Friday, September 28, 2012

I'm so lucky

This story comes to us from the Twitter feed of musician Amanda Palmer:

walking downtown portland, a homeless-looking deaf woman came up to me. i thought she wanted money, but upon closer listening she actually..

...was asking if she could use my phone. to call her sister. she offered me a dollar. i said no. i dialed for her. she left a message...

..and as she thanked me she shook her fist at the sky and said in her broken deaf voice "i'm so lucky". i almost broke down again. me & her. 

 Every morning, I recite the Four Reminders. The first is:

Life is precious. I am extremely fortunate to have the privilege and leisure to study and practice.

Take a breath. Contemplate: What is precious to me? What is my good fortune? What makes me appreciate this precious human birth? What makes me want to raise my hands and shout at the sky "I'M SO LUCKY!!" Do it -- raise your hand to the sky and shout (out loud or in your mind) I'M SO LUCKY!!!

Working with a teacher

Right around this time three years ago I started working one-on-one with a teacher. This is not the Tibetan Buddhist guru-student relationship but what is described as a spiritual friend or mentor, the kalyanamitra. 

The teacher, at least my teacher, doesn't give me the solution to my problems. At times I think he creates more problems for me. "What does he mean by ... " I wonder about any one of a number of observations on my standard operating procedure.

But truly, he is not creating more problems for me to think about -- he's letting me see the ones that I've already developed. I bring them to this relationship, just as I have brought them to other relationships for many years, without being conscious of them.

I listened to a talk once where I teacher whom I respect and admire, who feels like the person I like to think my wiser self is, talked about her habit of calling herself "stupid" when she's forgetful or spacy. It was just habitual self-talk, something that she'd done for years even as she practiced meditation and embodied the Buddha's teachings. She didn't really think about it until her teacher pointed it out.

Our original nature isn't stupid, or any of the other unflattering terms we call ourselves. Changing those words contributes to changing the view.

One thing I run up against constantly is my desire for affirmation. I got good grades all through school because I knew how to discern what teachers wanted and to do my work that way. I can't do this with this teacher. What he wants is for me to know my own mind, not that I use any particular buzzwords or jargon (although he likes buzzwords and jargon).

It is a dance -- sometimes a formal minuet, sometimes a funky unself-conscious groove to the tunes of the artist formerly and currently known as Prince, sometimes a two-step -- finding my way between taking his suggestions and recommendations to see what I can learn about myself and trying to please him. And it is a dance of exploration: how am I reacting? Have I reacted this way in the past? What am I defending? Can I drop my concept and consider what I'm hearing?

In "Woman Awake: Women Practicing Buddhism," Christina Feldman writes that women who embark on a spiritual journey find themselves trying to accommodate to structures and traditions largely created by men, similar to the situation in the larger culture, in order to feel safe, accepted, and loved.

Not surprisingly, when we begin on a spiritual path we find ourselves looking outward to tradition and authority, for they appear to hold the answers we are seeking. Thus we acquire approval and safety in the conformity that these spiritual authorities require only to discover that approval and safety are poor substitutes for freedom. There is no tradition or person who is qualified to tell us who we should be, what we must strive for or achieve. ... We need to be willing to risk the loss of external affirmation and approval if we are to know ourselves deeply.

When I am in touch with my deepest self, my original nature, I know that I don't need someone else's affirmation to tell me that I'm good -- I know that I am basically good. But to stay in touch with that, I need to know when I'm not operating from that place but from the 10-year-old who is validated by getting an A on an assignment. And when I am that 10-year-old, to hold her in loving awareness and let her know that it is OK. An A -- or a B or even (I feel the tension rising in my chest) a C -- is not a measure of my wisdom, just my knowledge. And it's not a rating for my being, just my work. Maybe I can improve my work. But I don't need to improve my nature; it's already off-the-charts good.

These are things I learn from my working with my teacher. These and an immense sense of gratitude to him and to those who have come before him on the path, to myself, and to all beings who help me to see my basic goodness by showing me how I'm covering it up.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Aung San Suu Kyi and the homecoming court

In Stephen King's "Carrie," the mean girls contrive to have a misfit outcast elected homecoming queen only to find out what retribution really means.

A town in Michigan has re-written the ending, with the girl who was elected to homecoming court as a prank becoming a celebrity. Instead of being humiliated, this girl will be feted. The stadium will be packed with supporters at Friday's homecoming game, and she'll be decked out in celebratory duds courtesy of local businesses.

According to the Detroit News,
She hadn't sought the position. Students were free to vote for anyone in the class.
Perhaps her selection should have made her suspicious. She is a free spirit with few friends. Her black outfits and strange hair colors don't mesh well with other kids in the rural community.
But she has a guilelessness that doesn't see the bad in people, said her mom. Her reaction to winning was simple: She was happy. "She's just sweet. She doesn't have a mean bone in her body," her mom said.
 When she learned that her selection was a prank, she decided not to go. But she changed her mind.
"Going to homecoming to show them that I'm not a joke," she wrote on Facebook. "Im a beautiful person and you shouldn't mess with me!"

The story spread quickly in the small town. People stepped up. Interestingly, most of those in The Detroit News are adults with their own memories of high school social pain. They plan to attend Friday's game to cheer when she circles the field in a convertible.

In life terms, learning compassion in high school may be more valuable than geometry.

What makes this fodder for a Buddhist blog? 

This girl has the confidence that comes from knowing your own innate goodness and beauty -- so rare among adults, let alone those in high school. This town, with its smiley-face water tower, has compassionate adults who stepped in to ease pain instead of increasing it.

The Buddha said we create our suffering -- that our suffering is like being hit by two arrows: the first is the actual pain, the second is the pain we inflict on ourselves.

This girl deflected the second arrow with the help of a bunch of compassionate protectors.

This post was going to be about Aung San Suu Kyi, who is touring the US after what Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg describes as a 19-year meditation retreat enforced by the Burmese military. She is an inspiration and a veritable quote machine.

But some of her quotes aren't that far off from the sophomore class rep to a high school homecoming.
 Asked about being punished with isolation by the military government, Suu Kyi said, “I didn’t think they meant to punish me. Perhaps I see too much good in them.”
During her trip, Suu Kyi said she was struck by how many people were aware of what was happening in Burma and how much they cared.
“The greatest human quality is kindness,” she said, “It costs people nothing, and I don’t know why people are so miserly about being kind.

Speaking to students at Columbia University, Sharon Salzberg reports that Suu Kyi told a young woman who came to political consciousness through Amnesty International that she never received any of the
thousands of letters being written on her behalf, but she knew they were being written, and was strengthened by that.(There's a Facebook page in support of the homecoming rep with more "likes" than the population of the town.)

Suu Kyi said, “Use your anger in a positive way. I always say people in despair should use their anger to help others.”

(photo by Alex Wong/ Getty Images)

Monday, September 24, 2012

The glass is empty

Joko Beck says we can “slowly open ourselves to the wonder of what life is by meticulous attention to the anatomy of the present moment.”

The point is not that a positive emotion is better than a negative one, but that ALL thoughts and emotions are impermanent, or in Buddhist terms, empty. They have no reality whatsoever. Our only freedom is knowing from years of observation and experiencing that all personally centered thoughts and emotions and the actions born of them are empty. … When we realize this, we can abandon them. When we do, very naturally we enter the space of wonder.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

A Buddhist view

Someone once put me on the spot because of lots of articles in the newspaper about an incident where some Americans were accused of flushing the Koran down the toilet. I was giving a talk two nights later in Perth, and someone asked the question, 'If someone flushed a Buddhist holy book down the toilet, as a Buddhist monk what would you do?' What would I do? Call a plumber.
Ajahn Brahm

Swinging doors

Our usual understanding of life is dualistic: you and I, this and that, good and bad. But actually these discriminations are themselves the awareness of the universal existence. 'You' means to be aware of the universe in the form of you, and 'I' means to be aware of it in the form of I. You and I are just swinging doors.

- Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, "Breathing"

Friday, September 14, 2012

What is sacred to you?

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche defined sacred space as "a space that is recognized with heart and mind, that radiates a particular atmosphere you cannot help but feel."

I bet most of us have those places. And for many of us, it's not here. This is ordinary, workaday, clean-the-house, share-with-too-many-strangers space. It's dirty, it's crowded, it smells bad. Sacred space -- that's at the beach or the mountains, maybe in that place we haven't been to but long to go to. Nepal. Tibet. Iceland. Costa Rica.

But Trungpa Rinpoche, who had a strong feeling for the word "sacred," maintained that ordinary spaces can be sacred too. Your tiny apartment, your kitchen, your bedroom can be sacred.

"If you regard space as sacred, if you care for it with your heart and mind, then it will be a palace," he writes in "Shambhala: Sacred Path of the Warrior.

In that way, you can live like a king in a tiny studio apartment.

The Asian-American Arts Alliance is holding a 12-day, 25-event arts festival called the Locating the Sacred Festival. It began this week and continues until Sept. 23 in New York City. It offers a bounty of opportunities to contemplate your relationship with the sacred.

You can nominate your sacred places in the five boroughs to appear on an interactive map. (left)Check it out at Those dots all represent places or urban sacredness, and the map offers more details about each one.

On Saturday, Sept. 15, I'm helping another IDPeep, Maho Kawachi,and I will lead meditation at an art gallery in Brooklyn. It's part of an exhibit called "Interpreting Rituals: The Butterfly Effect." I'm excited by the chance to meditate with art around me. Art is one of the things that connects me to my mind and heart.

If you read this early enough you can join us. You can check out other festival event offerings on the calendar, the map or by searching by category.

But if you're not in New York, you're not separate from the sacred. To connect with the sacred, your mind and your heart have to be open. And if you are able to do that, then every space -- and every being in it -- is sacred.

Thursday, September 13, 2012


"Silence: How to Find Inner Peace in a Busy World" by Christina Feldman

"Silence" is an unusual book for a Buddhist. For one thing, it's gorgeous -- there are 230 photos and as many pages of photos as there are pages of text; it's beautifully designed and produced, with sharp, well-reproduced photos and heavyweight, shiny paper. It looks at first to be more of a coffee table book, to be leafed through and admired, than a serious text.

You could, in fact, get a lot out of it simply by paging through, reading the captions and contemplating the photographs of clouds, landscapes, details of nature. But you would lose a lot by skipping the text.

Christina Feldman is a Buddhist teacher, but this book presents a broad view of the spiritual path, noting many common elements among the sages and mystics of wisdom traditions. The journey into silence -- in pilgrimages, walkabouts, retreats, monasteries -- is a path to individual transformation that can lead to societal transformation, she writes.

Silence is the home of compassion, of kindness, awareness, acceptance, calmness. In silence, she writes, we come face to face with our criticisms, judgments, preconceptions, and fears. We learn to connect with the present and find equanimity.

But silence is becoming an elusive quality in modern society. In this book, Feldman lays out ways to cultivate silence or stillness (she uses the terms interchangeably). While she honors all spiritual traditions, her path is Buddhist. That's not surprising as Feldman's bio says she's trained in Tibetan, Mahayana, and Theravada Buddhist traditions since 1970, and has been teaching meditation throughout the world since 1974.

Feldman starts with a history of silence and its role in spiritual journeys. She begins to head down the Buddhist path when she identifies thoughts as noise that disturb the silence. "As long as we view silence as the opposite of sound we will always feel intruded upon and assaulted by life," she writes.

Along with history and philosophy, Feldman offers practices -- essentially, meditation techniques -- to help the reader create "sanctuaries of silence." Buddhist teachings permeate the work -- mindfulness of body, concentration, non-duality, impermanence, non-self, and emptiness, the three poisons, the eight vicissitudes -- but without being identified with Buddhist labels. If you know Buddhism, you'll recognize it here. Her writing offers a blend of Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana Buddhism simply as wisdom.

One of the things I really like about this book is that there's an entire section devoted to the fruition of the practices -- enlightenment and beyond. Often books and teachers talk about the work you have to do to become enlightened but not what the result of that would be. "Enlightenment does not divorce us from the world but teaches us to engage with it with the compassion and care it so desperately needs," she writes.

Feldman's final chapter describes how throughout time awakened, liberated sages and mystics have come back from their internal journeys to engage with and help the world, essentially the bodhisattva path.

Feldman doesn't shy away from the dark side of silence, noting the damage silence has done to victims of abuse and others who too intimidated to speak up. She doesn't present the path as easy or quick. She makes it explicitly clear that while she is describing a common path, the journey is a personal one, and each person's process of awakening will be different.

Feldman's writing can be pedestrian at times when she's speaking about philosophy, but that works when she's describing the meditation process and its simplicity and clarity makes it easy to follow. Her vast array of sources from various traditions could be confusing for someone on a specific path or looking for a particular authority, but I found it fascinating. I wouldn't recommend that book to someone who wants to learn about Buddhism. I would give it as a gift, though, to friends who have a grounding in a tradition and are open to other perspectives on the path.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Are you enlightened?

There’s a Zen proverb that says, Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.

Or as Jack Kornfield, a Theravadan teacher, says in the title of one of his books: After the Ecstasy, The Laundry.

All of which points to the idea that when we become enlightened – if we become enlightened – we don’t get to sit under a tree and withdraw from the business of the world. We don’t go poof! and find ourselves on a higher plane of existence where there is no more need for mundane tasks.

We stay in the world, and the tasks stay the same -- we see them differently. How does that happen? Through meditation.

The Buddha, in the Sattipattana Sutta, listed seven factors of enlightenment, which are the results of a meditation practice:

Mindfulness, or knowing what is happening in this very moment.

Investigation of mental objects (such as thoughts, emotions, labels).






Monday, September 3, 2012

A cat is the wonder

... We have turned into very unnatural beings. But with all our difficulties, we have an opportunity open to us that no other animal has. A cat is the wonder; but the cat doesn't know that, it just lives it.* But as human beings we have the capacity to realize it.

-- Charlotte Joko Beck

*Except for Henri.