Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Meditation 101 (Part 2)

Peace Is Every Step is a favorite book for many people, and for good reason. The tone is caring and gentle, as if Thầy is speaking with us quietly, rather than delivering a lecture or “teaching”; and he seems to be wearing a half smile (or full smile) the whole time.

In this book, before he even brings up the topic of meditation, he talks about breathing.

Conscious Breathing

There are a number of breathing techniques you can use to make life vivid and more enjoyable. The first exercise is very simple. As you breathe in, you say to yourself, “Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in.” And as you breathe out, say, “Breathing out, I know that I am breathing out.” Just that. You recognize your in-breath as an in-breath and your out-breath as an out-breath. You don’t even need to recite the whole sentence; you can use just two words: “In” and “Out.” This technique can help you to keep your mind on your breath. As you practice, your breath will become peaceful and gentle, and your mind and body will also become peaceful and gentle. This is not a difficult exercise. In just a few minutes you can realize the fruit of meditation.

Then he goes on, with one of the most delightful segueways in literature:

Breathing in and out is very important, and it is enjoyable.

Yes, important! And enjoyable, when done mindfully.

Our breathing is the link between our body and our mind. Sometimes our mind is thinking of one thing and our body is doing another, and mind and body are not unified. By concentrating on our breathing, “In” and “Out,” we bring body and mind back together, and become whole again. Conscious breathing is an important bridge.

To me, breathing is a joy that I cannot miss. Every day, I practice conscious breathing, and in my small meditation room, I have calligraphed this sentence: “Breathe, you are alive!” Just breathing and smiling can make us very happy, because when we breathe consciously we recover ourselves completely and encounter life in the present moment. (pp. 8-9)

breathe you are alive

Here is another exercise, based on a familiar gatha.

There are so many exercises we can do to help us breathe consciously. Besides the simple “In-Out” exercise, we can recite these four lines silently as we breathe in and out:

Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment,
I know this is a wonderful moment!

“Breathing in, I calm my body.” Reciting this line is like drinking a glass of cool lemonade on a hot day – you can feel the coolness permeate your body. When I breathe in and recite this line, I actually feel my breath calming my body and mind.

“Breathing out, I smile.” You know a smile can relax hundreds of muscles in your face. Wearing a smile on your face is a sign that you are master of yourself.

“Dwelling in the present moment.” While I sit here, I don’t think of anything else. I sit here, and I know exactly where I am.

“I know this is a wonderful moment.” It is a joy to sit, stable and at ease, and return to our breathing, our smiling, our true nature. Our appointment with life is in the present moment. If we do not have peace and joy right now, when will we have peace and joy – tomorrow, or after tomorrow? What is preventing us from being happy right now? As we follow our breathing, we can say, simply, “Calming, Smiling, Present moment, Wonderful moment.”

This exercise is not just for beginners. Many of us who have practiced meditation and conscious breathing for forty or fifty years continue to practice in this same way, because this kind of exercise is so important and so easy. (pp. 10-11)

Dhyana Buddha Ming Freer Gallery

“Dhjana Buddha,” 1368-1644, Ming Dynasty, China. Freer Gallery of Art (A Smithsonian Museum)

Friday, May 21, 2010

my dreams, my works, must wait till after hell

For Friday, a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks, 1917 -2000.

my dreams, my works, must wait till after hell

I hold my honey and I store my bread
In little jars and cabinets of my will.
I label clearly, and each latch and lid
I bid, Be firm till I return from hell.
I am very hungry. I am incomplete.
And none can give me any word but Wait,
The puny light. I keep my eyes pointed in;
Hoping that, when the devil days of my hurt
Drag out to their last dregs and I resume
On such legs as are left me, in such heart
As I can manage, remember to go home,
My taste will not have turned insensitive
To honey and bread old purity could love.

I've loved this poem for many years. I can remember times when the sentiment fit my situation exactly. Many devil days of hurt, wandering the hell realm, not sure what "home" to go to.

I particularly like the lines, "And none can give me any word but Wait, /The puny light." I've always envisioned one of those walk-wait pedestrian cross signals, which are hard to find in New York anymore. They have all been replaced with extremely bright halogen signals with pictographs, which can be seen clearly from five blocks away. I suppose in a pea-soup fog or a blizzard of the century, I'll be glad for their voluminocity.

But back to Brooks's puny light. I love the disgust and impatience that word "puny" conveys. Such a light is no light at all, nearly darkening one's path rather than illuminating it. And yet she feels she must obey. Wait. Your turn for happiness will come. For now, wait.

A hungry ghost, aware that she is hungry, aware that this is the hell realm. But able to glimpse other realms.

In other words, a practitioner.


Gwendolyn Brooks, “my dreams, my works, must wait till after hell” from Selected Poems. Copyright © 1963 by Gwendolyn Brooks. Reprinted with the permission of the Estate of Gwendolyn Brooks.

Figure: 1950s vintage "Streamline" pedestrian WAIT - WALK signal;

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Meditation 101 (Part 1)

This past weekend I participated in a sangha facilitator orientation. Some day in the future, I will serve as a co-facilitator, and then as a solo facilitator. This is something which causes a lot of anxiety to arise, as well as gratitude for the opportunity to serve in this way.

One of the points stressed was that a facilitator should be prepared to give brief meditation instructions, and that these instructions should be Thich Nhất Hạnh’s instructions, not other teachers’. I realized that in my own meditation practice, I do draw on many different sources, some of which I can’t identify anymore. I need to get clearer again on what Thầy’s tradition teaches.

So I went back to Thầy’s books. He is in fact very consistent in his guidance about how and why to meditate. He is also consistent in instructing us to maintain mindfulness of our breath, our body, our thoughts and feelings and mind, throughout the day, no matter what we are doing. But for now, I want to focus on silent seated meditation. Over the next weeks, I will post pertinent passages from different books.

These excerpts are from The Miracle of Mindfulness.

How to meditate:

Zen master Doc The says that when sitting in meditation, one should sit upright, giving birth to this thought, “Sitting here is like sitting on the Bodhi spot.” (p. 13)

The instant you sit down to meditate, begin watching your breath. At first breathe normally, gradually letting your breathing slow down until it is quiet, even, and the lengths of the breaths are fairly long. From the moment you sit down to the moment your breathing has become deep and silent, be conscious of everything that is happening in yourself. (p. 20)

Now begin to follow your breath and to relax all of your muscles. Concentrate on keeping your spinal column straight and on following your breath. As for everything else, let it go. Let go of everything. If you want to relax the worry-tightened muscles in your face, let the half smile come to your face. As the half smile appears, all the facial muscles begin to relax. …

Place your left hand, palm side up, in your right palm. let all the muscles in your hands, fingers, arm, and legs relax. Let go of everything. Be like the waterplants which flow with the current, while beneath the surface of the water the riverbed remains motionless. Hold on to nothing but your breath and the half smile. (p. 34-35)

During meditation, various feelings and thoughts may arise. If you don’t practice mindfulness of the breath, these thoughts will soon lure you away from mindfulness. But the breath isn’t simply a means by which to chase away such thoughts and feelings. Breath remains the vehicle to unite body and mind and to open the gate to wisdom. … Simply acknowledge [the] presence [of thoughts and feelings]. …

If there are no feelings or thoughts present, then recognize that there are no feelings or thoughts present. (p. 38)

Why meditate:

Why should you meditate? First of all, because each of us needs to realize total rest. (p. 33)

…While relaxation is the necessary point of departure, once one has realized relaxation, it is possible to realize a tranquil heart and clear mind. To realize a tranquil heart and clear mind is to have gone far along the path of meditation. (p. 37)

Thầy gives instruction as well in following the breath by counting out the length of the in-breath and the length of the out-breath. He also teaches the technique of counting "one" for an in-breath, "one" for an out-breath, then "two" for an in-breath and "two" for an out-breath, and so on up to "ten."

In addition, he quotes or paraphrases “The Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing” quite a bit. These sections are too long to excerpt, but the techniques are certainly central to Thầy's teaching. Especially “The Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing,” which is presented in wonderfully helpful detail in Breathe! You Are Alive. He refers to "The Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness" as well, which he investigates in Transformation and Healing. But you don't need to have read those books to make good use of the instruction he gives in this book.

There is one instruction which I didn’t include above, as I find it personally too unsettling to practice with. He suggests imagining yourself as a pebble effortlessly falling through water to the undisturbed streambed below. Finally your mind and body are at rest, like the pebble resting in the sand. When I have tried to use this image, I end up feeling breathless and having to stop. Unlike a pebble, I have to breathe, and I can’t breathe while under water. I prefer the image he uses of a glass of cloudy apple juice, in which the pulp slowly settles until the juice is clear. I think he writes of that in The Sun My Heart.

The Miracle of Mindfulness was the first book by Thich Nhất Hạnh that I read and owned. I believe that I bought it in my college bookstore, back in the early 1980s. I returned to that same copy over the ensuing decades. I don’t have that copy anymore; I lent it to someone whom I never run into anymore. It’s hers now; I have bought a new copy for myself, which I would be happy to give away if someone seemed to be in great need of it.

Friday, May 7, 2010

A Dharma Garden

An old friend of mine named Bluie Piel, then in her seventies, once led me out the front door of her house to admire her half-shaded lawn, where grass was fighting it out with slabs of New England granite that broke the surface like the backs of half-submerged whales. It was spring, and drifts of self-sown blue scilla were all over the grass, blending exquisitely with the clumps of red-and-yellow wild columbine that had also self-sown there, taking hold even in tiny soil pockets in the rocks. It looked like a miniature alpine meadow, Connecticut-style. “Now, dearie,” Bluie said, “God didn’t do that. I did that.”

-- Barbara Damrosch, The Garden Primer, from chapter on “Wildflowers”

In each of us, there is that capacity to recognize what is good, what is beautiful, what is true. ... Our person is like a garden, filled with many flowering plants. But in the garden there are things other than flowers and plants. If we neglect the garden, it will be overrun with weeds, and our flowers will wither and die.

-- TNH, Shambhala Sun, September 2007

[Click on any image for a gorgeous magnified view.]

tripetal 1

Thầy refers to gardens a lot. Seeds, watering, roses, lettuce, weeds, compost. I find it to be a helpful and encouraging metaphor, inherently alive. Even in trying to characterize the trope, I end up using it: organic, earthy, down-to-earth, vital. I like to garden, so hearing the dharma taught through gardening concepts feels good to me.

However, I admit to some ambivalence about the idea of gardening. A garden is not the same thing as nature. A garden is nature under management. If you leave a garden to follow its natural tendencies, pretty soon you won’t have a garden. You’ll have a natural mess.

In that case, what role should equanimity play? Doesn’t tending a garden tend to water seeds of discrimination?


I know it does in me. My discrimination about plants gets keener and keener. Not just discrimination between weeds and cultivars. I am developing strong preferences about all kinds of plants.

I like columbine, but not phlox. I like native geranium, but not lily of the valley. I like clematis, but not honeysuckle. (Or, maybe in your garden, but not in mine, not in the profusion it tends toward.)


I like campanula (bellflower) but not grape hyacinth. I like hollyhocks, but not double hollyhocks. (I don’t like “double” anything. Old-fashioned single will do.) I like lamium (dead nettle) but not hosta. I really don’t like hosta, to the point that whenever I see it, there is the mental commentary: “I don’t like hosta. Don’t care for it at all.”

The list goes on and on. A lot of these preferences are clear instances of useless discrimination.


However, some of the discrimination can be described as the watering of positive seeds. Good gardening is, literally, the cultivation of causes and conditions that will allow what is good, beautiful, and true to manifest. That means supplementing the soil with compost, generated from our own garden and kitchen scraps. Loosening the soil so that water and air can penetrate. Replacing the clay, bit by bit, with humus, sand, and fresh soil. Mounting lattice so that plants that need shade get a bit of shade. Watering when the sky is dry.

Cultivating the right causes and conditions means choosing plants that will thrive in the conditions of my garden that can’t be changed. Accepting that hollyhock and muskmallow will not be happy in my garden’s humidity. Working with the condition of “full sun” as it manifests in my garden in August, which is better described as “equatorial desert.” Allowing my fellow denizens, the squirrels and occasional possum and raccoon, to steal the strawberries just as they ripen. Equanimity about the strawberries allows me to see the beauty in their immature, lumpy, bristly form.


Does an unripe strawberry have buddha-nature?


The thing about gardening is that it reminds me of what Suzuki Roshi reportedly said about his students: “All of you are perfect just as you are and you could use a little improvement.” Everything is unfolding just as it should (or must, due to past actions) and don’t neglect the weeding. You are luminous and you must practice with diligence.


Let’s close with a gatha from Thầy.

Watering the Garden

The sunshine and the water
have brought about this luxurious vegetation.
The rain of compassion and understanding
can transform the dry desert into a vast fertile plain.