Two Statues

First of all, for those of you who read yesterday’s post, Willie signed at 4:55!

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I’m a Buddhist. I feel it in my bones. Mr. Buddha was a smart guy. He saw that life is not only pleasure, praise, gain and fame. It also has its fair share of pain, blame, loss and disrepute. And we humans can embrace it all.

On my back patio sits a cement Buddha, about a foot-and-a-half tall. His eyes are closed, his head is bowed … perfect repose. I used to look at my friend a lot, but not very much lately. I wonder why. I still meditate about four times a week, adopting the same pose. Sometimes I reach a deep peace, or rather a deep peace comes upon me. And often love bubbles up: for my friends, for all of us human beings, for life. It’s very soft and quiet.

On an end table in my living room sits another Buddha, this one in polished stone, an inch-and-a-half tall. His head is up, his eyes meet mine, his smile includes and his belly rounds. I like him more than my friend who’s just shed his mantle of snow. Hmm.

A few weeks ago, I experienced an orientation to the work of the Evolutionary Collective. It was in Asheville, North Carolina. I got to be in the physical presence of some fine folks whom I had previously only known online. I sum up the experience with one word: “eyes”. We really looked at each other. We talked to each other, often within a sublime space of love.

On my meditation retreats, I was always encouraged to avoid eye contact, to leave people alone so they could deal with their issues. And these were silent retreats. Within them, I felt love for my fellow yogis but couldn’t express it outwardly.

I revere the tall statue
I adore the short one
They’re both fine fellows

The Messiah … Part One

I went to see Handel’s Messiah at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, Ontario last night.  Fifty members of the Pro Musica Choir were joined by about twenty string musicians from the former Orchestra London.  Four soloists (soprano, alto, tenor and baritone) shared their passion with us.  The ceiling was lofty, the stained glass was exquisite, and we filled the church.

Maybe fifteen years ago, I sang The Messiah with the members of the Knox Presbyterian Church choir in St. Thomas, Ontario.  It was a precious event for me … just like yesterday.

I didn’t time things too well and walked into the church only ten minutes before showtime.  The place was packed.  I walked to the front, saw an empty seat in the second row on the aisle and asked the woman sitting beside it if the space was occupied.  No, it wasn’t.  I sat down, marvelling at how blessed I am in this life.

The context of The Messiah is Christian and the “He” being referred to in song is of course Jesus.  As I listened to the short interlocking pieces, though, I saw another way of holding the words.  Here are some reflections, some fostered by the Buddha, and some just entering my head unbidden:

And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed
And all flesh shall see it together

What is to be revealed? Perhaps the animation of daily life, where each moment can be breathed into (“animus” in Latin), and a dimension of spirit accessed within the flow of the daily round.  Even within our difficult times, we can hold the world with new eyes.  And to be among a group of people who consciously walk this path, such as during the meditation retreat I just experienced, is lovely.

But who may abide the day of his coming?
And who shall stand when he appeareth?

To abide.  To stand.  No forward movement.  No becoming something new.  Rather being in place and allowing the essence of being to escape through the pores.

Nowhere to go
Nothing to do
Nothing to know
No one to be

In the conventional world, such phrases may appear to be nonsense.  But I think not …

And he shall purify the sons of Levi
That they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness

It seems that there’s a natural force of purification that seeps into folks who embrace a spiritual practice.  Often the need to accumulate diminishes, as well as the need to protect ourselves.  Fear lessens.  The heart opens.  And what was so important last year just isn’t so anymore.  Such as being right, being strong, being assertive.  What’s left is appropriate behaviour that often touches others.

Lift up thy voice with strength.  Lift it up.  Be not afraid
Arise.  Shine.  For thy light is come

As fear of what others think drops away, we speak wisely, with head held high.  We speak without demand, without needing to convince, without dominating.  We speak what is welling up inside us.  And people notice.

The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light

There is the story of Plato’s cave.  Chained human beings face the back wall, observing shadows that they believe are real.  Such as “I need more, better and different.”  When unchained, they turn around, walk to the mouth of the cave, and behold the sun.  Perhaps terrifying.  Too bright.  But home nonetheless.

Unto us a son is given
And the government shall be upon his shoulder

Something is born in us.  Some mysterious energy.  And we feel the responsibility to do good in this world, to love unconditionally, to be kind.

Glory to God in the highest
And peace on earth.  Goodwill toward men

We are peace.  And the inside becomes the outside.  Simply “being with” people is a joy.

His yoke is easy and his burthen is light

Suffering still happens but something is different.  Fear, anger and sadness are held tenderly, embraced as part of life.  They still hurt but somehow there’s a sweetness within the pain.

Behold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world

I look at the ways I’ve hurt people and I feel remorse.  Still, self-compassion washes over me and I see the fragile, imperfect human being that I am.  Some energy is holding me up.

***

Hmm.  I’m tired, and I’m only halfway through The Messiah.  But I’m having fun.  I think I’ll tackle the second half tomorrow.  Goodnight.

Tonglen

In meditation, picture someone you know and love who is going through much suffering – an illness, a loss, depression, pain, anxiety, fear.  As you breathe in, imagine all of that person’s suffering – in the form of dark, black, smokelike, tarlike, thick and heavy clouds – entering your nostrils and travelling down into your heart.  Hold that suffering in your heart.  Then, on the outbreath, take all of your peace, freedom, health, goodness and virtue, and send it out to the person in the form of healing, liberating light.  Imagine they take it all in, and feel completely free, released and happy.  Do that for several breaths.  Then imagine the town that person is in, and on the inbreath take in all of the suffering of that town, and send back all of your health and happiness to everyone in it.  Then do that for the entire country, the entire planet, the universe.  You are taking in all the suffering of beings everywhere and sending them back health and happiness and virtue.

It sounds so masochistic, doesn’t it?  This practice of tonglen.  Drawing in smoke and tar through the nostrils and sucking it into your heart?  Who would ever do such a thing?  Is it a form of insanity, an expression of a consciousness that is “less than” what our society says is normal?  Or could it possibly reflect someone who has largely let go of “I, me and mine”, someone  who has come to define themselves in a broader way, to love more expansively?  I think the latter.

I’ve had my glimpses of tonglen when faced with the suffering of a person, a group, or the world.  I’ve let it emerge, be a part of me, but then it goes away so quickly.  What then do I do?  Let the word disappear from my vocabulary, or start again, breathing in people’s pain in this moment, and the next, … ?   I think the latter.

It feels like the process of letting go of thoughts when I’m meditating.  First they come rapid-fire, then later a little less frequently.  But they always return.  More and more, I look at a thought’s arrival, smile, say hello, and begin again.

So I choose to embark on another experiment.  I will “be with” the newspaper headlines, such as the ebola crisis in Africa, and I will breathe in the agony of thousands, perhaps millions as it unfolds.  Then I will send them love.  Same for Jody.  Same for the folks I encounter on the streets of London.  Same for me.  Perhaps my heart is big enough to hold it all.

The Five Precepts

The Buddha had some pretty good ideas about how to lead a life.  Much of his wisdom focused on what he called the five precepts.  Here they are:

Do no harm to anyone
Take nothing that is not freely given
Speak truthfully and helpfully
Use my sexual energy wisely
And keep my mind clear

Can my happiness really be as simple as this?   Maybe I don’t have to read 1000-page texts written centuries ago.  Maybe I don’t have to dedicate an hour or more a day to formal sitting meditation practice.  Maybe I don’t have to remember a single phrase of liberated understanding.  How about if I just do five little things?

***

Don’t hurt anyone or anything.  Not even an insect.  Not even someone who talks rudely to me.  Not even someone who sees me as a “thing” to be ignored or brushed past.  Don’t get angry.  Don’t get even.  Love the transgressor as the victim they are.

Don’t misuse other people’s property or time.  Allow them to come towards me if they choose, and to stay away if that better meets their needs.  If they love someone else far more than loving me, even if I deeply desire that love, have that be okay.

Let go of the words of anger (antagonism, outrage, hatred, impatience, resentment, …) and deception (falsehood, hypocrisy, trickery, craftiness, guile, …) and embrace the words of love (tenderness, appreciation, fondness, cherishing, friendship, …) and kindness (altruism, sweetness, good will, gentleness, benevolence, …).

Let my erotica be I-Thou, you more than me, companions, making love, connection, transparency, without boundary, pleasuring, enfolding, caressing, allowing, joining and giving.

No Coors Light, no Cabernet Merlot, no Mai Tai, no shot glasses, no pitchers, no carafes, no woozy, no tipsy, no plastered.

***

Smart guy

The Bodhisattva

Bodhisattva: a being (sattva) committed to liberation (bodhi)

So simple.  And yet not at all simple to do

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The Bodhisattva Vows

Suffering beings are numberless.  I vow to liberate them all
Attachment is inexhaustible.  I vow to release it all
The gates to truth are numberless.  I vow to master them all
The way of awakening is supreme.  I vow to realize it fully

How illogical to think that you could free every single human being from suffering.  And yet … ?   Then how about being attached to nothing and no one, letting them all come into your life and later leave?  Plus staying open to all the sources of wisdom that are embraced across the world, rather than accepting only one

***

Each bodhisattva has delayed her or his departure from the world of samsara until beings everywhere are free of suffering

Samsara means a circular, repetitive existence on this planet, being reborn lifetime after lifetime, making mistakes and suffering each time, learning oh so slowly what we need to.  Am I willing to come back again and again to assist others, rather than accepting a freedom that is well earned?

***

In simple acts of kindness and gestures of cheerfulness, bodhisattvas are functioning everywhere, not as special saintly beings, but in helpful ways we may barely recognize

That woman smiling at you
That man letting you take the parking space
That child doing their best to bake you a cake

***

Bodhisattvas usually are unknown and anonymous rather than celebrities, and function humbly and invisibly all around us, expressing kindness and generosity in simple, quiet gestures

If they’re all around us, I wonder how many of them I see every day

***

Bodhisattvas are extraordinary wondrous beings, bestowing blessings on all wretched, confused, petty creatures.  Bodhisattvas are living in your neighborhood, waiting to say “Good morning” to you

I’m going to see every person who says “Good morning” to me as a bodhisattva.  Perhaps they are.  Perhaps they aren’t.  It doesn’t matter

***

Clinging

I need this in order to be happy.  So I’ve told myself many times.  Two years ago, I sat down and made a list of supposedly necessary things.  Here it is:

Clinging

… to what I want people to say
… to what I don’t want people to say
… to what I want people to do
… to what I don’t want people to do
… to having people like me
… to having people love me
… to people not being angry with me
… to my body feeling fine
… to my pain disappearing
… to being thought of as smart in my job
… to not making mistakes in my job
… to not forgetting things
… to being mindful
… to being physically fit
… to going to the gym three times a week
… to riding my bike across Canada
… to being number one in someone’s eyes
… to spending time on retreat with a certain meditation teacher
… to being vast when I meditate
… to following a circular path during walking meditation instead of going back and forth
… to play time
… to other people saying “Hello”
… to one certain person
… to performing well sexually
… to knowing
… to catching green lights
… to having things be easy
… to making spiritual contact every day with someone
… to wakefulness
… to having a snow day
… to knowing what to do in every first aid situation
… to knowing how to do this, that and the other thing

***

And then there’s today.  Here’s what comes to mind as I sit here tapping on my keyboard:

Clinging

… to having Jody stay alive
… to not causing Jody pain when I inject her with Fragmin
… to cataloguing quotations that point to wisdom and publishing the results
… to going on a three month retreat at the Insight Meditation Society
… to learning the words and chords of beautiful songs
… to wearing funny t-shirts
… to creating batiks depicting people’s spiritual moments
… to weighing 165 lbs
… to climbing Mount Lineham again
… to being a special person
… to not participating in small talk discussions
… to always having someone in my life who sees me as number one
… to writing this blog
… to continuing to own my home
… to being kind
… to being compassionate
… to meditating
… to Moose Tracks ice cream
… to the people in my life whom I love
… to existing beyond this lifetime

***

Let it all go

I Don’t Have to Be Self-Disturbed

Recently during a silent retreat in a very sound-controlled centre, a woman with lung cancer started to cough.  She could not stop coughing, and I saw the people sitting around her begin to stir.  She realized she was causing a disturbance and left the room.  I followed her out, placed my hands on her shoulders, and looked her in the eyes.  I told her she was welcome to stay in the hall as long as she wanted, regardless of her coughing.  It was up to each of us in the meditation hall to deal with our discomfort.  I told her I appreciated her sensitivity to the group, but it was not her problem that we were annoyed.  We discussed how disturbance is not caused by outside sounds, but by internal reactions to perceived annoyances.  I reminded her that we were meditating to learn and work with that fact, not to create a comfortable container of imperturbability.

On one of my retreats at the Insight Meditation Society, I experienced the same thing – a woman couldn’t stop coughing while we were sitting in silent meditation.  And the same pursed lips appeared on many of the yogis near me.  I’ll call the woman Mary.  She was in the same small group as me.  The ten of us had three group interviews during the week, each time with a different teacher.  It was virtually the only time we could talk.  Like the woman with lung cancer, Mary felt horrible, sure that she was wrecking “the space” for one hundred people.  Each of the teachers encouraged her, and asked her to see that she wasn’t in any sense “less than”.

Mary started coughing on our first day, Sunday, and continued until maybe Friday.  That morning, at the 6:00 am sitting, Mary was silent.  Although many in the room almost audibly sighed with relief, I found myself in a different place: I missed Mary’s coughing.  I came to see that it represented for me a suffering human being, a human being to be revered, and a way for me to get out of my head and feel compassion.

I missed Mary’s coughing for the rest of the retreat.  At the very end, we had a couple of hours where we could talk to each other.  I went up to Mary and thanked her.  Although on the surface her response was astonishment, something else was brewing inside and her smile said it all.  Her hug too.

 

Ego Bowing

During my retreats at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, I’ve really enjoyed walking a three-mile loop road past old stone walls, farmers’ fields and acres of woods.  We had an hour-and-a-half of free time after lunch and many retreatants chose the same walk, some doing the loop in my direction and some the other way.

At the retreat centre, we were encouraged to avoid eye contact with other yogis, but on the road I decided to cheat.  As I was approaching someone, I’d look at them for an instant, smile and bow as we passed each other.  Most people smiled back.  All in silence of course.

A pure spiritual act, wouldn’t you say?  Mostly yes.  But a big slice of me would sometimes take over, and I let it happen.  I remember one woman who didn’t make eye contact and looked very uncomfortable as I bowed to her.  The next day, here she comes again, and instead of letting go of my ritual, I bowed again.  Same reaction.  I was pushing, and I did it again the day after that.  Nothing.  Finally, on day four or five, I walked by her with head down.  A very reluctant letting go.  I wanted so much to say hi.  (Bruce, please learn from this.)

One day, after breakfast, I headed off to visit a sister organization, the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies.  I walked part of my usual loop road and then ventured down an intersecting street to get to BCBS.  On my way back, nearing the intersection, I saw a woman I knew from a past retreat heading towards me on the loop.  She got to the intersection before me and turned left to continue the loop.  At the intersection, I turned right, back onto the loop, and there was Mary about fifty yards ahead of me.  Did I stay centred, continuing to flow along at my moderate pace?  No.  I sped up.  I had to catch her and bow to her.  (Ouch)  I went faster.  She went faster, but I was gaining.  Closer, ever closer, … And I zoomed up on her right, turned sharply left and jerked a quick bow that was more weapon than blessing.  I think I saw a grimace on Mary’s face.  From spaciousness to the contraction of a race, for both of us.

Let them go.  Let them all go.  Let them do what they need to do.  If there’s a natural opportunity for a bow on the road, take it.  And don’t press if there’s no reaction.  Surely my mind can absorb such simple thoughts.

Life keeps teaching and sometimes I listen, sometimes not.  No saint in these shoes.

Dipa Ma

Dipa Ma – a tiny, unassuming woman from India – was a spiritual giant.  Many Westerners studied with her and some of those people became leaders in bringing Buddhism to North America.  How much impact can one person have on the lives of others?  Listen:

In a busy Santa Fe coffeehouse one morning, Sharon Salzberg was asked “What was Dipa Ma’s greatest gift to you?”

Sharon paused for a moment, and her face softened.

“Dipa Ma really loved me,” she said.  “And when she died, I wondered, ‘Will anyone ever really love me like that again?’”

She fell silent, and for a few moments it was as if a gate had opened into another world.  In this other place there was only one thing: complete and total love.

From Amy Schmidt:

Just before she got in the van, she turned to me and put her hands on my hands, looked me right in the eye, remarkably close, and held my hands in silence.  She stared at me with utter love, utter emptiness, utter care.  During this minute she gave me a complete, heartfelt transmission of lovingkindness … there was shakti [spiritual energy] just pouring from her.  Then she turned around and slowly got into the car.  In this one moment, she showed me a kind of love I had never experienced before.

***

She was one of the few people in my life in whose presence I have gone quiet.  I was able to rest in her silence.

From someone:

We see within the narrow band of visible light, while at the same time there are so many other wavelengths in the electromagnetic spectrum that we don’t see.  People like Dipa Ma lived in the whole spectrum.  A  rich realm of human possibility was open to her that most of us are ordinarily unaware of and find hard to fathom.

From someone:

There’s something else about Dipa Ma that needs to be mentioned, which is much more important, and that is her sila—the ethical quality of her actions and behavior.  I spent nearly every day with her over a spring and summer, and her behavior never seemed less than impeccable.  It was so clear that it was just a spontaneous expression of who she was and what was alive in her.  This didn’t mean she hesitated to act forcefully or speak out passionately if she felt something was wrong.  But she did it without judgment or blame.  She honored Munindra as her teacher, but didn’t hesitate to take him to task one day for keeping a group of her students waiting an hour and a half in the Calcutta heat and humidity for a talk he’d promised to give them.

From Jack Engler:

I had just been introduced to Vipassana through four months of intensive practice at some of the first retreats held in the States, and I left for India immediately afterward.  When I landed in Calcutta, I set out to find Dipa Ma.  I finally found her, and when I tried to introduce and explain myself, I suppose feeling I had to justify my being there and hoping to make an impression, and wanting her to see me as someone who was on the path, I broke down in her presence.  I virtually came unraveled, thread by thread.  I began sobbing uncontrollably, overcome with anxiety and humiliation, face to face with all the artificial constructions of who I thought I was and wanted to be in front of her.  It was impossible to sustain that kind of pretense in her presence.  She just listened with complete acceptance and nonjudgment.  Like any genuine teacher, her presence was a mirror in which I could not avoid seeing myself—all of my ideas about myself just collapsed.  I felt completely undone.  But Dipa Ma never changed.  She was the same at the end of the interview as she was at the beginning—attentive, gentle, kind, just listening without judgment.  When I couldn’t go on any longer, she put her hands on my head and then held my face in her hands and gave me her blessing.

From someone:

No matter who I saw Dipa Ma interact with, she always expressed luminous love and compassion.  Her profound understanding that all of us are vulnerable to the pain of life seemed to have removed any sense of exclusion from her heart.

From Joseph Goldstein:

Someone once described being hugged by Dipa Ma “so thoroughly that all my six feet fit into her great, vast, empty heart, with room for the whole of creation”.

***

There may be a few times in our lives when we meet a person who is so unusual that she or he transforms the way we live just by being who they are.  Dipa Ma was such a person … What [Munindra] did not say in words, but which was apparent from the first time of my meeting her, was the special quality of her being that touched everyone who met her.  It was a quality of the quietest peace fully suffused with love.  This stillness and love were different from anything I had encountered before.  They were not an ego persona, and they didn’t want or need anything in return.  Simply, in the absence of self, love and peace were what remained.

From Jack Kornfield:

In the end, the point is not to be like Dipa Ma or some other great yogi or saint you might read about.  The point is something much more difficult: to be yourself, and to discover that all you seek is to be found, here and now, in your own heart.

***

To you

T-Shirts

I love t-shirts.  Thanks to my sister-in-law Nona and my brother-in-law Lance, I’ve been amply supplied with some wonky ones in a series of Christmas presents.  When I go on a summer retreat at the Insight Meditation Society, the appropriate clothing is t-shirt and shorts.  Before my first retreat, the question was whether I should wear funny slogans or whether, in anticipation of enlightenment, I should blend in with the other yogis, to the tune of muted colours, no words emblazoned on the chest – your basic egoless approach to life.  I’m happy to say that pizzaz won out … to heck with enlightenment.

Both in my chest of drawers at home and in a suitcase, I fold my shirts once, long ways from neck to waist, and pile them.  When I wake up, whatever shirt is on top of the pile is the one I wear.  I love that little tradition.  On retreat, a gong wakes us at 5:30.  I have time to shower and shave before getting to the meditation hall a minute or two before the 6:00 sitting.  I come in by the front entrance, bow to the statue of the Buddha (more on that in some future post) and then turn to walk back to find a seat.  Usually, there are nearly 100 retreatants in place by the time I make my appearance.

What I didn’t realize until we were able to talk to each other after the retreat ended was that many folks were waiting each morning to see what t-shirt I would wear that day.  A few of them told me that they had to suppress a smile sometimes, striving valiantly to maintain a serene pose.  One person said she laughed inside all day after seeing my “humerus” garment.

I’m happy that my shirts have contributed to many people.  I’ll take any way I can find to bring happiness to others.  Here are my favorites – some funny, some mellow.  Yay for summer!

***

Black background; white right-angled triangle, with the short sides labelled 4 cm and 3 cm, and the long one “x”, “Find x”; in red, a line circles the x and leads down to “Here it is”

I’d say that the x’s of life are not meant to be calculated and analyzed, just observed.  By the way, I’m wearing this one today.  Feels good.

Pea green background; picture of a tyrannosaurus rex with teeth on display; in white, huge “RAWR!”, smaller “RAWR means “I love you” in Dinosaur”

Those three words need to be seen, absorbed and expressed.  The cute context works for me.

Black background; in white, “LISTEN & SILENT have the same letters.  Coincidence?”

Perfect for a meditation retreat.  There’s a type of listening that’s beyond conversation and the sounds of the day.

Black background; in yellow, musical notes and “CAUTION: PRONE TO SUDDEN OUTBURSTS OF SONG”

Not likely to happen at IMS, at least not until the retreat is over.  Give me spontaneity or give me a flat and cautious life.  The first one please.

White background; in gray, bare deciduous trees in winter; in red, a cardinal perched on a branch

There is always life.  There is always vibrancy within the seemingly inert.

Light gray background; in brown, a vertical bone; beside the bone in black, “I found this humerus”

The grand prize winner among the yogis at IMS.  What could be better than making people laugh?

Black background; gorgeous painting of a little red bus in the mountains at sunset; in reddish brown, “GOING-TO-THE-SUN ROAD Glacier National Park”

Aren’t we all going to the sun?

Red background with a black strip around the neck and sleeves; in black,”EXPENDABLE”

A reference to the “red shirts” on Star Trek, the crew members who will likely die by the end of the episode.  What’s left after all that I’ve said is me disappears?

Black background; in orange, a wraparound logo with “HOLODECK PROGRAMMING”; in multicolours within the logo, “WHAT HAPPENS ON THE HOLODECK STAYS ON THE HOLODECK”

More Star Trek.  Number two on the IMS hit parade.  I love sexual fantasies.

Green background; in white, “IRONY: THE OPPOSITE OF WRINKLY”

I can get oh so serious about my knowledge of the English language, and the concepts within.  Silly is better.

Unknown background; unknown colour of the print, “Shine a Light Upon My Day”

A t-shirt yet to be created.  This is a lovely phrase from Nona’s poetry.  May I bask in the glow radiating from each of you.

***

And there you have it – the shirts off my back.  I’ll wear them well.

 

 

 

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