Support on the Path

CAM02217Every Christmas Eve, after our family dinner (traditionally cheese and chocolate fondue) and before the children go to bed, my father reads aloud the classic poem A Visit From St. Nicholas by Clement Clarke Moore. He’s done this nearly every year since I was born – which means he’s read this poem on nearly 40 successive Christmas Eves! Now that I’m grown, I marvel at the way that Dad approaches the poem. He reads the words thoughtfully, with a sound of wonder in his voice that suggests he’s encountering each line for the first time. Sometimes he even pauses after reading the following couplet, a delighted smile on his face:

As dry leaves before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;

It is a particularly poetic line.

Listening as my father read the poem this Christmas Eve just past, it occurred to me that the sense of wonder and delight with which he approaches his annual recitation is exactly the way in which I should approach the bodhisattva of compassion sadhana that I recite each morning. I tried this out recently and what a difference! Suddenly, I’m saying the familiar words with curiosity and appreciation, rather than rote tedium. It’s an amazing psychological change. My mind naturally focuses as soon as I send myself the internal message that “this is interesting”. The words come alive. I look forward more each morning to the recitation.
I once heard someone say that a great way to bring wonder into working life is to approach a tedious commute with the intention of seeing everything with fresh eyes. I’m trying that out too and understand how transformative the practice can be.

I’ve been reflecting on the year just past and the year just started, paying particular attention to what supports my practice. 2014 was a good year for me. I sat with my Sangha more than I did the year before and practiced on my own nearly twice as much as I’d done in 2013. The number of retreats or dedicated practice periods I engaged in also more than doubled.

In reviewing my practice log, I saw that the major difference between 2013 and 2014 was that this past year I was much more consistent. In 2013, there were some months in which I sat in meditation every single day – and some months in which I didn’t sit once. Last year, I practiced more at least some every month. I feel that is a particularly positive change.

I believe that the more I sit in community, the more my personal practice is supported and refreshed. I really think this goes back to the idea of freshness and wonder. I almost always feel uplifted when I attend Sangha, even if I’ve been struggling in my personal practice. And I almost always come away from group Dharma discussions with renewed vigor and insights. Time spent in retreat or intensive practice is particularly inspiring, but I do believe that consistently touching base with a regular local Sangha is crucial for me to maintain diligence and energy, and this is my major aspiration for my practice in 2015.

Instead of closing with a poem, I’d like to quote from a Buddhist sutra, the Upaddha Sutta, which recounts a conversation between the Buddha and his closest attendant, Ananda. The two have been residing in a Sakyan town and at some point, Ananda comes and sits next to the Buddha. I’ll let Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translation take it from there:

As he was sitting there, Ven. Ananda said to the Blessed One, “This is half of the holy life, lord: admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie.”

“Don’t say that, Ananda. Don’t say that. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, & comrades, he can be expected to develop & pursue the noble eightfold path.

“And how does a monk who has admirable people as friends, companions, & comrades, develop & pursue the noble eightfold path? There is the case where a monk develops right view dependent on seclusion, dependent on dispassion, dependent on cessation, resulting in relinquishment. He develops right resolve… right speech… right action… right livelihood… right effort… right mindfulness… right concentration dependent on seclusion, dependent on dispassion, dependent on cessation, resulting in relinquishment. This is how a monk who has admirable people as friends, companions, & colleagues, develops & pursues the noble eightfold path.

“And through this line of reasoning one may know how admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life: It is in dependence on me as an admirable friend that beings subject to birth have gained release from birth, that beings subject to aging have gained release from aging, that beings subject to death have gained release from death, that beings subject to sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair have gained release from sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair. It is through this line of reasoning that one may know how admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life.

– “Upaddha Sutta: Half (of the Holy Life)” (SN 45.2), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn45/sn45.002.than.html.

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