Winter Feast for the Soul, 2018

The Winter Feast for the Soul, now in it’s 11th year, is a 40 day, worldwide online meditation intensive that encourages people to begin or deepen a spiritual practice. Instructors from all spiritual traditions suggest simple practices that fit into the schedules of busy people.

I am delighted to see that Anam Thubten, the Tibetan master who inspired me to explore this tradition a dozen years ago, continues to be an active participant. On his page, you can listen to simple but profound guided meditations he recorded for the Feast in 2016 and 2017.

Anam Thubten

I encourage everyone who is interested to explore this rich practice opportunity!

Silence, Stillness

Wawona, Ca, Nov., 2017

If we have a bit of quiet time and pay attention at the turning of the year, we can feel a pause in the world and rest there.

It’s easier to experience this in the natural world, but what we truly long is a place of rest that is always available, unconditionally, a place we can visit any time, that won’t let us down. We only find this kind of refuge within.

Wawona, CA, Nov. 2017

Anam Thubten, a Tibetan Buddhist master insists that the simplest ways of meditation, though not easy, are are among the most profound:

“Try this. Pay attention to your breath in silence. Look at your mind. Immediately we see that thoughts are popping up. Don’t react to them. Just keep watching your mind. Notice that there is a gap between each thought. Notice that there is a space between the place where the last thought came to an end and the next one hasn’t yet arrived. In this space there is no ‘I’ or ‘me.’ That’s it.” (No Self, No Problem, 2009).

The “it” he refers to is the true nature of awareness – what we really are. The image given is the clear sky, unaffected by anything passing through it, just as clear, open awareness is not affected by any of the passing contents of consciousness.

Wawona, CA, Nov, 2017

Elsewhere, Anam Thubten gives this instruction: “Rest and let everything be as it is.”

Few of us can follow guidance like that without prior practice and the guidance of an experienced teacher. So what are we to do?

Wawona, CA, Nov., 2017

Chögyam Trungpa (1939 – 1987) was one of the first Tibetan Buddhist teacher to settle and teach in this country. A master in the same lineage as Anam Thubten, he left us a practice for working with the breath as a focus for meditation that is both simple and profound.

We place our attention on the outgoing breath, letting any tension flow out with it. At the end of the out breath, we let go and rest. We rest without effort in the gap between out breaths, knowing that the in breath takes care of itself. This cycle of focus and rest, effort and letting go, will lead our thoughts and distractions to settle sufficiently to be able to follow Anam Thubten’s instruction and simply “rest and let everything be as it is.”

Wawona, CA, Nov, 2017

There are other ways to find the place of clarity and stillness within – this is one that works for me.

Wawona, CA, Nov. 2017

I wish you all a Happy New Year!

Notes from 2017: A Winter Feast for the Soul

Lotus flowers. Public domain.

Lotus flowers. Public domain.

The aphorisms in my previous post, on causes of happiness and unhappiness, are simple to say and understand, but not very easy to put into practice in the “thick of things.” I think that’s why the Dalia Lama speaks of practicing compassion – what we need to do to become skilled at anything.

At the same time, Buddhists believe compassion is part of our innermost nature, but it’s buried under the detritus of day to day living. That’s one reason why a core image is the lotus flower, which eventually blooms in original purity, but only after rising from the mud in which it germinates.

To aid in such practice, an international and multi-denominational contemplative practice begins tomorrow, Sunday January 15, A Winter Feast for the Soul. The event began about 10 years ago, and the intro page outlines the mission as:

  1. To support individuals in experiencing the benefits of establishing a daily spiritual practice.
  2. To create a global community of individuals committed to sustaining a daily spiritual practice for 40 days from January 15 to February 23 each year.
  3. To honor all forms of spiritual practice and to make them welcome to our Winter Feast for the Soul. These include meditation, yoga, tai chi, chi gong, journaling, reading spiritual texts from all traditions and philosophies.

One of the teachers participating is Anam Thubten, a Tibetan master I’ve mentioned numerous times on this blog. Here is his statement on why this is so important, especially at this critical time. Please have a look, and follow the link to the site, given above, to learn more and to register..

Notes from 2017 – Stille Nacht

“Stille Nacht” is Silent Night in German. On this night, 102 years ago, millions of young men in Europe lay shivering in trenches in northern France. The finest summer anyone could remember had erupted into the most violent war the world had seen. Longing for home, the German troops began singing Stille Nacht. British soldiers joined in with Silent Night. Before long, soldiers on both sides rose from their trenches to shake hands with “the enemy” and share cigarettes, cookies from home, bottles of wine, and song.

British and German soldiers together, Dec. 25, 1914

British and German soldiers together, Dec. 25, 1914

This is the most moving modern story of Christmas Eve I know. But my subject this evening is not the song but Silence itself. At Solstice time, the earth itself pauses. Religious people of many faiths celebrate different holidays.The external busy-ness of the season stops, at least for a day, but I’ve learned from wise meditation teachers that the inner noise will continue unless we turn toward inner silence with intention.

Awareness of inner stillness and silence is the source of renewal and healing says Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, a Tibetan Bon Buddhist master. “Silence has it’s own language.”

Anam Thubten Rinpoche, of the Tibetan Nyingma tradition tells students who come to him for advice to “Go back home and be quiet. Silence is wiser than our discursive minds.” Tibetan Buddhist practice can be extremely complex, but Anam Thubten gives this simple instruction:

“Meditation is the art of simply sitting in silence. Sitting means just sit, just rest, just let be. Let everything be as it is. When we know how to let everything be as it is, we then we don’t have to try and be some kind of divine terminator attempting to destroy the world of delusion and sorrow. The world of delusion and sorrow is already falling apart and disappearing on its own. It sounds simple but it is also subtle. We just let everything be just as it is. Once we know that, we know everything. We have unlocked the secret to enlightenment. To sit actually means just let everything be as it is, and let the world of ideas, concepts, and sorrow dissolve on its own, which always happens. This is the highest technique.”The Magic of Awareness.

Naturally the hardest part of that instruction is letting myself be as I am – abandoning all the self-improvement projecst, the “Oh, maybe I can blog about this” mentality, and all of that. “Rest,” says Tenzin Wangyal, is nothing less than “the doorway to our true nature.”

More of that in coming episodes. Meanwhile, as a Christmas Eve gift, here is a wonderful rendition of a beautiful Shaker song, by Yo yo Ma and Allison Kraus, a song the places our true nature at the center of this holiday, and all our days…

Within

Enso (public domain)

Enso (public domain)

There is Buddha in each of us right now who can never be defeated by the force of inner darkness, the force of greed, hate, attachment, and delusion, and that Buddha has no form, no image.  That Buddha, indeed, is residing in all of us as our pure, quintessential being.

We must always turn our attention inward whenever we have the desire to seek divinity, the divine, or Buddha, God, or Brahma.  This desire to seek something divine happens quite a lot, especially when we are spiritual.  From now on, whenever that desire arises, we might want to remember to immediately turn the attention inward, knowing…that whatever we are seeking is already inside.

More notes on Buddhism

Prajnaparamita, Sanskrit for "The perfection of wisdom," is often personified as a goddess of transcendental wisdom in Buddhist iconography, as in this 13th c. stature from Java. Public domain.

Prajnaparamita, Sanskrit for “The perfection of wisdom,” is often personified as a goddess of transcendental wisdom in Buddhist iconography, as in this 13th c. stature from Java. Public domain

If you have not already done so, please read the previous post as an introduction to this one. I’m going to discuss two additional questions that are commonly asked about Buddhism. Then I’ll list some of my favorite references.

Is Buddhism a religion?

For some people it is and for some it’s not. There are Buddhist churches, similar to any other church, though westerners usually focus on the contemplative dimension with its “spiritual but not religious” nature.

The first long Zen retreat I attended was led by a Catholic priest at a Sisters of Mercy Retreat Center. This was not watered down Zen. The priest, who bears the title, Roshi (master) is member of a recognized Japanese lineage, as are other Catholic priests and nuns. The church allows this, holding that Zen is not a religion, but a means for exploring the nature of awareness. I’m not aware of any contemplative Buddhist tradition that requires members to drop their other religious affiliations.

Is Buddhism atheistic?

Buddha never talked about metaphysics. He focused on suffering and the path to enlightenment as the end of suffering. Often when he was asked about ultimate things, he refused to answer. Once a monk asked, and Buddha told “the parable of the arrow.” As Thich Nhat Hahn, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk explained it:

[Buddha] said, “Suppose a man is struck by a poisoned arrow and the doctor wishes to take out the arrow immediately. Suppose the man does not want the arrow removed until he knows who shot it, his age, his parents, and why he shot it. What would happen? If he were to wait until all these questions have been answered, the man might die first.” Life is so short. It must not be spent in endless metaphysical speculation that does not bring us any closer to the truth. (the parable of the arrow).

So it’s accurate to say Buddhism is non-theistic, but it isn’t explicitly atheistic either; Buddha never said one way or the other. As Brad Warner, a Zen priest for 30 years, puts it in his book on the subject, There is No God, and He is Always With You, it depends on what you mean by “God.” If we mean some large, powerful being “out there,” who created us at some finite point in time and pulls strings, then no, Buddhists don’t believe that. If we’re speaking of something like Paul Tillich’s “Ground of Being,” then I think it’s implied in much Buddhist writing and by many Buddhist teachers I’ve heard. To quote Anam Thubten as I did in the previous post:

There is Buddha in each of us right now who can never be defeated by the force of inner darkness, the force of greed, hate, attachment, and delusion, and that Buddha has no form, no image. That Buddha, indeed, is residing in all of us as our pure, quintessential being. We must always turn our attention inward whenever we have the desire to seek divinity, or Buddha, God, or Brahma. (The Magic of Awareness)

Japanese brush painting, by Lone Primate, 2007, CC By-NC-SA 2.0

Japanese brush painting, by Lone Primate, 2007, CC By-NC-SA 2.0

Buddhist Resources

The best resource of all is a nearby sangha (group of practitioners) or meditation group in one’s own area, if it’s a good fit. Meanwhile, here are a few books and websites that I find valuable.

Books:

A Path With Heart (1993) by Jack Kornfield.
This is the first book on Buddhism I’d recommend to someone wanting to learn more. Part spiritual autobiography and part introduction to Buddhist thought and practice by an influential teacher of Vipassana (Insight Meditation). Kornfield, a co-founder of Spirit Rock (web link below), gives fine descriptions of some of the difficulties westerners may have when approaching eastern traditions.

No Self No Problem (2009) by Anam Thubten
The most important single work in turning my attention to Buddhism. I found an earlier edition of the book and attended a daylong retreat (the first of many) with Anam Thubten a few weeks later. There’s a link to Anam Thubten’s website below.

An Introduction to Tantra: A Vision of Totality (1987) by Lama Thubten Yeshe
The best introduction I’ve found to Tibetan Buddhism by a renowned 20th century lama and member of the Dalai Lama’s tradition. “Dwelling deep within our heart, and within the hearts of all beings without exception, is an inexhaustible source of love and wisdom. And the ultimate purpose of all spiritual practices, whether they are called Buddhist or not, is to uncover and make contact with this essentially pure nature.”

Awakening Joy (2010) by James Baraz
James is a teacher at Spirit Rock. I bought this book several years ago, when he gave a local daylong retreat here, and just started reading it. It’s the most “ecumenical” of all these books. The author presents 10 themes, with exercises, to increase our wellbeing now, where we are, not at some future time when we are enlightened. The book meshes with an online course he teaches. Website below.

Online Resources:

Spirit Rock. An insight meditation center north of San Francisco that hosts retreats all year long. See especially the “Meditation101 tab” for the basics of insight meditation and dozens of talks by visiting instructors.

Dharmata Foundation. This is Anam Thubten’s home page. Well worth checking the calendar from time to time. From his home center in Point Richmond, CA, this Tibetan master travels extensively. In May he gave retreats in South Korea, Little Rock, AR, and Maine. In June, he will teach in Princeton, NJ, New York, NY, Maui, and Grass Valley, CA. Hearing him is well worth the effort (here is one account I’ve posted of a retreat with him).

James Baraz. Here is James’ website and teaching schedule with a link to his Awakening Joy course (available online).

Tricycle. The pre-eminent Buddhist magazine, with 20+ years of articles from all traditions. Check out a hard copy in a bookstore for a directory of dharma centers by region. There are always online retreats available to subscribers.

Peaceful Sea Sangha. Website for Edward Espe Brown, who I’ve posted about here several times. He also travels and teaches widely, with a trip to Prague, Austria, and Germany scheduled over the next month and a half. His audio teachings are wise and hilarious. I discovered a poem I recently referenced, “10,000 Idiots” by Hafiz, in one of them.

I could go on and on, but this is already long enough. These are only a few suggestions. Feel free to comment or email with any specific questions, observations, or resources of your own.

 

Who is it that can tell me who I am?

This line from King Lear is part  of the title of a 1999 lecture by Dr. Joanne Stroud, one of the founders, along with James Hillman, of The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture.

Lear:  Who is it that can tell me who I am?
Fool:  Lear’s shadow.  (Act 1, Scene 4)

The exchange is a fitting lead in to Stroud’s lecture which centers on ideas of identity in the western tradition, especially in Jungian psychology.  For Jung, “the shadow,” comprised of the disowned parts of a person or culture, is one of the first archetypal energies we encounter when we begin to look within, hoping to find out what and who we are.

I recommend Stroud’s transcript for its outline of Jung’s ideas as they bear on the western imperative, “Know Thyself,” which was inscribed at the entrance to Apollo’s temple at Delphi.

Temple of Apollo at Delphi by Navin Rajagopalan, CC By-SA 2.0

I’m guessing that the question “Who can tell me who I am,”  is an undercurrent in the lives of everyone who has read this far.  In addition to our own introspections, don’t we ask friends, teachers, novelists, religions, therapists, books, and even politicians in certain election years?

There is much to be learned from these sources, information that’s useful when choosing a career, a spouse, a place to live, or when plotting a novel or writing a poem.  But that’s not what Lear asked or Apollo demanded at Delphi.  The answer to the question of identity is like a rainbow, sometimes visible on the horizon, but elusive no matter how we chase it.  The time comes when we have to ask the Dr. Phil question,  “How’s that working for you?”  Could it be that “identity,” as it is commonly imagined – as a kind of cosmic birth certificate – cannot be found?

That’s very good news according to Anam Thubten Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist master I have written about before.  I’ve taken some half-dozen daylong retreats with him since 2005, most recently in January of this year.  I’ve wanted to write about the event, but it isn’t easy.  Rather than add to our store of beliefs and concepts, Anam Thubten suggests we try letting them go.  In his second book, The Magic of Awareness 2012, he says, “Good concepts are like a golden chain.  Bad concepts are like an iron chain.  They all equally bind you in the end.”

Reading that, I always think of meeting new people in social settings.  “What do you do?” is usually one of the first questions.  Do you ever resist being pigeonholed when that happens?  At such moments don’t we understand that “I” am more than my roles and my vital statistics.  Anam Thubten would add that we are greater than all our ideas of identity, which are just more sophisticated pigeonholes.

Anam Thubten

Next time I will try to describe the simple ways he invites us to drop our stories long enough to glimpse the reality that lies behind them.  If that’s biting off much more than I can chew, at least it’s easier than trying to answer Lear’s question.