Monday, 29 October 2007

Embracing emotion

I slipped up and broke my cardinal rule at work today. There's someone at work who, to me, is a toxic person. So many times in the past, interacting with this person has left me feeling unsettled, upset, worried, angry, hurt, belittled, and worthless. Having resolved not to let my interactions with her go beyond yes and no (and even then as a strictly business-only last resort), today I slipped. Yes, we spoke beyond the necessary. It was a stupid thing to do. As usual I have come away from it feeling bad about myself, bad about my job, worried about the future, and in general just uneasy. Speaking to this person seems to be an invitation for her to unleash all her very critical thoughts about staff, the way things are run. I agree with a lot of it, but I never come away feeling like any good has been accomplished as a result of these interactions, on a personal or work level.

I don't know why I did it. I know it doesn't pay to talk to this person. Every time I do it, I leave myself open to this result.

Okay, time to step back. An emotion has arisen in me. I'm examining it. It is not the direct result of any particular words that were said, but seems to have sprung from a complex web of my own perceptions. What she said and what I heard were not the same thing. I catapulted directly from her words to my own responses to them, and the springboard was my own perception, the stuff that I brought with me to this conversation. I am not skilled enough to communicate with this person. I feel certain that her reality and mine are completely different--she's not looking at things the way I do. She wouldn't be able to predict how it made me feel any more than I have a clue as to how it might have made her feel. I can only guess, and as my guesses are based on my own perceptions, I'm sure they're probably way off. At this point, it doesn't really matter anyway, I think. What matters is preservation of peace, peace for myself and peace for others.

The Buddha said,

If you know anything that is hurtful and untrue, don't say it.

If you know anything that is helpful and untrue, don't say it.

If you know anything that is hurtful and true, don't say it.

If you know anything that is helpful and true, find the right time.



Looking back on this conversation, I don't see that anything that was said on either side was exactly helpful and true. It was mostly opinion, speculation and worse. It was not the right time for speaking.

Most of the time, it is the time for silence.

Must remember that.

Why call this entry 'Embracing Emotion'? Because instead of allowing this emotion to bowl me over, I have sat with it. I have breathed through it. I have allowed it to exist and I have watched over it. I have stepped aside from it and tried to see it. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, I have cradled my emotion as if it were a howling baby, and my mindfulness has helped to transform it.

All mental formations and all physiological formations in us are sensitive to mindfulness. If mindfulness is there, embracing your body, your body will transform. If mindfulness is there, embracing your anger or despair, then they, too, will be transformed. According to the Buddha and according to our experience, anything embraced by the energy of mindfulness will undergo a transformation.

At the moment you become angry, you tend to believe that your misery has been created by another person. You blame him or her for all your suffering. But by looking deeply, you may realize that the seed of anger in you is the main cause of your suffering. Then we will stop blaming the other person for causing all our suffering. We realize she or he is only a secondary cause.

~Thich Nhat Hanh, from Anger




If I hadn't embraced this emotion, I would now be enslaved to it, ruled by it, and seeking to blame someone for it. Looking deeply, I see that the fears and worry brought on by this conversation are all illusion from inside me. They are not real. They do not exist.

May all beings be at ease.

Sunday, 28 October 2007

Buddhism without Beliefs



For many western Buddhists, Stephen Batchelor's 'Buddhism without Beliefs' is a sort of manifesto. Subtitled, 'A Contemporary Guide to Awakening,' the book explains dharma practice, unbound by the fetters of cultural and religious tradition. To me, this book expresses Buddhism in its purest form, and is one of the books that has been pivotal to me on my current path.

Here are a few striking quotations from the book.

On the Buddha:

The Buddha was not a mystic. His awakening was not a shattering insight into a transcendent Truth that revealed to him the mysteries of God. He did not claim to have had an experience that granted him privileged, esoteric knowledge of how the universe ticks. Only as Buddhism became more and more of a religion were such grandiose claims imputed to his awakening.

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When asked what he was doing, the Buddha replied that he taught, "Anguish and the ending of anguish." When asked about metaphysics (the origin and end of the universe, the identity or difference of body and mind, his existence or nonexistence after death), he remained silent. he said the dharma was permeated by a single taste: freedom. He made no claims to uniqueness or divinity and did not have recourse to a term we would translate as 'God'.

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First and foremost, the Buddha taught a method ('dharma practice') rather than another '-ism'. The dharma is not something to believe in but something to do. The Buddha did not reveal an esoteric set of facts about reality, which we can choose to believe or not. He challenged people to understand the nature of anguish, let go of its origins, realise its cessation, and bring into being a way of life. The Buddha followed his reason as far as it would take him and did not pretend that any conclusion was certain unless it was demonstrable.


On Worry:

To understand worry is to know it calmly and clearly for what it is: transient, contingent, and devoid of intrinsic identity.


On Rebirth:

It may seem there are two options: to believe in rebirth or not. But there is a third alternative: to acknowledge in all honesty, I do not know. We neither have to adopt the literal versions of rebirth presented by religious tradition nor fall into the extreme of regarding death as annihilation. Regardless of what we believe, our actions will reverberate beyond our deaths. Irrespective of our personal survival, the legacy of our thoughts, words, and deeds will continue through the impressions we leave behind in the lives of those we have influenced or touched in any way.


On the concept of an afterlife:

Dharma practice requires the courage to confront what it means to be human. All the pictures we entertain of heaven and hell or cycles of rebirth serve to replace the unknown with an image of what is already known.


When I first became interested in dharma practice and began reading about Buddhism in earnest, I was a bit taken aback by some of its religious forms. Particularly, Tibetan Buddhism struck me as foreign to my mind, and was not something I could embrace. As I learned more about various Buddhist beliefs, I became more and more confused and doubtful about the whole thing. Long ago I had come to the conclusion that I did not need a saviour and I was not a sinner. I knew that life was merely life; that it was neither meaningful nor meaningless. The Buddha's Wheel of Darma teachings supported these beliefs. When I read the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Noble Path, and saw in them my secret beliefs reflected back to me like an echo of my own thoughts, from a man who had passed them on centuries before Jesus was even born, I had felt such a sense of being freed. But my further research was troubling. I knew I could not worship the Buddha any more than I could worship the Christ. I knew I could not believe in karmic rebirth any more than I could believe in a heaven or hell. I could not believe in devas and hungry ghosts any more than I could believe in angels and demons. I knew I could not reject one mystic and esoteric religion only to embrace an alternate one. The Four Noble Truths had led me to dharma practice, but Buddhist religiosity nearly repelled me from it. Then I read Stephen Batchelor's book, and realised it was okay for me to accept some things and to reject others (something I had been warned against as a Christian). It was okay for me to get to the heart of Gautama Sakyamuni's teachings and bypass the religious traditions that have grown up around them. I couldn't do this with Christian teachings. No matter how you strip it down, Christianity is a dualistic belief system: mind/body, God/man, good/evil. No. But Stephen Batchelor's book helped me realise that I could strip down Buddhism to its essence and find something that I could embrace with joy. I sure do thank him for that.

Friday, 26 October 2007

Food glorious food!

This is going to sound a bit 'chefy', but I made this today and it turned out so delicious I thought I'd share. It is vegan, but you could use dairy products if you want.

Aubergine and Kale Stacks with Red Pepper Cream Sauce, Braised Puy Lentils and Polenta Croutons

For the Braised Lentils:

1 can lentils
1 small red onion, diced very fine
2 medium carrots, diced very fine
olive oil
Sweat the onion and carrot down in the olive oil until onions are translucent and mixture is beginning to caramelise. Deglaze the pan a bit at a time with the liquid from the can of lentils. When the veg is very soft, add the lentils, salt and pepper to taste, and some chopped fresh parsley. Continue to simmer until the lentils are done to your liking while you continue on with other stages of this recipe, then set them aside to keep warm.

For the Red Pepper Cream Sauce

Roast 2 red bell peppers in the gas burner of your stove top, or under the broiler of the oven. When they are charred, put them in a paper bag or covered bowl to rest 10 minutes. Continue with other stages of recipe.

For the Aubergine Stacks

2 aubergines (eggplants, each sliced into four slices longways)
kale or other greens of your choice, chopped and cooked in boiling water, drained and all excess moisture pressed out
2-3 tablespoons of sundried tomato tapanade (or other highly seasoned, strong tasting thick, tomato-based pasta stir-through type sauce--I used the tapanade because that's what I had)
olive oil

Rub a bit of olive oil on the aubergine slices and put in oven for 15 minutes or so at around 350F to start the cooking process. Combine the chopped greens and tomato tapanade. Set mixture aside.

For the Polenta Croutons

Mix 200g polenta into 800ml boiling water or seasoned vegetable stock. Cook and stir for five minutes or until very stiff. Pour into lightly greased dish and allow to cool and set.

Finishing it all up...

Peel the roasted peppers and pull out the stems and seeds. Put them in a small saucepan with 2 crushed garlic cloves and a small amount of water or vegetable stock. Cover and simmer for 5 or 6 minutes.

Meanwhile, cut the polenta into cubes and toss in a bit of olive oil. Spread on a baking sheet and set aside.

Puree the pepper and garlic mixture and seive it back into the saucepan. Mix the red pepper pulp into the greens and tapanade mixture. To the red pepper sauce in the pan, add enough soy cream (or dairy cream if you prefer) to lighten the sauce. Add salt and cayenne pepper to taste. Set aside.

Take the aubergine slices out of the oven. Spoon one quarter of the greens mixture onto each of four of the aubergine slices. Top each with the remaining aubergine slices and press down a bit. Cover lightly with foil and return dish to the oven. Put the polenta cubes in the oven as well. Bake all for about 30 minutes. Check and toss the polenta cubes often. You want them to be golden and crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. Take the foil off the aubergine stacks for the last 10 minutes or so to allow the tops to brown a bit.

To serve, plate up one aubergine stack per four plates and ladle one quarter of the red pepper sauce over each. Divide remaining food amongst the four plates. (Obviously, this dish serves four! Hubby and I ate it for both lunch and dinner today.)

Hubby declared this 'the food experience of the millenium', but then he gets really excited when I make oven chips and baked beans...

May all beings be at ease.

Thursday, 25 October 2007

You ain't Robin Hood, put that bow down!



The Buddha teaches us that ignorance magnifies suffering. He is talking about being ignorant of the nature of things, of reality, of the fact that all things change continuously and nothing is permanent. This is something we always seem to forget; for some reason it is in our nature to cling to the false belief that there is something that can be permanent, that it can be stable, that it can be enduring. He is also talking about the false belief that things are independent of one another, when in reality, everything is intimately interconnected with everything else on every level. When you reach the understanding that we are all part of a vast web of being that is in constant flux, we can overcome ignorance and suffering. This is not to say that someone with understand can entirely escape suffering, but he can certainly lessen its impact.

Here's what the Buddha had to say about the effect of ignorance:

Suppose someone is struck by an arrow. He will feel pain. But if a second arrow strikes him at the very same spot, the pain will be much more than just doubled. And if a third arrow strikes him at that same spot again, the pain will be a thousand times more intense. Ignorance is the second and third arrow. It intensifies pain.

Thanks to understanding, a practitioner can prevent pain in himself and others from being intensified. When an unpleasant feeling, physical or mental, arises in him, the wise man does not worry, complain, weep, pound his chest, pull his hair, torture his body and mind, or faint. He calmly observes his feeling and is aware that it is only a feeling, and he is not caught by the feeling. Therefore, the pain cannot bind him. When he has a painful physical feeling, he knows that there is a painful physical feeling. He does not lose his calmness, does not worry, does not fear, does not complain. Thus the feeling remains a painful physical feeling, and it is not able to grow and ravage his whole being.

Be diligent in your practice of looking deeply so that the fruit of Understanding may arise and you will no longer be bound by pain. Birth, old age, sickness and death will also stop bothering you.

~from the Samyutta Nikaya Sutta, retold by TNH in 'Old Path White Clouds'



What does this teaching mean? Now, I'm only a lay practitioner and no dharma teacher, but this is my take on it. Things are going to come along and blindside us. It's going to happen, no matter how much we want to avoid bad events, bad feelings, physical pain, etc. When the inevitable hits, that's the first arrow. Ouch! Okay that hurt.

Now here's where understanding comes in. If we understand the First Noble Truth ('Suffering exists') then we know that stuff happens. It just does. We get sick, we age, we lose people and things that we love, we die. It is going to happen and we can pretend all we want to that it isn't but guess what. It still is going to happen. BUT--we don't have to make it worse for ourselves. If we understand that nothing is permanent and everything is connected and in continuous motion, we can get through it.

If we cling to the false belief that we could have done something to prevent this from happening, if we engage in 'if only' thinking, or if we fall into 'why me' thinking, we are shooting ourselves with that second arrow. You can't prevent the inevitable and this feeling is not going to last forever. Nothing does. It's a feeling. It will pass.

If we allow our emotions to overwhelm us, we have shot ourselves with the third arrow. This is when we wallow in despair, turn to self-abuse of various kinds (drug abuse, alcoholism, or whatever other self-destructive coping mechanisms we have found), find ourselves so deep into our own pain that we can't see a way out again. It is pain a thousand times more intense than the first arrow, and we caused it ourselves. We shot ourselves. We did it because we were clinging to false beliefs about the nature of reality.

This teaching has all sorts of ramifications for me. Just today I was walking home from work and I smiled at the sight of a bird and felt surprised at myself. I remember a time when I wouldn't have even noticed a bird. I inhaled deeply in time to my footsteps. In, out. In, out. I thought I might recite the metta sutta in my head as I walked, which I do sometimes. Then the thought occurred to me, I haven't lived up to this sutta today. I have no right to say these words. There's been tension at work amongst some staff and there's been talking going on behind people's backs, and I harboured some bad thoughts about people and yes I did some whispering myself. I felt a terrible pang of guilt. I felt a crushing feeling. In the past this could have led to tearful prayers for forgiveness and would have cast a cloud of gloom over me for the entire evening. But today, I have a better understanding. I breathed in and said to myself, 'I am feeling an emotion of guilt. I feel guilty for my behaviour today.' I breathed in and out and kept walking. I reminded myself that I was feeling an emotion. I acknowledged it, and it faded. There's no need to shoot yourself with that second arrow. It wouldn't change how I behaved today, and it wouldn't affect what I do tomorrow. I know I can do better tomorrow, and I already feel better today.


May all beings be at ease.

Monday, 22 October 2007

My daily practice



My daily practice is based on the format used at Plum Village. It is described in Thich Nhat Hanh's 'Chanting from the Heart: Buddhist Ceremonies and Daily Practice.' I use a Sony Walkman MP3 player and set of MP3 speakers and a meditation timer to help me along.

I've set up an altar in a corner of my bedroom on which I've placed my statue of Buddha, two candles, a small statue of Jesus, a Tibetan singing bowl and striker, an incense burner, and a box containing my mala. This low table has two shelves. On the bottom shelf are my MP3 player and speakers, timer, framed photo of family members, and small boxes containing matches, incense and other supplies.

I meditate twice a day, morning and evening. Some days I only manage one or the other, but I am working to improve that.

Thich Nhat Hanh's advice on daily practice:

A daily practice session commonly begins with a period of sitting meditation, followed by slow walking meditation, then a session of chanting and recitation. The first sitting period can be a guided meditation. During a shorter practice session, you may wish to practice sitting for only 12 minutes. If you do not wish to do chanting and recitation, simply replace it with a second session of sitting meditation. What is most important is to create a daily practice that you will enjoy as part of your own daily life and that of your practice community.

For me, a typical morning meditation is
1. Light candles and ring tibetan singing bowl three times
2. Chant 3 refuges on my own ('Buddham saranam gacchami, darhmam saranam gacchami, sangham saranam gacchami')
3. 12 minutes sitting meditation to the sound of the bell (downloaded from CD)
4. Chant Metta Sutta (downloaded from internet)
5. Close by ringing bell three times.

Evening meditation usually includes
1. Light candles and ring bowl
2. 12-15 minute sitting meditation
3. Chant Heart Sutra (downloaded from CD)
4. Chant 'Taking refuge' song (downloaded from CD)
5. Close by ringing bell three times.

Occasionally I will use my mala to chant mantras instead of doing silent sitting meditation. I particularly like 'om mani padme hum' and 'gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha.'

On weekends, I sometimes do longer practice sessions that include listening to readings of various sutras and/or reflecting on the 5 Remembrances.

I would like to incorporate walking meditation into some of these sessions, when I can. That will probably be a weekend thing.

May all beings be at ease.

Saturday, 20 October 2007

Never again will I bake!



That's it. After today, never again will I bake.

I used to weigh a bit over 200 pounds, and if I do say so, I was a pretty good baker. I made some darn good cakes, bread, you name it. But over the last coming up on four years, I have changed my eating habits very much, and I have got out of the habit of baking. I've lost 70 pounds and also my ability to produce a cake. On the rare occasion when I attempt something like a vegan banana bread, it's pretty good, but it's hit or miss. I always used to wing a recipe, with great success I might add, but alas I have lost the knack.

Today I have flung my last attempt in the bin, with the added fun of splashes of batter hitting the kitchen cabinets, the oven floor and the front of my trouser legs. All sorts of language that sounded nothing like the metta sutta could be heard. The baking powder then went into the bin. The last remnants of the vanilla extract went into the bin. I briefly considered following up with the loaf pans and measuring cups, but figured they might come in handy for a vegetarian nut roast or something so they were spared. The husband was so alarmed he retreated to the bedroom and proceeded to hang up the fresh laundry. He is even now aimlessly shifting things around in the living room in an attempt to restore order to our usually placid home.

It started innocently enough, the notion that I would use the cooking apples someone gave me from her apple tree to make an apple cake loaf. I thought I'd make a banana loaf with some apples in. But the bananas weren't quite ripe enough. Okay, never mind. Then there wasn't quite enough flour. It'll be fine. Then I decided to use macadamia nut oil, which seemed a little overpowering, so I added some cinnamon. Good. Looked thick, so I added soy milk. Everything's fine. Then I added too much baking powder. I have a tendency to do this. I put the cake in the oven anyway, saying that I hoped it didn't cook over into the stove. As I said it, I heard a sizzle. Yes, it had already begun to foam over everywhere. In vain, I attempted to pour half the batter into another loaf pan. It got all over my oven mitt. Suddenly I felt really sick and angry and thought, "This is so stupid. Why am I trying to rescue this stupid batter made with free apples? I don't even need to eat this stuff anyway!" We'd already had lovely vegan pizzas and dark chocolate for lunch. We didn't need cake. I took the two loaf pans out of the oven and raked the batter into the bin.

This was not a moment of zen for me. What would Thay say! He'd probably just laugh. That's what I think I will do. (Once I'm finished stomping around in a huff.)

I'm still never baking again! Life's too short to ruin a perfectly good Saturday like this. Next time I want cake, I'll buy one!

May all beings be at ease.

Friday, 19 October 2007

The sublime abiding



Whether standing or walking, seated or lying down
Free from drowsiness,
One should sustain this recollection.
This is said to be the sublime abiding.
By not holding to fixed views,
The pure-hearted one, having clarity of vision,
Being freed from all sense desires,
Is not born again into this world.


To me, to be free from drowsiness means to be mindful. We are mindful of the moment in all situations, and 'sustain the recollection' of lovingkindness to all beings. This loving state of being is the 'sublime abiding', which some paraphrase as the 'divine abode', or dwelling-place of gods, but to me it's more literal. 'Sublime' means supreme, most high or of most spiritual worth, and 'abiding' means 'enduring' or 'lasting for a long time'. So lovingkindness is the state of being of highest worth that ought to endure.

The Buddha teaches that we should not hold to fixed views. We should remain open-minded about everything, and test everything to see if it is true. Thich Nhat Hanh's first and second mindfulness trainings reflect this well:

Openness
Aware of the suffering caused by fanaticism and intolerance, we are determined not to be idolatrous about or bound by any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. Buddhist teachings are guiding means to help us look deeply and to develop our understanding and compassion. They are not doctrines to fight, kill or die for.

Nonattachment to Views
Aware of the suffering caused by attachment to views and wrong perceptions, we are determined to avoid being narrow-minded and bound to present views. We shall learn and practice nonattachment from views in order to be open to others' insights and experiences. We are aware that knowledge we presently possess is not changeless, absolute truth. Truth is found in life, and we will observe life within and around us in every moment, ready to learn throughout our lives.

Sense desires are one of the Five Hindrances. (They include sense desires, anger/ill-will, sloth, worry and doubt.) They are the craving of senses, the craving to get what you want. (There are six senses in Buddhist thought: eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and mind; ie, sight, sound, smell, taste, touch and perception/mental formation.) So we're not just talking about wanting a bowl of ice cream or a warm bed, but also wanting attention, accolades, wanting knowledge, all sorts of cravings and wants driven by clinging.

'Clarity of vision' is the ability to see that there is no end to suffering to be found in striving to fulfil sense desires. In fact, is the attempt to find fulfilment through sense desires that leads to suffering, or as Thich Nhat Hanh translates it, 'ill-being.' (The original word is 'dukkha'.)

The last line of the metta sutta holds some problems for me. The traditional sense of reaching nirvana means to not be born again into the world, ie, not reborn or reincarnated. This is something I haven't wrestled much with in my mind. I have some thoughts on it, though. More on that later.

May all beings be at ease.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Outward and unbounded


Even as a mother protects with her life
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings:
Radiating kindness over the entire world
Spreading upwards to the skies,
And downwards to the depths;
Outwards and unbounded,
Freed from hatred and ill-will.


These lines from the Metta Sutta are fraught with meaning for me. I am the noncustodial mother of a 16-year-old boy, my only child. Not only does he not live with me, he lives half way around the world from me--I'm in England he lives with his dad in America. No, I didn't lose him in a custody battle. No, he wasn't taken away from me. I had sole custody of him for a year after the divorce, but decided to let him go live with his dad because that's what he wanted. It's been five years. It seems to have been the best choice (maybe the only choice) for us. I don't know how it feels to be a noncustodial father, but for me, being separated has been a kind of wound that never completely heals. A little death that dies over and over, sometimes it rolls over and goes quietly, sometimes not. When I chant these words, I feel pangs of all sorts of emotions: hypocrisy, guilt, regret, dull sorrow. I haven't 'protected my child with my life' in the conventional sense. There are small-minded people who could never understand how complicated such a decision was for me. I've tried very hard to let go of worrying about what those people think of me, but it's always there, just a little. I know, though, that I protected my child by saving my life.

If I could take my love for my child, my child who I only see once a year if that, and radiate it over the entire world, all living beings would feel cherished. I know that much.

Nothing is ever as simple as people would like it to be.

The image above is Kuan Yin, the female version of the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteshvara. She's looking serene in the tempest, buoyed up by the most unexpected of life's creations, ministered to by it, ministering to it. She's part of it.

May all beings be at ease.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

More metta





Wishing: In gladness and in safety,
May all beings be at ease.
Whatever living beings there may be;
Whether they are weak or strong, omitting none,
The great or the mighty, medium, short or small,
The seen and the unseen,
Those living near and far away,
Those born and to-be-born,
May all beings be at ease!
Let none deceive another,
Or despise any being in any state.
Let none through anger or ill-will
Wish harm upon another.


These lines of the metta sutta sound beautiful, but the ideas here are so common as to seem clich├ęd. Some people might even roll their eyes at them. Heard it all before, they'll say. All religions say the same things. Play nice, share your toys, blah, blah, blah. Do unto others. But does it really say that?

I have to admit I've got a bit of problem where humanity is concerned. I have a strong tendency to lack compassion for humanity in general. Shocked? I think if you're honest, you'll find the same tendency in yourself. It's natural. It's not an active hate, necessarily, but a tendency to stay so focused on our own tiny universe that we just don't notice the rest of the world in any meaningful way. And if I don't bother to notice humanity in more than a vague, uninterested way, how little must I consider animals, plants, and all the other forms of life! You might be thinking, well, I have friends, I like animals, I'm worried about the ecosystem. Hey, I recycle! I give to charity. But I don't think that's what the Metta Sutta means here. A lot of those things we do, we do because we think we're supposed to. They're like those 'duties' we burden ourselves with. The Metta Sutta is about a genuine, deep love for all living beings. A love that springs up because we know we are not separate from anything else. How can we not feel an overwhelming and abiding love for something we're part of? Sounds simple, but this realisation of interbeing is the essence of awakening, it's perfect nirvana, and it's not to be found in our heads, our emotions, any of the five skandhas or anywhere that we can perceive. It's one of the reasons we meditate.

It's so easy to look at someone and say, 'My god she's fat!' or, 'I'm so sick of these skivers living off my tax money,' or 'Well, that whole part of the world has been war-torn for the last couple of thousand years, what's to be done?' or 'It's their own governments' fault they're all in poverty and dying of AIDS, they shouldn't be so corrupt' or any other number of dismissive and judgemental thoughts about others. It's not so easy to feel compassion because 'this is like this because that is like that.'

On the other hand, there's some comfort in that last thought. If the rose is garbage and garbage is the rose because we all inter-are, then maybe I'm not so bad after all for sometimes harbouring uncharitable thoughts. Maybe I've got to stop this Western-mind habit of looking at everything as good or evil. I need to see deeply that everything is everything else.

We are imprisoned by our ideas of good and evil. We want to be only good and we want to remove all evil. But that is because we forget that good is made of non-good elements. You cannot be good alone. You cannot hope to remove evil, because thanks
to evil good exists, and thanks to good evil exists. In the light of non-duality, there is no problem. As soon as the idea of good is there, the idea of evil is there. When you perceive reality this way, you will not discriminate against the garbage for the sake of the rose. You will cherish both.

~Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of Understanding


My favourite line from this section of the Metta Sutta is 'Let none despise any being in any state.'

That goes a lot further than 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.' And even further than the Dalai Lama's version, 'Do unto others as they would have it done unto them.' I guess it's more like, 'Do unto others…because there are no others.'

May all beings be at ease.

Sunday, 14 October 2007

Kundalini? Isn't that some kind of pasta?


One of my best discoveries in 2007 was Ravi Singh & Ana Brett's kundalini yoga I just have to share!

First off, I'm not at all sure that I put much stock in a lot of the kundalini yoga philosophy. I still have a lot of learning to do about chakras and so forth before I decide. All this business of a force coiled at the base of my spine just waiting to be unleashed and so forth. That being said, I believe you can get a lot of benefit from Ravi & Ana's kundalini yoga without going whole hog into the belief system. After all, the Kalama Sutta tells us to test theories in the light of direct experience, and so far it's been my experience that R&A's kundalini yoga is a good thing!

(Why do I keep qualifying it by saying 'Ravi & Ana's kundalini yoga'? For one, because it's the only kundalini yoga I've actually tried. For another, I understand that Ravi has his own take on kundalini yoga practice, which differs somewhat from the mainstream, although he was a direct student of Yogi Bhajan, who started it all in America in the 1960s, so he surely knows what he's doing. Ravi & Ana's style of kundalini has been described as 'poetical'--maybe that's because Ravi has a tendency to say things in rhyme, and Ana looks like an absolute angel!)

I have collected 7 of Ravi & Ana's workouts so far this year. I incorporate them into my exercise rotation two or three times a week. Kundalini sets are wonderfully fun and energizing, incorporating focus on the spine, full body stretching in various classic postures, some interesting breath techniques and chanting. It is done with the eyes closed for the most part. You just have to try it to see it if it's right for you.

Here are some clips of Ana Brett from various workouts:

Kundalini Yoga Dance the Chakras

AM-PM Yoga

Kundalini Yoga for Beginners and Beyond

Kundalini Yoga Quick Fixes

Kundalini Yoga Breath of Fire Primer (featured in several DVDs)

You can see from the clips that the set is clean and white, with splashes of color applied to the floor and provided by Ana's mat and clothing. She usually wears two-piece workout clothes and is featured alone with Ravi doing the voice over. The music is upbeat with an Eastern flair.

If your curiosity is piqued, here are a few websites with a bit of basic information on kundalini yoga:

Yoga Yoga

Kundalini Yoga

Gurmukh Talks about Kundalini Yoga

If you're already into kundalini yoga, why not leave some of your thoughts about it in the comments section? I would love to hear from you! If you have any questions, post them. I will try to find out the answer for you.

(This entry counts as my Monday one, as I won't have time to do one tomorrow!)

May all beings be at ease.

Bodhisattvas everywhere


Let them be able and upright,
Straightforward and gentle in speech.
Humble and not conceited,
Contented and easily satisfied.
Unburdened with duties and frugal in their ways.
Peaceful and calm, and wise and skilful,
Not proud or demanding in nature.
Let them not do the slightest thing
That the wise would later reprove.


In my life I've met people who just seem to naturally fulfil this description. I remember a girl I knew in high school who was as mild and joyful as could be. She was a committed Christian. I was always so impressed with her gentle nature, and compared myself to her and felt inferior, wondered why she wanted to be friends with me. Last I heard she was working as a physical therapist in Baltimore. I wonder how she's doing now.

These days there's a lady at work who has similar qualities. She is mild and gentle with others, soft-spoken, calm in her approach to everything. She has a beautiful smile. I've noticed that in the three years I've worked with her, she does not seem to have bought a new garment. She takes care of her possessions and seems to see no need to buy more. I have observed her quietness when other people in the staff room indulge in gossip or criticism of others. Her carefully blank but gentle expression at these times seems to me to mean that she disapproves but also understands the reasons behind these words. She seems so compassionate. Her hobby is to take photography of local natural beauty, and I am always amazed that she can go to some very unlovely places and find the most beautiful details to photograph. At a garbage dump, she will photograph an extreme close-up of a flowering weed with a butterfly lighting on it. She notices these details, and every year she uses a computer to produce calendars of these images. I'm always so surprised to read the location in the caption under the photos. Who knew there could be beauty in some of those places?

I think my favourite phrase from this section of the Metta Sutta is 'Contented and easily satisfied, unburdened with duties and frugal in their ways.' People really are happier when they keep things simple. We tend to spend too much time and effort, in the western world, getting and spending. It's not a new thought, it's common to all world religions, and yet this notion of living a simple life seems to slip right past our radar. I'm not talking about feeling guilty for buying a book or a DVD or new shirt, I'm talking about the focus of your life becoming cars, houses, closets stuffed with clothes and STUFF, STUFF, STUFF lying around everywhere and overflowing into the garage. For myself, my life is so much simpler than it used to be. I used to own two houses, a car, I had credit card debt, I was on anti-depressants, I was trying very, very hard to be a good Christian (I had a fish on my car and everything). It was not working for me. Now I live in a rented flat, I don't own a car and don't intend to. I have no debt. Financially I have no assets and no liabilities. That may make my financial situation a big fat zero--or maybe it's a big fat enso?? All I know is, I am happy now and I wasn't then.

It's not just the material things, either. Being 'contented and easily satisfied' can also mean to just let up on yourself and others. Why put all this pressure on yourself to meet some arbitrary expectation? Why expect things from others, and then be disappointed when they fail to meet them? Most of the 'duties' we feel burdened by are imaginary things we've assigned to ourselves. We can unburden ourselves from these duties--we can let go of control of the universe! To be 'frugal in our ways' can mean much more than keeping within a budget. We can be frugal in our approach to daily life, frugal in our emotional responses to things, frugal in the way we speak, frugal in our actions. Are there people in your life who have been examples of metta? Think about them today. Send them your gratitude.

May we all recognise our own awakened nature, and fully master the ways of practice.

May all beings be at ease.

Saturday, 13 October 2007

Spreading upward to the skies, and downward to the depths



I've been thinking a lot lately about the Metta Sutta. I've been chanting it every day now for several weeks, and have committed it to memory (pretty much!). On my walk to work, I find myself chanting bits of it in my head. It's even starting to turn up in my dreams sometimes.

The Metta Sutta is the Buddha's teaching on what it means to have loving-kindness, a thing that is in short supply in the world, and that I wish to cultivate more fully in myself. Lately I have chanted the Metta Sutta at the end of my morning practice. The English translation I use is, to me, truly beautiful. I found a recording of male members of the Buddhist Society of Western Australia chanting it in a Gregorian style It is sublime and soothing to the spirit. I downloaded it to my MP3 player and chant with the recording. To listen, click the link, but minimize the pop-up page so you can follow along with the text below:

The Metta Sutta

This is what should be done
By one who is skilled in goodness,
And who knows the path of peace:
Let them be able and upright,
Straightforward and gentle in speech.
Humble and not conceited,
Contented and easily satisfied.
Unburdened with duties and frugal in their ways.
Peaceful and calm, and wise and skilful,
Not proud or demanding in nature.
Let them not do the slightest thing
That the wise would later reprove.
Wishing: In gladness and in safety,
May all beings be at ease.
Whatever living beings there may be;
Whether they are weak or strong, omitting none,
The great or the mighty, medium, short or small,
The seen and the unseen,
Those living near and far away,
Those born and to-be-born,
May all beings be at ease!
Let none deceive another,
Or despise any being in any state.
Let none through anger or ill-will
Wish harm upon another.
Even as a mother protects with her life
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings:
Radiating kindness over the entire world
Spreading upwards to the skies,
And downwards to the depths;
Outwards and unbounded,
Freed from hatred and ill-will.
Whether standing or walking, seated or lying down
Free from drowsiness,
One should sustain this recollection.
This is said to be the sublime abiding.
By not holding to fixed views,
The pure-hearted one, having clarity of vision,
Being freed from all sense desires,
Is not born again into this world.

I'd like to break this down line-by-line and share my thoughts about it. I would love to get feedback comparing thoughts and responses to this lovely sutra. Let me begin by saying that as I was raised a Protestant in the Bible belt of the USA, my responses to things are filtered through this lense. My remarks are not meant to criticize anyone's faith. There is no comparison here for the sake of proving one thing is better than the other.

So here we go…

This is what should be done
By one who is skilled in goodness,
And who knows the path of peace:


I find it interesting that goodness is described here as a skill. I was brought up feeling that goodness came from outside myself, that it was something that I had to pray for, something that would be instilled in me by the Holy Spirit, if I asked for it. Lack of goodness in my behaviour meant I needed to repent and ask forgiveness and pray for a gentle spirit. The idea that gentleness and loving-kindness could be a skill that can be cultivated never occurred to me. I love this concept in Buddhist thought, the idea that misbehaviour (what I used to think of as 'sin') is behaving unskilfully, and that my deeds and thoughts and words are my 'practice'. It means I'm developing my skills. (And as Napoleon Dynamite can tell you, everybody needs skills!)

The path of peace mentioned here is the Noble Eightfold Path. Notice it is not called the path to peace. It's the path of peace. That's because once you get on this path, you have already reached your destination. (The path is: right understanding, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.) There are many sources of information about the Eightfold Path in books and online, but I can think of no better distillation of them than Thay's 14 Mindfulness Trainings.


More thoughts from me tomorrow! What do you think?

May all beings be at ease.

Friday, 12 October 2007

Dharma in the what???


I have decided to call my new blog 'Dharma in the Dishes' in honour of Thich Nhat Hanh's teaching on mindfulness in this everyday task.

How many times have you rushed through the washing up, soap flying, your mind awhirl with thoughts of what you're going to do as soon as you're done? You might idly swirl the dishes in the water and stack them whilst worrying or planning or scheming, dreaming, whistling or zoning out. The television may be blaring the background, dinner bubbling on the stove, a thousand and one thoughts and activities happening simultaneously. But what if,while washing dishes, instead of ignoring what we are doing or rushing through it in order to get to what we plan to do next, instead of thinking or worrying about what happened in the past or being carried away from awareness by a song in our heads, we can try this practice. Become aware of our in-breath and out-breath. Become aware of the feeling of the warm water, the smell of the washing liquid, the experience of the task. Slow down. Focus on this task. When a thought arises, acknowledge it and return to the breath and the task. This is a soothing and deep practice.

Thay (pronounced 'Tie', which means 'Teacher' and is the nickname of Thich Nhat Hanh amongst his followers) calls such mundane tasks 'rites' because any such everyday task can become an opportunity for deep mindfulness and awareness. Anything we do can be a rite, a ceremony, an homage to the wonder and miracle of being alive.

In his book, The Miracle of Mindfulness, Thay says,

If while washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, then we are not 'washing the dishes to wash the dishes'. What's more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes. In fact, we are completely incapable of realising the miracle of life while standing at the kitchen sink. If we can't wash the dishes, chances are we can't enjoy our cup of tea, either. While drinking the cup of tea, we will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands. Thus we are sucked away into the future--and we are incapable of actually living one minute of life.


Here is a clip of Thay. Near the end of the clip, he shares his thoughts about washing the dishes in mindfulness. Please have a look!

Thich Nhat Hanh on Mindfulness

This notion of mindfulness can be applied to everything. It can help us slow down the whirling thoughts, worrying, scheming and distraction in our minds so that we can live this moment. After all, this moment is all we really have.

Everyday mindfulness is changing my life. I have started this blog because I want to share my thoughts on these things. I welcome comments from everyone.

Just now I've been blogging in order to blog. Now I'm off to work out in order to work out. May everything I do today be done in mindfulness.

May all beings be at ease.