Sunday, August 30, 2009

Quickly The Body Passes Away

"This body is as transient as dew on the grass, Life passes as swiftly as a flash of lightning, quickly the body passes away, in a moment life is gone." Dogen from Rules for Meditation

My mother died peacefully yesterday afternoon in her own bed. I had the privilege of sitting with her and holding her hand as she took her last breaths. It was interesting timing and not without its own meaning. I had just turned to the pages on the process of dying in "The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying" by Sogyal Rinpoche and read a part that said we only have a certain number of breaths based on our karma. A few minutes after that as I sat holding her hand my mothers face turned upward and seemed to open and she took a peaceful, long breath. There was a long pause. She took a few smaller breaths and then there were no more. A large digital clock was keeping us company by the bed side and showed that this transpired between about 2:05 -2:12. I sat and cried a bit and then could feel the inclination to do something, get up call my partner, call the Hospice Nurse. I resisted this urge and sat a while longer, said some prayers and at 2:55 according to my digital friend I felt a great peace arrive.

It has been a long journey with my mother but over the last 8 months we had some deep and healing conversations. I believe my mother's deep karmic work revolved around this statement she made at one point, about her inability to express love to others: "I realized why I was the way I am but I didn't realize how it affected other people." Is this not an amazing realization for a woman of 94? This came out of my search for some healing in our relationship when one day I asked myself after a particularly difficult encounter with her "how can I be helpful?" I came to see that I needed my mother to know how I felt in a kind and open way. This helped us move our relationship to new levels that seemed to defuse my anger and her wanting. It helped me to see her as a full person, filled with both compassion and suffering. She got to be just who she was. We reached a plateau of respect and caring. And this opened a space for us to talk about her impending death and what she wanted to do before she died. There was true healing.

So I could be with my mother in a tender and open way as she died. We could negotiate the fact that she did not want to go to hospital as the community nurse suggested. She did not want to die in an institutional bed in an emergency ward with noise and hustle and bustle and strangers mulling around in a samsaric way. In the end the community health nurse could hear us and made quick and seamless arrangements for the Hospice Response Team to visit. They were the most lovely, gentle, caring folk you could wish for. Arnold and Catherine brought peaceful caring energy to my mother's apartment and some meds to make her breathing easier. So between 4 pm Friday and 2 pm Saturday my mother made her final transition in a graceful, peaceful, uncomplicated way, in a way I belief typified her true being. When asked by the hospice team where she wanted to die, she said, "here if it's not too much trouble." And she truly meant that. It was the exit she had been waiting for. Please say a prayer for my mother if you feel so inclined. I am wishing her an auspicious rebirth where she can build on the realizations of this life, where she can happily express love and feeling. May her life and death be of benefit to all beings. Yetta Leslie 1915- 2009.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Thinking Mind, Grumbling Mind, Embrace Them All

Here is another refining. I have touched up Buddha, adding some more subtle detail, somewhat in the same way that by doing my practice I am refining myself. It is true that we all have Buddha nature and depending on how you like to look at it we can see ourselves as scraping the "gunk" of our karma off our lovely personal self portraits to reveal the our true nature. Here we are energy, having a human experience. And the teaching reminds us that this is a rare and precious occasion. But how often do we (I) really remember that my human life is a rare and precious treat to be savoured and held with reverence?

I have been watching my grumbling mind again (still?). So what else is new? The little faults I find in daily things and people. I see the grumbling and my first inclination is "I don't like it". I resist this aspect of my humaness, my karma. I have a difficult time making friends with it, seeing it as just thoughts. I go immediately to the place of feeling "bad" that I am petty. I heard a talk in an online course called "Awakening Joy", I believe the woman's name was Catherine Ingram, where she talked about standing on the tube platform in London's underground and thinking: "I could just push that person over there onto the rail line." She said that doesn't make me a bad person. It is just a thought.

And my Zen teacher has pointed out, it is what we do with that thought that is important. If we have an angry thought, do we act on it? Or do we simply feel the internal power of that anger, its energy and watch it pass (however long that takes). It is our response that we are working with. Thoughts and emotions arise. Do we react (without care) or respond (by considering the bigger picture)?

Our future karma depends on this. Do we strengthen those inclinations of anger and me, me, me? Do we build the neural pathways that lead to similar future reactions? Or do we work to resist and restrain ourselves from following "unwholesome" paths of action? These are the questions of the day, of the weekend for me? This is the cutting edge of practice.

So if I am mindful I remember to be compassionate toward myself, instead of judgmental. I can look at the suffering that this little scenario has caused for me and see that it is the suffering that leads to the end of suffering. If I had acted on every little negative thought, this would be the suffering that leads to more suffering! And experience tells me that this is not the way to go. So here I am finding polishing the family heirlooms (the human family!).

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Spiritual Toolbox

This piece is another variation on a an image transfer of a Buddha photo taken in a garden on Vancouver Island and some recycled prayer flags with a little hand stamped text tossed in for good measure.

I have spent a lovely weekend at the home of friends on Gabriola Island in the company of my friend the monk. Yesterday we were treated to some fabulous art at an outdoor venue, a favourite artist of mine, Sheila Norgate was there and someone whose work is new to me and struck a chord was that of Ann Gaze.

We enjoyed coffee and sun and were treated to a late afternoon show down at Sunset Point put on by some passing killer whales. Today we were awash in the Dharma. Our monk gave a talk to a local meditation group and then few people joined us for more Dharma and afternoon tea.

What was so apparent as I watched people was their hunger for spiritual teaching, for a spiritual solution or approach to their problems. The questions reflected the need for a "spiritual toolbox" to assist with those broken, slightly rickety spots in our lives. One woman asked about how to deal with the angry people around her in a loving way. Another woman wondered how she might know what was the right thing to do, should she move, should she change jobs?

And our friend the monk offered her always helpful advice. First, there are no generalizations. We must always work on the specifics of here and now. We must look at every situation individually to determine "what is it good to do?"

Next she suggested we use the 3 pure precepts to guide us. 1. Do no harm. 2. Do only good. 3. Purify your heart.
To use this as guidanceshe suggested we need to examine our intentions. We don't want to come from anger in any case. And this can be especially tricky if we are dealing with angry people. We don't want to give up reason and logic but we do need to look into our own hearts. If we are feeling angry, now is not the best time to act. We may need to take some time for contemplation and for the heat of our own anger to pass before we decide the best course of action. And as always it is a slightly experimental process. We come with good intentions and as skillful means as we can muster. We decide on course of action and move from there, adjusting our course as necessary.

And when we are wondering about life paths to take she pointed out that we can never know for sure what is the best choice but that again we need to examine our actions. Do we have some habitual pattern? Are we changing jobs or moving on a regular basis? What's that all about? We want to look at our lives with the curiosity of a stranger to see what we are getting up to. We are in essence trying to get to know ourselves. Are we avoiding something? Are we choosing the devil we know? We need to be honest with ourselves and willing to look. After we have examined our motivation we take action but truly we can never know how things will turn out. We are not in control. And she pointed out that we are acting on faith, faith in something greater. When we have listened to the still small voice within we then trust that we will get what we need. (Didn't The Rolling Stones sing about that?) That doesn't always mean we will get what we want, that things will work out as we imagined. But she pointed out that her teacher said "everything that happens is for my good".

As she offered the spiritual screw drivers and pliers and hammers and nails I could see people's faces light up. I could imagine them rolling up their sleeves to tackle those personal projects that had been languishing on the puzzling to-do-list. Maybe there is a way to relate to my ex-husband. Maybe I can find a way to speak with my mother. Maybe I have a new way to think about my work.

At the end of the day all the little tool boxes were packed up and carried off by new Dharma carpenters, many smiling faces and no banged thumbs (so far!)

Friday, August 14, 2009

Strong Back, Soft Heart

Here's a second study of the "rainbow buddha". I did an earlier one that sold and then because I am always exploring the face of the Buddha and I love these colours I did another one, using more shading and detailing, especially around the eyes. George Littlechild is a painter I love and in a strange way I feel a connection through my colourful Buddhas . This Buddha has a very "female" look as do a number of my Buddha's. Maybe it's time do do a Tara as one friend keeps urging me or a Quan Yin as another suggests.

Yesterday as I sat in meditation I heard some words that I remember hearing 20 years ago at the Shambhala Centre I attended then. I believe they are attributed to Chogyam Trungpa: "Have a strong back and a soft heart" I may be off in the exact words and the trusty, know-it-all "google" couldn't find them for me. But they seem important to me in my practice lately.

If all we have is a soft heart (which is kind of my inclination) we tend to be weighted down by the troubles of the world, our own and that of others. The sadness and the suffering pile up and we feel overwhelmed. I remember when I first went to the Dharma talks of my teacher it seemed all I could see was the suffering around me. I felt like an open wound, oozing and raw. But a soft heart is an important part of the practice, to be open to the suffering and pain of others (and ourselves) to be willing to walk into it, to be with it, not pushing it away and saying everything is copacetic.

And yet this is not the whole picture (as I sensed in my overwhelmed state) As a senior teacher at the Shambhala Centre suggested, yes we need to have a soft heart, to let the world in, to let it touch us but we need to have a strong back to bear it all. We need to find a way to hold that suffering and not collapse or push it away. It is about this balance, this blend of soft and strong, and I like that it is described with the body. I see this picture of me with my soft heart being pulled forward and rolling up into a tiny ball. That's too much soft heart. And if you only have a strong back, perhaps your body is pulled so straight up, so tightly, that things simply bounce off your heart and can't enter there?

And for those of us with soft hearts, how do we develop the strong back? I am not sure about that? I am working on it. Our training helps us develop wisdom and clarity that allows us to see the truth of situations. To me that means that it is not always the "soft, kind, fuzzy" action that is helpful in a particular instance. As in the story I told of my friend repeating her problem over and over I have come to realize it is not helpful for either of us to let this go on. I need to have a strong back and in as kind and skillful way as possible not indulge delusion.

I need to have the strength to do the hard thing. I need to trust that the universe is unfolding as it should. If something seems horrific to me I can remember as my friend the monk says, "that something greater is working itself out" that is beyond my understanding. It doesn't mean I give up action and caring, it means using my strong back allows me to lift and hold a weight that would otherwise oppress my soft heart and render me "unhelpful" to myself and others.

And my wish for you is, may you go out into the world with your strong back and your soft heart and embrace what the world has to offer you.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Refining Our Lives

I have reinvented "Bubblegum Buddha". In her first incarnation she had no face or detailing. She was simply an ethereal emanation of a Buddha. I liked her then and I like her now. She has been a resident in my studio for a while and lately I have been reinventing, retouching, adding to some older paintings.

Isn't this a lot like what we do to ourselves? Isn't that the refining our practice, taking the base metal of ourselves and turning it to something precious that shines? As time goes on things call out for attention and/or change and we attend to them as seems appropriate. Not that we are always wiser, but if we pay attention and do the best we can, that's all life really asks for I think. The older faceless Buddha seemed clumsier, this one more delicate and detailed.

So it feels like some stage of life, some point on the path where I am pausing to look back and adjust the work I had previously done. I feel a little more skillful in adding the detail to my paintings. And this seems to be the result that "confidence comes with doing, with practice." The more I paint, the clearer it becomes what needs some tweeking in previous work. So in life. Perhaps the eye becomes clearer, the hand more skillful?

I think I can carry over this lesson into other parts of my life. It reminds me that in Malcolm Gladwell's most recent book, "Outliers" he talks about the 10,000 hour rule. Basically that's how long it takes to develop competency at any craft or activity.

The Dharma lesson that has been arriving at my doorstep recently has to do with my relation to others, mainly friends and neighbours. I have noticed myself becoming irritated in several instances lately and wondering "why can't I be more understanding, more compassionate". As we get ready to put our house on the market I feel irritated at the new tenant next door who has filled the front yard with large plastic toys and hangs towels and mats up and down the stair railing close to our windows. A friend tells me a story that's troubling her over and over again, in great detail. In my mind I know it is my self centred view that makes me feel irritated in these situations. I am thinking about me and mine. I am not thinking about them. I see myself as the centre of the universe and it causes me to suffer.

I am clear that it is not helpful for me or my friend to hear the same story of her problem over and over. I recognize her agitated telling of her story as a fine example of what our minds do. I listen and empathize for a bit and offer the suggestions that most of where we go is speculation and not so helpful. We move on to other subjects. I also realize that I need to hold the neighbours in some space in my heart other than "annoyance" and so I work with this. Only then will I be open to a possible solution to the problem.

So while these things may seem small and petty they are the heart of the Dharma practice for me. ....Working with what comes to you. Working with these small things I chip away at my habitual tendencies and work to free myself from another layer of greed, hate and delusion. The following quote by Chogyam Trungpa seems particularly apt for me this week: "Compassion automatically invites you to relate with people because you no longer regard people as a drain on your energy."

Friday, August 7, 2009

All Beings Are Flowers Blooming In A Blooming Universe

"All Beings Are Flowers Blooming In A Blooming Universe" Soen Nakagawa. I love this quote and have used it on a piece of art. I feel immersed in all things "gardeny" today. I am getting ready to spend 2 days at Glendale Gardens, Art & Music in the Garden with 62 other artists. I am particularly excited that I will be situated in my element, the Japanese Garden. It is quite gorgeous. The last ingredient I am hoping for is unrain, not necessarily sunshine, but unrain would be good. But alas as we know from many aspects of our practice, much of life is not within our control and we get to respond to what comes along. If it rains, it will not be the rain that causes me "to suffer" but my reaction to it.

It seems all things garden are around me. Yesterday we went with our little band of Buddhists to a talk at the Art Gallery on the religious nature of gardens in China & Japan. We had great fun, first eating at "Bliss", a local raw food restaurant and then heading over to the gallery. The presenter asked us to reflect for a moment on what the garden meant to us personally.

I love to garden and being a "generalist" rather than a detail person I am not so much into plant names and grand plans. I just love to get in there and muck about. I go for what pleases my eye and while I like colour I love things a bit spare and simple. But the garden for me is definitely a place to connect on a very personal level with nature; to feel the breeze and the sun and the earth under my finger nails. It is a place of peace and a solace, a place to contemplate. Strangely I love to pull weeds. I haven't had so much time for it this year but I used to love to pull the clover from the lawn by hand. (Some neighbours thought me quite mad for doing this.) But for me, weeding has always reminded me that our minds are a bit like gardens and as I weed, it reminds me to weed my mind of unwholesome thoughts, to cultivate what I want to grow there. And the spreading nature of clover reminds me of how we are all connected. Those are always thoughts that cross my mind as I weed and I find it one of those calming, pleasing activities.

And as I sat in meditation this morning the article on "Late Bloomers" by Malcolm Gladwell that appeared in the New Yorker some time ago, popped into my head. He relates it to the artistic process and it is a wonderful piece. Those of us who have come to art later in life can probably identify with his writing. Apparently the process of late bloomers differs vastly from early bloomers like Picasso. We tend to be more process oriented and take longer to explore and get around to the finished product. It's well worth a read.

And in the grand scheme of things it doesn't matter if you bloom early or late, as long as you bloom. For me, blooming, in this context, simply means to become your authentic self, whoever that is, to explore your potential, to regard your life as an adventure. And of course in every adventure there are some untoward events, the canoe tips, you trip over a tree root, get bitten by wood ticks. This of course is life in the human realm, some sukkha, some dukkha. And we are all flowers blooming in this adventure garden. So many different colours and shapes and sizes. And it is fun to regard all the beautiful and strange, perplexing and exciting flowers we meet in this earthly garden, if only we can appreciate them for their particular foliage. Here's to another summer weekend in the garden. May your harvest be bountiful and may you enjoy what your adventure has to offer.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

A Buddhist Poke In The Eye With A Sharp Stick?

We need art with our Dharma, don't you think? Otherwise the offering wouldn't be quite complete. Just a little art patch on a monk style bag. Functional art, wearable art, whaddya think?

And the Dharma on my mind doesn't tie in remotely with the art other than the Buddha is some how implicated. A lot of teaching came to me via yesterday's post. If you read the comments you might have noticed that someone googled ICARUS and it's spokesperson and they were not to be found anywhere on the internet. When I went to search I found a posting on "One City, One Dharma" where they had gone through a lot of back and forth regarding this writing on "Buddhism As Best Religion" and the sniffometer was pointing toward something smelling a little funny. The product of someone's creative pen?

Now this clever creative pen offered some interesting teaching. Because the message in the piece seemed pleasing to me I just accepted it without question. Nothing oddly skunky until some-one pointed out that it perhaps smelled a bit off. I didn't stop to wonder why all the clerics from other traditions would jump on the Buddhist bandwagon and leave their own religion languishing at the station in the dust. So my logic and reason were lulled to sleep when the writer tapped into my pride (in that I do think Buddhism is a preferable religion, if I had to choose). A cautionary note to self suitable for many occasions. We often easily believe things that uphold our current opinions.

And while it is good in many instances not to be suspicious, questioning is what the Buddha asked us to do. "Think about things," he said. "Make them your own. Don't just believe what I tell you." This instance gives me the opportunity to look at the fact that sometimes I can trust too much, too soon. It is an opportunity to remember that it's good to take time (ah, patience) and digest things prior to swallowing them whole. You can get a nasty stomachache from swallowing things whole, especially if they are a bit off. So a little patience combined with some attention would have been good seasonings to have poured on this little email.

But in the end I was extremely amused that the whole thing was an invention by a creative mind. Someone who knows Buddhism it would seem, and someone doing a little instructive Dharma, don't you think? Helping us see how we get egg on our face. I loved the bit at the end where the article says no Buddhist could be found to accept the award. Ironically many of us were patting ourselves on the back for belonging to or being associated with such a selfless group. And yet weren't we accepting the award by believing the story and passing it around? An amusing piece of writing with a lesson packing a bit of punch. Maybe Brad Warner wrote it in his sleep before he was wide enough awake to throw in a few four letter words. I gather he likes to go about poking people with sharp sticks. Although this one definitely got me in the funny bone.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

How Not To Be A Buddhist

A friend sent me this email (which I will include in case you want to read the details). Basically 200 religious leaders chose Buddhism as the world's best religion. It's a very cute little piece. It was interesting to me because the word religion always sticks in my throat like that sharp little bit on popcorn. I am uncomfortable with labels and I am uncomfortable with religion. I love the teachings of the Buddha and the writings of many who call themselves Buddhists. But isms and ists make me squirm.

Maybe that's just my problem. Maybe I'm a fence sitter who just can't commit. Maybe I am destined forever to be a "stream enterer" always swimming around at the mouth of some religious tradition.

For me Buddhist practice is bigger than religion. It is a way of life. To call it a religion seems limiting. And from where I stand religion comes with a lot of hierarchy and sexism that seem contradictory to the essence of the spiritual practice. The Buddha wasn't a Buddhist. He was just a guy searching for the truth. And when you look at a lot of Zen stories and koans, they are killing the Buddha and burning the texts. They are asking us to get to the heart of the matter.
Training is good, sitting is good, studying is good and teachers I think are necessary. But after a stint as a Bookstore Buddhist, followed by some serious dabbling and 4 years inside the Zendo I think I am more comfortable peering into the temple from the fresh air on the outside, circumambulating the perimeter of the property ... out here with the stray cats.

15 Jul 2009, Tribune de Geneve

The Geneva-based International Coalition for the Advancement of Religious and Spirituality (ICARUS) has bestowed "The Best Religion In the World" award this year on the Buddhist Community.

This special award was voted on by an international round table of more than 200 religious leaders from every part of the spiritual spectrum. It was fascinating to note that many religious leaders voted for Buddhism rather than their own religion although Buddhists actually make up a tiny minority of ICARUS membership. Here are the comments by four voting


Jonna Hult, Director of Research for ICARUS said "It wasn't a surprise to me that Buddhism won Best Religion in the World, because we could find literally not one single instance of a war fought in the name of Buddhism, in contrast to every other religion that seems to keep a gunin the closet just in case God makes a mistake. We were hard pressed to even find a Buddhist that had ever been in an army. These people practice what they preach to an extent we simply could not document with any other spiritual tradition."

A Catholic Priest, Father Ted O'Shaughnessy said from Belfast , "As much as I love the Catholic Church, it has always bothered me to no end that we preach love in our scripture yet then claim to know God's will when it comes to killing other humans. For that reason, I did have to cast my vote for the Buddhists."

A Muslim Cleric Tal Bin Wassad agreed from Pakistan via his translator.

"While I am a devout Muslim, I can see

how much anger and bloodshed is channeled into religious expression rather than dealt with on a personal level.

The Buddhists have that figured out." Bin Wassad, the ICARUS voting member for Pakistan's Muslim community continued, "In fact, some of my best friends are Buddhist."

And Rabbi Shmuel Wasserstein said from Jerusalem, "Of course, I love Judaism, and I think it's the greatest religion in the world. But to be honest, I've been practicing Vipassana meditation every day before minyan (daily Jewish prayer) since 1993. So I get it."

However, there was one snag - ICARUS couldn't find anyone to give the award to. All the Buddhists they called kept saying they didn't want the award.

When asked why the Burmese Buddhist community refused the award, Buddhist monk Bhante Ghurata Hanta said from Burma, "We are grateful for the acknowledgement, but we give this award to all humanity, for Buddha nature lies within each of us." Groehlichen went on to say "We're going to keep calling around until we find a Buddhist who will accept it. We'll let you know when we do."

Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Zen of Donuts

Here I am imitating a shopper at the Portobello West Market that I did last Sunday in Vancouver. With the temperatures and humidity being more like Georgia than Vancouver most of the vendors spent some time sitting in lumpish states or discussing where we were in the melting and wilting process. In more energetic moments we lurked around the open doors slurping up little breezes. Everyone was friendly and the quality of the craft out there was amazing and inspiring. It was quiet, it was not particularly profitable and it was fun; all of which are simultaneously possible if you give up wanting. I was curious about the "market scene" and circumstances made it possible for me to give it a try. I don't have to wonder any more. As my Zen teacher would say, "a no is as good as a yes."

So I have been out living in the real world with intermittent wireless access and no burning issues to blog about. I used to say about the dinner making process, "I feel like I've cooked it all." And recently I've been feeling a bit that way about blogging. Of course the Dharma is endless and everywhere but somehow those bloggable moments are not popping their cute little heads up in the landscape calling for me to capture them.

But here's a couple of things I have been chewing on. Worry and fear come up for me. I'm usually not a big worrier but I do get hit with these lightning strikes of fear. This week I had a little go round with worry. As someone who had cancer the mysterious twinges of the body can bring up fear which morphed into a little worryfest for me this week. It's interesting practice watching the mind respond in it's habitual way. First the mind responds to something in the body and then you see how that response of fear creates its own physical reaction. It truly can be suffering embodied, running with that fear and yet..... it is so hard to resist ... the human version of the moth drawn to the flame. And it sucks the energy right out of you, that little sponge towel, worry.

And it really is the cutting edge of practice, working with this. Experience the fear, the worry, yes let's look, what's it all about? And then when and how to redirect? Too much of this is not helpful is it? Or is it like a hole, you need to get to the bottom of it and see what's there? Is it empty or filled with old crap from the past? Get out the shop vac. Or is it just a bad habit, that needs to be directed, like a small child, "no, Melanie we are not going to jump off this cliff, why don't we go to the park instead?" It is skillful means and sometimes I'm not all that skillful, I think. And it's an experiment as is most of this good life. Try it one way, no luck, well on to creative solution #332. And of course as I well know it's not on my timelines. I do my work and the fruits of my training arrive in their good time not when I shout out the order. Who do I think I am, Gordon Ramsay?

I got to sample the fruits of some long hard training with a family member recently, someone who over the years has proved difficult to get along with, who no matter how much I had tried to avoid clashes with, always managed to draw me in and push my buttons. A special talent that drove me mad and then I simply chose to avoid their company. Recently I spent some time with this person and was able (for reasons unknown to me) to simply accept him at face value and spend some pleasant time with them. Life's small miracles.

So those are my Dharma bits. Is that like Timbits (you have to be Canadian to know what those are)? When I was a kid my sister and brother who are much older than I, would sometimes tease me by asking me if I wanted some donut holes from the donuts my sister was making? Of course I would bite and they would give me an empty plate and find this quite hilarious. That's a clue about Timbits and the zen of donuts.