Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Just say 'Yes'

I had an interesting -- and not generally pleasant -- year last year, from a Dhamma practice standpoint. I think these downturns are normal enough and even to be expected, especially when we run up against something we don't want to see.  I ran into that 'something' during the year-end retreat at Bhavana in December of 2011, and lived in a bit of turmoil until just recently. Things are beginning to come together again now, thankfully.

It's so hard to pinpoint exactly when something happens that sends the mind off in some irrevocable direction, but I think last year it happened to me at Aranya Bodhi when another lay resident came in a couple of days after my arrival. Her name was Geri, and she made a real impression on me. She'd quit her job, left her life, at the beginning of the year after some spiritual experience the previous summer. She had 'gone forth' much as monastics do, but without actually becoming a monastic. She was following her own path aimed at helping short-term at various meditation centers or monastic sites. (Sound familiar?) Last I heard, she was traveling with a Buddhist nun to perhaps Nepal. Not surprisingly, her influence was strong when I began thinking of also 'going forth' in my own manner. But what I think made the biggest difference in me was that she said she wanted to spend a year or two or however long just saying yes to everything. Yes to helping however she could. Yes to everything she encountered along the way. Even then, I wondered how that would feel, and her words were never far from my thoughts then or over the ensuing months.

Fast forward a few months and after thinking about Geri's words and much more, I began to realize just how often I said no in my life. How dissatisfied I was with everything I encountered along my way. I don't think I've always been that way -- or, at least not as completely so -- but I've certainly done my share of whining and complaining about things I didn't like in life, from time to time. During the past year or so that's been particularly the case, I found, and particularly (though far from exclusively) at meditation retreats. I didn't like the room, or the roommate. It was too hot, or too cold. Too many stairs to climb. I didn't like the bathroom arrangements. Or the food. Or whatever. And I didn't like much around here either, for that matter.

So, I sat with that realization for awhile, ugly as it was and as much as I didn't like facing the truth, then decided that I, like Geri, would start saying yes to everything. Every tiny little thing that came up in daily life. At first, old habit patterns continued to arise, but I was on the lookout for them and quickly turned dissatisfaction (no) to satisfaction (yes). Soon, the new patterns were firmly in place and now it's become automatic. And I can't tell you how much happier I am in general as a result.

The real test came last week, with the driving, the retreat center, the retreat itself. All of these are things that in the past would have bristled with opportunities for dissatisfaction, but with the new change in attitude, those same opportunities consciously became opportunities for satisfaction. I saw it daily, multiple times daily, and was always glad to see the yes reaction come up, each and every time. It was a form of acceptance for whatever was happening in that moment.

I'm not a Buddhist scholar, certainly, but it seems to me that dissatisfaction is a subtle form of greed -- wanting something to be different from what it is. Every time I think I've conquered greed, I find a new and different nuance, such as this dissatisfaction. I'm pretty sure this particular one is cured -- I like saying yes, and it makes the lives of people I encounter much better, too.

I have a feeling that this new acceptance has blossomed in 'woo-woo' (karmic) spiritual ways, too. When I returned, I found that doors have opened -- in Austin for May, at Bhavana for June, and at of course always (and with much gratitude) at Aranya Bodhi anytime I wish to join them. For now, that's enough. I'll go through the first two doors, then see what happens next. The pull to Aranya Bodhi is stronger than ever, but....only time will tell. As Ayya Sobhana so wisely counseled, I need to decide where I can best learn and grow in the Dhamma, and that may not necessarily be the fanciest, or the one with the most famous teacher. But that's all for the future. For now, I'm getting ready to return to Southern Dharma in a couple of days for a retreat with Sayalay Susila.  And very much looking forward to seeing her again.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Other 1%: Make a Difference

Lotus window at Southern Dharma
Although the retreat at Southern Dharma from which I just returned was likely the best and most personally productive I've ever attended, and while I made many great personal gains in insight and clarity during those 5 days, that's all been somewhat overshadowed by the turbulent issues and events of the past week.

Ayya Sobhana's wisdom is far-reaching, beyond Buddhism and yet connected in that Buddhism teaches peace, non-anger, non-killing and similar moral values that are an integral part of the practice. During her Dhamma talk one evening -- I think this was the night before she broke the news to us about the bombs in Boston, but after she knew it had happened -- she talked about many things including some studies that indicate what percentage of any size group is enough to effect a change in the entire group. That she is able to rattle off these studies and statistics from the top of her head amazed all of us, and she did so seemingly every day.

I can't begin to quote the statistics, or who did the study, or anything else, but what did stick in my head was that a mere 1% of people who inhabit this planet is enough to make a change. Enough to sway away from anger and towards peace. Enough to stop the proliferation of war and violence. Enough to save the planet from environmental destruction, from disease destruction, from war destruction. Only one percent!

Are you part of that one percent? I like to think I am -- all Buddhists are, because all Buddhists practice peace, compassion, non-violence, non-greed, care for the earth and the beings (all living beings, not just humans) who inhabit it. Individually, we are just one voice. Together, we can make up that one percent and maybe grow it beyond one percent.

I'm not talking only to and about Buddhists here. I am well aware that there are many caring, peace-loving, non-violent people in this world who are not Buddhists. I know many personally. This is not a faith-based issue, or a red/blue state political issue. It's not only an American issue. It's a human issue. An earth issue. What kind of world do you want your kids or grandkids to inherit? Are you willing to sit by and watch anger, aggression and fear from far corners of the earth (including right here in Washington DC) lead to nuclear annihilation? Is that what you want for your kids and grandkids? It has to stop. And people who work from a place of love, rather than a place of fear and hate, will be the ones to stop it. Hatred and anger will never work. Hatred engenders more hatred. Love and acceptance engenders more love and acceptance.

Practice peace. Practice non-violence. Step away from greed. Make taking care of our earth's ecosystem part of your life. Give it some importance. Support groups who do all these things. It doesn't take much time or money -- it just takes an intention to make a difference. Practice compassion, as in these words Ayya Sobhana used to lead us in meditation after telling us about Boston. I've shortened it a bit to merely include all beings in one paragraph. She led us in far more detail, but this is really all you need to know. Are you willing to be part of this one percent?

May all beings be freed from anger
May all beings be freed from hatred
May all beings be freed from fear
May all beings take care of themselves, happily

or, another chant she taught us and used daily at lunch:

May the suffering be free from suffering
May the fear-struck be fear from fear
May the grieving be free from grief,
So too may all beings be.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Supporting our bhikkhunis

In Asian countries where Buddhism has existed as an integral part of culture and religion for centuries, a symbiotic relationship exists between lay people and monastics, and it's a system that benefits both. Monastics live under strict rules of renunciation -- not allowed to have or spend money, or accumulate or buy food, for example. Monastics in Asia rely upon lay people for their daily food and the people -- even the poorest of them -- are happy to share what food they have with the monastics. Similarly, other necessities of life are subject to donation from lay people, and the lay people are happy to share.

Buddhism is relatively new in this country, brought to the forefront primarily by a number of western young people who went to Asia to study Buddhism with great masters, in various countries. After years of study, these westerners returned to the USA, established for-profit meditation centers, wrote best-selling books and generally introduced Theravadan Buddhism to the masses. There's nothing wrong with any of that -- I'm personally grateful that they did so because this is how I was first introduced to the practice that changed my life. Without them, I would no doubt still be floundering in despair.

I began to gravitate to pure monastic training and life quite some years ago -- at first this was probably because I could never afford to go to the for-profit centers, but now I prefer monastics for the purity of the teachings. Burmese, Sri Lankan, and some Thai monastics teach the purist form of the Buddha's words. Monasteries, in the ancient tradition of the Buddha, do not charge for teaching the words of the Buddha. As they've done for centuries, they rely upon dana, or generosity, for support. Most monasteries in this country, from what I can see, are part of some large Asian community that understands the symbiotic relationship, knows that without the help of the lay community the monasteries could not exist. The Bhavana Society in West Virginia, for example, was established over 30 years ago through the dana of a large Sri Lankan community in the Washington, DC and Baltimore areas. It's one of the oldest teaching monasteries in this country, and while students who attend retreats offer dana and support, I expect that it's still the Sri Lankan community that provides the largest ongoing support.

In recent years, other such places have been or are in the process of being established around the country.  Some that I'm aware of are located near and supported by specific Asian communities. There are certainly others whose support resources I know nothing about.

Establishing a monastic center staffed with western monastics and supported largely by western lay people is dicey, because we have not grown up with that symbiotic relationship -- the deep knowledge that without our ongoing support, the monastic community cannot exist. The nuns at Aranya Bodhi in California stay uppermost in my mind in this regard. They were blessed with many donations initially, but it was as if in the western mind one donation was enough. There are some who donate regularly, others who donate sporadically, but the need for support is ongoing, each and every month. Because they are developing a new location with new facilities, deep in the redwoods, expenses are greater than basic maintenance. You can read more about them and my visit with them last summer here.

The purpose of this post is to urge any of you who have benefited from Buddhist teachings to consider offering dana to these nuns -- or to any needy monastic community. Even if you haven't had Buddhist teachings and can afford to give money to good purposes, or simply want a tax write-off, I hope you'll consider donating. A regular monthly donation in whatever amount you can afford is best for their purposes -- but one-time donations are equally welcome. I want to see these nuns succeed in their goal, which is to provide a place for Theravadan Buddhist nuns to dwell, be ordained and teach, and for lay women to dwell and serve and learn. The abbess and prioress both have many years of excellent practice behind them, both are wise and gifted teachers with much to impart to the rest of  us. If you can help, please visit the Dhammadharini donations page and choose whatever method you prefer. I personally prefer not to use Network for Good because of the rather steep fees they charge. Other avenues ensure that every cent you donate goes directly to the Hermitage.

There's an extra, added benefit to such dana, too.  I know from personal experience that when you give to others from your heart, you also feel better. Everybody benefits.

May you have all good blessings for your generosity.


Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Letting go

The process of letting go is so difficult for most of us -- and yet so very necessary if we want to move forward. I'm often reminded of the Buddha's words on this.

Let go of the past, let go of the future, let go of the present, and cross over to the farther shore of existence.
With mind wholly liberated,
you shall come no more to birth and death.

Dhammapada 24.348

Simple words, but like so many of the Buddha's simple words, far from easy to do -- yet completely possible to do. The Buddha also said somewhere that he would never ask us to do what is not possible, to do what he himself had not done. The degree of difficulty in these things, I believe, has to do with one's own individual life circumstance -- karma, if you will.

Over the years I've let go of countless things -- mostly thoughts and perceptions and ideas that left me mired in mud, unable to move forward, and countless long-held emotions and sorrows and resentments. I do have a tendency to obsess over things from time to time -- perhaps regrets over past actions, or replaying/rewriting past conversations, for example. I give equal obsession time to future plans and conversations and worrying about whatever's going on in the present. Oddly enough, it seems that these are the things that most people think about when they're sitting in meditation and can't concentrate their minds. Somehow I found that fact to be comforting when I first heard it, years ago. It's always good to know that I'm not alone in my craziness.

Despite all the past practice, I keep needing to be reminded that letting go -- regardless of the situation -- is best and easiest in the long run. What we're letting go of, of course, is attachment to a person, place, thing, idea, emotions and feelings and so on. It's the attachment, the craving and desire for that person, place, thing, idea, emotion or feeling that makes letting go difficult and keeps us in the round of suffering.

I make good use of letting go daily in small situations, but lately, I've had good opportunity to put it into practice in more major situations once again. When I first let go of the fear of 'going forward' into intentional homelessness, I had a couple of specific ideas about where I'd go and what I'd do -- for me, that was necessary in order to feel a level of comfort with the process. Without realizing it, I became attached to those ideas, despite wanting to be free with the process -- to 'go with the flow', so to speak.

Last week, I found myself all wrapped up in fear about this. Full of what if's. What if the monastery in Austin doesn't invite me to visit at all, and even if they invite me to visit, what if they don't invite me to spend time as a resident there? Oh dear, oh dear. What will I do then? I can't live in Mexico year-round! What if I end up not being accepted at any monastery as a resident? What if none of them wants me? You get the picture. A whole roiling wave of 'what ifs' that stayed with me for a few days.

Fortunately, through meditation I realized that I needed to simply let go of trying to control what the monasteries will or will not do. I also opted to look more closely at monasteries other than the one in Austin, and that flowed into simply letting go completely.  Instead of worrying and trying to control the situation, I'll wait and see what doors open -- and close -- first, and go from there. That left me in a good state of peace about the process once again.

The letting go of material things is a different process, yet related. I lost all difficulty with that about two years ago during a deep meditative experience which I'll write about someday. At that point, I stopped buying things that weren't necessary -- dropped the 'I wants' forever. More recently, I've begun the process of decluttering my house as I prepare to move on to a new life. Most books are gone (or waiting to be sent to friends). Bags of paper from files have gone to recycling, five boxes of general 'stuff' has gone to Goodwill. More has simply gone into the trash. Some things -- particularly some books -- were harder to let go of than others, but with every bag and box and book that's left the house, I've felt more and more free. It's a wonderful feeling and I look forward to letting go of more and more 'stuff'. Emotional stuff as well as material stuff.

And who knows -- maybe none of the monasteries will invite me to become a resident. In that case, I'll look to other options, other possibilities. Six months in Baja would be a good start. In the meantime, I'll rest in comfort with the knowledge that at least I have a confirmed visit to Austin in May. After that -- well, I'll worry about that then.