A story of overcoming fear in your workplace, and in your heart. Excerpted from Jaiya John’s new book of healing, Your Caring Heart: Renewal for Helping Professionals and Systems. Online where books are sold.
Harriet Tubman was a baaad woman. She didn’t play. One story I appreciate telling about her (creatively adapted, of course) is a story of leadership. So, the story goes that Harriet and her people had been discussing for some time the idea of breaking away from their plantation and finding freedom. Now, freedom can be a very frightening idea to a slave. Sure enough, as the designated night approached in which the group would escape the plantation, the people began to voice their concerns. Their fears.
Many of these people were menfolk, and Harriet being a woman, was used to the challenges of being a female leader. Folks started in with fear talk: “Now, Harriet, this freedom thing of yours sounds great in theory, but I don’t know if it is realistic. Look at our life. We have so much to deal with. So many bad things could go wrong. I don’t know if we have time for this freedom thing. I need to get back to my work or Massa gon’ whup me good. I can’t afford to lose my job. How much work is this freedom thing going to require?”
Does this litany of fear talk sound familiar to you? If so, it is because, bless us all, the slave is alive and well in our society and work. It is a spirit of self-oppression that burrows deep into people and groups, rendering their idea of reality as one of impending doom.
Harriet listened respectfully to her people. But Harriet knew fear. It was in the nature of being a slave. In fact, her people harvested fear more than they harvested cotton or other crops. It was fear that they brought home to their slave quarters. Fear that they ate together for dinner. Beds of fear that they slept on. Dreams of fear in the night. Fear was their sunrise, their clothing, their daily industry. So, Harriet, she knew fear. And she would not let it get in the way of freedom. On a night absent of moonlight, Harriet gathered her people down by the riverbank. The murmuring water would be their chaplain for this freedom service. The people were now terrified. They risked death, dismemberment, whippings, dogs tearing at their flesh. They risked disappointing their overseers and their masters. They risked losing their precious jobs as house slaves, for few wanted the backbreaking life of a field slave. They risked being sold. This entire river of fears was now pushing up their throats, coming out as angry resistance to freedom.
Harriet wasn’t sweet. She was fire. A woman, slave, nurse, social worker, leader, healer in those times had to be fire. She used hers. Lifting her sawed-off shotgun, she pointed it directly at the men challenging her leadership. Harriet said these words: “I understand, my people, the ferocity of your fears. But we have been slaves far too long. We have lost the taste for freedom. But here, under cover of this black night, I’m fixin’ to make an executive decision. Those who choose to stay in this life of suffering may do so. Otherwise, whoever wants to have freedom sing in their bones and dreams tonight, follow me. Tonight, my people, we fixin’ to be free.”
In every group of human beings who care deeply to do this healing work, in the right way and spirit, there must be those, of any title, willing to walk the group through their long night of fear into the astounding daybreak of freedom. There is no other way than directly through our fear. We should do this now, good souls, before we further lose the taste of freedom.
Since I began this life of a modern nomad, one of the things in time you start to get used to, is the ability to detach oneself from things and material stuff. It becomes more evident when you stay one year or less in one place. At that time the feeling of home just doesn’t ring a bell anymore. The sense of having something secure is not there. We have to say goodbye to people and friends more often than not. We sell or give away our things so many times that after a while we feel like it’s a waste of time to buy anything. And the houses or apartments we live in always have this temporary feeling carved on it.
When I arrived to Congo, not having dishes, I just bought one of each and have to say I was really tempted to buy plastic or paper dishes, and just didn’t do it because of my environmental consciousness.
Don’t get me wrong this type of life has the ability to open us up, to give all sort of meaningful experiences, but what to do when no place feels like home and we know that all this is passing? Do we close ourselves trying to find that permanent feeling somewhere else? Or do we open even more and try to go with the flow, allowing everything to collapse without any safety net? Do we try to grab onto an ideal of something somewhere permanent, or do we accept that life as we know it, is this constant flow of changing conditions resulting from an interdependent flux of other changing conditions? What would you choose? I know by now that it is futile to try to find some safety in something that always. Change happens all the time; every second of our days, we are bound to change.
Our thoughts and emotions change in microseconds, what is to say about everything else? So do we bravely connect with everything and everyone around us knowing that all will change anyway? Do we flow like the river? Sometimes diving in its rapids? Other times following its gentle course? Or do we close ourselves in a dam with all the possible neuroses that may come from it? What to do when no place feels like home? I chose to open myself freely to whatever happens outside while being in an inward retreat, which means I try to protect my mind while knowing the absolute ridiculousness of dwelling, getting attached to thoughts, emotions and the dream-like world.
This is more easy to say than to do because most of the time no place feels like home and, as I try to follow the direction of my teachers, I have to be aware of the thoughts and feelings that kind of emotion brings and not go astray in hopeless depression.
One of the great Buddhist masters of the last century, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, said: “When we engage in the practice of discovering space, we should develop the feeling of opening ourselves to the entire universe. We should open ourselves with absolute simplicity and nakedness of mind. This is the powerful and ordinary practice of dropping the mask of self-protection.” The great Tilopa also said: “Have a mind that is open to everything but attached to nothing”
Though this seems that we stop caring about others, it is far from being true. It means to have a openness and a malleable mind that cares for others while not being over run by the whatever condition we face. The renowned teacher Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche says: “Happiness comes down to choosing between the discomfort of becoming aware of your mental afflictions and the discomfort of being ruled by them.”
When I struggle with this familiar feeling of no place feels like home, I find some comfort in what Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche said: “When sunlight falls on a crystal, lights of all colors appear, yet they have no substance that you can grasp. Likewise, all thoughts in their infinite variety are utterly without substance.”
When we cleanse our perceptions of grasping and attachment, we experience a universe that is infinite, awakened, and full of delight. Francesca Fremantle on sight, sound, touch, and other miracles.
William Blake famously wrote: “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite, for man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern.”
That purified perception, looking out into the “immense world of delight” that Blake communicated to us through his paintings and poetry, sounds very much like the sacred vision practiced in Vajrayana Buddhism, the experience of everything around us as a pure land. It is a realm beyond our ordinary senses, yet one which our intuition instinctively recognizes, and which comes upon us from time to time like a gift.
How is it that we have become separated from this realm, so much so that spirituality is often thought to be unrelated to sensory experience, or even opposed to it? A Dzogchen poem tells us: “Appearances are not mistaken; error comes through grasping.” In other words, the senses and sense-objects are no problem.
Texts such as these describe how mind can either rest in the awakened state of openness, clarity, and sensitivity, or suddenly feel afraid of such vastness, seeing itself as separate. This is said to occur “in the beginning,” but it is taking place at the most subtle and hidden level of our mind at every instant.
This is the root of all confusion, the moment in which grasping arises. Grasping is both internal and external. Internally, it creates the sense of an unchanging “I.” externally, it projects the concept of “other,” seeing everything as a challenge to its existence, either a threat to be overcome, an object of desire to be seized, or some- thing to be ignored in the hope that it will go away.
Having deceived ourselves into believing in the existence of ego as subject, we project a world of objects. In the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s graphic expression,we have “solidified space.” Instead, he suggests, we could dance with space as our partner. In this dance we ourselves are part of the ever-changing magical display of appearances, ungraspable, transparent, and luminous as rainbows, which arise spontaneously and unceasingly as the creative activity of space.
The buddhas, who remain always in this state, do not need the senses; they experience directly with jnana, the five wisdoms. These include the ability to see everything throughout all of space and time simultaneously, as in a mirror, and at the same time to focus on each individual part of the display.
For us, though, the senses are part of our manifestation as sentient beings, and, in the way we normally experience them, they are obstructions to genuine knowledge. Trungpa Rinpoche called them “unnecessary complications of existence.” Yet he wrote of another way of experiencing, in which:
All the miracles of sight, sound, and mind
Are the five wisdoms and the five buddhas.
For the doors of perception can be cleansed. Blake said, “The whole creation will be consumed and appear infinite and holy, whereas it now appears finite and corrupt. This will come to pass by an improvement of sensual enjoyment.” He gives us a clue as to how this can be accomplished in his much-loved verse:
He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy,
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise.
Infinity. Eternity. These are the words Blake uses to point toward an indescribable state where space and time collapse. Space (or place): the sense of location, direction, and distance. Time: the sense of flowing from the past to the future. These are powerful basic assumptions that we make about the world, but that in fact only limit our knowledge.
For we do not really know what the world is at all. We each create our own world through our sense perceptions and mind, with all its conditioning, memories, expectations, reactions, and so forth. When we look at a tree, we do not actually see a tree. We know only our own experience of it, arising from the complex physical processes of sight and the equally complex operations of our mind. A “tree” is a concept of our human consciousness. Blake would have seen its spiritual form, perhaps as an angel; this is an intermediate level, corresponding to the Buddhist sambhogakaya imagery. Behind that is the ultimate level, the totally mysterious and ungraspable aspect of openness, the inherent nonexistence of all that seems to exist.
Yet it is only through the senses that we can penetrate beyond the surface appearance of things. The Buddha himself gave a meditation on the senses to the wanderer Bahiya:
In the seen, there is only the seen,
In the heard, there is only the heard,
In the sensed, there is only the sensed,
In the cognized, there is only the cognized.
Meditating in this way, the Buddha said, Bahiya should realize that “There is no thing here … no thing there… nor in any place between the two. This alone is the end of suffering.” There is no longer the illusion of a grasping ego, nor any object that can be grasped. There is simply pure perception itself—“the miracles of sight, sound, and mind” that are the living expression of the primordial awakened state.
We can begin to move ourselves in this direction by focusing on the simplicity and immediacy of our perceptions—just the bare experience of sound, color, shape, smell, taste, and bodily sensation. Then we can notice the ways in which we obscure this directness: how we immediately label every sensation (how unsettling we find it to catch a glimpse of something and have no idea what it is!); how we continually react with attachment, aversion, or indifference to whatever occurs; how our expectations and preconceptions affect what we perceive; and how habituation dulls our responses.
But since awakening is our natural and original state, ego is not nearly as powerful as it thinks it is. our day-to-day experiences are never entirely confused. Although we may perceive the world in a distorted manner, even that distortion points to the reality that lies behind it. Trungpa Rinpoche often spoke of “natural symbolism,” meaning that everything points to this deeper truth of its own being. He said that the universe is always trying to tell us something, but we do not listen. or, as Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote in a Christian context, but in words so beautiful that they surely transcend religious differences:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flare out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
We all experience moments of heightened perception, when it seems the universe has a message for us, one that is filled with profound but inexpressible meaning. suddenness, the sense of being taken by surprise, before ego has a chance to put up its barriers, is often important here. Any of the five bodily senses can open this door for us. The sense of smell, in particular, is well-known for arousing deep-buried memories, which, if we let go and do not grasp at them, can open up the dimension of timelessness. such experiences are often intensely emotional, and we should not forget that in Buddhism the mind too is a sense-organ, whose objects are thoughts, feelings, memories, and so forth. These too can act as symbols.
Through the gateway of our senses, we can enter a realm infinitely wider and deeper, where the limitations of time and space dissolve and the whole universe is present in one moment, in one single point.
Forms are released from the constraints of solidity; floating in dimensionless space, they become transparent and interpenetrating.
Colors glow with a power that transforms our ordinary way of seeing, or draw us into limitless depths where the sense of self and other becomes lost.
Music frees itself from the laws of time, suspended in a beginningless and endless stillness, where every tone can sound simultaneously yet individually.
Physical sensation escapes the limits of the personal, so that one cannot tell where one’s own body ends and the body of another, or of the world, begins. We feel that we have touched some essence of pure sensation in itself. Because of our human form, they manifest to us as sound, color, touch and so on, but they really lie beyond the characteristics of the individual senses. The senses are its channels or its messengers, but they cannot contain it.
Marcel Proust is the author who has perhaps written most perceptively about this hidden dimension. In his great novel In Search of Lost Time, all the senses appear in this way. The most famous example is the taste of tea and the little madeleine cake, which eventually leads the narrator into the lost world of his past. He is overwhelmed by the power and mystery of the experience:
No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shiver ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory—this new sensation having had the effect, which love has, of filling me with a precious essence; or rather
This essence was not in me, it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savors, could not, indeed, be of the same nature.
In the final minutes of Tristan and Isolde, Richard Wagner hints at this state in his music and poetry (words that otherwise seem incomprehensible) when Isolde perceives the essence of the dead Tristan as he dissolves into the five elements. First she sees him become a body of light, then she is submerged in waves of sound and billows of sweetly scented air. The senses merge together as she surrenders herself to the waves of pure sensation. she does not know whether to breathe them in, to listen to them, drink them, or dive under them into “the billowing space of the world-breath.”
Isolde’s final words, “highest bliss” (in German, höchste Lust), could even be seen as a translation of the sanskrit mahasukha, a Vajrayana term referring to the “great bliss” of the awakened state. This has nothing to do with our ordinary idea of happiness. It transcends joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain. It is the ultimate form of responsiveness or sensitivity, entirely free from bias toward attachment or aversion. every sensation, every movement of thought and feeling, even those that we normally consider painful, can produce mahasukha. To experience perceptions in this way would be like making love to the world, which is indeed exactly what Wagner’s music suggests.
Experiences such as these are glimpses of awakening, which may reveal themselves to us unexpectedly at any time but which we are unable to stabilize and sustain. Indeed, in our present state, we could not bear such intensity for long. As George Eliot wrote in Middlemarch: “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”
That which gives us the greatest joy can become the most powerful means of letting go of grasping. This is why the intensity of sexual pleasure, along with the surrender to the being of another that it requires, is used in Vajrayana as a means to awakening. But at the same time, such experiences can bind us more tightly to delusion, as we grasp at them ever more desperately and try to repeat them, not caring who gets hurt in our search for satisfaction.
Nevertheless, our body, mind, and senses are the only means we have to practice dharma, and to develop sacred vision. Insofar as mahasukha can be experienced by beings in the six realms, it comes through the body and senses. The Hevajra Tantra asks: “Without the body, how could there be bliss? one could not speak of bliss.” Only the element of grasping needs to be abandoned. Then (and only then!), as the Guhyasamaja Tantra says, “By devoting oneself to the enjoyment of all the senses, one can quickly reach buddhahood.”
We need to make a practical decision – where to sit Donal our facilitator. The choice is limited to beside a door or in front of a window on the north side of the room: and we choose the latter.
Then, another decision – should the curtains behind him be open or closed? These are small but important things to consider. We play around with it: morning light – closed; midday – open; evening – closed. And they stay closed for the rest of the week, so that only the southern sun illuminates the room.
The curtains are a floral grey and pink meandering design, hanging from the ceiling to the windowsill just above the radiator: two curtains on a rail. Objects intended for letting in or keeping out the light.
There are 26 of us here, together for the week of retreat. Sorrow’s Springs is a phrase from an allegory by Gerard Manley Hopkins in which he grieves for a young girl’s future sorrow (even before she has come to know grief for herself) and is one we return to over the week, exploring through dialogue the meaning of the poem and how it may differ from suffering? How does it resonate with bodhicitta and compassion? Could it be the doorway to wisdom?
We are reminded each morning to consciously generate bodhicitta: to be active with it; to let it be the fundamental ground of all we do. We sit with the intention – to paraphrase Donal’s words – to understand that the ways of thought are generally mistaken and lead to the mess we generate in our lives. He speaks about the different ways of viewing thought in meditation: thought as a major agent of destruction, an enemy to annihilate; another way to see thought is as a friend providing the fuel for meditation; but then again perhaps thought is the meditation. I play around with these ideas in the hope that thought will not totally absorb me.
The dharma text that supports the week is one of Ringu Tulku Rinpoche’s teachings, taken from his publication, ‘Like Dreams and Clouds’ about emptiness and interdependence. Sahaja is the Sanskrit word, meaning born together with or naturally co-emergent. Each time I hear the term I think I have understood it: that nothing can exist on its own by or of itself, nothing arises without a prompt, an interference, an injunction from elsewhere, a coming together of elements to create something afresh. It is the dynamic substance of life. Emptiness is both the basis for and result of things coming together and parting. Another way of saying it is that everything is possible and that change is a permanent condition. An empty mind is a blank canvas, pregnant with unborn arisings. Yes.
Donal brilliantly elucidates these ideas and I listen with all senses open, attending to the belly-breath.
But then my mind moves once more to the pink and grey curtains that were parted before coming together to keep out the light. On reflection their closure seems counter-productive – a sort of oxymoron– contrary to our purpose here which is to illuminate the source of sorrow, to let in the light.
And surely, a curtain is a curtain, a functional, light obstructing and single object, in a form that we identify as cloth. I sit and allow these curtain-thoughts develop – deliberately bypassing my own wellspring of sorrow.
Studying the pink flowers, I begin to wonder who designed the pattern? Someone with a unique life and a family, do they also meet with sorrow and how does it manifest for them, or do they name it as suffering? And the colour, the dye, the chemistry and the alchemists who worked in the lab to find ways to create a shade that would print and not fade on curtains. I imagine the toxicity of the dye stuffs inhaled in the process; and of the endless supply of precious water needed for the dyes, and the poisoning waste spilling into the rivers and streams and killing earth-beings in its discardment.
Dyes used to be a product of nature, and this cochineal red was extracted at one time from a female Mexican beetle called dactylopius coccus, dried and ground into powder before chemists found ways to replicate it with precious minerals mined from rock, to be fixed with formic acid. Suddenly I recognise that this dye-knowledge, born and developed across hundreds of years to enter my curtain story, came out of a time when there were no windows and no curtains; and that these curtains could not be here in this form without crushed beetles and earth poisoned in the process.
And the cloth, the weave, the interlacing of threads into fabric: this curtain that blocks our light has been woven by a machine. But once, weavers worked by hand, in attic homes with roof windows to let in the light on the southern side. Until the coming together of weaver and engineer at some point in history (herstory) brought forth a mechanical loom to create a cloth that one person printed and another sewed and another hung on the window in this room wherein now I sit.
Emerging from these phantasies, I mull over which category of thought they have been: friends or enemies, or, is this a form of curtain Vipassana?
The curtain is also composed of fibres: cotton, perhaps from Uzbekistan, where children are removed from school to help with the harvest because their families are too poor to live any differently. So child labour and poverty and famine in the Old Russian Republic now also belong to this curtain that keeps out the light.
The other fibre, polyester, starts as oil. And when I look more deeply with my weaver-eyes I see that the oil-fibre that has been processed and spun into the finest curtain-yarn was extracted from a fossil yielded by our Earth-mother, a million year old gift from trees and plants in the landscape of a time when no humans were yet even dreamed of.
Perhaps it was drilled from a well in Texas where hurricane Harvey recently un-homed thousands and then tore over Pacific rigs raised higher each couple of years to compensate for the rising sea waters as the Arctic melts; and where a ship has just boasted its traversal across the North Pole because the ice is no longer an obstacle and has gifted the boat a passage. Or maybe the oil was from the Gulf where Arabs are killing Yemeni husbands, fathers and sons and raping their women, using guns and bombs supplied by foreign governments (who also strive to destroy their own folk in different kinds of ways). That too I see in this curtain.
Intelligent investigation into the mind requires both trust and doubt: trust that we have the means to the answer, and doubt to keep the questioning mind active and alert to the quality of arisings and insight. Doubt reassures us that there is an issue, something to work with, without doubt we will not search, without trust we will give up the search, each is crucial in its own way. This week it has been difficult to find the trust sometimes. Each day, news brings a fresh onslaught of fires, floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, drownings, mudslides and massacres and unintentional loss of life: nowhere escapes the ensuing mental suffering.
Here in this curtain-protected room we have created a trusty vajra tent within which illness, suicides and other deaths of loved ones visit us each day to ask for inclusion in our evening prayers.
And I remain aware, also, of the ancient forests, the alchemists, dyers, weavers, seamstresses and their sons and daughters, the Arabs and Yemenis, the children of Uzbekistan, hurricanes, tornadoes, dictators, Mexican beetles and earthquakes, dependently arising as curtains, open or closed to the light.
Annie Dibble is currently co-ordinator for Bodhicharya Ireland, and a Tara Rokpa Therapist. In another life she recently retired from teaching 3rd level art and design and is now working to create supportive links between weavers in India, Nepal and Dublin.
This is one helluva ketchup meets brown sauce baby. There is nothing like Chilli Haw Ketchup to put some fire in the belly this winter. It’s got an amazing taste, sweet and sour, peppery, tangy, umami. I remember Chinese haw flakes from when I was a child. This is that taste but with a grown up kick. Use as a condiment, marinade or just with cheese.
750 grams haws (no stalks)
500 ml vinegar (homemade or apple cider)
250 grams dark brown sugar
2 red chilli peppers
Black pepper to taste
Simmer the haws and the chilli peppers in the water and vinegar until the flesh is really soft. Strain the mixture through a wire sieve. Push the berries around the sieve with the back of a spoon, trying to get as much of the pulp as possible through the sieve. (An ideal job to delegate!)
Return to the pan and add the sugar and black pepper. Bring to the boil and simmer until the sauce is thick. Pour into sterilised glass jars or bottles with a reasonably wide neck. Keep in a dark cupboard – the flavour just keeps on improving with age.
I bow down before the Lama, Buddha Amitāyus,
And the bodhisattvas in training.
I shall now in brief describe the benefits
Of freeing animals and ransoming their lives.
To save animals from slaughter or any mortal danger,
With entirely pure motivation and conduct,
Is without doubt a practice to be taken up
By all followers of the Buddha Śākyamuni.
Many are the sūtras, tantras and commentaries
Which describe in detail the advantages it brings,
And countless learned and accomplished masters of India and Tibet
Have stressed the value and importance of benefitting beings.
Even in the basic vehicle one avoids inflicting harm on others.
In the mahāyāna this is the very training of a bodhisattva,
And in the secret mantra, a principal samaya of the ratna family.
The reasoning behind this is as follows: in this world,
Nothing is as dear to someone as his or her own life,
So there is no greater crime than taking life away,
And no conditioned virtue brings greater merit
Than the act of saving beings and ransoming their lives.
Therefore, should you wish for happiness and good,
Exert yourself in this, the most supreme of paths,
Which is proven through scriptures and through reasoning,
And is free of obstacles and potential dangers.
Consider your own body, and, with this as an example,
Avoid doing anything that might bring harm to others.
Make every effort not to kill any living creature—
Birds, fish, deer, cattle and even tiny insects—
And strive instead to save their lives,
Offering them protection from every fear.
The benefit of doing so is beyond imagining.
This is the best practice for your own longevity,
And the greatest ritual for the living or deceased.
It is my main practice of benefitting others.
It dispels all external and internal adversity and obstacles;
Effortlessly and spontaneously, it brings favourable conditions;
And, when inspired by the noble mind of bodhicitta and
Completed with dedication and pure aspiration prayers,
It will lead one to complete enlightenment,
And the accomplishment of one’s own and others’ welfare—
Of this you need have no doubts at all!
Those whose minds incline to virtue and acts of merit
Should prohibit hunting and fishing on their land.
Some birds, in particular, such as geese and cranes,
Are impelled by their karma to migrate
And fly south in autumn, north in spring.
At times, weary from the efforts of their flight,
Or having lost their way, some are forced to land,
Distressed, afraid and anxious; when this happens,
You should not throw stones or shoot at them,
Nor try to kill them or do them any harm.
Protect them so they may easily fly once more.
To offer care and affection to sentient beings
In desperate situations who lack protection
Brings just as much merit as the meditation
On emptiness with compassion as its core—
So it has been said by glorious Lord Atiśa.
Lamas, officials, monks, nuns, men and women,
In all the places over which you have control,
Exert every influence and do all within your power
To release animals and ransom their lives,
While encouraging others to do the same.
In all those places where this is done,
Sickness among people and livestock will cease,
Harvests will be plentiful and life will be long.
All will enjoy happiness and wellbeing in abundance,
And at death let go of deluded experience,
Before finding an excellent rebirth within the higher realms.
Ultimately, there is no doubt that this will lead one easily
To find the supreme and perfect state of awakening.
In response to the request of Doctor Dordrak,
Who offered a pure silk scarf and a hundred Nepali rupees,
The one called Chatral Sangye Dorje,
Who strives continuously to ransom lives,
Wrote down spontaneously whatever came to mind.
By the merit of this may all sentient beings
Come to practise enlightened actions!
Translated by Adam Pearcey, 2005.
Choje Akong Tulku Rinpoche
Vin Harris talks about the life of a remarkable man
I knew Akong Rinpoche as a friend and teacher for about forty years. Between 1978 and 1988, the Samye Ling community under his leadership built the first authentic Tibetan Buddhist temple in the West; it is named after Samye where Buddhism was first established in Tibet. Before his tragic death in 2013, work had started on a documentary film to tell the story of his life. After the shock of losing Rinpoche, it felt more difficult to continue with making the film, and at the same time it felt even more important to share his message of ‘compassion in action’ with as many people as possible.
So in late 2013, I joined the film team as Executive Producer to help bring the project to completion. The film, directed by Chico Dall’Inha, is called ‘Akong – a Remarkable Life’. It has already won several awards at international film festivals, and in March 2017 we had the official world première at Samye Ling.
Reincarnation and the Tulkus of Tibetan Buddhism
When he arrived in the UK in 1963, Akong Rinpoche’s passport showed his occupation as being “reincarnate Lama”. Within the Tibetan tradition, there is the possibility of lamas who have been of great service to their disciples and to their monastery consciously taking a new rebirth in order to continue their aspiration to help others; when that new reincarnation is found, it is recognised as a ‘Tulku’. One of the purposes of the film is to help us to understand the historical context in which Akong Rinpoche’s life was played out, and this requires some understanding of the notion of Tulkus.
The tradition of intentional incarnation began with the first Karmapa in the twelfth century. The film tells of many instances where Akong Rinpoche’s life was connected with both the 16th Karmapa who was his main guru, and the current 17th Karmapa who will be responsible for finding the next Akong Tulku. Two well-known lamas within Tibet leave predictions regarding the details of their own rebirth; one is the Dalai Lama, and the other is the Karmapa, who is the head of the Kagyu lineage to which Akong Rinpoche belongs. With most Kagyu lamas, the matter of finding their rebirth is normally put into the hands of the Karmapa or sometimes other lamas who are able to find these Tulkus; they will have a vision or a feeling of connection, and are able to describe the place of birth, the names of the parents and sometimes details like the colour of the door of the house. Then, when the time is right, they send out a search party to locate the young Tulku.
This all might seem to be quite a leap of faith for many people in the West; but it may not be so strange if we think of mind as never ceasing and of life as being endless. Perhaps if we see how we can become a product of our limiting habits, then we could envisage the possibility of being a manifestation of our positive intentions. The Tulkus’ intentions continue powerfully from life to life as the fruition of a commitment to help others. The Akong Rinpoche that we knew as a spiritual friend with great compassion and wisdom was considered to be the second incarnation of a line which has a particular connection with medicine, and he continued the association with healing as well as spiritual practice.
The second Akong Rinpoche was born in Dharak, in Kham in Eastern Tibet in 1939, and at the age of two, he was discovered by a party of people looking for the reincarnation of the first Akong, who had been Abbot of Drolma Lhakhang Monastery in Eastern Tibet. Quite often Tulkus are born to fairly poor people living in remote villages, and they regard it as a great honour to have a Tulku born in their family. However, they are taken off to the monastery at a very early age to be brought up by the monks, and the family is prepared to make this sacrifice for the greater good. Although Tulkus may have a very strong compassionate intention to be of use to humanity, they still need education and rigorous training so that they have the means to be able to truly benefit others.
In the case of Akong Rinpoche, his extensive training as a Tulku included religion and traditional Tibetan medicine, for which he and his predecessor were renowned. It also included experience of profound spiritual practice in isolated retreat. It is becoming apparent that one of the big challenges, as Tibetan Buddhism takes root in the West, is to establish the resources so that young Tulkus can receive this kind of traditional education, and so rekindle their abilities and fulfil their potential.
Escape from Tibet and arrival in the UK
In 1951 the Chinese invaded Tibet, and after the failed uprising in 1959, when Akong was just 20 years old, many of the monks felt that they had to flee the country to preserve the culture and lineages of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. So Akong took the decision to leave, and set out with quite a large group of 300 people, led by himself and Trungpa Rinpoche, his childhood companion. They started with mules and horses and various possessions, but gradually all this dwindled until it was really just a matter of trying to survive. The Chinese army closed off all the usual routes, so they ended up walking through some of the most hazardous terrains, over mountains where there were not any tracks at all. They came very close to death, partly through encountering soldiers but also through lack of food. Akong Rinpoche used to talk of boiling up leather in water to just get some nourishment from it, and of living on water for weeks. In theend, only 13 of the group made it to India.
It is significant that even in these extreme conditions they refused to kill anything, because it is a Buddhist principle that all life has the same value. This great compassion was evident in Rinpoche even in these difficult circumstances, and it is something that I witnessed many times later in his life; he made no compromises to his core values. He told the story of when he was in a cave one night, at a time when they really thought they might die of starvation. In a moment of deep reflection he resolved that were he to survive, he wanted be able to help people: in particular, having experienced real hunger, he wanted to be able to feed people. This humanitarian aid was to become a major part of his work in later life. It was not initially in the foreground, but one day while we were building the temple at Samye Ling in the 1980s someone said to Akong Rinpoche: “What is it with you Tibetans? You spend all this money on gold, red paint, beautiful statues and this great big crystal chandelier, but what about helping people?” It is typical of Rinpoche that he thought about this, but rather than feeling that he had to make a choice, he said: “Well, why can’t I do both?” It was always like that; if you ever asked him: “Shall I do this or that?” he would reply: “Well, why can’t you do both?” This incident under the crystal chandelier in the temple was to be the birth of the Rokpa charity, which now works all over the world, feeding people and providing them with health care and education.
Returning to the account of the escape: they did eventually find a road out of Tibet across the Himalayas into a refugee camp in Northern India. What they found there was terrible; all sorts of diseases were rife and people were dying. Then they met an English woman called Freda Bedi, who was originally from Derby. She had an Indian husband, a Sikh called Baba Pyare Lal Bedi. She was living in India, working for the government and ended up being instrumental in helping many young Tibetan lamas, including the Dalai Lama. In later life, she actually became the first English woman to become a Buddhist nun. Her recently published biography entitled The Revolutionary Life of Freda Bedi: British Feminist, Indian Nationalist, Buddhist Nun is an account of another truly extraordinary life.
Freda Bedi seemed to connect particularly well with Akong Rinpoche and Trungpa Rinpoche. They ended up living in her house along with her own children, one of whom is Kabir Bedi who became a well-known Bollywood actor. She ran schools for the Tibetan refugees, and under the instruction of the 16th Karmapa, she set up the ‘Young Lamas Home School’ to train the monks and prepare them for their new life outside Tibet. The project flourished and she recruited Trungpa Rinpoche and Akong Rinpoche as her assistants.
One of the aims was to find jobs for the refugees, but Akong and Trungpa already had jobs: they were qualified as lamas! So she thought that if they could learn English, they would be able to continue their profession and things would work out well for them. Trungpa Rinpoche was very articulate and well-educated. Akong Rinpoche, although he had of course received a good education, was more inclined towards the way of showing by example and being active. So Freda Bedi obtained a scholarship from the University of Oxford for Trungpa Rinpoche, and the two young lamas were shipped across to England to start the next chapter of their amazing story.
The founding of Samye Ling
Once in Oxford, Trungpa studied at St Anthony’s College, and Akong worked as an orderly at the John Radcliffe Hospital to support them both. They were living in a small apartment with some other people. Lama Chime Tulku Rinpoche soon joined them, and slowly they made connections with the Oxford University Buddhist Society. A group of people interested in Buddhism grew up around them, and the idea came up of establishing something a bit more formal. So it was decided that they would start a centre where they could share their knowledge. Having investigated various possibilities, Akong Rinpoche and Trungpa Rinpoche were offered the chance to take over the Buddhist centre at Johnstone House in the Scottish Borders, and Samye Ling was founded in 1967. Lama Chime went on to set up a Buddhist centre at Marpa Housein Essex.
Akong and Trungpa Rinpoche had a very deep relationship. They were like brothers – dharma brothers. They were a similar age, had shared the same teachers, the same lineages, the same transmissions, and their monasteries were relatively close to each other. They were not from the same monastery, but they were not far apart and used to meet up to receive teachings from the same teachers. We might say of old friends “we go back a long way” but within the Tibetan tradition the lamas really do; they can go back many lifetimes. Trungpa was the 11th incarnation of his line, whereas Akong Rinpoche was only the second in his, so Akong Rinpoche tended to stay in the background, seeing his role as looking after Trungpa Rinpoche and facilitating his activity. John Maxwell, a retired judge, who is interviewed in the film, describes how he knew Akong Rinpoche for about ten years before he recognised his amazing qualities because he was so self-effacing.
So, at Samye Ling, initially the arrangement was that Trungpa Rinpoche was the teacher and Akong Rinpoche was the manager who looked after the practical issues. But after some time there was disagreement about how the dharma should be brought to the West. Some students have seen this as a big deal, but Akong Rinpoche never seemed to see it like that; it was nothing personal. His way was to be very cautious. The Tibetans have inherited the lineage of Buddha’s teachings and they know that it works. It is not always obvious why it works, or which bits work, so his view was that it would be wise to be careful to avoid ‘throwing out the baby with the bath water’. Akong Rinpoche was always very keen to stick closely to the tradition. Even now in Samye Ling we do not translate the Tibetan texts into English for the practices we do; we chant them in Tibetan because Akong explained that this carries the blessings of all the great lamas. He used to say that when a native English speaker becomes enlightened, then we can translate the texts into English with confidence!
Trungpa Rinpoche, on the other hand, was much more ready to engage freely with the West. He was very charismatic, very learned; he went on to write many wonderful books and they provide great clarity and insight into Buddhist teachings. He wanted to develop the traditional teachings and express them in modern terms. So there was disagreement regarding the approach to bringing Buddhism to the West. In 1970 it culminated in Trungpa leaving to teach the dharma in the USA, in which he was very successful. Even after Trungpa Rinpoche’s departure, Akong Rinpoche remained reluctant to teach and he used to invite other teachers to come to Samye Ling. It was not until the early ’70s that he started to give teachings himself and this was only because people asked His Holiness Karmapa to tell him to do so.
Once Akong Rinpoche had taken over responsibility for Samye Ling, things developed very slowly and gradually; he did not suddenly embark on new projects. Some of his ideas, like Tara Rokpa therapy, took almost 20 years to germinate. His first priority was to teach people the basics of Buddhism: the basic contemplations on the preciousness of human life, impermanence, karma and suffering. He instilled in us a great respect for the lineage, for the Buddha and his teachings. In the West we are so intelligent and well-educated that generally we want to go straight into the highest teachings. But Akong Rinpoche was always clear that we must start with the correct foundations if our practice is to have long-term benefit.
The students that Akong Rinpoche encountered at Samye Ling were very different from those he would have had in Tibet. The older generation were mostly ex-Gurdjieff people; they were cultured people but somewhat eccentric. The younger generation like myself were mostly hippies; we were quite unruly, although we did have positive aspirations. Akong Rinpoche talked to us and was willing to meet each of us where we were. Some of my friends really embraced the Buddhist path; they did long retreats and became monks and nuns. Others, like myself, became what in Tibet are called ‘householders’ – practitioners who have families and businesses. But Rinpoche was never judgemental; he did not try to make everyone the same, but helped us to develop within our own situation.
Akong Rinpoche invited many great teachers to bless Samye Ling, and he said many years later that he felt we had built a holy place because it had been visited by these teachers. Rinpoche always had a very clear sense that the most important thing was that Samye Ling should be a place where the Tibetan Buddhist dharma and Kagyu lineage would be preserved. However, it is worth keeping in mind that the ultimate purpose is not to preserve traditions for their own sake, but because they are of great value to a world which desperately needs to be reminded of the vital importance of kindness and compassion.
The three aspects of generosity
A big change came about at Samye Ling following a visit from the 16th Karmapa in the mid-1970s, when it was decided to embark upon the Samye Project – the building of a temple, a dining room, offices, college buildings and libraries, and so on. As always, Akong Rinpoche dealt with the most important things first and he decided to start with building the temple; so for a while Samye Ling had a temple which could hold 300 people but no additional bedrooms which could accommodate this number of visitors. The legend was that he had about £50 to his name when he began, but his teacher told him to build a temple, so he did.
This was the time when I became seriously involved. I was studying literature at Warwick University when I heard about Samye Ling. So I thought I would visit it for a couple of weeks and then go travelling. But Akong Rinpoche invited me to stay, as what used to be called ‘a house person’ – someone who looked after the house and the gardens and such like. We had a small herd of dairy cows, and so the first job I had after taking a degree in literature was milking cows, and making cheese and butter. Then I started doing building and maintenance jobs around the place.
When I was told by Akong Rinpoche about his project to build a temple, and that the plan was to build all of it ourselves, I had a kind of ‘road to Damascus’ moment. Ever since I was a child I had wanted to do woodwork, but because I showed academic ability at school I ended up on a conventional path of going to university. The moment I heard about the temple, it immediately seemed that the right thing to do was to offer to go away and learn woodwork in order to help with the project. Other friends went off to learn other skills, such as bricklaying, and after about a year we returned and started work. The first foundations were laid in 1978, and the temple was opened in 1988. Other parts of the complex – some of the café buildings and the retreat centre – were also built during this period, but the main focus was on the temple.
Accomplishing such a large task gave Rinpoche a degree of credibility. After that, people began to take him and his organisation more seriously. This did not seem to matter to him personally, but it was helpful in that it enabled him to fulfil his aspirations for Samye Ling. He often said that there were basically three main aspects to his work in the last period of his life. The first was the religious activities – the transmission of teachings at Samye Ling which I have already mentioned; the second was his humanitarian work through the Rokpa Foundation; and the third was the Tara Rokpa Therapy, which he developed as a way of helping people bring balance to their personal lives. This aspect of his activity was definitely linked to his role as a doctor and healer.
The charity Rokpa came about because of his association with Lea Wyler, a Swiss woman who is still President of the Board; she and her father initially sponsored projects and then helped Rinpoche to set up the organisation. Rokpa is mainly concerned with humanitarian aid to people in places which are difficult for other aid agencies to reach. Rokpa means ‘help’, and their motto is “helping where help is needed”. One of its main functions is to set up food kitchens, which Akong established in Tibet, Nepal, India and South Africa – as well as in the UK and Europe. One thing that he was very clear about was that he did not want the help to be conditional upon people converting to Buddhism: his concern was to address the common human needs that we all share. Another notable feature of his work was that it was never political: he never tried to fix the bigger problem, but would concentrate on people’s immediate needs, such as satisfying their hunger or providing them with health care and education. He never complained about the political arena in which he was operating, but concentrated on what he could do. This would often be rather puzzling and confusing for people, but the result was that his capacity to achieve what at first seemed impossible would continue to increase.
Tara Rokpa Therapy is a way of bringing the essence of the Buddhist dharma into another form, to the psychological realms – not as an intervention, but very slowly and very gently. One could say that it is perhaps even a way of bringing people to an acceptance of themselves so that they can start to engage with the Buddhist teachings. The attitude is not at all that there is something ‘wrong’ with people, and it is almost unfortunate that it is described as ‘therapy’. Most of us have need of this to some degree: I myself am involved in mindfulness teaching, and this also seems to me to be a way of getting to know ourselves a little better, learning to be compassionate towards ourselves, rather than taking on a spiritual path with the expectation that it will be a kind of magic formula to cure all our problems. As an American psychologist, Jack Engler, says: “You have to become somebody before you can become nobody”, and I think there is some truth in this. It is as if there is a twin track of self-transcendence and self-actualisation which need to work together. Without the process of self-actualisation, there is a tendency to skip round problems to the other side, and it is not enough. As Rinpoche said so many times: “We have to learn to face the situation”.
There is a synergy between the three areas of Akong Rinpoche’s religious, humanitarian and therapeutic activity. I regard each of them as acts of generosity. In Buddhism generosity is seen as having three aspects: giving dharma; giving food and shelter and the means of life – which is certainly what the Rokpa Foundation does; and giving freedom from fear. And it seems to me that the Tara Rokpa Therapy helps people to be less afraid in their own lives. In the end, the aim is always to bring people to a state in which they can recognise their own true nature. Rinpoche used to say: “You can’t teach people to meditate if they are hungry”, and perhaps hunger takes many different forms.
One of the sayings of Akong Rinpoche that has become famous is: “Only the impossible is worth doing”. He certainly demonstrated this in what he achieved during his life. Reflecting on the implications of it, I feel it is pointing to the heart of Buddhism – the illusory nature of a separate self. Rinpoche once summed up the matter up like this: “First of all there is me; then there is mine; then there is trouble.” So when he was pushing people – gently, but still asking them to go beyond their limitations – I believe that he was challenging the ‘me’ that says: “I can’t do that”. If you don’t go beyond your comfort zone, you are creating a safe place – a fortress – within which to exist. Another thing that he used to emphasise is that mind is endless – life is endless. You simply cannot think too much about the finishing line when you take on a really big project like the building of a temple. In fact, it is a very important understanding in Buddhism that we all have infinite potential. When taking on a large project you have to work with other people; we need to co-operate and admit that we need help, and we grow when we face difficulties and challenges.
Hope for the future
So, what now lies ahead for Samye Ling and the heritage that Akong left behind? In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, the concept of the Tulku is enormously important: it is essentially the reassurance that there is continuity in the care given to people, as the Tibetan masters do not come back to the world for any reason other than to help others; they don’t come back for their personal agenda. For many centuries – millennia even – Tibet was a very stable society, and a young Tulku could be carefully educated there; there was always an older regent who was waiting for him to come of age and carry on the tradition. In the West, we are only just in the first generation of this process happening, and it is quite a challenge. I feel that Rinpoche set it up as well as he could do. His brother, Lama Yeshe, has been the abbot of Samye Ling for some years; so, although it was not easy by any means after Akong Rinpoche’s death, in terms of looking after Samye Ling, there was someone in charge. Lama Yeshe provided remarkable leadership by his example during this difficult period.
Now the 17th Karmapa has been asked to find the Tulku, the next reincarnation of Akong. His advice to us is that we should not worry about this but just carry on with compassionate activity as best we can. So we have tried to continue with the various projects that were already set up – and started some new ones as well.
Akong – a Remarkable Life
Over the last few years, it has been a privilege for me to help make this film about Akong Rinpoche’s life. It came about because my good friend Chico Dall’Inha, a Brazilian film director living in London, had the idea to make a film about Samye Ling. Then his plans evolved into a film about Akong Rinpoche’s life and, after some initial reluctance, Rinpoche gave Chico permission to go ahead. Fortunately filming was already in progress before he died, but in the shocking aftermath, it ground to a halt; apart from anything else, the funding had run out.
Then one morning I woke up just knowing how it could proceed. The vision that came to me was that people should see this film at special events: they should gather together and be inspired to carry on, as Karmapa said, with Rinpoche’s compassionate activity. It seems that when the idea is right, money is never a problem. So the thought came of asking Rinpoche’s many loyal friends to support us, which they did in so many different ways. So now the film is completed and thanks to everyone’s generosity, it has no debt. Any funds that are raised through its screening are donated to support the continuation of Rinpoche’s humanitarian work, and to support the education of the Tulku when he is found.
We specifically decided to organise the distribution of the film ourselves because this also feels consistent with Rinpoche’s direct and creative way of getting things done. Through engaging our network of connections, we already have more than sixty screening opportunities in more than fifteen countries. At every showing of the film, at least one person comes forward with an offer to set up another screening, and so the momentum builds as everyone is able to find inspiration and contribute to Akong Rinpoche’s legacy of compassion in action.
Currently he is a Director of a successful joinery business specialising in traditional sash windows, as well as a founding board member and tutor of the Mindfulness Association, and an honorary teaching fellow on the University of Aberdeen M.Sc. in Mindfulness Studies. Vin takes on a wide range of inspiring projects, including helping to bring the film ‘Akong – a Remarkable Life’ to completion. One of his few regrets regarding this rich and varied life is that he does not get to play as much golf as he would like.
Banner image: Akong Rinpoche at the inauguration of the shrine room at Samye Ling. Photograph by Chico Dall’inha.
Thumbnail image: Akong Rinpoche. Photograph by Gerry McCulloch. Darshanaphotoart.co.uk
Rinpoche, Akong Tulku, and Clive Holmes, Taming the Tiger:Tibetan Teachings for Improving Daily Life, (Rider, 1994).
Rinpoche, Akong Tulku, Restoring the Balance; Sharing Tibetan Wisdom, (Dzalendara Publishing, 2005).
Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, (Shambhala, revised edition 2010).
Chogyam Trungpa and Francesca Fremantle, The Tibetan Book of the Dead: Great Liberation through Hearing in the Bardo(Shambhala, new edition, 2000).
Vickie Mackenzie, The Revolutionary Life of Freda Bedi: British Feminist, Indian Nationalist, Buddhist Nun, by (Shambhala, 2017).
More information about the film Akong– A Remarkable Life can be found at http://www.akong-remarkablelife.com
For details of future screenings see http://www.facebook.com/AKONGaremarkablelife/
To organise a screening event, please email email@example.com
Reprinted with the kind permission of the Beshara Trust.
[Special thanks to Vin Harris, Chico Dall’ignha and Jane Clark for their help in publishing this article in Many Roads for Bodhicharya. Apologies for any unsourced photographs appearing in the article. Albert Harris, Editor]
I’m a rabbi. I have experienced hundreds of Shabbat celebrations with Jewish communities of all sorts, in synagogue, at camp, as part of youth groups, leading youth groups, with my family. So how did it come to be that the most unexpectedly joyful, meaningful and deeply spiritual one I ever experienced was with a Christian-born-and-raised Canadian at a Tibetan Buddhist retreat center on a Scottish island
It is an amazing story. And though I am a person of words, I am finding it hard to locate the right ones to describe how this transpired.
I write this article/journal entry sitting at the simple desk in my spartan room at the Centre for World Peace, on the Holy Isle, a mystical jut of an island just off the east coast of Arran, which itself is an island off of Scotland’s southwest coast. This island has been considered holy for centuries. In the 6th century it was the home of a certain St. Molaise, who spent most of his time living in a small cave (which I visited) tucked into the mountainside. The entire island is about 2 miles long and a few hundred yards wide, with a camel-like set of high humps in the center with an apex of about 1200 feet—beautiful views from there. In 1992, the island was purchased by a Tibetan Buddhist organization called the Rokpa Trust. The Holy Isle Project is now directed by a Tibetan Buddhist Lama, named Yeshe Losal Rinpoche, who is committed to ensuring that the island itself, and its programs and retreats, provides a sustainable environment, where individuals of the Buddhist faith, of other faiths, and of no faith, can develop and experience inner peace. It sounds lofty. It is.
I arrived here by plane, then train, transferred to ferry, and finally on to a dinghy. The travel was interrupted for a day as a result of stormy weather that made the crossing from the bay of Lamlash, on Arran, over to the Holy Isle simply impossible. As I write this, there is no way of knowing whether weather conditions will permit me to make it back to Arran in order to take dinghy to ferry to train to plane to return to the US. I am here for a weeklong meditation retreat, combining with elements of Qi Gong (pronounced chi-gung) practice, which is an ancient Chinese/Buddhist approach to movement and life-centering in one’s body, as well as some sessions of shiatsu.
I chose this retreat and this island somewhat by happenstance. Having dabbled recently in meditation—exclusively in Jewish settings with Jewish teachers and Jewish fellow meditators—and having brought some of that elemental practice to my spiritual work as a rabbi, and even to members of my professional team as we try to add some mindfulness to work that can become mind-numbing, I knew I wanted to immerse in it more deeply. I happened to have this particular week free on my personal, professional and familial calendar. Add Google to the mix and, voila, I found this meditation retreat that happened to take place over the exact right dates, and in a location whose remote-ness and promise of always-changing Scottish weather drew me in like a magnet. So much of meditation, I am learning, is an acknowledgement and embrace of the ephemeral. Life. Our thoughts and moods. And, yes, the weather. Recognize that thought or feeling that is in your mind right this second. Nod to it. Accept it. Look at it. It will be gone before you know it, replaced by a renewed spiritual landscape, a new emotional sky.
I hesitated before registering. In a lengthy email exchange with Sue Weston, the leader of this particular retreat, I inquired what it would be like for an observant Jew and rabbi to come to such a retreat. Could I yield to the spiritual and cultural norms and expectations of this location and find the space to carry out my own personal observances? She assured me that my faith, and my personal prayers, would be welcome. And also that Shabbat would be no concern. There would be no writing or travel at the retreat, or any other activity inherently at odds with my traditional Shabbat observance. I would easily be able to take part in the retreat’s sessions, say my Shabbat prayers, and have plenty of time to read, rest and recuperate.
So I signed up, quite reassured, and arrived with an open heart and a sense of burgeoning awe for what I was about to experience. Nothing prepared me for the island’s beauty. Its rawness. And the liminal feeling of crossing the bay of Lamlash to an island that, in its entirety, is dedicated to serenity, openness, love and spiritual grounding.
The first few days of the retreat passed momentously in their own right. The Qi Gong was, and continues to be, revelatory for me. As someone who has struggled with a gimpy lower back for years, some of the exercises and movements were reminiscent of what this osteopath or that massage therapist or this chiropractor had offered me before during previous flare-ups. But I soon realized I was learning a spiritual choreography. An ancient, grounded body-wisdom that re-integrates the natural awareness of the body we have when we are pre-sentient babies with the actual muddled and stressed and overly cerebral body with which most of us go through our adult lives. I loved it all instantly.
And the initial days of meditation brought me to an inner voice and body-based tranquility that cleared mental cobwebs, awakened aches for ways of living my life that had been hovering for years but hadn’t burst to the surface, and inspired my thinking regarding how I could bring some of this work and wisdom back to my community, and my family, and link it to the Jewish faith and tradition that so suffuses our lives.
The connections between this far-eastern spiritual body-practice and the inherited layers of Jewish living are far more intimate and shared than one might initially think when considering, for instance, how far apart the life and culture of a Tibetan monk are from those of an observant Jew. Some overlaps and nexuses: The first Qi Gong move we began to master is called Wild Goose. It is an elaborate and incredibly hard-to-master set of moves, breaths and intentions. And some of it is done in sweeping arm motions around the body. Instantly, the move felt familiar, as I realized that how I put my tallit on in the morning, wrapping the woolen cloth around my upper body in a sweeping motion before pausing for a moment of reflection and centeredness and letting it rest on my shoulders, was evocative of this Qi Gong move. Much of Qi Gong is focused on which “leg” you are in, using the hips, sacrum and pelvis to ground yourself and toggle from right to left and back. We took hours to master the simplest shift from one leg to the next, and I realized I was ahead of the class because my own shuckling during davvening, which I learned through osmosis rather than from any one teacher. It closely resembles this shifting, through the midsection of the body, using subtle changes in weight and posture to create a dynamic within prayer.
And then, the bowing. We Jews have forgotten how to bow. Admit it. You know that I am right, even if you are fighting back when reading these words. I watch a Muslim bow, prostrate to the ground, and I am envious. I go the distance during the Aleynu prayer during the High Holidays, and some in the congregation behind me do the same. But it is a bit ersatz. We are fully aware that come the end of Yom Kippur we will return to the nearly knee-less and almost certainly waist-less half-gesticulation that constitutes a bow in most Jewish communities. But in Qi Gong you must bow. Not to a deity. But to open up your body, activate and release your core, and find ways to pour energetic Qi to as many parts of your body as possible. These are bows and dips which are simultaneously painful (particularly for someone as non-limber as I) and cathartic. By day three, I could go deeper and breathe into it. And among a cadre of fellow non-retreaters, not a single one of them Jewish, doing ancient Chinese body-meditation under the auspices of a Tibetan Buddhist holy order, I remembered my Shulhan Arukh, my close reading and study of the traditional code of Jewish law from the 16th century. I remember how much detail went in to Rabbi Yosef Caro’s explanation of how to bow during prayer in such a way such that the soft material between each vertebra is exposed to the air, curving your back all the way over. Was he writing with a sense of body-awareness like the spiritualists from the far east? Or was this merely his translation of talmudic texts that were focused more on obeisance, modesty and utter insignificance relative to the presence of God? I’d like to think a bit of both. By the end of the second day I made a true and binding religious vow to myself never to bow again in prayer without being fully open to the experience.
As hours passed, I became both more open to the practices and forms I was learning for the first time, and blessings and rituals I had done thousands of time but to which I was now returning as if for the first time. For instance, for decades I have had the personal religious practice of saying the “asher yatzar” blessing after relieving myself. It began when I was in yeshiva, with a burst of both frumkeit and awareness/gratitude. But for as long as I can remember the prayer has turned into a mumble. Said quickly and mindlessly on the way to the next meeting or appointment. With no connection to the very body whose functioning I was supposed to be blessing. This week, that blessing has become a symphony to me. Because the meditative and Qi Gong practice is so grounded in the body, I have been reawakened to this blessing’s force. And as I curve my mouth around the words, n’kavim n’kavim, halulim halulim, naming and thanking God for our openings which stay open and our closings which stay closed, I find myself profoundly connected to my intestines, my bowel, and the very miracle of my body’s healthy functioning.
As another example, my blessings before and after meals have been revivified. They, too, I have been saying dutifully for decades. Dutifully, but not always soulfully. It is, admittedly, hard to sustain any spiritual or religious or relational practice at a consistently high level. But at least for this week, my food-gratitude blessings are alive again. Some of our meals are taken in noble silence, within which I feel the crunch of each bite, taste the kaleidoscope of each organic green and grain I am consuming, and am a witness to the activity, often so mundane in our culture (even among those who regularly say blessings) and yet so elemental to our being alive and thus worthy of our continued awe: eating. The meals on Holy Isle are unhurried. What is important is the food, and the company, whether being shared in conversation or in silent presence. And because I truly am grateful for the delicious all-vegetarian (and nearly all-vegan), all-natural meals I have been served, with the ingredients nearly all home-grown and home-cultivated on this island, I am experiencing birkat hamazon (which I have been singing to myself in my head, rather than just rushing through nearly inchoate) as a digestif, both a slow eruption of gratitude and one which in some psycho-spiritual-embodied way is actually aiding my digestion and thus the very miraculous process I am blessing. After one meal I urged myself to conjure the faces of my immediate family as I blessed them in the harahaman section. When my children’s faces emerged in my mind’s eye, a tear fell upon my cheek. When was the last time an oft-said blessing moved me so much? When did it last move you? What would your reaction be if someone began to cry when saying birkat hamazon at a communal Shabbat dinner at your synagogue?
But all of what I just described is a mere prelude to the true and unexpected jolt I experienced on Holy Isle. Let me explain what happened on Shabbat.
I had planned to mark the beginning (and end) of Shabbat as inconspicuously as possible. I did not want to invade, or proselytize. I was a guest. My hosts were Tibetan Buddhists. My peers came for Sue Weston’s Qi Gong and meditation, not Rabbi Kligfeld’s Lecha Dodi. They are very fire-conscious here, and so I asked if there might be a safe place where I could kindle two lights. Oh, and might they have some juice for a special blessing? The on-site director of the retreat center, a humble and gracious Buddhist nun, bowed towards me with her hands clasped at her chest when I made this request. She thanked me for the opportunity to serve my spiritual needs. She provided me two tea-lights, each within a little glass bowl, held in place by dry rice grains. And she procured some sweet cinnamon-pear juice that had been prepared for a previous meal. She bowed towards me again, and not only gave me permission to use them in the main meeting place—Peace Hall—but also asked if I wouldn’t mind doing my ritual in front of the whole retreat, as well as any part-time and long-term volunteers who make up the working staff of this island. Sue, the leader of this retreat, thought the idea was fabulous. I was humbled. And felt a tiny wince of shame, wondering how many Jewish institutions, and retreat centers and synagogues—including my own—would be so tolerant, and even so proactively gracious and inviting, were visiting Buddhists to request the space and accoutrements to perform their religious practice.
And this is how it came to be that at about 8:45 on Friday night on Holy Isle, this rabbi who came to meditate as a lay-person became the local teacher and dramaturg of the Friday night seder shabbat to a group of about 50 spiritual seekers in Peace Hall.
I was not expecting this. And I said as much as I began to talk, having no idea what I would say. I started with a niggun: the one referred to as Neshama’s Niggun, as it is one of the most beloved of all those written by Neshama Carlebach. (Seeing as how our entire week was focused on the breath and the spirit, I thought it appropriate to offer a tune written by a Neshama.) And then I had an outer-body experience, watching myself describe the rationale behind all of our well-known, but also well-worn, Friday night rituals. Waving the hands towards us as the Shabbat candles are kindled, one for zachor, to remember Shabbat, and one for shamor, to observe it; welcoming, inviting and receiving blessing from the Shabbat angels who escort us from services on Friday night and who are the subject/object of Shalom Aleichem; the sweetness of the kiddush juice or wine, including why I was saying a different blessing tonight than I would be had the substance been a grape-based juice or wine rather than the delicious cinnamon-pear juice they provided me; the eshet hayil poem with which I address and praise my wife every week, and then the proffering of a blessing upon the heads of my children, taking the original place of the priests in the desert.
As I went through this litany, there was absolute silence in the group surrounding me. Not just silence. Reverence. I could feel it, palpably. And then I ended with another niggun, explaining how wordless tune has become so central to modern Jewish practice, and how essentially ecumenical such tunes are. For, after all, what tradition owns a particularly musical note, or even a string of them? The ones we generally sing sound Jewish to us. But they aren’t on a categorical level. They just have ascribed Jewish flavor to us. The one with which I ended is the most recent one I learned from Netanel Goldberg, an extraordinary Israeli composer/spiritualist.
Without my asking or inviting them, this group, none of whom expected any part of this week to be an exposure to Jewish music or ritual, started singing. Maybe because their hearts and chests and whole bodies had been so opened by meditation and Qi gong, or maybe because non-Jews are a little less reticent to sing when a rabbi starts singing in front of them than many Jews are when being introduced to—gasp!—a new tune (you know who you are…), whatever the reason, they didn’t just sing. They became an instantaneous choir. The acoustics in Peace Hall are fabulous. The niggun rose and fell, swelled and waned, and ended on a a thoroughly unrehearsed and yet somehow fully harmonic, chord-like coda. I use niggun all the time in my work. In the last few years, I believe we have introduced no fewer than 50 new tunes into our musical repertoire at Temple Beth Am. I love singing with my community. And with my colleagues. And yet I do not remember a more heart-filling and awakened musical or spiritual moment in my life.
The moment ended. People started filing out of Peace Hall, as they had been told (by the nun) that I had my own personal Sabbath prayers to add on to this ritual and they didn’t want to disturb. Some could not help themselves, and came to me to tell me what this experience was like. I promise no embellishment as I convey what some of them said to me.
One said she will remember this moment for the rest of her life. One told me that the last tune, in particular, had helped heal a deeply-held wound in her soul. Then one of them pointed to a large rock on the table that held the Shabbat candles and kiddush cup and asked the significance of the stone in the Jewish ritual practice. We all had a cathartic laugh when I told them that the rock just happened to be on the table and I had decided not to move it. A peer in the retreat suggested I go back to my community saying that I had uncovered an ancient Scottish Jewish rite, that had every Friday night dinner begin with a large, craggy rock smack in the middle of the table.
Eventually the room emptied, and I was left to davven Kabbalat Shabbat and Ma’ariv in the waning light, and digest what had just transpired. This particular set of prayers, which I generally loathe to say by myself, were elevated, uplifted and infused with spirit. I sang them all out loud, to myself, in Peace Hall. I sang so full and so loud that at times I wasn’t even sure if my voice were the one making the sound. And I had my childhood and adolescence, and college years, and the members of both congregations I have served in my rabbinate thus far, and the voices and tunes of countless artists and composers as my minyan as I went through the liturgy. There, in Peace Hall, on Holy Isle, on an island with Tibetan Buddhists, and a whole sea of non-Jews, I had Nava Tehila from Jerusalem with me. And Micah Shapiro, a recent graduate of Boston Hebrew College whose tunes for Kabbalat Shabbat have become part of the Beth Am experience. He was there, as was my partner and cantor, Rabbi Hillary Chorny, as I sang her exquisite composition to Psalm 93. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach was with me as well, of course. As were the anonymous (at least to me) composers of the traditional Ashkenazi Friday night nusah. I had feared I would be alone on this isle for Shabbat. I have never felt so un-alone in my Jewish practice.
If that were the end of the story, dayenu. It certainly would have been enough. But it was not.
My mini-Shabbat service, I had learned, had quickly become the topic of conversation and curiosity and awe among this sacred community. Throughout the rest of the evening and into the next day, I kept hearing how the experience had moved people. I heard it from people who said it to my face, one of whom said she would only come back for Sue Weston’s retreat if Jewish chanting were a formal part of it. And I heard it from people who were just talking to one another in a different room but within my earshot, explaining that they never understood how spiritual Jewish practice could be. “Do you believe that such love and tenderness is expressed between spouses as Sabbath begins?” “When he blessed his children, in abstentia, I thought of my own children and tears welled up. I wish we had this in our religion.” And I also heard it from another small but important subgroup of people who happened to be with me on this island for Shabbat.
Let me go back a bit. When I had started to sing Shalom Aleichem in Peace Hall, I swore I heard some light singing of the tune, and the words, in the background. But how could that be? When I said the “boreh pri ha’etz” over the pear juice, I almost certainly heard an unbidden “amen,” sung in tune. And by the time I got to the second half of the longer kiddush paragraph, I heard two distinct and clear voices joining in with “ki vanu vaharta, v’otanu kidashta mikol ha’amim…” Among the volunteers on the island and those here for just a getaway but not part of our retreat, were two Jews. They had not previously identified themselves to me, despite my very obvious Jew-y kippah that I had been wearing all week. But they were there. Seeking. Searching. Still, clearly, tune-connected to the religion and people of their origin, but on this island precisely because the Judaism they had fled had never filled their spirits adequately enough to keep them in the game, as it were. I found it a bittersweet irony that they “came out” as Jews, to me and to the rest of the group, by uttering the words of the kiddush that are some of the hardest words to say with a full and non-guilty heart when experiencing beautiful shared spirituality with non-Jews: “For God chose us, and sanctified us, among all the peoples…”
Over the course of Shabbat, I spoke at length to these two Jews, both from Britain. One thanked me for exposing the beauty and sweetness of Judaism in an era, and continent, of what she called rampant anti-Semitism, thus perhaps creating some subtle ambassadors as those on this retreat would go back to their homes and might speak about the nice Jew that they met and the nice rituals he led. The other spoke about the pain of never feeling alive or soul-connected in her Jewish life and education. She grew up in a pretty Jewish part of London. She knew the words and the prayers. And she said hearing the kiddush was a surge of comforting nostalgia for her. But just that. Maybe a hint of what spiritual power there could be in Judaism, but which she had never imbibed. It was hard for her to believe that Judaism and Jewish practice, and particularly traditional Jewish observance could be non-fanatical, embodied, nourishing, intellectually honest, both particular in form and yet universal in aspiration. Had she experienced all of that, she told me, she might never have felt the need to escape to Holy Isle. I told her that I did experience those very parts of Judaism, and try to teach, model and embody them, and I still came to Holy Isle to learn even more ways to animate the Judaism that I love so dearly, but which I know suffers through moribund stretches that call for re-awakening.
As the chatter about the Friday night experience in Peace Hall rose throughout Shabbat morning, there was a swell of curiosity and interest in more Jewish singing. What a nutty phenomenon: You had people who came to a Buddhist meditation and Qi Gong retreat for spiritual healing and centering clamoring for a Jewish rabbi to offer them more niggun sessions. And it wasn’t taking away from the spiritual thrust of the retreat, or the place. It was purely additive.
By mid afternoon, the host Buddhist nun and Sue Weston both came to me, knowing that I would need to end my Sabbath with another short ritual later that night, and asked again whether the entire island could be invited to join. I told them I would be honored, and asked what they thought if we met about 45 minutes before the time for Havdalah for an extended, fully ecumenical, wordless and contentless niggun circle. Formal programming on the island ends at 8:30. Havdalah was set for 9:45. Meeting together in Peace Hall at 9 would not interfere with any of the retreat’s or the island’s volunteers’ normal activities. They were delighted with the idea.
Aspects of this whole dynamic led to some moments that were both sweetly comical (sometimes to me, sometimes to others as well) and also painful (only to me). Some examples. I was struck by the incongruity of my finding a way to make tea on Shabbat afternoon at a Buddhist retreat center using a kli shlishi (“third vessel”), which is how many observant Jews make tea on Shabbat in such a way that does not, according to halakha/Jewish law, violate the obligation of cooking raw food. I will always linger on the “who would have imagined it?” moment when a Buddhist nun asked whether leaning two birthday candles together would be sufficient for Havdalah. Those were sweet. And some painful and internally awkward moments as well. For instance, how do I tell this loving and embracing Buddhist nun what my texts really tell me to say when she innocuously and generously asks whether she can take the extinguished tea-lights thad had served as Shabbat candles and add them to the devotional space in their Buddhist prayer room? By strange coincidence, my regular and rhythmic study of Talmud has me studying, right now, the tractate Avodah Zarah, dealing with the prohibitions of idolatry and of dealings with idolaters. On that very day, I was studying the section that discussed how far away from idolaters’ holidays one must refrain from doing business with them, lest they use something they purchased from you in their practice or even bless you in gratitude in the name of their God(s). I do understand why the Talmud wrote those laws and restrictions. And I am not even convinced that the rabbis, if they really knew enough of Buddhist thought, would have considered practicing Buddhists to be idolaters. But that is sophistry. At the core, I felt that my own tradition, in the midst of it being as welcomed and blessed as could be possible in another religious tradition’s holy place, was shouting out some of its xenophobia and blatant judgment of others’ religious forms. When the nun did indeed ask me that question, I told her I would be honored. I do feel it was the right decision, even if there may be texts that question whether extinguished Shabbat candles ought to end up part of a Buddhist rite.
And my very Shabbat prayers, which as I have said before were so awakened and alive for me, also caught me in some harsh ways. Here I was, relishing in the rest of Shabbat, and utterly grateful for the womb of tranquility being offered to me by a community of non-Jews, hearing my mouth say these words from the Shabbat morning amidah: v’lo n’atto adonai eloheynu l’goyei ha’aratzot. “God, you did not give Shabbat to the nations of the world. Nor did our King bequeath it to idol-worshippers. The uncircumcised will not dwell in its restful embrace.” I believe that on some level. I believe that our Shabbat has unique qualities and characters to it. But it felt insulting, and inaccurate, to utter those words amidst a community of very holy people experiencing a very holy and restful Shabbat though they never uttered a single Hebrew prayer nor had taken upon them the yoke of the Jewish commandments. I felt guilty uttering those words just feet away from people without whose open and embracing hearts this Jew would never have experienced Shabbat’s rest this weekend.
I said the Shabbat afternoon prayers right after a particularly meaningful meditation. My heart and soul were alive and open, and I thought of the wisdom of the Mishnah in tractate Brakhot, where it says that the early pious ones would meditate for a full hour before they would recite their prayers. (Nowadays in shuls if weekday prayer is not fully complete within an hour, someone’s job could be on the line). I recited the Shabbat minha service more awake to the meaning of the words than I have in a long time. That was mostly a blessing. But it came with a wince as well, as when I uttered the self-referential words “mi k’amkha yisrael? Who is like your people Israel?” they sounded jingoistic to my ears. What makes us so special? And the following words in the liturgy took on a different contour than what I imagine is their original intent. “Goy ehad ba’aretz. One nation upon the earth.” The plain meaning is that we, Israel, are the singular nation on this planet. This time, the words echoed for me as a prayer that, even with our disparate forms, languages, liturgies, rites and belief systems, the human community is—could be—one nation upon the earth. And religious communities could and should be leading the charge to that messianic possibility, rather than reinforcing only those boundaries that keep us separate.
If my afternoon of prayers and interactions included some internal hiccups, the end of Shabbat was all glory. All sweetness. Some version of this experience, of course, is repeated and indulged in by Jewish communities—particularly at camp and at youth group retreats—all over the world. Who doesn’t like Havdalah? But something made this Havdalah different than all other. First, we sat in a circle in Peace Hall and we sang. I reinforced the two niggunim I had sung the previous night. Then I introduced them to Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach’s “Rova Niggun,” one of his simplest yet least-known tunes. They picked it up in a second and the room exploded with musical meaning. After that, I taught them Zusha’s “East Shtetl Niggun.” Google it. It is out there, and wacky, and wonderful. I think it was this group’s favorite. I threw in a few more before teaching them the niggun I learned for Havdalah when I was at Yeshivat Hamivtar in 1994, and have been using and teaching ever since. (If my rebbes in yeshiva knew I was teaching their tune to non-Jews at a Buddhist retreat center on Holy Isle…!?). They mastered the tune quickly. We sang it fast and energetic, and then slow and elegiac. I explained how the rituals, and music, of Havdalah are caught in liminality, grateful for the Shabbat we just experienced and yet sad to release our extra soul, not to meet it again until the following Shabbat. I was singing, and explaining, not to proselytize. Or to convert. Or to make people more religious. Or to grow my community. But just to share my love and my spirit, and the sweetness of our notes. Maybe the very absence of pressure or missionary posturing contributed to people’s openness to the notes, and the feeling, of the entire service. I can’t explain the exact pathways, But this Havdalah was triumphant. And transcendent. When we ended I did the simplest thing that Jewish camp counselors and youth leaders learn: grab hands and make a circle. For some reason, this tipped this group over the top. They simple sunk in to the embodied nature of a simple grasp of the hands. Someone started a squeeze and sent it around the room. It wasn’t me, but I felt it come my way and I sent it to the next person. When we were done, we were breathless and breath-full at the same time.
And as a result of this unexpected weekend, there is now a group of 45-50 people, mostly British, but some Canadian, German, Polish, Brazilian, of all ages. Of all sizes. Some seekers. Some in pain. Some committed meditators. Some who had never met a Jew. All of whom who now know of Shlomo Carlebach, and why we look at our fingernails during Havdalah. A group of people who are incredibly touched that a Jewish husband turns and praises his wife when Shabbat begins, and who are humming Zusha’s East Shtetl Niggun to themselves as they go about their work on the Holy Isle. We have a collection of folks, mostly of originally Christian heritage but now on a search for deeper peace and meaning, who, before being serendipitously cloistered on this island with a rabbi from LA had never experienced a specifically Jewish moment, who now understood something that professional Jews like myself spend their time, and careers, trying to get Jews of all ages to understand and embrace: and that is that there is tremendous organic and embodied power to Jewish forms, rituals, music and ways. One told me she felt it to be a true privilege to hear the sounds and be witness to the rituals of the Jewish Sabbath. They understand this organic Jewish spirit so well that they want more of it.
Not of Judaism, per se. They don’t want bar mitzvahs and lulavs. Rather, they want the spiritual force that gushes forth from so many of our traditions, but which have been diluted by over-intellectualization, disconnect from the body, poor education, lack of commitment and raw ennui. How do we get our shuls, and those within them and those who would never set foot in them, to rediscover this path? If we cannot take them all to Holy Isle, how do we bring some of what Holy Isle stands for, and enables, to our established communities? How do we re-open Jews to the treasure of their inheritance? How do we take seriously our role as caretakers of the tradition and refuse to permit the rabbinate and cantorate to be mostly page-calling, stage-directing and expertise-exhibiting when services are on? How do we meet the needs of those who do fill the pews and who are not necessarily interested in having their familiar Judaism be broken down so it can be re-embodied and re-spiritualized…while also meeting the needs and wishes of the Jews who will never find home and retreat in Judaism unless that very surgery takes place? How do we serve what we sense the universe needs from our Judaism and Jewish practice? Which is introducing soulfulness and an open heart, and gratitude, and connection to our bodies and, in the safest of ways, even to others’ bodies as we continue to cherish, observe and also reawaken the unique forms that make up Jewish practice and observance.
The retreat is not yet over. As of writing this, there will be at least two more niggun sessions. One was requested by a few who asked, almost with temerity, whether I would be comfortable if they recorded some of these tunes so that they could bring them back to their lives and families and communities. Would I be OK? Can you imagine it? Church groups in Wales singing the East Shtetl niggun? A choir director in southern England using Calrebach’s Rova niggun as a warm-up for their practice? It is too wonderful to consider. So that recording session will take place, with a room full of singing voices and iPhones set to capture the tunes. And Sue has formally asked me to use niggun to end the retreat itself. As someone who puts an enormous amount of time into how I begin and end sessions that I lead, I am honored and touched to think that what I brought to this experience was sufficiently powerful that Sue, a master presenter and teacher, who I am sure planned exactly how she intended to close the experience, has considered that there would be no better way to end this week together than with my leading some singing. I plan, at that closing session, to introduce words for the first time into our group singing. Not liturgical ones. That would violate the covenant we are all sharing. But I do think that concluding with Od yavo shalom aleynu, v’al kulam would be most appropriate. Indeed, let peace come upon not only us, but upon everyone.
I will, weather permitting, leave this island in a few days. I will take away more that can be named. Certainly, a re-attachment to the words of our prayers that become re-ignited in my consciousness. Including those words said so early on a morning weekday or Shabbat service that sanctuaries are usually still empty by then, and which are usually raced through by those who are there: barukh she’amar v’haya olam: Blessed be the One who spoke, and there was a world. Our words, like God’s in Genesis, can create worlds. And sew worlds and people together. Beyond words, I will leave Holy Isle with a renewed commitment to embodied religious life. In Sue Weston’s words, to outrageous vitality and perkiness, and to being unashamed at having those stances be reflected in my Jewishness, in my rabbinate, in my soul. Will we Jews permit ourselves to be ecstatic? Can we fully live in our bodies as we live our Judaism? Can we accept our hands and feet and heart and chest and pelvis and ears and toes as instruments of our divine work? I aim to try. I aim to try to say “yes” to the nun’s extraordinary offer that I come back and lead a chanting retreat on this Holy Isle, and I hope that perhaps some from my community may join me if it comes to fruition. I aim to accept the wonder that as this group of non-Jews became open to the spiritual power of Judaism and Jewish music, they re-opened me to my own embodied inheritance.
I recited the Aleynu prayer many times this week. I bowed deeply at the appropriate words. But towards the end, in the paragraph almost always said silently in Jewish communities, a few words got caught in my throat. Yakiru v’yed’u kol yoshvei tevel. All the inhabitants of the earth will recognize and know. Ki l’kha tikhra kol berekh. That to You will bow every knee. Tishava kol lashon. That to you will swear every tongue. L’fanekha adonai eloheinu yikhr’eu v’yipolu. That before You, our God, all will prostrate, and all will bend. All that bending before the Divine light. And all that knowing the divine goodness. And all that committing to making that awareness be a spark for acceptance and beauty in the world. And all that permitting our entire bodies and beings be part of our religious practice. All of that? It is happening, here, on Holy Isle. This prayer has Jews being so very concerned that all the peoples of the world will learn this pose, this awareness, this craft. It is worth aspiring to. But when it comes to bowing. And awareness of God’s presence. And fully embodying religious life…can we work on ourselves first?
Adam Kligfeld is senior rabbi at Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles.
On Saturday morning I was on the coach early to get to Brighton in time to hear Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche teach on Santideva’s 9th chapter. It was just after 6am. I pulled out my new dharma book The 6 Perfections by Dale Wright (an excellent book) and tried to read the section on tolerance. It was early and my eyes hadn’t woken up. Blurry font. Unfocused mind. Easily distracted.
About 10 minutes into the journey, we were at the last main coach stop before leaving Oxford for London. A young woman got on. She expected the driver to accept card payments – only had £5 in cash. The nearest ATM was a long walk away. I asked if she was going to Victoria in which case she could withdraw £10 when we got there. We sat down and out of nowhere out of my mouth said the words: Keep the money. She wanted to repay me. All I thought was, I don’t own the money, the Government does – all I’m doing is moving it around.
The question of ownership shifted in a big way after reading a short excerpt by Daniel Dennett. It was from a philosophy text reader when I belatedly started university in my mid‑30s. My take on Daniel Dennett’s view on ownership is this: Your possessions stretch as far your mind. So, if you’re at a friend’s place and are handed a plate is the plate yours or your friend’s? The pens at work where you sit each day, are they yours? Well, they’re your employer’s. So when I sat down on the bus and thought, It’s not my money, it’s the Government’s, that’s where I was coming from. Continue reading
Hello from Goa, land of blue skies, sunshine and palm trees swaying in the balmy breeze. But lest you think that Liz and I are living the languid life of lotus eaters (okay, occasionally…) we are of course as trumped and brexited as the rest of you – but in true Indian style.
Luckily we weren’t here in November when the demonetisation policy kicked in overnight. It caused mayhem and chaos and is still not fully resolved. Basically there is still a shortage of bank notes as they scrapped the 1,000 rupee note and replaced it with a 2,000 note. That’s now £25 quid in UK money with the current crap exchange rate and if you try and pay with it few shops have change to give you or they want plastic money instead. Yes, they are trying to move to a cashless economy where hundreds of millions don’t even have a bank account or their own mobile phone. There are still unreported riots and violence and the poor have no money to pay for fruit, vegetables or milk. Unemployment has risen. Nobody can afford to buy locally built Hero motorcycles, for example, so they’ve had to close the factories. Continue reading
2 cups Panir (tofu) cubes
2 cups peas
4 tomatoes (medium) chopped
2 onions finely chopped
2.5 cm ginger piece
2 cloves garlic
½ teaspoon turmeric powder
½ teaspoon chilli powder (optional)
1 teaspoon cumin powder
2 cardamoms (black) ailaichi
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons oil/ghui
2 cups of water
Coriander leaves chopped
Fry panir cubes till golden. Remove and drain out. Grind ginger, garlic, turmeric and cumin seeds and make a paste. Heat oil, and add cardamom and bay leaves. Fry onion till golden. Add the paste and salt and again fry. Add peas and tomatoes. Again fry for a few minutes. Add water. Cover and cook till peas become tender. Add fried panir cubes and again cover for 2 minutes. Add mixed spices and garnish with green coriander leaves. Serve hot with bread or rice.
Source: Joys of Nepalese Cooking , Indra Mahapuria
Mint leaves are not used for making chutney in Kathmandu Valley where they grow wild, but they are generally used in the Terai region of Nepal.
1 cup of green mint leaves
2 small garlic cloves
1/4 teaspoonful of chili powder or 1/2 green chili
1 teaspoonful of salt
2 tablespoons of mustard oil
1/2 teaspoonful of fenugreek seeds
1/2 teaspoonful of turmeric
Juice of one or two lemons
Grind mint leaves and garlic in a mortar. Add salt and chilis. Squeeze one or two lemons for juice. Heat the mustard oil in a small frying pan and fry the fenugreek seed till they become black. Add the turmeric and turn with a spoon. Now add the mint and garlic mixture.
Time required 10- 15 minutes
Reaching out to animals and all sentient, how would this change our world? If everyone understood that all beings, whether animal, insect, bird, plant or even mineral, are sentient and therefore conscious, how would this change the way we interact with them? If we understood and began to appreciate all living beings as sacred and intelligent, what impact would this have on us, and all the other living forms with whom we co-exist on this planet? The mind boggles…
I remember as a child that one day my mother asked me to go over to the neighbours house to find out if they were at home. At that time we were living in Nelson, a small town in the north of the South Island of New Zealand. Our neighbours were a husband and wife and their two children with whom we young ones often played of an evening. They had not long moved to Nelson and being so near by, our family had instantly warmed to these new arrivals.
I ventured over the side fence and made my way up the staircase to the front door. Their tabby cat was sitting on the doorstep imbibing the warm noon sunshine. I was already acquainted with her and so gave her a nod as i climbed past to ring the doorbell. I pushed the button a few times but there was no response from within and so, without thinking, I sat down next to the venerable puss and asked her where the family had gone. She looked up at me, made a little feline squeak and we amicably bumped heads and then sat a while in companionable silence.
After some time I slowly got up and made my way back over the fence to tell my mother that the family were, at that minute, away somewhere. When I entered the house a chorus of giggling and squeals of laughter greeted me. Evidently, my mum and sisters had been watching my encounter with the neighbours cat through the back bedroom window which directly overlooked the neighbours staircase. They had overheard our conversation.
For some reason they found it inexpressibly silly and funny that I should have been sitting there verbally interacting with a cat! I found it equally silly and funny that they did not understand that one could. I was sometimes reminded of that incident whenever family members would begin to recount stories and memories of our childhood days, yet, from then until now, I still do not see what they could possibly have found so strange or amusing.
All life that is sentient, is therefore conscious!
It is incredibly important for us to take this statement seriously and give it the consideration that it deserves. Day after day we can witness around us acts of callousness and cruelty of which most people are not even aware. They are not aware because they simply do not acknowledge that other life forms are sentient and therefore feel and respond to energy, moods and pain, just as we do. This is an extremely crucial point to understand if we are ever to come into greater harmony with all other life forms with whom we share this world. The various forms of sentient life may not speak our language but there is a place where understanding can occur naturally no matter what the outer form may be.
Many who own so called pets become conscious of this truth by necessity of close association and yet somehow they often continue to exclude other forms of life. If we can ever begin to question our assumptions and reactions towards all living beings we would quickly be forced to change many long held beliefs. If we want to allow the extra ordinary bio diversity of life on our planet to continue to, not only exist but thrive, then a shift must take place in our perception.
At the moment human beings predominantly have the supremely arrogant view that everything in nature, be it animal, plant or mineral, exists for their use and convenience alone. How primitive and barbaric is this view?Thankfully this is beginning to change, there is something of an awakening in the consciousness of a growing number of people. It is not yet widespread, but it is a beginning. Many of the so-called primitive societies understood and lived by the natural laws of respectful and sustainable co-existence. But in recent human history most of these intuitive qualities have been lost and forgotten.
Awareness does not discriminate between forms. It is the inherent nature of all sentient life, how ever and where ever it may appear…
What we begin to see now, even though it is in a very nascent stage, is something of a quiet opening and awakening. At this time it is just a few people who are paving the way in inter species communication, but their work is sending out ripples, which in time will have a profound impact on the way we view the living world around us. However, each and every one of us can help to accelerate this process through our every day small deeds and by changing the way we think. Then like a shift in the tide, almost imperceptibly but slowly with a gathering momentum it can begin to catch on and start challenging old and previously unquestioned beliefs.
There will come a time when we will look back on current accepted norms and behaviours and be amazed that we could live in such a barbaric and unaware world such as we have been living in for so long. It would seem that the more, so-called advanced today’s societies think themselves to be, the more unaware and brutal they actually are.
When ingrained beliefs begin to under-go a shift, when we begin to become aware of who and what we really are, we can not help but start to notice that this same beingness which is in us, also pervades everything else. Everything includes everything, animals, plants, insects, and the planet on which we live, move and have our being. Interconnectedness is vaster and more thoroughly integrating than our mind can ever really comprehend or grasp, therefore we need to move beyond mind in order to begin to really get a sense of the underlying reality out of which all of life arises. The implications of such a shift in awareness are truly immense.
An appreciation of the unity and sacredness of all life is integral to awakening to our own awareness.
Awakened beings have long understood the interconnectedness and inherent divinity in all sentient life forms. From the Buddha, to Ramana Maharshi, and countless others besides, great sages have communicated with animals in such a natural way which is completely respectful of who and what really exists. For them this truth is a living reality, not something to be questioned or doubted, their experience which moves from the heart in an ever fresh exuberance of being, is a timeless and constant affirmation of unity in diversity.
We are all sacred drops
from the same sacred ocean of life.
Those who stayed near Ramana Maharshi and who were honoured to witness his many exchanges and relationships with animals, birds, and at times also the plant life, took it all quite for granted. The animals simply became a part of the life of the ashram. The Maharshi treated them all as his own children, showing them the same care and respect that he bestowed upon all the people who were drawn to be near him.
A Jnani can differentiate between the different forms of life, but to him all are inherently divine.
The changes which can be initiated by humans in their interaction and effect upon the different kingdoms of life, begin in our mind and thinking. When the energy of the heart is enabled to speak through the mind anything becomes possible. This is not mushy, sentimental talk, but truth based on a profound and inherent law in nature that always moves towards harmony and balance. As in all things, we are inevitably drawn back to the one and central tenet, the inherent divinity within all sentient life. To find out who and what we really are is so vital in reclaiming our true inheritance and in recognising that all living beings have an equal claim in this same inexhaustible spring of life. However we, as human beings, hold a unique position and responsibility within the kingdoms of nature. We have the capacity to know who and what we really are to live and let live by this truth.
Photos provided by the author.
[This article was sourced in LEVEKUNST art of life]
Thanks to the author for permission to publish.