Oct 252012

A hundred thousand repetitions of anything is daunting, when we look at the whole thing like a goal. There are a series of ‘things’ like this that I’ll be doing in the next few years, the preliminary practices, and I can really freak myself out by imagining the entirety of them, nearly a half million somethings. The first one is prostrations, while chanting a prayer and holding a visualization. As a scientist and engineer, it would be good to know what 100,000 feels like. But how the hell can my body bend down and flatten so many times?

It is even worse as I’m preparing to begin. Memorizing the prayer in Tibetan is hard. The syllables dance around in the back of my brain, out of order, like a stuck song. It’s like committing to hike over the Himalayas, standing at the base of the first 24,000-foot peak, wondering how I can make it over this, then endure the forty other peaks, the series of challenges to reach the goal.

(Hey, perhaps I will lose the 20 extra pounds I carry around my midriff! There’s a motivation!)

But the truth is, I’m not taking on a project as much as a change in lifestyle. From this point of view, I simply need to create a space where I can do my practice, and find some way to engage in it each day. It’s now more than three weeks since the opening weekend for the Sukhasiddhi Bodhi program, and I’m progressing steadily. Some of my fellow students have made major progress, some have done many thousands of prostrations already, some have done these preliminary practices before. But this is not a competition, this is a basic change in the way I look at the world, what is important to me. I simply need to set aside time each morning, and creating a beautiful place for practice is just one way of caring for myself, finding my own preferences, building what I desire.

So I’ve been moving forward, I have the prayer almost memorized, and I’m turning a bedroom into a practice room. The bedroom conversion is more of a project, as I’ve had to clear out many more bags of Nancy’s clothes, move in some furniture from her father’s house, install closet doors. This weekend, I should have my practice room, and it will be the first room I’ve designed and filled according to my own preferences in many years. It feels like a major step.

The photo is the empty bedroom, with my Buddha thangka, the new shoji closet doors, a Tibetan rug. By the end of this weekend, it will be my practice room, with an alter, statues, candles, incense, more thangkas, pillows and my zafu for sitting in meditation. And then the real work starts.


 Buddhism, Reflection  Comments Off on phenomena
Oct 102012

An unexpected evening alone at home, and I’m filling it. It’s so interesting to watch what I do, I’m pretty highly directed inside.

  • Give a co-worker a lift home to SF, with a little side tour of where I grew up
  • Pick up groceries, a roast, shiitake mushrooms and golden beets
  • Make my first stew of the season, messing up and cleaning up the kitchen
  • Work on memorizing a buddhist prayer
  • Balance three checking accounts, for my mother and myself
  • Pay bills in Canada, for things Nancy and I bought together
  • Put on a James Bond movie (“On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”)

It’s just 9pm, and I’m getting ready to dine. Diana Rigg graces the screen in the background, one of my favorite actors. But it seems worth pausing, and looking at my last three hours. I’m loving the phenomena of my life.

In buddhism, phenomena are all the things that we experience and sense as incarnate beings. There is a lot written about this, for example, Steve Tibbetts says,

All objects that can be encountered or taken up by the mind are, while appearing clearly, devoid of inherent self or essence…. all phenomena, inner and outer, mental and physical, have no inherent essence or existence. They merely appear. The true nature of phenomena places them beyond the extremes of existence or non-existence. The true nature of phenomena is luminosity, selwa, the unity of appearance and emptiness.

Good to remember, since it’s all so pleasurable, and easy to get attached to. I feel so joyous cooking and eating a lovely stew, I’m happy watching the movie, keeping the paperwork together. I won’t die wishing I had seen more movies! But on the personal level, I’m having a delightfully sensory evening, with a sense of accomplishment.

Ah, the stew is excellent, with a touch of apple vinegar and red wine, the slight sweetness of the beets and carrots, sauce thickened by potato, fresh herbs, well-carmelized pieces of beef that I still consume with a blessing. The pleasure of taste and smell, after bringing my touch and sight and mind to the creation, is so full.

There is an urgency to what I do. I notice that I want to fill every moment of my life…I awake at night, and I meditate to soft presence. I have a few minutes while dinner sautés, and I move things up and down through the house. Even in this moment, I am hearing the first rain drops fall in months, and I think about what I might need to go running outside and take care of. Some part of me wants to cram every greedy moment full of aliveness, experience, presence, even as I contemplate the duality of “myself” and all of these activities and pleasures.

Oh, hell, I just remembered how this movie ends, Diana Rigg dies in his arms. Is that phenomena too? Is our mere existence, our incarnation, simply phenomena? I’m no longer present, wondering if I actually want to see the end of the film. Shall I watch it, and cry at the end? Thoughts pile on thoughts. The Diana Rigg I am watching no longer exists, as she is seventy-four years old. Do I feel sad about that?

I take a deep breath, and return to the present. It’s all just phenomena. All of it, even my grief. I relax back into the movie (or is that “my life”?) anticipating all my feelings as I watch. Phenomena are so delightful.


 Buddhism, Parents, Reflection  Comments Off on impermanence
Oct 062012

My new Buddhist practices begin with twenty days of contemplation, and two of the topics are the preciousness of human existence, and the impermanence of all phenomena.

“Ha!”, I think to myself, “I know all about this”.  Loss has certainly cracked me open in both areas, I am now more present for the poetic and beautiful moments in my life than I was a year ago.  So I begin to meditate on preciousness, and immediately realize that I’m screwed, and I have no choice but to sit in the loss, allowing it to flower to fullness.  I’ve been good about following my feelings and grief, but it’s quite a different thing to sit and meditate on it, for an hour or longer.  It seems somehow ironic that, after dutifully tending to this garden of tears for months, I’m now directed to spend hours and days sitting in the garden.

And it is a garden. At first, it’s hard for me to separate the two contemplations.  I consider how precious my existence is, and within a few minutes I land in my feelings about Nancy.  After swimming in loss for a while, my heart aching, I feel a surge of love and deep joy, that I get to be here, in this body.  I love being alive, much more so because I’m acutely aware that I will end one day, at least, the incarnated “I”.  Something will continue when I am gone. As I swing back and forth, empty and full, day after day, I become more and more aware of the preciousness of each moment, the vast gift of being alive. A tender, delicate place, like a baby oak coming up in the spring.

This is a different way of learning. The contemplation instructions are very specific, carefully worded and refined over 1500 years. They are simple, and land in my awareness like a seed. As I sit with the contemplations, they grow and deepen and flower into a very personal experience. Remarkable. I’m starting to see that the deep teachings are like this, just as meditation is a very personal gateway that cannot be taught, but must be cultivated within each of us.

Some moments are quite intense. Each morning, I drive to work past the Golden Gate National Cemetery, where my father-in-law Richard Jones was buried last February. From inside my practice, the view of more than a hundred thousand tombstones stuns me, perfect geometric array stretching into the distance. All these souls, their incarnations complete, leaving behind whatever joy and pain and love that they left, now reunited with the infinite. Most were WW II and Korean war veterans, had fired weapons in combat, known the fear and adrenaline and exhaustion of battle. My own father-in-law shot up dozens of Japanese trains and boats, downed several aircraft, as a P-40 pilot in China in 1943. All those lifetimes now gone, all that experience fading in our collective memories.

All that I am, all that I love, all that I’ve done will one day be gone. I remember how these thoughts would induce a kind of existential crisis in my younger self. Now it brings me here and now, reminding me that we are precious, I am precious, and each instant of my life is an opportunity for gratitude. Even visiting The Colonel’s grave today. Dick, we all love you, wherever you are.