Life is a garden
Life is a garden not a road
We enter and exit through the same gate
Wondering where we go matters less
than what we notice.
Kurt Vonnegut – Cat’s Cradle
Contributed by James
The thorn in the heart
Fear is born from arming oneself.
Just see how many people fight!
I’ll tell you about the dreadful fear
that caused me to shake all over:
Seeing creatures flopping around,
Like fish in water too shallow,
So hostile to one another!
— Seeing this, I became afraid.
This world completely lacks essence;
It trembles in all directions.
I longed to find myself a place
Unscathed — but I could not see it.
Seeing people locked in conflict,
I became completely distraught.
But then I discerned here a thorn
— Hard to see — lodged deep in the heart.
It’s only when pierced by this thorn
That one runs in all directions.
So if that thorn is taken out —
one does not run, and settles down.
Who here has crossed over desires,
the world’s bond, so hard to get past,
he does not grieve, she does not mourn.
His stream is cut, she’s all unbound.
What went before — let go of that!
All that’s to come — have none of it!
Don’t hold on to what’s in between,
And you’ll wander fully at peace.
(The Buddha from the Attadanda Sutta: Arming Oneself. Translated by Andrew Olendzki.)
Comment: This is one of my favourite poems from the Pali Canon. The metaphor of the thorn in the heart for all that afflicts us and the imagery of fish flopping around in shallow water for our usual states of agitation, unrest and conflict are both vivid and profound. The poem seems a truly autobiographical account by the Buddha that is revealing of his sensitivity as he struggles to make sense of the human condition. With insight the thorn in the heart is discerned and its extraction made possible with the gradual overcoming of our slavery to attachment and aversion and a cultivated capacity to let go and not to hold on to each moment of experience. The poem begins with conflict and ends with peace and as such is a wonderful summary of the entire Dharma.
Contributed by Mike
“Many people think of nirvana as a Buddhist heaven, well it isn’t. Nirvana is a state of freeing oneself. In the original language it is a verb form, not a noun, not a state I reach, not a place to go to, a verb which can literally mean “to go out”, an intransitive verb. It also means “to unbind” from something. “Nir” means to not do something, “vana” can mean to bind or tie to something. What we are engaged in is not achieving nirvana, but nirvana-ing, little nirvanas. It is unbinding yourself from habitual tendencies, from the pathology of habits, incrementally, little by little as we practice.”
From a dharma talk The Pathos of the Human Condition, 21/12/2013, Dharma Seed
Comment: I read this quotation with a sense of relief. It de-mythologises nirvana from a grandiose state of some future attainment to something much more doable in the here and now from moment to moment. It points to the ability, arising from practice, to respond to each moment without the habitually compulsive reactivities of grasping, holding and averting, leaving us free to respond more appropriately and with greater intimacy and ease.
Contributed by Mike
Nothing to lean upon at all
She saw that all phenomena arose, abided, and fell away.
She saw that even knowing this arose, abided, and fell away.
Then she knew there was nothing more than this, no ground, nothing to lean on, stronger than the cane she held.
Nothing to lean upon at all, and no one leaning…
And she opened the clenched fist in her mind and let go, and fell, into the midst of everything.
Teijitsu, 18th century abbess of Hakujuan, near Eiheiji, Japan
Comment: What I like in this elegant piece of writing is that it seems to point toward an interface between impermanence and emptiness in an experiential way.
The noticing that phenomena arise and pass away is followed by the realisation that this noticing too must pass. What then is left? Nothing to hold onto, and yet still we find ourselves ‘in the midst of everything’.
Contributed by James
Abandon what is unskilful. One can abandon the unskilful. If it were not possible I would not ask you to do it. If this abandoning of the unskilful would bring harm and suffering, I would not ask you to abandon it. But as it brings benefit and happiness, therefore I say, abandon what is unskilful.
Cultivate the skilful. One can cultivate the skilful. If it were not possible I would not ask you to do it. If this cultivation were to bring harm and suffering, I would not ask you to do it. But as this cultivation brings benefit and happiness, I say, cultivate the skilful.
(Anguttara Nikaya 2.19)
Contributed by Mike
Radical Dharma and Lama Rod Owens
Radical is not a term we immediately associate with Dharma readings so we were interested to participate in a day retreat in Bristol with Lama Rod Owens who describes himself as a “black, queer, activist, Buddhist teacher”. Along with colleagues, Angel Kyodo Williams and Jasmine Syedullah, Rod has authored a book entitled “Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love and Liberation”. He is an American and his work is contexted in the history of relationships between blacks and whites in the USA. He presents racism as creating injustice which leads to suffering in that we cut off painful aspects of ourselves from ourselves. This includes not just racism but also inequalities deriving from gender, sexual orientation and social class. Personal liberation is seen as impossible without social liberation, so as he and his colleagues put it “a new Dharma is one that insists we investigate not only the unsatisfactoriness of our own minds but also prepares us for the discomfort of confronting the obscurations of the society we are individual expressions of. It recognizes that the delusions of systematic oppression are not solely the domain of the individual. By design, they are seated within and reinforced by society “ (p.23/24/).
While some groups might appear to be in a privileged position in relation to these categories, Rod et al. point out that if we see privilege only as a gift, we lose sight of its shadow side which they describe graphically as “trading humanity for privilege.” We lose touch of our own vulnerability when we are straightjacketed into positions of power and authority.
They suggest that there is a need for “conversations” between groups in which the origin of these wounds can be sought and healing explored. In order to explore these ideas within the Sangha, we ran a couple of sessions in which we asked participants to share in pairs two questions. This first was concerned with the question “what do I leave behind at the door when I enter the Sangha? Do I become just the nice Buddhist? The second asked people to think about their experience of privilege or lack of it. These were just small exercises but more generally, the longer term question for the Sangha is whether it is possible to create a safe space in which these issues can be explored and a conversation developed.
Thanks to Rod for sharing his ideas with us. If you wish to learn more, you may like to know that he is leading a retreat at Gaia House from April 18-22 and is also leading a session at London Insight on April 23. The book Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation (2016) is published by North Atlantic Books.
Contributed by Ray Woolfe and James Wormell
Love can go anywhere
The Buddha taught that the forces in the mind that bring suffering are able to temporarily hold down positive forces such as love and wisdom – but they can never destroy them. The negative forces can never uproot the positive, whereas the positive forces can actually uproot the negative forces. Love can uproot fear or anger or guilt, because it is a greater power.
Love can go anywhere. Nothing can obstruct it. I Am That, a book of dialogues with Nisargadatta Maharaj, includes an exchange with Nisargadatta and a man who complained a great deal about his mother. The man felt she had not been a very good mother and was not a good person. At one point, Nisargadatta advised him to love his mother. The man replied “She wouldn’t let me.” Nisargadatta responded “She couldn’t stop you.”
No external condition can prevent love; no one and no thing can stop it. The awakening of love is not bound up in things being in a certain way. Metta, like the true nature of the mind, is not dependent; it is not conditioned.
Sharon Salzberg (from her book “Loving Kindness – The Revolutionary Art of Happiness”)
Contributed by Gordon
For a New Beginning
by John O’Donohue
In out-of-the-way places of the heart,
Where your thoughts never think to wander,
This beginning has been quietly forming,
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.
For a long time it has watched your desire,
Feeling the emptiness growing inside you,
Noticing how you willed yourself on,
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.
It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the gray promises that sameness whispered,
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent,
Wondered would you always live like this.
Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground,
Your eyes young again with energy and dream,
A path of plenitude opening before you.
Though your destination is not yet clear
You can trust the promise of this opening;
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is at one with your life’s desire.
Awaken your spirit to adventure;
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm,
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.
Contributed by Mike
Mary Oliver the great American poet died on January 17th 2019 at the age of 83. She was a prolific writer whose work received many awards and accolades. Her collection American Primitive received the Pulitzer Prize in 1984, and in 1992, she was awarded the National Book Award. Many of her poems are well known and used by teachers within the dharma community as well as the wider mindfulness meditation movement.
I first came across her work about five years ago in her New and Selected Poems and have found her poetry a continued source of inspiration. Her poems have a contemplative and detailed attention to the natural world. Often they evoke joy, delight, surprise and a sense of interconnection. Whilst her poems are often light and almost conversational in tone they often introduce a deeper reflection upon our lives. I feel it is this quality of reflection, particularly upon transience, as well as the evocation of attentive presence to the natural world, that have made her poems so endearing to practitioners of meditation. I leave you with what I believe to be one of her finest poems “Morning Walk”.
Little by little
empties its pockets –
foam and fluff;
and the long, tangled ornateness
or the whelks,
ribbed or with ivory knobs;
but so knocked about
in the sea’s blue hands
and their story is at length only
about the wholeness of destruction –
they come one by one
to the shore
to the shallows
to the mussel-dappled rocks
to the rise to dryness
to the edge of the town
to offer, to the measure that we will accept it,
though the hour be whole
though the minute be deep and rich
though the heart be a singer of hot red songs
and the mind be as lightning,
what all the music will come to is nothing,
only the sheets of fog and the fog’s blue bell –
you do not believe it now, you are not supposed to,
you do not believe it yet – but you will –
morning by singular morning,
and shell by broken shell.
Contributed by Mike
By Ajahn Chah
“It is taught that birth is suffering, but it doesn’t really mean dying from this life and taking rebirth in the next life. That’s too far away. The suffering of birth happens right now. It’s said that becoming is the cause of birth. What is this “becoming”? Anything that we attach too and put meaning on is becoming. Whenever we see anything as self or other or belonging to ourselves, without wise discernment that such is only a convention, that is becoming. Whenever we hold to something as “us” or “ours” and it then undergoes change, the mind is shaken by that. It is shaken by a positive or negative reaction. That sense of self experiencing happiness or unhappiness is birth. When there is birth it brings suffering along with it, because everything must change and disappear.”
Contributed by Ray
by Roger S Keyes
Hokusai says look carefully.
He says pay attention, notice.
He says keep looking, stay curious.
He says there is no end to seeing.
Look forward to getting old.
He says keep changing; you just get more who you really are.
He says get stuck, accept it, repeat yourself as long as it’s interesting.
He says keep doing what you love.
He says keep praying.
He says every one of us is a child, every one of us is ancient, and every one of us has a body.
He says every one of us is frightened.
He says every one of us has to find a way to live with fear.
He says everything is alive – shells, buildings, people, fish, mountains, trees.
Wood is alive.
Water is alive.
Everything has its own life.
Everything lives inside us.
He says live with the world inside you.
He says it doesn’t matter if you draw, or write books.
It doesn’t matter if you saw wood, or catch fish.
It doesn’t matter if you sit at home and stare at the ants on your veranda or the shadows of the trees and grasses in your garden.
It matters that you care.
It matters that you feel.
It matters that you notice.
It matters that life lives through you.
Contentment is life living through you.
Joy is life living through you.
Satisfaction and strength are life living through you.
Peace is life living through you.
He says don’t be afraid.
Don’t be afraid.
Look, feel, let life take you by the hand.
Let life live through you.
Happy New Year everyone
The heart of skillful meditation
The heart of skillful meditation is the ability to let go and begin again, over and over again. Even if you have to do that a thousand times during a session, it does not matter. There is no distance to traverse in recollecting our attention; as soon as we realize we have been lost in discursive thought, or have lost touch with our chosen contemplation, right in that very moment we can begin again. Nothing has been ruined and there is no such thing as failing. There is nowhere the attention can wander to, and no duration of distraction, from which we cannot completely let go, in a moment, and begin again.
Loving –kindness The Revolutionary Art of Happiness. p29
by Jeff Foster
“You will lose everything.
Your money, your power, your fame, your success, perhaps even your memory.
Your looks will go.
Loved ones will die.
Your own body will eventually fall apart.
Everything that seems permanent is absolutely impermanent and will be smashed.
Experience will gradually, or not so gradually, strip away everything that it can strip away.
Waking up means facing this reality with open eyes and no longer turning away.
Right now, we stand on sacred and holy ground.
For that which will be lost has not yet been lost, and realising this is the key to unspeakable joy.
Whoever or whatever is in your life right now has not yet been taken away from you.
This may sound obvious but really knowing it is the key to everything, the why and how and wherefore of existence.
Impermanence has already rendered everything and everyone around you so deeply holy and significant and worthy of your heartbreaking gratitude.
Loss has already transfigured your life into an altar.”
Contributed by Gordon
by Holly Hughes
Only a beige slat of sun
above the horizon, like a shade pulled
not quite down. Otherwise,
clouds. Sea rippled here and
there. Birds reluctant to fly.
The mind wants a shaft of sun to
stir the grey porridge of clouds,
an osprey to stitch sea to sky
with its barred wings, some dramatic
music: a symphony, perhaps a Chinese gong.
But the mind always
wants more than it has—
one more bright day of sun,
one more clear night in bed
with the moon; one more hour
to get the words right; one
more chance for the heart in hiding
to emerge from its thicket
in dried grasses—as if this quiet day
with its tentative light weren’t enough,
as if joy weren’t strewn all around.
Comment: This poem is a beautiful reminder of one of the reasons why we meditate. Whilst it is important that we maximise conditions for well-being, the excessive “wanting-more-mind” seems to be the habitual generator of discontent and dissatisfaction (dukkha) ensuring that our sought after well-being remains elusive. Insight meditation has the capacity to attenuate the “wanting-more-mind” and free our capacities for contentment, gratitude and perhaps give us glimpses of that joy strewn all around.
Contributed by Mike
“Sitting is a strange process. In the beginning, it’s hard to grasp what it’s all about. Later on, it doesn’t get much easier. The only thing that’s clear is “just do it.” Whether the sitting is “good” or “bad,” just do it. You never get any better at it. Not really. But this whole idea of “getting better” is part of the problem, the endless self-improvement and self-manipulation game. We don’t sit to get better. We sit to be with life as it is.” (Source unknown)
I find this a useful quotation to reflect upon. In a culture that seems to hold self-improvement as a near requirement it is difficult to see meditation as anything other than a self–improvement project, a way of getting better at “this” or being more of “that”. It therefore feels strange to know meditation as simply being about letting go of the entire getting disposition. To experience meditation as simply being open to what is now arising within us, to “life as it is” seems to take endless practice. Very strange. Perhaps the word “practice” doesn’t help here as it seems to engender an evaluative “how am I doing?” mentality. Maybe we should rename our meditation time. Any offers?
Contributed by Mike
by Clive James
Hard to believe now that I once was free
From the pills in heaps, blood tests, X-rays and scans.
No pipes or tubes. At perfect liberty,
I stained my diary with travel plans.
The ticket paid for at the other end,
I packed a hold-all and went anywhere
They asked me. One on whom you could depend
To show up, I would cross the world by air
And come down neatly in some crowded hall.
I stood for a full hour to give my spiel.
Here, I might talk back to a nuisance call,
And that’s my flight of eloquence. Unreal:
But those years in the clear, how real were they,
When all the sirens in the signing queue
Who clutched their hearts at what I had to say
Were just dreams, even when the dream came true?
I called it health but never stopped to think
It might have been a kind of weightlessness,
That footloose feeling always on the brink
Of breakdown: the false freedom of excess.
Rarely at home in those days, I’m home now,
Where few will look at me with shining eyes.
Perhaps none ever did, and that was how
The fantasy of young strength that now dies
Expressed itself. The face that smiled at mine
Out of the looking glass was seeing things.
Today I am restored by my decline
And by the harsh awakening it brings.
I was born weak and always have been weak.
I came home and was taken into care.
A cot-case, but at long last I can speak:
I am here now, who was hardly even there.
From Sentenced to Life, Picador, 2015, p. 4
UWE Bristol sponsored a guest lecture entitled ‘Facing up to White Privilege’ on Monday 3 September 2018.
The speaker was Dr Judy Ryde, psychotherapist, trainer and supervisor. In her talk, Dr Ryde outlined the history of white, or Northern European, domination, through slavery and colonisation to the present day. She highlighted how the invention of ‘political correctness’ created a more welcoming landscape by teaching people to censor racist language in public settings; however, she shared her view that this largely pushed unconscious and conscious racist beliefs out of sight for a while. The recent rise in hate crimes and right-wing politicians seems to support this. In her view, ‘it was like putting out a fire that is still burning underneath.’
She then went on to highlight some of the ways in which white people continue to benefit from past and present white domination. For example, did you know that most National Trust properties were built from the compensation awarded to families involved in the slave trade, when slavery was abolished? She also described the privilege of being ‘just normal’, of the supremacy of the English language, and of the globalisation of white sport, and she argued that ‘the degradation of the planet is the worst feature of white domination.’
She concluded her talk by suggesting some possible processes of facing up to white privilege, both within the individual and as a nation. For example, reparations could be made by re-naming the global ‘aid’ budget as the ‘reparations’ budget, and taking this more seriously, as a means of repaying nations and communities that we have exploited. She also suggested starting a fund for disadvantaged youth, paid for from wealthy families that directly benefited from the slave trade. And she suggested that the National Trust use their properties as teaching sites regarding colonisation, imperialism and slavery, to bring this history alive and share it more widely.
Let’s hope some of her suggestions are taken up soon!
Contributed by Christine
“Just as when a carpenter or carpenter’s apprentice sees the marks of his fingers or thumb on the handle of his adze but does not know, ‘Today my adze handle wore down this much, or yesterday it wore down that much, or the day before yesterday it wore down this much,’ still he knows it is worn through when it is worn through. In the same way, when a monk dwells devoting himself to development, he does not know, ‘Today my effluents* wore down this much, or yesterday they wore down that much, or the day before yesterday they wore down this much,’ still he knows they are worn through when they are worn through.”
(Nava Sutta SN 22.101translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu)
I have found that these words from the Buddha are useful to remember when you feel that you are getting nowhere with your meditation. An adze is a tool with a wooden handle used by carpenters to hollow out wood. With constant daily use the handle would imperceptibly be worn down. The worn down appearance would only be noticeable after years of use. Likewise with daily meditation. The immediate effects may not be noticeable from day to day, or month to month. Perhaps it is only when we look back after much diligent practice that we recognise its transformative power. So we can remember the simile of the adze handle, trust in the process and let go of the wanting for speedy effects.
*Effluents is a translation of the Pali word asavas and is variously translated as defilements, taints, toxins, pollutants, outflows or effluents. It refers to all the unskilful thoughts and actions that flow out of us. In the Nava Sutta and elsewhere the Buddha describes the goal of the path as the ending of the effluents.
Contributed by Mike
Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn,
a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter.
If your mind isn’t clouded by unnecessary things,
this is the best season of your life.
Chinese Zen master Wu Men
To have an unclouded mind and to see a little more deeply into life is perhaps what Insight meditation is all about. Bristol Insight exists to support us in the endeavour to see with a greater clarity and to respond to life with a deeper appreciation.