Friday, September 28, 2007
On Thursday September 27th, around 70 people from various groups and backgrounds met at the Cambridge Buddhist Centre.
This was to show our support for the people of Burma in their peaceful protests against repressive government.
Local BBC Radio and Television were in attendance, and recorded the chanting of the traditional pali "May all Beings be Well".
Those gathered then formed a silent procession to the Cambridge Guild Hall, lead by the organiser Dharmachari Vajrapriya. We then collected signatures for a petition to be submitted to the Burmese Embassy in London. Some people then meditated on the street as a mark of solidarity with the people of Burma.
If you are interested you can sign a petition on-line and send details to your friends. The address is:-
At the time of writing, over 177,000 people have registered their protest.
Sunday, September 9, 2007
This is my last post from Gampo Abbey. It's really hard to believe that I have been living here for just under seven months. Time really does fly when your having fun and also when you have a full schedule. I feel like have had both.
I feel a strong sense of gratitude to everybody here at the Abbey for making me feel so at home. I have made many good friends here and I hope these contacts continue into the future.
My meditation instructor, Jerry has been very helpful, bringing me right up against my own "stuff", face to face, so to speak. This has felt uncompromising and very challenging at times. Just what I needed. Jerry has shown a lot of warmth and compassion. Thank you.
It's great that this place exists at all. Much of this is down to the founder (Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche), Ani Pema Chodron (resident teacher, author and generous benefactor) and the other monastics here (especially, Ani Palmo, Ani Migme and Lodro Sangpo) who have devoted decades of their lives to making this place work.
I have learned a lot about myself from living here. I have also learned a lot about Tibetan Buddhism, the Karma Kagyu lineage and aspects of Tibetan monastic life. I have also learned the importance of trying to keep an open mind in new situations and being open to different approaches and points of view.
My two fears when coming here were my ongoing problem with back pain and a morbid fear of having to eat with chopsticks. The back was painful at times but has loosened up during my time here. It was never unbearable and I feel a stronger faith in my meditation practice by working through it. The fear of using chopsticks soon went. I rarely dropped food (although I did drop an entire bowl) and would eventually look forward to eating porridge with chopsticks.
My last few weeks here have been a time of great joy. The summer season has continued and the "In House" retreatants have come and gone at a regular pace. It's been really enjoyable meeting so many different practitioners.
I passed on my job to Lisa a couple of weeks ago. She picked it up very quickly with minimal training and this left me some time to relax a little more and spend some more time showing tourists around the Abbey.
I have enjoyed walks into Pleasant Bay for ice cream and exercise, swims on the beach and hikes into the beautiful wooded Cape Breton hills. I have seen moose, Gardner snakes, fox, chipmunk a plenty, whales, seals and golden eagle.
We had an Order Member from Mexico come here in August for a solitary retreat. His name is Kavindu. It was lovely to meet another OM out here in Karma Kagyu land and we spent some time together when he arrived and again just before his departure. What a delightful guy.
Yeshe, a temporary monk who had been here a couple of years, left just recently. I was sad to see him go and had really treasured his company. He had taught me the office job when I first arrived. A very kind and thoughtful chap. We had a communal "leavers choice" movie night together. We both chose Monty Python's "Life of Brian". I had a great laugh watching this and it made me feel quite homesick (considering it was set in Israel and filmed in Tunisia). I certainly came out of the movie feeling very "English".
I have also been on solitary retreat myself for the last six days in a cabin called "Cliff Hanger". With high winds at times, I was unsure if it was hanging on or hanging off, as it swayed in the breeze. The views were spectacular, both for sea, coast line, eagles and sunset. My meditation practice finally clicked into gear (perhaps 6 months fairly intensive preparation helped a bit) and I had a great retreat. I really enjoyed reading "A Yogi's Joy" by Sangharakshita. A great read and very inspiring.
I am now into my last couple of days and have started thinking about practical stuff, such as washing my clothes and inspecting the dust under my bed (I knew I shouldn't have left it so long).
Love to All,
Saturday, September 1, 2007
Thanks to all of you who sponsored me for the Cancer Society walk all those months ago. The event was great fun as well as being for a very worthy cause. It's great that Gampo Abbey supports this local event each year with their enthusiastic participation.
Particular thanks to the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order in Letchworth for their kind donation of 100 GBP. The final total raised was 225 GBP ($479CAD). Thank you all for your generous support and many thanks to Jayamuni for collecting up the money on my behalf. May you all be well!
Thursday, August 30, 2007
4/ Abstention from False Speech / With truthful communication I purify my speech
Speech occupies and intermediate position between mind and body. It is a subtle form of action, almost as subtle as thought itself. In a way, it is simply thought made public.
Because speech is so close in nature to thought, it is very difficult to control, our thoughts can just “slip out”. Once in the public domain our thoughts have ramifications for both ourselves and others. Once made public our thoughts cannot be retracted, no matter how much we might like them to be!
Speech is about communication. It is about the coming together of minds and hearts. Untruthful speech cannot by definition be a vehicle for communication. It does not seek to communicate but rather, seeks to frustrate or prevent real communication.
Society at large require most people to be telling the truth most of the time. Society would break down if this were not the case. If the bus companies deliberately lied about their timetable commuting would become very difficult. If bankers routinely lied about the performance of investments the whole financial system would collapse. If we look at societies where corruption, bribery and perjury are the norm, we can see that these are not societies we would like to live in. These are not societies that care about the rights and needs of the individuals within it.
What is true of society at large is even more so in a spiritual community. Community is an interesting word. To live in community is to Commune or enter into Communion with others. The dictionary defines Communion as “to hold intimate intercourse” and as a state of heightened awareness, such as “to commune with nature”. So within a spiritual community such as Gampo Abbey, communication should be both intimate (warm and meaningful rather than cold and superficial) and imbued with awareness (of self and other).
One important aspect of our speech is factual accuracy, in reporting what has been said or done. We must be careful about exaggerating and embellishing, twist and omitting. We need to communicate both the spirit and the letter of a situation or else we risk misrepresenting each other which can lead to misunderstanding and upset.
I am very interested in the state of the “Stream Entrant”. This is a stage on the path belonging to the Theravada tradition. It is roughly equivalent to the Bodhisattva of the first Bumi, both are irreversible. One becomes a Stream Enterer by breaking the first “Three Fetters” of Doubt (in the Dharma), Self View (as a fixed separate entity) and Rights and Ritual as Ends in Themselves (superficiality).
The Stream Entrant is not entirely free from the Kleshas and is still subject to greed, hatred and delusion to some degree. What is really interesting about them though, is that they are completely transparent about themselves. They do not attempt to hide their shortcomings or pretend to be something their not. They are simply incapable of deception. This strikes me as a very beautiful stage on the spiritual journey, a down to earth, flawed human being, but one that has gone beyond all superficiality and through fearlessness and lack of pride only wish to be seen as what they truly are.
5/ Abstention from Intoxicants / With mindfulness clear and radiant I purify my mind
In the letter, this precept consists of abstaining from intoxicating liquor and drugs that cloud the mind.
We might ask why? What’s wrong with a drink, it’s just fun after all? Intoxicants that cloud the mind are like adding an extra veil of delusion. As if we need another one! They take us even further away from how things actually are.
Intoxicants can weaken and undermine our ethical intentions. Normally reasonable, apparently sane people can find themselves giving into sexual misconduct, violence and drink driving through the use of intoxicants.
Intoxicants make us forget our connections with others. This in turn leads to a loss of responsibility. Other people become reduced in our mind to objects of utility rather than as individuals in their own right.
The spirit of the precept is to cultivate mindful living at all times, to imbue our life with mindful abiding. Mindfulness is a translation of Satti-Sampajanna, a compound term.
Satti means bare attention, raw awareness. This is awareness in the moment. The seen in the seen, the heard in the heard, the cognized in the cognized and so on. It means to be really present.
Sampajanna is clear comprehension, awareness through time. This includes an awareness of our aims and our sense of purpose. It includes a sensitivity of the suitability of our actions to the spiritual path. Aspects of this include memory and recollection, including a recollection of “the nature of things”, such as impermanence and insubstantiality. It performs a steering function within our lives.
Mindfulness enriches our lives. It gives us greater awareness and clarity. It gives us the possibility of being creative in our responses, rather than being stuck in our same old reactive patterns. It gives us the opportunity to step out of the mold of our conditioning and to develop a truer individuality, one with greater choice and freedom.
Having now looked at the five training precepts in some detail I’d like to conclude with some more general points.
A Mandala of Practices
We can think of the five precepts as a mandala of practices. The mandala has two entrances, the first and the fifth precepts (like book-ends at the beginning and end).
The first precept is the principle of love or maitri. This is why we practice the precepts. It’s our motivation, what inspires us to practice. It’s the emotive aspect of our spiritual lives.
The fifth precept is the principle of mindful awareness. This is how we practice the precepts. This is the method. Through awareness of the needs of self and other. Through a consciousness of our own actions of body, speech and mind. It is impossible to practice ethics without awareness.
Development of the Practice
It’s really important not to simply settle down with our current level of practice. We need to continue developing and refining our level of ethical sensitivity. At the same time we need to broaden our awareness of the areas that we can include within our ethical scope.
How do we do this?
We can develop Hrih. This is a positive mental event in the Abhidharma system. It is often translated as a positive sense of shame in the shortcoming of one’s actions. This is certainly not a comfortable experience, but it is not unhealthy. It is not about beating yourself up and should include a healthy dose of self maitri. There is no room for irrational guilt here. It is simply about recognizing that we could have done better, that our actions didn’t quite measure up to our own ideals. There is room for improvement.
We can also develop Apatrapiya. Another positive mental event, often translated as “fear of criticism from the wise” or more simply “what would my teacher think?” If you are about to do something and it doesn’t seem quite right, you can ask yourself “what would my teacher or preceptor think about this?” This can often help to clarify grey areas for us.
Confession is a traditional Buddhist practice that helps to support ethical development. It encourages intimacy and trust within the sangha and helps us to recognize our shortcomings within the context of our community. We can receive feedback and advice from our sangha and also just feel a lightening in ourselves by sharing the things that we don’t feel so proud of.
Applying the Brakes Gently
Sangharakshita uses the image of trying to slow down a train. The train is our unskillful tendencies. If we slam the brakes on in a reckless manner we may de-rail the train and fly off the tracks completely. We need to know ourselves and know how to apply the brakes gently.
I love this poem by Kabir. He was an unorthodox teacher, a wise man, who was raised in both Islamic and Hindu traditions. It’s called “Difficulties”:-
Friend, please tell me what I can do about this mud world
I keep spinning out of myself!
I gave up expensive clothes, and bought a robe
But I noticed one day the cloth was well-woven.
So I bought some burlap, but I still
Throw it elegantly over my left shoulder.
I stopped being a sexual elephant,
And now I discover that I’m angry a lot.
I finally gave up anger, and now I notice
That I am greedy all day.
I worked hard at dissolving my greed,
And now I am proud of myself.
When the mind wants to break its link with the world
It still holds onto one thing.
Kabir says: Listen, my friend,
There are very few that find the path!
(from: The Soul is here for it’s own Joy, edit. Robert Bly, Ecco Press)
I think this poem justifies inclusion just for the line about the “sexual elephant” - what a wonderful image! But, I think we can all relate to the experience of the student in the poem. We pay attention to one area of our life and our energies find their way into another while we are not looking. It’s like we are chasing our own tails.
On the face of it Kabir’s answer isn’t very satisfactory “there are very few who find the path”. It doesn’t sound very helpful. He must have been a tough teacher!
But what is the path that Kabir is pointing to? He is pointing to the middle way. Not being so lax that we make no effort, and not being so strict that we de-rail our train or loose track of our elephant!
We need to channel our energies skillfully and kindly. Re-directing these energies with an awareness of where we are currently at and what we are realistically capable of. This is a lifetime’s work of constantly looking for our cutting edge and looking to maintain a sensible and maintainable tension in our ethical practice.
Leaving the last words to Shunryu Suzuki:-
“When you observe the precepts without trying to observe the precepts, that is true observation of the precepts”
Grit and fluff,
Sharp and soft,
Side by side,
A confusion of opposites.
Higher union frustrated,
Vacuum comes too soon.
Mud on the road,
Mud in the sandal,
Sign reads: No Entry! - Retreat in Progress
Should read: Enter! - Progress in retreat
Black fly bites head,
Black fly laughs at fat head.
* In the UK, Friday afternoon has a bad production record. As well as being the tired bit of the working week, it has also been associated with a Friday lunchtime visit to the pub, for a beer or two. Hence, a poorly built or unreliable car may be referred to as a "Friday afternoon car".
No beer was harmed in the making of these poems.
Tuesday, August 28, 2007
Ethics as a Tantric Practice
We can also think about the practice of ethics as a kind of tantric practice. As I understand it, tantric practice goes beyond sutra, it goes beyond words, concepts and ideas and works directly with energy, with action. It’s not about learning, it’s about doing.
Ethics also goes beyond concepts. It’s about how we work with our energies on a day to day basis. Our wild energies! The practice of the precepts is about steering and guiding these energies in the most useful way possible.
The Letter and the Spirit
In the laws of our countries we often talk about the letter and the spirit. This is a helpful way for us to think about the precepts - in the letter and in the spirit. Most of the time we need to be aware of both aspects.
The letter is the literal expression. It provides us with clarity, a benchmark we can compare our actions against. So, for example we have the precept: “I abstain from taking the not given”. This we can see as a minimum criteria, a lower limit that we shall try not to fall below. If we fail to maintain that minimum standard it’s obvious to us and we know we need to take a closer look at our actions and the views behind them.
There is a danger with the negative formulations of the precepts (the letter of the law), that we can settle down in them, start to get comfy. “I do not steal, so I’m OK. I don’t need to worry about that one”.
The Spirit of the precepts goes beyond the letter, it gets beyond a narrow formalism or shallow observance. In a sense these are the “real thing”, they go to the pith of ethical practice. The spirit is expressed in the positive formulation of the precepts. This is the translation used in the FWBO:-
With deeds of loving kindness I purify my body
With open handed generosity I purify my body
With stillness, simplicity and contentment I purify my body
With truthful communication I purify my speech
With mindfulness clear and radiant I purify my speech
The spirit has no upper limit. It can be expressed in more and more refined and subtle ways. So rather than thinking “I don’t steal”, we can be thinking of all the ways in which we can develop a more generous attitude, through actions of body, speech and mind.
The Spirit of the precepts (the positive precepts) is closely related to the Bodhisattva practice of the Paramitas (the perfections). These lists of practices (either 6 or 10) express the attitude and aspirations of the Bodhisattva.
Buddhism has many so many lists, it even has lists of lists! Looking at these we might get the feeling that Buddhism is fragmented, that these lists are describing lots of different things, but this is not really the case. The precepts and the Paramitas are simply two expressions of one spiritual path, of one life, of one human experience.
So, let’s take a look at the 5 Precepts individually. We’ll examine them in terms of the broad principles that stand behind the precepts, principles that help to make clear the spirit of the practice.
1/ Abstention from killing living beings/ With deeds of loving kindness I purify my body
The broad principle here is that sublimest of principles, Love.
Here, the letter of the precept requires us to abstain from striking down, slaying, killing, murder.
Violence (Himsa) is force against another being, either physical or emotional, such as blackmail or emotional coercion. It is to go against another’s will. It is the negation of one ego by another.
To act against another’s will is to break down the solidarity that exists between all sentient beings, it is akin to one brother raising his sword against another.
Quoting the Dhammapada: “All beings love life, all fear punishment and death. Making comparison of self and other, one should neither kill nor cause to kill”. (Verse 129-130)
and in Santideva’s Bodhicaryavatara:
At first one should meditate intently on the equality of oneself and others as follows: “All equally experience suffering and happiness. I should look after them as I do myself”
Just as the body, with it’s many parts from division into hands and other limbs, should be protected as a single entity, so too should this entire world which is divided, but undivided in its nature to suffer and be happy.
Even though suffering in me does not cause distress in the bodies of others, I should nevertheless find their suffering intolerable because of the affection I have for myself.
In the same way that, though I cannot experience another’s suffering in myself, his suffering is hard for him to bear because of his affection for himself.
I should dispel the suffering of others because it is suffering like my own suffering. I should help others to because of their nature as beings, which is like my own being.
When happiness is liked by me and others equally, what is so special about me that I strive after happiness only for myself? (Verses 90-96)
At a practical level the Vinaya warns the monastic against harming creatures as small as a bedbug and even the eggs of a bedbug.
Sakyamuni Buddha also extolled his disciples to dispose of waste and unwanted food in a way that did not harm living creatures in the immediate environment, such as not throwing scraps into water if that water contained life. This is an early example of “Engaged Buddhism” or “Dharmic Environmentalism”.
The way we interact with our environment has an impact on all life on this planet through the web of inter-connectivity. We cannot ignore this fact. The way we choose to live and the way we use precious natural resources is something we need to consider in practicing this precept.
2/ Abstention from taking the not given / With open handed generosity I purify my body
The principle here is clearly Dana, generosity, open handed and open hearted giving.
The letter of the precept is asking us to abstain from Adana - seizing or grasping the not given, namely theft in all of its different forms.
Similar in nature to the first precept, theft is an indirect form of violence. It is not aimed directly at the individual, but through their property; by forcibly separating an individual from his or her property. However, it is most certainly the individual that feels loss or grief from this separation.
The definition of theft can be extended beyond material items. Other considerations include:
Time - time is precious. We take time from others when we impose ourselves on them against their will, when they are busy, for example. By subjecting them to a tirade, perhaps of complaint or gossip, something they would rather not have to listen to.
Then there is the theft of silence, such as during silent periods. Perhaps a person is really enjoying the silence, allowing their mind to unravel into precious space, peacefully reflecting and relaxing into an inner and outer quietness. Then someone comes up and whispers a joke, or passes them a note concerning something that could have waited till later. Silence is a rare and subtle thing. It is not merely the absence of talking and can be disturbed quite easily if we are not very mindful of ourselves and others.
Another area we should be aware of is energy or vitality. Sangharakshita talks about the “psychic vampire” who drains our energy through complaints, appeals or tirades, so as to reduce their victim to emotional exhaustion or nervous collapse. Quite dramatic, eh? I’m sure we all have experienced this to some degree, of being caught with someone who is having that klesha attack and that feeling of being drained afterward.
Generosity can be seen as the fundamental Buddhist virtue. It is the first paramita of the Bodhisattva training. If we can’t find time to practice meditation. If our general ethics aren’t as good as they could be, then we can always be generous.
I think we are generally very good at this here at the Abbey. I have been very impressed with the level of generosity that I have received here and have seen others benefiting from. Of course, there is always room for improvement!
We can practice generosity in many ways, with property, with our time and expertise, with our money, in expressing gratitude and in terms of friendliness. Even if we are feeling unhappy we can still make an effort towards friendliness.
According to the scriptures the greatest gift is the gift of the Dharma. When we make the Dharma available to someone we are giving them an opportunity for freedom, and this is priceless.
3/ Abstention from sexual activity (lay precept:- sexual misconduct) / With stillness, simplicity and contentment I purify my body.
Brahmacharya is a compound word. Charya means the path/way or “to course in” as in a boat on a river. Brahma refers to the Brahma Lokas or “god realms”. So this means to live as the gods or higher beings live.
Western terms we are familiar with are chastity and celibacy. Definitions of these terms sometimes vary, but often celibacy is taken to mean abstention from sexual activity with another person. Chastity usually refers to complete abstinence from all sexual activity of body, speech and mind.
According to Indian Buddhist cosmology human beings exist in the Karma Loka, the realm of sense desire. Here we find sexual dimorphism e.g. men and women.
In the lower god realms this dimorphism is said to become less distinct. As we enter the higher god realms of the Rupa Loka (the realms of refined form), we find that beings here are androgynous, there is no sexually polarity and therefore no sexual tension.
Here, polarization gives way to harmony. Tension is resolved into relaxation and discontent dissolves into contentment.
The higher stages of Shamatha as experienced as psychological states are said to correspond to the cosmological realms of the Rupa Loka and even the Arupa Loka (the formless realms) - very refined states indeed. In these states the mind becomes more flexible, relaxed and at ease, inner tensions are resolved and the mind becomes integrated. This is a natural, happy state. The practice of Brahmacharya helps us to support our Shamatha meditation and cultivate flexible, relaxed states of mind in post meditation.
Another one of the paramitas or perfections is Viriya or “energy in the pursuit of the good”. We need energy to practice ethics and meditation. The spiritual life requires an abundance of energy. So we don’t want to repress or suppress our natural energies, we simply want to contain them and use them. The idea is not to become dried up and lifeless. Ani Pema talks about wanting monks and nuns here at the Abbey who are “juicy”
In practicing Brahmacharya we want to be engaging with a process of sublimation or refinement, helping to arouse the Bodhicitta through a process of alchemy. Our body, speech and mind are our crucible and our natural energies are both the raw material that we seek to transform and the fuel that we use to heat our crucible, to bring about the magical transformation. So let’s try to stay juicy!
Other areas we might want to think about with regard to contentment include food and entertainment. It’s quite common for discontentment to move from one area to another. The key to this is mindful awareness and a willingness to “stay with” our experience.
Thursday, August 23, 2007
Wednesday, August 22, 2007
There is a Zen Koan “Why has Bodhidharma left for the East?” I don’t know the answer to this. But I do know what happened when he got there. When Bodhidharma took the Dharma from India to China he introduced the Dharma into an already highly developed culture. Buddhism has often had a refining effect on the arts, philosophy and culture of societies that it has encountered. In China it met an ancient culture rich with poetry and painting, rich with the philosophies of Confucianism and Taoism.
Much of what I have to say in this talk is collected from the writings and talks of my teacher Sangharakshita, the founder of the Western Buddhist Order. I thoroughly recommend his small book “The Ten Pillars of Buddhism” of which there are two copies available in the Abbey library.
I also borrow here from Dharmachari Abhaya and his excellent little booklet on the 5 precepts.
You might think that the subject of ethics is not a very glamorous one. If you were to ask yourself what flavor ethics would be if it was an ice cream, you might say vanilla, the standard, basic flavor, we’ve all had it a million times, it’s a bit boring. It’s certainly not strawberry and pecan or something interesting like that.
You might think that ethics is not very “sexy”. It’s not exciting and esoteric like Tantra. You might say that ethics is just “Bog Standard” Buddhism. The aim of this talk is prove otherwise.
When the King of China heard about Bodhidharma and his new religion, he was fascinated and wanted to learn more about this new and exotic import. So, he summoned Bodhidharma and asked him for a summary of his great teachings. Bodhidharma could hardly refuse and so he gave the King a teaching:
“Cease to do Evil, Cultivate the Good, Purify the Mind. This is the word of the Buddha”
The King was a bit taken aback. Was this it? Was this the cream of higher Indian thought and philosophy? The King responded:
“Is that Buddhism? Even a small child could understand this without difficulty.”
“Ah yes” replied Bodhidharma, “but even the wisest of your ancient Sages will find great difficulty in putting it into practice.”
Good and Evil
So, it is clear that for Bodhidharma, ethics formed an important part of the whole spiritual path. In this translation he talks about good & evil. For many of us living in the West, this will have strong Christian overtones.
The terms in Sanskrit are Kusala and Akusala. This is often translated as Skilful and Unskillful, I like this translation. We can be skilful, like a trained craftsman or unskillful like the new trainee. It’s not loaded with notions of God or Devil. It also recognizes that like a craft, ethical action requires practice and deliberate thought or intention.
Buddhist ethics are very much an ethics of intention. It’s not so much that specific actions are in themselves inherently bad, after all a particular action may have very different ramifications in different situations. Also, different societies have different laws, rules and modes of behavior and these change over time. For Buddhism, it’s more that what we intend to achieve by a particular action may either be skilful or unskillful.
A skilful action is one that is based in positive mental states such as clarity, mindfulness and positive emotions. An unskillful action is one that is based in negative mental states such as ignorance, confusion, greed and negative emotions.
In short, skilful actions are those that are conducive to human enlightenment and unskillful actions are those that are un-conducive to human enlightenment.
Not a Basic Practice
Ethics is not a practice simply for beginners, it’s not something to be surpassed or made redundant, its’ not like a toy we put down when we get something new and more interesting.
A common description of the path is the three fold model, that of Sila (ethics), Samadhi (meditation) and Prajna (wisdom). I usually see this in my mind a pyramid. Ethics at the bottom, mediation in the middle and wisdom at the top, at the pinnacle.
Each successive layer of the pyramid builds upon the work of the last. Ethics feeds into meditation and meditation flowers into wisdom. If our meditation is not going very well, and we are not sure why, it is a good idea to take a closer look at our ethics, to see if something there may be bothering us.
There is also a feedback loop within the pyramid. Increasing wisdom and awareness will refine our ethical lives, which in turn feeds back into our meditation. It’s a complete system and all the parts are necessary.
Ethics is at the bottom of the pyramid because it comes first, because it is the foundation, not because it is least important. Ethics is not a basic practice it’s a fundamental practice.
Going for Refuge and the Precepts
Going for Refuge to the Three Jewels of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha means to move our reliance away from the transitory and mundane, those things which cannot ultimately satisfy us and to instead place our reliance upon the “Transcendental”.
This is the search for meaning, it is the spiritual life. We take the Three Refuges formally, but that is not the end of it. Going for Refuge is an ongoing and deepening spiritual exploration.
Going for Refuge is common to all schools of Buddhism. Taking the Refuges is what formally defines us a being a “Buddhist”.
If Going for Refuge is the direction and movement of our lives, then ethical action is the expression of that aspiration in the practical everyday sense. The two cannot be separated. What would it really mean to say “I take refuge in the Buddha, but I do not intend do anything about the greed, hatred and delusion in my own life”? How can you say you are relying on something at the same time as ignoring it?
Aspirations need expression. “Coming Out” as a Buddhist is often a big deal for many of us. Letting our friends, family and colleagues know we are a Buddhist raises the stakes somehow. It makes our aspiration more real, takes it into the real world, rather than just being an idea looked up in the privacy of our own head.
The practice of the ethical precepts is the same as this. By chanting the precepts out load, accepting them, taking them on as training principles and really living them out, this takes our aspirations into the real world.
This is the action of a Bodhisattva, it is Kalyana, beautiful action, action that is grounded in Truth.
The Greek philosopher Plotinus gives us a wonderful image. He talks of the work of the sculptor. Starting with a rough block of stone, all sharp edges and slime. Taking his hammer and chisel, with patience and with well honed skills he slowly releases a marble sculpture of a beautiful human being.
Using the language of Ani Pema Chödrön, this is unveiling our basic goodness; this is revealing our Buddha nature, our Higher “self”.
Imitating the Buddha
We can think of our ethical lives in terms of play.
When we sit in meditation posture we can playfully think of ourselves as imitating the Buddha. Sitting in Buddha posture, without taking ourselves too seriously we act out the actions of the Buddha, upright, vital and totally engaged.
In our ethical lives we also are “playing at being Buddha”. The precepts we observe and the ethical choices we try to make in our lives are an attempt to behave as a Buddha would behave. Of course, a Buddha would act skillfully in a completely spontaneous way. For most of us it takes a little more practice.
Dorje Pawo, the IT Manager (er..well, IT department really) recently found this in one of the Abbey computers. This is a Hi-Tech Avalokiteshvara mantra prayer wheel. This is not the traditional way of doing things, but given the increasing rate of appearance of sentient beings on the planet, I guess it's good to try different ways to keep ahead of the game.
I don't know how many mantras it does per minute, but I think it's quite a lot. I don't recommend trying to keep up with this by chanting, it could result in very numb lips and extensive damage to your mala and/or fingers.
Monday, August 6, 2007
I have lost count of the amount of times I have seen this movie over the years. I hadn’t seen it for quite some time and only vaguely remembered that it had a strong Dharmic theme.
When it came up as one of the choices for the Abbey’s Friday night movie I groaned inwardly. I was craving some real entertainment, something shiny and new and clever. But they say that you get what you deserve and it seems I deserved Groundhog Day (again). I could hardly complain, as I was one of the three people who voted for it.
I was pleasantly surprised at how well it had aged. This is still a very funny movie, quite slapstick in some places and Bill Murry’s cynical weatherman character is fantastic, if a little too close to home for comfort.
The Dharmic quality of the movie unfolded gradually as our hero has to re-live the same day again and again. It becomes clear that yesterday is now irrelevant to his situation and tomorrow never happens. He is stuck, stuck in the present.
Because he is aware of the conditioned nature of his situation he is able to manipulate it to fit his wants, even at the expense of others around him, including memorizing details of women’s lives and likes in order to seduce them over a period of time.I think there is a stage on the spiritual life a little like this. Through meditation and Dharma study we find ways to tinker with the conditions in our life in order to satisfy us and make us happy. We settle down. Eventually of course we get bored.
He seems to pass through many of the realms of the Wheel of Life, the craving of the Hungry Ghosts ( a great cream cake scene) , the manipulation of the Asura’s and the despair of the Hell’s eventually leading to repeated suicides.Eventually, it wears him down. What dawns is what Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche or Pema Chodron might term the Wisdom of No Escape. He realizes there is no escape for him, no matter what he does and that all he is doing is running in smaller and more frustrating circles.
The only thing left for him to do is surrender. Out if this comes an awareness of those around him and the needs of those beings. He tries to make the best of it by helping others. Having tried all the alternatives, nothing else makes any sense.Our hero opens his heart and gets the girl in the process. Through this he is released from the recurring wheel of his day and is able to settle down in a romantic happy ending - yuk!
Wednesday, August 1, 2007
Hello me Dears and me Ducks,
I hope you are all well and happy. I'm sorry to hear about the dreadful summer you've been having in Blighty. I hope it stops raining soon!
I have had a fairly busy time of it since my last email.
We had our Canada day celebrations in Pleasant Bay. These went very well, including a BBQ and ice cream then a free trip to the Whale interpretive centre. We lost the softball game 24 to 14 to the fire-crew. I got one run - one more than generally expected.
The lobster release was a success and we had a film crew on hand (and on board) making a documentary/arthouse type flick - the life cycle of the lobster as an alagory for the wheel of life. I'm sure you get the picture. They did too. Apparently, Lena, the director was a rather attractive young woman and some of the younger monks and laymen fell deeply under her spell, can't say I noticed myself.
We had a visit from Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, a young and charismatic Tibetan lama. An interesting young guy, speaks good English. Scientists have measured his brain activity while doing maitri meditation and find his brain 100's of % more active than the average mother thinking of her child and even 100's of % more active than your average meditator. He gave a couple of good down to earth talks about meditation and Bodhicitta. He's very funny. His book is also very readable. He did two - three year retreats before hes was 17 years old!
Before he arrived here I was working with a team preparing the lodgings for him and his attendant lama. This was great fun, working with a Californian called Yeshe and a Brit. mitra called Ian. We had much fun and did lots of cleaning and ironing. I had never ironed king size sheets before and doubt if I ever will again. It made quite a pleasant change from our usual schedule, pleasant though that is.
A couple of weekends ago a few of us took a three hour hike to a beach called Pollits Cove. A beautiful local beauty spot with rivers and wild flower meadows. It was a bit drizzly on the way there, but a good fun hike. After a couple of hours with a camp fire on the beach we headed back. The sky really opened. Three hours hard hiking with minimal waterproofs. We were all truly soaked. I fell off the path at one point and got rather muddy. It got to the point we were walking through rivers rather than around them. We couldn't get any more wet if we'd been swimming fully dressed. When I got back I emptied half a pint of water from each boot. My digital camera was in a similar condition and is no longer talking to me.
Last weekend I hiked two hours into Pleasant Bay with Ian to go Whale watching. We had about 8 people from the Abbey meet us there (they drove!). It was a lovely sunny day and I got a bit of a tan despite the factor 30. The boat ride was very choppy, but I managed to hold onto lunch (just). We saw many Whales, incuding some babies and some pre-baby frolliking amongst the adults (whales not retreatants). Following on from this we had a nice restaurant dinner (only my second plate of chips in 5 and a half months!) and a trip to the beach for a swim. A great day out.
It sounds like I'm always out and about swimming and going for walks. There is some truth in this. But there is also six days a week of meditation, chanting, meetings, meditation, silent periods, meditation, study and more chanting. Not to mention getting up at 5.30 in the morning to clean the shrine with a feather duster. I thought I'd include this here just in case I was loosing the sympathy vote.
We have just had two feast days in recent succession - first, the celebration of Dharma day and then the opening of the three year retreat. At the latter event we released a batch of 13 pale but generally hearty tantricas into the feint Cape Bretton sunshine after their 10 months of captivity (12-14 hours practice per day!) confined to one small house and garden (they sleep sitting up in boxes and spend a lot of time making tormas and shaking darmaru drums and ringing vajra bells). Writing this, I am beginning to see parallels with the Lobster Release! We removed the 4 painted seals (tantric symbols, not whiskered mammals) from the retreat gates to the sound of Tibetan trumpets. There was much offering of torma, waving of vajras and vajra bells and chanting. The opening ceremony took about 40 minutes in the comically heavy rain, which we all endured in our robes. We were all soaked to the skin (again!). Quite funny really, the rain was very warm. There then followed about two and a half hours of communal sadhana and ritual feasting. I got to drink some rather bitter dark green "amrita" from a real human skull cup. A brandy would have been more appropriate under the circumstances. We all quietly steamed as our clothes dried out. I also got some cake and chocolate, so it was all worthwhile in the end.
The last couple of weeks have been noticeably different due to the addition of in-house retreatants. They join our schedule for between 7 and 14 days. They arrive in batches on Tuesdays and Fridays. You just get to remember their names and start to generate some sense of connection and their gone! Just a note of thanks on the chalk board "Thanks for the warm hospitality - look us up if you pass through Boulder, Colorado. Love, The Heuns" . It's like watching a movie on fast forward and shows that my sense of time here is getting seriously warped.
The weather is fairly damp this week. Part of the road got washed away (a hole as deep as a person) - thunder, lightning and very sticky 30 degree days and 26 degree nights. Not the best time of year for wearing poly-cotton robes. Something in silk next time I think. It's also earwig season and I found two in my matchbox when lighting my shrine this morning.
Love to All,
Wednesday, July 25, 2007
Forewarned is forearmed and I guess I'd already started to think about how I wanted to relate to food before I got to the Abbey. Mmmm,as I write this, that shiny toaster and all that jam and peanut butter does look good, but I digress.
On my ordination retreat Manjuvajra advised us to think about our eating, for instance dealing with one mouthful of food before shovelling in another one and watching our existential angst driven desire for late night post puja snacks.
On a visit to Throssel Hole Abbey in Northumberland some years ago I was impressed by their mindful approach to eating and pre-food ritual, warning us against burning off all our hard earned merit in a frenzy of food lust, before we got a chance to transfer that merit to others.
Gampo Abbey has it's own meal time rituals, a highly developed Zen inspired Oryoki ceremony on Sunday practice days, on week days a simple pre and post meal chant. The phrases used in these chants did not seem to fit that well for me, being Shambhala chants, and so I have developed my own and in addition some other small reflections and practices.
Approaching the dining room I become aware of my level of hunger. While queueing up to serve myself I watch my reactions. Am I tensing up, in a hurry to get down the queue?
In serving myself I try to avoid being overly fussy with what I choose. I choose a portion size with an awareness of my present level of hunger, the amount of time to the next meal and knowing how active I will be after this meal (will I be going for a big walk or settling down to three hours of meditation). Less activity means less need for food.
With practice I have reduced my portion size to allow me to experience a sensation of normal hunger before each meal. This seems reasonable and natural. I have to confess it's a sensation I had got a little out of touch with in the months before arrival at Gampo Abbey. A gurgling stomach is not something to be afraid of after all. My experience is that making room for a little bit of hunger is quite a challenging practice.
Before starting the meal I chant internally:
"To the Buddha for Refuge I go,
To the Dharma for Refuge I go,
To the Sangha for Refuge I go,
May I take this wholesome food
and turn it into wholesome action,
practising the Dharma for the benefit
The refuges help to remind me of my context and to remind me that it is on the Three Jewels that I should place my reliance and not on a plate of food.
The second part of the chant provides a direct link into my daily activities and is a point for reflection later in the day.
During the meal I follow Manjuvajra's advice and eat one mouthful at a time. I do not allow myself to start preparing the next mouthful until the last is swallowed. I just try to keep my knife and fork still. For me this takes some effort. I try to be mindful when cutting food and try to not overload my fork so that I drop food back onto my plate.
I try to be aware of the flavours and textures of the food and to note my responses e.g. "creamy sweet rice pudding mmmmm, this is tasty" or "cold, stodgy rice - hmm - interestingly nutty" I'm sure you get the picture.
I also try to remember the six element practice and reflect on the earth and water elements entering my body, it's not me, not mine - just passing through. I also try to keep my attention on the practice by avoiding glancing around the room or staring out of the window.
At the end of the meal I close my eyes and reflect (fairly briefly) on the people who have grown the food, harvested it, transported it and prepared it and how I could probably not survive very well without this chain of inter-connections.
I then say internally:-
"Thank you to all you people who's efforts have brought me this good food. May my efforts be worthy of yours"
I then make a very small seated bow with anjelli mudra before leaving the table.
The effect of doing this has been very positive for me. It has helped me to bring awareness to my body and to my emotions and cravings surrounding food. It helps me to transform what can easily be a bit of a weak point for me into a positive practice.
During practice periods between meals I am able to look back on my little mealtime chants and recall my aspiration to transform mundane food into spiritual practice to benefit all. This I find encouraging and in a strange way quite grounding.
Feel free to adopt, adapt or ignore this as you see fit. For use in a retreat type situation (with lots of silent meals) it is serving me well, but it could be easliy adapted for family or work situations. Perhaps our retreat centres could do something in this area to encourage retreatants to include eating within the scope of their practice, after all it is quite a big part of our lives.
I hope you are all well and that England is providing you with a warm and sunny summer!
My time here is flying by and I am now well over halfway through my visit. The pattern here seems to be a period of intense activity followed by a short period of change and transition into another period of intense activity. I've heard that Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche called this sort of thing the great Zen monastic joke, lots of formalism and ritual combined with constant activity as a method to stun the ego into a state of numb surrender! Fortunately, we do get one free day per week.
Recent highlights have included a sponsored overnight walk for Cancer Canada. This was my first exploration into the local town of Cheticamp and proved to be good fun despite getting a soaking. They had a Scottish marching band, folk music and country and western (all night - urghhh!). We camped overnight and I got a good drenching during my period of the walk (the only rain all night). Thanks for all of your sponsorship, I raised about 100 GBP.
After this we had a busy time preparing for and looking after Karme Senghe Rinpoche, the nephew of Chogyam Trungpa. He was here for about a week and gave initiations to some of the tantric students and a couple of talks to the entire house. I had the opportunity to spend some time as one of his attendants, making him cups of tea and helping to serve his meals. The formality involved with this is quite astonishing, even his washing up had a protocol and required separate washing cloths and drying up towels. He seemed kind and easy going. A few of us spent an evening with him looking at some of his monastaries (he is the Abbott of several) on the internet. He laughed a lot and seemed to enjoy a joke.
We have also had a visit from Shibata Sensei a Japanese Kyudo (archery) Master in his late eighties. He was a very interesting character with some great stories about Samarai and Japanese culture. He gave a demonstration of Kyudo despite being quite frail. I enjoyed being his personal attendant for his two day visit. I was deeply impressesd by the loyalty of his assistant/partner Carolyn who made a real practice out of devotion and service.
We had a day out to Kalapa valley, the mythical home of the Shambhala royal court (like Bhante's New Society but with Kings and Queens). This is a beautiful valley with semi formal gardens, waterfalls, forests, rivers and some solitary retreat facilities. It is said that the (female) energy from this land feeds all the other Shambhala properties. I find this mytholigical/pagan aspect of Tibetan Buddhism fascinating. The land certainly has a great atmosphere and I found my day here made left me feeling revitalised. I was lucky to get to visit it again a few weeks later.
We are currently trying to find time in the evenings for softball practice. We are playing the local fire department on Canada day (1st July). We usually get thrashed apparently, this year should prove no exception, we are rubbish!
We also have the annual lobster release coming up this weekend, where we buy the final catch of the season from a local fisherman and release them back into the water. Animal release is a very traditional Tibetan practice (unlike vegetarianism, unfortunately).
Before then, three women who arrived at the same time as me are taking temporary monastic ordination this week. This will involve formal head shaving, ordination ceremony and robing. Should be fun. I've witnessed two Ordinations here so far and they involve a lot of rice throwing, usually with much gusto and enjoyment on the part of the preceptor in trying to hit as many spectators as possible.
Recent wildlife has included plenty of pilot whales (up to 10 in a pod) plus humingbirds and some very hungry black fly that remove chunks of skin and leave a nasty itchy lump for many days. Tourists are also being sited more regularly. We are on the Cabot trail, a very popular scenic route. The Abbey is open to tourists for a couple of hours per day. I have given three guided tours so far (the largest a group of 11), which has been enjoyable.
Keep in touch.
Just a few lines to let you know how things are going.
Life here continues to feel more and more normal as the weeks go by. I know eveyones name now (even the Tibetan ones) and I'm getting the hang of the Abbey rituals and chants, I'm even enjoying the ritual Oryoki Zen style meals.
A mitra from Leeds (Ian Barker) joined us recently. It's nice to have another Englishman to talk to, and a fellow FWBO'er.
I've now been trained to be the shrine room Gatekeeper (calling people to mediation with a wooden clacker, and taking the attendance register) and meditation Umdze (ringing a large metal bowl at the appropriate moments). I have also been opening and closing the Vajrayan shrineroom (preparing offering teas, fruit, rice etc. and cleaning the shrines).
Tomorrow I train on the flag team. At 6.10am I'll brace myself for the wintry weather and march down to the flagpoles to raise the Abbey flags while singing the Abbey anthem. Should be fun!
The weather here showed signs of spring for a couple of weeks, the snow melted and the bay ice has dissapeared - now we can hear the waves breaking on cliffs below. The lobster season started this week and we have the novelty of seeing the fishing boats going out.
We had quite a lot of sunshine recently and I even managed a little sunbathing,but the last three days have brought some quite heavy snow, although it is not settling.
We've been doing a fair bit of study recently, Abhidharma with Bh. Sangpo, Prajna with Dr. Karl and Ani Pema Chodron gave a house talk on monasticism during her recent week long visit. It was very good to meet Ani Pema, she has a very strong and powerful presence. I have also been enjoying stretching my brain by studying a little Madhyamaka - it might be empty but it's not light!
I've been enjoying my meditation practice and the Bodhicaryavatara puja. I've also been enjoying doing our FWBO prostration practice.
I've seen a few more moose and a marsh harrier. Someone spotted whale last week, but I've not seen one yet. The Robins have arrived (American Robins), they are about the size of a Thrush (why do American's alsways have to make things bigger?).
If you'd like to see my photo's of Gampo Abbey, you can view them on my Flickr page:-
Thank you for your emails, I've appreciated them all.
A brief reporting in from this land of snow and ice. We will shortly be going into a ten day silent retreat (so no email) and I wanted to get something in before the deadline.
I have been in Canada for 6 days and at Gampo Abbey for three of them. It's cold. About minus eight centigrade today and snowing quite heavily (by English standards). The Abbey looks out over the bay of St.Lawrence (wider than the eye can see), more like an inland sea. The bay is completely frozen and covered in snow, it looks like the arctic circle - amazing!
This country is huge and wild and covered in trees, breathtaking and a bit humbling. Yesterday we were feeding the fox family that begs outside the refrectory of an evening, a wonderful sight.
There are currently 21 residents in the main Abbey at the moment, with others off in retreat cabins and partaking in a three year retreat. So many new faces and new names to learn, it reminds me of being back in a beginners class - strange new name overload. Learning Tibetan names is a whole new ball game.
I'm being eased into things slowly here, with three days to settle in before being expected to partake in work duties and the full practice program. The main issue on my arrival was how to categorize me - am I a monk or a lay person? Where you line up to enter the shrine room and where you sit in the shrine room and even what sort of accommodation you are given depends on this.
I decided to bring my ordination robes with me as this seemed appropriate to the context here, I'm glad I did, as all but about four people are wearing robes, and many of those in robes are on a short temporary ordination and with less experience than myself. The downside of the visibly different robe is that I am currently asked about five times a day whether I am a monk. This is a little tiring and I feel a little defensive at times, but most people are genuinely interested in the FWBO approach and few have come across our movement before.
Having had a long discussion with one of the senior nuns here, it was decided they would put me in with the novice monastics. This was decided by the length of my experience (10 years) and the fact that I had taken a life time rather than temporary ordination. I think the issue of celibacy confuses things a bit, but as they had experience with Zen priests, seemed to help them skirt around the vinaya issues.
This "novitiate rank" ranks me below the lifetime monastics but above the temporary monastics and laymen. As there are currently no male novices this puts me second in the men's line when entering the shrine room and I am currently seated on the front row in the shrine room, where I currently feel a little too visible for my own liking. More importantly I get a nice single bedroom to myself! I have to say this hierarchy thing feels a bit strange, but I have plenty of time to get over it.
The chanting here is fast and furious and the tone takes a bit of getting used to. Shrine room etiquette is more complex than in the FWBO and I'm looking forward to getting the hang of it.
People here seem friendly and approachable. The atmosphere is different to FWBO but hard to say how as yet. It still feels noticeably "Buddhist" though and I don't feel too out of place. I see a slightly uncomfortable process of arriving stretched out ahead of me, but feel optimistic these conditions will help me deepen my practice.
Love to All,
Just a quick note to let you know I've arrived safely at Gampo Abbey.
I had three days in Halifax to recover from the jet lag and start adjusting to Canadian culture before heading up to Cape Breton.
Canada is like England but different. Same wheelie bins - different plugs!
The weather was kind to me - only -3c on arrival. It waited a day to drop to -10c. This is cold - but not as bad as you might think. A shop keeper warned me that Halifax is like the tropics compared to Cape Breton - a bit of an exaggeration, but it is colder up here.
The drive in was beautiful, very white (they really know what snow is) and lots of trees (this country is huge). The bay of St. Lawrence is frozen big style - it looks like the Arctic! I saw a guy on the way in who was riding on it on a quad bike!
The Abbey has a 3 day open period following the rains retreat which has just finished. This means I have 3 unstructured days to "arrive" before the program proper gets under way. We have a 10 day silent retreat from Saturday.
People here are very friendly, lots of new and difficult Tibetan names to learn - you thought Pali/Sanskrit was hard? The set up here is quite un-FWBO (no surprise there) and that feels a little odd, I also feel very English. I'm sure I'll adjust.
Love to All,
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