July 2017 full moon – Gratitude

FR meadow Buddha

Just last week, I finished a one-month retreat at the Insight Meditation Society’s Forest Refuge in Barre, Massachusetts, led by Sayadaw U Vivekananda.  What a relief it was, to temporarily put down some of the burdens I didn’t even know I was carrying, and to have such a powerful opportunity to “disentangle the tangle” (as the discourses say)!

The challenges and rewards of retreat practice

Being silent and unplugged for a whole month might sound easy – and perhaps for some people, it is – but for most of us it can be surprisingly challenging at times.  As Andrew Holecek, a US teacher and student of Tibetan Buddhism, recently wrote:
Retreat is not for the faint of heart. It takes courage to stop and face one’s mind so directly. But if you want to be unconditionally happy, which is one way to talk about enlightenment, there is no other way. Sooner or later you have to relate to your mind instead of from it. Otherwise you will forever be held captive by the contents of your mind, shackling yourself to every shiny thought that pops up, a prisoner of your own making.
https://www.lionsroar.com/block-all-exits-from-retreat/

Gratitude

Even though it’s not always easy to be on retreat, the rewards are immense.  Towards the end of my time at the Forest Refuge the gratitude I felt for this opportunity became quite overwhelming.  I realised that next year will be the 15th anniversary since sitting my first three-month retreat at IMS, and that every year since then (with one exception) I’ve been able to sit either a one, two or three-month retreat here. Continue reading

June 2016 full moon – Inspiration and taking refuge in sangha/community

graduation group by Ben MarshallGraduates of the Insight Meditation Society and Spirit Rock four-year teacher training programme, 10 June 2016 – photo by Ben Marshall

In my last international newsletter back in April, I wrote about inspiration, an aspect of spiritual practice that surprisingly, doesn’t seem to be talked about very often.  As I discovered back then,

“… the root of the word “inspiration” comes from late Latin, and it’s related to the act of breathing, specifically breathing in, in the sense of giving life to, or animating – just as expiring is related to breathing out, and dying …
Inspiration, then, is literally life-giving.  When I feel most inspired, I feel most alive, in touch with some kind of life-energy that feels much vaster than just my own individual human vitality.”

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been appreciating the power of community to help kindle that sense of inspiration and connection to an energy bigger than just my own.  And I feel to have understood a little more clearly why the Buddha referred to sangha or community as the third of three jewels, three treasures that we can “take refuge” in.  Continue reading

November 2015 full moon – gratitude

red berries close

A few slightly random reflections on Gratitude

“These two people are hard to find in the world. Which two? The one who is first to do a kindness, and the one who is grateful and thankful for a kindness done.” AN 2.118

 As the three-month retreat at IMS comes to a close, there’s a definite shift in the overall mood of the meditators.  Each day, the ones I meet with are expressing more and more gratitude for the opportunity they’ve had to be here, practising intensively for six weeks or three months.
It’s definitely not easy to do this, and yet perhaps because of the challenges, there’s a corresponding depth to the gratitude.  I’ve noticed this in other situations, too – that there can be an unexpected ability to connect with gratitude even in the midst of difficulty.

Continue reading

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.

Rick Hanson interviews Joseph Goldstein on mindfulness

Joseph Goldstein

This is a recent interview by neuroscientist Rick Hanson with his teacher, Joseph Goldstein, who is one of the founding teachers of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts.

Joseph gives a very clear explanation of the full range of what mindfulness is, and also what it isn’t, based on his forty years experience of teaching vipassana in the West.

The interview is freely offered by Rick Hanson, but you need to sign up to get access to it:

http://www.entheos.com/Hardwiring-Happiness/RickHanson

Generosity part 4: Giving and Receiving

cake dana Greg and Donald - scaled

Greg Scharf and volunteer cook Donald Elniff enjoying cake dana at the Blue Mountains Insight Meditation Centre

Right now, I’m assisting my friend Greg Scharf teach a two week retreat at the Blue Mountains Insight Meditation Centre in New South Wales, Australia.  And right about now, the annual three-month retreat at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, has just got under way.  So I’ve been appreciating the synchronicity of these two events, knowing that as we meditate together in the hall here in Australia, on the other side of the world another hundred or so people are joining us in the “psychesphere,” if that’s a word!

I also realised that it’s now ten years since I sat my first three-month retreat at IMS.   When I arrived at IMS for the first time in September 2003,  walked under the portico inscribed with the word Metta, and pushed open the heavy old front door, I had no idea what I was stepping into.  But those three months of intensive meditation practice have been the single most transformative event of my life to date, and now, ten years on, as I remember that time I’m filled with deep gratitude.

There’s something very poignant for me about being back at the Blue Mountains Insight Meditation Centre, too, because it was the community here in the Blue Mountains that made it possible to attend the IMS three-month retreat.  So today, I feel moved to acknowledge that connection by sharing the story of how that opportunity came to be.

I used to be one of the managers here at BMIMC, from 2000 – 2003, then I continued part time for a couple of years after that.  Prior to taking on the manager’s position, I had been working as an architect in Melbourne, Victoria, and I gave up my job to come and live here at the centre.  Back then, the role was part-time and it offered only a small stipend, so I suddenly had a lot less money than I was used to.  I didn’t own a car, and I didn’t know anybody in New South Wales.  But from the moment I arrived, people from the community whom I hardly knew were very generous.  They brought me warm clothes. They took me out for meals.  They drove me to town to do the shopping.  They offered me free dental treatment.  And they let me stay in their holiday cottage by the beach, to name just a very few examples.

In one way it was beautiful to be on the receiving end of so much generosity, but it also showed up a lot of my conditioning about being self-reliant and independent.  I saw how I felt much more comfortable being the one offering generosity, than the one receiving it, because I had an unconscious belief that receiving things from others made me somehow inferior to them.

As I explored the Buddha’s teachings in more depth though, I started to recognise all of these beliefs as forms of Wrong View.  I saw my attachment to being strong and self-reliant, and my fear of being dependent on or beholden to other people.  Gradually, through bringing awareness to them, these views started to dissolve and I was able to accept what people offered me with genuine appreciation for their generosity.

But then, towards the end of my tenure as manager, it felt as if they really “upped the ante,” as they say, and my capacity to receive kindness got an even bigger workout.  After three years of being the manager, I felt ready to do some longer-term meditation practice.  Although I’d spent some time practising in Thailand, I didn’t feel ready to do a long retreat in Asia, and the only other place I knew of that offered longer retreats was the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts.  I looked on-line at their three-month retreat and it seemed very expensive by Australian standards.  Back then, the Australian dollar was worth a lot less too, so by the time I’d added in the cost of the airfare and dana for the teachers, it just seemed financially impossible.

A few days later, I was having a cup of tea with someone from the BMIMC Management Committee and we started talking about the benefits of longer-term retreat practice.  I mentioned my interest in doing the three-month retreat to him, but that it seemed impossible because of the cost.  He thought for a moment, then suggested that we put something in the BMIMC newsletter to “see what might happen.”  I felt a bit guilty about putting myself out there like that, but reluctantly agreed, because I didn’t really think anything would come of it.

I was wrong though.  After the newsletter went out, donations started to arrive from people from the Blue Mountains, from Sydney, and beyond – including people I hadn’t even met.  One woman from New Zealand sent a cheque with a note enclosed, saying that she had done the three-month retreat at IMS many years ago, and she wanted me to have the same opportunity.

It was quite overwhelming, and at first I noticed a sense of cringe whenever a donation came in.  I’d think: “I’m not worthy.  Those people need their money more than I do.  I’m not good enough to practice at IMS anyway.  What if I don’t make it through the retreat?  I’ll have to give them their money back.”  It was painful, but finally I recognised that meeting people’s generosity with that kind of cringing response was in some ways, quite disrespectful. It wasn’t acknowledging or honouring their generosity, and it felt wrong to meet their kindness with such inner stinginess.  So I made the choice to NOT do that.  If I was going to accept their donations, I decided to do it as consciously and graciously as possible.  And to cut a long story short, eventually I was able to go to the United States and sit the three-month retreat at IMS in 2003.

But that wasn’t the end of my learning about generosity.  While I was on retreat, I would think about how many people had sent money in for me to be there, and it was a huge motivation to keep practising.  I thought about members of the Burmese community in Sydney, for example, who I knew were not wealthy, but had sent donations to help me do the retreat.  Then at those times when I didn’t feel like getting up to do the first sitting in the morning, I’d go anyway, because it would have felt mean-spirited to not make the extra effort.

So the material generosity that they gave me translated into a different kind of support, a sort of spiritual support, that was perhaps even more powerful than the money they offered.  At the end of each day on retreat, I wrote a thank-you card to one of the people on my donor list, and offered them whatever benefit might have come from that day of practice.  Even now, I still feel like crying when I remember what it was like to receive all of their dana, on so many levels.

I wanted to share this story because it shows how generosity might start with offering money or gifts to someone, but it’s the openness of heart and openness of mind that makes it a truly transformative experience.  And being able to appreciate what one receives is another facet of generosity which is often overlooked.  The Buddha recognised this in one of his teachings from the Anguttara Nikaya, where he talked about what a rare quality appreciation is.  He said:

These two people are hard to find in the world. Which two? The one who is first to do a kindness, and the one who is grateful and thankful for a kindness done.”

May we all experience the benefits of giving and receiving generosity …