Bodhisattvas

Meme I put together using one of my own photos

Spurred by a practice I’m doing alongside an OI aspirant I have the pleasure of mentoring – which involves spending 2 weeks reflecting on each of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings –  and an idea my good friend Rhonda had, I came up with a creative way to work more deeply with the Five Bodhisattvas in our Plum Village practice tradition. It’s an experiment I’m choosing to call: Bodhisattva Reflection Practice Group.

I emailed a number of our regular sangha members with an overview of the set up – which largely takes place over email – asking for a full commitment to the schedule below, should folks be interested in joining the group. I also explained that in large part this practice would be self-driven. I don’t intend on checking up on anyone or sending out the schedule each week. I sent one email out and encouraged everyone to save it for ongoing reference, which included a PDF of the necessary text for all Five Bodhisattvas (link to online text is included below). Including myself, we are a lovely group of 8 :)

Here’s how it works:

SCHEDULE:

Monday March 4th: Read (& reflect on) Avalokiteshvara every day through Sunday.
Sunday March 10th: Send your answers to the three questions (see below) to EVERYONE on this email list.

Monday March 11th: Read (& reflect on) Manjushri every day through Sunday.
Sunday March 17th: Send your answers to the three questions to EVERYONE on this email list.

Monday March 18th: Read (& reflect on) Samantabhadra every day through Sunday.
Sunday March 24th: Send your answers to the three questions to EVERYONE on this email list.

Monday March 25th: Read (& reflect on) Ksitigarbha every day through Sunday.
Sunday March 31st: Send your answers to the three questions to EVERYONE on this email list.

Monday April 1st: Read (& reflect on) Sadaparibhuta every day through Sunday.
Sunday April 7th: IN PERSON GATHERING; answer the three questions and bring them with you to share.
Here are the three questions we will all be answering and emailing to the group each week (using the same questions each week):

 
THREE QUESTIONS:

1. How would you summarize this verse in your own words?

2. What do you see as being your own strengths and weaknesses in relation to the qualities of this Bodhisattva?

3. What is something you’ve gleaned by reflecting on this Bodhisattva this past week?

Bodhisattva literally means “enlightened being.” The Plum Village chant book defines it as such: One committed to enlightening oneself and others so that all may be liberated from suffering.

In our practice tradition, we are especially urged not to regard the Bodhisattva’s as external separate entities but more as qualities in which to actively cultivate within our own self, for the benefit of all beings. While the Bodhisattva’s are mentioned as actual human beings – and disciples of the Buddha – in the sutras, we are encouraged to see them as representing skill-sets and capabilities in which to hone and sharpen in our own life.

As we are amid week one in our reflection group, I’ll keep you posted as to my journaling on each of the Bodhisattvas, as well as my answers to the three questions.

If this arrangement goes well, I can see putting together other reflection group practices in the future. I really enjoy knowing that I’m practicing alongside my friends and that we can share what we’re working on with one another. We’re all in this together!

Stay tuned!

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On Authenticity

It’s worth starting out by saying that this post may be a little rough around the edges. You see, with my husband away on a 3-month retreat at Deer Park Monastery, I am missing my counterpart to talk through such Dharmic ponderings with. Sooo, I’m fixing on using this post as a stand-in :)

This morning, as part of a practice I call Mindful Morning Saturdays, I watched a portion of a Dharma talk by Sister Lang Nghiem, given recently at Plum Village centered around the 8th, 9th, and 10th Mindfulness Trainings. In it, she spoke about authenticity. She said: according to the Buddha, every moment, we are already our true self.

“Every moment, we are manifesting the totality of our self; the totality of our seeds; the sum of our habit energies. So there is no authentic self you need to be true to. Every moment, you are already your true self. This is a very important teaching to understand.” – Sister Lang Nghiem

My first reaction that popped up in the wake of her talking about how there isn’t really such a thing as authenticity, was: Oh, I super don’t agree with that. And as I talk regularly to myself, I even said it aloud. Of course there’s a difference between someone who is being authentic and someone who isn’t, I thought. You can always tell when someone is being real with you and when they’re not.

As she continued, I understood a little more about the teaching she was offering and it made a bit more sense. However, I was left wondering if perhaps there are two ways of addressing such a dynamic question as to whether authenticity exists: from the ultimate dimension perspective and from the historical dimension perspective.

Here’s what I’m thinking. From the lens of the ultimate dimension: yes, we are always manifesting who we are; we are authentic to who we are based on the fact that we are alive and a collection of causes, conditions, our ancestors, and our experiences. From the lens of the historical dimension: there are clearly more authentic people operating around us than others; those who have the ability to integrate their internal landscape with their external actions and speech and have them in alignment with each other.

In my google search for “authenticity images” I came across this:

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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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More On Why I Practice

Were it not for my engaged practice of mindfulness in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, I’d be flailing around like so many others I see, chasing after the next heightened experience; the next joint or drink; the next exciting romance or sexcapade; the next party or music festival or wild time – whatever it took to remind me that I was alive and everything didn’t suck.

An unchecked reality will do this. An untended to self-landscape will yield these results. A life unguided by ongoing skill-building and connection will amount to dis-ease and a never-quenched longing for something…more – or at the very least: something else.

Gratefully, I am afforded skills, tools, resources, encouragement, support, and teachers that show me how to take responsibility for my well-being; how to work with my mind; and how to actively cultivate present moment resting, grounding, and appreciating. With the practice, I am given the opportunity to learn how to stop seeking after transcendental moments, forever stuck in the false view that happiness equates to some kind of fantastical euphoria only possible in the some other realm of consciousness, or when I’ve found a way to magically start living without having to do such things as wash the dishes, take the trash out, pay the bills, and clean up the bodily functions of my aging cat (which when I’m lucky means the litter box).

The practice shows me how to be a human being and how to live life well. It teaches me how to not loathe Mondays; how not to live the whole of my week just looking forward to the weekends; how not to hinge my happiness on my next vacation or my next big accomplishment; how not to live in constant need of validation, praise, and acceptance from others. The practice gives me permission, over and over again, to step into and be just who I am, no strings attached.

If we don’t take it upon ourselves to learn how to be a human being amid both the complexities and ordinariness of daily life, we are bound to keep looking/searching/grasping/pleading for the next quick fix to elevate our gaze from the depravity we’ve created, only to discover that the quick fix merely serves to grow more pain.

To be clear, it’s not that there’s anything at all wrong with looking forward to such things as unearthing my motorcycle come springtime, for example. It’s a matter of learning how to be accepting and present with what’s going on in the here and now, with whatever it is that’s happening, at the same time.

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This morning, I watched part of a talk given by Sister Dieu Nghiem in late October at Plum Village as part of the 3-month winter retreat, where there was a focus on the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings.

Some notes I took from the Sister’s talk:

The Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings have to do with how we live our daily lives; how we live in the world; how we respond to issues and the world with our thinking, our attitude, and our view. These trainings help us to see very clearly the impact of our thinking, speaking, and actions on our environment, on the world, and on the way we live together.

The more I study these Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings the more my heart rejoices, because I see a way out. I see a way that can lead to healing and transformation – not just for myself but the whole of humanity, and that lifts my spirit and gives me a lot of joy.

The mindfulness trainings give us an ethical way of life. Every training uses an ethical action based on non-duality; that happiness is not an individual matter. (She explains that an ethical action is one that benefits everyone.)

Thay says that the practice is not just to lead us to live mindfully but also to live joyfully.

I really enjoyed the portion of the talk I listened to. The Sister explains beautifully what this path of practice is all about.

Here is the talk, if you’re interested:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e4z-jnnpLVQ&index=27&list=WL&t=1766s

 

I WAS Built for Routine

I just came across this meme on Twitter. Gosh, I just love following Tiny Buddha.

With this quote, however, I was left thinking: Yes! I totally agree…except for the first part about not being built for routine.

Routine works super well for me. I am an extremely regimented person and find great comfort, support, and nourishment in upholding my daily habits, schedule, and regular constitutions.

Last weekend, I was watching a Dharma talk on Youtube given by Sister Tu Nghiem in the Plum Village tradition. She said:

“The lifestyle that Thay created for us at Plum Village involves balancing four aspects of our daily life: mindfulness practices, study, service to the community, and play – and I’ve added relaxation, and maybe that’s a way of playing also.”

She said that following a schedule gives them solidity and that by living with this balance they have more inner peace and freedom from stress and worry. She then referenced a Brother’s recent metaphor of how their schedule is like the spinal column – it’s the backbone providing stability and yet it is also flexible. Changes happen. And yet when changes happen, everything is held together.

I resonate very much with what she shared. Personally, I’ve experienced a number of people who seem terribly resistant to developing routines and schedules. It tends to be that these people also have trouble committing to making plans and confirming their attendance at events and gatherings. Often, they also have a habit of being chronically late to things that have a set start time. I think there are a few factors at play here. One being that they’ve deemed it uncool and/or lame to set up and maintain a schedule – and partly this is due to a perpetual immaturity that pervades our western societal landscape.

This isn’t to say everyone is built for routines and schedules and should get on board with such things. Different things work for different people and this is super important to keep in mind. There’s no one mold that works for all of us – and thank goodness for that!

I think what makes the above meme a little bit troublesome is that it implies there isn’t a way to have both realities happen simultaneously: one that involves routine AND one that involves skinny dipping and sleeping under the stars and 2am conversations that shatter your walls.

This meme is also a little judgy. There’s a subtle biting undertone to it. One can have a routine and also not be into trite conversations or working in an office. One can work in an office and sleep under the stars. And there’s nothing wrong with being content whilst working in a building. There’s all sorts of mix and match ways we can be content in this one splendid life we’ve been given. There’s no one rule book to follow that results in a happy life.

And if we’re not into fake smiles and surface small talk, that’s cool. If it’s something we’re bothered by and find to be a standard mode of operation then we have the opportunity (and responsibility) to affect change and do something about it.

I think this meme, while well intended, misses the mark and potentially waters the seed of cynicism in an already quite cynical counter culture. Because the thing is, stuffy buildings and fake smiles and routines are real. They are part of life. And ultimately, there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of those things.

With our thoughts we make the world, and these we have the power to change at any time. It’s not what’s happening around us that causes our dissatisfaction, it’s how we regard it and relate to it.

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.