Transitioning

ConvoyRev. Wilfrid sent me this photo last week. He took it on the day I left Throssel for Wirksworth, me driving the car and Rev. Mugo driving the hired transit van. A transit van to help with the transition. I’ve always honoured times of transition and recognised that they can be quite unsettling and bring up unexpected and disquieting feelings. As it happens, this time I have only experienced joy and gratitude for the place that is now Sitting Buddha Hermitage and for all the help, support and kindness that has been coming my way from friends both old and new.

Uprooting from one part of the country to another and from a community in which one has lived for the best part of 20 years is a big transition. But when are we not in transition? Transition is the process of change from one state to another and, as the Buddha’s teaching on impermanence tells us, and as we can see for ourselves, everything is in a continual state of flux. Sometimes it seems that I am upset out of all proportion by a small event when a large one can pass by smoothly. Large and small, rough and smooth are just labels. My wish is simply to bring an open, accepting and compassionate heart to all that arises.

A World of Difference

Before I get down to a few moving-related tasks today, such as notifying various official bodies of my upcoming change of address and packing a few more things, I want to write about something that came to mind a few days ago: there is a world of difference for me in whether I approach a situation by sitting still and asking what is being called for from me, than if I approach it with an attitude of something is wrong and it must be fixed.

The former way, of listening for what I am being called to do in response to the situation, is far more likely to keep me open to any possibility and it is more probable that I will think and behave compassionately.

If, however, I look at the particular circumstances as being wrong, I am immediately in a judging, blaming, closed-down state of mind with very limited possibilities available to me. And what is wrong, after all? We generally use this word to describe something we don’t like, don’t want, didn’t expect, is causing harm to me or others or that we judge to be unethical or incorrect. Something perhaps that arouses fear or disquiet in us. But labeling the situation as wrong feeds into the mind of aversion and I am then mostly concerned with rectifying the situation so that I can feel at peace again (though I might not see that at the time). In other words it is all about me.

It is hard to let go of blame, but I see more and more that it doesn’t help things. And I’m not denying that we sometimes have to deal with circumstances that are a cause for deep concern. Recognising and accepting our own fear and distress is a necessary step in becoming still. Allowing skillful action to be called forth from us, it is more likely that we will do what is of most benefit to all beings, and that, of course, includes ourselves.

Sitting Buddha Hermitage

I am naming this new place of Buddhist practice Sitting Buddha Hermitage. The community at Throssel are making a very appropriate gift of this outside sitting Buddha statue – thank you all so much!

Image

I plan to place it on the wall around the lake, just in front of the building, with a bowl for incense offerings. I have decided not to burn incense or candles inside the building so that those who have allergies to smoke and perfumes will not be troubled, and also to help keep the building clean and fresh. Fortunately there are many good looking electric candles available for inside use – I saw one I liked at Ikea recently, but didn’t buy it in case I found something I liked better, but now I wish I’d bought it!

And instead of incense indoors, I particularly like the water offering that I saw at Pine Mountain Buddhist Temple in Ventura, California. Rev. Master Phoebe had a beautiful glass decanter and bowl on the altar, and an offering is made by pouring water from the decanter into the bowl. There is much teaching in Buddhism around water and it is often used in iconography as a potent symbol for compassion.

The Bodhisattva Kanzeon, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, is particularly associated with water, usually being depicted sitting on a rock by a river and holding a vessel from which she pours out the water of compassion to suffering beings. I think the summer house would be an excellent place to put a shrine to Kanzeon, don’t you think? 

The Non-Ferocious Way

Soft spring snowdrops

Soft spring snowdrops

There is only one thing
To train hard
For this is
True Enlightenment.

Taken from Rules for Meditation by Zen Master Dogen

We set great store by being sharp, being focused, being brightly alive. In short being THERE or better, HERE. In Zen practice and any other kind of practice for that matter being one who trains hard is better than being known as a slacker! But what does it mean to train hard, in practice. Are there particular times or circumstances when training hard is what’s asked of us or is the instruction itself a bit of a red herring? Did the intended meaning get lost in translation?

I had an email from somebody this morning who reflected that with a number of people in our sangha diagnosed with serious medical conditions, and one who had recently died, the call is to train hard while you can. Yes, I can understand that response in a certain kind of way and I also question it too. In my view meditation, be it formal zazen or throughout-the-day meditation, is essentially an internal movement, a movement to reflect within. How one does that ‘harder’ is less to do with visible effort and more to do with the growth of internal conviction, faith and a steady commitment. That cannot be measured nor should it be. Not at any time in one’s religious life and certainly not measured by oneself. Faith cannot be measured yet known none the less.

When people become sick they quite often become distressed because they are not able to do what they once did. I’m not sitting zazen regularly, I’m not practicing…etc. A woman on the phone today said, through her tears, that she was an utter failure because of the thoughts and feelings which were overtaking her at that moment. I advised her to take a walk to her altar, a pilgrimage in itself, and pause there for a few moments. This she did. Her voice changed becoming softer and once again she’d returned to touch something deeper in her being. A place of refuge and of faith. At whatever age the mind may not be as strong or as disciplined as we’d like. Emotions can rise up out of nowhere and become overwhelming as was the case of the woman this morning. As I pointed out to her at the time. All that has happened in your life, all the pain and suffering and disappointments and the seeming failures point you back to your altar. The non-ferocious way is simply and softly and continuously returning to the altar of our own heart/mind.

Now thinking of those who will join Rev. Alicia on retreat. Extra meditation invariably points out the very human tendency to hurl ourselves at the edifice of ourselves. On retreat we come to realize the futility of that approach and in the process discover by accident the rock-solid-softness within our being.

Appreciating the Known

1Going on
For some reason this image keeps calling me back this afternoon, unfortunately why this is so is difficult to put into words. There is a tension between the familiar and the unfamiliar, the known present and the future pregnant with possibilities. Perhaps it is that the bark of the Silver Birch which is familiar and close at hand is stabilizing me in the here and now while the path draws me on into the unknown with the ever-present challenge to let go and step forward. The strongest message of this image is the reminder that however comfortable life has become there is always the going on, going on, always going on, always becoming Buddha. Which is the teaching found at the end of the Scripture of Great Wisdom.

To return to that tension mentioned above. Yes, there is the call to ‘go on’ and ‘let go’ of the familiar, while at the same time there is wisdom in not rushing on precipitously and fail to appreciate that which has held and sustained and is the stable rock from which to rise from. It is all too easy to believe that the ‘gold’ of life is over there buried under the end of the distant rainbow when it is set beside the path where we are right now. And still the pregnant road beckons, as it always must.

This ‘going on’ while appreciating what’s here and now is very much the teaching coming from the current unfolding of the Field of Merit project. I’d imagine that any time of transition is like this for everybody, a bitter-sweet time when it is both easy and difficult to move. Both at the same time. Good fortune to Rev. Alicia as you step out and forward.

Holding the Space

This tree at Mount Grace Priory holds space beautifully

This tree at Mount Grace Priory holds space beautifully

Recently I was talking with a friend and she used the term holding the space. I have heard it before, but this time it really struck me because it so closely expresses what I see as my role when Field of Merit is established as an actual place of retreat. My understanding is that holding the space means to create a space, a safe environment, both physically and spiritually, for another person, or oneself, to be fully present with whatever is arising in the moment.

It is about being present without judgment, giving your complete attention to the situation you are in, or the person you are with. You are in the mode of listening deeply and accepting all that appears in front of you. You are not trying to change or fix anything.

Holding the space requires one to embrace the silence, to drop from the head to the heart and know that there is something greater at work that you can trust to move you towards a more profound understanding and wise and appropriate action.

I very much look forward to creating and taking care of a place that will give people the safety and the space to fully enter into the experience of silent retreat in a quiet and natural environment where one can meditate, contemplate and reflect and deepen one’s practice.

The Year Ahead

Walking into the year ahead - leaving 2013 behind.

Walking into the year ahead – leaving 2013 behind.

It has taken me some time to adjust to the changing of the year. On one level moving from December 31st, 2013 to January 1st, 2014 is just the difference of one day. What’s to adjust to! However the turning of the year invariably brings up memories and events and feelings, and all the rest, from the previous year. Before you know it one’s whole life comes up for review. That’s how it has been for me these past few days. All in all not a bad thing.

I was talking to a woman yesterday on the ‘phone who is finding life difficult in the extreme. There is loneliness and loss of life’s purpose to mention just a couple of issues that are weighing her down. For anybody walking into a new year there can be a crushing sense of emptiness, a negative emptiness. When physically alone this feeling can be almost unbearable. Yet walk on we must whatever the level of emotional, and in my friend’s case, physical pain. We walk on, side by side, together and that’s a blessing.

I love this photograph of the monk bending into the snow. It was sent to me ten years ago just as I was about to fly to Edmonton Canada where I ended up living nine months later. Lots of walking into the gusting snow that winter and so much more besides. The image still speaks volumes and especially at this time of year. As you can see in the image I’ve posted, Rev. Alicia’s name is on my computer screen. We have just been typing back and forth in ‘real time’ as it is put. Using an online chat facility is brilliant on so many levels. It’s friendly, informal and in terms of dealing with business matters and checking one’s ideas back and forth one can move things along apace. And for me, living on my own as I do at the moment, having a brief interchange with Rev. Alicia is a boost on a cold dark evening. We continue to work together with me in a supporting kind of role. Very soon there will be news of a next step for the project.

Patience in the Face of Discomfort

Two days ago the weather was wild. A Met. Office Severe Weather warning had been issued and structural damage was expected over a huge swathe of Britain. At a critical moment the other morning it was clearly a time to decide to stay indoors, batten down the hatches and sit it out. But I was due to travel in an hour to stay with somebody for a couple of days. And I could hear the two people who had been with me already packing their car to return to Sussex. The wind was howling and the rain was horizontal! What to do? This was one of those moments when whichever way one turns there’s no easy solution. Plans can be changed, appointments rescheduled but on that wild morning my hand wouldn’t lift the phone to adjust plans and it was also clear my guests intended to travel, no matter what.

Dilemma is defined as being in a state of uncertainty or perplexity especially when requiring a choice between equally unfavourable options. It’s an uncomfortable place to be, knowing a move needs to be made but movement isn’t happening! With the added pressure of the severe weather and the danger it brings anxiety was running high. All the while the tiles on the roof rattled even louder! And then the phone rang. After a brief conversation about the weather the caller said softly, Gran died at 3.30 this morning. And with that piece of the jigsaw in place the picture changed completely, my hand reached for the telephone to cancel my trip and then I waved off the car bound for Sussex somehow confident that all would be well. And it was.

Being in a state of uncertainty and perplexity, can be an in-the-moment kind of thing as described above, or it can be an ongoing state lasting months or even years. Most often though life require that a step be taken and then be ready to adjust direction along the way.  Doing the right thing for the right reason is something we would all aspire to do I’m sure. However, as with my recent decision to step back from the Field of Merit project, one doesn’t always know what the reasons for one’s actions are in advance! One thing is for sure though. As with the weather so it is with our lives. It is simply not possible to know the complex web of factors that are exerting themselves at any one time. Just sometimes, perhaps more often that we think, it’s good to pause and wait a moment or a day, or longer, in uncomfortableness. A previously unknown factor might just show itself and the hand can move, and with greater dexterity.

This is not to advocate for procrastination, more for patience in the face of discomfort.

This post is for the woman who died early Thursday morning and for her granddaughter and family.

Caring – An Expression of Gratitude

Cyclamen

Cyclamen

A couple of relatives came for lunch last week and brought this beautiful flowering florist’s Cyclamen as a present. It will be a good companion for the Prayer Plant mentioned in a previous post. Each morning after I’ve celebrated morning service I draw the curtains and tend the plants that live by the window. Anybody who has plants knows that communing with them attentively is all part of their care. I approach them with an inquiring thought for their particular need of the moment. Perhaps a misting from a spray bottle for the Prayer Plant, which does well in a humid atmosphere, and a dribble of water on the soil for another. Not too much though, some plants can drown and die from too much water. The Cyclamen, I was instructed, must be watered from below so it can take up just as much water as it needs, its round tuber easily rots if watered from above. Apparently cyclamen will go dormant if the room rises over 20c. Thankfully there’s little chance it will rise that high.

It feels good to have plants around and to benefit from what they give. I expect there’s scientific knowledge regarding why this is so. I know already it’s beneficial to health to have plants around one’s work space, which invariably includes electronic equipment. But I’m thinking the benefit I derive is from the opportunity the plants give me, to give to them. To give them care and attention. Living things do not flourish and eventually die if they are not looked after properly. We are guardians to that which surrounds us are we not?

Not only living growing things suffer from our neglect of them. I’ve a couple of new books, hardback books, which came in the mail recently. Hardback books are the royalty of the bookcase and I can hardly remember having a new one. So I’ll be taking care of them covering them with brown paper as protection from the rigors of regular use. In all of this it’s important to walk the middle way since it is all too easy to overdo it with lavishing care and attention. As with plants and books so too with our fellow human beings! Too much attention is stifling, being neglectful of expressing love and compassion is saddening. However if our capacity to express gratitude has withered up we are traveling away from the heart of Buddhism.

There is a saying: If bowing lasts, Buddhism will last. At the heart of bowing is gratitude.

A Shepherd Hut

I have been out this morning to meet Paul at The Northumberland Shepherd Hut Co. I have been looking at shepherd huts online and thinking what a fabulous hermitage one of these huts would make. Paul’s huts are particularly beautiful, made with reclaimed wood and very solid. I think these huts are at the top end of the market, but as the workshop is only a one-hour drive from Throssel it was well worth going for a look-see.

Hut in Construction

Shepherd Hut in Construction

There are other shepherd hut companies around, many of them in the south-west, such as Dorset Shepherd Huts who do a self-build option starting at £4,100 + VAT which may be nearer what we might afford. You would need to add on the cost of a woodstove, a sink and 2-ring gas hob and a composting loo plus delivery charge for the whole kit.

Here’s another company that does a self-build option: Blackdown Shepherd Huts in Somerset.

And there are probably some second-hand shepherd huts for sale somewhere – has anybody seen one?