Saturday, July 30, 2011

Tinkers by Paul Harding

"How can I not wonder what it would be like to sit in that cold silver water, that cold stone water up to my chin, the tangled marsh grass at the level of my eyes, sit in the still water in the still air, bright day behind me lighting the face of everything under the dark millstone cloud lid in front of me, watching the storm coming from the north? There is my father whispering in my ear, Be still, still, still. And yet you change everything. What was the marsh like, waiting for the storm before you came and kneeled in the water? It was like nothing. Watch after you leave the water, now cold and regretful, miles from home, certain of the belt on your backside, the cold shoulder, the extra chores; watch. Watch the water heal itself of your presence -- not to repair injury but to offer itself again, should you care to risk another strapping, because instead of the sky being dark and the trees and stones bright, the next time the sky will be bright but the world gloomy. Or there will be rain with no wind. Or wind and sun. Or a starry sky laced with clouds that look like cotton thread. You could not do better if you passed a thousand acts of Congress."

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

1,000 arms are not nearly enough

You’d have to be Avaloketeshvara – the Buddha of Compassion, with his 11 heads to hear the cries of the suffering beings in the world and 1,000 arms, with an eye in the center of each palm, to see the suffering and reach out to the multitudes – to comprehend this week in the world.

Seventy-six people killed in Norway by one man with confused views. A famine is declared is southern Somalia; the U.N. children’s agency -- one of the few groups that does operate in the area -- said Friday that nearly 800,000 children are at risk of dying without urgent assistance and that tens of thousands of people may have already have died in the country's famine, which has prompted Somalis to walk for days in hopes of reaching a refugee camp in neighboring Kenya.

Amy Winehouse died at age 27, after a brief career of song and conspicuous consumption of substances. She choose – famously – not to go to rehab, not to face her problems rather than try to wash them away, but society celebrated that.

So much sorrow in the world. Not an unusual week, perhaps – a gunman instead of an overcrowded, unsafe ferry in southeast Asia; a famous singer instead of the addict on the corner; the famine is not new this week. But it hits me in the heart, maybe because a friend writes that he has moved into his father’s hospital room maybe because a 23-year-old girl who had played on grade school soccer teams with my son died in a car crash. Every person who died in Norway, everyone who dies in Africa after walking for miles to try to survive, is dear, is important.

A thousand arms can’t begin to take in all the suffering.

Then comfort comes in an unlikely source – an emailed link from a non-Buddhist friend to an interview in Rolling Stone (not a place I often look for wisdom) with the man who’s said to be the reincarnation of Avaloketeshvara: The Dalai Lama. (Note: The Karmapa also is considered by many to be a reincarnation.)

Conducting the interview – is Melissa Mathison who was the screenwriter for “Kundun,” a film about the DL’s life, and has known him since 1990.

Does evil exist in the world? she asks. He replies:

The seed of evil, from my viewpoint, is hate. On that level, we can say that everyone has that seed. As far as sort of potential of murder is concerned, every person has that potential. Hatred. Anger. Suspicion. These are the potentials of negative acts.

There is also the potential for mercy. Forgiveness. Tolerance. These also, everyone has this potential.

Evil means that the negative potential has become manifest. The positive remains dormant.

Dormant, but there. This is how the bodhisattvas keep going, keep trying to fulfill their vows to bring all sentient beings to Nirvana before going there themselves.

We reap what we sow. Hatred breeds hatred. If we cultivate the seeds of anger and aggression, that’s what we get. If we instead tend gardens or mercy and tolerance, we’ll have a different environment.

How do we create mercy and tolerance, and avoid the clinging vines of anger and aversion?

I often tell people that this century should be century of dialogue. Peace will not come from thought or from Buddha. Peace must be built by humans, through action. So that means, whenever we face problem — dialogue. That's the only way. For that, we need inner disarmament. So our work should make a little contribution to materialize a peaceful, compassionate world later this century. That's my wish. It will not come immediately. But we have to make the effort. This moment, it looks only like an idea. But every corner must make the effort. Then there is possibility. Then, if we fail in spite of that effort, no regret.

Is there an effort you can make in your corner to cultivate the seeds of peace and contentment? Can you wait patiently for a slow store clerk? Not snap back at a co-worker’s snide comment? Catch the ball of impatience and intolerance that’s rolling down the hill, gathering steam and growing bigger as it passes along a chain of interaction, each person adding his or her frustration and sending it down the line? Smile? At no one in particular?

I can’t comfort grieving parents – or children. I can’t figure out a way to get food to starving people. All the metta meditation in the world won’t change their circumstances.

But I can try to act with care and compassion for those people I do have contact with. I can donate to my local food bank, which is struggling to collect enough food to feed my neighbors. I can listen, without judgment, to the problems of those around me. I can offer a gentle response.

The best way to solve these problems is in the spirit of reconciliation. Talk. Listen. And discuss. That's the only way.

**The photo of the Somali woman and her child is by Brendan Bannon, taken from Doctors Without Borders. For more photos and details on what you can do visit

all other photos by the Associated Press

Thursday, July 21, 2011

How to beat the heat, Buddhist-style.

It’s late July, and it’s hot. Sing along now -- Real Hot. In the Shade. I’m dripping sweat onto my zabuton as I meditate. I try to find the stillness under the sweat, to let the heat be like a fever dream, to not get attached to the idea that I would be happier if the weather were cooler.

I am not miserable. I’m good. The weather is not miserable. It is the weather. Yet somehow being bathed in sweat is less than pleasant.

I need some help here:

One summer when I was teaching at Shambhala Mountain Center, we had an incredible heat wave. In the midst of it, my uncle Damcho Rinpoche, my cousin Karma Sengay Rinpoche, and two monks arrived on their first trip out of Tibet. Day and Night they wore the same heavy clothes, the Tibetan equivalent of a woolen suit. At one point, I asked Damcho Rinpoche, “Don’t you feel hot?” He answered, “Well, apart from the feeling of heat, I am okay.” I understood him to be saying, “There’s this feeling, and I could be attached to it or I could not be attached to it. If I were attached to it, then how would my life be? I would be taking off or putting on clothes all day long, spending most of my time trying to get comfortable. Instead, I could just sit here and enjoy what is happening.” So that is what he was doing. “People are always saying, “I’m happy to be here,” but he really meant it. That’s equanimity. Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche

Last night, I was lying on my bed, bathed in sweat from the searing heat. At a certain point, the ordinary discomfort turned into blazing hot flashes across my entire body. Everywhere was running water – my forehead, my neck, my legs. …Lying there I became utterly intolerant of my experience, and before I knew it I was defiantly standing, almost expecting I would encounter an enemy lurking. As if catching myself in a mirror, I stopped and looked at what was happening inside of me – the raging heat as well as the familiarity of discontent. As my attention dropped down and in, I simply felt the firm ground under my feet, sticky sweat pouring down my belly, and the heavy warm air all around me. Without planning it, I had dropped into awareness of sensations, the First Foundation of Mindfulness.

As I simply watched all this, I became aware my angst had effortlessly slipped away and I was now feeling calm and present. I erupted in laughter at my familiar response to discomfort. … I lay back down noticing that the next experience was no less fiery, yet my inner attitude had shifted. My experience of the sweltering heat had changed simply because my attention had shifted from resistance to observation.” Sarah Powers

In other words, don’t flame the fires of discontent. Be curious about your response to the heat, both mental and physical.

You might as well meditate. Experts recommend that you renounce strenuous exercise in extreme heat (sitting still works well), drink plenty of fluids, and wear loose, light-colored clothing. Seek out air-conditioning if the heat is affecting your physical ability to function. Avoid alcohol and caffeine, which dehydrate you, and strong sunlight.

And listen to music

96 degrees


Meklit hadera


Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Just have a wonderful time

Got any vacation plans? Got a house on the beach for a week – or every weekend? Gonna splash in ocean or in a pool with a view of the ocean or in a pool on a boat on the ocean? Gonna fly over the ocean, go somewhere far and exotic or go home? Gonna drive, camp, eat road food, visit Graceland?

It sounds great. Just do me a favor – don’t bring me anything. Don’t send me postcards, don’t post photos on Facebook before you get back, don’t bring me souvenirs, not even salt water taffy.

Just go there. And be there.

And then come home.

Don’t take pictures of the sunset; you’ll miss seeing an amazing display of how the quality of light changes in a nanosecond with your own eyes. Don’t take videos of the kids frolicking in the waves – get in there and frolic yourself. Let your souvenirs be the memory of how your skin feels when it tightens as the salt water dries. The cold shock of the Atlantic. The seal that you were the first one to spot out beyond the waves – because you were just sitting, just looking, just seeing what there is to see.

As Buddhists we value direct experience, which is what happens when we’re able to relax enough and trust enough in our own buddha nature to be with what is happening RIGHT NOW without defining, categorizing, or narrating it.

In “One City: A Declaration of Interdependence” (now available in e-book format), IDP founder Ethan Nichtern writes: “For most of us, our connection with direct experience is tenuous at best.” When we have only “an off-and-on love affair with reality,” he says, we fill in the gaps with assumptions, untested theories applied with a broad brush. And we all know what happens when we assume …

“When we start to assure ourselves that our assumptions definitely depict the truth … all we end up experiencing is the indirect idea of things,” Nichtern writes.

Our culture, however, seems to prefer proof that we were in the vicinity of a great experience: the star’s autograph, the sunset photo, the souvenir T-shirt. When my kids were small, I was always confused by parents who would watch an entire performance through the lens of a video camera. Having taken videos of my kids, I know that what you see through the viewfinder is not the same as what you see when you put down the camera and lean forward, with complete presence, to watch them sing, “I’m a Little Teapot.” You can’t go back and watch a felt memory or share it with distant relatives, but you will always have that feeling of pride, amusement, and wonder – and it will come back at the oddest times. As you’re looking at their latest piercing or debating the construct of gender with them, say.

The last time I was in Paris – far too long ago – we went to the Musee D’Orsay, which had a number of Van Gogh paintings, including some of the most famous ones, the ones made into flat posters that had adorned innumerable dorm rooms. When experienced directly, they are stunning – mad swirls of layers of paint, vibrating colors, energy that leaps from the canvas.

As I looked awestruck at Van Gogh’s irises, dozens of tourists walked up, took a picture, and moved on, never seeing the paintings except through the camera lens. I was baffled (and angry). Why come here, I ranted to my family, who had not taken any photos. Why bother trekking up the stairs and seeking out the paintings? Why not just buy postcards in the gift shop and hop back on the Bateaubus?

You couldn’t even see the Mona Lisa in the Louvre because of the cameras people held high over their heads to get photos of the painting.

What’s wrong with this picture?

We’re so intent on holding on to our experiences that we don’t bother to experience them. We see the sights through a camera lens. We spend hours in the gift shop (because we must exit through it, as Disney and Banksy taught us) picking out items to remind us of where we’ve been. But it’s so much better to just let the unmediated experience bake into our bones so that the experience becomes a part of us rather than an album on Photobucket or Snapfish.

So don’t send me postcards or emails or post photos on Facebook. Experience your experience. When we meet again, you’ll show me the beautiful sunset in the quality of the light in your eyes. And the light in me will bow to that light in you and we’ll smile, connected in our knowledge of the wonders the world holds.

And we won’t lose any fillings to the salt water taffy.