Awake Awhile…

 

SAM_0544Awake Awhile
It does not have to be Forever,
Right Now.
One Step upon the Sky’s soft skirt
Would be enough.
-Hafiz

Stuck to my freezer by a souvenir magnet at eye level, this short quote serves as a reminder to do two things: to have the audacity to step up and claim the unfettered awareness that is my birthright, and to relax. Ultimately, these are both the same thing. What a relief it is to know that “it does not have to be Forever,” just “Right Now.” Ultimately, these are both the same thing. How easy it is to forget that Forever refers not to the infinite future, but to the boundless present.

It is also easy to forget that what is most helpful to for me to ask of myself is not a definitive and permanent shift in consciousness, but rather the capacity to appreciate those moments in which the filter of my perceptions, of my prejudices, fears, doubts, and insecurities, falls away for whatever reason and however briefly. It does not have to be Forever, and, more importantly, it can not be Forever. Such moments show up in the linear narrative of my life as points of reference, as proof positive that the thing which I seek is both real and attainable.

One such point of reference came into my experience several years ago as I sat a weekend retreat at Cambridge Zen Center. Meals there are taken in the Dharma Room in formal Korean temple style. At the end of the meal, retreatants rinse their bowl with tea, then drink the tea to leave a clean, empty bowl. As I drank my bowl of tea, I saw the light of a paper lantern reflected on the surface of the liquid as a car passed by on the street outside. In that instant, something fell away. Somehow, there was no separation between the taste of the tea, the sight of the lantern, and the sound of the car. Nothing existed outside of that moment, yet in contained the entire universe. It was as if I’d been walking along a precipice holding on to the railing of who I thought I was, only to let go of the railing and fall fearlessly over the edge. Two seconds… three, maybe?… until I thought, “wow, this is cool!”… and that insidious shadow of the belief that I am Someone having an Experience was tantamount to grabbing hold of that railing and hoisting myself back to the “safety” of my conditional existence as an individual, separate self. Thinking creates duality, or, as Zen Master Seung Sahn put it, “When my thinking stops and your thinking stops, our minds are the same.”

What is instructive about that meditative experience is that it happened when I wasn’t looking, so to speak, when I wasn’t trying to make anything happen. My practice consists of nothing more or less than creating conditions that allow those moments of purer awareness to occur, conditions that bring the “Sky’s soft skirt” within reach of “One Step…”

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Walk of Life

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Turning prayer wheels while walking the grounds of Mahabodhi Temple, Bodh Gaya, India

 

Over the weekend, I got a very strong dose of the “Together Action” that I feared was missing from the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program at the UMass School of Medicine.  Close to 100 participants sat a day-long retreat together at the Stress Reduction Clinic.  The experience was different from any of the retreats I’ve done in the Kwan Um School of Zen.  As with Zen retreats, the retreatants all spent the day in silence, but the five women leading the retreat spoke extensively, guiding us through all of the practices that we’ve been learning over the past eight weeks: body scans, standing yoga, lying down postures, sitting meditation, and walking meditation.  My favorite of these by far was the walking meditation. I’ve tried it by myself at home, and it’s never really grabbed me.  This practice seems to come alive only in the company of other practitioners, and to engage in this activity with so many people was truly a singular experience.

Walking meditation as practiced in the context of MBSR is rather different than the traditional Zen walking that typically punctuates periods of sitting meditation on long retreats.  Here, it was presented as a much longer practice, free-form in nature, different from the in-step, single-file Zen style.  We were invited to walk at a pace that felt natural and comfortable, in a pattern or direction that suited us, and even to leave the room and walk through the lobby and adjacent spaces if we so desired.  The overall effect looked rather like a school of fish moving more or less intuitively as a unit, yet not in unison.  The motion could only be described as “organic,” and what little thinking mind I still paid attention to marveled at the fact that no one bumped into each other despite the fact that most eyes seemed to be cast downward.  This was truly Together Action: I felt not only completely in body, but completely in collective body.  I’m wondering if the prescribed ritual of Zen-style walking meditation frees the mind up to do some thinking while the body does some walking… if perhaps engaging in a more spontaneous, symbiotic experience of group walking meditation more effectively invites the synthesis of mind and body…

I had originally enrolled in the MBSR course in order to see first-hand how meditation instruction was presented in a clinical setting, detached from its association with Eastern spiritual beliefs and from the strong sense of form and ritual that is the backbone of the Korean Zen tradition.  In the past, I’ve helped to facilitate prison meditation groups in the Kwan Um style, but we had a captive audience… literally.  The inmates weren’t deterred by a little bit of chanting or by the grey robes that we wore.  Now that I’m working as an addictions counselor in an outpatient program, it’s imperative that I present mindfulness as a possible tool for the clients’ own recovery without the bias of my own spiritual leanings.  Admittedly, this feels like a betrayal of the tradition I’ve been practicing in for close to ten years.  It felt good to walk into a prison, don the robe and kasa of the Chogye Order, and lead traditional Korean chanting in a place of such confusion and suffering; but a different situation calls for different action.  True mindfulness is recognizing this and responding appropriately.

Together Action is the hallmark of sustained recovery.  As I write, I’m envisioning my clients in the outpatient program mindfully meandering about a room like a school of fish with a single intention and many bodies, and it makes me smile.  It’s a tall order, I know, but I witnessed a huge group of people from all walks of life doing exactly that last weekend, so stranger things have happened…

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Footprints of the Buddha, Mahabodhi Temple

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Ever Mindful

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Detail of the Birth of Siddhartha, mural at Korean Monastery, Lumbini, Nepal

 

“I haven’t seen you in a while, ” said Zen Master Bon Haeng as I sat down for a koan interview at the zen center the other night.

It was true.  I haven’t been sitting with the Open Meadow sangha since I enrolled in a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course at the University of Massachusetts School of Medicine, about half an hour away from my home.

“Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, huh?  Jon Kabat-Zinn started that.”

This was also true.  Kabat-Zinn began the Stress Reduction Program at the UMass medical school  in 1979 based on the premise that meditation could be an effective tool to help patients manage chronic pain.  A meditator and student of Buddhism for several years at that point, Kabat-Zinn understood that human beings create much of their own suffering.  He had a hunch that by allowing people to become aware of their response to pain moment to moment, they would have an opportunity to change their relationship to their experience.  Decades of research have confirmed that hunch.

“He used to practice here, didn’t he?” I asked the zen master, referring to Jon Kabat-Zinn and the Kwan Um School of Zen, respectively.

“Yes, ” he replied, continuing our streak of saying true things to each other.  He then went on to recall how he and Kabat-Zinn, or “Jonny,” as he referred to him, were students of Zen Master Seung Sahn in the early Seventies, along with another youngster named Larry Rosenberg.  As Bon Haeng explained it, Jonny and Larry had traveled to Asia and decided that “zen was dead there.”  They returned disillusioned, determined that a new, “American zen” needed to evolve from the teachings that had migrated from the East with traditional teachers like Zen Master Seung Sahn.  While they respected his teaching, they no longer saw the point of practicing the rigid, formal, and very foreign forms and rituals that he had brought with him from Korea in 1972.

When they approached Zen Master Seung Sahn with their desire to strike out on their own, he responded that once they had finished their training with him, they were free to do as they wished; to leave before their training was complete, however, would be irresponsible.  The Dharma they passed on to their own students could be misguided, perverted, or, at the very least, incomplete.  They parted ways with Zen Master Seung Sahn anyway, and the trails they blazed have profoundly impacted the spiritual landscape of America for the past 40 years.  Larry Rosenberg joined with Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg, and Jack Kornfield to found the Insight Meditation Society, and Jon Kabat-Zinn took the practice of mindfulness out of meditation halls and into the mainstream institutions of America.

It’s mindboggling how much a part of the popular consciousness the practice of mindfulness has become, but what is lost when we separate the practice from the Dharma?  Three things, according to Zen Master Bon Haeng: the concept of No Self, the idea of Impermanence, and what Zen Master Seung Sahn called Together Action.  Practicing only for ourselves, both Zen Masters insist, is incomplete practice…

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Together Action

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school children in Kushinagar, India

Last weekend, I attended a workshop on practice forms at the Cambridge Zen Center.  It struck me as an unfortunate waste of time on such an unseasonably warm, spring-like February day; I’d rather have been outside enjoying the weather or inside the Zen Center doing actual practice rather than simply talking about it… Somehow, though, knowing that it’s important to both learn and teach the myriad rules and customs that govern our formal practice, I put my preferences aside and sat in the dharma room as the forms were described and demonstrated one by one.

The forms that govern formal practice in the Kwan Um School of Zen were brought to the United States by Zen Master Seung Sahn in 1972, having been adapted from the temple rituals of the Chogye Monastic Order of Korea.  They’ve since been codified as the Dharma Mirror, which serves as the practice manual for the entire Kwan Um School.  It’s edited and updated periodically, and is currently being overhauled by a teacher in the school, and this workshop, which included at least one Zen Master, was a way for that teacher to get some input and get us all on the same page before it goes to press.  In this sense, the Dharma Mirror is sort of a living document, open to amendment and interpretation as time, geography and culture might dictate.

As heartening as it is to be part of this tradition, it’s still tough to sit through extended discussion on such minutia as whether candles should be lit from left or right or from right to left when opening the altar (it’s right to left, I think… our right, not the Buddha’s), whether an offertory bowl of water should be open or closed during special chanting verses normal chanting, and what to do with our feet during full prostrations (the left foot should be crossed over the right; in Korea, it’s considered an insult to show the soles of your feet to another person, so I guess it’s the best we can do to at least cover up one).  As soon as I found myself wondering “what the hell’s the difference?” I knew that this question was at the heart of my practice in that particular moment.  The practice forms themselves aren’t as important as my relationship to them.

Somewhat limited in his English ability when he arrived here, Zen Master Seung Sahn’s slogan was “Just Do It” long before some ad man spun it into gold for Nike.  He gave this brutally simple, straight-to-the-point instruction to his students not only because his linguistic disadvantage precluded more extensive explanations, but because he immensely valued practice, or action, over speech and concepts.  There are always reasons and rationalizations for the things that we do in practice, but it’s all pretty much just ego food.  The real point is to do what Seung Sahn called “together action” with others, free of individual preferences and opinions.

Zen Master Seung Sahn was often asked by students why we chant in Korean if we have no idea what the words mean… He’d answer that the meaning is irrelevant, but the spirit of the chanting is extremely relevant.  We can chant “Coca Cola, Coca Cola” as long as we do it wholeheartedly and with a clear mind, without like or dislike, and without attachment.  He famously said, “When your thinking stops and my thinking stops, our minds are the same.”  This is the point of chanting, and the point of all our practice: together action to attain One Mind.

As I was sitting a week-long retreat at Providence Zen Center a few years ago, I was struck by the realization that the practice forms and rituals of our school are like a vessel that contains the teachings, in much the same way that the Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous create the framework that recovery takes place within.  Like the Twelve Traditions, however, the practice forms not only contain the teachings, they are the teachings.  Through these simple, deliberate, together actions, we have the opportunity to get our minds out of the way and let our hearts do what they were born to do…

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Same old same old

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I don’t have mental insights particularly often, but every now and then one will sneak up on me and leave a lingering taste after its light has faded.  There’s an intersection on my way home from work where traffic typically backs up during rush hour.  One day last week, I approached the intersection at around 4:00, fully expecting to have to slow down and stop.  My expectation was met.  I waited for my turn to cross the intersection, sitting in the same car, on the same road, in front of the same houses that I’d sat in front of at around the same time the day before…  yet something was different. Somehow, I didn’t feel the same as I had the day before.  I didn’t necessarily feel better or worse; just different.  I ran back over the day in my head, wondering what was different about today that caused me to feel different than I’d felt the day before.

Then it dawned on me: everything about that day was different than the one before.  They weren’t the same day and it wasn’t a case of a familiar experience repeating itself.  It never is.  This belief that I do the same thing over and over is just a function of consciousness wherein everything is labeled and categorized in order to make experience more digestible to the rational mind.  On a very basic, molecular level, the car, the road, the houses, and the “me” were not the same car, road, houses, and me that they’d been the day before.  This is a simple and irrefutable scientific fact, yet my mind prefers to reject this fact in favor of the notion that my experience basically consists of a bunch of static, unchanging objects with some occasional fluid activity happening around them. It’s interesting, then, that consciousness not only serves the function of dividing experience into “this” and “that,” it also bundles experience into “this” and “this again.”

Life might seem simpler when it’s all nicely folded and tucked into a pre-existing conceptual framework, but it can, I’ve noticed, get a bit boring.  Buying into the delusion that I’ve already experienced an event allows me the option of checking out and not paying attention, and boredom is nothing if not a lack of attention.  It’s like reading a book while watching a movie you’ve already seen, glancing up from the pages only when your favorite scenes come on screen.  Simply put, my takeaway from my flash of insight while sitting in traffic on Commonwealth Ave. is that you can’t actually watch the same movie twice.  Not if you’re really paying attention.  And truly paying attention, being on the head of the pin where every moment arises and passes away simultaneously, awakens us to the realization that each moment is fresh, each moment is unique, and each moment will never come again.

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The People We Met

 

 

I’m not a professional photographer.  I’m barely a hobbyist. When I arrived in India, I didn’t even have a camera with me.  I was there not as a tourist, I thought, but as a pilgrim, visiting the Buddhist holy land with Zen Master Bon Haeng and two other practitioners from the Open Meadow Zen Group in Lexington, MA.  We joined nearly two hundred other members of the Kwan Um School of Zen as part of the international school’s triennial Whole World is a Single Flower conference.  Our itinerary included visits to Lumbini, Nepal, where the Buddha was born, Bodh Gaya, where he attained enlightenment, Sarnath, where he gave his first discourse, and Kushinagar, where he died after nearly half a century of teaching.  Other points of interest included Rajgir, site of the ruins of Nalanda University and Vulture Peak, where the Buddha famously held a single flower aloft to wordlessly transmit his teaching to his disciple, Mahakasyapa.

Before we had left Delhi, I knew that I needed a camera, so I bought one from this guy:

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Around every corner, I was met by incredible juxtapositions of antiquity and modernity, affluence and poverty, the sacred and the profane, all rich in the varied textures of human experience and awash in every color of the spectrum beneath the hazy, unrelenting sun.  It was clear that one needn’t be a professional photographer in order to return home from India with an array of stunning, haunting images of a land that defies conventional Western understanding.

Shortly after coming home, I decided that it would be cool to display some of my photos at the local library, so I got on a waiting list for gallery space.  It’s been a long wait.  My intention in assembling this gallery display had originally been to showcase the various sacred sites we visited, but as I was perusing the couple of hundred pictures I ended up taking, I was reminded of something Zen Master Bon Haeng had said: “We go on trips thinking that we’re going to go to new places and see all kinds of incredible things, what ends up being most important is the people we met while we were there.”  As it turns out, most of the pictures I chose for the gallery, many of which are displayed above and in other blog entries, are of people.  I feel that this is somehow in keeping with the experience of the Buddha.  I don’t think that he spent a lot of time in temples; he just walked around and talked to people.  Among those pictured here are Hindu devotees, Buddhist pilgrims from around the globe, citizens of the ancient holy city of Varanasi in the process of living their daily lives on the banks of the Ganges River, and a surly camera salesman.

 

 

 

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Death and Life on the Ghats

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Boatman pointing out his craft on the pre-dawn Ganges, Varanasi.

As I sift through photographs of my trip to India in preparation for an upcoming gallery display, I’ve dug out my travel journal in order to check my memories against my perceptions of the experience at the time.  I’m not sure if this particular photograph will make the cut, although there’s something about the composition that I like.  My impressions of the night it was taken, however, are worth sharing.  This excerpt is from October 20, 2011.

Several nights ago I bathed in the Ganges, an adventure that few embark on for the obvious reason that it is filthy and polluted, but I didn’t fly half way around the world just to look at the most holy river.  It began as a lark with me, Max, and James on  our last night in Varanasi as we wandered closer and closer to the river, eventually buying flip-flops and loogis and a guide along with them.  We decided to hire a boat to “the other shore,” something every boatman seemed reluctant to do; police frown on it so late at night, and this upped the fee to 2000 rupees to get three of us across.

We were led down ancient alleys in the oldest section of the oldest city, going places and seeing things that none of us had any business seeing.  The beggars were gone, as the tourists stopped flowing hours earlier and blocks away.  Scenes of depraved filth and poverty met us around every corner – dark, putrid, unpredictable; the type of situation where I knew I was way too close to the edge and wondered how much farther I could push it, since there was obviously no turning back.

Finally, we emerged at the ghats near where we’d taken a boat ride that morning… it all looked familiar, yet sinister.  The ghats of the Ganges look far different than they do in National Geographic.

The entry ends there, preempted no doubt by the deep sleep that was my only respite from the chaos and sensory overload that is Varanasi.  The boatman had taken the three of us very quickly to the far shore, fearful of being spotted and fined by the police.  We’d all agreed that the best course of action was to cross the river in order immerse ourselves, the better to avoid contact with trash, the odd dead goat, and detritus from the funeral pyres upstream.  The boatman urged us to “make haste” as we disembarked on a steep sand bar to wash away our sins.  My newly acquired flip flops sank deep into the muddy sand as I held my breath, shut my eyes tight, held my nose even tighter, and crouched down into the opaque grey liquid until the top of my head was completely covered in dubious holiness.  I never knew that water could actually be thick, but Max later concurred that that’s exactly what it was.  James opted to pass on absolving a lifetime of sins rather than risk debilitating, gut-violating infection.  Fortunately, Max and I were unaffected by full contact with the 5th most polluted river in the world, and James, as far as I know, has not been destroyed by his karma.

We climbed back into the boat, unaware that our night’s journey would take us even closer to the edge of the Void.  As we returned to the ghats, our guide offered to lead us to the funeral pyres, which it turns out, are basically large campfires fueled by wood typically purchased with the life savings of the departed soul whose earthly remains are placed on top.  Although each corpse is wrapped in white cloth and dipped into the sacred river before being cremated, the entire procedure is best described as “unceremonious,” as there is a colossal waiting line.  These fires have burned around the clock for over two hundred years in order to keep up with the demand, and not all those waiting in line are dead; there is a sort of hospice house above the ghat where the terminally ill await the good fortune of dying in this most holy city.

I was surprised by my lack of revulsion or emotionality at seeing a pair of human legs sticking out of the flames like two oversized sticks of cordwood, so close to my own bare legs that the hair on my calves was singed by the heat.  The unsentimental thought arose that the only difference between the two pairs of legs was a handful of years.  The sweet, earthy odor of the smoke reached me along with the realization that there’s more to us than these hunks of meat that we insist on calling “me.”  It’s humbling to consider that I’m not as limited as I’ve always assumed myself to be.

This glimpse of true nature, of the immensity of human potential is illuminated daily with the performance of devotional rituals as the sun rises over the Ganges.  After touring the Buddhist holy sites of Sarnath, Bodh Ghaya, Kushinagar, and Lumbini, we returned to Varanasi for another sunrise boat ride.  Struck again by how different, how alive, the ghats look by daylight, I recalled the night that my travelling companions and I had our foreheads anointed with ashes from the fire of Shiva, which has burned for three thousand years.  It occurred to me as I watched devotees doing morning ablutions that these same rites have been performed every single morning for at least that long.  The actors have changed, but the ritual has endured the millennia day after day after day in the same way the leaves are renewed yearly on a tree that lives for centuries.  Whether a leaf, a tree, a human being, or a river, we all have our part to play in the cosmos.  As I watched the faithful bathe, I thought how comforting, how humbling, and how extraordinary, to be nothing more or less than another leaf on a tree…SAM_0432

Morning rituals on the ghats at Varanasi

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a leaf on a tree

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