Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Vote from Your Most Enlightened Values

Democracy presupposes morality, compassion and wisdom.  As people head to the polls today, I sincerely hope that they can clear their heads of all the mean-spirited, deceitful rhetoric and hype and vote from their inner-most values.  We can draw strength from our most cherished philosophers and the original message of our religions.

I grew up as a Catholic but also became familiar with Protestant Christianity and Orthodox Christianity. Drawing from that background, loving neighbor as self, caring for the sick, feeding the poor, ministering to those in prison, and being good stewards of the earth and all living beings are central messages that I think we all can respect.  Jesus also spoke of unity, of oneness.  If we vote from these core beliefs, we'll stay on the right path.

Since 1976, I also developed a respect for Indian philosophy and religion, and later for Chinese philosophy.  Drawing from these traditions has only underscored the importance of the central Christian message I learned as a child.  As Thich Nhat Hanh so wisely said, "We are here to realize the illusion of our separateness."  We are all one.  It is not us versus them!  Our happiness cannot be separated from their happiness. Their misery cannot be separated from our misery.  Even on the most superficial level, we are all on this tiny speck, this dust mote floating in the unfathomable vastness of space and we need to think globally to make the best of it for all our sakes.  How could this much not be clear?  But, it goes so much deeper than that.  When we are most settled and at peace, when insight begins to dawn, it becomes increasingly clearer that we are all in this together.  We are one at the most fundamental level.

When we vote, we should vote from our inner-most values and purest insights, leaving behind all the divisiveness we've heard.  Then it becomes clear that as good stewards, we should vote for a sustainable future and for ecological conservation.  We need to vote to care for the sick and feed the poor.  We need to vote for education and rehabilitation instead of incarceration.  We need to vote for diplomacy that extends peace and good will, not war and violence.  As the Buddha said, "Hatred never ceased by hatred in this world -- this is an ancient truth."  We just need to vote for what we hope for ourselves when we are old and need care and vote for the world that we hope for our children, a world free of war and terrorism, hunger, and unnecessary suffering.  Loving-kindness, compassion, altruistic joy, and peace begin in the heart of each person and spread outward.  Taking the time each day to meditate reveals this clearly.  

If we vote from fear, delusion, hatred, ignorance, or greed, our world will become a hell.  If we meditate each day and then vote from loving-kindness, compassion, altruistic joy, and equanimity (the four Brahmaviharas or divine abodes of Buddhism) our world will become a pure land, a paradise.  So, vote from wisdom and compassion, from a sense of unity, of oneness with everyone.  Vote from your core, most enlightened values and our democracy will work and become a shining example.  If we want to lead, we have to lead by example.  It can't happen any other way.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

American Canyon Trail

Yesterday morning, faced with the choice of staying home and cleaning the house and mowing the lawn or going on a hike, I found myself doing a last minute check on the local hiking sites to see what hikes were happening.  At 7:05, I RSVP'ed for the American Canyon Trail hike, got dressed, made a quick lunch and protein smoothy, filled my camel pack water bladder, and hopped in the car.  I arrived at the Roseville Park and Ride at 8:05, just 5 minutes late!

There are several other trail options in the area, but we left a car at the Quarry Trailhead on 49 and drove on up to the American Canyon Trail Head.

Directions description from Sacramento TrailMix site:

"Directions: I-80 East, drive 24 miles to the Elm Street exit in Auburn. Turn left at the traffic light onto Elm Street. At the bottom of the hill, turn left again onto High Street. Pass beneath the railroad tracks as you continue downhill on CA 49. Drive 2.3 miles down the winding highway to the confluence, where you follow the highway as it turns right across the American River toward Cool, where in 3 miles, you will turn left onto CA 193 toward Georgetown. Drive 5.6 miles, then turn left onto Sweetwater Trail on the north side, which is opposite of Pilgrim Court on the south. (This turn is before the village of Greenwood.) Your trailhead is on the right, just at that top of the street, before the gates to Auburn Lake Trails. Parking at the trailhead is limited, but you can park on the shoulder back down the road. The trailhead is signed American Canyon Trail – Third Gate."

American Canyon is quite steep, but the trail descends at a comfortable grade into the canyon.  This is about the easiest 11.5 miles there could be, since most of the trail is descending at a comfortable grade.  There is a beautiful little waterfall coming out of two large boulders and emptying into a pool off of Dead Truck Trail.

Coming out of the canyon, the trail opens into a service road that follows the south shore of the American River, passing a large cave and mining ruins back to the Quarry Trailhead.  Would love to see this when there is more water in the Spring, though it would be more difficult then to get the same shot as the one to the left!

American Canyon is the area where a lone jogger was attached and killed a few years ago, so it is prudent to hike in groups and wait until well after dawn and get back before dusk when these cats are most active.

More photos at Picasa:

American Canyon - 10/16/2010

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Yoga Campout at Manchester State Park

Manchester State Park Beach toward Point Arena
A few weeks ago when I was hiking at Calaveras Big Trees State Park, I was chatting with the organizer of the Sacramento True Yoga meetup group, Del Marie Samson, about wanting to put together a meditation retreat for the Bodhisattva Path meetup group.  Del Marie suggested we organize a yoga and meditation retreat for both groups.  A few days later after a lot of searching for a good place to hold a retreat, we reserved a group campsite at Manchester State Park in Mendocino County a bit south of Point Arena.  We were a bit concerned about the weather, but it turned out to be fine on Friday, overcast but ok on Saturday, and warmer Sunday morning.

On Friday evening, Promila, one of the Sac True Yoga teachers, led a wonderful yoga asana session at the campground close to the ocean.  She had a wonderful way of incorporating awareness of the environment into the practice by expanding the field of awareness to include the earth, sky, and ocean as we practiced. This was like the yoga asana version of Chan practice of Silent Illumination, which begins with an awareness of the body just sitting and naturally expands to encompass the environment.

We had a pasta toss of stir-fried vegies, pasta and a choice of marinara or Alfredo sauce with lots of side dishes everyone brought.

Saturday morning, Del Marie led a yoga session and we then began the ritual of boiling soy milk and water for oatmeal and tea.  After breakfast, we hiked a trail that eventually brought us out to the beach where we posed for a group shot and participated in various partner yoga poses and other antics including jumping rope with kelp stems.

Manchester State Park has five miles of beach.  I wandered up the beach and found a nice spot to meditate and then practice direct contemplation, a wonderful chan practice in which you focus fully on an object, in this case ocean waves, without entertaining any associations or internal discursive commentary.  It's a very innocent, focused, bare attention that displaces all notion of subject or self with complete awareness of the object.

Direct contemplation like taking a vacation from your self and just enjoying the object of perception as it really is.  This can lead to a pivot of awareness from being self or observer-centric to being fully absorbed in the object without reference to any subject, going beyond unity of subject and object to just pure awareness of the environment.  In that mode of perception, everything is perfectly functioning and infinitely correlated.  Waves impacting waves, giving rise to sea mist saturating the air with minute droplets of water, moistening wave-created sand, nurturing plants -- causes and conditions rising and falling with each wave from time immemorial with intrinsic balance and harmony. Yet no such thought arises, just a holistic flux of effortless perfection.

I led a short Vinyasa Krama asanda session and then a guided Silent Illumination meditation session on Sunday morning before we ate breakfast, packed up and left.  Had a wonderful talk on the way back to Sacramento that encompassed everything from Ghandi and the Bhadavad Gita, to Chan meditation, to wide ranging art topics.  So great to meet others with similar interests and truly interesting perspectives and insights on topics I thought I had long since made up my mind about.  This was a great weekend from start to finish.  I'm already planning another campout retreat for the Riverside, Santa Clara, and Sacramento Dharma Drum Mountain Buddhist Association in Sequoia next July and hope to do another yoga retreat in the spring!

For more pictures, see the Yoga Campout Retreat - October 1 - 3 album on Picasa.

Yoga Campout Retreat - October 1 - 3

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Echo Peak via Echo Lake

Went on a Sacramento Trail Mix hike today to Echo Peak.  We met at the Folsom Park and Ride at 7:30 this morning and drove up to Echo Lake, taking Highway 50 East about 2 miles past Sierra at Tahoe Ski Resort, turning left (North) at the brown Berkeley Camp / Echo Lake sign.  About a half mile down this road is Echo Lakes Road.  Turn left and continue about a quarter mile to the Echo Lake parking lot.

The trail head starts just across the small dam near the boat ramp.  It follows the south side of the lake and then starts ascending.  This is part of the Tahoe Rim Trail.  If you stay on the trail, it goes toward Aloha Lake.  Instead, follow the trail upward (toward Triangle Lake, I think the sign said) and keep veering right and up when faced with forks in the path.  This leads you to a smaller summit.  Follow the ridge up to the left to Echo Peak.  It's a fairly strenuous 5.5 miles from the boat ramp to the peak, about a 2000 foot gain in elevation.  But, the path along Echo Lake is very scenic and the view from the top is truly breath taking.

From Echo Peak you have gorgeous views in every direction, especially toward the east and southeast where Lake Tahoe dominates the horizon.  I rated this hike 5 stars on the Trail Mix site.  Check out some of the photos I took on Picasa to see why.

From Echo Peak via Echo Lake - 09/26/2010

Sunday, September 19, 2010

I'm Lovin' My New Kindle!

Kindle 3G Wireless Reading Device, Free 3G + Wi-Fi, 6" Display, Graphite, 3G Works Globally - Latest Generation
I needed to get yet another programming book and have been thinking for years that I should use an ebook reader for these huge, heavy books. I used to have a Rocket ebook and liked it until the company went under. I decided after that to wait awhile before investing in another ebook reader!

It's been years and the
latest generation 3G + Wi-Fi, 6" display Kindle was looking pretty sweet so I thought I would give it a try.

So far, I am very impressed. The text truly is easy to read (incredibly better than the Rocket)! I adjusted to it very quickly and at this point find little difference between reading a book on it and an actual book. I have the Kindle ebook reader on my Droid Incredible and love being able to use the touch screen. Too bad the Kindle doesn't have this capability yet. But for the price this is a great ebook reader. You can have 3500 books on it and it weighs about as much as a small paperback novel. The display reads like paper and you can change the font size and the orientation. You can look up any word with the dictionary.

It also has a browser that lets you read your favorite news or blogs online with no 3G charge. Also, I downloaded lots of free classics! And the Kindle book format is generally considerably cheaper. I love it.

I'm already well into the book I need to read for my job, Pro JPA 2: Mastering the Java™ Persistence API (Expert's Voice in Java Technology).  So far, so good! It is really amazing how far things have come on the Java persistence front (my nerdiness is showing)!

Kindle Lighted Leather Cover, Black (Fits 6" Display, Latest Generation Kindle)
If you get a Kindle, you must get the cover. It is really great and makes the Kindle very portable. It has this cool build in light that gets its power directly from the Kindle.  What a great design!  Very impressed over all!

I also got Beyond Mindfulness. It was on my wish list for awhile now.  Looking forward to reading this!

  I had been thinking about getting the 9 inch version but it is considerably more expensive and I was afraid it would be too big to carry around.

Kindle DX Wireless Reading Device, Free 3G, 9.7" Display, Graphite, 3G Works Globally – Latest Generation
The new 9 inch Kindle DX
I definitely feel I made the right choice. I've been taking my 6 inch Kindle everywhere with me.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Marin Headlands

Went hiking with my son and daughter in the Marin Headlands today. We were running late to meetup with the Sacramento Trail Mix meetup group so we just hiked on a trail that I used to take my daughter on when she was little.  It was so great being there again with her and this time with my son as well. 

Gavriil was quite the hiker today.  We went quite a way toward Stinson Beach on one of the upper trails above the Matt Davis trail and then came back on the Matt Davis trail.  Then, we went to one of my daughter's favorit places for lunch in the Marina district in San Francisco.  Had a wonderful time!

There is something truly enchanting about the  Marin Headland, one of my favorite places on Earth!  To see other photos, check out my Picasa album, Marin Headlands 9-12-2010

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

On Vacation What Are We Seeking?

I find it ironic that we spend the entire year looking forward to traveling for a week or two to some other place that we hope will bring us enough pleasure to make all our work worthwhile.  Or perhaps we need a rest after working so hard and just want to go somewhere and take it easy.  Or maybe we have a genuine interest in something that really makes us feel alive and we travel to participate with others in something that adds meaning.  But, what is this pleasure, this rest, this meaning that we seek if only for 1/52nd or 1/26th of our year?  Wouldn't it be nice to just naturally experience this pleasure, ease, and meaning the other 51 or 52 weeks a year?  What are we seeking and how can we live it?

I like to travel.  I like spiritual journeys. Pilgrimages.  I want to experience something that is irrevocably life changing in the most positive way.  I want to be completely and forever transformed by my journey. But, no matter where I have ever been, after returning, slowly but surely life returns to the way it was before the journey.  I've traveled to famous churches, to monasteries, to temples in several countries.  But the effect was short lived.  I've been to wonderful resorts.  I've laid out all night on beaches and backpacked to high mountain lakes.  Some of these trips made a deeper impression than others, but none transformed me the way I was wanting to be transformed.  When I returned, the same problems I had left were still there.  I still had the same cravings and aversions, though they may have been diminished for a time.  I was no kinder, no more virtuous, no more wise a few weeks after I returned than I was before I left.  What I was seeking was so incredibly short lived!

A few years ago, I decided to start going on retreats again after not being on one for many years.  Chan  retreats. Vipassana retreats.  These are silent retreats.  You aren't allowed to use a computer, use a cell phone, or talk to anyone for the entire time you are there.  But, they are life transforming.  Once the chatter and commentary in your head stops, you can see clearer than you might have known was possible! This is the ultimate vacation!  There is nothing like journeying to a state of equanimity and experiencing life millisecond by millisecond. How rich the world is if we have eyes to see and ears to hear! At such times, there is no inner or outer.  There is only perfection, suchness, in every passing second.

Where is there to go when right here right now is perfect in every respect?  What could be more pleasurable, restful, or meaningful that being fully awake in this very moment?  Once the chattering stops, the music begins. The grand symphony of life. Everything sings in response to everything else, infinitely correlated, infinitely inter-responding in a perfectly frictionless, fluid, natural harmony.  Isn't this what we were always seeking, to be fully awake, at ease in body and mind, and perfectly content to just experience things just as they are without judgment, commentary, or any associations?  Just bare, clear awareness of what really is?  Having experienced this, we may wonder how it is that this was ever hidden from us.

We just have such a long ingrained habit of stirring things up!  We stir up our thoughts.  We stir up our emotions.  By doing so, we miss what is already naturally there. There never was a time when it wasn't there, like the moon that is reflected perfectly once the waters become placid!  We miss what we would experience if we would just let go, be still, and let everything flow naturally.  Then, our environment is no longer separate from us and we are no longer pinched off in our own little neurotic worlds.  It's only our grasping and pushing away that hides the real state of the world from us. Our cravings, lusts, aversions, hatreds dim our perception until we are truly in darkness, barely living, like automatons or zombies pulled onward by hunger and thirst.  Or driven by fear.

What if we could go on vacation and come back more alive than we ever previously imagined possible?  What if when we returned, we were more in touch with our thoughts and feelings than ever before?  What if we, having learned to rest in every breath, in every moment, could easily regenerate energy and move through the day with grace and ease?  What if we had the luxury of time to really feel and really think before we speak?  How many hurtful things would go unsaid! How many kindnesses would be shared!  How valuable such a vacation would be for us individually, but also for our families and for the world!  Terrorism and war would be an absurdity in such a world.

The next time you think about going on a vacation, take time to consider what you are truly seeking. Consider whether going to Disneyland, Las Vegas or to the beach compares favorably to taking time out to be completely silent and let everything settle completely.  When the mind is completely settled, awareness is sharpest, most expansive, most penetrating.  When the mind is completely content, does not grasp or push away, perception is pure and insight naturally occurs.  This kind of perception and insight can be life transforming.  If enough people have this kind of vacation, we would all live in paradise.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Vinyasa Krama Class

Just got through leading my first Vinyasa Krama yoga class.  I hope it was as fun for the people in the class as it was for me!  I emphasized mindfulness of breathing throughout the class as a preparation for meditation.  The class meditated after 1 1/2 hours of asanas and 15 minutes of pranayama.  The room was almost completely still and was very quiet during the 15 minute meditation period.

 It's great how yoga reduces restlessness and how pranayama prevents drowsiness at 8:30 at night! The perfect complements to Chan meditation!

Several people came over and told me they really enjoyed it.  While I've taught meditation for a few years, this is the first time I taught it integrated with yoga asanas.  Great fun!

More information at Bodhisattva Path Buddhist Meditation Fellowship or at Sacramento True Yoga.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Yoga at University Falls - Sunday August 29th, 2010

My son demonstrating his trikonasana
Here's a great hike not far from Auburn.  You pass through Cool, California (what a great name, but there's not much of a town there) and then through Georgetown.
My son helping with a posture

For directions, check out the University Falls event posting for August 29th, 2010 on the Sacramento Trail Mix site.

The trail is all down hill to the falls.   You follow a fire road and then head down a dusty, fairly steep trail for the last quarter mile.

Their are several levels to the falls and you can hike down to the lower level for a great area to relax, have lunch or even do a bit of yoga.  The area is so conducive to practicing yoga, my son spontaneously decided to practice his table pose and help a yoga-buddy into a posture.

Son practicing his Table posture

For more pictures, see my Picasa album.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Home as Sanctuary: A Place to Practice

We really only need a small corner of a room to practice meditation.  The instructions Master Sheng-yen gave were quite simple.  It should be quite, clean, well-ordered, draft free but adequately ventilated.  He added that we should consider this space special. To be use for practice.

Meditation room almost finished (needs baseboard)
Perhaps this is very materialistic of me, but I've always felt the ideal is to have a room set aside for practice. Some people have large rooms dedicated for watching TV or entire rooms for other hobbies.  The way people use their space is reflective of their values, or at least, what they've been conditioned to believe their values must be.  If you spend an hour or more a day doing something, it's nice to have a special space set up for doing just that.  This is a luxury and not necessary, but if you have the space, why not use it for what you really value?  When it comes to the practice of meditation, I think this is especially true.

Living rooms are for living!
This is the first time that I've actually had a room dedicated for meditation and it is a blessing!  When I enter this room, I know it is for the purpose of meditating and when I'm there, my son also knows and respects the time and space as my meditation time out.  He doesn't interrupt me while I'm sitting.  

As time goes on, I seem less and less enamored with furniture and other clutter.  I used to have a hobbit's taste for making a home homey.  There's nothing like a couple moves to make you loose your attachment for furniture and other possessions.  Now, less is definitely more.

It would definitely be more difficult for me to practice yoga if my living room was furnished.  My home may seem a bit empty and a bit eccentric for most people's tastes, but for me it is becoming much closer to what I need it to be: a sanctuary.  Shouldn't a home be just that?  All the magic happens in the here and now.  A home should naturally help us let go of all regrets of the past and apprehensions of the future.  A home should invite living in the present moment at ease in body and mind.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Calaveras Big Trees State Park

Went to Calaveras Big Trees State Park with the Sacramento Trail Mix meetup group today.  Checkout the event posting on the Trail Mix site.  The South Grove is particularly nice.  The North Grove is closer to the park entrance and is more touristy.


Photos from my Picasa site.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Bikram vs. Tony

Today was my seventh day of a 30 day trial period at the local Elk Grove Bikram Yoga studio. At first, I was pretty put off by the steady cadence of shouted commands, comparatively speaking -- I've gotten used to Srivatsa Ramaswami's gentle, encouraging manner. Ramaswami's "Bandhas please" is forever engrained in my memory.

But I have to say, the heat and the more forceful style of the Bikram teachers has made a difference. I had hurt my neck, left shoulder and arm several weeks ago and although the pain gradually subsided, it felt as though a muscle in my upper arm was missing. I could barely lift my arm with downward-facing palms. Then, a few weeks ago, my right knee was giving me a sharp pain when I walked unless I kept it partly bent. It was getting progressively worse until last Sunday when I started at the Bikram studio. After the very first 90 minute session, my knee felt better and after a week of sweating and a hot, stinky room for 90 minutes each day, my left arm is slowly getting stronger without a reoccurrence of pain. Better yet, both knees are getting stronger in balancing postures with the knees locked and the pain has almost entirely subsided. Of course, it is much easier to stretch in a room that is that hot and finally I feel my hips are starting to open up more after a seeming impasse.

I have to thank my Yoga teacher training classmate, Wyatt, for his suggestion to give Bikram a try. It definitely has helped though Vinyasa Krama is more where my heart is. Thanks, Wyatt!  And special thanks to Ramaswami for his excellent teaching, incredible patience, and warm manner, even if the dance studio room at LMU was too cold for my old bones.

Every time I feel my ego start puffing up, I go to another classmate's blog to deflate and enjoy his wonderful progress. Check out Ashtanga Vinyasa Krama Yoga at Home for a joyfully humbling experience. Thank you Tony!

When Herons Leave the Lake

New post about the passing of Robert Aitken Roshi and other Zen masters this past year at Way of Chan.

From here on out, most of my Chan-related "stray thoughts" will be posted at http://WayOfChan.blogspot.com, leaving http://barryawadsworth.blogspot.com for stray thoughts of a more general nature.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Restlessness During the Practice of Silent Illumination

A friend I met at a Silent Illumination retreat at the Dharma Drum Retreat Center last December wrote, "I have trouble focusing on the present, my mind swings back and forth like a monkey swings on a tree. Last night I meditated using the Silent Illumination method, I couldn't be silent more than 1 minute. I will keep trying....".  How many of you meditators out there have experienced this?  Everyone, I'm sure.  How many meditators that have been practicing more than 5 years still experience this at times?  Unless you are made of special stuff, again, everyone, I'm fairly certain.  Now here is where it really hurts.  How many of you meditators out there that have been practicing for 30 years or longer still have meditations like this occasionally?  No one?  Well, I guess I'm the only one that still has meditations like this at times.

There are many causes of restlessness.  The fact that you choose to sit during a time when you are feeling restless is coincidental.  It's just that you become acutely aware of restlessness during meditation.  So first, lets look at the causes of restlessness and what can be done about them before meditation.  Then, let's look at what we can do about restlessness during meditation.

Causes of Restlessness and Some Possible Remedies

We all have days when we have more energy than usual.  This can be physical or mental energy.  Generally, we like to have positive energy.  It helps us be productive at work, have fun at play, and makes us feel alive!  Positive mental and physical energy is a result of a balanced, healthy and wholesome lifestyle.  When we eat fresh, wholesome, nutritious food, get enough daily exercise, have a good daily routine, don't subject ourselves to unnecessary stress, have a practice that helps us manage stress, and get sufficient sleep, chances are we will have considerably more energy that we would if our lifestyle was not so healthy.  If you are the type that wakes up and feels like jogging, sitting in meditation might be a bit of a struggle at that time.  This is why yogis traditionally did yogasanas before meditating, to improve fitness, circulation, mindfulness, and lower excessive energy.  They also did mindful breathing exercises after yogasanas to reduce inertia and dullness just before meditating.  By the time the yogi sits to meditate, her energy is balanced, her mind is well oxygenated and clear, and she begins meditation in an optimal state.  Even at Chan retreats at DDRC, we do walking meditation, yogasanas and forms of "moving meditation" to balance the practice of sitting meditation.  So, if you have high energy, you might do the Eight Forms Moving Meditation, walking meditation, or yogasanas before sitting meditation (a little pranayama wouldn't hurt either).

Eight Forms Moving Meditation

Sometimes, maybe too often, restlessness can occur because of energy of a more negative quality.This can happen because we are eating foods or drinking beverages that have a stimulating effect on the body and mind.  It can happen because we are worrying, which causes restlessness but can also lead to dullness. Or, we can be restless because we feel uncomfortable about something we have done or said.  Restlessness is a natural byproduct of worry, aversion, fear, anger, and hatred on the one hand, and craving, selfishness, greed, and lust on the other.  This is why, especially in the Theravada Buddhist tradition, yogis are first taught Śīla (Sanskrit) or sīla (Pali), or virtue and moral discipline.  You can learn to meditate, but from a practical standpoint if you are doing things that go against the fundamental precepts you are sure to have restlessness in your meditation.  The Five Precepts are:
  1. Refraining from killing.
  2. Refraining from taking that which is not freely given (stealing).
  3. Refraining from sexual misconduct.
  4. Refraining from lying or deceiving.
  5. Refraining from intoxicants.
By upholding the Five Precepts, we naturally have a clearer conscience and virtue brings an uplifted spirit and brightness to the mind.  This is foundational.

We are also taught to be aware of the Three Poisons: greed, hatred, and ignorance, and be mindful of the Noble Eightfold Path.

Right View
Right Intention
Right Speech
Right Action
Right Livelihood
Right Effort
Right Mindfulness
Right Concentration

This all makes sense on a very practical level.  If we are not acting in such a way that we are creating conflict and discord, the environment in which we live will be more pleasant, less stressful and our mind will naturally be more settled.

Practicing mindfulness is particularly beneficial because it help us become aware of excessive worrying and put our awareness back on what is at hand.  Cultivating mindfulness over a period of time helps us to become calmer and more balanced.  We may still get surprised, disappointed, and upset, but these feelings are shorter and shorter lived.  We don't harbor ill feelings in our hearts and naturally begin each new day with a blank slate.  Ill feeling harbored in our hearts act like a computer virus in a computer.  Mindfulness is like an anti-virus program that detects and fixes worrisome, fearful, aggressive, or hurtful thoughts.

What to Do about Restlessness During Meditation

Ok, so now you are living a good, wholesome, healthy, virtuous life.  How come there is still restlessness.  First of all, it is the nature of the mind to think thoughts.  There is nothing unnatural about it.  In some forms of meditation, the meditator simply acknowledges the thought that has arisen and then gently redirects the focus back to the method.  So if you are following the breath and the mind has drifted to a thought, you simply let go of the thought, relax, and go back to mindfulness of breathing.

If thoughts still arise and lead to other thoughts, you may need to gently put a bit more effort into staying with the breath.  There are some ways of doing this that seem to work for some people and other ways that work better for others.  One way is to count each exhalation until you get to ten exhalations, and then start all over at one again (count the breaths).  Another way that is to more actively participate in the experience of breathing.  For example, be aware of how the breath begins, the duration, how it ends without controlling the breath.  One that I like is to feel appreciation for the life-giving inhalation and the purifying and relaxing exhalation.  My personal favorite is to focus on totally relaxing into each breath, to fully rest in the breath, totally letting go with each new inhalation and exhalation.  This tends to very quickly settle both the mind and body and can lead to a very relaxed, alert state from which it is good to start practicing Silent Illumination.

Silent Illumination can be difficult to practice if you don't have good methods of dealing with restlessness.  Because you are putting your awareness on the entire body at once, it can be elusive and more difficult to stay with that the breath.  In that case, you might go back to following the breath using one of the techniques I mentioned above to focus and settle the mind.  When the mind is less scattered and more unified, and you are fully present in each breath, then shift the focus to full awareness of the body just sitting.  This will very quickly lead to a state where the boundaries of the body and environment begin to blur and then disappear and you can just be aware of the environment "just sitting".  By this time, the mind will be very settled and you'll be able to continue effortlessly.

Everyone moves through periods of restlessness and drowsiness and everyone learns to deal with them in their own way.  Sometimes one way is more effective and sometimes another.  This is part of the skill of meditating that can only be developed over time.  I still feel very much like a beginner and still have days that seem more problematic than others.  My wife and I separated on April 13th and then on May 7th I was laid off and still haven't found a job. I'm now going through a divorce. These kinds of things can be unsettling.  Practice Metta, Loving Kindness, and Karuna, Compassion, on yourself and on those that are being disagreeable in your life and this will go a long way to making each new day a great new day for practice!

Nothing So Charming as the Present

An old college buddy asked, "If the present is so charming, why does my mind wander away from the present?"

I guess the assumption here is that experiencing the present moment is more charming that reminiscing about that perfect day at the beach near Puerto Vallarta last year or day dreaming about scuba diving in Aruba next year.  This reminiscing and day dreaming can also be quite charming!  But, I think what my friend is getting at is very interesting and a great question.  It depends on the depth to which we experience the present.

The practice of Chan emphasizes living fully in the present moment as does mindfulness practice of the Theravada tradition.  If we are to become fully awakened to life just as it really is, it necessarily is in the present that this awakening will occur.  During meditation, as the mind becomes more focused or unified it becomes less bound by thoughts. As fewer and fewer thoughts arise, the mind naturally becomes clearer, brighter, lighter and more expansive.  This experience can be blissful or simply deeply contenting.  During activity, this cultivation or habituation of a more unified mind naturally is more content to experience what is at hand.  If the mind is clear, focused and content, there is less likelihood that it will be distracted by mundane thoughts that might arise.  The practice of mindfulness actively builds on the clarity gained through meditation and consciously cultivates moment-to-moment clarity of whatever is arising and passing away from conscious experience.  This can also lead to a mind that is clear, luminous, settled, and deeply satisfied to just be in the present, moment after moment.  It is from this settled state that perception can refine and things can be seen just as they actually are.  It is from this perception that insight into the fundamental truths of life occurs, which we know from Buddhist suttras and the writings of past masters can be a very liberating experience.  Chan practice can lead to experiencing such charm in the present moment that there is no arising of craving or aversion.  The need to reminisce or day dream evaporates when one can simply experiencing the present moment with sufficient clarity.

In that case, the answer to the question is until the mind is sufficiently cultivated and refined, the contentment experienced in the present is not charming enough to keep the mind focused, expanded, and aware in the present.

On the other hand, even advanced practitioners think of the past or future as the need arises. And even when the need doesn't arise, it's the nature of the mind to think thoughts.  What is qualitatively different is that thoughts that arise are simply thoughts and the mind doesn't attach to them.  They arise like a bubble as a child blows through the hoop.  The thought expands from nothing but some slight impulse, takes shape, and floats away.  A settled mind is aware of this arising and passing away of feelings, thoughts, and perceptions.  The more awake and settled the mind, the finer the awareness of not only mental phenomena but also all phenomena rising and passing away in the environment.  This awareness of the arising and passing away of mental and physical phenomena leads to the direct experience of a most fundamental nature, the insight into impermanence.  The entire universe is seen as a massive flux of interrelated or conditioned arising of phenomena, and the dissolution of the same when conditions no longer support continuity.  It may appear that the entire world is undergoing massive oxidization, as if everything is undergoing a catastrophic chemical reaction, burning, and be an awesome experience.  Or, it can be like a symphony of such perfectly interrelated harmonies that the mind is arrested by the absolute perfection of it.  However the realization of impermanence occurs, it is not an intellectual reasoning, but a direct and complete perception that leads to life changing insight.  This insight can lead to further insight into the nature of the self.

Until or mind is sufficiently cultivated, the mind is like a monkey that is always chasing desires and averting fears.  Once the mind is cultivated, it response to the environment, situations, and people with wisdom and compassion.  A satisfied mind naturally has compassion for others that are suffering and a clear mind has the wisdom to know how to help them.  The satisfied mind is a product of silence and a clear mind is the product of illumination. The Chan practice of Silent Illumination is extremely beneficial in cultivating a content, clear mind.  The mind still reacts to things in the environment. When a bus is coming one gets out of the way.  And one still makes plans for the future and reflects on what went wrong to do better next time.  But, the predominant mode is to be aware of things as they occur and react in a way that is appropriate to the need of the time.

An undisciplined mind will not stop with an initial thought. It won't be aware of the thought arising and passing away. The mind attaches to the thought and becomes lost in a succession of subsequent thoughts. We long for something in the past or fear its reoccurrence, or regret what was done or said. Or we hope for something in the future or worry that it may happen. We are conditioned from beginningless time to crave for more and dread what we don't want. But, when the mind is settled enough, there is greater and greater contentment and though a thought may arise, it is acknowledged and just passes away if nothing more is required. The mind returns to a state of contentment that is simply aware with a clear, bright awareness. But, it's our habitual outward oriented craving and aversion that obscures what would otherwise be quite a contented state.

It is interesting to note that a person can experience unified mind, pure, unobstructed awareness, impermanence, or self-nature and then regress back to being overshadowed by mundane thoughts and day-to-day situations. What we are up against is a very powerfully ingrained habit cultured from beginningless time. That's why we need a practice like Zen to lift the veil and open our eyes. Then we need to refine the practice and cultivate seeing things just as they are without the imaginary ego or self getting in the way to distort the picture. If we get the self out of the picture, the whole thing opens up and everything converses with every other thing, infinitely correlated and perfectly functioning. It's all perfect when we get out of the way.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Yoga as Mindfulness Practice - A Buddhist Perspective

For Buddhists, the practice of yoga asanas as a method of mindfulness practice is especially meaningful. Although some traditional yoga teachers emphasize mindfulness of breathing in synchronization with the breath, the Buddhist context of using bare attention to penetrate the moment as a means to realization is not as emphasized or is missing. During Chan and Vipassana practice, especially on retreats, slowing down all activity to the point that you can peer into its very nature is essential and can lead to a very direct experience of impermanence and self-nature. This understanding and emphasis coupled with the practice of yoga asanas is particularly useful.

In the Yoga Sutras, there is the concept of uninterrupted, moment-to-moment one pointedness or focus. But the goal there is not realization of self-nature in the Buddhist sense, but realization of individual self (atman) as distinct from the citta vrittis. Of course, this is where Buddhism departs, with an emphasis on there not being an independently existing person, self, or soul.

Practicing yoga has been a kind of experiment for me. Can a practicing Buddhist practice yoga in such a way that the fundamental truths of Buddhism, suffering, impermanence, and no self (anatma), are not distorted or lost? I think the answer is definitely yes, but it requires a clear understanding of the differences in addition to the similarities of the two traditions. Otherwise, it becomes a confusing melting pot that doesn't do justice to either tradition. For me, the goal is not Patanjali's dualistic realization of individual self as distinct from phenomena and Universal Self (Purusha of Isvara). It's also not Shankara's non-dualistic realization that self is Brahman. Rather, it's the complete liberation from attachment to any notion of self. Once self is removed from the picture, perception is pure and everything is seen just as it is. This is true, unimpeded and boundless liberation. When the experience of self is lost, perception pivots on itself and myriad things sing in harmony with all other things, infinitely correlated, perfect and complete. Any clinging to "self" collapses this perfect harmony, the natural state of things, to self and other, internal and external, interesting and uninteresting, good and bad, mine and not mine.

One might say that one who experiences "aham Brahmasmi" (I am Brahman) also experiences this same non-dualistic reality and is not impeded by attachment or aversion to anything since everything is experienced as Self. Yet Buddha's awakening specifically had the characteristic of going beyond an eternal notion of self, even Universal Self, as the highest enlightenment. According to Buddhist sutras, as long as there is any identification with self, one is still trapped in the cycle of birth and death and not completely liberated. The wisdom of knowing the truths of suffering, impermanence, and no self engenders compassion for all sentient beings and frees one to act completely for the benefit of others, without regard to self. I've seen this selflessness in my Shifu, Chan Master Sheng Yen and in my Vipassana master, Ven. Chanmyay Sayadaw. They both have the quality of being completely present and available, fully there for you with no distraction, when you talk with them. Your ego could even get puffed up with the feeling that you were the most important person in the world to them at that particular moment. But, they also had the compassionate ability to deflate the ego when the time was right. I've noticed the same quality in the Dharma heirs of Master Sheng Yen and some of Chanmyay Sayadaw's disciples and lay students -- fully present, awake and clear, penetrating, insightful, patient, and compassionate. I noticed the same qualities in the Dalai Lama. The world needs more saints like these!

For Buddhists and non-Buddhists, practicing yogasanas with mindfulness can be very beneficial in developing a very direct perception, a bare awareness of space, time, motion and sensation. Deepening this experiences enables the silence of meditation to stabilize in daily activity and bring about moment-to-moment penetrating focus along with awareness unbound by the environment. The union of Buddhist understanding with mindful practice of yogasanas is particularly beneficial. I'm very glad to hear of courses being taught, such as those at Spirit Rock, that have this focus. This is bound to improve the overall landscape of Yoga as it is taught in the West.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

What is Vinyasa Krama Yoga?

Vinyasa Krama Yoga is an ancient practice of physical and spiritual development. Vinyasa is a Sanskrit word that refers to a variation of movement and postures. The prefix vi, means variation and the suffix nyasa means “within prescribed parameters”. Krama is Sanskrit for methodology or sequence. Vinyasa Krama Yoga integrates mind, body, and breath through sequences of yogasanas and their many variations. Each variation is linked to the next by a flowing succession of transitional movements synchronized with slow, smooth, deliberate ujjayi (throat) yogic breathing. This produces a harmonizing and unifying effect between the mind, body and movement leading to heightened awareness and refined levels of concentration as preparation for pranayama and meditation.

(The above paraphrased from Srivatsa Ramaswami's book, The Complete Book of Vinyasa Yoga)

Loyola Marymount University offers a Yoga Alliance® Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT®) certificate program taught by Srivatsa Ramaswami, one of Sri T. Krishnamacharya’s longest-standing students. Srivatsa Ramaswami is the author of Yoga for the Three Stages of Life and The Complete Book of Vinyasa Yoga, and co-author of Yoga Beneath the Surface and privately studied with Sri Krishnamacharya for over 30 years.

The 200 Hour Vinyasa Krama Yoga Teacher Training Program offers Yoga students aspiring to become registered teachers a solid curriculum in traditional yoga studies that fulfills the 200 Hour Standards for Yoga Alliance® registration as a Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT®). The subjects include:

1. Vinyasakrama Yogasanas (60 hours)
2. Visesha Vinyasas (20 hours)
3. Pranayama (20 hours)
4. Mantras and Meditation (20 hours)
5. Sri Krishnamacharya's Works (20 hours)
6. Yoga Sutras (20 hours).
7. Yoga for Internal Organs (10 hours)
8. Yoga Business and Teaching Methodology (10 hours)
9. Anatomy and Physiology (10 hours)
10. Subtle Anatomy and Chanting (10 hours)
Total: 200 hours

Over 700 yogasana (yoga posture) variations are explored in the 200-Hour program.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Varieties of Enlightenment

Back in the mid-seventies I was in the Air Force, and was stationed on Pope Air Force Base near Fort Bragg, a huge army base covering over 200 square miles of central North Carolina. I was 18 years old and bored out of my mind. The military had thoroughly corrupted the nearby town of Fayetteville and my only reprieve from boredom was to drive to the coast on Friday evening and spend the weekend on the beaches of Cape Hatteras and Okracoke Island. Laying on the beach at night listening to the ocean waves lulled my mind to a restful state just at the cusp of sleep. Even though I never seemed to fully fall asleep, I always seemed to rise with the first sunlight coming over the flat, watery horizon feeling refreshed. I felt very awake, aware, and alive. This feeling seemed to last throughout the day and even into the first day or two of the work week. By Friday, the effect had worn off and I was ready for another trip to the Outer Banks.

After I got out of the Air Force in May of ‘76, I moved out to Colorado Springs where my sister was living to look for a job. I wasn’t able to find a job but did go on some great back-packing trips with my brother-in-law. Up in the Rockies as you climb the trails, the wind blowing through the aspens and conifers sings enchanting songs, calming and pacifying the mind. There is no desire to think of anything but the sound of rustling leaves high above, whispers through fir needles, the scent of pine and loamy soil, and the slow, rhythmic pace of footsteps and breathing. It was effortless to be deeply settled in the present moment and more fully aware of self and environment. Running streams chanted in a thousand tongues all singing praise to each fleeting moment. I found these backpacking trips as necessary as sleeping and eating. They were healing, nature itself the doctor. They addressed a deep longing that I didn’t even know that I had and all I knew was that I wanted more of this sweet contentment that the mountains offered.

I briefly moved back to my home town in Illinois and found a job in a machine shop. I was a terrible mill operator and was soon let go, but while I was living there I went into the Karmel Korn shop I used to visit as a kid and saw a book called The TM Book. I was fascinated by the name, “Transcendental Meditation”. What does it mean? What would it be like to “transcend” thought? A few weeks later, I had returned to my pre-Air Force employer in Springfield, Illinois and as I was walking down the street, I saw a poster with Maharish Mahesh Yogi’s portrait on it and the words “Transcendental Meditation - Public Lecture”. It was that very evening. I attended the two introductory lectures and on Saturday morning found myself witnessing a puja to Guru Dev, Maharishi’s master, and was given a one syllable mantra to repeat to myself in a small room as I was sitting on a chair. Soon my hands folded on my lap seemed to be far below me and I could hear sounds from the neighborhood with fascinating clarity. The mantra seemed to be repeating in my mind automatically with no effort on my part and I felt completely serene, paralyzed. The teacher then asked how I was doing and I told him, “Fine.” He said, “This is how we meditate”. I continued to meditate using the mantra I was given for many years.

I missed Colorado and soon moved back. While there I took a “Science of Creative Intelligence” class at the Colorado Springs TM center. The people were unlike any I had ever met before and I felt so comfortable with them all -- a retired colonel, the wife of a surgeon, a college student, another retired couple, and couple that were TM teachers, along with Ron Carpenter, the head of the center. I saw a Maharishi International University catalog at the center and knew I had to go there.

In January of 1978, I started my freshman year at MIU (later renamed to Maharishi University of Management). In the summer of ‘79, I went on an extended retreat to learn the TM Siddhi program and soon found myself meditating twice a day with about a thousand other “siddhas” in the “Golden Dome”, a huge meditation hall (or flying hall as we called it). After doing a quick set of yoga asanas and pranayama in my dorm room, I would walk with all the other meditators to the dome and practice TM and the Siddhis. I remember mornings and afternoons in the dome when I felt that there was nothing more I need do in this life so great was the feeling of contentment during meditation.

While at MIU (MUM), I listened to hundreds of hours of Maharishi videos as part of “Forest Academy” retreats that were part of the curriculum. Maharishi delineated seven states of consciousness in some of the lectures:
Pure Consciousness - A state of “restful alertness” experienced during the practice of meditation when thoughts and mantra subside and consciousness is simply self-aware.
Cosmic Consciousness (CC) - A state when Pure Consciousness becomes infused into the waking state giving the rise to “unbounded awareness”. This is a state when the awareness of the Self is maintained during normal activity. It is called “cosmic” because it includes the awareness of the subject and object of perception, i.e., the experiencer is never “overshadowed” by perception and even dynamic activity.
God Consciousness (GC) - As one becomes established in Cosmic Consciousness, the senses continue to refine giving rise to greater and greater appreciation of subtler and subtler levels of perception. This eventually brings about the perception of the celestial or divine aspects present in the phenomenal world and causes the heart to expand in love for the divine.
Unity Consciousness (UC) - With the rise of God Consciousness, the separation between the subject and object, the knower and the known, eventually dissolves. One perceives the world without duality and feels one with the surroundings. As this state unfolds, one feels one with the entire universe and realizes the mahavakya “Aham Brahmasmi” -- I am Brahman. This realization is also know as Brahman Consciousness (BC).

Of course, we at MIU had no doubt that Maharishi and his teacher, Guru Dev (Swami Brahmananda Saraswati) were in Brahman Consciousness and took everything that Maharishi said as being unquestionably true. How could an enlightened being say something that was not true?

After graduating from MIU, I moved to Taiwan to learn Chinese and taught English for a living. While there, I met a Chinese monk, Venerable Master Sheng-yen, who had received dharma transmission from two different Chan lineages, the Caodong (Soto) and the Linjii (Rinzai) traditions of Chan (Chinese Zen) Buddhism, that is, his masters verified that he had the correct and authentic experience of self-nature and was qualified to teach others. I began attending his Sunday lectures and soon found myself on a seven day Chan retreat in New York City while I had briefly returned to the US. At first I was reluctant to give up the practice of TM and the Siddhis but became aware that I had become very attached to the practice. A nun reasoned with me, “If you can pick something up, you can also put it down -- and you can pick it up again.” I was reluctant. On the second day of the retreat, Master Sheng-yen (Shifu), asked me to just meditate by following my breath. I agreed, thinking that after 9 years of practicing TM, it would be easy. It wasn’t. Pain in my legs at times was unbearable and I was beginning to think that Chan Buddhists were masochists. But, something about Shifu made me fully trust him and I persisted with this practice for several years.

It was during this time that I experience inner conflict regarding seemingly opposing religious traditions I had been exposed to. I had grown up as a Catholic, pretty much became a Vedantic yogi while at MIU, and suddenly found myself very seriously desiring to become a Buddhist monk out of shear trust of my Shifu, Master Sheng-yen. Shifu was an incredible man. When he lectured, you always thought he was talking to you personally. And when he was talking to you, he seemed completely and genuinely interested in you, in your well-being without concern for himself. While I deeply admired this selfless quality, it ran contrary to my education from Maharishi. While the Maharishi proclaimed, “All love is directed toward the self”, the Buddha proclaimed that there is no independently existing person, self, or soul. All the Chan and Zen literature seemed to point to this as fact. My own Shifu seemed to be completely selfless and full of compassion for others. What would it be like to experience “no self”? I was intrigued and apprehensive at the same time. And how could Maharishi say that the ultimate reality was Brahman when the Buddha and my Shifu proclaimed that there is no such thing? How could there be no Creator? It was so obvious that there was intelligence of a supreme order in the universe. These questions gnawed at me for quite some time.

Eventually, my recourse was to look back at my own Christian tradition for answers. I went through a period where I read meditative and contemplative works by Thomas Merton, Fr. Basil Pennington, Thomas Keating, Catherine Doherty and others for answers. I eventually became interested in meditative tradition of Eastern Orthodox Christianity and even enrolled in a three year program to become a deacon. After the first semester, I faced quiet a crisis. I had read so many books that were required reading on the history of the church and its doctrines and while on vacation at Lake Tahoe, I suddenly realized that I simply didn’t believe in most of the Christian dogma. It was like a balloon was popped and Christianity just vanished before my eyes.

I began studying Buddhist and Indian literature much more seriously to find out how so many obviously enlightened masters could experience a different enlightenment than what Maharishi had laid out. How could there be multiple enlightenments? How can one person experience enlightenment and proclaim that it is Brahman and another experience enlightenment and say that it is void of Self? As I read more about the different schools of Buddhism, I found that even they didn’t agree on what the experience of Nirvana was. The Theravada Buddhist present Nirvana one way and the Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhist present it other ways. So how can the experience of Nirvana be different?

I decided that the only way I would know the truth was to experience it myself. In 2005, I rededicated myself to practicing meditation and started attending Chan retreats at Dharma Drum Retreat Center in Pine Bush, New York. After several retreats, my experience and confidence in the Chan Buddhist tradition deepened significantly. I also went to Vipassina retreats held at the Chanmyay Satipatthana Vihara in Springfield, Illinois, which I felt were extremely helpful in understanding the experience of no self and loosing the fear of this experience. The last retreat I went on was in December of 2009, and this retreat brought about an experience that has made my faith in Buddhism unshakable.

So why am I on a traditional yoga teacher training course? After practicing meditation for many years, I reached a point where I could no longer bear to not help others learn to meditate. There is so much confusion and suffering in the world that is so unnecessary. Through meditation and adapting a lifestyle conducive to its practice, confusion and suffering begin to fall away. At the request of the former abbot of the Dharma Drum Retreat Center (DDRC), Ven. Guo Jun, I began leading a meditation group in Fort Wayne, Indiana (and now in Elk Grove, California). People get together and practice meditation together once every couple weeks or so. Meanwhile, I started practicing yoga again in Elk Grove after joining a fitness club to address health concerns and rediscovered that it was a great way to practice mindfulness and settle down before meditation. Yoga was incorporated into the Chan retreats at DDRC for this reason. The people that attend the meditation sessions I host have a lot of trouble with restlessness and I thought it would be great to incorporate yoga into our meditation practice. Then, I got laid off and was given a Borders Books gift card for my birthday. It was then that I found Srivatsa Ramaswami’s book, The Complete Book of Vinyasa Yoga, and then found his website and the 200 Hour Yoga Teacher Training course offered at LMU. So, hear I am!

Being on this course, I’ve run into a whole new set of philosophies to reconcile. In Ramaswami’s Yoga Sutras class, it became apparent that the Yoga of Patanjali was not the yoga I had learned from Maharishi years ago. Patanjali is said to have written the Yoga Sutras to clarify what had become a morass of conflicting yogic philosophies in India. It was also a reaction to challenges to “orthodox” Indian philosophy from Jain and Buddhist sources. But, in clarifying yoga, Patanjali actually set it apart from Vedantic Brahmanism while introducing a devotional path for those so inclined as well as a purely meditative path for those that do not accept the notion of a Creator God. Patanjali’s Yoga reaches its culmination in the realization of the individual self (atman) as separate from the universal Self. According to Patanjali, enlightenment is a state of duality in which the individual Self is separate from all other phenomena, including the universal Self. The Vedantic tradition sees this duality as the last vestige of ignorance and seeks to remove it. Circling back to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s teaching, the dualism of Patanjali is equivalent to the state of Cosmic Consciousness. It is a state of liberation, but not a fully enlightened state of Unity (or Brahman) Consciousness.

From the Chan Buddhist perspective, the experience of Unity Consciousness is also recognized as a state of liberation and a highly enlightened state. In fact, meditators on Chan retreats that I have attended have had clear experiences of Unity Consciousness, experiencing oneness with the environment. Yet this is not seen as the goal of Chan enlightenment. When meditators go to the retreat master with experiences of oneness with the environment or even the universe, they are told to go back and work harder.

There comes a time when even this oneness falls away and any attachment to the notion of self (individual or universal) evaporates. The Chan retreats use a meditation technique that is sometimes referred to as “The Method of No Method” (refer to my Shifu’s book of this name) or Silent Illumination (Chinese: Muo Zhao). This method requires that the meditator already be able to stay with the object of meditation without problem, i.e., Dhyana, from which the Chinese word Chan is derived. After following the breath and attaining what is referred to as “unifed mind”, the practitioner changes the object of meditation to the entire body and sits with full awareness of the body “just sitting”. As the meditator continues this practice, the distinction of where the body ends and where the environment begins becomes blurred and begins to evaporate completely. During this second stage, the meditator feels as though the body is the entire room. As sounds come from beyond the room, the distinction again falls away and what is beyond the room also is perceived to be all within ones own awareness. This continues until there is a feeling of complete oneness with the environment. Even as the meditator walks to the dining hall, washes the dishes, or lays down to rest, this feeling of oneness with the objects of perception can persist, even extending to the sun, moon, stars, and universe.

To move beyond this experience of unity with the phenomenal world, some retreat masters will use a technique known as “Direct Contemplation” and have the practitioners focus on an object in the natural world with bare awareness. When the meditator is ripe for such a technique, even the unified subject/object relationship begins to melt. It’s as if perception pivots on itself and looses the need of a perceiver. The subject of perception fades and only the object remains. The phenomenal world becomes fully illumined by silence and all of nature comes alive, all things infinitely correlated with all other things, all speaking to all other with perfect fluidity. A cosmic orchestra of mutually supporting, ever changing phenomena penetrated by silence. It is a state of absolute perfection and contentment devoid of any attachment to self or any object of perception. In Chan literature, it is said to be beyond words, yet there are some very beautiful poems by Chan masters that beautifully give glimpses of this state.

So who is to say that the experience of Brahman is any different? Does the person that experiences the mahavakya, “Aham Brahmasmi”, experience anything differently that the Chan practitioner of the highest calibre? Does he still identify with a universal Self? Is there still attachment or clinging to Self? I leave this for you to ponder, or better yet to penetrate.

While there are different paths to enlightenment and different levels of enlightenment, ultimately at the highest level they cannot be different. Experiencing silence between waves at the sea shore or feeling a vague oneness with the wind and trees in the mountains could be called a dawning of awakening. Experiencing mind totally content to stay with the object of meditation is a level of enlightenment. Effortlessly maintaining constant awareness of oneself during activity is another level and loosing awareness of that self is yet another, higher level. When one has no more to do for oneself but can only think of helping others out of suffering, this is higher still. Realizing there is no suffering is still higher.

There cannot be different ultimate truths. I believe all spiritual paths may ultimately lead to one truth. As we say in the Mid-West, some paths may be “taking the long way around the barn”, but they all lead to the other side. My own path around the barn has been a long and winding one. May your path to the supreme truth be as direct and sweet as possible!

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Reading Sutras as Practice

While reading books on Buddhism by knowledgeable, accomplished masters is valuable, there is nothing like reading Buddhist sutras themselves. For study, it is particularly useful to read the Nikayas. Reading the Nikayas is like having Shakaymuni Buddha sitting right in front of you teaching you directly. But, as a form of meditative practice, reading the Mahayana sutras is quite wonderful. Lately, I've been reading the Huayen Jing, the Flower Adornment Sutra, before I meditate. It is especially useful to read it aloud. Doing so has a great calming effect on the mind and expands the heart. Reading or reciting the sutras can bring about realizations that could not have happened so easily or quickly any other way.

This is akin to the old Christian practice of Lectio Divina in which one would read the scriptures as a form of meditation, reading from the heart, resting on the words as they are read, sinking in. Unfortunately, this practice has fallen away in Christianity, like so many of its traditions that could lead modern followers to deeper levels of insight.

Fortunately, Buddhism still sustains the tradition of recitation of sutras, though this practice hasn't taken root in the West like it has in older Buddhist cultures. Reading aloud the Buddhist sutras is so vital to ones development and is such a great complement to sitting and walking meditation, it's a shame that is it overlooked and neglected in the West.

Try an experiment. Buy the Flower Adornment Sutra Volume One by Thomas Cleary (you might be able to find a used one on Amazon - new ones are expensive) and read it out loud for about 15 minutes before you meditate and see what affect it has on your meditation. When you read it, read as practice. If your mind wonders, gently pull it back to focus on what you are reading. It's not important to read for understanding, but more for natural visualization. Just read with focused clarity but don't engage the intellect. Let yourself rest in the flow of the words in a relaxed but alert way. This can be a very mind and heart expanding experience, especially with the Flower Adornment Sutra. My Shifu , Venerable Master Sheng Yen, recommended this sutra to me 25 years ago and I am only just beginning to see why. I wish I would have made it part of my daily practice so many years ago! It is really quite wonderful.