Sitting Zazen at Caledonian Road London
sat facing blank wall
release passing thought traffic
Sitting Zazen at Caledonian Road London
sat facing blank wall
release passing thought traffic
Is it good to be young, or better to be more mature?
Having recently been studying the letters of Paul of Tarsus, one of his oft-quoted verses has been much in my mind: ‘When I was a child, I used to talk like a child, and think like a child, and argue like a child, but now I am a man, all childish ways are put behind me.’ 1 Corinthians 13:11 The Jerusalem Bible
In my faith journey there are times I need to put away childish things, to lay aside images and notions that no longer serve. The image of God in the clouds, of Heaven as a distinct place. But I must also realise that I am replacing them with other images, other notions. God as a benevolent force, Heaven as a reality here and now. I have to be prepared to let these go too.
There is a Buddhist story about a raft. The raft serves us well when we have a river to cross. But when we later come to a mountain that we must climb, we must abandon the raft which will only serve to hinder us.
In my experience, I also need to reclaim childish things. Trust, the moments of total absorption in the present moment, the awareness of Presence. I need to strip away the layers of defences that I have learnt, that I have been taught, that help me cope with day to day life. I need to become vulnerable, to be open to the movings of the Spirit. My first Reiki initiation helped considerably in peeling away some of the layers, healing me. That was why I wept so much.
Another phrase that has stayed with me recently is from David Amos writing in the Friend of 19 September: ‘People have told me that I am naive, which is not true. However, I am working very hard to get there.’ I think that is my aspiration too.
Yearning, longing for something not quite attainable.
Yearning for Bardsey. In 2011 I went on holiday to the Lleyn peninsula with my spouse and my daughter. Like many tourists/pilgrims before us we followed the old pilgrim route along the north coast of the peninsula, stopping at various churches on the way and visiting lots of holy wells. We ended at Aberdaron at the tip of the peninsula, and looked out to Bardsey Island. We telephoned the Bardsey boatman three days running, but the tides and sea conditions were not safe, and so we, like so many before us, could only yearn to go to Bardsey. It looks so tranquil and near at hand from the shore.
In a more spiritual sense what I am yearning for? Those of us who are involved with more than one religious tradition are often accused of cherry-picking, only taking the pleasant bits from each tradition and not do the hard bits. Or of rushing round seeking spiritual highs all over the place. And yet the spiritual high, the awareness of being in the Presence, or just of being truly present in the present moment, isn’t achieved by rushing around, or even by trying hard. It’s there, right at hand. I need to just stop, just be, and be aware that I’m in the Kingdom, in the moment. Then maybe I stop yearning.
While musing on quite what to write in my blog this week, I also received this, from ‘Fresh from the Word: the Bible for a change':
“Does the passage in which Moses meets God in the burning bush (Exodus 3:1-6) suggest that God had been there some time? Do you think God was waiting, longing perhaps, for someone, anyone, to stop, go over, and look at the wonderful sight? God may have lit the bush hours, days, weeks or years earlier. I wonder, if I had been there, would I have noticed the bush and would I have taken a closer look?
What do you think?”
It gave me a different perspective – is God yearning for us to stop, to notice, to be present? Would I be noticing my surroundings enough to see a burning bush if there was one? Or would I be rushing by, intent on the next thing I needed to do (however worthy that task may be) or yearning for something I believed to be unattainable, when all the while it was right here?
During 2001-2002 Rhiannon and I were both very ill with ME/CFS, easily tired by any physical activity (eg fetching a drink from the kitchen, getting dressed), prone to frequent infections, often in pain. Life was very boring and it would have been easy to be very miserable. We needed some very light activities to distract us.
Cross-stitch became one of our favourites. In particular we made greetings cards, many featuring butterflies. Our Quaker meeting was raising funds for a refurbishment and extension of our building. In addition to applying for grants and organising fund-raising events, we had a ‘bring and buy’ trolley on Sunday mornings. People contributed vegetables they had grown, cakes they had baked, other things they had made. It didn’t bring in vast sums of money, but it helped, and, very importantly, it gave everyone a chance to be involved.
So we sat at home and, as and when we were able, we drew designs on graph paper with coloured pencils, stitched them, mounted them in cards, wrapped and presented the cards neatly for sale. It kept us very gently occupied. Importantly it also kept us feeling that we were contributing to the community effort.
With many thanks to Luanne for the creative interpretation of ‘x’.
‘Being Peace’ at Woodbrooke 18-20 December 2009
I wrote this account some time ago, very soon after the retreat. This weekend was significant to me on my Quaker Buddhist journey, so it seems appropriate to share this in this blog.
Impressions from a Zen Buddhist retreat:
the sound of snow crunching under my feet as we walked mindfully around the snowy garden in the sunshine
the taste of the vegetables as we ate lunch mindfully together
the sight of twenty plus adults snuggled under their blankets on the quiet room floor
the feel of that floor under my knees, palms, forehead as we ‘touched the earth’
the smell of the tea in the tea ceremony
deep relaxation aided by ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star’
sharing readings and songs together: from the Heart Sutra to ‘Just William’, from ‘Nam myoho renge kyo’ to ‘Ubi Caritas’, from Plum village to a gospel choir
waiting at table to meditate together before eating together – reminiscent of the ‘old days’ at Woodbrooke, when we served at table
the quality of listening to one another in the ‘insight sharing’ group
the sense of connection to one another and to the world beyond as we ended our early meditation by bowing to the Buddha within one another and to the new day
happily babbling baby during meeting for worship
And what did I learn:
how to sit on the floor
that everything we do can be a ‘practise’
that the real practise begins when the meditation ends
where the next step on my journey lies
to be grateful for stairs
the deep joy of being totally present in the moment
This retreat was based on the teachings of Thich Naht Hanh and led by Murray Corke of the Community of Interbeing and Tim Peat Ashworth of Woodbrooke. My thanks to them and to all the participants.
On the 100th anniversary of the beginning of world war I (4/8/14) about 2000 Quakers and others associated with them were already gathered in Bath for Yearly Meeting Gathering. One way in which we commemorated the day was an all age worship session in the big top.
On each seat as we came in was a cut out paper white feather. White feathers were used during WWI to humiliate conscientious objectors and their families. The idea was that in our semi-programmed worship we would reclaim the symbol.
As we sat in silent worship, it was suggested that on one side of the feather we write or draw our response to the question ‘what can you do to make the world a happy and peaceful place?’
I wrote ‘Smile. Love. Greet my difficult neighbour. Listen. Share.’
Then we were invited to turn the feather over and respond to the question ‘what does it means to be a peacemaker?’
I wrote ‘Listening and hearing both/all sides. Seek courage to speak out.’
At the end, we were invited to place our feathers in large buckets provided for the purpose (I hastily copied my responses into my notebook/journal before handing my feather in).
Some wonderful, behind the scenes, people, then displayed all the feathers in a huge white dove on the wall of the big top, where it stayed as a reminder for the rest of the week.
It was a powerful exercise, yet accessible to all (some of the children were glad of the ‘wiggle room’ where they drew and coloured on their feathers while free to move around on the floor).
I think my response ‘seek courage to speak out’ fed into the transformation that I wrote about recently.
On 8 July 2010, towards the end of a course at Woodbrooke facilitated by Thomas Swain considering our Spiritual Gifts, we were asked to identify our dream, our vision. Blue sky thinking ,Thomas encouraged us, this is a safe space, be bold!
I restricted myself to Watford (didn’t think I could change the whole world) and draw Watford as I saw it then, with lots of groups working to make it a better place, but often with little contact between them. I’ve noted ‘Watford is in many ways blessed – but it could be even more so’. Then I draw the Watford of my vision with all the groups working together and wrote ‘groups with a concern to let God’s love (whatever they call it) work in our town, being open to and accepting of internal and external diversity, so that Watford is a better place to be (the Kingdom of God here and now). An example to other places’. Groups I identified include WIFA, CAW and Celebration (those being ones I was involved in, but I’m aware that there are many others). I noted that this would require ‘healing, listening, understanding at all levels’ and that my role may be, in some small way, enabling this. I identified my gifts, skills and experience (and this was a key part of the exercise) as being in facilitating sharing and deep listening (and behind the scenes organisation). I also identified the need to be in groups where I am somewhat uncomfortable (often because they use language differently to me) although my role may be to do and/or say nothing boldly.
While I shared this with the friendly, supportive, safe group at Woodbrooke, it has taken a long time to speak of this vision elsewhere. However, it has stayed with me, and I have been ‘working’ on it. By that I mean that I keep returning to it, rethinking how I can express it, refining my understanding of it.
One way to describe it is as a realising eschatology – a belief that the ‘Kingdom of God’ is imminent, is in some senses here, but also needs a lot of work on the ground to make it a reality. In a mystic sense I am aware that it is already here, if only we can accept and perceive that. Yet quite clearly it is not here – the world is still full of hunger, thirst, war, cruelty, inequality and suffering of all kinds. In the words of Thich Nhat Hanh ‘the Kingdom of God is Here and Now’ and ‘happiness is here and now’ – if (or perhaps I mean IFF) we ‘realise that we already have all the necessary conditions for happiness’. I stick with the phrase ‘the Kingdom of God’ despite people offering alternatives such as the ‘Divine Republic’. I still perceive that God (a loving, creative force or presence rather than a being) is ‘in charge’, is ‘ruling’, because people living in this ‘Kingdom’ (a state not a physical place) have freely aligned themselves with this power. I could go with the word ‘Heaven’ though.
I was given pause for thought when I heard Thay say that ‘the Kingdom of God is Here and Now, Here and Now is the Kingdom of God’. But the more I live with that, the more I see truth in it. When we dwell in the here and now, we dwell in the kingdom. So I breathe and let my thoughts go and come back to the here and now. Then I try that again. But I also do what I can to make the kingdom a physical reality, starting in Watford, because that’s where I am. So I smile to the Buddha in the next person I meet, and (hopefully) the next person after that. As with all spiritual practises it is necessary to forgive one’s failings and just start again.
In the fifth of the five mindfulness trainings ‘Nourishment and Healing’ I read:
‘Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I am committed to cultivating good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming. I will practice looking deeply into how I consume the Four Kinds of Nutriments, namely edible foods, sense impressions, volition, and consciousness.’
OK, I understand consuming edible foods, I can begin to see what might be meant by consuming sense impressions (especially in the light of training number 2 and not running after sensual pleasures) but volition? What is meant by volition, and how on earth do I consume it?
So what is meant by volition?
noun 1. the act of willing, choosing, or resolving; exercise of willing: She left of her own volition. 2. a choice or decision made by the will. 3. the power of willing; will.
Number 1 there is the usage I have come across most often (though not very often) ‘of her own volition’ ie of her own free choice.
I read this, and thought about it, and still struggled to see quite how I ‘consumed’ my volition, my own free will, my own choice. But over time, it has gradually become a bit clearer. I guess I’ve been ‘looking deeply’, or at least a bit more deeply than I did at first.
Consuming volition is exercising my own will, acting from my ego, doing things my way, being bossy, even enforcing my will on others. I recognise something of myself in that. And I am not being asked to stop consuming (clearly to stop consuming edible foods would be a stupid thing to do) just to practice mindful consumption and to look deeply into how I consume, to be aware of what I am doing and of the wider effects that my actions have, on myself, on others, on the world at large. Sometimes it is appropriate to act from my own will, but it may be better to freely align my will with the purpose of that which I call God, to act from Love not from short-term self-interest. Even without looking for deeply spiritual meaningful stuff, it is good to let others exercise their will, their volition, rather than me trying to be in charge of things.
My musings bring me back to a favourite, much quoted, Quaker passage, written by Isaac Pennington in 1661:
‘Give over thine own willing, give over thy own running, give over thine own desiring to know or be anything and sink down to the seed which God sows in the heart, and let that grow in thee and be in thee and breathe in thee and act in thee; and thou shalt find by sweet experience that the Lord knows that and loves and owns that, and will lead it to the inheritance of Life, which is its portion.’ Quaker Faith & Practice 26.70
If I let go of my volition, look deep inside myself for the good seeds and cultivate them and let them act through me, I will be happy and free from suffering. As so often, my Buddhist learning feeds my Quaker understanding, enhances my Buddhist practice, …
So I shall sit on my cushion, or walk, or go to Meeting,
and breathe in, and breathe out,
and give over my own willing, consume less of my own volition,
and give the good seeds a chance to grow.
I’ve been reading ‘Cultivating the Mind of Love’ by Thich Nhat Hanh recently. It’s taken some time because it’s given me much to think about. In the early chapters Thay talks about his experience of falling in love as a young monk and asks his reader to recall their own first love. I took a few weeks over that exercise and I think it was helpful to do so.
More recently I’ve read the chapter about the Avatamsaka Sutra which I found difficult to follow, to understand, until I got to the last paragraph. Let me quote:
‘Don’t worry if you don’t understand. You don’t have to understand anything. Just enjoy the words of this beautiful sutra. If they make you feel lighter, that is enough. It is not necessary to feel a heavy weight on your shoulders. Someday, with no effort at all, you will understand. You only have to allow yourself to be there, to touch deeply each thing you encounter, to walk mindfully, and to help others with the whole of your being. This is the practice of non-practice.’
I recognise that need not to try too hard. For years I couldn’t catch a ball. My teachers told me to ‘watch the ball’. I watched, I missed. I tried harder, I still missed. Eventually I found out that with one very short-sighted eye, the ball wasn’t where I saw it. I stopped trying. Quite often I catch the ball. My young son was diagnosed with severe speech dyspraxia. The speech therapist explained that the harder he tried to talk, the more he couldn’t do it. We played lots of games that encouraged him to make speech sounds, but without any pressure. He has grown into a young man who talks clearly (often at length) and is not intimidated by public speaking.
If I try hard to still my monkey mind and be in the present moment, I just end up with more thoughts, including thoughts about not thinking. If I just acknowledge the thoughts and then let them go, my intellectual mind is much calmer, and a deeper understanding can, occasionally, find a way through.
So I’ll let go (not try to let go, just let go) of worrying about understanding and just enjoy the sutra (no matter now that if isn’t in English), or let the words of the dharma talk fall on me like rain (the rain I’ve learnt to accept and welcome), or just immerse myself in the freeing waters of silence. Then I’ll observe how much of that I carry out of the meditation hall with me.