As part of the book study group, I have been reading ‘The Shamanic Bones of Zen’ by Zenju Earthlyn Manuel. There is a section in this book where she talks about communal chanting and the connections we make with other people who have repeated the same chants over the years. Not only people in the same temple or from your particular Sangha but other people carrying out the same practice across the world. This got me to thinking about the moon, and how, if you are missing someone you love who is temporarily parted from you, if you both look out of your windows at the same time, you can each see the same moon shining down on you from above, and feel connected again. I think I got this idea from a romantic film or book but I can’t remember exactly where. As I was writing about this, that’s when my Dharma glimpse hit me! This is the exact same moon that Shinran and Shakyamuni would have seen when they looked up at the night sky, and the same moon that Rumi and so many other poets and musicians have written about, and so many artists have painted. We all share the same moon, the same sun, the stars and this planet that we all live on. The reality that just a couple of thousand years ago Shakyamuni Buddha would have been looking up at the same moon that I can see now as I am typing this, is immensely comforting. It’s obvious really, it’s just something that hadn’t occurred to me before, I suppose that’s what a Dharma glimpse is, when something that’s always been there, suddenly becomes apparent. Whenever I see the moon now, I think of the Buddha, not just the concept but the person who became enlightened, Shakyamuni Buddha, and I feel connected Namo Amida Bu
I have noticed a number of road works recently popping up on the road between my house and town and with them temporary traffic lights. I usually come across these when I’m running late and invariably the lights are always on red. I work predominantly from home these days which I enjoy so I don’t travel this route as frequently -so I’d usually know in advance of roadworks . Previously Id find myself working out an elaborate way of avoiding them where possible. Thoughts go through my head about jumping the red light when it takes too long to change and there’s no other traffic coming from the opposite direction. Are they broken? I’m often irritated by these temporary lights and the road works and a number of questions repeat inside my head. I Wonder why there is never any one working whenever I pass? Why is this stretch of road being dug up yet again. Don’t they know how inconvenient this is? Could they not coordinate their jobs – 3 sets of different road works and lights in the same week on the same stretch of road. REALLY!!!!Doesn’t seem like good planning to me?
I’m not sure why they invoke such negative feelings so I’ve tried to explore why. Why do they upset and irritate me so much. Why does this bring me suffering. When I’m home and sat with a cuppa or a cat on my lap, these thoughts seem so irrational. Any yet they pop up almost every time.
As routine traffic lights don’t have the same impact. I believe that ultimately, it’s usually because I have given myself the exact amount of time to get where I’m going and not left a buffer. I remember Kaspa referring to this term several years ago and ive held on to this term ever since. A buffer allows for any mishaps or unplanned events on the way such as tractors or sheep which is fairly frequent where I live or simply just busy traffic- or of course temporary traffic light that you don’t anticipate. So instead I get annoyed with the lights and not myself. Is it easier to be angry at an inanimate object. This is silly for many reasons. A red light is not a thinking, sentient being as we are. They are pieces of automated equipment which preform specific tasks in a technical and objective way. So by definition, they can not be out to get you or ruin your day, even though it may feel like that at times . Some individuals even go as far as yelling at these objects as if they can hear us and reflect on their wrongdoing. Resistentialism is a jocular theory to describe “seemingly spiteful behaviour manifested by inanimate objects”,where objects that cause problems are said to exhibit a high degree of malice toward humans.
I can understand being upset with actual living , thinking beings , capable of making moral decisions but being angry at objects such as a traffic light is not logical behaviour and once you accept that it is not logical to be angry at inanimate objects or equipment , there will be a feeling of relief and understanding that comes over you. Any most definitely always give yourself a buffer.
I recently returned to live in Malvern. I’m temporarily staying at the temple, where I lived for a year not so long ago, while I find myself somewhere more permanent nearby.
The hills have always had something special for me. I used to come here by bus and train when I lived in the Black Country of a weekend. It was always worth the effort. I frequently forget how great I thought it would be to live here in Malvern. And now I’ve done it. Twice. I’m not a huge walker, but get out for at least a short walk in the hills several times a week when I’ve lived here or come down to stay at the temple for a few days or more. I waited about a week this time before going in them. I think I wanted to ground myself at the temple. I’m learning to ground myself more when there has been, or will be, some sort of change that will rattle my younger parts.
I went on a sunny day. It was beautiful. As soon as I got to a wooded path up into the hills, memories and feelings came back of a sangha member who is no longer physically with us, but lives on through a memorial apple tree in the garden. It brought up loss and sadness. I’d bumped into him several times around this area of the hills. And that triggered other, even deeper, losses experienced whilst living at the temple the last time.
I carried on trudging along the paths. Through woods. Gently touching the leaves and occasionally a solid, wise and kind feeling tree trunk. They have a knowing for me. The sun had been obscured by these for much of the route, but I could still feel its warmth. Maybe like the warmth of Amida; we can’t necessarily see it, but we can feel it if we try. Which, for me, seems to have a lot to do with surrendering.
I stopped when the sun was more directly overhead. Peering through the leaves and branches that were gently swaying in the gentle breeze. Shadows flickering and dancing all around me. I consciously tried to really notice the warmth of the sun and the beauty all around me. I thought of the cross training machines I’ve started using at the Malvern Splash gym. They now have a screen showing a journey through somewhere pleasant, usually the sort of nature I was experiencing. Parts of me may not be able to distinguish these recordings from actually being in nature; both have a soothing, calming effect. But parts of me do know, and feel, the difference. And, perhaps, parts of me know and feel the reality I perceive is only one reality. And maybe not the true nature of reality. If a TV screen can deceive me, I’m guessing plenty more can. I think I had an instinctive knowing up there that a deeper reality was behind what I was seeing and perceiving. I am becoming more accepting of that. It isn’t as scary as it used to be. Just like, relatedly, impermanence isn’t. Although parts of me are still very scared and confused. I’m acknowledging them as I write and trying to send them compassion and soothing, which they have so often gone without in my life.
My journey in the hills continued down some winding, wooded paths. There was less inspiration and more (albeit limited) physical pain from the pressure on joints from descending and gravity. This journey ended back at the temple. But my journey through life goes on, for however long that will be. The walk in the hills felt like a microcosm of that wider journey; loss, sadness, inspiration, warmth, beauty, pain. The physical distance hadn’t been so far, but emotionally and spiritually had felt much longer. Like the theory of relativity perhaps; different worlds and realms coming together on the hills that are on different trajectories. I’m trying to stay more in the present, whilst opening up more to connecting with the past. Perhaps that might relate to ‘The Shamanic Bones of Zen’ I’m reading for the current temple book group. We’ll see. For now, I feel grateful for my journey in the hills.
Recently I came up against a huge obstacle, one of those obstacles where you need to decide whether to run or confront it. The decision, in these situations, will likely depend on a third strand – that of faith and firm resolve. In this case, if choosing to follow faith and firm resolve, running isn’t an option – so fight it out I did. Fighting, in this case, was more about an internal struggle, a dealing with loud, difficult parts of myself, also known as ego states, or our karmic boundedness. This ugly situation made me think of Shan-Dao’s 7th century Chinese Pure Land Buddhist parable, of the river of fire and river of water, as can be seen hanging on the wall at the top of the stairwell, here in the temple. The wall hanging depicts a white path running between two shores from east to west and two rivers either side of it. A traveller is running away from bandits and fierce beasts on the east shore and wanting to make his way to the west shore, but notices that on one side of the path are high flames and on the other high waves. He can’t remain where he is, but he also can’t move further without fear of losing his life. On the east shore Shakyamuni ushers him on towards the west shore, where Amida is standing to welcome him to the Pure Land. My purpose is not to recite the parable, just my own authentic glimpse, but this wall hanging made me reflect on this deeply.
I’ve been reflecting that sometimes, on the spiritual journey, along the White Path, obstacles can be encountered. Choosing to go back, is a tempting choice and would be immediately the easier option, although not the best in the long run. If reaching the other side, the Pure Land or Amida, then focusing on the White Path is important. However, it would seem to be a necessary part of the journey to fight, or confront, the water serpents, the fire dragons or the inner demons along the way. If confronting the demon or serpent, then death might follow, but there might also be the chance to deepen in resolve, in faith, to reach the far banks of the shore safely. I’ve also been reflecting that obstacles like serpents present themselves as a Great Test – a test of faith and commitment and a test of resilience, integrity and devotion. To face the test is also to ask whether the serpent is what it appears to be – it might seem big at the time of confronting it, but it can also have an illusory nature and only I can be responsible for what I see. I can survey dangers and test the territory. I need to test the boundaries and find out how safe I am. What will the serpent do or not do? How strong is the current? How high are the flames? I also take the risk of failing, confronting the fire or high waves or being eaten up! My immediate need would be to Feel Safe, but strength lies in the ability to deepen Trust and resolve to walk the White Path and survey the whole landscape, the Bigger Picture. If putting too much energy into fighting, or confronting, the sea monster, I only become more sucked into its lair. Choosing to confront the serpent, the water becomes unstable and rocky, the waves higher, but eventually it will calm down. It was necessary to confront the serpent, as the serpent was a part of the journey and once one challenge has been accomplished, the next won’t seem so bad.
I’ve Tested, I Know, I’ve Learnt.
It is only then that a deeper peace can pervade, when feeling held by the ocean….the ocean that leads back to the White Path. As long as the serpent is seen as the problem, the path becomes lost. The more the focus on the White Path, the easier it will get.
When facing a conflict, I could walk back away from it, or I might be devoured by it, but I need to have that encounter if I am to move on. I can run away when my parts get too much, or I can choose to enter into dialogue with them, so they can be reintegrated into the wholeness. The struggle is a necessary part of the journey. It’s not in the striving – it’s Through the striving that allows sinking into even greater depths of peace.
During the Covid Era, I experienced real isolation, extreme isolation. Isolation so severe that I’ve been on a mission ever since to ensure no one has to go through what I did for two whole years. This was a tall order. I recognised that not everyone has met isolation and many love their own company and feel safe with that. I used to love my own company, but since covid, I can no longer enjoy my own company, without the company of nature or of other people. At no point in my life has community been more essential. I understand, that as humans and mammals, we all need connection, we all need each other. Zoom, Netflix, social media and even e-mail are not substitutes for Real Connection and face to face communication. The disconnection is like a modern disease of the human race. Having spent nearly a decade in Asia, I’ve been challenged in the UK by a very different social culture. A culture of extreme independence and Having Enough; a culture of caring for our own and of strong individualism. In many Asian cultures, particularly in East Asia where I lived and worked, people identify first and foremost with the group, before the individual. Before living in Asia, I lived many years in ‘socialist Berlin’, where coming together as a community was a normal daily experience. There are obviously benefits on all sides, but we must ultimately find the balance that works best for us. I wonder though, if my need for community and connection is just another addictive behaviour? I wonder too, if I am not just pushing a value onto others? Where is the line between a need and a service to others? How can we know when we are working for the good of all and when we are self-serving?
My experience last April, of coming together at The Big One with XR Buddhists in London, had made me feel alive again! I had reconnected with that force that works through me each and every time I am part of something bigger than my individual worries and difficulties. Like stepping out into Other Power (or the Infinite), into something much bigger, self power (or our limited egoic nature) just melts away and dissolves, like ice in water. A becoming One Unified Living Breathing Body. On the other hand, I am reflecting that if people each live on their own island, they can only see the vast oceans of separation between them. Building fences around ourselves so high that we can only live with the stories of our own inventions and can’t see the reality beyond. To me, from my experience, this separation can cause people to become so wrapped up in self power or their own small selves. How do we break free from our small egoic worlds? I love the phrase from Gandhi when he implied that, in changing ourselves, we could also change the world. Yes, people can change on the inside, but starting with my small self, I together with others, can plant seeds, build bridges or grow ways of linking up, bringing people together, like trees reaching out their roots to connect and to communicate beneath the soil. Gentle connection, respecting space whilst connecting with our roots. It’s not a forcing or a pushing, but a Surrendering into a more Expansive Awareness of each other. n Acknowledgment of each other. A growing in Wholeness. A finding Strength in Unity. An Awareness that we are all Interconnected. We are all One. Perhaps I can step aside from the person I think I am and let the Self, or the Buddha, meet all of my difficult parts and offer their unconditional love and healing. Perhaps, in non dualistic terms, where people aren’t experiencing themselves as individuals, where there is no ‘I’ or ‘we,’ people can rest in a shared space, a space not of Doing but of Being. Resting in Being in gently Expanding Awareness. People’s roots, like the trees, reaching out into a vast web of interconnection.
Returning home from a Mothers’ Day brunch at my sister’s home, I had a rather long wait on a train platform. I ran up to the stop thinking I had heard a train horn. Well, no I hadn’t. What greeted me was a schedule board indicating a 30 minute wait. It was a nice day so I didin’t think much of it. I could txt some friends and check in on a dating app.
A young guy arrived and stood maybe 15 feet from where I was standing. Nicely dressed he started fumbling with something in his bag or pocket – I couldn’t tell which. Next thing I noticed was the aroma of an herb garden wafting in my general direction. He was smoking weed from a pipe fashioned out of an old soda can. It is legal in a about 9 or 10 weeks, so who cares.
Then two rough looking characters walked up and sat on the ground. Smoking cigarettes and grumbling at each other. One about hurt feelings. The grumbling turned dramatic and one guy would start to walk away. The other would chase after him offering a certainly insincere appology. They would the go back to their spot on the floor and bicker some more. This cycle played out several times. In the mean time another guy walks up and sits on a bench at the other end of the platform.
The argument was about money and hurt feelings. It started to get loud. Each one yelling blah, blah blah, Yo! Now to get the full picture of what happens next it is. neccesary to understand who each of the players is. The bromance boys having the fight were white 20-somethings from Dundalk or Brooklyn – a step or two below working class. The pot smoker was young African American man about the same age as the bromance boys. The guy on the other end of the platform was an African American man is late 20s to early 30s.
Emotions escalate and the younger bromance boy starts calling the older one the “N” word. Next enters the middle age African American guy. “What did you say! You can’t use that word! You’re disrespecting me!” Round and round this goes for a few minutes. Stoner guy walks up to the tussle and I’ m starting to get a little worried. This is Baltimore after all and you don’t reallly know who is packing. And folks around here like to shoot at each other. Nobody flashes a weapon and I can relax. Stoner guy walks up to the bromance boy he figures is being picked on and offers a handshake and a “are you ok?”
Thank goodness the train appears. Thank goodness nobody gets pushed onto the tracks.
The Dharma lesson? That was for me. I kept my mouth shut. I didn’t mentally take sides. Everyone wants to find happiness and avoid pain. Everyone wants to find happiness and avoid pain. I’ve heard the Dalai Lama say that a dozen times if I’ve heard it once. Yeah, that sounds good. Put it into practice? Not quite as simple. But this time I did. I’ve heard it so many times from so many people in a variety of words and settings. Sunday it played itself out. There was nothing I could do to control anything that might have happened. So I wasn’t chickening out or shirking some duty or another. I lived through it. I didn’t get phyically or emotionally envolved. I didn’t form opinions about any of the players.
This is not really about me. It is about the dharma the seeds taking root and growing. We’re Pure Landers so we take a lot of things on faith and trust. This time I had real world evidence that it does work. The seeds do emplant and they do grow.
I entered the military a conservative. Not a fire breathing conservative but a my family are all liberals kind of conservative. An act of rebellion conservative. Not a fire breathing conservative, but conservative none the less. I left the military a fire breathing liberal. And I knew everything worth knowing. I was more liberal than my family by a long shot. This newfound world view worked out quite nicely. Nicely, as long as I surrounded myself with people who thought and talked like me. My friends in San Diego were all lefties. My church was mostly lefty. My partner even pretended to be a lefty so I might find him more appealing. Oh everything was right in my world. I had a neatly defined sense of us and them. Boy did all that change when I moved back to Baltimore. Yes, Maryland is a blue state – but trust me it has never been all that blue deep down. Thems started popping up all over the place. I even learned that my family wasn’t as lefty as I had always painted them. One afternoon in a senior literature seminar a classmate looked at me after I had made a comment about something, I don’t remember what, said, “you sound like a Buddhist.” I could tell by his tone that it wasn’t a put-down. The only thing was, I had no idea what he meant. By and by I started reading about Buddhism. I thought of myself as a Buddhist. I even put it in my Veterans record. Still a lot of us and them. The more I listened, the notion of us and them started to slip. Not perfectly, but slip it did. How many times does the Dalai Lama or Thich Nhat Hahn have to say that everyone wants to have happiness and avoid pain until it starts to seep in. I don’t know. But if you listen. And I do mean listen. It does start to sink in. One Sunday morning I was chatting with one of the farmers at work. This was a person that I had a lot of fun being around. In the middle of a conversation about something to do with farms he mentioned that he was a big supporter of the then current governor. And yes he said, that means that I’m a Republican – I guess you hate me now. I can remember a time when I would have. At that moment I didn’t feel any hatred or dislike toward him. Of course I don’t, I told him. Everyone seeks happiness and wishes to avoid pain. Yes it sounds nice. Listen to it, really listen. Think about it some. Compare the idea to how you live your life. After a while and probably when you least expect it, compassion sinks in. Not complete compassion, but enough for now.
Recently I met a Chinese speaking Buddhist community in Malvern. After this meeting I realised what I’d been missing. The uprootedness of continually having to leave behind my friends and familiar surroundings, such as when I left Asia after eight years of living there, had left an enormous hole I hadn’t even noticed until I found myself in another Asian community. Sometimes, when we shut out the pain of things taken from us, we can’t always see what causes the pain until we confront it again. I suddenly saw, in a flash, that what was needed to restore connection and to heal this gaping wound, was to begin building bridges. Bridges from ourselves to all the things of our heart.
In England, I find myself picking up all the pieces of my broken life and stitching them back together again. It’s a long and laborious process. I’ve been reminded that, in Japan, there is a tradition of restoring broken objects by putting gold into all the cracks of broken ceramics. This is known as Kintsugi. This has the effect of creating resilience and beauty. The cracks are the most prized parts – they are signs of growth; of hard lessons learnt; of journeys travelled; stories lived; of acquired wisdom through experience. The cracks are what make us resilient and more beautiful. The more cracks we have, the more resilient and beautiful we become.
After having moved about so much, I’m starting to think that perhaps it doesn’t matter whether I can return to all the places I’ve called home, but what matters most are the connections we make here and now. Separation requires connection to heal. What once used to be found by travelling far and wide can also be experienced in the here and now, if we simply remain open and receptive to what is here – right now. There exists the potential to bring the whole world into a single grain of sand. By stitching the past, present and future together we can find Wholeness. Wholeness in this moment now – right here. In order to help restore this Wholeness, we need to build bridges to the things of our heart. Restoring, reconnecting, recreating.
Picking up the broken pieces and stitching them together with golden thread, we can find a beautiful Whole, laced with strands of golden wisdom, beauty and resilience.
I’ve been contemplating the importance of boundaries since moving into the temple. The subject has come up a number of times and different people have referred to their need of them. It seems that boundaries are an important topic and that most of us find putting in boundaries, when relating to others, extremely difficult. I am no exception. What is a boundary? It’s a protective zone, or space, we can imagine having around ourselves to keep us safe and stop us from becoming hurt, or hurting others. It might take the form of limits we need to put in place that show other people how far they can go in their interactions with us -what’s appropriate and what isn’t. Our parts (parts of ourselves, especially the vulnerable ones) need boundaries to feel safe – we need to make them, but – we also need them made by others. We need to feel walls on all four sides of us to feel safe. If we don’t set boundaries, others will step into our space, especially those parts of others that are either vulnerable; needy; seeking love, or to be liked; needing attention; wanting to feel special and also those parts wanting to feel superior, prove a point, or to rescue another and to be useful. Sometimes we need to reign parts in that seek to burrow holes as deep as they can without obstruction. Healthy boundaries provide safe space for all to manoeuvre – space to grow. I’m imagining how it is for the plants. They need space to grow, unfurl leaves, space to stretch their roots in the soil, to drink the rain and to reach up to the sunlight. When we give enough space we allow growth. Having space allows us to grow into our selves, just like the plants in the flowerbed. The sun’s rays can reach out to all the plants, shining down on every part of them, no matter how perfect or imperfect they are. In order to be able to give ourselves, and others, this space, we can do as the plants, bringing all of the parts of us, including those vulnerable parts, to the Buddha or to Self (as it’s called in Parts Work or Internal Family Systems). These parts can be met by self compassion, or the warm compassion of Amida, in the same way the plants are greeted by the sun. There’s enough room for every part and all parts are received, just as they are. Perhaps, if we can learn to love and value all of the vulnerable, flawed parts of ourselves, we can show others how to do the same.
In October last year one of my best friends sadly took her own life. I was devastated and heartbroken and was weighed down with grief.
Another close friend sent me these words which I will share with you now.
“ When it comes to grief, remember this –
You have not broken a bone, there is no default treatment, no cure, no timeline for your healing. You cannot strap your heart to the heart next to it and hope it mends itself. You cannot rest it for weeks or months. You cannot rely on your other heart like you might a leg or an arm. You have not broken a bone. And yet, like a broken bone, your heart will always now have a vulnerable spot, a bruise, a burn, a scar. And just as your arm can still ache after breaking when it has been holding too much for too long, so your heart will ache. When it has been holding too much for too long. But just as your once broken arm can still hold things and your broken leg can still dance, so your heart will learn to carry you forward, Even when it aches.”
These words brought me great comfort but I was still burdened with grief. And then I walked into the temple here in Malvern and my healing really started.
I was struck by the ways Buddhism provided insight in my grief that was completely different than anything else. In Buddhism , impermanence is an inescapable truth of existence. In a world and culture where we strive for permanence (lasting or remaining unchanged). Buddhism teaches us that impermanence (lasting or temporarily) is fundamental to everything. From life to health to joy and sorrow to material objects to our very identity, nothing is permanent no matter how much we want it to be. Everything is constantly changing, existence is always in flux. Buddhism explains that our attachment to things and failure to accept impermanence is at the root of all suffering.
As someone who had gone through a significant loss, this idea of impermanence resonated with me immediately. As I read more and thought more, I decided I had two choices. I could try to restore the old life and self that I believed was the real ‘me’ and how things should be. Or I could accept that my loss fundamentally changed me, and we will forever be changing.
I could pretend I was the same person now but I knew I was not. I had changed and would continue to change. So forcing myself to believe the things that I believed before was not the answer. Instead I needed to focus on the present. One day at a time, one moment at a time. Building awareness of my life – the good, the bad and the ugly, all in flux and ever changing. Buddha would remind us that we should not become attached to our path, it will always look different for all of us.