I’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 →
I 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 →
I 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.
This 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.
I 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 →
Sometimes 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.
At 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 →