Commitments

Jizo 15I recently finished two books on the subject of precepts: Thich Nhat Hanh’s For a Future to Be Possible: Commentaries on the Five Mindfulness Trainings (revised 1998 edition, Parallax Press, now out of print/revised into The Mindfulness Survival Kit) and Robert Aiken’s The Mind of Clover: Essays in Buddhist Ethics. I’ve been thinking about precepts a lot over the last several weeks and wanted to start my blogging on the subject with a discussion of why I think precepts in general are so valuable. I’ll be using the term “commitment” to encompass the world of precepts, vows, mindfulness trainings, and other less formally transmitted injunctions to moral conduct.

Some people feel that commitments are confining; I find them to be freeing. Commitments focus the mind so that it’s not scattered to distraction. To quote Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche from The Path of Individual Liberation: The Profound Treasury of the Ocean of Dharma, Volume One, “Discipline may seem complicated, but it is actually very simple – it is what binds your life together. Without discipline, life is made up of successive indulgences and confusions based on aggression, passion, and ignorance.” Interestingly, that statement rings true in modern psychological studies relating to a phenomenon called decision fatigue. Continue reading

Aimlessness

Jizo 11Last blog I wrote about the major topics covered by the book Living in the Light of Death: on the art of being truly alive by Larry Rosenberg with David Guy, namely the Four Messengers of aging, sickness, death, and spiritual attainment. My favorite part of the book, however, was actually the last half, which talks about how to bring one’s newly awakened or deepened commitment to practice into every moment of daily life.

Rosenberg says that we have to stop looking at meditation or any other aspect of our practice as being goal-oriented, because ironically, if we focus on a goal, we hinder our ability to attain it:

On the one hand, sitting is one of the most practical things you can do. It definitely has beneficial effects on your life, as anyone will tell you who does it. But when you sit in order to gain them . .  . you undermine yourself. You limit what sitting can do. It is fine to have a sincere aspiration to be a free and sane person; that can give enthusiasm and direction to your practice. But very often we put something in front of us to run after, and that separates us from full and direct contact with the present moment. A corner of the mind is occupied with the goal and is unable to see what is right now.

I relate to this out of my own struggles to establish a regular sitting meditation practice, which took me nearly two decades. Continue reading

Death

Jizo 26I had intended to spend the last couple of weeks diving further into the Avatamsaka world by rereading one of my old college texts on Chinese Buddhist philosophy, Entry Into the Inconceivable: An Introduction to Hua-Yen Buddhism, by Thomas Cleary. However on starting the book, I soon rediscovered how incredibly dense it is. My mind started spinning as I tried to grasp the interrelated aspects of phenomenon and noumenon (the latter defined as “a thing as it is in itself, as distinct from a thing as it is knowable by the senses through phenomenal attributes”, derived from Kantian philosophy and used by Cleary to denote the principal of emptiness). In other words, Entry Into the Inconceivable is simply not something I can absorb on my metro commute! I will have to save it for more focused, quiet reading time. In the meantime, I turned to another book on my to-read list: Living in the Light of Death: on the art of being truly alive by Larry Rosenberg with David Guy.

Rosenberg, who founded the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center, has trained with a broad spectrum of Asian spiritual teachers, including those from several different Buddhist traditions. This book focuses on the Buddhist teachings on death: how awareness of the inevitability and inescapability of old age, sickness, and death leads to deepened spiritual practice (these are the Four Messengers said to have set the Buddha on his path to enlightenment). As Rosenberg writes, “We know in our heads that we will die. But we have to know it in our hearts. We have to let this fact penetrate our bones. Then we will know how to live.”

When I think of the Four Messengers, I like to substitute ‘aging’ for ‘old age’. Old age is not something that all of us will be fortunate enough to face and it’s a pet peeve of mine when people say things along the lines of “believe me, you don’t want to get old”. I’ve known people who have died quite young and would have given much for more time. Unlike old age, however, aging is inevitable. Even children are aware that they’re different now when they were babies. Continue reading

Renunciation

Jizo 19My catalyst in this life to becoming a Buddhist occurred when I was a teenager visiting Asia with my parents. In Nepal, we encountered Tibetans in exile, who radiated the most amazing peace and joy despite having lost everything in their flight across the Himalayas. I spent my fifteenth birthday with three new friends, an American woman, an Australian man, and a Nepalese man who were all practicing Tibetan Buddhists. They took me on a tour of the awe-inspiring Buddhist sites of Bodhnath and Swayambhunath and gave me an living example of Western converts to Tibetan Buddhism.

For a few years afterwards I corresponded with the American woman, who was in process of ordaining as a nun. She expressed great joy when I took refuge (formally converted to Buddhism), but when I wrote to tell her of my impending engagement to my now-husband, she was the only person who didn’t offer me congratulations. The gist of her reply was that if I got married I would be tying myself down with ever-increasing attachments that would bind me to samsara, this world of suffering. She urged me instead to embrace spiritual practice. Only through devoted practice, preferably as an ordained nun, could I achieve enlightenment quickly and thus benefit not just myself or a few people but all people.

I was eighteen and in love; I didn’t like her response and I didn’t know how to react to it. I stopped writing to her. A couple years later I got married to a wonderful man. I considered myself incredibly lucky (and still do). But I have to admit, she was right. I am thoroughly tied to samsaric existence. The height of my spiritual practice is striving to be a virtuous householder; I am a long way from renunciation. Continue reading

Interdependence

Jizo 1I mentioned Thich Nhat Hanh’s Cultivating the Mind of Love in a previous post. I finished the book, which is now one of my favorites by Thay. The chapters are drawn from a retreat at which Thay interspersed his own story of falling in love with a nun when he was a young monk with discussions of the Diamond, Lotus, Avatamsaka, Ugradatta, Vimalakirti, and other sutras. The love story was very poignant but it was the sutra discussions that really excited me. Thay delves into the historical background as well as the meaning of these wonderful source Buddhist texts.

In particular, the commentary on the Avatamsaka or Flower Ornament Sutra stirred long-forgotten memories. It all sounded so familiar and beloved, though remote. I searched through the shelf on which I keep the books from the various Asian philosophy and religion courses I took in college. Sure enough, way back in Chinese Buddhist Philosophy I read Hua-Yen Buddhism: the Jewel Net of Indra, by Francis H. Cook, which is basically a commentary on a commentary on the Avatamsaka Sutra. This past two weeks I’ve reread that book. It’s marvelous!

I’m not sure how much I got out of the book fifteen years ago and I’m sure I’m only glimpsing its treasures now. Nevertheless, I am also certain that reading it then and rereading it now plants and waters seeds in me that ripen under favorable conditions and will eventually sprout into understanding. It’s a slender volume printed in a small typeface and the middle in particular is thick with ontology and epistemology (two terms I barely remembered and had to look up, along with many other words used throughout). It’s undeniably dense and yet so lovingly written. I have to believe there is something particularly wonderful about the Avatamsaka Sutra if those who comment on it are so joyful about their subject matter. Continue reading

Replenishment

Jizo 30Happy New Year all! We recently returned from a family trip to Puerto Rico, where we spent a wonderful week. We visited the beach and rainforest, kayaked in a nature reserve replete with iguanas and birds, and went horseback riding, an activity that scares me but is loved by my children. For myself, however, the highpoint was the hours I spent on the porch outside our rental house, sitting and staring down into the verdant valley below. There was something captivating about the way that the breeze caught the trees, undulating multihued leaves and brightly colored flowers. I simply couldn’t get enough of that view!

I’m not generally someone who just sits and looks. In fact, I spend most of my year in a frenzy of activity, rushing to check things off my never-ending to-do list. I can be a bit obsessed with/addicted to what I’m beginning to think of as the myth of “productivity”. And yet underneath the frenzy I feel I have a deep-seated need to just be, to just sit and observe. In fact, I think that just being is critical not just to my mental and spiritual health, but also to my creative process.

Since the end of NaNoWriMo, I’ve read two widely respected books on the writing process: Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg and Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott. They are both wonderful books and I look forward to rereading them throughout this year for creative guidance, motivation, and inspiration. Anne Lamott had some striking advice on writer’s block that I happened to read while in Puerto Rico. She writes that “The word block suggests that you are constipated or stuck, when the truth is that you’re empty.” Continue reading

Community

IMG_0604I’m back! First of all, I’m very excited to report that I did successfully cross the 50,000-word finish line of NaNoWriMo on November 20th. My novel still has a ways to go before completion, but I’ve made an excellent start and look forward to a collaborative finish with my husband’s assistance; we make an excellent writing team. Secondly, I want to say that while it was very useful to prewrite blogs so that I could focus on my noveling, I actually did miss the more spontaneous approach of writing a blog the same week as I posted it, which is so much more in keeping with the present moment. So I’m glad to get back to something a little closer to “real time” blogging.

Throughout November I’ve thought about what I’d like to write about on my return. I strongly considered Grasping, Forgiveness, Gratitude, Hopefulness, and Hopelessness – each of which may make an appearance in blogs to come. However, ultimately, I decided on Community. In particular, I want to focus on the Buddhist word for spiritual community: sangha.

Back in January, nearly a year ago, I received the Five Mindfulness Trainings in the Plum Village mindfulness practice tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh. Making the decision to receive the trainings felt very momentous at the time. My Buddhist foundations are in the Karma Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, but I’ve struggled to find a nearby affiliated sangha at which I felt at home. I felt some trepidation about transitioning to mindfulness practice, even though all of my experiences with the Still Water Mindfulness Community had been very positive. At base, I was worried about making spiritual commitments to a different tradition. However, I knew that my practice was faltering because I did not have the support of a sangha, and I knew that the Five Mindfulness Trainings were rooted in the Five Precepts, which I already had committed to when I formally became a Buddhist. I decided that this was the right step for me to take. Continue reading