A Place To Sit

[The following article first appeared in the Spring 1992 (volume 19, number 1) issue of The Journal of Throssel Hole Priory. Used with permission.—ED.]

The place in which we truly sit
Is within our own body and mind.
Since body and mind embrace the Universe,
Nowhere can this place be found.

When we approach our sitting-place we do so as we would the altar, with great reverence and respect. We bow to it, turn, and bow to the room. This bowing can merely become a form, the meaning lost in yet another point of etiquette—at first to try and remember and later, after many repetitions, to forget. Entering the meditation hall at Throssel Hole Priory while there on a visit, I found my usual sitting-place occupied; and in addition, through an oversight, an alternate place had not been allocated for me. When the indignation (I regret to say) had died down, I began to view my sitting-place in a new light: namely, that it is not there as of ‘right’ and not to be taken for granted. It is offered and received with gratitude in the place where giving and receiving come together.

Immediately after a monk is ordained, there follows a Meditation Hall Entry Ceremony. The new monk is welcomed by the community into the hall and shown to his or her seat where three bows are made. Welcoming a new person to the group or priory, showing them where they can sit, how to bow to that place and how to regard it, is less formal and yet is essentially the same in spirit to the above monastic ceremony. It is welcoming a being into the embrace of the Eternal where, together, we come to realize the Truth of this embrace. This sitting place is offered to those who agree—albeit tacitly—to keep the Buddhist Precepts. The identity of training and enlightenment is very clear here. In order to be Buddha, we do our very best to act like a Buddha. It is false to imagine it can be otherwise. Everyday life and meditation (training and enlightenment) are not separate, they are identical when the Precepts are taken to heart and lived. Great Master Dogen states in Rules for Meditation, ‘…pure meditation must be done’1—the longing to do this takes expression in the incredible pains some people are prepared to go to in order to get to a meditation group meeting each week or to attend regularly at a priory, monastery or temple of the Order. Here, at least, there is a place and the time to sit still in meditation along with other like-minded people. The function performed by both temples and meditation groups in offering a place to sit with other trainees is, perhaps, their prime and most immediately valuable one.

One lay trainee told me of her struggle to find a place to sit while living in temporary accommodation. So much did she long to sit in formal meditation that on one occasion, having cleaned the room thoroughly, she set up her portable altar in the bathroom, offered incense, and meditated there. Often I hear accounts of how people skilfully weave in a few minutes of meditation whenever they can—for example, before the children awake, or sitting for a moment or two on a park bench at lunchtime. So often group members become overly concerned about the numbers of people who attend the meditation group. If there has to be a measure, it is the willingness to welcome openly all who wish to meditate and train in the Buddha’s Way: to offer them a place to sit.

When bowing to our place
Gratitude knows no bound.
The longing to be as Buddha strengthens
And our True Place is found.

1. Rev. Master P.T.N.H. Jiyu-Kennett, The Liturgy of the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives for the Laity, 2nd ed. rev. (Mt. Shasta, California: Shasta Abbey Press, 1990), p. 99. Also Rev. Master P.T.N.H. Jiyu-Kennett, The Monastic Office, (Mt. Shasta, California: Shasta Abbey Press, 1993), p. 77.

Holding The Space – Keeping The Beat

Note: This was first posted in March 2009. The words, quoted freely here, are from one of our scriptures (Sandokai), keep entering my mind. Here they come again…they speak to this post.

End and beginning here
return unto source
And high and low are used respectively.
Light goes with darkness
As the sequence does of steps in walking.

In the fields, drifts of lambs. Laying.
In the lanes and gardens, drifts of snowdrops. Waving.
Signs of spring.
New beginnings?
Or endings?
Both. Together.

Just now a Ewe walked up with lamb in tow. She walked so close, she looked so intently. Do we know each other, I thought. But I held the space. We gazed on, and there was mutual acknowledgment. Obviously, we don’t speak the same language however, a meeting can take place without the conventions of a common language. At least I like to think that the meeting is not bound to language.

In the conversation over the past days and weeks this kind of direct acknowledgment, with the added benefit of a common language, has enriched my days. Meaningful exchanges? Meaning exchanged. Great sounding isn’t it, meaningful exchanges! But I’m not so happy about using the expression. Two words that don’t really convey much of anything. And certainly not the color, tone, quality or depth of conversation.

We jokingly talk about being divided by a common language – the joke mostly comes up in North America. The same could be said here in Britain too. We do our best and for the most part, the meaning is conveyed and quite surprising, to me, spiritual meaning is derived from relatively ordinary exchanges. And often the most powerful teaching is derived from ordinary everyday events. Not so much what is said, more the way it is said. Amazing! I think that is to do with the sincerity of the listener, the ability to drop down past the words and derive a deeper meaning. Meaning becomes the listener’s gift to themselves.

But this isn’t quite where I wanted to get this morning. Although linked to the lambs and Ewe in the field. The other week while in conversation, with somebody I respect a great deal, he mentioned that I tend to jump to respond in a conversation rather briskly. In so doing a faster pace is set. I was thinking about that comment this morning – and the encounter with the Ewe. And of the many encounters, such happy ones, during these past weeks. With strangers and those I know or have come to know.

Well, I am back with rhythm and music, heartbeat, breathing and babbling streams. Snow drifts turning to snowdrop drifts. And what comes to mind is that while gain and loss, end and beginnings are ever present in our lives it is the small words between the big ones and the punctuation which give us the beginning-less and endless-ness of existence. The no-birth/no-death of Buddhist teaching. The blessing of our lives – the rhythm and the beat, the call and our timely responses. What better insight to come out of my R and R and R and R time.

And what of the term holding the space? Is it not the spaces in music, that fine timing which has the violins or the tenors coming in just so, which elevates music to something grand? How much more so with the music of language and living. Poised with my violin, I’ll come in just so. I’ll not push the beat and so not lose my space. (I wonder if anybody understands what I am trying to say…!)

With fond memories of my Master who would talk about language in terms of musicality. I remember her lesson on punctuation, and it wasn’t an English lesson either.

Training hand, heart and mind

This letter, first published in 2006, is reproduced now in slightly edited form.

Dear Rev. Mugo,
I thought I would write to let you know what I have discovered about Trinity College of Music at the time Rev. Master (Jiyu-Kennett) would have been in contact with it, in case it is of interest.

Trinity was started in 1872 by Bonavia Hunt who was deeply concerned by the quality of church music which was becoming poorer and poorer. Trinity was first known as the Church Choral Society and College of Church music. It was open to members of the Anglican Church, and men only! The college started with a view to teaching so that quality could be restored and the long tradition of church music continued. As it developed, the college trained teachers and offered exams throughout the world so that standards could be maintained. I’m not sure of the date, but women were also welcomed in to study before the war.

By 1939 the numbers at the college grew and the college ethos was one of welcome and the doors were opened on Sundays as well as all other days, “to keep the lamp of music burning during these dark days.” The choir was open to those who’s choral societies had had to disband for war reasons. Trinity hosted concerts throughout the war and two concerts in 1942 were given by the children of London county council and Middlesex who studied on Saturday mornings with Gladys Puttick, a pioneer who arrived at Trinity in 1934 and was one of the first to teach musicianship beyond the instrument. She was also the founder of the Saturday School and Trinity was the first music college to have a Saturday junior department. Distance Learning also started to help those unable to get into college to study, in fact Prisoners of War were able to do distance learning with help from the British Red Cross offices.

Gladys Puttick arrived in 1934 and stayed until the 1970s. Three other notable people were at Trinity from the 1930s – mid 1960s. Charles Kennedy Scott was keen on the study of Plainsong and the chanting of Psalms and gave regular lectures and led rehearsals. Dr Lowery was passionate about organs, organ music and is noted as giving superb lectures. The Principal of Trinity from 1944 -1965, Dr Wilfred Greehouse Allt was also an organist who was the President of the Incorporated Association of Organists from 1956-1958 and then of the Royal College of Organists from 1962-1964. Rev Master would almost certainly have come into contact with Gladys Puttick and Charles Kennedy Scott, whether based at Trinity or as a distant learner.

Gladys Puttick gave a lecture in the 1940s and it reveals an approach to learning that often goes unnoticed. She said that music was, “essentially a pivotal subject of education, since it could be the means of training, at once, the hand, the heart and the mind.”

It would appear that Rev Master was in good hands.

Simple Advice For Facing Adversity

I’ve been emailing back and forth with a reader, in a far away country, who is in mental and emotional extremity, not without good reason. The directions I give this person are specific to that individual however I think there is something here for everybody.

From Correspondent: Could I ask about spiritual texts or prayers or something which could be probably helpful for me to find myself in that situation (and keep the faith) and develop (as I may say like that) my soul? Could you advise something or should I just sit in my meditation for the time being?

From Mugo: Here is a verse we have for circumstances such as the one you are in right now. (I recite it at take off and landing in an airplane.) This is not a prayer to a higher power separate from your own deepest indwelling heart, that which you touch (and are) when you are still within and which never leaves. Never.

The Invocation for the Removal of Disasters.
Adoration to all the Buddhas
Adoration to the limitless Scriptures
Peace! Speak! Blaze! Up!
To the glorious Peaceful One
For whom there are no disasters.
Hail! Hail! Hail!

It might be good to write out the verse and place it where you will see it and remember it. And have a copy to read in moments when you are able during the day. Reciting this is not magic. It will not make anything happen by reciting it. Basically reciting such verses help to keep faith when all around wants to drag it from you. You must maintain you faith in, and compassion for, ALL living beings and not allow yourself to be dragged down to the ground, so to speak.

Your eyes, literally your eyes, may be lifted up from time to time to look at what is high. Tops of trees, roofs, sky, ceiling – this will help you more than you might think. Deceptively simple, yet by simply looking up ones spirits remain up too. Remember particularly to keep your eyes looking ahead when you are walking from place to place, rather than the usual habit of looking at the ground.

That’s all I have for you so please now simply get on with your daily life. Just doing one thing after the other and keep returning to just doing the next thing. An instruction I have when giving a talk on working meditation is to bring your attention to your hands (mostly we are doing things with out hands). This will help you to keep your attention where you are and away from difficult mental and emotional states. Nothing wrong with such states however it is not so good to dwell there for a long time.

From Correspondent: Thank you for all your messages. they are warm and inspiring and recalling an important matter – “You must maintain your faith and compassion for all living beings”…and that everything (all forces, wisdom, compassion) is inside us. Thank you again.
With kind regards,

From Mugo: Glad what I’ve said is helpful. We sang the Invocation for the Removal of Disasters during a ceremony today. I have to say I kept you and your situation in mind as we sang.

Would you be OK with me publishing bits from our recent email conversation. I would like to publish as there is some reasonably useful teaching and it shows that life can get (very) difficult and that one can live through anything and still come through with a glad heart and not a sad one. I hope and pray that will be the case for you.

From Correspondent: HI! Thank you again for a ceremony and your care. As to your question – definitely I’m OK with publishing. Not only because our conversation is so useful and supportive to me, but also due to the fact that the extracts from your discussions with other people published in your blog are always so inspiring and useful for me that it would be my pleasure to give something to others (if I may express it in that way)
Best regards,

Song to the Spirit of Life

The Buddhist scriptures describe experience, profound religious understandings. Each day we sing/recite many of them central to the teachings of Zen. They are configured in poetic form. I remember somebody saying that the scriptures were written at deaths door. Meaning for me that the understanding contained in them was hard-won, that’s the absolute allowing of the dropping away of the illusion of an enduring separate selfhood. In effect to die while still alive.

These days and months I seem to be ‘tuning into’ what that all means for me personally. The dropping away, it’s not an option or anything to do with virtue. I’ve had contact with many who find themselves in extremity and see them ‘drop away’. In some cases there is no choice, the extremity leaves no choice. The following was written by a devoted Christian person early on in his diagnosis of ALS –  Lou Gehrig’s disease

Read/sing lest we forget the depths of our being. Yes, the language is theistic, the sentiments universal.

Spirit of Life, remind me
to listen to the sound
of your whispered voice
and to feel your presence in my soul.

Calm my mind
so that I might hear
the gentle melody of life
that murmurs beneath my busy thoughts.

Help me be still
and quiet, desiring nothing
but acceptance of your will
and understanding of your purpose.

Please give me this gift
of peace each day
so that I never forget
to love my life and to share that love.

You are always with me,
The strength, the light and the joy of my being.

Lessons of ALS – Facebook

The merit of this post is offered to all those who face, live with and struggle to accept the day-to-day realities of ALS and similar conditions of the nervous system. One cannot even imagine. The chap who wrote Lessons of ALS as his condition progressed was eloquent on the whole matter of mortality.  Not to mention his describing what it feels like to lose the use of ones body and retain ones mind.