Strikes a chord within
I empty like one in robes
The ground falls away
Written at Amaravati Monastery, England
To what can’t be seen
Be still, the way will open
I wait, and wander
The wind breathes
Written at Gaia House, England
A gauze veil
I lie in union
Emptied by chaos
Surrendering to the flow
Stopped in stillness
What am I?
Written in Findhorn, Scotland
Try to hold
Broken trust and pain
Promises land, once again
Stones still flying, yet
Time may heal
Written in Belfast, Northern Ireland
LOOKING AND SEEING
Just outside this window
A moment of grace lay waiting,
Into the garbage can,
Mindfully extracted and placed
In white satchels.
Next, to my amazement,
He gathered litter
From the ground,
By those less aware,
This saint was gone.
His trolley card rolled on
Shortly thereafter, another,
A moment transformed,
An unknown teacher
Touched my world forever.
Written in Vancouver, BC
If Not You, Who? If Not Now, When?
A small yet perceptible revolution is taking place. Lovingkindness meditation is taking to the streets and reaching into all corners of the world we live in. Sometimes this intention to wish well manifests on the cushion. Sometimes it takes place in all those other moments of day-to-day life. Have you seen it in the garbage as it blows across the street? Have you heard it as a dumpster diver rolls her shopping cart down the lane behind your home? Have you felt it as your eyes meet the eyes of a panhandler on the street? As the heart opens, the divine can appear anywhere, in all forms.
Perhaps lovingkindness is touching the hearts of the homeless on a corner near you or permeating its way into the bodies of those who are using drugs and alcohol to try to numb their pain – pain of the present, pain of the past. Meditation techniques were offered to the homeless in one progressive and caring organization that provides a wide range of services to those without homes.
I offered it in two shelters that provided short or long term respite to adults and in a third shelter to homeless famllies. Mothers and families practiced lovingkindness meditation while their children played or colored nearby. Sometimes the children joined in. It was painful for me to witness whole families living in one small room. Children with vacant expressions were playing in a parking lot rather than attending school. I offered compassion and lovingkindness to myself when my pain in response to so much suffering became overwhelming. Opening the heart is not a path for the faint hearted.
Lovingkindness is also touching men and women who have been incarcerated for actions that are judged unskillful towards others and towards society. In most instances, prison inmates struggle with remorse regarding the actions that put them behind bars, struggle with the conditions where they find themselves, and struggle with being separated from the loved ones they left behind on the outside. I spoke with a young man recently in a local prison. He has had a difficult time trying to find his place in the world. A normal enough struggle for youth at any time, but looming so much larger in a world that is wracked by war and suffering, environmental degradation, family breakdown, and economic uncertainty.
During Bertram’s childhood and adolescence he was bounced from foster home to foster home. Unwanted, his cries for help went unheard. Now Bertram volunteers in a local high school trying to help other young people not end up in his shoes. Bertram is also developing his artistic talents. When asked when he was getting out, Bertram replied “I don’t know.” Imagine at age twenty-two not knowing when you would be free to move in the world again. One of the ultimate “not knowing” practices. Earlier he had cried as he spoke from his heart about his childhood. Then he accepted an offer of a hug. Maybe if he had received more love as a child he would not now be in prison. Once Bertram is released he will have so much to offer society. Will society be ready to receive his unique gifts?
In the First Nations Community
Meditation practices are also available in the First Nations Community to people who are of aboriginal ancestry. Recently I shared vipassana and lovingkindness meditation with a circle of adults who were participating in academic upgrading. A profound event took place, so simple that it could have gone unnoticed. I was dressed as I frequently am – in my skirt, a blouse, and black walking shoes. I ended the sitting as I usually do, with the ringing of the Tibetan bells.
One of the women in the group paused for a few moments and then spoke. It had been a difficult meditation for her in some ways. Memories of time spent in residential schools had surfaced. My black lace-up shoes not unlike the shoes of the sisters in the residential school she had attended. The sound of the bell also triggered experiences from years gone by. I opened to her words. We collectively held the space – two women with hearts filled with friendliness and right intention. This women is training to be a counsellor to help heal her people. She says meditation techniques could be helpful to her people and that she will share them with her community.
In a different setting a First Nations woman once again raises the consciousness of the group. We are having a conversation regarding residential programs. She sensitized us to the fact that just the use of this word, “residential” would be problematic for many of her people who went to residential schools and for the generations that followed those who suffered as a result of time spent in these schools. Second and third generations trying to find freedom from a legacy that lingers on still. I experience the power of language and the subtler meanings of right speech because of this woman’s willingness to share her experience with us.
On Death Row
A few years ago a man called Jay Suripong was executed at San Quentin Prison in California. The wind was howling and sheets of rain fell upon those who had gathered outside the prison to bear witness to the taking of this human life. We arrived late having come from Spirit Rock Meditation Center. At first all I heard was a speech filled with angry words. Then three young women took the stage and sang from their hearts. I felt a sense of release. My heart opened to the senseless killing that was soon to happen.
From the top of the planter I was standing on, I spied an opening in the crowd and knew that was where I was meant to be. I joined the other meditators who were seated on the ground in the midst of this terrible storm. Clearly the gods were not happy. I sat very close to the metal fence that separated three rows of guards from those who had gathered in protest. At each changing of the guards, I sent lovingkindness to the men directly in front of me. Looking into their eyes as best I could, I offered them lovingkindness, that intention to wish well, that intention to wish all beings well without exception.
It was sometime later that I learned that Ajahn Pasanno, a Theravadan Buddhist monk of Canadian origin, had been with Jay a few minutes before he was executed. I was very moved when I heard this because I had the good fortune to meet Ajahn Pasanno during my time in Thailand. I was grateful that Jay was supported by the Triple Gem of Buddha (our capacity to awaken), Dharma (the teachings, the truth of the way things are ), and Sangha (community) during the last hours of life. You see, while in prison Jay had reconnected with Buddhism, the religion of Thailand, his country of birth. Jay’s transformation was acknowledged and respected by inmates and staff alike. Sadly, his and other peoples’ attempts to overturn his death sentence fell on deaf ears. So, just after midnight, Jay’s life in his human form ended.
In the Downtown Eastside
Lovingkindness meditation is also blessing people at the corner of Main and Hastings in the downtown eastside of Vancouver, reputedly the roughest area in Canada. Every Wednesday evening for the past three years a group of people have gathered to practice together. They may live in the area, work or volunteer in the area, or perhaps just wander in off the street. Some people are simply drawn to the social consciousness that has organically arisen in this meditation group. Some group members are disabled, others are young and actively reflecting on how they wish to use this precious human life, and others are working professionals who have completed graduate studies. They come from diverse cultural and economic backgrounds. This sitting group tries to meet anyone who shows up, where they are. What is the alternative? Meets all beings with lovingkindness and compassion – even if they are drunk, or unemployed, or living with Aids, or mentally ill.
Young or old, male or female, of color or white, of all sexual orientations, of all religions and spiritual traditions, radiating lovingkindness out to all beings everywhere. One night during the sit a group of rioters and police officers ran by the area where we meet. This became an opportunity to offer lovingkindness to all beings, without exception. Those in the room were encouraged to be mindful of what was arising in their body, heart, and mind; and then we offered lovingkindness to ourselves, to the rioters, and to the police officers. This group takes refuge in the Triple Gem, and especially the sangha. The Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh has said that perhaps the next Buddha – Maitreya, the Buddha of Lovingkindness – will come not as an individual teacher, but as a sangha, a community of people dedicated to compassion and understanding.
Some of the people who come to this group or other programs that are offered at this simple centre are on limited incomes. Twice a year weeklong retreats are offered outside of the city, in beautiful settings close to nature. These retreats are offered for less than fifty dollars per person. This includes transportation, lodging, food, and guidance during the retreat. Participants are given the choice of practicing Buddhist meditation, engaging in directed prayer practice through the Christian tradition, or following the First Nations path. Participants are asked to adhere to one tradition during their time away. These retreats are transformative for many, including those who lead them.
On another occasion, an exotic dancer who uses cocaine rushes into my office. “My mind is confused. I don’t have any peace. Give me some of that meditation!” A few minutes later she left, noticeaby calmer, to carry on with whatever she next had to do. She also receives addictions counselling when the opportunity arises. The teachings are offered freely to those who wish to receive them.
Lovingkindness is also flowering in settings that are perhaps more familiar and closer to home. For example, the intention to wish well is manifesting in our families. Rather than engaging in speech with my sister that predictably leads to suffering, I choose to let go and renounce the need to voice my opinion. Choosing instead to silently say a few Metta phrases to myself I say, “May she be peaceful. May I be peaceful.”
My dear cousin Jill prepares to return to the Cancer Agency for her second round of chemotherapy. Jill wisely recognizes that having a negative attitude towards the chemotherapy will not support her recovery. After Jill and I talk, we decide that a guided lovingkindness meditation in the chemotherapy room would be helpful. Dr. Hal Gunn of the Centre for Integrated Healing speaks of the importance during visualizations of viewing chemotherapy as cleansing the body not killing the cancer cells. As Jill’s treatment begins, her face is radiant as she opens her heart to the chemotherapy that is being infused into her veins and is spreading throughout her body. Some days after the treatment had finished, Jill spoke of how peaceful she felt as she received the chemotherapy. She was no longer fighting the chemotherapy, rather Jill was embracing it.
This practice of friendliness is needed everywhere. In an introductory meditation course people from all walks of life slowly disclose their personal challenges. Students, teachers, counsellors, and those that are struggling with panic attacks, unemployment, and the loss of loved ones meditate together – a rainbow of the multitudinous ways that suffering presents itself in this human condition. Newcomers to meditation are encouraged to wish all beings well and reminded that they too are part of all beings.
In a classroom, an instructor I know made mention of a single father struggling on social assistance to provide for himself and two children on approximately $750 per month. Moments later a collection was initiated by a member of the group, with others being encouraged to contribute as they felt moved to do so. Thirty-four dollars is collected. Not a lot of money to some, but when you have no money or food it can be a fortune. Later I heard the man express his gratitude for this unexpected gift. He took his family out for pizza, something he normally cannot do. A simple expression of the intention to wish well was initiated and completed within the space of half an hour.
Many opportunities to practice lovingkindness are available each day if we open our eyes to them. About to board a city bus, the man in front of me is being turned away because he does not have any money. I offer him a bus ticket. “What do you want from me?” he asks. I reply, “Nothing.” We are simply one human being helping another human being with no expectations. How sad that this man is suspicious of a simple act of caring. From a place of compassion, I care about your pain and suffering. It doesn’t matter that I don’t know your name or personal story.
The Path of Service
Are you part of this revolution? Be still. Take a moment to reflect. Lovingkindness and compassion practice is being offered to the people, all the people. Offer yourself lovingkindness and compassion exactly where you are, not where you’d like to be. This is the power of acceptance and trust that the way forward will make itself known in its own time. Then you can act in whatever way is appropriate for you and your circumstances. Try not to be attached to any ideals of how things should be, or how you should be. To do so would only lead to more suffering.
Reverend Martin Niemoller, a Nazi prison survivor said, “In Germany they came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.
Never doubt that a small group of
Thoughtful committed citizens can
Change the world.
Indeed, it is the only thing
That ever has.
… Margaret Mead
Are you willing to get your hands dirty in your own community? To push your edge? To push your comfort level? To act and speak in ways with your family, partner, friends, neighbours, colleagues, and even those you do not know that help create and foster a healthier, safer, and more loving community for you and all others to live within? Can we together create a more loving world?
Mother Theresa said, “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.” An adage worthy of reflection by those who are committed to following a Buddhist path, a path of doing good, avoiding harm, and purifying the mind. Following this path to the best of our ability. May our meditation practice be a blessing for all sentient beings, whatever form they take. May our practice on the cushion spill over into the world, a world so in need of lovingkindess.
Finally, I wish to share a little secret with you. Rather than trying to put it in my own words, let me share the words of a man who expressed it so eloquently. The Nobel Prize winning Indian poet, Rabindranath Tagore said it this way: “I awoke and saw that life was service, I acted and behold, service was joy.” When we offer lovingkindness and compassion, there is more joy in the world, for all of us!
Thank you for taking the time to read these words and having the courage to open your heart to the suffering of the world, to the best of your ability, in this moment. Thank you also for giving me the opportunity to share these experiences that I have been blessed to receive. Tears arose at different times as I wrote this article. Writing this article helped me further process the first noble truth, the truth of suffering. Not that all of life is suffering, rather that suffering is a natural part of life. Remembering, accepting, and opening to the 10,000 sorrows and 10,000 joys of this lifetime. To do otherwise, means our heart is contracted – to our selves, and to others.
MAKING A SPIRITUAL PILGRIMAGE? IN TRANSITION?
The past few years had been difficult – living/working in East Africa and my subsequent re-entry, a divorce, turning forty, working with street youth in Canada/Philipppines and being confronted with my powerlessness in the presence of poverty and physical/sexual/substance abuse, the death of three women very close to me (emotionally and in terms of age) due to a variety of causes (cancer, car accident, cause of death unknown) – in effect, the First Noble Truth: there is suffering, my own and others.
A close friend suggested, “Why don’t you go to Asia?” “No,” I replied, “I’ve done enough travelling, I just want to stay at home”. My first trip (4 1/2 months) to Asia had been in 1982. I did not consciously know at that time that I was making a spiritual pilgrimage; however, in retrospect that is what happened. I did my first 10 day retreat with Goenka-ji in Nepal and visited Mother Theresa’s home for the dying in Calcutta. I also lived with a hill tribe in northern Thailand. Everywhere I travelled I sought out monasteries and other spiritual sites – sitting quietly, listening to chanting, and observing life pass by. More recently, in addition to a trip to East Africa, I also made two work related trips to the Philippines and truly had no need to return to Asia at this time, or so I thought.
In the midst of my spiritual emergency I remembered a time long past …. I realized what I needed was a ten day retreat. A few phone calls later and I knew I was on the right path. The Cloud Mountain Retreat Center in Washington state was soon to offer a ten day retreat. It was to be taught by a married couple named Rosemary and Steve Weissman who appeared to share some of my values around environmental and social issues. When I heard they were resident teachers at a center in Thailand, I suspected I was to return to Thailand, the country in Asia that had previously felt like my second home. By the end of the retreat, I decided to go to the Wat Kow Tahm Meditation Center and continue my dharma study with Steve and Rosemary, and volunteer at their center. (For details on upcoming retreats in Australia and elsewhere, see www.watkowtahm.org)
“Life is what happens to you while you are busy making plans.” My plans were delayed by the unexpected hospitalization of my father. In retrospect, this was truly a gift. I was the primary family member involved in Dad’s hospital stay, a gift I am very grateful for as he died two and a half months later. This delay allowed me to sell my modest condominium, which provided me with the financial resources that I lived on for the next two and a half years.
Wat Kow Tahm is a monastery located in the jungle on the island of Koh Pha Ngan in southern Thailand. Living conditions are very basic. I spent over a year at the monastery, mostly volunteering although also doing many meditation retreats (ten and twenty days). Rosemary and Steve schedule very affordable ten day retreats eight months of the year. Their retreat expectations are rigorous and their teachings comprehensive. Steve and Rosemary generously give of their time, energy, wisdom and compassion to those who pass through the center. The Thai nuns and monks also open their hearts to the many westerners who come to study meditation.
My time at Wat Kow Tahm was full of many other blessings. I would meditate every morning, often before sunrise. My favorite spot to meditate was on a very large boulder in the jungle. After I meditated for an hour, I would sit on the boulder and watch the sun rise in the distance. Sometimes I sat alone. Sometimes I sat with one of my fellow volunteers. We shared a sense of kinship that is not easily conveyed through words. One memorable morning I and a friend had the good fortune to have our sitting blessed by the arrival of a phython. She slowly mended her way through an adjacent tree. We felt in harmony with the land and the other beings residing on the land.
I was also very fortunate to spend two and a half months at Wat Pah Nanachat in northeastern Thailand. Wat Pah Nanachat is a monastery in the forest tradition. It is easily reached by train or bus. Ajahn Sumedho founded this Wat at the request of the Thai meditation master, Ajaan Chaa. It is a training monastery for western monks. In my opinion, it is best suited to individuals who already have some meditation experience. Men are required to shave their heads after three days. While this is not a requirement for women, I chose to do so and found it to be a very rewarding experience although emotionally challenging at times. My good fortune also included studying with Ajaans Sumedho, Pasanno, and Amaro. (If you plan to visit, write in advance if possible: Wat Pah Nanachat, Bahn Bang Wai, Amper Warin, Ubon, Thailand 34310).
And when its time to go to the beach, I recommend Than Sadet which is also on the island of Koh Pha Ngan. Than Sadet is an isolated and relatively quiet community. I always try to stay in a very simple and inexpensive bungalow which is perched on a rock outcropping between the two bays around which Than Sadet is nestled. On days when I felt ambitious, I would swim from one side of the bay to the other side. Having no electricity can facilitate a close connection with the elements. I spent many hours with the moon, wind, and crashing waves, time that nourishes my spirit deeply. And to nourish the body, both Thai and western food is available.
Time permitting, I highly recommend making a spiritual pilgrimage to India. Mother India, as she is called by some, is a powerful and unique teacher. One need only go and open, and the timeless teachings of India will wash through your whole being.
Travelling across northern India is sometimes uncomfortable and an experience in keeping with the temperament of India. Moving times were many. A young girl offered me a bodhi leaf as I circumambulated the Mahabodhi Temple where the Buddha attained enlightenment. The burning ghats of Varanassi offered powerful teachings on impermanence. Sikh devotion at the Golden Temple in Amritsar was nothing short of inspirational! Seeing His Holiness the Dalai Lama emerging from the monastery brought tears to
my eyes. And my heart was once again opened by my brief time at Mother Theresa’s Home for the Dying in Calcutta. Thank you India for all!
I spent over two years in Asia. Before I left, I realized I was setting in motion significant changes that would fundamentally alter my life. This and more has been realized, and I see ever more clearly that the journey continues. I wish each of us the courage to listen to our intuition, and be all that we already are, and all that we are destined to be.