Right &…Regular? (part 2 of 2)

Image credit: I copied this from a talk I watched on Youtube by Sister Dieu Nghiem; she included this chart on a whiteboard. 

In continuance of the thread I started in part 1 of this post topic, I wanted to share a little bit more about right and regular.

Sister Dieu Nghiem mapped out this chart (image above) in a talk she gave back in October at Plum Village. Simply put, this chart represents the equation of what it means to have and develop right diligence. Right diligence involves: not watering the unwholesome seeds that lie in our consciousness, stopping to water the unwholesome seeds once they rise up and become a mental formation (or active state of mind), watering the wholesome seeds that lie in our consciousness, and continuing to water the wholesome seeds once they rise up and become a mental formation.

So, what then is regular diligence? Let’s say that someone has been meditating for a long time – we’ll say 5 years. And for those 5 years, they’ve been sitting every single day in the morning for 20-minutes. This equates to this person having sat a total of 36,500 minutes in meditation. However, despite the fact that they’ve been diligent in sitting every day for 20-minutes, they don’t really feel as though they’ve benefited very much at all from their practice (and neither do their loved ones, by the way). They are still just as restless, agitated, stressed out, overwhelmed at work, and short-tempered with their partner as they were when they were driven to starting a daily habit of meditation in the first place, 5 years ago. Yes, this person has been diligent in sitting but we couldn’t – and shouldn’t – consider this to be right diligence because it hasn’t increased this person’s ability to transform and heal.

As a recap from part 1: I recently watched a talk by Sister Dieu Nghiem on Youtube and she described wholesome habit energies as leading us in the direction of transformation and healing and unwholesome habit energies as that which leads us in the direction of suffering. And I think this explanation applies here, with the word wholesome equating to the word right. So we could say that right stands in accordance with a thought/word/action that propels us in the direction of transformation and healing.

In the Discourse on Youth and Happiness, it states:

Beings produce wrong perceptions concerning objects of desire. That is why they are caught in desire. Because they do not know what desire really is.

For our purposes here, I would translate this as there being an important difference between regular desire and right desire. In consulting with my old pal dictionary.com, desire is defined as such: to wish or long for; crave; want. In our current and modern time, I would define regular desire as incorporating the energetic components of craving, grasping, and attachment and right desire as incorporating such things as being realistically driven by determined will and being governed and propelled into action by a sovereign foundation rooted in solidity and ease. I regard right desire as enfolding the premise of what this meme offers, which I recently shared in a post a few days ago and is serving as my newly held encouraging anthem:

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Right &…Regular? (part 1 of 2)

Lately, I’ve been Dharmically churning around the usage of the word right, as it pertains to the Eightfold Path and also the nature of our Buddhist practice based teachings in general. The Eightfold Path (listed in the image above) consists of: Right View, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.

But this word right can also apply to other facets of our practice as well – and simply life in general. I am coming to understand more and more how necessary it is to discern the differences between, for instance, such things as: desire & right desire; joyfulness & right joyfulness; individuality & right individuality; generosity & right generosity; technology & right technology; media & right media; friendships & right friendships; sexuality & right sexuality; and even practice & right practice.

First thing’s first, though. We must come to properly understand what the word right means and refers to, as our western minds often automatically insert the word wrong to counterbalance the inclusion of the word right, which is not only the improper conclusion to draw but also a potentially detrimental and harmful one at that. When we get caught up in the right & wrong game, it rarely – if ever – benefits our situation.

Let’s say we keep the word right in the mix, which honestly I’m wondering if that’s the most helpful thing to do when offering these teachings to our new and budding generation of young mindfulness practitioners. But let’s say we keep it in active use. What does right in this context of practice mean? Right for what? I recently watched a talk by Sister Dieu Nghiem on Youtube and she described wholesome habit energies as leading us in the direction of transformation and healing and unwholesome habit energies as that which leads us in the direction of suffering. And I think this explanation applies here, with the word wholesome equating to the word right. So we could say that right stands in accordance with a thought/word/action that propels us in the direction of transformation and healing.

But if we keep the word right, what do we call its counterpart? What do we call it when we’re moving in the direction that leads us towards creating and causing more suffering, for our self and/or others? Using the words right and unwholesome doesn’t seem quite fitting. What about right and regular? I’m not sure this is quite the ticket either, though I do feel it’s getting much closer to a more approachable and less misunderstood way of fleshing out these teachings.

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Gosh it’s easy to misunderstand things

This morning, while reading the Discourse on Happiness from our Plum Village chanting book, it clicked. After reading the second sentence: “Late at night, a deva appeared whose light and beauty made the whole Jeta Grove shine radiantly,” I came to understand what Brother Phap De meant two years ago when I was at Deer Park.

He had just finished leading us in stick exercises one morning before breakfast when he asked us, in a light and friendly tone of voice: “Who was that diva dancing the polka in the parking lot yesterday? I think they should lead us all in a dance session!”

In that moment, my internal dialog went something like this: Oh man. That was me. I didn’t really think others were watching. Do I have to declare myself now in front of all these people?! I mean, I really REALLY do not want to lead a dance session, that’s for sure.

I sheepishly raised my hand, indicating that the diva he was inquiring about was me. Then, I raced the heck out of there and headed to breakfast.

Later, I pondered the terminology he has used: diva dancing the polka and felt a mixture of confusion (as I didn’t know exactly what the polka entailed but I was certain I wasn’t doing it), slight embarrassment, and feeling affronted. Did he call me a diva? I thought to myself on many occasions after that. I’m not sure I like that term. No, I KNOW I don’t like that term. Is that how others see me?! Oh dear.

Up until this morning, I thought he meant diva (with an i), as in someone who is a prima donna, as my paperback Webster’s defines it. (Then I looked up “prima donna” to make sure I understood that word correctly – which is listed as: an extremely sensitive, vain, or undisciplined person.) But now I realize he probably meant deva (with an e!), which is described as a Celestial being or angel in the glossary in the back of our chanting book.

Upon making this discovery this morning, my internal dialog went something like this:

This changes everything!

Whew!

Thank goodness!

Brother Phap De

I’ve read the Discourse on Happiness a handful of times since Brother Phap De declared me the deva dancing the polka. But it wasn’t until just this morning that this insight arose, allowing for me to move into proper understanding.

The human experience is so incredibly fascinating, from a self-observation standpoint especially.

While it’s not worth giving it too much thought, I wonder: What changed? What allowed me to make this connection TODAY vs. some other day? I mean, I haven’t consciously thought about this instance with Brother Phap De in a long long time.

One of the guiding life sayings that I like to tell myself often is: Sometimes you don’t get to know why. Translation: This is a moment you would do well to practice just going with the flow of the river of life experience, Nicole. Stop trying to analyze things or come to some sort of neat conclusion that can fit in well with how you view the world, it’s a waste of time and energy.

Over the years since this encounter, even though I wasn’t a fan of being called a diva (with an i), I have dearly cherished this moment between us. He was genuinely interested in knowing who it had been that he had seen down in the parking lot. It was clear to me that he had been delighted in their joyful offering. And while I was mildly embarrassed that someone – especially a monk – had seen me dancing, I was also put at ease that he was able to sense my heartfelt enjoyment of dancing and appreciate it for what it was, vs. perhaps deeming it an inappropriate activity to do at a monastery (which was a back-of-the-mind concern of mine). And he was apparently so taken with my dancing that he even wanted me to instruct and lead others!

Brother Phap De passed away at age 82 (I think) in August of 2016. If memory serves, he made the “deva dancing the polka” comment in January of that same year, when Mike and I were there on retreat. It was an honor and privilege to get to know and spend time with Brother Phap De over the years that Mike and I have been visiting Deer Park, before he passed away. When I do stick exercises – which typically amounts to once a week – I think of him every time, as he was the one who would always lead them at Deer Park. Randomly during his instructions, he would prompt us all to smile – and when I lead them on our local retreats or at other times, I continue his memory and remind people of the same thing.

At the end of my stick exercise session each week, I do two standing bows in closing. The first bow is in dedication of Brother Phap De. And the second is in gratitude for the stick I use.

In conclusion:

Gosh it sure is easy to misunderstand things.

Now that I know what Brother Phap De actually meant, I am even more nourished from this encounter we shared. And now that I have been afforded the great gift of insight, it will allow me to carry forward this memory with more clarity, understanding, ease, and joy.

Sometimes – maybe even all the time – more understanding equates to more freedom. Freedom from what? you might wonder. To which the teachings in our tradition would say: Freedom from illusory notions and false views, which is ultimately what all of our suffering (large, small, or tiny) can be attributed to on a foundational level.

To read more about Brother Phap De’s life story, click here.

 

Looks ARE Deceiving

We can never know what’s going on for someone else.

I was at the Tuscon airport a couple of days ago, preparing to fly back home here to Montana. I sat down at the terminal, in close enough proximity to a woman who’s cell phone conversation I could hear very readily. She was an attractive woman. Shoulder-length blonde hair, middle-aged. She was sitting at the electronic port station situated in front of a large window overlooking the tarmac. Although there was little I could do not to overhear her conversation, I felt badly for eavesdropping, so I quickened my pace in getting the music going on my iPod. In the meantime, however, I learned that she was leaving her 20-something-year-old son behind, to return back home, after situating him into a rehab. He was not at all well – detoxing, incoherent, unable to care for himself. His girlfriend would be not be allowing him to move back in when he got out. And there was a real possibility, and seemingly well-grounded motherly consideration, that he wasn’t done yet “out there,” using. It was hard for her to leave. But she seemed sturdy in her composure and confident in the decisions she’d made.

In looking at her I never would’ve thought to myself: I bet her son is going through a ravaging, brutal detox right now. I bet she just spent the last few days forcing him into rehab against his will and supporting him at his bedside as he went in and out of consciousness. And I bet she feels hopeful/broken about the whole messy situation.

And it’s like this with everyone we meet. We see someone, whether a stranger or even a loved one, and think we have them all figured out. And we totally don’t. We have no idea what’s going on for someone else.

I wonder why it’s so common for us to think we’re experts when it comes to other people. When we attach ourselves too strongly to our perceptions, it’s a recipe for creating separation and misunderstanding. As Thay teaches: 99% of our perceptions are incorrect. And ultimately it’s our mis-perceptions about ourselves, others, and life itself that causes the greatest amount of our suffering.

Today: I will practice to look beyond the surface, in order to connect and engage with others in a way that opens and extends my understanding and compassion.

 

Perspective

quotes-about-perception

It’s funny how wildly different one person’s idea of a bad day can be from another’s. And by “funny” I mean tragic.

This morning I read a short travel story entitled: The Flight from Hell, amid a collection in the book I’m currently reading. It would take a pile of harrowing and painful occurrences for me to even consider branding a travel experience with that honorific stamp. I’m pretty sure those hanging oxygen bags said to drop down in the event the cabin loses air pressure would need to be deployed. It might even take an unscheduled water landing for me to start pondering the merits of later telling my friends and family that I had, in fact, had the “flight from hell.”

I can only assume that the fellow who penned the story had lived a charmed life before his fateful trip from Jamaica to L.A. And perhaps his perspective had been so incredibly skewed by having never encountered real suffering that he simply had no frame of reference. I kept waiting for the hellish part to present itself. Then the story ended, leaving me still waiting. His idea of a “flight from hell” was basically the equivalent of a minor paper cut.

I’m hoping that upon discovering that his travel story is sandwiched in-between accounts of other writers having been ping-ponged over middle-eastern borders and arrested promptly in each new country, swarmed by army ants and hand-sized tarantulas falling from the ceiling, stranded at sea off the Java coast surrounded by vomit, and rafting down a river full of sewage he came to realize that his “flight from hell”, which literally amounted to sitting on the tarmac for 90 minutes at LAX and then having to wait 10 minutes for his luggage to arrive, sorta paled in comparison.

Podcast

tell2

In case anyone is interested in checking it out here’s a link to a podcast that was just uploaded today from a local story telling event I participated in over the summer.  I told a story from the 21-day retreat I attended last year in Plum Village Monastery in southern France (the same retreat that sparked my starting this blog).  The story telling event is called Tell Us Something and they’re put together quarterly here in town.  Each one has a different theme and all stories have to be true accounts.  The theme for my story telling event was Perception.

My story is called: The Zen Master and the Toy Bird.  Listen to it at the link below:

http://www.tellussomething.org/podcast/

The Zen Master and the Toy Bird

2013TUS_WebsiteEarlier tonight I participated in a local story telling event called Tell Us Something that is put together every few months here in town.  Anyone is welcome to tell a story and basically all you have to do is email the folks who put these gatherings together beforehand and ask to be signed up.  There’s no auditioning and the only requirements are that it has to be a true personal story and when you perform your piece you can’t have any notes with you.  Each event also has a theme for which your story must be based on and tonight’s was Perception – a great buddhist topic eh?

By sheer happenstance I wound up being the only female signed up to go on stage tonight to tell a story.  The venue was at a local bar that had been recently renovated called the Top Hat and the place was packed when I arrived.  I was pretty nervous and while I had questioned whether having friends there would be supportive or cause me to be more nervous I did let some folks know about it and announced it at my sangha last night.  A nice showing of sangha friends came out for which I was very grateful for.  There were 12 of us story tellers that went on tonight and we were each given 10 minutes to fill.  The host sets up a count down timer and then sounds a small gong at the 9-minute mark to indicate that you need to wrap your story up and he had to go on stage once to get a story teller off the mic who just kept rambling long after the gong was sounded.  But other than that everyone pretty much kept at or around 10 minutes, although for some it was harder to do than others.

I’m not a natural story teller.  But over the last couple of years or so I’ve been actively and intentionally working on creatively sharing with others.  I play music and sing and I do some spoken word as well.  And of course I love to write.  I’ve been skillfully pushing myself towards sharing more and more and working on letting go of my shyness and fear around doing so.  It’s been a wonderful process.  So this story telling adventure tonight was another big beautiful step in the direction of getting out of my comfort zone and sharing creatively with others.

Lotus flower in New Hamlet

Lotus flower in New Hamlet, Plum Village

The story I worked up was an experience I had from the 21-day retreat at Plum Village that my husband and I attended last summer (which is what originally kicked off my starting this blog).  After some microphone adjustments were made, due to my small 5’2″ height in comparison to all of the tall dudes that went before me, here’s the story that I shared about perception:

So, I am what you might call a buddhist practitioner and in our tradition we have a saying that goes: Where there is perception, there is deception, and along those lines I have this little story to offer.

Last year my husband and I had the wonderful opportunity to attend a 21-day meditation retreat at our root monastery in the south of France called Plum Village which is also where our root teacher resides, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, who’s often referred to as Thay by his students.  And Thay means teacher in Vietnamese. Thay is a Vietnamese buddhist monk who has written many, many books and hundreds of poems and has led, and continues to lead, retreats all over the world.  So my husband and I went to this retreat and stayed in Plum Village and it was our first trip overseas.  And Plum Village is also home to many monks and nuns in our tradition and serves as a practice center for lay people as well, meaning folks who aren’t monks and nuns, with retreats and events led throughout the year in many different languages.  Now, Plum Village is set up into three main hamlets, upper, lower and new hamlet and they are all on different tracts of land that aren’t connected.  So upper and lower hamlet are a 45 minute walk apart and new hamlet was a 20 minute bus ride away.  This particular retreat attracted around 800 people from all over the world and we were divided up among these hamlets for our lodging.

On one particular day towards the end of the retreat we had a celebration day and we were celebrating the 30 year anniversary of Plum Village.  So all of us in lower and upper hamlets were bused to new hamlet where Thay gave a teaching, called a dharma talk, and then afterwards we had the opportunity to do some outdoor walking meditation, which is very slow and held in silence.  And we went around the pond at new hamlet where the first lotus flowers of the season were in bloom, which were quite spectacular.  After the walk we had lunch and then the celebratory event was held in which there was a gallery exhibit set up and some wonderful artisan cupcakes, which I assumed came from a local parisian bakery because of how fine crafted and intricate they were.  And then there were these performances that were put together by some of the monastics.

So as the performances were getting ready I grabbed a seat on the grass, as it was an outdoor venue, by these cool, old stone buddha statues.  And as everyone started sitting down my new friend and one of my roommates Clara, from the Netherlands, came to sit with me.  And she and I wound up with not only a great vantage point of the performance area but also of Thay who was seated not far from us in the grass (facing to our right side) and most of the retreatants were sitting or standing behind him.  And to see Thay so closely was a treat because to me one of the marks of a truly wonderful and wise teacher is one who is always teaching with their presence and doesn’t need to be saying anything.  To simply watch him interact with his environment and the way he sits and moves is so beautiful to see so it was a gift to have such a clear, unobstructed sight of him, which wasn’t often easy to have during the course of the retreat with so many others around.

The first performance offered was given by some of the nuns who were acting out one of Thay’s poems that he had written.  And over their monastic robes they had adorned them with other fabrics and feathers and some were dressed as trees and others as birds.  As they acted out this poem so sweetly and gracefully over the speakers that had been set up came this nice, melodic, soft sounding oriental type of music.  And once in a while over the music came this shrill bird call that drifted in at very odd seemingly displaced times.  At first I thought to myself, “Hmmm, that’s a strange noise,” and then I let it go.  But as it kept happening I started getting irritated with it and formed this inner dialogue with myself saying things like, “Didn’t they do a run through of this before the performance to know that that noise doesn’t sound good,” and , “Why don’t they stop doing that, it’s just awful!”

After a few minutes of mild irritation and distraction by this bird call my friend Clara nudges me and says, “Thay’s making that noise.”  And I turned to her with a puzzled expression wondering what the heck she was talking about and she continued, “That bird noise, that’s Thay!”  And I thought to myself, “How in the world could he be making that noise?  It doesn’t make any sense.”  Then she whispered, “Watch him.”  So I turn my attention to him wondering what in the world I was looking for and after a couple of minutes I see him reach down to this little toy bird sitting in the grass beside him that was set up next to a microphone.  Then Thay patted the bird and out came the bird call over the speakers.  And on his face alighted this beautiful, sweet smile and from it I got such a sense of joy and ease and lightness and also a hint of mischief, that a Zen Master can sometimes have, as if to say, “Ha ha, no one knows I’m making this bird noise.”  And in that moment my relationship to this bird call changed right away, like the flip of a switch and I went from being irritated and distracted to encountering this deep teaching.  Right then I became aware of how distracted I had allowed myself to get, because I wasn’t aware of that at the time.  Here I was on a bright sunny blue June day in the freakin’ south of France at this monastery with a Zen Master sitting just 30 feet away and I was allowing a bird call, of all things, to carry me away from the present moment.

This was a deep teaching and one that I hope to continue to carry with me moment by moment into the future as I continue on my path of practice.  Because when I stop and take the time to look deeply I see how often I think I have everything figured out – I know why this person is doing that and why this situation is going like that and I think I have it all figured out when I really have no idea.  Thay is fond of saying that 99% of our perceptions are incorrect and that figure is so astronomical to me that I can’t quite wrap my brain around it but I’m working on it.  Because again, when I take the time to look deeply I can start to understand how often I create my own suffering based on my perceptions and how intertwined perception and deception really are – they go together and much like the in-breath and the out-breath cannot be separated.

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A picture of Thay I found online