Contemplation (four)

The ripening of practice has it’s own time table and that is where patience and taking the long view really helps the practitioner. There is no fast track and nobody who can do the practice for you. We have a saying, Buddha’s do but point the way, you must go alone. That’s alone in the sense of doing ones own practice, doing something about oneself. This takes a considerable level of sustained effort, it’s the same for everybody what ever form life is taking.

Each morning, in our particular tradition, we re state our resolve to continue by reciting a verse aloud before the kesa is put on. It is a statement that brings one out of the mists of past and future to a vow to practice within the already enlightened Universe, today. For just this one day.

How great and wondrous are the clothes of Enlightenment,
Formless and embracing every treasure.
I wish to unfold the Buddha’s teaching,
That I may help all living things.

To be resolute and to wake up and remain awake carries spiritual merit, however that is not enough. It is the rising up and walking on, and keeping on walking on, that counts. For all of us, practice and enlightenment which are not two, are given expression in being the best person one can be. This is real gratitude.

Contemplations (three)

Retreats have a particular place in the life of a Buddhist practitioner. If one is fortunate enough to be able to join others to do that, all well and good. They are not essential and not to be clung to either. It is rare to have the opportunity to devote oneself to simply just sitting still without the usual daily life distractions. (Even so, life circumstances have a way of throwing up opportunities to sit, right in the midst of distractions. See comment from yesterday.) Having found the time, and settled down, the mind can spew forth, in all the weird and wonderful ways imaginable, each of us according to our own particular inheritance. Memories, thought patterns, emotions, sensations all march through body/mind. Nothing permanent, just passing though. However, when you are dying of thirst a lake in the desert can become all too real, and ultimately disappointing of course. A mirage certainly can appear real.

At the time of the Buddha’s enlightenment the hordes of mara came to call shooting arrows, that fell around him as flowers. The Buddha unmoved, knew enough about the workings of the mind not to take False Evidence Appearing Real, as real. And that is what one learns, and re-confirms over and over again during a retreat. That is, to recognize fear for what it is, and refrain from being afraid of it. That fearful images and thoughts arise, or their equally alluring opposites, are not a problem. If not clung to as me and mine. As real. And yet moving on and out into everyday life, there may be good reason to be afraid, and to take note and to act accordingly.

Contemplations (two)

Do beings want to be alone to pass away? Our family dog did, he took off one day when he was sick and never returned, and was never found. My mother would call to him. Simon! But each time she realized it was not him, but another dog like him. Eventually we gave Simon up for dead. We mourned him, my mother particularly did, however in time he faded from memory. Although the sight of a liver and white Springer Spaniel can still catch me with my heart thumping. Creatures die but are not gone, is that an expression of clinging? Not necessarily I feel.

My mother died alone, in hospital with no nurse beside her bed. My dad and I had left an hour before. As my mother died, we were at home cooking Christmas cake. For the most part religious practice is like this, one just gets on with life. When life comes, step out into life. When death comes, step out into death. There can be no calling back of the past or calling for the future. Sitting a meditation retreat, you just sit, you’re willing to die to your entire world of experience. Which is the world of, arising and passing, appearances.

My mother appeared ordinary, bent over and white. She was however a woman of great dignity, born out of a natural pride. For too many years I judged her by appearances. I appreciate her more fully now, and understand a little of the source from which she drew her vitality. While sitting a sesshin, with less sleep than usual, sitting multiple periods of meditation each day, the question of vital energy comes to the fore. Just what is right effort, when formal meditation is deliberately deciding to do nothing? Put plainly, how do you keep your eyes open when everything in you wants them closed? At one point during the retreat I thought the lights had gone out. No, just my eyes snapping firmly closed! Somehow the where-with-all to open them is there reflexively. I’d not call that energy so much as merit. The collective merit flowing from meditation in groups, is greater than the sum of individual efforts. Everybody helps each other, in an unseen way, to keep going.

More tomorrow.

Contemplations (one)

I’ve been around a few people while they are dying. In each case I remember their world shrank to what they could literally reach out for. A cup of water, their bedding, maybe reach for friends hand. But more often than not even the family around them recede in importance. The world slows down too. A finger raised ever-so-sloowwwly to attempt to adjust an oxygen line or scratch an itch, just the eyes track around the room, and talking, if at all, comes in halting gasps. The basics of bowel movements, liquid and food intake, medication for pain relief are what matter. Medical staff matter, even if it is to reject or fight them. People continue on in this way for days, even weeks. My mother, who died 12 years ago on the 11th December, went quite quickly. Bless her. Bless all mothers.

Sitting a meditation retreat, as we have just done, has its parallels with dying. Ones world contracts, movement is slower and more considered, concerns become basic and immediate. For example getting settled for the next meditation period, taking care with that. And there is fine attention to sensations too and of moving inwards while at the same time being finely aware of rain and wind crash about outside, the drip drip of water inside the hall, the birds striking up their song in the early morning. We sit with eyes neither closed nor fully open, we sit facing towards a plain wall. There is looking out from behind ones eyes. Who is it that sits? For 35 mins there is sitting still, if there is movement it is done ever-so-sloowwwly. Strictly speaking there is no physical moving at all, just the rise and fall of the breath. There is an awareness of that.

And what of the mind of a dying person? Or of the meditator for that matter. I’ve seen people go back and forth over their lives, remembering yesterdays far gone, as if they were right now. Images from childhood, happy times on holiday, and past regrets, streaming into the present. I have seen dying people in distress both physically and mentally and it is clear we die as we have lived. No judgment, no right or wrong death nor right or wrong thoughts-emotions-sensations. Nothing to add or remove. And if in the living there has lain hidden, in some dark recess a secret, now is when it may come to light. Or not. So it is sitting a sesshin, one enters the private recesses of ones being, seemingly utterly alone and yet infinitely not alone.

More contemplations tomorrow. It’s good to be back.

On Retreat

I’ll not be writing anything for the next week however I will be back with something to say on the 14th December.

If you are visiting for the first time, welcome! There is much material in the archive which you might like to browse through. You will find a combination of travelogue, Buddhist teaching and reflections on daily life as lived by a Buddhist priest.

To help you navigate through the archives here’s roughly where I have been since starting to write this blog.

April through June 10th 2005 – Traveling in East Asia.
June through mid September 2005 – In England.
Mid September through June 2006 – Prior of Edmonton Buddhist Priory, Canada.
June to mid September 2006 – Traveling in Canada and California.
Mid September onwards – Resident at the monastery in Northern England.

Thank you to all those who so faithfully come and visit here.