I came to Buddhism because, like most pilgrims on a spiritual quest, I was
troubled. One of those life-changing episodes that replays itself in your
head, with mind-boggling clarity and detail, over and over again was
consuming my life. Considering what I should have said, done, felt or
thought is, of course, never any use after the fact, but like a moth drawn
to flame, I couldn't keep the memory at bay. What I really needed was
prayer, but since that involved some sort of faith in a deity, it wasn't an
Buddhism has no deities. The Buddha never claimed to be divine. What he
did was to see the suffering in the world and sit with it, try to find some
clarity of mind not obsessed with the ego's wants and desires. When I was
looking for some kind of inner peace, I happened to spot a poster in the NB
English Department that advertised Shambhala meditation.
What's that? I
wanted to know. It was, I was told by Bill Gaston, one of the founders of
the Fredericton group, a meditation and teaching practice brought to the
west by Chogyam Trungpa, a Tibetan refugee, and Rinpoche, a revered teacher
of Tibetan Buddhism. It differs only slightly from Buddhism, and there is a
movement now to amalgamate the two practices.
What do you do? I asked
Bill. I wanted to do something. I wanted my mind to stop whirligiging
about and rest itself.
We sit, said Bill and I said,
okay, I guess I can
As it turned out, the practice was, like most things, much more difficult
than it sounded. I was sure I wouldn't be able to do it. Sitting was hard.
It was physically hard, to say nothing of how difficult it was to keep the
mind quiet. Like Nirvana, the practice we call shamatha, or calm abiding,
is not for the faint-hearted. And it sounds so simple. You sit on a
cushion or chair, or kneel on a bench, as you are able, using the sitting
position advocated by meditators for 2500 years: back straight, gaze
downward, eyes open, knees below hips, and concentrate on your out breath.
Every time a thought surfaces, you label it
thinking, and, with the
outbreath, let it go. That's when I discovered how busy the mind is.
Without my awareness, it had taken over my life, in fact had constructed my
life: spun stories, formed opinions, made judgments and labeled them
truths. But in that gap between the outbreath and the inbreath, was a
moment, just a nanosecond, of clarity. That's the place where meditators
With time, my arthritic back strengthened, so that sitting is no longer the
painful ordeal it once was. I am able to do it for relatively long
stretches, with periods of walking meditation breaking up the long sit. I
love walking meditation. We circle in ponderously slow revolutions, round
and round the room, like elephants moving trunk to tail, aware of each other
and the space around us. Concentrating on our movement, we heel, toe and
swing, our hands gently clasped in the mudra described as cradling a fragile
bird, sentient human beings, mindfully moving between heaven and earth. In
this way we acknowledge what is, without judgment. And because meditation
is about more than simply feeling peaceful, when we leave the meditation
hall, we take that knowledge, that practice, into our lives.
Actually, meditation as I often experience it, is anything but peaceful.
Everyone I've ever met is on the bench with me. Old arguments arise, old
Thinking, I tell myself, before I can begin again to unspool the
same old narratives.
Thinking. Good times arise as well. So do shopping
lists, the planning of events, and I have to admit that, in my case, the
occasional Raging Granny song has been composed as I sat there, outwardly
serene. The Buddhists call this part of us that thinks our monkey mind.
Taming it is not easy. You are there as an observer to watch your mind at
work without identifying with it. What you think is not what is. People
who believe their thoughts are scary. But the mind will think; that's what
it does, and the observing part of you is cautioned to be gentle. A Texas
practitioner relates that he says to himself
thinking, old Buddy. I've
always liked that, so much more calming than the
thinking, you nitwit I'm
sometimes tempted to say to myself..
I've been doing this practice for ten years now. I refine it now and then,
but I've never let it go. When I began I was unhappy. Now, although
nirvana is doubtless beyond me, at least in this lifetime, I do have a
little clarity every now and then.
With the teaching practice there were other obstacles. I didn't have any
problem understanding the simplicity of cultivating compassion and
gentleness for myself and others, but I did, and still do, have a problem
with the sexism inherent in any practice developed under patriarchy.
Although powerful women are among the Buddhist panoply of rinpoches, deities
and enlightened being, the teachings and the iconography focus on the men.
Thanks to second-wave feminism, this is changing, but tradition often
forecloses on reason and, as in all religious practices, change often comes
slowly for those practitioners who, like myself, occupy women's bodies.
Since Buddhism encourages questions, I voice my concerns, and am heard with
varying degrees of understanding. It is enough.
Karma too remains a difficult concept for me coming, as I do, from the West
where individualism assumes greater importance than family, class and
lineage and a sense of a solid, inner self is entrenched in our ideology.
The concept of karma was recently elucidated for me by a teacher from
Halifax who spoke of it as cause and effect. A mean action has
repercussions not necessarily in the present, but certainly for the future.
Like ripples on a pond, an act of aggression is passed on in an endless
chain of wrongdoing. A cross word morphs into a slap given to a child, or a
bad decision at a board meeting. When you think of how badly you feel when
you're criticized, and how good when you're praised, this makes good cosmic
sense. We pass on our energy, for good or ill. An unkind word can result
in a battered child. And whether or not you agree with reincarnation and
its karmic weight, and Buddhism, as I understand it, does not demand this of
its practitioners, our actions reverberate beyond our deaths. Stephen
Batchelor acknowledges this when he says
irrespective of our personal
survival, the legacy of our thoughts, words and deeds will continue through
the impressions we leave behind in the lives of those we have influenced or
touched in any way.
The stories we tell ourselves are the stories that shape our actions and,
consequently, our karma. In sitting practice, we let those stories go.
Whatever story line arises, we label
thinking and breath it out. No
judgment, no blame, no passion, aggression or ignorance from which
negativity, the kleshas that plague us, arises.
Passion, aggression and ignorance, or apathy, cloud our vision. These
three obstacles are responsible for the cocoons we fashion; they constitute
our own little world spun from our own ego-centric stories. The Buddhist
nun Pema Chodrun cogently explains how this works.
Passion, she says,
sitting on the edge of the Grand Canyon thinking of the piece of cake you
should have had for lunch. Aggression is sitting on the edge of the Grand
Canyon thinking of what you should have said to the idiot sitting beside
you, and apathy is sitting on the edge of the Grand Canyon with a bag over
I have my own Shambhala tale of how the mind obscures the reality of the
moment. I came home for lunch during a meditation weekend, and got into an
argument with my husband. Unresolved, it plagued me all the way back to the
center. When I went to the bathroom, my mind was so busy with counter
arguments that I remembered the twenty dollar bill I had tucked in the top
of my pantyhose only when I flushed the toilet and spotted it, swirling
merrily round the bowl. I grabbed it just in time. That's the kind of
concrete reminder that brings home the truth of the teachings. .
I remember coming from my first full weekend's practice and noticing, for
the first time, sunlight coming through the underside of leaves. I had
given myself the gift of clarity.
Mind you, this vision doesn't last, but at least you know it's there. I
can't yell at Leo now without being acutely aware not only of what I'm
doing, but of the damage it does to me. That doesn't mean I'm going to
stop, but I at least know that I have a choice. Buddhist teaching tells you
to be with your anger, to feel its viscosity, to let it invade you without
reacting. All emotion is only energy that can work in your favour if you
let it be. You are, after all, in responding aggressively, only defending a
self that doesn't exist anyway.
I love that notion of no self, of non-duality. Think about it. If asked
to describe yourself, what would you say? Smart, funny, pessimistic,
joyful, ignorant? Are any of those qualities real? Are they quantifiable?
Is there an
I without a relational
you? We cannot map the ego any more
than we could ever map the soul. Things only exist in relation to other
things. Without you, I am nothing. My body is made up of nothing but
molecules that exist in relation to other molecules, and I'm not even sure
about that. Nothing is permanent, fixed and unchanging, so it behooves us
to accommodate difference because that's all we have. We have nothing solid
to defend or protect. So if someone calls you an idiot, since you have no
self to defend, you could practice being big enough to say,
yup, that would
be me. Certainly, it's a response that disarms people.
If you see the
Buddha on the road, says one of the teachings,
shoot him. He, like
everything else in this world, is an illusion.
I think getting through this life doing a minimum of damage is all we have.
Without compassion for ourselves and others, we are doomed. We see Karma
working on a global scale, and blame the Bush administration, globalization,
free trade, but we forget that karma starts with us, with individual
decisions to do the right thing. We will not see peace on earth unless
every single individual on the planet is compassionate to themselves and to
others. Unfortunately, learning to love each other is the hardest thing in
the world. There's an exercise recommended by Pema Chodrun that involves
taking a walk, and imagining inviting for dinner the first ten people that
you meet. I failed that test immediately. I don't want the lame, the halt,
the blind and the unwashed sitting at my table. It's scary. It's
uncomfortable. I don't want to recognize the truth of non-duality at the
experiential level and include the other in my world. I'd rather invite my
friends to dinner, or find some other comfortable way of, in Neil Postman's
prescient phrase, amusing myself to death. But Buddhism cautions us to live
on the edge, to stay with discomfort and let it teach us something. Every
one we meet is our teacher, whether we're comfortable with them or not.
I do try to pay attention, practically on a minute to minute basis, to
whatever it is that I'm about. I must say that living with a person with
Alzheimer is helpful in this regard. In the moment is where we're at, and
without compassion, that moment is fraught. Habitual responses kick in when
you've known someone a long time. It's hard to respond to Leo with clarity
of mind, as though I'd never known him before. I know how he thinks, even
before he voices it, or at least I think I do. But if I let go of my
agenda, he often surprises me, and I actually learn something, about him or,
more often than not, about myself. I met a Buddhist friend at Superstore
the other day who asked how I was doing.
Awful, I said, having just come
from a major blowup with Leo.
Well, he said,
you have the practice.
Yes, I said, suddenly aware that all was not
Yes it is a good thing.
I'd like to finish with a poem I wrote about compassion, sort of. It's
It was hot
Meditating in the sunlight
Looked down, and saw
Little moon-round, half-gourd Buddha belly
Plump and pink
In the sun patch
It surprised me
I'd known it was there
But I'd never seen it
Like this before
Its rosy cuteness
Gosh, I'd wanted
To diet it off
Exercise it smooth
Make it go away
Before it manifested
Too much spiritual materialism
For a meditator
To tote round.
Now it looked good.
I couldn't stop staring
It was interfering
With my meditation practice
Something had to be done
I raised my eyes
Softened my gaze
But it had a mind of its own
Buddhabelly bhuddabelly it whispered
Stop that I said