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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

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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The Night Chant

CAM00509I 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

Nourishing

Jizo 29After what felt like an interminable winter, spring arrived with an explosion of sunshine, blossoms, green grass, and birdsong. I’ve been delighting in the change, fully aware of how much better I feel inside when the world outside appears bountiful and generous. Nature seems now to have so much to go around – an explosion of light and loveliness – that I am inspired to openness as well. I feel more expansive when the natural world is positively tripping over itself to unfold.

This past weekend I attended a three-day mindfulness retreat by the Chesapeake Bay. The location was glorious and I was nourished by the supportive community of practitioners who joyfully sat, walked, cooked, and cleaned together in mostly silence. Settling into silence actually turned out to be much easier than coming out of it. After several days of eating and walking slowly, listening and watching mindfully, being aware of everything going on around and within me, the return to normal conversation and the speed of regular life has been exhausting. I am adjusting with earlier-than-usual bedtimes.

One of my favorite parts of the retreat experience was mindfully and silently walking with the rest of the retreatants along the shoreline at low tide. I was drawn to the trees that grew sideways out towards the water, their root systems almost entirely exposed as the cliff they’d originally been embedded into had largely eroded away. They were such improbable trees – their roots twisted among rocks, their trunks stretched long and low over the shore, somehow managing to survive with almost no soil and certainly too much water. If I had seen them a month earlier, I would certainly have thought they were dead. And yet spring has arrived and even these improbable trees are responding with bud and bloom. It was a remarkable affirmation of life despite desperate circumstances.

In The Mind of Clover: Essays in Buddhist Ethics, Robert Aitken (Robert Baker Aitken Roshi) has a fascinating footnote in the middle of a discussion of the Three Pure Precepts (Renounce all evil; Practice all good; Save the many beings.) He writes: Continue reading