We are all dying

JizoI have been pushing myself to finish transcribing the notes I took during the Contemplative Practice and Rituals in Service to the Dying retreat with Roshi Joan Halifax and Frank Ostaseski, which I attended in early August at Upaya Zen Center. I didn’t used to bother transcribing notes I’d taking during Dharma teachings but then I read Dying with Confidence by Anyen Rinpoche. As I wrote in a previous blog, that book inspired me to type up my notes afterwards so that I can better internalize the teachings I’ve received. I wanted to record my impressions of the Upaya retreat while my memories were still strong and I had a better chance of interpreting my notoriously poor handwriting. I’m also leaving soon on another trip, which will bring many new experiences.

Before my trip, I wanted to write at least one more blog inspired by the retreat. I have enough material in my notes to write many more blogs; this one I wanted to be about the actual focus of the retreat – being with death and dying. I knew I would accompany the blog with the photo I took of the Upaya garden statue of Jizo, one of my favorite bodhisattvas and the one most closely associated with the deceased. I’ll have to devote some future blog to Jizo.

Writing about the death and dying teachings I received at the retreat has been very difficult, mainly because I’ve struggled to extract the teachings from the incredibly intimate environment in which they were given. Through the process of transcribing my notes, this blog emerged.

We are all dying.

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Mahapajapati

MahapajapatiThis is a photo of one of the lovely statues at Upaya Zen Center. The first few times I passed, I thought it was a Buddha statue. Then I sat down next to a fellow retreatant and really looked at the statue. A smile broke across my face as I read the inscription, Mahapajapati Gotami, and realized this was a statue of the historical Buddha’s maternal aunt.

I’d never seen a statue of Mahapajapati before, but I know her story well; I retold it for children in a chapter of In the Garden of our Minds entitled The Value of Persistence: The Story of Mahaprajapati (I used the Sanskrit transliteration of her name, rather than the Pali). Most of my knowledge about her comes from the wonderful book The First Buddhist Women: Poems and Songs of Awakening by Susan Murcott, which provides historical and spiritual context to accompany translations of the first Buddhist women’s enlightenment verses.

Mahapajapati raised the Buddha after his mother (her sister) died. When the prince was twenty-nine years old, he left home to seek enlightenment, leaving behind his wife Yasodhara and infant son, Rahula; Mahapajapati would have remained closely involved in their lives. When the Buddha eventually returned home, Mahapajapati welcomed him back and together with her husband (the Buddha’s father) converted to the Dharma. Many years later, after Mahapajapati’s husband had died and her son and grandson had both become monks, the Buddha came home to settle a violent water dispute. Many local men became monks as a result of the Buddha’s resolution of the conflict, leaving more women without husbands and sons in their homes. Mahapajapati asked the Buddha to ordain her and a large group of other women as the first Buddhist nuns. The Buddha refused her three times, finally departing with his entourage of monks to Vesali, a town about a hundred and fifty miles away.

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The Night Chant

CAM00509I am recently returned home from a vacation that included a three-night, four-day stay at the beautiful, peaceful Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I attended a retreat entitled “Contemplative Practice and Rituals in Service to the Dying”, taught by Roshi Joan Halifax and Frank Ostaseski. Perhaps I should say “facilitated” rather than “taught”, because there was nothing arm’s length about this retreat.

There were more than fifty of us attending and I was one of the very few not actively working or volunteering in end-of-life care or who had not recently tended to the dying of a close loved one, often at home. Our time together consisted of meals, work practice, and multiple daily sessions of silent meditation and group discussion that left most of us emotionally (and surprisingly physically) exhausted. The retreat certainly fulfilled the advertised description of being “an intensive plunge into core contemplative practices”. Afterwards, the only way I could think of to describe how I felt was that my soul had been scrubbed clean.

My experiences of the retreat and the notebook I filled up during the discussions will probably launch many future blogs as I process what I received in accordance with Frank’s final instruction: “Don’t believe anything we said; chew it, taste it – if it’s right for you, swallow it; if not, spit it out.” I would do a grave disservice to cram all of my thoughts into one quick recap of retreat ‘highlights’. Therefore, I want to focus this entry on my experience of one temporally small aspect of the retreat, yet something that shook me to the core: the Zen Night Chant. Continue reading

Gatha

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASometimes I am nearly overcome by the preciousness of life, so beautiful, so fascinating, so fragile. Over and over again I come back to Thich Nhat Hanh’s idea of the relative dimension – the wave – and the ultimate dimension – water. As a wave, we are each different from each other, each subject to birth and death. As water, we are all of the same essence, infinite as the ceaseless cycle of clouds to rain to river to clouds. “The cloud can never be nothing,” he says. “That is the true nature of the cloud.”

I have composed a little gatha that lately I like to breathe with each morning. Gathas are new to my practice since coming to Thay’s tradition. I have slowly begun to embrace them; they are wonderful bells of mindfulness. Let me offer this one as a lotus for you, a Buddha-to-be.

Breathing in, I am a wave, coming and going.

Breathing out, I am water, ceaselessly flowing.

Breathing in, I am a wave, crashing and striving.

Breathing out, I am water, calmly abiding.

 

Stories

Jizo 23At heart, I am a storyteller. I love the English language, whether spoken or written, though my particular passion is playing with written words. I’ve written a couple of books and co-written a couple more; I earn my living through mastery of a highly technical and precise form of writing that has little room for creativity and often feels like assembling a verbal puzzle. I get a lot of enjoyment from crafting a well-turned phrase.

Stories are a wonderful way to learn, teach, and share. Some truths penetrate the heart easier when they are clothed in fiction; a lesson may face less resistance when presented through a well-told story. I spent my childhood unashamedly in love with books and can still be enthralled by a good author who knows the craft.

Mary McCarthy wrote, “We all live in suspense, from day to day, from hour to hour; in other words, we are the hero of our own story.” As an inveterate storyteller, I occasionally catch myself doing something akin to narrating my own life through internal dialogue. There is always a danger that I will sensationalize, catastrophize, romanticize, or otherwise subconsciously alter my own experience in order to make a “better” story. Mindfulness practice reminds me to remain in the unvarnished present moment, accepting and embracing what actually is rather than trying to recast it into something else. Continue reading

Roles

Jizo 5I had the good fortune earlier this month to attend the first day of a FACES Compassion and Wisdom conference here in DC. FACES conferences focus “on the integration of ‘mindfulness’ and ‘compassion’ in the counseling field”. They are largely intended for mental health professionals and therapeutic service providers, though members of the public like myself may also attend. I attended one plenary session with Roshi Joan Halifax called “Inside Compassion” and two presentations/workshops by Kristin Neff on Self-Compassion: “The Proven Power of Kindness” and “Difficult Relationship Interactions”.

The talks I attended concerned compassion for self as well as others. There was a tangible atmosphere of caring in the audience, magnified by the feeling of proven compassion-in-action that radiated from the speakers. Before Roshi Joan began her talk, she asked the audience to identify themselves in terms of their roles, which was expressed here in terms of livelihood. Waves of people stood up to be counted as therapists, counselors, psychiatrists, social workers, physical therapists, and the like. A few proudly shouted out titles that didn’t neatly fit into the category of healing professions, like accountant and home contractor, to be met with good-natured laughter. Continue reading

Nourishing

Jizo 29After what felt like an interminable winter, spring arrived with an explosion of sunshine, blossoms, green grass, and birdsong. I’ve been delighting in the change, fully aware of how much better I feel inside when the world outside appears bountiful and generous. Nature seems now to have so much to go around – an explosion of light and loveliness – that I am inspired to openness as well. I feel more expansive when the natural world is positively tripping over itself to unfold.

This past weekend I attended a three-day mindfulness retreat by the Chesapeake Bay. The location was glorious and I was nourished by the supportive community of practitioners who joyfully sat, walked, cooked, and cleaned together in mostly silence. Settling into silence actually turned out to be much easier than coming out of it. After several days of eating and walking slowly, listening and watching mindfully, being aware of everything going on around and within me, the return to normal conversation and the speed of regular life has been exhausting. I am adjusting with earlier-than-usual bedtimes.

One of my favorite parts of the retreat experience was mindfully and silently walking with the rest of the retreatants along the shoreline at low tide. I was drawn to the trees that grew sideways out towards the water, their root systems almost entirely exposed as the cliff they’d originally been embedded into had largely eroded away. They were such improbable trees – their roots twisted among rocks, their trunks stretched long and low over the shore, somehow managing to survive with almost no soil and certainly too much water. If I had seen them a month earlier, I would certainly have thought they were dead. And yet spring has arrived and even these improbable trees are responding with bud and bloom. It was a remarkable affirmation of life despite desperate circumstances.

In The Mind of Clover: Essays in Buddhist Ethics, Robert Aitken (Robert Baker Aitken Roshi) has a fascinating footnote in the middle of a discussion of the Three Pure Precepts (Renounce all evil; Practice all good; Save the many beings.) He writes: Continue reading