Friday, May 27, 2016

TONGLEN

After yesterday's jeremiad about the dire situation in which we find ourselves in this country and the world, I felt the need for a purge. My sit this morning was dedicated to what is admittedly my own version of the practice of taking and sending--a practice that Tibetan Buddhists call tonglen.

The first step is to send myself loving-kindness. To do that, I must locate every place in the body where I'm holding anger, fear, envy, judgment, every negative emotion: I find it in the heart, of course, mainly, but also in the head, in the belly, in the arms--and the fists! That done, using the breath as my guide and my precision instrument, I work intentionally to let go of each of these negative emotions and suffuse the space instead with loving-kindness. It's a great cleansing and lightening process.

It is only once having fulfilled this act of conversion and arrived at a state of goodwill toward myself that I am in a position to follow the same procedure for others. How can I give what I myself do not have? Then I start with the image of one particular person whom I know to be suffering in some way: from illness or grief, from anger, envy or fear... and form a conscious image of whatever it is might be causing their pain. Next, I breathe in ("take") the other person's suffering. It can help to envision it physically, as a stream of black smoke, say, or a dark cloud. Then, having taken in the toxin with the inbreath, I work--again with as much consciousness as I can muster--to overwhelm it with the loving-kindness I have found in myself and return ("send") it with the outbreath to the person from whom I received it.

I'm now in a position to broaden my horizon. I can repeat the procedure with a person whom I judge to be causing great harm in the world--say, for the sake of argument, a President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, whose regime is bringing death and destruction to those whose needs he is privileged to serve. I can summon his image, "take" the poisons that so tragically infect him, and "send" the loving-kindness that he lacks. Needless to say, there are those in our own country who need this infusion just as greatly. I can work with them, too.

And then there's the still greater and graver matter of all the suffering in the world--the sickness, the hunger, the poverty, the violence... It is possible, I have discovered, to open the heart to all this suffering, to "take" it in and "send" out the blessing of compassion to all living beings. It's a wonderful cleansing practice.

I open myself, as I realize, to accusations of foolish self-delusion, presumption, even grandiosity in recounting this practice. So be it. It's possible that the only one healed in any way is myself. But isn't that a start?

Thursday, May 26, 2016

BAD NEWS

The bad news gets worse. I glanced at the online version of the New York Times this morning and realized how little I wanted to read any of it. The country is in a mess, with the electorate dominated by anger and fear. The world is in a mess, its affairs also dominated by anger and fear. I myself risk being dominated by anger and fear. The respite I find in meditation is all too short-lived, once I turn my attention to the newspaper.

Still, what do I do? Close my eyes? Cover my ears? Put my hand over my mouth, like those three monkeys? Leave the country, which I fear is spiraling into chaos? Move? To where? We finally rented Michael Moore's newest movie last night. Where to Invade Next? paints a rosy picture of certain European countries where, um, socialism has left so many good things in its wake--things like universal health care, free education, welfare for those in need, a prison system that is just and humane, and so on. Moore makes America looks like it's still stuck in the late 19th century; the New Deal was a pale effort at social justice compared with the socialist advances in those countries; and even, today, the social benefits of the New Deal are under attack from the right.

Move to Europe, then? Or, um, Canada, as many of us liberals have been threatening, only half-jokingly, to do since the days of the Vietnam war? Trouble is, news from Europe is as disturbing as news from our own country. The extreme right wing, not to say fascism, is again on the rise. Immigrants are increasingly unwelcome, if not outright rejected.  The European union is shaky, to say the least, with England debating whether or not to leave. Whole countries teeter dangerously on the edge of financial collapse. Unemployment skyrockets, particularly among the young.  Angry protests abound.

So, Michael, there is no Eden. And the unpalatable truth--for one of my own political leanings--is that many of the vexing problems in those countries stem from the very same socialist policies that have brought about improvement in so many lives. And, with increasing populations competing for diminishing essential resources--food, say, and water--in a natural environment that we humans have exploited to its eventual detriment, planet Earth is in turmoil. We have yet to devise a socio-political system that answers equitably and efficiently to the needs of people everywhere. Socialism has cracked apart at the seams, revealing its limitations. Our much-vaunted capitalism is creaking with age, exploited by the greedy few and neglectful of vast hordes of the needy.

Something has to give. We have ample evidence that something is already giving. We need only look around us in this country to see that all is not well in "the land of the free". Can we even say those words with  a straight face when millions of our citizens are disempowered by poverty, injustice, and abject neglect of their legitimate need for dignity and opportunity? Where, I wonder, is the philosopher, the Buddha, perhaps, with a vision broad enough--and a voice loud enough--to lead us out of this morass? If we do come up with solutions, they will need to be radical beyond anyone's current imaginings, and I doubt that it will happen in my lifetime.

Meantime, I keep looking for a refuge. I know that the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha are the threefold refuge of Buddhism. Can Buddhism "save the world"? I don't know. Perhaps, in the words of John Lennon's Revolution, we have to be content with merely "doing what we can."


Tuesday, May 24, 2016

MORTAL REMAINS

Please don't think me ghoulish when I tell you that I found myself contemplating my sister's mortal remains in this morning's meditation, imagining the process of decay down to the stubborn, long-lasting bones. And then, by extension, imagining the process that my own body will experience if I choose interment rather than cremation. (Today's eco-thinking seems to lead back toward interment, allowing the natural recycling process to take place, rather than adding to the Earth's pollution with the noxious by-products of cremation. I'm still debating, leaning toward the former--though "green" cemeteries are still hard to find.)

Long-time readers will know of my affection for that simple mantra: This is not me, this is not mine, this is not who I am. I apply it often, in meditation, to the body I have been given to walk around in on this planet for a while. With this in mind, the contemplation of the mortal remains can be more liberating than disturbing. Having devoted now more than twenty years to the daily practice, I find it easier to observe the body as though from a distance as I sit, with a certain objectivity, let's say. And with less attachment to the aches and pains of the aging process.

It's a challenge, certainly, to think of the body as not mine. The illusion of the body being who I am is so powerful, so seemingly solid, so convincing that we succumb to it all the time. Yet even science tells us that, far from being the "too, too solid" stuff that Hamlet wished would melt, the human body is in constant flux, with millions of cells dying hour by hour and new ones replacing them. This body of mine is simply not the same physical entity as it was ten years ago, but something entirely new--and equally replaceable. Reason tells me that the process of actual, physical dying was already taking place at the moment of my birth.

Suffering, the Buddha reminds us, comes equally from our propensity to attach to either attraction or repulsion. The physical beauty to which we are so attracted is no more than the illusory counterpoint to the images of physical decay that so readily disgust us. I'm grateful to have received that reminder in my morning's sit.


Friday, May 20, 2016

FLORA

Given the time change, I'm not sure whether today or tomorrow marks the anniversary of my sister Flora's death. But she is much on my mind. I am catching up to the age at which she decided to leave us and move on into what she called, when I saw her a short time before her death, "the next great adventure." I say "decided" advisedly, because I do think it was a decision--a decision to spare herself and her family the few months of pain, indignity and dependence that surely awaited her, had she decided to live longer. Instead, she crossed that threshold, as I understand it, peacefully and without trauma.

Flora had "done the work"--that is, she had spent decades exploring the inner life and the life of the spirit (are they the same?) and living as mindfully as she was able. She paid attention to the body she was given to move through life in, thoughtful about what she ate and how she cared for it. She paid attention to the physical pains that are sure to visit us as we grow old, as well to the way she spent her time with those she loved, and those who loved her. She chose a path--Ridhwan--that led her toward the kind of consciousness that I myself seek with my meditation practice. She was an unwavering optimist, and steadfastly maintained a belief that I find quite difficult to share--that the world is moving inexorably towards a new and fuller consciousness, in time for humanity to save itself from the self-destructiveness we see everywhere today.

We were not close in childhood. As little ones, we bickered--as I suppose most little ones do. In the nursery we shared, I pulled her hair. She was mean to me. We suffered different wounds. Sent off to different boarding schools, we grew apart rather than together, and our relationship for the greater part of our adult years--our marriages, divorces--was formal rather than close and loving. I left England when I was in my early 20s, returning only for the occasional visit with the family. She made her life there, and chose the path of consciousness far earlier than I. For years, I simply thought that she was weird. Our relationship was prickly.

I'm thankful that we came to a mutual acknowledgment in our later years. Though geographically far apart--she in the lovely Cotswolds, I in distant Southern California--we found ourselves on parallel paths and discovered that real love goes deeper than physical proximity. We were somehow able to become the brother and sister we had never been before, or at least had not recognized. Now that she has, as I like to say, "moved on" into the great mystery that lies beyond the before as well as the after of our lives, I miss her presence here on the earth she loved and wanted to preserve and protect. She was one of the good ones. We need more like her.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

WELSH CAWL--CALIFORNIA STYLE


(I have written about many things in the soon-to-be ten-year history of The Buddha Diaries, but this recipe is a first...)

WELSH CAWL--CALIFORNIA-STYLE

I have been asked by one of my very oldest friends (since the 1940s!) to send a recipe for a collection he is putting together for his Anglican church in Barcelona, St. George's. Given the name (remember Georgie, our sweet dog, who died only two weeks ago?) how could I refuse!

A proper Welsh Cawl (pronounced "cowel") uses lamb, I believe. My mother--a Welsh lady herself, and an Anglican vicar's wife--always made it with a ham hock. Here in California, we have adapted it to our own taste and substitute chicken instead, but we still call it cawl. I suppose it could even be vegetarian.  It has been a favorite for a simple, healthy and substantial meal not only for ourselves, but for many guests who have enjoyed it with us at our table.

Here's our recipe:

1 large swede (that's rutabaga, for Americans)
1 large onion
several carrots and parsnips
1 - 2 cans chicken broth
2 chicken breasts
2 leeks (at least--this is the Welsh part!)
1/2 head of cabbage
Several leaves of chard or baby spinach (optional)
salt and pepper to taste
garlic and ginger powder
chopped parsley

Directions: coarsely chop and dice the swede, onion and carrots. Dice the chicken breasts into 1" pieces and season with garlic and ginger powder.  Simmer the chopped vegetables in chicken broth until slightly undercooked. (Avoid overcooking, or you'll end up with mush!)  Add the chicken to the pot, and simmer gently until cooked. Add a pinch of ginger if desired. Cut leeks in 1/2 inch slices; shred cabbage and/or chard; chop parsley and set all aside until ready to prepare the cawl. A few minutes before serving, add more chicken broth if needed and bring back to a simmer; add the leeks and the shredded cabbage (and chard or spinach, if desired) and cook a short while longer. We find that 5 minutes is plenty. Stir up and serve in big bowls with chopped parsley and chunks of baguette or other crusty bread--and butter, of course.

We sometimes add a sprinkle of parmesan, if we're in the mood. You can also add other vegetables to the mix--potatoes, for example, make a fine addition. If you make a BIG pot, Welsh cawl is great for left-overs! Ours sometimes lasts several days for the two of us, if kept in the refrigerator.