Wednesday, July 25, 2007

A Meal Ritual

When I approached Max Bals (a GFR Mitra and ex-resident at Gampo Abbey) about coming to Gampo Abbey he said: "there's not much to do there for distraction, but there is a toaster". I knew what he meant, the attraction of comfort through food is common for many of us I think, particularly when our other favourite false refuges have been pulled out from under us.

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.

In brief,

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
of all."

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.

Bon appetite,

Gampo Abbey Update June 25, 2007

Hello All,

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.


Update from the Abbey May 5, 2007

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.

With Love,

Report from Gampo Abbey March 11, 2007

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,

Arrival at Gampo Abbey - from February 20, 2007

Dear 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,

Reporting in from the Hermitage

Here is a copy of a reporting in that I prepared for our AHS Quarterly Journal (called Tendrel). As the journal is only available to member...