Halfway point

CAM01932Earlier this week I crossed the halfway point of my 100-day daily practice challenge. I’m happy to say that I’ve maintained my morning practice every day for 54 days now, even including the days that I was in Denver for the Phowa retreat.

That said, I have modified my daily practice somewhat from my original plan due to physical difficulties and new commitments. In regards to the former, I’ve been having a lot of back and neck pain for some time. I’ve had difficulty with sitting meditation for a while, though I had hoped that my body would adjust in the face of consistent daily practice. This has not occurred. The problems worsened at the Phowa retreat where I was sitting for hours at a time on a cushion, often in great discomfort. Our daily session began each morning with a half hour of yoga, which definitely helped, but the pain would return later and pain medication was no longer helping. I realized I needed a new approach. Continue reading

Thank you Thay

IMG_1418I have been so fortunate in this life to have encountered several genuine teachers of the Dharma. Today I am thinking about one of them, Thich Nhat Hanh, affectionately called “Thay” by his students. I have been practicing with a mindfulness practice center in Thay’s tradition for the past two years. I want to take a moment to thank Thay for his teachings.

There are three aspects of Thay’s teachings that have been particularly relevant for me. One is acceptance. Thay has tirelessly traveled, taught, and written to share the practice of mindfulness with the world. He does not distinguish between people based on their religion or lack of religion or any other factor. He truly believes that mindfulness can help anyone to relate more peacefully, joyfully, and deeply to the world. While he has written books on Buddhist philosophy, most of his books are written to be accessible by a very wide audience, including people with little or no experience with Buddhism. Nevertheless, the practices he teaches in those books, the path of being truly awake to the present moment, can be followed for a lifetime. Thay’s centers welcome all people, regardless of their root religious traditions or current affiliation. Thank you Thay for teaching me the importance of acceptance. Continue reading

Dying with Confidence

CAM01836In the Vajrayana Buddhist tradition, you can’t progress along the path without the guidance of a living master to provide you with instructions based on your own habitual tendencies and capacities. The student must then strengthen that precious connection through devoted practice of the given instructions. I am overwhelmed with gratitude at having established a heart connection with Anyen Rinpoche, from whom I joyfully received teachings at his beautiful center in Denver, Orgyen Khamdroling.

Anyen Rinpoche is a khenpo (great scholar) and tulku (recognized reincarnated master) of the Longchen Nyingthig lineage (Dzogchen, Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism). I attended a 4-day Phowa retreat led by him at the end of October. The retreat was such a special experience for me that I’ve committed to returning to Denver March 12-16, 2015, for the first of three sequential trainings that Anyen Rinpoche offers to teach the profound Phowa practice. Phowa is the practice to transfer consciousness at the moment of death and related practices to help ensure positive conditions for attaining realization or a positive rebirth. The training series is called Dying with Confidence. In addition to Phowa for oneself and others, it also includes teachings on what we can do now to strengthen our practice to help us later when we face serious illness and death. These topics are all discussed in detail in Anyen Rinpoche’s excellent book, Dying with Confidence. Even if you can’t attend the teachings, I highly recommend the book. I also highly recommend Momentary Buddhahood: Mindfulness and the Vajrayana Path, which would be of particular interest to anyone like myself who has practiced in both the Vajrayana and mindfulness meditation traditions. Continue reading

100 Days

Pensive BuddhaI’ve added a new page to my website called “Just Sit“. It provides some basic information and recommended resources for those just starting – or thinking about starting – a sitting meditation practice. Take a look and leave a comment if you have any other resources to recommend.

My August retreat at Upaya inspired me to strengthen my regular Buddhist practice, something I’ve been thinking about a lot since reading Anyen Rinpoche’s Dying with Confidence, which I discussed in a prior blog. He doesn’t mince words in that book: we must take advantage of the optimal conditions we have now to make our practice stable. Regular practice now gives us the only chance we have of being able to maintain any mental stability in the face of illness and death.

After rereading the book and conducting an honest assessment of my current spiritual practice, I realized that despite decades of being a Buddhist, my practice is far from stable. Over the last few years, thanks to a supportive Sangha, my sitting meditation practice at least has become more regular, but “more regular” is not the standard I aspire to. I decided that I needed to focus on a few short daily practices until they became second-nature. The question became which practices I should commit to. Continue reading

Templestay

IMG_2451I have returned from a wonderful week-long trip to Seoul, South Korea. It was my first visit there and I came away impressed and eager to return. The people were friendly, the city clean, and the public transportation reliable, pervasive, and easy to use. And the sites! Beautiful historic palaces and wondrous Buddhist temples are sprinkled throughout the modern city, which is itself cradled between mountains and river. I felt like I barely scratched the surface of all there was to see and do.

The highlight of my trip was an overnight templestay at Myogaksa Temple. The Korea templestay program has been operated for more than ten years by the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, allowing visitors to participate in the life of one of Korea’s many Buddhist temples for a short time, learning about Korean Buddhist practices and teachings. It’s a wonderful experience, especially as several of the participating temples have English-language programs designed to be foreigner-friendly. I was very fortunate that one of the Seoul-area temples with an English-language program was hosting a templestay program on the weekend that I was there. Continue reading

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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