Personal Stories

When No Place Feels Like Home

WHEN NO PLACE FEELS LIKE HOME

In SACRED WORLD by Cristina Luhmann11/24/2017Leave a Comment

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.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Cristina Luhmann

CRISTINA LUHMANN

I am a writer/blogger, a world traveller, a mother and a volunteer currently living in Pointe Noire, Republic of the Congo.

Photos by Public Co, USA 

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[This article first appeared in Levekunst.]

 

Through the Gateway of the Senses

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
Crushed.

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.”

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The Emptiness of Curtains:   Some reflections in retreat.

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.

A Rabbi on Holy Isle


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 amidahv’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 minhservice 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.

Continue reading

SATURDAY MORNING

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

 

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

JOURNEY TO ASSAM: GUWAHATI PART 2

Sign in Haflong, Guwahati

There’s something wonderfully hedonistic about an alarm that goes off at 5am and you lie in bed for another hour in that half dream-like state.  This is India; and lateness is a fine art that requires a last minute scrabbling for the prize – a seat on the bus or train; meeting a friend in a chaotic, busy city; frantically looking for an internet hotspot at the airport to confirm a flight.

So my wife is off to the train station.  One hour late!  Not that it matters.  She’s meeting her brother and his wife and a sister coming on the Delhi express which is two hours late.

Today is chilly and misty.  We’re in Guwahati, the capital of the state of Assam in the north east of India.  The flat has been lent to us by Sadhana, a childhood friend of my wife’s.  Sadhana heads a team in the precisely named DIRECTORATE OF WELFARE AND SCHEDULED CASTES and lives with her husband on the other side of the city.

Sadhana outside her office

I spend some time relaxing and reading India in Slow Motion by Mark Tully, the BBC correspondent for India.  Someone described his broadcasts as sounding as if he were speaking from a phone box in the middle of a busy city with the hum of traffic and horns sounding in the background.  The chapter I’m reading is about Sufism, Islamic mysticism expressed in dance and rituals.  A pity there is the split now amongst so many adherents of the religion.

My wife brings the family back from the station and they quickly settle in to the spare room, a rather dark and dank affair as it hasn’t been lived in for some time.

Time to go for a wander in the town, we leave the house and board a bus which takes us to the outskirts of the city.  Walking around, we come across the Science Museum, surprisingly neat and tidy with lots of experiments for the the kids to play with inside the building.  Nothing really sophisticated is there but the attempt to engage children in scientific practice is well thought-out.

Outside is a medicinal, aromatic herbal garden with all kinds of plants in neat beds.  Signposts indicate their Latin and local names as well as their efficacy for treating various ailments.  Doubt is cast when I see that some are purported to cure leprosy and cancer, though who knows what truths lurk in local lore.

We aim to return before we leave, yet knowing that road leads on to road we doubt that we will ever come back.

 

 

 

JOURNEY TO ASSAM: PART 1

 

Day dawns.  Early morning standing in the doorway of the little courtyard of Shinji Butt. Outside, pigs are grunting about in the mud.  A little boy squats and defecates while a multi-teated sow waits behind for him to finish.  A goat, wearing a yellow sweater, its front legs inserted into the arms, munches grass at the side of the road.

 

 

 

 

 

Inside the lodge, embers from the previous night’s celebrations, set into a square bed of sand with a parapet of bricks around the edges, still smoulder and glow red in the middle of the open yard.

The fog of the previous day has cleared, revealing cold edges and carved roundels on the lintel at the entrance to the shrine room.  Staff move around, here and there, lightly brushing the paving with a besom, clearing the corners of cobwebs that glisten in the grey, morning light.

Slowly, we leave the temple and make our way to Maha Bodhi for our morning perambulation around the walkway bordering the quadrant in which is set the main temple area.

Clearly, in my head, is the sound of the Japanese monk, Ryosho Shimiza, playing his ancient sho with its bamboo pipes standing erect.  He follows spider-like notation penned in meditative harmonies that have strange, other-worldly dischords.

The instrument is blown and sucked; the disparity in the harmonies sends shivers down the spine – dissonant , flowing, pensive sounds.

In the evening, we sleep well and waken the next day to a bright, clear and crisp morning.

Around midday we leave Bodh Gaya in a hired car for Patna.  The journey through dusty Bihari towns and villages takes 3 hours.  Our journey will continue from Patna to Guwahati, the capital of Assam state in the north east.

Alighting from the car with our baggage, we are suddenly in the chaotic traffic circle in front of the entrance to the station. We enter the concourse and walk around the various families and individuals camping on the floor of the reception hall.  Those who are awake stare at us as we make our way to the waiting room

 

As in all of India, real information is very difficult to come by and we know the train is late, but by how much we don’t know.

We find our way to the ladies’ waiting room.  One old lady is making a fuss about there being men in the room although they are obviously with their families – wives and children.  I have to leave.  But the general waiting room has an air of depression that overwhelms.  The bright overhead lights, the resigned hunched postures of the waiting passengers, the smell of vomit from a corner where someone has thrown up is overpowering and sends me back to the ladies’ waiting room from which I had been ejected.

By 12 midnight, according to the electronic notice board, the train will be at least 4 hours late, an increase of 2 hours on the last bulletin.

A descent down the worn stairs, past a beggar wearing shorts to  show off his chronic leukodema:  the poor guy is a sickly white except for brown panda eyes; and on to a “help desk” where my wife has already been and where she was told, “No rooms available”.

I try to get a room.  At the help desk, the clerk and his assistants speak no English.  I get passed from one to another and every time I start to communicate with them about getting a room somewhere in the station, they all cast their eyes down and giggle.  Eventually, I manage to communicate and I’m given a room, number 4 somewhere along from the waiting rooms upstairs.

I pay the Rs 780 (about £9) and a coolie in regulation maroon uniform takes us along a dark passageway past a restaurant that is closed and we come to a door with a padlock. We leave our bags and progress, feeling exhausted, to a dark alcove in which there is a raised deck.  A peon is asleep on a raised, concrete platform.  He peers at us from under a blanket.

We waken him and he rubs his eyes and gives us the key for the padlock.  We return to the door, open it and enter a large square room that could double for a multiple occupancy prison cell in Saudi Arabia or Syria with a palette and mattress in the middle of the room.  Using our own sheets on the thin, lumpy mattress to lessen the chances of being bitten by bugs, we flop down and sleep a dreamless sleep with the fluorescent light blazing above our heads.

As we can’t hear the announcements from the tannoy every hour or so, I have to traipse downstairs to check the bulletin board for any hint of the arrival of our train; and it’s back to a short nap in our torture chamber, the lower wall splashed red from the expectorant release of pan disconcertingly the colour of old blood.

At 4 am the board still states our train will arrive at 2 am.

Standing outside, I suddenly I hear that the train is arriving at the station.  The coolie has failed to wake us to take us to the train and the peon is fast asleep again under his blanket.

I waken my wife and send her downstairs to fetch the coolie while I pack and pile our luggage outside the door.

THE TRAIN IS NOW ARRIVING AT PLATFORM 2, I hear over the tannoy.  It’s the North East Express to Guwahati.

Just then, my wife arrives with the coolie looking guilty.  We shake the peon awake and shove the door key at him then rush downstairs, the coolie carrying our bags on his head.

Across a pedestrian bridge we go, weaving in and out of the crowds.  My wife is running ahead. The train has come in from Delhi and we have only about 10 minutes to find our carriage and get our bags on the train – and there is a really, really long train of carriages.

Just in time, the coolie finds our carriage about halfway along the platform, and we settle into our sleeping quarters.

On the way to Assam, our train is delayed again and we don’t reach our destination till past midnight the following night…altogether a 33 hour journey from Gaya to Guwahati.

 

A friend has booked us into the Surya Hotel but the place seems locked up for the night.  Raju, our friend, phones the hotel and eventually a young boy opens the hotel door and takes us up to our room.

After the filth on the train, the room sparkles.  At last, we have a shower and sleep.

 

 

 

 

 

 

LIFE AND DEATH

We Buddhists talk about death a lot.

For me, that’s the main attraction – there’s no shying away from the truth in Buddhism. I’ve always known death. I’ve always said that Life is death and death is life. When I was 14 months old, my sister was born terminally ill and died 18 months later. In 4th grade, my father underwent major surgery which he again underwent in 6th grade. I guess he’d had symptoms for a couple of years. Maybe he didn’t want to imagine himself unwell. Who knows? In any case, he did what men so often do and didn’t go to the doctor. He died at 46 when I was 13. If he’d have gone to the doctor earlier, he would have lived longer.

The way I see it, my father wasn’t one for facing facts. For whatever reason, for some people the truth is too hard to bear. Maybe we’re all like that – it’s just a matter of extent. Maybe that’s what the Buddha is teaching us. Maybe he’s teaching us that we need to face the truth. We can’t see what we can’t bear to see. How do we see what we can’t bear to see?

The story of my sister’s death isn’t as simple as it seems. The story of my father’s death isn’t as simple as it seems. For anyone who’s experienced these types of things, it’s never as simple and straightforward as we like to imagine. We like to create edges around things, fill in the contents and label them. We like to see what’s inside our jars, put a lid on and write what’s inside. We read the jar label imagining the flavours and textures. But it’s completely different when you live and breathe it. It’s a bit like a reading a book. If you’ve lived it it’s completely different to getting a theoretical perspective. For us Buddhists, we read books about death – about bardo, life, death, books like The Tibetan Book of the Dead. But death from the inside looking out isn’t like a book describing something. It’s too close. It’s not orderly. It’s not contained. It’s visceral.

I need to go back a bit so you understand where I’m coming from. Let me start with my sister.

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TECHNOLITERACY

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I first felt the onslaught of the digital tsunami in my engineering days.  My job as an apprentice toolmaker was to set up capstan lathes in a small factory in Glasgow that made bespoke accouterments for submarines:  salinometers, micro-valves and custom tools for cutting gears.  Crockets was the name of the company.

After two years of working there, the management decided to invest in machines that could be monitored by one man from a centrally situated hub and my skills quickly became redundant, along with about 10% of the factory’s workforce.

 

It was the sixties and the journey from analogue to digital had begun.

In 1981, after many years of working on a BBC computer and inking exam papers on a Banda machine for third-world use, I was in Toronto where I was helping to build a sauna with some Polish students in the district of Pape.  The house was a late 19th century French colonial structure.  The sauna was annexed to a bedroom on the top floor, the middle and ground sections providing living space and a kitchen respectively.  In the basement was a service workshop for Apple computers, the first in the country I was told.

Tom and his wife Trudy, the owners of the house, left me in charge while they went for a two-week vacation to Tobago.  I was to sign myself in and out of the place, cook my food in the kitchen, and was allowed to’play’ on the computers in the basement.

I don’t know how you feel about packman and on-screen table tennis, but don’t get involved, ever, with shooting alien craft out of the sky as they drop to earth in ever-increasing numbers accompanied by a repetative, digital soundtrack. I spent 16 or more hours a day at the screen and walked about the house zapping everything in sight in my line of vision accompanied by an auditorially tintinnabulated internal screeching of extra-terrestrial craft landing from the ceilings of the house.

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Nowadays, while driving, I think of how my father would have wondered at the technology used in cars these days.  For as far as I can remember he drove a new car every year until he died in 1972.  These included Vauxhall, Singer, MG, Morris Oxford, Triumph, Humber, Austin, and various other models.  (I also wonder how Leonardo da Vinci would react to television, helicopters and aeroplanes, and, well, just about anything in the modern world.)

Now, microprocessors in cars regulate the windows and the engine with on-board diagnostics.  The engine control unit, for example, is one of the many seeming miracles of vehicle technological developments.  It balances the mixture of air and fuel that passes through the catalytic converter to remove pollutants from the car exhaust.  And what would my father think of me speaking to someone on my hands free iPhone then switching to a GPS navigation system which can forecast my time of arrival at a destination by the shortest and least cumbersome route in real time?

Now, I have an old and redundant SLR Pentax in my cupboard with a detachable 185 mm lens, replaced with a Nikon digital camera, a Cassio compact camera and an iPhone on which I can access What’s App, Viber, Face Time, send and receive texts and tweets, send an Instagram,  listen to music on wireless digital headphones on Deezer or Sound Cloud, enter appointments in my calendar with one click, find the arrival of a bus near my home or anywhere in the country, carry plane, train, bus and theatre tickets in my digital wallet, make use of predictive text which suggests words I might wish to insert in a text field, predictions based on the context of other words in the message and the first letter typed…and take a pretty good photo with a selfie stick that someone gave me.

As for the future. Well, here are some of my predictions.  I was told by an 86 year old mathematician who used to work in Ferrantis developing electronics for the defence industry that most of the guesses below have been or are in progress.  Excuse the layman’s vocabulary:

• Inter-dermal gossamer implants containing personal  information     such as passports, medical records and current terrestrial location
• Geo drones for the delivery of online-purchased goods.
• Holographic, omni-directional media systems for home use
• Rolls of highway applied to super-Velcro surfaces
• Predictive Assessed Profiles (PAP) of criminal behaviour – think Tom Cruise’s Minority Report
• Smart wrist bands that send real time diverse health uploads to a central astro-physical diagnostic hub enabling packets of advice on activities and diet
• Organic/biological prosthetics
• Neo-plastic neuron implants in designated inter modal pathways to facilitate the amelioration of harmful habits such as smoking and alcohol addiction
• Inter-spatial organic plateaus for the production and delivery of food to stations on earth
• Genetic applications of advantageous features in mammals applied to humans, such as amphibiotic gills, eidetic tableau memory platforms and stereoscopic vision.
• Biological, inter-gender robots with legalised human partner-paired capabilities  (This is happening now cf Martina Rothblatt)
• And, of course, international exospheric battlement stations stocking nuclear payloads

In a billion years, let’s imagine that we’re still around, the difference between human appearances now and then would be as different as the forms evolved by bacteria and a monkey.

I read that somewhere.

Technologically, well, that’s beyond all our present understanding.

 

Image result for photo of space time

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Game Changing

 Somehow 2016 feels like a game-changer. The fatigue of decades of political non-speak and spin has taken its toll this year with Brexit and Trump. The social scientists at work were wondering what they’d missed in their analyses of the political ailments that returned us to Germany in the 1930s when the news of the Austrian election where almost half the population voted for an outright Fascist. How did that happen? we asked and yet it’s been a long time coming.

So what’s in stall for 2017?

I live a very simple and calm life which has been fantastic for my Buddhist practice. At an external level, not much changes between one day and the next, one week and the next. I make breakfast, do Pilates, meditate, go to work, come home, cook dinner, read, go to bed. It’s pretty much the same thing day in, day out. The weekends are mugs and mugs of freshly brewed loose-leaf tea while pottering about the house. The amazing thing about having a repetitive life is that I have the space to develop my practice, to reflect, to read – it feels very 1980s. Simple and comforting.

Image result for meditation illustration

A Buddhist acquaintance recently said that 30 years ago she made the decision to lead a full life after her father’s death in her late teens. The conversation triggered a contemplation about what it means to live a full life, especially as I lead such a quiet life. Given the opportunities and options available today, the idea of doing lots and lots of things as a definition of leading a full life feels like I’m in a huge banquet hall with tables and tables in every direction with varieties of cuisines and courses of all descriptions. There’s no way to taste everything and I’m unsure about where to go? what to choose? how much to have? I’m overwhelmed by the possibilities and feel uncertain to step in any direction. None feel particularly meaningful and the consumption feels both unethical and unsatisfactory. Why choose 1 way instead of another? It doesn’t matter which way I go, I’ll always miss out on more than I could ever taste. And besides, what will all that tasting give? A chronic insatiability of what I haven’t yet had, questioning what other options are available and regret about which decisions I made. I feel saturated and overwhelmed by it all.

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In response, I’ve pulled back from the world, restricted my options, reduced what I look at. One of the decisions has been to focus on the good news on the internet and to avoid the rest because the bad stuff is really bad, e.g. the situation in Syria is bad enough and yet Russia is in cahoots – Putin looks like a parasitic monster feeding on the underbelly of greed. In addition, I get the feeling that much of what’s news is propaganda. Is ‘the news’ a form of consumption to feel bad as much as shopping is a type of consumption to feel good? It’s as if the society is obsessed by consuming in any form without understanding the assault on the soul. My body and mind feel triggered and pulled in all directions as it seeks my attention, emotion and purchase.

And so the question remains – What does it mean to lead a full life? After much cogitation, I’ve decided that leading a fuller life is to lead a stiller life – to notice both the beauty and the pain by pausing and doing less: The sunrise is beautiful. Syria is a mess. Fascism is rising. The rose is stunning. People are lonely. People are happy. There are hurts. There is forgiveness. And then there’s the wonderfully kitch and the inspiring.

For me, it seems that to lead a full life is to lead a life with the full gamut of emotions, responses, reactions – to intimately engage with whatever arises: The funny, the bland, the hate, the love, the sorrow, the drudgery, the appalling, the wonder and the joy. As for 2017, my hope is that it will be a new job at better pay, meaningful friendships, connection to a charity, deeper understanding of Buddhism and plenty of wonder and joy.

May you also have a year that is full of wonder and joy – and full life in whatever form that takes.

About the author Wendy Nash.
Wendy is Australian and has been living in Oxford, UK, for the past 3 years. She has been following Buddhism since 2003, took refuge with the Buddha in 2008 and in 2014 realised that although she had everything she wanted (good relationships, health and job) she was still unhappy – that’s when her practice really came into its own. She has been dedicated to the White Tara group in Oxford since 2014.

She thinks that life is better with a vase of flowers nearby and mugs of teapot tea. 

Glesca

Rouken Glen Boathouse, Glasgow

I had a great childhood just outside of the city, Glasgow that is!  Not like the city I grew up in, no it’s now a fabulous bustling town and something to be proud of if you are a Glaswegian…

I lived in Orchard Park which is between Giffnock and Thornliebank.  Behind “oor hoose” was a farm.  It was owned by farmer Stirling.  He and his wifie had two sets of twins, one set boys and the other girls.  I remember the old farm kitchen.  It had a huge wooden table (at least it seemed huge then) which was worn down in the middle where there was always an uncut loaf, I think we called it a plain loaf!  A huge dish of homemade jam took up residence on one corner of the table and likewise on another corner was delicious homemade butter,  the wooden butter pat still in it.  Of course these three ingredients made great “jellie pieces.”  Up the circular staircase from the kitchen was the family`s best lounge.  Glass cabinets held their treasures….

I went on the tractor and round the fields with the farmer.  I helped to milk the cows, feed the pigs and collect eggs.  Wonderful memories of a wonderful time.

I was probably about 15 years old when the farm was knocked down and a function hall was built, not nearly as much fun but necessary they said.

I lived in a cul-de-sac at number six and my friend at number 12.  Her father had an amazing  gardens full of beautiful blooms of all the colours of the rainbow.  He fed the plants with horse dung which he collected from the droppings of horses which came through our street and into the fields.  For me as a child I found this disgusting!!!

We as children had so much freedom.  Off we went on our bikes and weren’t seen again till lunch time.  After lunch we were off again.  We went to Rouken Glen up hills and down vales.  Exploring the woods, picking bluebells by their hundreds,  jumping the burn etc…  What great memories.  So sad that our children and grandchildren are so restricted and don’t have much freedom.  One wonders if the goings on were the same in the old days but with no media to frighten people off..

I left school at 16 and took up hairdressing as my career.  My parents had to pay £300.00 for my apprenticeship.  It was such a lot of money for them to find.  However it gave me the ability to do something which I used for many years both here and abroad and best of all I loved `doing hair`.

When I became twenty one, three girlfriends and I decided to go and work in Gibraltar for a year. We all left our jobs and booked flights.  What an exciting time that was.  We were ahead of our time because if you weren’t married and by that age you certainly didn’t leave home!  The neighbour speaking to my mum over the fence said “Was she thon way” is that’s why she has gone away…

Anastasia Romei

THE PHOENIX

I am skiing down through the snow and come across a building called Innovation. I walk through the door, and come across the people at the pay kiosk. I say I have no money with me but I want to meet my other half. They let me go in and I go up the escalator to meet the other half, at the top of the stair I see myself, and follow ‘her’ through something which look like market stalls. ‘She’ collapses, and I shout out, is there a doctor here to help? Three Doctors come by me, but not in time as she dies in my arms. I am bereft as I walk to the great window and look out. There is a vast expanse of nothing.

I wake up and tape my dream, which I take down to my partner, who has a painting and writing studio down in the barn, on the land which is in the Highlands of Scotland. We study some Krishnamurti and Wittgenstein together for awhile. As one does! I am age 31.

A little later, I put on a pair of gardening trousers, to lift potatoes I have grown, I would normally wear a dress or skirt. I see smoke coming from the croft, and run towards it, and call for Neil, my partner. The croft is becoming ablaze with fire, and cannot be entered. Since we only have a small bridge over the river to this remote land, above Loch Ness , there is no way a fire engine can get access to the house. Neil says to me, I will get two deckchairs and we will sit and let it be. Unless you watch it consciously Kate, you will never let it go, he says. We sit behind the house on deckchairs, in the meadow and watch the house and all the belongings burning down. There is a strange feeling mix of shock, sadness and yet there is also elation. This moment changes my life. The Phoenix.

UNLESS YOU WATCH IT CONSCIOUSLY KATE, YOU WILL NEVER LET IT GO, HE SAYS.

That night we go to friends, support I suppose. They are having a party. We only have the steading barn left with artworks and writings of Neils, and my spinning wheel. He is a poet and playwright. Friends offer clothes and washing things, for me to take ‘home’ which I take in a rug bag. We return home, sleep in the steading, Scottish for barn, as the croft still smoulders. We have lost everything, and the local farmers come to pay respects, with whisky. I lie on the balcony bed and watch them reminisce, exhausted.

In the morning when the fire brigade men in their yellow suits are there, smashing down the remains, I go in and find a double egg cup which had belonged to my mother, and a copy of Ivanovitch Gurdjieff’s ‘All and Everything’ untouched by the fire. All else had gone to the fire.

Within days I go to the Tibetan Monastery in Dumfrieshire, and on arrival find Situ Rinpoche, Gyalsab Rimpoche and Thrangu Rinpoche there on a visit. It is an auspicious moment. I meet Akong Rinpoche and say, I have had several dreams, and experiences, I think you spiritual masters, may have burnt my house down. He says ‘maybe.’

I ask if I may stay to follow the Dharma. I ask if I may stay for a year and a day! Neil decides to travel to India to follow a spiritual master in India. We go our separate ways. Within months I am in Oxford, starting to care for the Lama House, for Thrangu Rinpoche. Yes, my life has changed. I am in the kind hands of the Buddhas. And still am.

I learnt from this experience that the material world, is very much less important than the spiritual world of which I am now making an effort to live. The Phoenix was a hidden blessing.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kate Roddick

KATE RODDICK

Kate is unique, being one of the first ever Westerners ever to study traditional Tibetan medicine in Dharamsala. This was no mean feat, spending seven years within the monk community next to His Holiness Dalai Lama’s residence, translating Tibetan texts to enable her to study medicine with some of the greatest Tibetan physicians of our time. This was borne out of her deep dedication to of wishing to help others. At Napiers the Herbalists. She also holds workshops on The Art of Tibetan Healing and the Five Elements. She spends much time attending retreats these days and has a darn good sense of humor.

This article first appeared in LEVEKUNST art of life  free online magazine.

See also The Tibetan Art or Healing in Many Roads.

Visiting Borobudor

At the top of the Stupa, just before sun rise

I had been in Indonesia for over a week, starting in the crazed metropolis of Jakarta then moving on to the University town of Yogyakarta. From Yogya I took a Taxi which got me to my hotel in Borobdor in just over an hour. After checking in, I booked a sun-rise entrance ticket to the Stupa.

No one knows who built the monument, the largest Buddhist structure in the world, or indeed why it was built although it is thought to have been completed in the 8th century. It lay abandoned, hidden under volcanic ash and jungle growth until it was discovered by the British while Java was briefly under U.K administration in 1814.

There had been a plan by the Dutch to dismantle the monument and scatter the pieces across the world in many different museums, but thankfully this didn’t happen and after many years work, UNESSCO named it a world heritage site in 1991.

Buddha statue, looking out into the Jungle

I was picked up by motorbike at 4:30 AM and taken to a luxury hotel which sits in the grounds of the Temple Complex where myself and about 30 other people queued up at the back of the hotel and where a staff member gave us a flashlight and pointed to a path. I was at the start of the line and turned on my flashlight and headed into the darkness with the rest of the group following behind. It was pitch dark and there was a low lying mist swirling over the path.

After a few minutes’ walk we arrived at the monument, although it was still really dark you could really get a sense you were somewhere really special. You walk round each level in a clockwise direction, climbing the stairs and passing smaller stupas and Buddha statues until you reach the top (which is Nirvana, the other levels being the lower stages of life)

Wall carving

I got to the top and found a space and sat down, staring into the darkness. After a while all the Mosques in the area started doing the call to the first prayers of the day, it was still dark and misty which made it even more atmospheric.

Gradually the sun rose, lighting up the monument and the surrounding jungle. It was one of the most amazing moments of my life. I spent the next three hours or so exploring the site, there are so many carvings which explain the laws of Karma, the birth of the Buddha, the Jakarta tales to name just a few. It is such a mind blowing place, it was hard to leave but after quite a few times round I decided to head back to my hotel for breakfast.

 

The top of the Stupa

All the guidebooks suggest you go twice during your stay in Borobudor but I decided not to go back, the visit had been so magical I wanted to keep the feeling in my heart and mind for the rest of my life. One of the most amazing places on Earth, I urge everyone to visit if the chance to comes up.

Looking up at the Stupa

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

HERMIT

Buddhism has been part of my life since I was a teenager. Now I have just passed my seventieth birthday. In the intervening years, I have been fortunate to study with some of the leading teachers of the age – Chogyam Trungpa, Kennett Roshi, and Thich Nhat Hanh among them. along with some lesser known but equally great figures who have had a profound effect upon me – Minh Choa, Saiko Gisho, Nai Boonman, Viradhammo, and others.

 At one time or another I have explored most of the modes of Buddhist life – the householder, monasticism, the wandering teacher, community living, socially engaged ministry – and now I live as something of a hermit in a remote area of France – la France profond. 

 Berry is geographically situated in the upper Loire valley. The lower Loire is famous for its chateau, but we are off the regular tourist track here in a region of big rivers and forests and gently rolling countryside. It is a tranquil area where nothing much happens other than the procession of the seasons, which are, here, strongly marked. Winter is cold and crisp. In spring you can virtually see things grow and there are carpets of bluebells in the woods. Summer is hot and dry, with occasional dramatic thunder storms. Autumn is veritably the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. 

 I live in a somewhat primitive house. there is no central heating. For cooking i use bottle gas. There are wood burning stoves and I cut the wood from the forest myself. In the warmer months I get visitors, but those who dare the cold times are rare. I find it easy to identify with the hermit hijiri of old Japan who wrote poems about beauty and desolation. 

 There are paths through the surrounding woods. It is not a difficult matter to stay in tune with nature here, in fact, difficult to avoid doing so. It is a meditation simply to step outside the house and gaze at the walnut tree in the field. I see the phases of the moon advance and note the turning of the starry heaven. The sunrise is orange and the sunset pink, or sometimes even a fiery red.  

 These natural elements take on a divine appearance and one senses deities in every direction. In addition to Buddhism I have a sensitivity for the ancient Greek religion and one it seems a great deal more than myth when one lives in such a place as this.

 By way of formal practice, I call the name of Amitabha a hundred thousand times a month and it seems that the elements say it back to me each in their own way. The locals probably think I am an odd eccentric, but then, I suppose, that is what I have always wanted to be. Buddhism has a place for such things. 

 Though remote, I am not entirely isolated. There is a very small settlement of friendly Dharma companions about 15 kilometres away and we meet once a week to practice together and enjoy the company. 

 There are times when one walks out on a frosty morning or sees the glow worms shining in the evening or stands beneath a centuries old oak when the impression that there is nothing better overwhelms one. The Buddha often praised solitude and, although he lived in a country with a different climate, I feel he must have experienced similar joy in order to recommend it to us.

 

David Brazier is a British author and psychotherapist known for his writings on Zen Buddhism and psychotherapy. He is the leader of the Amida Order. Wikipedia
David Brazier can be contacted via http://eleusis.ning.com/

The Trek to Mount Kailash in Tibet

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The trek to Mount Kailash Tibet May 2002

Mount Kailash is the holiest mountain in Tibet and probably all Asia.  It is situated in the Ngari region of western Tibet, which is one of the highest, loneliest and most desolate places on the planet.  It rises perpetually snow capped 7,500 metres from the high desert plains which surrounds it.  The shape of the mountain is a near perfect pyramid. The Buddhists believe is was the location where the Tibetan Buddhist saint Milarepa overcame the obstacles created by followers of the ancient Bon religion.  Tibetans also called the mountain Kang Rinpoche which means precious snow mountain. Hindus consider Mount Kailash to be the mythical mount Meru; the world’s spiritual centre.  Mount Kailash is also the source of three of Asia’s most important rivers; the Ganges, the Bramaputra and the Indus.

This trek circumambulates Mount Kailash and crosses the Drolma La pass which is 5,800 metres.  Mount Kailash is not an easy place to get to.  Since it is located 1,250 kilometres west of Lhasa.  For the last 500 kilometres there is no road as such just a rock-strewn track with several rivers to cross and with no bridges.  Our trek was organized by the Samye Ling Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Scotland UK together with an international adventure trekking company.  This trek is a fund-raiser to help them construct a large Stupa at their monastery.  (A Stupa is a symbolic representation of Buddha’s spiritual mind or Dharmakya.)  The physical shape of the stupa is based on the shape of Kailash itself.  Each part of a stupa illustrates and represents different stages of Buddha’s path to enlightenment.

Building a stupa is of great significance in Tibetan Buddhism because it is a very powerful way to purify negative karma and also a way of accumulating great merit.  Stupas can be of almost any size ranging from a few centimetres to the stupa on the Indonesian Island of Java called Borododur which is 200 metres in height.

This trek took place in the Tibetan year of the wind horse [2002].  It is the year which Tibetans believe is the most beneficial year in which to do the Kailash trek.  The reason for this is that to do this pilgrimage in any year will wash away the sins of a lifetime.  But to do this trek in the year of the wind horse will wash away the sins of several lifetimes. The end of our trek around mount Kailash is also planned to coincide with Sawa Daga at Tarboche.  This is the date [the varies because of the lunar calendar but it happens around the 15th May each year] which commemorates the Buddha’s birth and attainment of enlightenment.

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There were 15 of us on the trek excluding guides, drivers, porters and cooks.  In addition to cost of our trek, we each donated at least 1,000 $US towards the construction of the Stupa at Samye Ling Scotland.  Our guide was Bradley Rowe a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and a very experienced Tibet expert with an international reputation.  Our group comprised of myself [from Thailand], 1 German, 2 from the US, 2 from Canada, 9 from the UK.  Our ages ranged from 19 to 69 years old.  We all flew from different parts of the world and met up in Kathmandhu Nepal for the departure to Tibet.  The complete trek lasted 6 weeks in all, firstly flying to Lhasa, Tibet to acclimatize and sight-see for a few days.  Then on to the oldest Buddhist monastery in Tibet; the Samye monastery.  From the Samye monastery we went by jeep 1,000 kilometres to the foot of Mount Kailash.  Then we returned overland from Kailash to Kathmandhu by jeep.

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Wild White Horses

 

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In the Tibetan map of the world, the world is a circle and at the centre there is an enormous mountain guarded by four gates.  And when they draw a map of the world, they draw the map in sand, and it takes months and then when the map is finished, they erase it and throw the sand in to the nearest river.

Last fall the Dalai Lama came to New York city to do a two-week ceremony called the Kalachakra which is a prayer to heal the earth.  And woven into these prayers were a series of vows that he asked us to take and before I knew it I had taken a vow to be kind for the rest of my life.  And I walked out of there and thought:  “For the rest of my life??  What have I done?  This is a disaster!”

And I was really worried.  Had I promised too much?  Not enough?  I was really in a panic.  They had come from Tibet for the ceremony and they were walking around midtown in their new brown shoes and I went up to one of the monks and said, “Can you come with me to have a cappuccino right now and talk?”  And so we went to this little Italian place.  He had never had coffee before so he kept talking faster and faster and I kept saying, “Look, I don’t know whether I promised too much or too little.  Can you help me please?”

And he was really being practical.  He said, “Look, don’t limit yourself.  Don’t be so strict!  Open it up!”  He said, “The mind is a wild white horse and when you make a corral for it make sure it’s not too small.  And another thing:  When your house burns down, just walk away.  And another thing:  Keep your eyes open.”

“And one more thing:  Keep moving.  ‘Cause it’s a long way home.”

Sourced from What Book, Buddha Poems from Beat to Hip Hop.