Walk of Life

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Turning prayer wheels while walking the grounds of Mahabodhi Temple, Bodh Gaya, India

 

Over the weekend, I got a very strong dose of the “Together Action” that I feared was missing from the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program at the UMass School of Medicine.  Close to 100 participants sat a day-long retreat together at the Stress Reduction Clinic.  The experience was different from any of the retreats I’ve done in the Kwan Um School of Zen.  As with Zen retreats, the retreatants all spent the day in silence, but the five women leading the retreat spoke extensively, guiding us through all of the practices that we’ve been learning over the past eight weeks: body scans, standing yoga, lying down postures, sitting meditation, and walking meditation.  My favorite of these by far was the walking meditation. I’ve tried it by myself at home, and it’s never really grabbed me.  This practice seems to come alive only in the company of other practitioners, and to engage in this activity with so many people was truly a singular experience.

Walking meditation as practiced in the context of MBSR is rather different than the traditional Zen walking that typically punctuates periods of sitting meditation on long retreats.  Here, it was presented as a much longer practice, free-form in nature, different from the in-step, single-file Zen style.  We were invited to walk at a pace that felt natural and comfortable, in a pattern or direction that suited us, and even to leave the room and walk through the lobby and adjacent spaces if we so desired.  The overall effect looked rather like a school of fish moving more or less intuitively as a unit, yet not in unison.  The motion could only be described as “organic,” and what little thinking mind I still paid attention to marveled at the fact that no one bumped into each other despite the fact that most eyes seemed to be cast downward.  This was truly Together Action: I felt not only completely in body, but completely in collective body.  I’m wondering if the prescribed ritual of Zen-style walking meditation frees the mind up to do some thinking while the body does some walking… if perhaps engaging in a more spontaneous, symbiotic experience of group walking meditation more effectively invites the synthesis of mind and body…

I had originally enrolled in the MBSR course in order to see first-hand how meditation instruction was presented in a clinical setting, detached from its association with Eastern spiritual beliefs and from the strong sense of form and ritual that is the backbone of the Korean Zen tradition.  In the past, I’ve helped to facilitate prison meditation groups in the Kwan Um style, but we had a captive audience… literally.  The inmates weren’t deterred by a little bit of chanting or by the grey robes that we wore.  Now that I’m working as an addictions counselor in an outpatient program, it’s imperative that I present mindfulness as a possible tool for the clients’ own recovery without the bias of my own spiritual leanings.  Admittedly, this feels like a betrayal of the tradition I’ve been practicing in for close to ten years.  It felt good to walk into a prison, don the robe and kasa of the Chogye Order, and lead traditional Korean chanting in a place of such confusion and suffering; but a different situation calls for different action.  True mindfulness is recognizing this and responding appropriately.

Together Action is the hallmark of sustained recovery.  As I write, I’m envisioning my clients in the outpatient program mindfully meandering about a room like a school of fish with a single intention and many bodies, and it makes me smile.  It’s a tall order, I know, but I witnessed a huge group of people from all walks of life doing exactly that last weekend, so stranger things have happened…

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Footprints of the Buddha, Mahabodhi Temple

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Giving it All Away

 

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Sculpture of the Virgin Mary and Child, Chapel of the Holy Cross, Sedona, AZ

Selflessness in action is humbling to behold.  I was reminded of this after driving to a nearby town to be in the presence of Mata Amritanandamayi.  Amma, or “the Hugging Saint,” as she’s also known, travels from India to the seemingly inauspicious hamlet of Marlborough, Massachusetts every year as part of her North American tour.  Those who come for darshan, or the blessing of seeing her, have the opportunity to wait in line to receive a hug.  Part of Amma’s mission on this planet is to put her arms around as many human beings as she possibly can while she’s here.  Her love and service to humanity goes way farther than that, though;  charitable organizations in her name have made significant advances in the areas of housing, education, and public health in her home country and beyond.  Her foundation is called “Arms Around the World.”  It all comes back to the hugs.

I didn’t get a hug this year, unfortunately, as Amma’s arrival in the States was a little earlier than usual, and it sort of snuck up on us.  To be able to get the full Amma experience, you really need to schedule in a day off.  The hugs are an all-night affair, beginning around 9 at night and continuing until the wee hours.  The hug line is long, and the people in it come from far and wide; on the way through the parking lot, we counted license plates from over a dozen states and Canadian provinces.

What I did get, however, was nearly as great as physical contact with a living saint… I got a chance to witness the continual outpouring of unconditional and unapologetic love.  I sat among the rows of folding chairs facing the raised platform where she receives her devotees, alternating my gaze between the stage and the large monitors that offer up-close views of Amma and her inner circle throughout the night.  Her smile doesn’t fade.  The enthusiasm with which she greets each new person that approached her didn’t wane.  She doesn’t get up from her seat, even for a bathroom break, until the last person in the hall receives a hug.  Her energy seems inexhaustible.

I didn’t know that people could do that.  I’m not just talking about sitting all night without using the bathroom; I didn’t know that a person could just pour out their love like it flowed from an endless fountain.  No one ever told me that that was something you could do.  The instruction I got seems to be that you’ve got to hang on to some love, you can’t just give it all away… What happens when it’s all gone, who are you then?  It’s uncharted water, and there’s a lot of fear there… What’s the price of that much openness, that much selflessness?  I can’t say that I know, I’ve never taken the risk.  It’s nice to know that someone else has, and has lived to take that risk again and again.

I might not be ready to throw my arms around the world and hug it like it’s my only child, loving every last drop of its tragically flawed, misguided and beautifully brutal, cruel insanity, smelling its hope and fear as if it’s the same aroma… but I can definitely do more than I’m doing now.  These are dicey times, to say the least.  A little more love certainly won’t hurt.  No one’s asking me to sit all night on a platform hugging the multitudes, but I can ask myself to be a little kinder to whomever happens to be in front of me in any given moment, maybe even to ask, “are you okay?  Is there anything I can do for you?”

How about you, reader?  Are you okay?  I haven’t blogged in a while.  Please consider this final post of the year to be my sincerest wish for you to be happy, healthy, and free of suffering in the new year.  Wherever you are…

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To the Other Shore

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I love this photograph.  It’s a mistake, a simple and predictable result of my boundless tech un-savvy.  It was supposed to be a picture of Carlos, a travelling companion and dharma friend, diving off the bow of a boat into the Ganges at dawn.  He’d insisted on performing this inadvisable feat because a couple of us had submerged ourselves in the waters on the far shore a few nights before, and he didn’t want to be outdone.  He wasn’t.  Where we’d timidly dipped ourselves into waist-deep water, he dove out of the boat in the middle of the river, swam to the far shore, then swam back through the increasingly filthy water to the ghats of Varanasi.  He’d asked to be photographed for posterity.  I snapped the picture just as he was suspended in the air between the boat and the surface of the water, oblivious to the fact that there’s a split second delay between the pressing of the button and the digital capturing of the image.  What I was left with is a picture of the scene immediately after Carlos disappeared below the surface of the water, a not-too-useful memento of his unsurpassed act of bravery and devotion.

The picture has remained disregarded in my photo gallery for four years owing, again, to my behind-the-curve tech skills; I don’t know how to delete pictures from the file, and I’m too lazy to figure it out.  I ran across it recently as I perused my photo gallery in search of India pictures for an upcoming showing at the local library.  It caught my eye immediately.  I’d never realized that, although Carlos isn’t visible in the photo, the splash he created as he dove into the water is.  Here, then, is one of those delicious cases where two wrongs make a right: a picture that shouldn’t have been snapped to begin with and should have been deleted years ago will be one of the coolest photographs on the wall, a strikingly simple, beautiful image of absence and emptiness worthy of a Pink Floyd album cover.

This photograph is noteworthy not for what it shows, but for what it doesn’t show; there’s no one in it.  Not Carlos.  Not  me.  Not the boatman or either of our other two travelling companions.  Not a single one of the four million people in Varanasi.  It’s an interesting reminder of what’s going on just beneath the veneer of drama that we unconsciously lay over reality on a moment to moment basis; namely, not much.  Universal energy manifests as various forms and shifts from action to reaction, but it’s all the same energy.  All that happened in the moment that this photo was snapped was that God jumped off of God into God while God took a picture.  In other words, nothing happened.

In the classic analogy explaining the necessity of leaving behind teachings and practices that no longer serve us, we’re reminded that when we reach the other shore, we leave the boat behind rather than carry it with us.  Looking at this picture, I wonder if it’s sometimes necessary to leave the boat behind before the other shore is reached…

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Death and Life on the Ghats

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Boatman pointing out his craft on the pre-dawn Ganges, Varanasi.

As I sift through photographs of my trip to India in preparation for an upcoming gallery display, I’ve dug out my travel journal in order to check my memories against my perceptions of the experience at the time.  I’m not sure if this particular photograph will make the cut, although there’s something about the composition that I like.  My impressions of the night it was taken, however, are worth sharing.  This excerpt is from October 20, 2011.

Several nights ago I bathed in the Ganges, an adventure that few embark on for the obvious reason that it is filthy and polluted, but I didn’t fly half way around the world just to look at the most holy river.  It began as a lark with me, Max, and James on  our last night in Varanasi as we wandered closer and closer to the river, eventually buying flip-flops and loogis and a guide along with them.  We decided to hire a boat to “the other shore,” something every boatman seemed reluctant to do; police frown on it so late at night, and this upped the fee to 2000 rupees to get three of us across.

We were led down ancient alleys in the oldest section of the oldest city, going places and seeing things that none of us had any business seeing.  The beggars were gone, as the tourists stopped flowing hours earlier and blocks away.  Scenes of depraved filth and poverty met us around every corner – dark, putrid, unpredictable; the type of situation where I knew I was way too close to the edge and wondered how much farther I could push it, since there was obviously no turning back.

Finally, we emerged at the ghats near where we’d taken a boat ride that morning… it all looked familiar, yet sinister.  The ghats of the Ganges look far different than they do in National Geographic.

The entry ends there, preempted no doubt by the deep sleep that was my only respite from the chaos and sensory overload that is Varanasi.  The boatman had taken the three of us very quickly to the far shore, fearful of being spotted and fined by the police.  We’d all agreed that the best course of action was to cross the river in order immerse ourselves, the better to avoid contact with trash, the odd dead goat, and detritus from the funeral pyres upstream.  The boatman urged us to “make haste” as we disembarked on a steep sand bar to wash away our sins.  My newly acquired flip flops sank deep into the muddy sand as I held my breath, shut my eyes tight, held my nose even tighter, and crouched down into the opaque grey liquid until the top of my head was completely covered in dubious holiness.  I never knew that water could actually be thick, but Max later concurred that that’s exactly what it was.  James opted to pass on absolving a lifetime of sins rather than risk debilitating, gut-violating infection.  Fortunately, Max and I were unaffected by full contact with the 5th most polluted river in the world, and James, as far as I know, has not been destroyed by his karma.

We climbed back into the boat, unaware that our night’s journey would take us even closer to the edge of the Void.  As we returned to the ghats, our guide offered to lead us to the funeral pyres, which it turns out, are basically large campfires fueled by wood typically purchased with the life savings of the departed soul whose earthly remains are placed on top.  Although each corpse is wrapped in white cloth and dipped into the sacred river before being cremated, the entire procedure is best described as “unceremonious,” as there is a colossal waiting line.  These fires have burned around the clock for over two hundred years in order to keep up with the demand, and not all those waiting in line are dead; there is a sort of hospice house above the ghat where the terminally ill await the good fortune of dying in this most holy city.

I was surprised by my lack of revulsion or emotionality at seeing a pair of human legs sticking out of the flames like two oversized sticks of cordwood, so close to my own bare legs that the hair on my calves was singed by the heat.  The unsentimental thought arose that the only difference between the two pairs of legs was a handful of years.  The sweet, earthy odor of the smoke reached me along with the realization that there’s more to us than these hunks of meat that we insist on calling “me.”  It’s humbling to consider that I’m not as limited as I’ve always assumed myself to be.

This glimpse of true nature, of the immensity of human potential is illuminated daily with the performance of devotional rituals as the sun rises over the Ganges.  After touring the Buddhist holy sites of Sarnath, Bodh Ghaya, Kushinagar, and Lumbini, we returned to Varanasi for another sunrise boat ride.  Struck again by how different, how alive, the ghats look by daylight, I recalled the night that my travelling companions and I had our foreheads anointed with ashes from the fire of Shiva, which has burned for three thousand years.  It occurred to me as I watched devotees doing morning ablutions that these same rites have been performed every single morning for at least that long.  The actors have changed, but the ritual has endured the millennia day after day after day in the same way the leaves are renewed yearly on a tree that lives for centuries.  Whether a leaf, a tree, a human being, or a river, we all have our part to play in the cosmos.  As I watched the faithful bathe, I thought how comforting, how humbling, and how extraordinary, to be nothing more or less than another leaf on a tree…SAM_0432

Morning rituals on the ghats at Varanasi

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a leaf on a tree

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Time’s A Wastin’

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Bell Rock, Sedona, AZ

I’ve recently been reading Dharma Punx, Noah Levine’s edge-of-your-seat memoir chronicling his life’s journey from drug-addicted California street punk to one of the most visible figures in the contemporary Buddhist recovery movement. At one point in his early recovery, he’d committed himself to the life practice outlined in the book A Year to Live, which his father, Stephen, had just finished writing. The practice is to pretend that you have only one year to live, and to approach your daily life accordingly. Noah threw himself wholeheartedly into this experiment, spending several months in Asia, as he’d often dreamed of doing, then travelling across the United States to visit family and friends to express gratitude and to say all of the things that had gone unsaid. I was so intrigued by the notion of living one’s “final” year as a spiritual practice that I went out and picked up a copy of Stephen Levine’s book to get the info straight from the source, from a widely acknowledged “expert” on the apparently elusive subject of death and dying.

Delving into the elder Levine’s book, I thought, “Wow, this seems like a really valuable practice! I should try it someday.” Immediately, I was struck by the irony of this response, as the very essence of the Year to Live practice is the extinction of procrastination, the destruction of the deeply ingrained notion that I have the luxury of postponing living until some hypothetical future point when the conditions are ideal.  Am I really so arrogant as to believe that death will wait patiently until a time that is convenient to my schedule?  As John Lennon so eloquently put it, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”  He knows better than anyone that most of us don’t hear a warning buzzer or get the courtesy of a terminal prognosis along with the gentle admonition that it would be wise to get our affairs in order.  I began the Year to Live practice, however timidly and however vaguely, on February 22.

What would you do if you only had a year to live?  It’s a huge question that means different things to different people. It certainly means something different to me now that I’m in recovery than it would have years ago.  Before, a one year terminal prognosis would have been a clarion call to recklessness and irresponsibility; today, it’s the polar opposite.  Rather than saying, “What the hell, it doesn’t matter because I’ll be dead in a year anyway,” I’m saying, “Oh my God, it totally matters because I’ve only got a year left to do the work I’ve started in this body,” namely, to clear away the obstacles that stand between me and direct perception of reality.  The practice isn’t a “bucket list” proposition, although it may take on an element of doing stuff I’ve always wanted to do.   Zen Master Seung Sahn said, “One day you will lose this body, then what?”  I don’t think he was referring to the loss of our ability to go sky diving in the Grand Canyon; I think he was referring to the imminent loss of this precious human incarnation as a tool for awakening.  All good teachings point us toward the fact that the time for awakening  is Now, not in some imagined future that, by its very definition, never actually arrives.

What’s interesting about this Year to Live practice is that it’s brought me the realization that one day I’m going to wake up and it will be the first day of the last year of my life. What’s even more interesting is that I’m not going to know it when it happens. The most interesting thing of all, of course, is the fact that it may already have happened. It’s a bold assumption that I’m going to live long enough to complete this experiment, and, like most assumptions, it’s completely ungrounded.

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Parinirvana Temple and Stupa in Kushinagar, India, where the Buddha died.

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Return to the Mother

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Author posing with a street cow, Varanasi

It’s been just over three years since I travelled to India on a pilgrimage to the Buddhist holy land with a couple of hundred members of the International Kwan Um School of Zen sangha.  It doesn’t seem like that long; I think of the trip often, and most of the pictures on this blog, with the exception of the recent Thailand photos, are from India.  My brief time spent in that vast, strange, and beautiful land got pretty deeply into my bones.  I had the privilege of spending  a night under the Bodhi Tree at Maha Bodhi Temple in Bodhgaya, and the courage to bathe by darkness in the waters of the Ganges in Varanasi.  Both of these experiences can only be described as “life changing.”  After I’d returned home, an anonymous friend commented that such profound experiences take a long time to sink in; the psychological effects take a while to manifest.

I’m not sure if the psychological effects of my trip to India have manifested yet, but the opportunity to process the experience has.  Not long after I got back, I submitted an application to display some of my photographs in a gallery at the local library.  I was told there’s a long waiting list.  Last week, the library contacted me to inform me that one of the galleries is reserved for me for the month of November, 2015.  A year may seem like a long time to prepare for a gallery showing, but I tend not to move very quickly.  As I sift through my photo archives, I look forward to distilling my India experience through writing as part of the selection process.  I’ll be interested to see what insight the light of three years’ time shines on an adventure that was at once overwhelming and exciting.

What I find most unbelievable looking back is that I went there without a camera.  I didn’t own one at the time, committed as I was to the “full experience of the moment.”  I’d long been convinced that carrying a camera was an unnecessary distraction, that concern with setting up the perfect frame to capture a great photograph detracted from the enjoyment of the experience.  There may be truth in this, but thank God I relaxed my stance.  By the day after we arrived, I knew I couldn’t not have a camera.  The photo ops were way too good.  India is relentlessly colorful, with unignorable juxtapositions of modern and ancient, poor and affluent, sacred and profane around every corner. My photo exhibit will be titled “Walking In The Footprints of The Buddha.” I hope you enjoy the images, and, as they say in the trade, may they be of benefit to all beings.

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Footprints of The Buddha, Maha Bhodhi Temple, Bodhgaya

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