rid of some aspect of yourself, you just unmasked and resolved a distortion that you had superimposed on reality.”

Not all distortions are problematic (cause suffering)

Davidson said, “From a Buddhist perspective, it’s not necessary that we unmask every distortion in our perception because in some cases, these distortions are the optimal way the mind has for functioning in the world.”  “Think of parallel lines, of railway tracks, receding into the distance.  We know they don’t touch, but to our vision it looks like they do.  But this distortion isn’t causing us any suffering.  In fact, some distortions may help you function in reality.”

“So the only distortions we want to address are the ones that are obstacles to happiness.”

“For example, cravings and aversions that emerge from our reification of reality.  Buddhism doesn’t pretend that our perception will ever be perfect.  It is just concerned about valid cognition that removes suffering.”

“Like with the parallel lines example, we can be aware that our perception is wrong but that needn’t prevent us from still having valid cognition.  We can interact with an object without thinking ‘That thing (or person) is intrinsically mine and is permanent.’

OK, so that gives you a bit of a taste of the morning intro; after that, we moved on to the science.

A short crash-course on the human brain

Davidson began his crash-course on the geography of the brain illustrating why ‘the human brain is the most complicated piece of matter on the planet.”

It contains over 100,000 neuronal phenotypes (different types of cells).  There are 85,000,000,000 neurons in the brain.  The number of connections between these neurons is 10 to 14th power, a number Davidson challenged us to start writing out and see if we could finish before the end of the day.  “This is an unfathomable complexity with a potentially unbounded number of mental states,” he pointed out.

One cubic millimeter of brain contains 20,000 to 30,000 neurons.

1 cubic mm of brain contains 4 km of nerve fibers

This one floored me: “1 cubic millimeter contains 4 kilometers of axons (nerve fibers) and 10 to the 9th power synapses.”

“But our best imaging so far only goes down to 5 cubic millimeters of brain.”

“The white matter of our brains is largely made up of myelinated axons (myelin is the fatty tissue around the axon which insulates it from other axons and enables it fast and efficient connectivity – something found only in vertebrates).

“A lot of information in the brain is not fixed but is represented in this structural and functional connectivity and it’s this connectivity which we constantly, wittingly or unwittingly, change thru our habitual mental patterns.”

And this might worry you as much as cheer you up: “as little as two hours of repetitive activity changes connectivity in the brain.”

Using powerpoint Davidson outlined the different lobes and parts of the brain and their functions.  One area of great interest is a thin layer of brain right at our forehead, an area of the frontal polar cortex known as ‘Broadman’s area’ which is the most dramatically increased part of the brain mass in humans, something that differentiates us from our primate cousins.  It seems to be related to interpreting internal experience.

How does meditation change the brain?

Another area of interest to scientists and meditators is the amygdala, a small section in the center of the brain which seems to control the intensity and duration of how long a negative emotion like fear or anxiety can ‘highjack’ the brain.  In one study that looked at mindfulness practice and altruism, after 8 weeks of mindfulness meditation, the physical volume of the amygdala shrank significantly in meditators, and the amygdala recovery time quickened.  What this meant was meditators had less emotional stickiness.  They recovered more quickly from the kinds of emotional reaction which spill over and color subsequent moments of experience. 

But this wasn’t the same for all types of meditation: compassion and loving-kindness meditation correlated with the biggest changes in the amygdala.  When presented with images of human suffering, the anxiety  or emotional stickiness signaled in the amygdala was lower in those who had done one full day of compassion or loving kindness meditation versus those who had done one full day of ‘open awareness meditation’.

How does meditation change the body?

In another experiment, compassion meditation was taught to adolescents in a foster home for an increasing number of hours.  The ones who did no practice showed no change but the ones who did at least 30 minutes a day showed a reduction in C-reactive protein and pro-reactive cytokines—protein indicators of inflammation and potential susceptibility to disease.  And the teens who did more meditation experienced a greater reduction. So even for novice meditators living in a stressful situation, there was physiological improvement with as little as two weeks practice, 30 minutes a day.

In another test, university students were divided into two groups. One group did not meditate, while the other group was taught to do 30 minutes of meditation per day for two weeks, a period of time which happened to overlap with them getting their flu shots. When their blood was tested, the meditating students showed a statistically significant increase in flu antibodies over the non-meditators.

The science of meditating on love and compassion

I thought it was interesting that most of the research by Davidson and his colleagues focuses on the effects of meditating on love and compassion, two of the four positive states developed in the classic ‘boundless’ or ‘divine abodes’ meditations in Buddhism.  These 4 ‘immeasurable’ practices, also known as the ‘Brahma Viharas’, have not been given as much emphasis in the Western meditation community as ‘mindfulness’ and insight (vipassana) practices.

When it came to further areas of research yet to be developed, Davidson identified the third positive boundless state, sympathetic joy, as something he hoped would garner some attention.  Sympathetic joy (‘mudita’ in Sanskrit) is the joy we feel when we perceive the happiness or success of others.  Davidson felt sympathetic joy would be a great skill to cultivate among scientists working in a competitive research environment to replace their tendencies towards envy and jealousy when their colleagues make breakthroughs.

Meditating on compassion increases your readiness to act

The afternoon continued with reports on the results of f-MRI brain imaging of long-term meditators.  Davidson’s lab has built up a cohort of research subjects, monks, nuns, and lay people, 50% men and 50% women, with over 10,000 hours (3 years) of meditation experience (the average is 34,000 hours in formal practice: all have completed a minimum of one 3-year retreat).

When long-term practitioners meditate on compassion the main effect observed is a huge increase in gamma wave activity – higher than ever reported in any other study.   Gamma waves are high frequency brain waves that indicate a huge number of neurons operating in a synchronized fashion.  For those who had meditated for long term on compassion, there was dramatic increase in brain activity in the insula (responsible for emotion) and the temporoparietal junction (responsible for empathy). But what surprised Davidson and his colleagues were the fMRI scans that also showed a dramatic increase in the brain region responsible for planned movement.  He and  Ricard theorized that compassion meditation increases the brain’s ‘total readiness to act, to help’ to jump into action to alleviate suffering.  And the more compassion meditation a practitioner had done, the greater were the changes observable in the brain.

As little as 8 minutes produces a result

Davidson was then asked the obvious question, “OK—What’s the lowest dose that produces a result?”

“8 minutes among non-practitioners was enough to produce significant physiological and mental changes”  he answered.  And what was most encouraging, is he said that it seems that at the beginning stages, among novice meditators, there’s a very strong connection between the amount of meditation practice and the amount of biological change.  In other words, especially when you first start meditating, that’s when you make a lot of positive changes in the brain.

So how do we meditate on boundless loving-kindness?

And so now the attendees wanted to know: ‘How do we do it?  What is the simple prescription for this meditation?’

Here’s an outline of the simple instruction for boundless loving kindness practice that they have been using in their research.

Start by cultivating a strong feeling of loving kindness in your own being.  Feel this loving-kindness viscerally, tangibly, permeating your whole body.  Once this feeling of loving kindness is strongly, emotionally and physically present, then imagine it radiating out to all beings without holding it back from anyone.  So this feeling of loving kindness permeates all plants, animals, people in all directions, in front, to the sides, behind, above and below.  If it diminishes, go back to the beginning, replenish the feeling in your own being and body and imagine it radiating out without limit.  This is what the poet Rumi described as an ocean with no outer shore. (Eventually the experience broadens to a realization that there is no inner shore either.) This is the ‘directional method.’

A second method works with ‘categories of people’. It starts the same way, with a strong feeling of loving kindness permeating your own being; then you imagine it radiating out to your teachers and benefactors, your friends, family, and loved ones. Then to ‘neutral people’ (people you don’t know very well); and then finally you visualize this loving-kindness radiating out to difficult people, people you may not get along with.

Do this for 30 minutes, or longer if you can (increased physiological and brain improvements are linked to increased practice time ).

What if you don’t feel much love in your own being to start with?

Then start with a spiritual teacher, benefactor, parent or grandparent, or some source of unconditional love. Imagine their love flowing into you and filling you up until ‘your cup overfloweth’ and you feel that you can radiate this kindness out to others. (It’s worth noting that Buddhist teachers Jack Kornfield , Pema Chodron, and Sharon Salzberg caution that some meditators–Westerners particularly–may need to do this ‘self-generation’ of loving-kindness for a year or more, before moving on the  ‘radiating outward’ stage.).

It’s unfortunately quite common for people to feel that they have no human being in their experience who represents this wellspring of love; then we are advised to start with a pet: many people report that they start by meditating on the love they feel from their dog.  “Start with Fido,” advises Pema Chodron in her retreat CD on the four immeasurables.  And if you really feel that there is no person or animal you can refer to as a source of unconditional love, then the classic meditation object you reflect on is the sun: the warmth from the sun.


For those that are interested, there is a lot more about all this research in Davidson’s book The Emotional Life of Your Brain (2012), particularly Chapter 10. Citations for the research above can be found here, and here.

Also check out the 45 minute presentation he gave at the Dalai Lama Centre in Vancouver earlier this year.  Davidson and Ricard also previewed some of this material in 1 hour talks they gave at Google and at the Aspen Institute from 2007-2011; links here –

Prof. Richard Davidson: Transform Your Mind, Change Your Brain (2009)

Ven. Matthieu Ricard: Change your Mind Change your Brain (2007)

Prof. Richard Davidson et al: The Neuroscience of Happiness (2011)

November 15, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Top US Scientist James Hansen in NY Times: Tar Sands = “Game Over for the Climate”

James Hansen, who heads the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City, wrote an amazingly straightforward op-ed piece in the New York Times yesterday….surprisingly, when you google for it only 5 hits come up. It’s hard to find the complete text, so in case you haven’t seen it, here it is (below), unedited.

Meanwhile the day before, Canada’s Anti-Environment minister Peter Kent, lied about “foreign” money dominating environmental groups (his comments were exposed as lies by Canadian Press —-while the tar sands are, in fact , effectively owned by foreign interests (who share in $1.4 billion a year of subsidies from Cdn taxpayers)

“71 per cent of the ownership of oilsands production was foreign, while the foreign-based companies controlled 24.2 per cent of the sector’s production.” Vancouver Sun, May 11, 2012

In a wonderful piece titled “Our Generation’s Quiet Awakening must be Green and Red“, the Youth Climate Coalition wrote this week: “We need to end the reign of oil in Ottawa, and its influence in Quebec city. The federal government now hands-out $1.4 billion a year to the world’s richest and most polluting oil companies, when such a hand-out to students could begin a system of free education in Quebec and across Canada.” (Just in case you think this sounds fanciful: Norway used its resource wealth to fund free university education for all….)

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Game Over for the Climate


Published in the New York Times: May 9, 2012

GLOBAL warming isn’t a prediction. It is happening. That is why I was so troubled to read a recent interview with President Obama in Rolling Stone in which he said that Canada would exploit the oil in its vast tar sands reserves “regardless of what we do.”

If Canada proceeds, and we do nothing, it will be game over for the climate.

Canada’s tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history. If we were to fully exploit this new oil source, and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas and coal supplies, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now. That level of heat-trapping gases would assure that the disintegration of the ice sheets would accelerate out of control. Sea levels would rise and destroy coastal cities. Global temperatures would become intolerable. Twenty to 50 percent of the planet’s species would be driven to extinction. Civilization would be at risk. That is the long-term outlook.

But near-term, things will be bad enough. Over the next several decades, the Western United States and the semi-arid region from North Dakota to Texas will develop semi-permanent drought, with rain, when it does come, occurring in extreme events with heavy flooding. Economic losses would be incalculable. More and more of the Midwest would be a dust bowl. California’s Central Valley could no longer be irrigated. Food prices would rise to unprecedented levels.

If this sounds apocalyptic, it is. This is why we need to reduce emissions dramatically. President Obama has the power not only to deny tar sands oil additional access to Gulf Coast refining, which Canada desires in part for export markets, but also to encourage economic incentives to leave tar sands and other dirty fuels in the ground.

The global warming signal is now louder than the noise of random weather, as I predicted would happen by now in the journal Science in 1981. Extremely hot summers have increased noticeably. We can say with high confidence that the recent heat waves in Texas and Russia, and the one in Europe in 2003, which killed tens of thousands, were not natural events — they were caused by human-induced climate change. We have known since the 1800s that carbon dioxide traps heat in the atmosphere. The right amount keeps the climate conducive to human life. But add too much, as we are doing now, and temperatures will inevitably rise too high. This is not the result of natural variability, as some argue.

The earth is currently in the part of its long-term orbit cycle where temperatures would normally be cooling. But they are rising — and it’s because we are forcing them higher with fossil fuel emissions.

The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen from 280 parts per million to 393 p.p.m. over the last 150 years. The tar sands contain enough carbon — 240 gigatons — to add 120 p.p.m. Tar shale, a close cousin of tar sands found mainly in the United States, contains at least an additional 300 gigatons of carbon. If we turn to these dirtiest of fuels, instead of finding ways to phase out our addiction to fossil fuels, there is no hope of keeping carbon concentrations below 500 p.p.m. — a level that would, as earth’s history shows, leave our children a climate system that is out of their control. We need to start reducing emissions significantly, not create new ways to increase them.

We should impose a gradually rising carbon fee, collected from fossil fuel companies, then distribute 100 percent of the collections to all Americans on a per-capita basis every month. The government would not get a penny. This market-based approach would stimulate innovation, jobs and economic growth, avoid enlarging government or having it pick winners or losers.

Most Americans, except the heaviest energy users, would get more back than they paid in increased prices. Not only that, the reduction in oil use resulting from the carbon price would be nearly six times as great as the oil supply from the proposed pipeline from Canada, rendering the pipeline superfluous, according to economic models driven by a slowly rising carbon price.

But instead of placing a rising fee on carbon emissions to make fossil fuels pay their true costs, leveling the energy playing field, the world’s governments are forcing the public to subsidize fossil fuels with hundreds of billions of dollars per year. This encourages a frantic stampede to extract every fossil fuel through mountaintop removal, longwall mining, hydraulic fracturing, tar sands and tar shale extraction, and deep ocean and Arctic drilling. President Obama speaks of a “planet in peril,” but he does not provide the leadership needed to change the world’s course.

Our leaders must speak candidly to the public — which yearns for open, honest discussion — explaining that our continued technological leadership and economic well-being demand a reasoned change of our energy course. History has shown that the American public can rise to the challenge, but leadership is essential. The science of the situation is clear — it’s time for the politics to follow. This is a plan that can unify conservatives and liberals, environmentalists and business.

Every major national science academy in the world has reported that global warming is real, caused mostly by humans, and requires urgent action. The cost of acting goes far higher the longer we wait — we can’t wait any longer to avoid the worst and be judged immoral by coming generations.

James Hansen directs the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and is the author of “Storms of My Grandchildren.”

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James Hansen : “game over pour le climat” (NYT)

9 mai 2012 | Pour James Hansen, directeur du Goddard institute for space studies, de la Nasa, la science est très claire : le changement climatique est déjà en train de se produire. Il est temps que les politiques suivent.

LE réchauffement climatique n’est pas une prédiction. Ce qui se passe. C’est pourquoi j’ai été tellement troublée lire un entretien récent avec le président Obama dans Rolling Stone, dans lequel il dit que le Canada serait exploiter l’huile dans ses sables bitumineux vastes réserves « indépendamment de ce que nous faisons. » Lire toute l’histoire :

May 11, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | 2 Comments