Adapting to Conditions by Rev. Helen Cummings

February 23, 2015

The following text was written in preparation for an audio Dharma talk, the second of four talks given for the Bear River Meditation Group class series in February/March 2015 on The Four Practices of Bodhidharma. The audio file of Reverend Helen’s talk is available here. Reverend Helen is a Zen monk training at Shasta Abbey Buddhist Monastery. She will respond to questions and discussion on the talk during the class series. Please scroll down to the end of the text to post your questions in the “Leave a Comment/Reply” area.  Responses will be screened to eliminate spam and inappropriate language.

Adapting to Conditions
by Reverend Helen Cummings

The second of Bodhidharma’s Four Practices is adapting to conditions, also given as sitting unmoved, or steadfast in the face of change.

The dictionary definition of “adapting” is “becoming adjusted to new conditions”.  But in Bodhidharma’s context,  “adapting” means acknowledging Anicca – one of the Three Characteristics of Buddhism.  Anicca – change.  All conditioned things change.  All aspects of our lives change, including this being that I call myself.   “Adapting to conditions” recognizes that there is a fundamental craving in us as humans that wants things to remain intact and unchanging, particularly when it come to ME and the way that I want me to be!

Adapting to conditions means sitting still – firmly – in the midst of change, not trying to hold onto something, not trying to “fix” a situation, not trying to make something permanent.

Adapting to conditions asks us to develop contentment with what we have, not being pulled by desire or pushed by craving.  We have what we need, in the circumstances that we are in. Craving is a kind of insistence on a very narrow view of self, a view of self as fixed, permanent. Craving is the acting on that view to protect the self in ways rooted in fear or in anger or in delusion.  Fundamentally, craving is cherishing the self.

In our contemporary world we are all too familiar with various kinds of addictions.  They are compulsive and they’re an intense form of craving, and they give us a clue about the less obvious graspings that mark our daily lives.  Addictions are fundamentally unpleasant, even when we are involved in the addictive activity itself, but they’re especially unpleasant as we deal with the consequences.  Pema Chodron offers us something to consider in this regard when she says, we are primarily addicted to ME.  But I offer that it’s the consequences of that addiction that bring us to practice.

The Buddha’s Second Noble Truth – suffering has a cause and that cause is our craving – is the ground on which Bodhidharma builds his second practice – when he asks us to look at how we respond to the conditions in our lives.

Bodhidharma takes us to a deeper understanding of that Second Noble Truth.   He tells us that the cause of the frustration and suffering that are the hallmarks of NOT “adapting to conditions” is the fact that we hold onto things that are changing, that we grasp after them when they are gone, and that we continue to be attached to them even as they are no longer there.  We want what we want, and we don’t want to let go.

We do not live with an understanding and awareness of anicca, we do not adapt to the change that is fundamental in this human realm.  The Diamond Sutra says it very powerfully:

Thus shall ye think of all this fleeting world:
a star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
a flash of lightning, a child’s laugh, a phantasm, a dream.

When we know this we are adapting to conditions.

Adapting to conditions first and foremost requires us to “see things as they truly are”.  And anicca – change – is fundamental here.  Things change.  We cannot hold onto any thing, any one, not even our self.  We cannot grasp some one, some thing, no matter how precious, no matter how much we may want to.

The answer that the Buddha found to the cause of suffering is rooted in this:  craving. I want it this way! I want it otherwise! I want conditions to be different!   I want…

Bodhidharma asks other questions:
*   Can we truly see how we are driven by craving, restlessness, aversion, delusion?
*   Can we develop a steadfast heart, and strengthen our capacity to respond from that heart, from our “immovable” sitting place?
*   Can we hold anicca – seeing things as they truly are – Right Understanding as our “polar star” when we come to make choices in our daily life?

Let me read Bodhidharma’s words on “suffering injustice” as given by Red Pine:

As mortals we’re ruled by conditions not by ourselves.
All the suffering and joy we experience depend on conditions.
If we should be blessed by some great reward, such as fame and fortune,
it’s the fruit of a seed planted by us in the past.
When conditions change, it ends.
Why delight in its existence?
But while success and failure depend on conditions,
the mind neither waxes nor wans.
Those who remain unmoved by the wind of joy silently follow the path.

Before meeting the Dharma people live by reacting to circumstances.
Grasping what seems pleasurable, avoiding what seems unpleasant,
people strive to hold on to dependent pleasure and happiness.

As mortals we’re ruled by conditions not by ourselves.
The eight worldly conditions, the eight winds of change,
the eight topsy-turvy conditions, the flow of anicca is constant.

All the suffering and joy we experience depend on conditions.
And yet as we know from our talk last time,
“Conditions are not separate from the Way.”
When we see clearly, we know them for the teachers that they are.

If we should be blessed by some great reward, such as fame and fortune,
it’s the fruit of a seed planted by us in the past.
Karma…conditions today are the result of past choices, either in this life or in other lives…
and this is why our choice in each moment is so important.

When conditions change, it ends.
Why delight in its existence?
The Japanese poet says: I know this glass is already broken and so I enjoy it fully.

But while success and failure depend on conditions,
the mind neither waxes nor wans.
The steadfast mind is the mind of Achalanatha—”the immovable one”
And it’s important to remember here that Achalanatha, fierce as he is,
is an aspect of compassion.

Those who remain unmoved by the wind of joy silently follow the path.

Follow the path…having entered the path through the first practice of “suffering injustice”.

Before meeting the Dharma people live by reacting to circumstances.
Our practice results in our strengthened capacity to make choices that reflect
responses rooted in the mind of meditation, rooted in the steadfast mind,
rather than karmically-driven or automatic-pilot reactions.

Grasping what seems pleasurable, avoiding what seems unpleasant,
people strive to hold on to dependent pleasure and happiness.
However, circumstances are impermanent
and there is no way people can make circumstances
always, eternally, provide their happiness.
Don’t we know this to be true as we live our contemporary, market-driven lives!

The advice that Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and Padampa Sangye gave to the “People of Tingri” in The Hundred Verse of Advice (#74), is valuable for us as well.  They say:

“Your notions of the outer world derive from the mind within;
People of Tingri, let the solid ice be melted into liquid.”

“Lakes and rivers can freeze in winter and the water can become so solid that people, animals, and carts travel back and forth on its surface.  At the approach of spring, the earth warms up and the waters thaw.  What remains then of all that solid ice?  Water is soft and fluid, ice hard and sharp.  We cannot say that they are identical, but neither are they different—ice is only frozen water, and water is only melted ice.

It is the same with our perceptions of the external world.  To be attached to the reality of phenomena, tormented by attraction and repulsion, and obsessed by the eight worldly conditions is what causes the mind to freeze.  Melt the ice of your concepts so that the fluid water of free perceptions can flow.”

“Melt the ice of your concepts…” …this is another way of saying “adapt to conditions” Doesn’t it apply particularly well when we think of  the “ice” of our own fixed self, and of the ways that we entrench ourselves,  and ways we insist on cherishing and protect it?

When we are “frozen” – unadapting in our responses to the conditions in our lives – what actually hurts is not that we don’t have something.  It is that we don’t have it and we want it frozen in place.  What causes grief is not that we lose something.  It is that we are unable to accept the fact and let the water flow.

The “melting” that is “adapting to conditions” is when we change how we relate to the world around us in light of Right Understanding. Anicca tells us that everything is always changing…when we know this, we know Right Understanding:  The conditions we wish to maintain and “fix” will change, as will the unpleasant conditions we can all too easily believe will last forever.  If we can just find a way to give up our grabbing onto things, to find a way to accept life as it actually is, truly adapt to conditions, we’ll be able to be steadfast in the face of the inevitable changes in our lives.

RM Daizui  puts its succinctly:  Realizing all of this…makes clear that our never-ending desires to make the world “behave itself” in the way we wish cannot possibly lead us to anything other than self-frustration.

When we know this, we have a glimpse of a whole other way of being:  where we can accept anicca, where we can be at home with the flow of change of things.

It doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy things, experiences, friends, family.  But we do it in the spirit of the Japanese poem:  I know this glass is already broken, and so I enjoy it fully! Yes, take full advantage of the joy…don’t hold on, don’t push away.

Our meditation practice is so important in “adapting to conditions”.  Although it takes all we have to stay seated for the meditation, we generally don’t bound off our cushion when things get difficult in our meditation.  Those difficulties are simply the conditions of the moment and we let them arise, abide, and pass away.  This is why a regular meditation practice is so important, even if it is only 5 minutes each day.  This is the cultivation of a steadfastness that we can bring into other areas of life when we choose to “adapt to conditions”.  We can let “those” situations benefit from our ability to let things arise, abide, and pass away.

Our sitting meditation isn’t about getting it right or achieving some ideal state.  It’s really about being able to stay present with ourselves.  It’s about learning how to realize – make real –  the Invocation to Achalanatha in our own lives.  The Invocation says:  “May we within the temple of our own hearts dwell amidst the myriad mountains”.  The “myriad mountains” can be considered the myriad conditions in which we live and work.  “Dwelling” in the temple of our own hearts means “sitting unmoved” in the example of Achalanatha Bodhisattva, Fudo, the Immovable One.

In asking us to adapt to conditions, Bodhidharma asks us to deepen our awareness of the True Nature of conditioned things, and to strengthen our commitment to the One True Thing.  When we root ourselves more firmly in our meditation practice—our immovable sitting place that is available to us not just in the meditation hall, but in all arenas of our life and work – when we do that, we keep a steady mind, one that is not swayed by circumstances.

Adapting to conditions”, we choose  the “inner quiet” that is contentment in some situations, steadfastness in others…we choose a mind that neither waxes nor wans.

I offer the merit of this talk to all beings
that we together may fully and gratefully “adapt to conditions”
Homage to the Buddha.
Homage to the Dharma.
Homage to the Sangha.


One Response to “Adapting to Conditions by Rev. Helen Cummings”

  1. spark andrea Says:

    “A Welcome Snake in the Grass” a poem from Dogen’s “Extensive Record” chapter 9 concerning Bodhidharma.

    “At Shaolin one sitting was hardly enough to pass the years.
    Raising his eyes with no companions, geese crying in the sky,
    People, do not laugh at him, brushing away weeds
    to look up at the wind.
    An astonished snake emerges who may be his match.”


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: