Category Archives: Teachings

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.

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When Shakyamuni Died

The Buddha sitting under a tree. This is part of the main altar set-up for the Buddha’s Enlightenment Day Festival at Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey. Nice job Reverend Sacristan.

Photo by Billy Barnett, very many thinks for letting me use this.

At the end of the ceremony we had the customary offering of merit, called the offertory, which was sung most beautifully by one of the female monks. Here is part of it:

When Shakyamuni died, He told His followers to make His teaching the light of their lives and to make their own lives shine as brilliantly as the sun; the light of Shakyamuni and His followers has shone through many centuries and has been transmitted to countless people. We must follow in the footsteps of those who have gone before us so that our own light shall shine in the same way, and we must transmit it, even as they did, so that it may shine brightly in countless worlds and for thousands of lives to come.

Somebody wrote me today asking, When should one consider oneself a Buddhist? When one formally accepts the precepts? To truly take refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha is to consider oneself a Buddhist. This is a private promise that one makes daily, with the intention to make the Three Refuges, and the ten Precepts, the light of your life. To appreciate what that actually means in practice is not a simple matter. Accepting the Precepts formally goes some way towards appreciating what the light of ones life actually is.

Anybody can make their own lives shine as brilliantly as the sun, in a religious sense. A spiritual path can be invaluable.

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Matters of Gratitude

I’ve been thinking of events, or series of events, which defy all possible probability in the normal course of life. Iain in Japan wrote about a series of coincidences which more than likely lead to his young sons life being saved. No doubt there are many such stories to tell such as this one from early in year 2000.

I was on a long drive, trailing a caravan, from Manchester in northern England to Cornwall. That’s a long way in one day. Mine was the slowest rig on the road. Somewhere south of Exeter, and late into the night, my concentration was failing me. I lost my way in some road works and turned off the main road onto a slip road by mistake. Realizing what I’d done I proceeded back towards the main road again. In a daze of tiredness I didn’t check for traffic before merging, there wasn’t much traffic at that time of night. Then whoosh, quick as you like, a huge commercial rig streaked past before me on the main road. It could have been Starship Enterprise, the event was that surreal. Seamlessly I trundled on, merging in behind it as it sped into the dark night. A near brush with certain death, and no mistake.

Quite early on in my monastic training I turned a corner, so to speak, and realized everything in my life had brought me to this place. The good times and the dreadful ones too, the painful circumstances and the joyful ones, all without exception, had been Great Compassion at work. Although at the time it didn’t always look that way.

And it looks like compassion is still at work in my world. Just a few days ago when out in a car I realized I was driving on the wrong side of a country road, and had been doing so for some time.

There is the matter of accumulated spiritual merit involved in all of this.

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Dancing Heart

I’ve been contemplating those times when a word or a gift or just a gesture reaches through the thin veil of the constructed self to a deeper level. Times when one’s heart dances and one’s feet skip forwards into life with renewed confidence. Here are just a few such encounters that have surfaced into memory as I prepare a talk for Wesak on the theme of Giving and Receiving.

An early memory of a special gift was watching my Aunt Paddy spitting in her mascara and then applying the black goo to her eyelashes. It was the 1950’s. She brought glamour and a wider world into my country girl’s life. Later when I’d reached my teens she encouraged me to write, telling me I had a knack for descriptive writing.

In Singapore 1969, standing at a lightbox in Kodak’s main processing plant. I was viewing slides taken during my overland trip from England. An Australian photographer gazes over my shoulder and we strike up a conversation. Parting he said, “Look me up in Sydney, there may be a job for you”. And there was. (In that simple exchange I got what I wanted, recognition as a photographer, and then I could move on).

Twelve years later, now as a novice monk. I’m walking on the cloister at Shasta Abbey. Miserable! Female senior passes and silently slipped me a few squares of English Bournville chocolate from her robe pocket. Instantly I’m lifted, not so much from the chocolate but from the message it carried. Years later and I’m with the same monk. She is suffering. I say out of nowhere, “You know, if there wasn’t ‘letting go’, life would be hell wouldn’t it”! I just remember her laughing heartily in response.

I am sitting listening to one of our lay ministers giving meditation instruction to a room full of people. He is inspiring. The teaching is direct clear and kind. I’m moved to tears. Hearing this one person speak so eloquently brought home to me the jewel that is the lay sangha. A realization of what they have to offer, and what they offer me.

So, back to getting my thoughts organized for that talk.

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Zen Meditation

‘A practical guide based on the approach used at Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey’.

Hi there, a new teaching aid has just become available and I thought you’d want to know about it. Here’s what it says on the back of the DVD version.

Zen Meditation deals with the fundamentals of the practice of zazen, of sitting meditation. It includes a detailed description of the physical and mental aspects of the practice and shows how the principles of meditation can be applied to the activities of our daily life. It shows how we can be still within the events of life and experience things as they are, with nothing added or taken away, and explains how such acceptance can lead to the realizaton of our true nature.

A Teaching Tool: I show ‘Zen Meditation’ to new people here. In particular, the segments on training in daily life and setting up a regular practice. If you want to learn to meditate and you are not near a priory, group or monastery to receive instruction in person, this DVD is the very next best way to get started.

You can buy it here: The monk who runs the Bookshop at Throssel wrote me saying: “Yes, we have the DVD (and video) and it would be fine for people to email and ask for a copy. I can tell them the postage cost if it is outside the UK. ( The cost of one, including postage and packaging airmail to USA and Canada (small packet) is £7.75.) We do appreciate payment in £ sterling, or a direct transfer to our bank account. We can’t take credit cards.”

Many thanks: to Tony Lee, Peter Major, Virginia Lee and Lee Upton as well as the monks of Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey, and all the others who helped to bring us this useful teaching aid.

Nice to see the production team members come out from behind the camera, and microphone too!

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