December 2017 super moon – impermanence, vastness, and intimacy

super moon Wellington

A still from the video of an impressive moonrise in early 2013, over Mount Victoria Lookout in Wellington, New Zealand by Mark Gee


Impermanence

This month’s full moon post is a little late, because just this morning, I finished co-teaching the last six weeks of the three-month retreat at IMS in Barre, Massachusetts.

The ending of any period of intensive meditation practice is poignant, but even more so when it’s been a longer retreat.  As this retreat was drawing to a close, I started to felt even less articulate than usual!  It’s been hard to find words that might capture something of the power of the profound transformations that I had the honour to witness, as I accompanied the meditators at least some of the way on their inner journeys.

Part of the struggle has been a sense of paradox: a feeling that the heart-mind has become both vastly expansive, and completely intimate.  So when a friend sent me the link to this short video of a supermoon rising, I was very happy, because perhaps these images might convey what my own words can’t …

Short video (three minutes) here:

https://player.vimeo.com/video/58385453

Next Step Dharma – online course by Oren Sofer and Jaya Rudgard

For anyone wondering how to access support for the transition from retreat practice to daily life, my friends Oren and Jaya have a six week online course specifically designed to help bring your retreat back home.

The course comprises:
• 21 short Dharma Talks and 16 Guided Meditations, all geared for integration
• 18 Recorded interviews with founding Insight Meditation teachers
• 8 weeks of interactive, live Q & A Sessions with the Course Leaders
• Mentoring for your meditation practice
• Weekly readings and “Core Integration” practices
• Lifetime membership in our online community

More info here: http://www.nextstepdharma.org/


Bhaddekaratta Sutta — The Discourse on an Auspicious Day

Do not chase after what is gone,
Nor yearn for what is yet to be.
For the past has been left behind,
And the future cannot be reached.
Those states that are before you now —
Have insight into every one!
Invincibly, unshakably,
Know that well, again and again.
Do this work today, with ardor;
Who knows when death will come calling?
There is no bargaining with Death,
Or with his army of minions.
Abiding ardently like this
Without fail, both day and night, is
“The single most precious moment.”
So the peaceful sage has told us.

Quoted in “Older and Wiser: Classical Buddhist Teachings on Aging, Sickness, and Death”
by Mu Soeng, Gloria Ambrosia, Andrew Olendzki


Finally, here’s a link to the last talk I gave at the end of the retreat.  It has an overview of the core teachings and ways to put them into practice in daily life, using the ten parami of generosity, renunciation, ethical conduct, wisdom, energy, patience, truthfulness, resolve, kindness, and equanimity.  I hope it will be helpful whether you’re a beginning meditator, or an experienced practitioner.

Dukkha, the ending of Dukkha, and the ending of this retreat 

November 2016 full moon – Turmoil

newcastle-beach-full-moon

almost super-moon, Newcastle Beach NSW Australia 13 November 2016

Turning towards and turning away

Whether it’s global political upheaval, worsening social injustice, natural disasters, personal stress, emotional pain, relational crises, or health challenges, we seem to be in a phase of intense turmoil right now.

Many of the communities around the world that I care about are struggling in relation to recent political developments in the US and UK.  And now the latest earthquakes and flooding in New Zealand are powerful reminders of our vulnerability, confronting the delusion that we are in control and challenging the belief that we can rely on anything external for our security.

I’ve noticed in myself these last few days, a shift from turning away, to turning towards.  After an initial period of shock and numbness, a renewed sense of purpose and determination is starting to emerge, helped by a whole range of articles, videos, resources and Buddhist readings that have been shared from many different sources.

So in this month’s post, I wanted to include a few of these, with the hope that they might bring some inspiration, renewed courage, or just practical support for facing these current challenges.


Inspiring Buddhist teachings for difficult times

Pema Chodron

As human beings we share a tendency to scramble for certainty whenever we realize that everything around us is in flux. In difficult times the stress of trying to find solid ground—something predictable to stand on—seems to intensify. But in truth, the very nature of our existence is forever in flux. Everything keeps changing, whether we’re aware of it or not.
https://tricycle.org/magazine/fundamental-ambiguity-being-human/?utm_source=Tricycle&utm_campaign=c816b6d659-Special_Newsletter_11_09_2016&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_1641abe55e-c816b6d659-307269753

Jack Kornfield

When times are uncertain, difficult, fearful, full of change,
they become the perfect place to deepen the practice of awakening.
After viewing the elections, whatever your point of view,
Take time to quiet the mind and tend to the heart.
Then go out and look at the sky.
Remember vastness, there are seasons to all things,
gain and loss, praise and blame, expansion and contraction.
Learn from the trees.
Practice equanimity and steadiness.
Remember the timeless Dharma amidst it all.
Think of the best of human goodness.
Let yourself become a beacon of integrity with your thoughts, words and deeds.
Integrity in speech and action, virtue and non-harming brings blessings.
Remember the Noble Truths, no matter the politics or the season:
Greed, hatred and ignorance cause suffering. Let them go.
Love, generosity and wisdom bring the end of suffering. Foster them.
Remember the Buddha’s counsel,
“Hatred never ends by hatred but by love alone is healed.
This is the ancient and eternal law.”
The human heart has freedom in itself to choose love, dignity and respect.
In every circumstance, embody respect and cultivate compassion for all.
Let yourself become a beacon of Dharma.
Amidst the changes, shine with courage and trust.
Love people, and…
This is your world. Plant seeds of goodness
and water them everywhere.
Then blessings will grow for yourself and for all.
http://www.spiritrock.org/

His Holiness the Dalai Lama

“May I become at all times, both now and forever
A protector for those without protection
A guide for those have lost their way
A ship for those with oceans to cross
A bridge for those with rivers to cross
A sanctuary for those in danger
A lamp for those without light
A place of refuge for those who lack shelter
And a servant to all in need.”
http://kalachakranet.org/text_his_holiness_dalai_lama.html

Gil Fronsdal

Equanimity, one of the most sublime emotions of Buddhist practice, is the ground for wisdom and freedom and the protector of compassion and love. While some may think of equanimity as dry neutrality or cool aloofness, mature equanimity produces a radiance and warmth of being. The Buddha described a mind filled with equanimity as “abundant, exalted, immeasurable, without hostility, and without ill-will.”
https://tricycle.org/magazine/perfect-balance/?utm_source=Tricycle&utm_campaign=c816b6d659-Special_Newsletter_11_09_2016&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_1641abe55e-c816b6d659-307269753


The current U.S. political situation – some commentaries

Bhikkhu Bodhi

Although, as a monk, I do not endorse political candidates or align myself with political parties, I feel that as a human being inhabiting this fragile planet, I have an obligation to stand up for policies that promote economic and social justice, respect for the innate dignity of all human beings, and preservation of the earth’s delicate biosphere. By the same token, I must oppose policies detrimental to these ideals. I see politics, not merely as a naked contest for power and domination, but as a stage where great ethical contests are being waged, contests that determine the destiny—for good or for ill—of everyone in this country and on this planet.
https://buddhistglobalrelief.me/2016/11/09/a-trump-presidency-need-not-be-the-end-times/

Van Jones

Van Jones is a CNN political contributor, regularly appearing across the network’s programming and special political coverage.  He has founded and led numerous social enterprises engaged in social and environmental justice.
Van reminds us that we have 70 days before the president-elect Trump takes office, and suggests that in these next two weeks we prioritize three things:
1. grieve and heal;
2. gather information;
3. build community.

“It’s ok to take time to grieve and heal” … then “We gotta play our cards right.  Our most important card is you.  We need you … You can turn the TV off, turn the radio off, stop going online .. you can binge-watch some stuff, you can go exercise, do whatever you need to do, get some cuddles in, get some snuggles in, and heal a little bit, and grieve a little bit … And then from an authentic place, not pushing … not ‘I gotta do this, I gotta do this, I gotta do this’ – that’s gonna give you a bunch of do-do, and we’re not trying to do do-do – we want you to BE … and be connected to who you are, and why you care so much, and why you love folks so much.  We want you to be deeply grounded, deeply connected, so we can make wise decisions going forward.”

Connect and strengthen our communities

The Work That Reconnects (WTR) is an open-source body of work that has its roots in the teachings and experiential methods of Joanna Macy. It is a process of group work that uses experience based activities to help participants connect with one another and with the intelligence, self-healing powers of life on Earth. The goal of the WTR is to “enliven” and motivate participants to play an active role in the creation of a life sustaining society.
While the primary focus of the WTR is deep ecology and environmental activism, the process of sequencing used within the WTR (called “The Spiral“) can be a valuable tool in building racial awareness, as well.
https://whiteawake.org/self-education/wtr-spiral/

Stand with Standing Rock

https://nodaplsolidarity.org/
This site is dedicated to supporting the frontline, indigenous led resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline. We hope that this site will make it easier for allies from around the world to take action against the institutions that are attempting to construct the pipeline.
Please join in taking sustained action in solidarity with the Red Warrior Camp and the Camp of the Sacred Stones.


New Zealand 2016 earthquakes

Damage done by an earthquake at Bluff Station between Blenheim and Kaikoura in New Zealand.
Damage done by an earthquake at Bluff Station between Blenheim and Kaikoura in New Zealand. Photograph: Alex Perrottet/RNZ

Earthquake support information

An extensive list of web links providing high quality information to assist you, and those you support, through tough times following Earthquakes and their Aftershocks. This includes for children and young people.
http://skylight.org.nz/earthquake+aftermath+support

WHAT TO DO NOW

Some suggestions from Dr Sarb Johal, psychology professor at Massey University
* Follow a normal routine as much as possible
* Eat healthy meals – be careful not to skip meals or to overeat
* Exercise and stay active
* Help other people in your community as a volunteer – stay busy
* Accept help from family, friends, co-workers, or other people you trust – talk about your feelings with them
* Limit your time around the sights and sounds of what happened – don’t dwell on TV, radio, or newspaper reports on the events.

HOW TO REMAIN OPTIMISTIC

* Support one another, especially family members and your community
* Provide emotional support – comfort each other
* Carry out practical tasks – tackling the jobs that need to be done a bit at a time and counting each success
* Share your experience and feelings with others – a bit at a time when it is right for you – and have sensitivity for what the listener or audience (like your Facebook or social media friends) might be prepared to hear at that time too
* Look after your own and your family’s general health – rest, exercise, food and company all help.
http://www.stuff.co.nz/life-style/well-good/inspire-me/86488820/earthquake-how-to-stay-positive-in-shaky-times

WAYS TO HELP

Wanting to lend a hand, or provide some type of assistance after NZ was shaken just after midnight on Monday?  Here are some ways you can help.
http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/nz-earthquake/86453967/ways-you-can-help-out-after-the-november-earthquakes

May all beings be safe … healthy … happy … free …

January 2016 full moon – Impermanence

This full moon post is a bit late again, partly because I’ve been on the move, travelling and teaching, and partly because a friend of mine is actively dying now.  Even though I’m not physically with her, the gravitational pull of death seems to dissolve any words that come into my mind, and I can find nothing to write that seems to be of any relevance.
So this month, perhaps just a few images of Januarys past can be enough.

Life is an ever rolling wheel
And every day is the right one.
He who recites poems at his death
Adds frost to snow.
Mumon Gensen, Japanese monk died 1390

Japanese Death Poems: Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death
edited by Yoel Hoffmann

 

July 2015 full moon 2 (blue moon) – anatta or not-self

Te Henga - Bethell's Beach reflections

‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.’

‘There is nothing in the experience of the cosmos that fits the bill of being eternal, unchanging, or that deserves to be clung to as “me” or “mine.’

In last month’s post, I wrote about dukkha, the second of the three “universal characteristics” recognised by the Buddha as being inherent in all experience.  The first of these three is impermanence, and the third is anatta, usually translated as “not-self.”

Of the three, not-self is sometimes the hardest to make sense of because in English, it can sound like non-existence: I’m supposed to somehow become a non-entity, a nobody, and try to efface my personality so I have no individuality.  But this is a serious misunderstanding, because when approached correctly, experiencing anatta on deeper and deeper levels helps us to live life in more alignment with who we truly are.

As with all of the Buddha’s teachings, this understanding can be developed progressively.  To begin with, we can explore it on a more psychological level by paying attention to our thoughts, particularly any self-referencing thoughts.  Often these are happening as background chatter, but when we start to notice the content of them, it can be quite shocking to recognise how distorted, limiting and sometimes just outright cruel, our self-perceptions and self-views can be.

A few years ago, I started to tune in to the tendency in my mind to make very definite “I AM …” statements – for example, “I am always late,” or “I am so judgmental,” or “I am a hopeless meditator.”  But when I really paid attention, very few of these thoughts were completely true.  Just a simple example: “I’m always late.”  When I thought about it more carefully, I had to acknowledge that yes, I’m sometimes late, but the majority of times, I’m actually punctual.

We can even think of this as an ethical practice, keeping the commitment to not lie, and question: “Is this statement I’m making really true?”  We might notice the tendency to eternalise, fix, make solid whatever the perception is, and to recognise how much we love to create stories and inhabit them, even if the stories are painful ones!  Then remembering the intention of non-harming that underlies all the ethical training, we might feel more resolve to let go of those stories.

Sometimes this letting go happens quite naturally on retreat, when the mind is very quiet and mindfulness very sharp.  Then we might start to notice the subtle contraction, tightening, and closing down in the body and mind whenever we have a self-referencing thought of any kind.  We begin to catch the mind in the act of constructing identity, and to feel how limiting it is.

I’ve seen this in my own mind at times, almost as if it’s fabricating a flimsy kind of structure out of old bits of timber and rusty iron and bent nails, desperately cobbling something together, some kind of armature or scaffolding as a defence against impermanence and the myriad possibilities that can come from just being, rather than constantly doing …

Maybe you’ve experienced this too: the agitated contraction around a limiting self-view, then a sudden unexpected letting go, followed by a few moments of deep ease and happiness.  Often this letting go and the relief that comes afterwards can feel quite new and unfamiliar, and it can take a bit of getting used to.  Sometimes it’s followed by a kind of backlash, or even an attempt to go back to the previous misery, perhaps because we’ve invested so much time and energy in it!  But with practice, we learn not to believe the backlash, and to recognise the deeper truths about who we are. We come more into contact with what we might call our Buddha-nature – our highest human capacity.

I think of the Buddha’s own life again (as much as we can know of it from the discourses).  And I imagine what my own life would have been like, if he had not chosen to go beyond what his family told him was possible, what society told him was possible, what his first teachers told him was possible, and what the conditioning in his own mind told him was possible.

Because the Buddha was willing to challenge all of that, my own life has benefited enormously, and I feel inspired to risk stepping out of my own comfort zones.  When some aspect of my ego baulks, I remind myself that the teachings on anatta are not intended to be easily digestible, because in fact, as the English dharma teacher John Peacock says:

“You’re not going to change if you feel comfortable!”

John Peacock  The Buddha doesn’t do ‘cozy’  http://www.bcbsdharma.org/2015-2-3-insight-journal/

July 2015 full moon – dukkha

African Burial Ground memorial New York City

African Burial Ground memorial New York City

In last month’s full moon post, I wrote about impermanence.  Impermanence or anicca is one of the three “universal characteristics” recognised by the Buddha as being inherent in all experience; the other two being dukkha (usually translated as “suffering,” but more accurately, unsatisfactoriness), and anatta, or not-self.  Deeply understanding these three characteristics leads to the highest freedom, the freedom of heart and mind that is the goal of all insight meditation.

In my own practice, when I’ve read statements like the one I just made, my mind sometimes baulks.  What’s being conveyed sounds too abstract, remote, or perhaps idealistic, and my poor brain just doesn’t know what to do with that kind of information – at least on an intellectual level.

So this month, I’d been wondering how to talk about the second universal characteristic, dukkha, in a way that makes it real, and wakes us up to its transformative power.  Then the news came in about the shootings in Charleston, South Carolina, and Sousse, Tunisia.  And I need to say right away that I feel completely unequipped to know how to respond to pain of that magnitude.  I’m tempted to turn away and write about something completely different, but because I have friends in the US who are negatively impacted by individual and collective, institutional racism every day, I’m going to focus on the first of these two events.

There are people far better qualified than me to talk about the negative impacts of racism on all of us, but I’m inspired to even mention it in a blog because of a dharma talk I recently listened to by Ruth King.  She talks about the common dynamics of dominant/subordinate relationships between racial identity groups, and she refers to lack of urgency from the dominant group in relation to matters that are life-threatening to the subordinate group.  She gives the example of a group of white people taking the time to write 20-30 drafts of a letter protesting the killing of unarmed black men by US police, even though new murders were happening almost daily.  I thought of this example as I hesitated to write, then re-write, this post, knowing that I was never going to get it right no matter how long I took.

Here’s the link to Ruth King’s talk: http://www.dharmaseed.org/teacher/539/talk/27269/

Shrine at East Bay Meditation Center, Oakland, California

Shrine at East Bay Meditation Center, Oakland, California

In the Buddha’s teachings, the First Noble Truth is the simple recognition that “There is dukkha.”  Simple, but often completely counter-intuitive.  It’s more common when faced with distress of any kind, to fall into habitual strategies: to avoid, ignore, deny, numb out, blame, etc. These are the urges I notice in myself when extreme violence and/or racism are “in my face.”  Underlying them is often a feeling of complete powerlessness, but paradoxically, when I’m able to let go of all the useless strategies and stay in contact with just that underlying feeling, I can access more clarity.

I may still feel unable to DO anything about the situation, but at least I can “bear witness,” as they say in Zen.  In my understanding, this means being willing to not turn away, to fully face the situation as best I can, and to just name to myself – and perhaps others – what is really going on.

Yesterday, I received an email invitation to endorse an open letter sent by an organisation called Buddhists for Racial Justice.  Although on one level it might be dismissed as just another email petition, on another, I was grateful to be able to do something, no matter how small it might seem: just to be able to bear witness to what has been going on for so long, and add my name, publicly, to the wish for this form of dukkha to be overcome.

Here are the first three paragraphs of the letter:

As Buddhist teachers and leaders we are deeply shaken and saddened by the intentional and premeditated murder of nine worshippers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, 2015. We send our heart-filled condolences to the families, loved ones, church, and communities, who have experienced this grievous loss.

While this terrorist act was apparently perpetrated by a single individual consumed by racial hatred and a desire to ignite a race war, the soil in which this massacre took root is the legacy of slavery, white supremacy, Jim Crow laws, lynchings, and the resulting racial inequalities and injustices that persist in our individual and collective consciousness and institutions. The daily experience of violence against people of color has become more recently visible through highlighted media coverage of the ongoing brutal treatment and killings of unarmed African-Americans by law enforcement agents across the country.

As Buddhists we realize the interdependence of all of our experiences—and that violence towards one community is violence perpetrated upon us all. As spiritual leaders, we must be committed to healing the wounds of racism that are such a primary and toxic part of the landscape of our country. This calls on those of dominant white communities to inquire deeply into and transform patterns of exclusion to power, inequity in resources, unseen bias, and unexamined disparities in privilege. There is an urgency to affirm that Black Lives Matter and work with religious and secular communities to respond to racial injustice.

You can see the full letter here:

An Open Letter

bus hairstyling girl, San Francisco

bus hairstyling girl, San Francisco

This site also has useful information for white people about racial awareness as spiritual practice, and a Shared Resources page with links to excellent documentaries and dharma talks.  All of these are from the US, and so far I haven’t been able to find any equivalent for Australia and New Zealand.  Please contact me if you know of anything relevant to this part of the world.

May we all experience freedom from the dukkha of oppression, in all its forms.

June 2015 full moon – impermanence

church door

Deeply understanding the truth of impermanence – including death – is central to the Buddha’s teachings, but for those of us living in contemporary western society, this can seem a very alien and alienating concept.  It’s more the norm to avoid anything to do with death and dying for as long as possible, until at some point, it inevitably confronts us.

Early on in my own practice I noticed this tendency in myself, and a little reluctantly at first, tried to do something about it.  With hindsight though, I feel very fortunate to have been able to explore impermanence in various ways over the last few years: through Zen chaplaincy training, doing volunteer hospice work, and helping set up a Death and Dying group when I was on staff at the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts.  (Six years later, that group is still going strong: it’s morphed into the Caregivers Sangha, which continues to explore different aspects of death and dying, and also offers support to anyone in the community who may be injured, ill, or in the last stages of life.)

And, in spite of all that preparation, when my father died in New Zealand a couple of weeks ago, I still felt the impact, and on many different levels simultaneously.  He was 87 and had been in poor health for quite a while, so it wasn’t unexpected.  Yet when I sat and meditated alongside his body in the funeral home, each time I took another sidelong glance at his face, there was a visceral response in my own body, a primal recoil from the truth of impermanence.

At the same time, during the funeral preparations, people in my father’s community who I barely knew were suddenly willing to start conversations with me about their own experiences of loss.  I heard many poignant stories, and the universality of death started to sink in more deeply.

Then a few days ago, it was time to send out my usual bi-annual newsletter to all the people on my mailing list.  I wasn’t sure whether to mention my father’s passing or not, but because it was still occupying a large part of my psyche, in some ways it would have felt strange not to acknowledge it.

So in the end I did mention it, and after the newsletter went out, many people emailed saying how much they appreciated my sharing the news.  Again, quite a few people movingly described their own experiences of losing someone close to them, and I realised that there are still not many opportunities to talk about death and dying, even though it’s an inevitable aspect of life.

Buddha night v

So over the last couple of weeks, I’ve felt like a modern-day Kisa Gotami, belatedly coming to more understanding that actually, death is everywhere – if our eyes and hearts are open to letting it in.

Kisa Gotami was a woman who, according to the discourses, was unable to accept the truth of her only son’s death until the Buddha helped her put the tragedy in a bigger context. The story goes that after her infant son died, Kisa Gotami went into deep denial (as we might say today), and carried his corpse around the village, asking everyone she met for help to cure him.  Most people tried to tell her the truth that the child was dead, but she simply couldn’t hear it.  Eventually, a kind person suggested that she go to the Buddha and ask for his assistance.

The Buddha saw immediately that Kisa Gotami’s mind was not able to take in the truth, no matter how clearly it might be expressed.  So he told Kisa Gotami that he could cure her problem, but that he would need some ingredients to make medicine.  He asked her to go into the village and collect some mustard seeds from any households where there had been no death.

Kisa Gotami hurried off, going from house to house with her request.  At each house, people were keen to give her a few mustard seeds, but when she questioned the householders further, in every single house, someone had died: a grandparent, mother, father, aunt, uncle, sibling or child … Eventually, Kisa Gotami understood that death is universal.  She went back to the Buddha, buried her child and joined the Buddha’s community, and it’s said she later attained the deepest freedom, Nibbana.

beach rock cairnmist forest bw

Remembering this story, I wondered how Kisa Gotami might access this same truth if she were alive today.  And I thought of the “Death Cafe” movement, which I’d read about a couple of years ago.  Apparently, the first “death cafe” was established in London in 2011 to allow people, often strangers, to gather to eat cake, drink tea and discuss death. The objective is ‘to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives’.

Over the last four years, this idea has spread around the world and according to the Death Cafe website, there have been 1992 death cafes in 32 countries, including Australia and New Zealand.  You can find more information about it here: http://deathcafe.com/what/

Although I haven’t been to one myself yet, I love the idea!  And it’s renewed my interest in providing opportunities for people to explore this whole theme of death and dying.  A few years ago in Massachusetts I offered a couple of day-long workshops to do this.  I remember how powerful those experiences were, so if any of you reading this have interest in doing something similar in your own communities, I’d be happy to help facilitate a workshop, discussion group, or even just an individual conversation – whatever feels appropriate, just let me know.

To close, here’s a traditional Buddhist funeral chant:

Anicca vata sankhara
Uppada vayadhammino
Uppajjhitva nirujjhanti
Tesam vupasamo sukho.
All conditioned things are impermanent
Their nature is to arise and pass away.
To live in harmony with this truth
Brings the highest happiness.

 
 
 
 

beach blue penguin dead

 

May we all realise the highest happiness.