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My Big Fat Buddhist Practice

Happy Buddha and Baby

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 option.

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 do that.

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 hang out.

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 wounds. 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, is 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 your head.

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. Just awful! Well, he said, good thing you have the practice. Yes, I said, suddenly aware that all was not lost. Yes it is a good thing.

I'd like to finish with a poem I wrote about compassion, sort of. It's called

Buddha Belly
It was hot
Meditating in the sunlight
I disrobed,
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
Signifying excess
But I'd never seen it
Like this before
Never noticed
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
And said thinking.

But it had a mind of its own
Buddhabelly bhuddabelly it whispered
Stop that I said
But gently
Very gently