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sharing our suffering

Jizo 16The constraints I place on my blogging make it difficult for me to post regularly. When our children were young, I freely shared the many challenges my husband and I faced. I used to write extensively about the difficulties of parenting kids with behaviors and issues typical of post-institutionalized international adoptees. Now that our children are older and members of an internet-savvy peer group, I guard their privacy by posting almost nothing about them. I also cannot write about challenges I face at work. Since these two areas are the sources of most of my stresses, I’m self-censored, with little left to discuss except books I’ve read and my spiritual practice, often devoid of the context necessary to explain my motivations.

These constraints remind me of my email tagline: Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle. Everyone faces challenges that they don’t speak about, whether due to privacy concerns, social mores, embarrassment, or fear. I am constantly surprised by how many people who appear through regular social interaction to be “perfectly happy” are actually combating illness, anxiety, death of a loved one, or family crisis. Often I don’t learn about what they’re dealing with until I talk about my own difficulties and see their faces flush with relief. I know exactly what you mean! someone will say then, completely unexpectedly. I’ve dealt with that too and I didn’t know you who had. It’s so hard to go through alone but you can’t talk about these things with most people.

I suspect that we’d all be a lot happier and healthier if we did talk about these things more openly. Just like there’s still social stigma related to talking about mental health issues, I think there’s significant social stigma related to talking about suffering. From my own experience, I know there are myriad reasons for this beyond the ones I’ve already mentioned. Sometimes I’m worried about being seen as the person whose whining everyone else tries to avoid; we’ve all experienced a person who traps others in endless negative conversations. I want people to think well of me, to see me as someone who’s resolutely positive and who’s got things under control. I also have fear of being misunderstood, worrying that no one else could comprehend what I’m going through unless they’ve gone through it themselves. Many times I’m sick of thinking about my problems, many of which have repeated in seemingly perpetual cycles for more than a decade. The last thing I want to do is to spend even more time explaining all of that to someone else. And if I’m honest with myself, there is also a shame aspect: how can someone with as long of a spiritual practice as I have still struggle so much with suffering? Shouldn’t I have it all worked out by now – especially considering that the challenges I face are so small compared to those faced by so many other people? Continue reading

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200 days of practice

CAM02605Time really flew between the end of my first 100 days of practice and yesterday, which marked my 200th day of practice. Looking back, I see that I had a marked dip in practice during the first month of this year, especially when it came to mantra accumulation. Then I realized I was soon to see Anyen Rinpoche again at the March phowa retreat in Denver, and became much more diligent! The retreat inspired me further and the intensity of my practice continued from that point forward.

Due to my poor initial start, I actually recited fewer mantra this 100 days than the prior 100 days. I did keep to my Avalokitesvara sadhana every morning except two in February when I was on a silent mindfulness retreat and didn’t bring the text. That became my motivation to finally commit the English translation of the sadhana to memory. As a result, on this mindfulness retreat just passed, I was able to recite the sadhana every day without needing the text in front of me. It feels very good to have the words inside of me instead of just on the page. Continue reading

Retreating again

IMG_1417Tomorrow I embark on another retreat, this time with the Still Water Mindfulness Practice Center. It’s a three-day silent retreat on the general theme of “Be Still and Heal”. The retreat description says “Through mindful sitting, walking, eating, and living, we will develop our capacity to more fully and compassionately embrace each moment. Sharing silence, we assist each other in letting go of worries and preoccupations, and opening to the sources of joy that are available to us in each moment.”

Just today, I finished a lovely little book by Pico Iyer called The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere. Iyer explores the beauty of traveling within through contemplation and meditation rather than without to exotic destinations. Continue reading

Happy Continuation of Refuge Day

BodhnathIn the Plum Village tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, we do not wish people “Happy Birthday” because at the ultimate level of insight, there is no birth and no death. To be born would be to imply that something (someone) arose from nothing, which is an impossibility. The First Law of Thermodynamics explains this truth just as well as Buddhism: energy can be transformed from one form to another, but cannot be created or destroyed.To say that I did not exist before I was born ignores the truth of interbeing – that I am composed entirely of “non-I” elements. If you try to remove from “me” the sun, the rain, my parents, the food I eat, the agricultural producers who grow that food – if you try to remove any part of the whole cosmos from “me”, “I” would not exist. I am in all and all is in me. Like a river, which can never be stepped in twice because the water is constantly flowing, I am a stream of consciousness and karma, impermanent and constantly subject to change. 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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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.