I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall —
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.
Just a couple of hours in early September, ambling along the sandy beach at Alnmouth Bay, smelling the seaweed, watching dogs run and play, hearing the swish/woosh of the waves, sitting on a rock as the tide went out – all enough to lift my spirits. It is unmistakable the effect being beside the sea has on one’s whole being.
I wasn’t looking for anything, in particular, that day. It just seemed ‘good’ to stir myself and ‘go somewhere’ while I was having some quiet time/renewal time in August/Sept. My natural inclination was towards exploring the fields and lanes locally to where I was staying. On the day I wasn’t feeling 100% wonderful as I stepped out of the car, there are days like that. During the hours drive the exhaust pipe had broken and the sound of it vibrating against the chassis was both defining and concerning. This I could have done without.
However, it just takes a bit of ‘pushing through’ sometimes, in some circumstances, to let go mentally, emotionally and physically. This is spiritual renewal. There will always be ‘conditions’, inward and outward to push through. Not to reach somewhere else, some happier ‘place’ perhaps but when all conditions come together, there you are. Renewed! what a gift.
I have been re-reading a journal article, titled Renewal which I wrote in the mid-1980s. I was young monastically speaking, training at Shasta Abbey working in The Journal Department; typing it (on an actual typewriter), doing the ‘layout’, taking photographs, collating, and mailing. On revisiting this fairly lengthy article it’s clear that change has happened between then and now! The style? I blush! The theistic language? Clearly ‘a monk’ teaching ‘lay people’ with a slightly preachy feel…! Tripple blush!
That was largely the style then, the look and feel of the Journal then is not the same as now. How we pass on teaching and practice has changed, the fundamental heart, however, remains very much the same. The Journal was and is the ‘voice’ of the teaching, originally a Shasta Abbey Journal and a Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey Journal and latterly since the 1990’s they were combined to be The Journal of the OBC. Goodness! Now it is published online with only limited paper copies. A big change, driven largely by economics. And bless desktop publishing.
Jademountains has broken the mould in terms of what and how teaching and insights are conveyed into the world. As you know posts are not necessarily aimed at people who practice within our tradition either or any kind of religious tradition. In addition, I am free to develop content without formal oversight which is a huge responsibility, although what I write is very much ‘within’ the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives tradition. You all, readers both lay and monastic function as informal checks and balances sitting in the background as I contemplate content. I’m shockingly free to exercise choice and to develop a ‘voice’ and to broadcast into the big wide world.
And now to my motivation behind writing about renewal. The historic article, ‘Renewal’ has become a bit of a classic apparently and now the Journal wants it to be edited to bring it up to date for the Journal to publish. The following series of posts might form the basis of a new article or I may ask for somebody to knock the original into the 21st century!
Renewal? Spiritual renewal, a time set aside from the daily/weekly round to ‘be with’ that which, what might be described as ones deepest most profound aspiration, which can frequently be lost sight of in the face of the imperative to get on with life. It is the time set aside which can be a trial – it means making a deliberate decision to set spiritual renewal as enough of a priority to follow through in practice. That’s to let drop some plans, hopes and dreams and to basically exercise the NO (sorry) faculty we all have but infrequently invoke.
Religious traditions have the Sabbath, defined as: A day of rest and worship: Sunday for most Christians; Saturday for Jews and a few Christians; Friday for Muslims. Apparently there are Uposatha days in Buddhist countries practiced for “the cleansing of the defiled mind,” resulting in inner calm and joy. The closest to that we get is the Renewal of The Precepts twice a month, generally on the fist and third Wednesday. So spiritual renewal is on the organized religions map and in societies calendar. However, they are scheduled for the faithful as against the faithful scheduling holy days for themselves. The latter being more realistic given the over-committed lives most face. Our freedoms to choose how and when we take time to focus in on our overtly religious lives is there. But do we choose, can we choose, what to choose to do or not do?
In the Zen tradition, that we hale from, days with a 4 or a 9 in the date are renewal days, that’s how it was when I was a youngster. We switch to Thursday afternoons and Mondays for renewal to accommodate scheduled weekend retreats for lay guests. On festival days Sunday afternoon is a renewal time too. In principle at least these are times when the monastery has a ‘change of pace’, individuals can exercise choice, deciding how best to spend time to fulfil the spirit of such days. What this looks like in practice changes with seniority, responsibilities, age etc. And it isn’t so much what one does than the attitude adopted.
More tomorrow, or the next day. I cook on Saturdays.
This poem by Emily Dickinson heads the home page of Rita Brady Kiefer’s website, more on her another time. I have bumped into it in a number of places and each time I’m left in a thoughtful mood.
“I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d banish us – you know!
How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog —
To tell your name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!” – Emily Dickinson
Being a shy sensitive youngster I longed to have an identity and at the time that was connected to what I did. ‘What do you do’? was the question I would dread as I struggled to be invisible in the public space! Then it was a common make-conversation opener when sitting on a train or bus, now most people are looking at a screen rather than at each other. Teenagers struggle to be something or somebody, to have an answer as much for themselves as curious others. I wanted my answer to be a casual, ‘Oh, I’m a photographer!’ In time, a long time, I could honestly use that as an answer but by then I didn’t need it. I knew I was a multiple me and nobody wants chapter and verse, at a bus stop!
Fast forward through the decades, now when asked I can say ‘a monastic’, (surrounded by Northumbrian bog)! Identity, apart from ‘function’, is so tied up with appearance, how our face is. Photography is in the hands of everybody, everywhere, anytime. Screens, especially at the moment when less in outdoor public space or indoors for that matter, has become how we know people. How we make contact. For those who have used Zoom, or group Skype or other means of joining online using a webcam, there you are face and shoulders with a ‘sneak peek’ into the life behind the image. On big Webinars, there are multiple screens to scroll through to see ‘who is there’. No questions asked or needing to be answered. At the moment for so many people having contact is to see, and speak to a moving image. Which is both close-up and at a distance on a glass screen. To go deeper than surface appearance is all guesswork, more or less.
The other day I had a photograph of myself ‘taken’ for the booklet of printed photographs we have available for visiting guests although, needless to say, we are not open to live guests, for the moment. This book of faces means visitors can learn the monk’s names which is all part of connecting with the community, and the practice and teaching here at Throssel. Little did I realize uploading this photograph here and in other online places I frequent (Facebook as hounmugo for example) I’d get the multiple responses that I have.
How public – like a Frog —
To tell your name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!
With thanks to all those 67, and still counting, people who have responded to that image. It doesn’t cause me to think I am ‘somebody’ going ‘somewhere’. Nor on the other hand, am I, or anybody reading this, a nobody with no direction to life. That would be a sad, sad thing.
The remains of snow, perhaps.
Just a moment to pause, on the top of a hill (somewhere in Yorkshire) to mark the cremation ceremony for Norman Trewhitt in Lancaster yesterday. I attended via a live Webcast since I was not able to travel, it’s not the same as being there and in person but better than nothing. This remote attending at cremations is the way many have to pay their last respects, currently. The grief of seeing those spaced chairs, all filled, no chance for hands to reach out for comfort and support. The ceremony was conducted beautifully by Paul and Kate. We all did our best Norman.
I offered incense and a candle, which wasn’t possible at the crematorium, and sang and observed moments of reflection and listened to the chosen music and watched as the curtain closed and the people processed outside. The webcast ended abruptly. Then with a cup of tea and a piece of cake leftover from Sunday lunch, I phoned up a fellow webcast watcher for ‘tea’.
This was the story for a couple of other cremations further south on Monday, a mother and the other for a dearly loved life partner. Such events, cremations where just a few can attend are happening all around the country, all around the world. We show our respect or affection and love for someone who has just died by coming to see their body or grave.
There is something to ‘paying one’s last respects’, to travelling to a gravesite, attending a Cremation Ceremony, a funeral, a scattering or interring of ashes. But there is never a LAST visit is there. What has been, a life known and shared remains and travels into the future as memories? That’s natural, normal and part of living. Part of being alive and forming attachments.
One day when I was young in training one of my fellow monks quoted a saying by Zen Master Dogen to me, ‘attachment and detachment’ he said ‘flow together throughout ones entire life’. I’ve never been able to find that reference although I probably didn’t look that hard. I find it comforting.
I’ll keep that thought beside me when, once again, I need to be reminded to be compassionate for myself, and for others.
Thank you kind person for sending me the photograph. I’ve lost track of the location, sorry. I thought it fitting since Norman was a keen walker and fellrunner.
A wise person learns the mystery of existence in a flash
And climbs in a leap beyond the world of hollow phenomena,
Whereas a foolish person holds willfully to facts and details,
To drown in subtle differences of words and lines,
Not happy with these lines above. There is a strong pointing to the opposites and for most people, this can be a grand opportunity to climb aboard the ‘foolish’ label and stick it securely to the self. Where it can remain for decades, which is indeed foolish! Or, and this happens, one sticks on the wise label and believes oneself to have ‘lept beyond the world of hollow phenomena’. Maybe so, maybe not but this is still within the realm of the opposites.
One does come across texts that extol the reader to let go of the intellect and allow oneself to ‘leap’ or more often to ‘let go’ of discursive thinking and habitual behaviour. As is said above, ‘to drown in’ and ‘to hold willfully’ to facts, details, subtle differences of words and lines, neither any of us would want to do, certainly not for extended periods of time. It takes as long as it takes to realise the futility of such thinking. So I take the lines from the poem by Ryokan copied above as a strong pointing past what we often term ‘the ordinary mind’. Such teachings can be and are a powerful reminded of the futility of such thinking.
The ‘leap’ then is a leap of faith/trust that there is a deeper aspect to ourselves/existence that is not available via the normal means of understanding ‘why things are the way they are’ and to work out how to change them in oneself or others or both.
Faith in this tradition does not need or require an ‘object of faith, nor is ‘blind faith’ what’s being pointed to. Rev. Master Jiyu said in my hearing that the solution to all koans, including the koan of daily life, is a leap of faith. I’d think this was about doing something deliberately with my mind. I’ve learnt that it’s the opposite, that it’s to deliberately decide NOT to do something! Committing to sitting still in formal meditation is to deliberately decide not to something, anything, one could be doing and JUST SIT! And to simply and actively engage with ‘what is’. This embraces the ‘wise’ and the ‘foolish’, without discrimination.