Monthly Archives: June 2016

The Sound of Silence

Essay Fourteen: Sound of Silence

           Paul Simon wrote “The Sound of Silence” in 1963 and with Art Garfunkel recorded this song with Columbia Records a year later. It totally bombed and led to the duo breaking up. Later on the song’s producer, Tom Wilson, did a remix of the original track, overdubbing electric rock instrumentation played by musicians from Bob Dylan’s band. It became a number one hit overnight all over the world and brought the very surprised Simon and Garfunkel back together. They were university students and part of the counterculture movement, yet Simon had no intent other than writing a good song in his bathroom while he played his guitar with lights off and the water running! He was all of twenty one years old. Garfunkel provided a focus on the inability of people to communicate. But it seems as though the lyrics wrote them. It took the American heavy metal band “Disturbed” and their lead singer David Draiman in 2015 to add a sharper edge. Their rendition was not just great music and lyrics – it was a cry of pain for our entire civilization.

The poetic lyrics are insightful about society and the planet, hauntingly so. Simon’s imagery and Garfunkel’s insight shone light on humanity’s inability to communicate with any harmony. The “neon god” no less.

“People talking without speaking

People hearing without listening

People writing songs that voices never share.”

Note the enigmatic ending:

“The words of the prophets

Are written on the subway walls

And tenement halls

And whispered in the sounds of silence.”

Does this sound all too familiar for our modern times? Whether Simon and Garfunkel recognized it or not, the song is highly provocative in the awakening process. The lyrics carry a steady context about the necessary expansion of silence. They provided a vocal crash landing that until there is silence there is no place for the wisdom of the prophets to penetrate human consciousness. The latest version of this masterpiece by Disturbed rams it right into our current societal and planetary collapse. I extrapolate on the significance of this overlooked aspect of Simon and Garfunkel’s song and draw on two heavy hitters from the realm of prophets. I refer to the Buddha and to Ramana Maharsi and then follow on with my experience for good measure.

I take a more intense tangent on silence with a story about the Buddha and Yasoga. Ten days before the rainy season retreat Yosaga and his five hundred monks journeyed to where the Buddha held his three month retreat. They arrived in a boisterous way to greet the monks there with loud greetings and lots of talking. The Buddha heard this uproar and asked his faithful attendant Ananda, “What is that noise?” Ananda replied that the Venerable Yasoja and his followers had arrived and were greeting the resident monks. The Buddha asked for them to come to him, so he could send them away and dismiss them for their noise. The five hundred monks and their leader bowed to the Buddha and left the rainy season retreat in Jetta Park. They walked for many days to the east side of Koshala and arrived at the Vaggamuda River. Once there, they built small huts to begin their own rainy season retreat. Yasoja addressed his followers and told them that the Buddha sent them away out of compassion, so that they would practice deeply. All the monks saw this as true and practiced very seriously to show the Buddha their worth. The majority of them realized levels of enlightenment during their three month retreat. The Buddha’s rainy season had also finished and he remarked to Ananda that he could discern the energy of goodness and light emanating from the east. He realized that Yasoja and his five hundred monks had achieved something very deep and sent them an invitation to join him.

They arrived quietly in the evening after many days of silent walking to find the Buddha sitting in silence, in a state of concentration called imperturbability – free and solid. When they saw this, they decided as one body to sit like that with the Buddha and entered the same state of imperturbability. Ananda approached the Buddha during the three watches of the night and asked him to address the monks. The Buddha remained silent. After the third reminder he said, “Ananda, you did not know what was going on…..I was sitting in a state of imperturbability and all the monks did the same and were not disturbed by anything at all.” In this deep unshakable silence the communication between the Buddha and Yasoga’s five hundred monks was perfect so that a deep transmission of insight, freedom and joy went to them. No fancy ceremony was required as the monks experienced a natural awakening – all from imperturbable silence.

During my yogi years in India I had the privilege of training in Sri Ramana Maharsi’s tradition through Siddha Samadhi Yoga. I had been recognised as a guru and taught meditation in Mumbai and Bangalore. I made a point of staying at Ramana Maharsi’s ashram near the holy mountain of Arunachala in South India where he stayed until his death in 1950. I followed his footsteps up the mountain and meditated in the cave where he first took shelter and bit by bit I entered into his zone of silence, though he was long gone in body. Yet it was of the same nature of imperturbable silence as described for the Buddha’s welcome of Yasoja. Sri Ramana emanated the same force of freedom, which stilled the minds attuned to it. He offered a transmission of the state he was perpetually immersed in that could be directly experienced by those sitting with him.

This was his preferred method of teaching, though he would verbally address the issues and questions brought to him by students and followers from all over the world. His verbal teachings were there for those unable to understand his silence. He provided guidelines to practice a vigorous method of self-examination: “Who Am I”, “Whence Am I” – to help them step into the silence of their true nature and experience that consciousness alone exists. Also to give the thought tortured mind a rest. His simplicity, humility and sense of equality were legendary. He always shone like a beacon as he had realized that his real nature was unrelated to his mind, body and personality. He was accessible to everyone, shared in communal work at the ashram and rose at 3am every day to prepare food for visitors – always eating last after everyone had been fed. He lived, slept and held forth in the small hall of the ashram. I used to sit and meditate there a lot during my stay and could feel and imagine how he would address the questions of the constant flow of visitors and at the same time radiate his silent presence.

His spoken teachings all arose from deep in his heart – from his direct experience that consciousness was the only existing reality and it was through silence that his disciples would know the same. It was the depth of his heart that moved the other, which demanded only the exit of ego and trusting with patience the arising consciousness and wait for the flow. That threshold was what moves the other into the space of the origins. The other then feels authentic. We are surrounded by a modern, noisy world that opens so many avenues for disaster. Yet Sri Ramana Maharsi ably demonstrated that there are conditions to take such disaster into transformation. That is how I endeavour to write, speak and think these days.

When Thich Nhat Hanh ordained me as a dharma teacher he transmitted the Lamp of Wisdom in a ceremony at Plum Village in France. I was required to present a dharma talk to the monastics present on this occasion. I talked about waves and water and came around to the significance of silence. This is what I said.

My teacher Thich Nhat Hanh uses a wonderful analogy of waves and water to understand how the Historical and Ultimate dimensions of reality are interwoven. Waves rise, they fall and die when they wash up on a seashore or riverbank. This is the analogy for the Historical Dimension. The wave is clearly within the historical dimension of viewing everyday reality, our daily existential cycle of life full of crises and cycles of ups and downs. But no matter what attributes apply to waves there is always a constant. While a wave is about its business of being high or low, born or dying, coming or going, it is always water. The constant of water refers to the Ultimate Dimension. The idea is that if we touch the waves of life deeply with our insight then we can touch the water of life – the Ultimate Dimension that we can call Nirvana, the Kingdom of God.  This is a transcendent reality, a dimension outside of time and space, distinct from the time and space constraints of our daily existence.

I have heard Thich Nhat Hanh many times express the waves and water analogy, and the metaphorical qualities certainly made intellectual sense to me. But my experience was such that deep looking into my waves did not lead me to touch the water of the Ultimate Dimension. My “Waves” did not shoot me through to the “Water” as I certainly expected them to do, after listening to my teacher. I wondered for a long time about this disjunction between my intellectual acceptance of this notion and my lack of personal experience. There were three logical options to investigate.

  1. The first option was that Thich Nhat Hanh was incorrect.
  2. The second option was that Thich Nhat Hanh was neither correct nor incorrect. He was simply very generous in choosing not to chart the difficulties of transition from waves to water.
  3. The third option was that Thich Nhat Hanh was correct and that something crucial was missing from my practice.

I eliminated the first option as I have great trust and faith in Thich Nhat Hanh as a teacher. There may be something to the second option as I know how generous he is, that he may choose to encourage rather than chart the difficulties on the path. Yet, I realized very early on that the real investigation was the third option – to investigate just what was missing from my practice of mindfulness. I was aware that my waves were too small to carry me through to the Ultimate Dimension – too small in terms of insufficient concentration, insight and mindfulness – the three energies of transformation. What I needed was a tidal wave to make my waves full of concentration, insight and mindfulness so that this energy could provide the “voltage” to transition from waves through to water. I knew that a tidal wave has the properties of increasing energy and appears to disobey the second law of thermodynamics. It is described as a “soliton” in science with characteristics of both wave and particle. So my investigation was into my internal state for the causes and conditions that would make my waves into “solitons” – into tidal waves full of concentration, mindfulness and insight. As I pondered this deeply I stumbled across where I had to go.

It was into Silence. Deep Silence and stillness amidst the world I lived in. This is where I found the causes and conditions that would provide tidal waves of energy to my cells and consciousness. Silence producing Tsunami was the initial equation. I could truly look deeply into my suffering, into the dark areas that held hostage my mental formations of an unwholesome nature. And so over the past decades I have built more and more silence into my everyday life. On a daily basis I stop, look deeply and dialogue with the feminine seeds in my consciousness – a practice received from my Native American medicine teachers. Silence and skilful deep looking were certainly important yet the dialogue with the internal feminine was the key for me. My consciousness was guided by these seeds of awareness to transform difficulties and impediments in my life, enabling me to move on.

My home and sangha life, supported by the entire Pine Gate Community, enables me to retreat into silence on a regular basis. In this way – through silence and deep looking – my waves became bigger, more infused with concentration, insight and mindfulness.  Deep silence and dialogue with the internal feminine provided the causes and conditions for my waves to become Tsunami.  As I continued to stop in the silence and look deeply into my shadows, there emerged the distinct experience of touching the water. Thich Nhat Hanh was correct. I had to discover for myself the significance of silence, skilful deep looking and consulting with the wisdom of the internal feminine.  The fruits of this practice of silence and non-action were many and particularly manifest in my study of the Lotus Sutra.

I applied myself to study the Lotus Sutra, particularly Burton Watson’s 1993 translation from the Chinese version done by the Central Asian scholar-monk Kumarajiva in 406 CE. Prior to this intensive study I was much more comfortable with accepting the Buddha in Historical form. The story of the Buddha’s life, awakening and ministry was enough for me and I had not paid too much attention to the Buddha in the Ultimate Dimension. That changed radically through reading the Lotus Sutra from my practice of silence. For in the Lotus Sutra the Buddha in the Ultimate Dimension is revealed in no uncertain terms. In its beauty, grandeur and compelling intimacy with all that is, ever was, and ever will be, my scepticism about the mystic Ultimate Dimension of the Buddha disappeared. As I read different chapters of the Lotus Sutra I was transported to the worlds and dimensions described. I would read a little then put the book down as I felt myself going deeply into meditation. I was profoundly moved by the words, the dimensions, by the energy that I experienced through the series of translations into Chinese then into English. And I would remain in a trance like state for hours.

My direct experience of the energy of this Mahayana masterpiece brought home to me so many insights. The most pertinent one was that I would not be able to experience the Lotus Sutra in this way if my waves were still too small – lacking in insight, concentration and mindfulness.  Over the years I took steps to remedy my small wave syndrome as best I could, through protracted periods of deep silence and skilful deep looking. I still continue with this practice.  Without the silence and what it enabled, I am sure I would have had a superficial reading of the Lotus Sutra that would not have allowed me to touch its depth and magnificence. The Lotus Sutra is full of the activities of bodhisattvas, sages and holy beings, and of how we may understand their role. The bodhisattvas are described as being immersed in the Ultimate Dimension, and from there they return to the Historical Dimension to transform suffering. As “water” bodhisattvas live the life of a “wave.” Their example in choosing to do so encourages us to come face to face with suffering, to step away from fear and take our own steps into freedom. This is the task of the true revolutionary of the twenty first century. Not to pick up a gun and shout hatred, but to penetrate “Water” from the “Waves” of life. There are so many bodhisattvas from all spiritual traditions who are choosing to do this.  In a way this ushers in the end of Religion – of being attached to the identity gained from one’s religion.  The task before us in the 21st century is to step out as Spiritual Warriors and not be caught by our religious identities but to connect and walk hand in hand with friends from other spiritual traditions who are doing the same. I am expanding the term bodhisattva so that it embraces far more than Buddhism.

I came through this process with waves that are not so small anymore and a full heart to share with everyone. I also experience a distinct cycle of internal interconnectedness.  Empowered by my study of the Lotus Sutra, I institute yet more silence into my life even when I am talking to someone or even offering a dharma talk. I became available in a manner I was not before. My waves carry more voltage and are filling up rather than being half empty. My activism for peace and the environment rests on a foundation of silence and the initial necessity of non-action. The true art of doing nothing! It all weaves together like a spider’s web glistening in the morning dew. It is so lovely. I offer my insight gatha when receiving the Lamp Transmission from Thich Nhat Hanh in  Plum Village, France. It is much like a swift river running through it all.

Lotus Sutra sings.

Fresh dharma rains penetrate

My heart – wide open.

 

The Sound of Silence

Hello darkness, my old friend

I’ve come to talk with you again

Because a vision softly creeping

Left its seeds while I was sleeping

And the vision that was planted in my brain

Still remains

Within the sound of music

 

In restless dreams I walked alone

Narrow streets of cobblestone

‘Neath the halo of a streetlamp

I turned my collar to the cold and damp

When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light

That split the night

And touched the sound of silence

 

“Fools” said I, “You do not know

Silence like a cancer grows

Hear my words that I might teach you

Take my arms that I might reach you”

But my words like silent raindrops fell

And echoed in the wells of silence

 

And the people bowed and prayed

To the neon god they made

And the sign flashed out its warning

In the words that it was forming

And the sign said “The words of the prophets

Are written on subway walls

And tenement halls

And whispered in the sounds of silence”

 

Essay 12: Shattering of Concepts

I am convinced that awareness of the impact of Climate Change is not enough. Awareness requires to be rooted in a spiritual tradition that honors the Earth Mother. Then action will ensue to mitigate and better anticipate Global Climate Change. Kindness, graciousness and discernment take the place of greed, corruption and neglect. In this collection of essays – Our World is Burning – I refer to this personal necessity in Essay 9: Healing Journeys, Essay 12: Shattering of Concepts and Essay 15: Guidelines to Reconstruct our World. I reveal my own spiritual training and place Essay 12 in this blog.

Essay Twelve: Shattering of Concepts

 Huddled on a bed in an ashram in Mumbai, India, I opened my eyes to see a visiting Swami sitting beside me. The small ashram was reserved for saints and holy men. I did not qualify for either category but felt their grace close at hand. One tangible and humorous manifestation of that grace was this visiting Swami beside my bed. He smiled broadly and helped me to sit up, then surprised me with his words:

“We are so happy Ian that you have decided to die with us in India. And we will be most happy should you live.

He just beamed love and understanding to me. My reply as best I remember was to smile back and just say, “Me too!” The Swami made me some tea with herbs, provided a blessing and then left. When I went to sleep that night I felt very calm about letting go of my bodily existence. I knew that the experiences of joy and freedom flooding through me at this time were dissolving my many mistakes and bodily pain. I felt truly like me, very peaceful, no longer a maverick standing alone. Lying close to death, the lack of fear provided a sense of freedom and strength.

I had been invited for guru training in India by Rishi Prabhakar after meeting with him several times in Canada. He recognized something that I certainly did not. This adventure proved to be new territory for me. I had traveled to India in 1996 to teach and train in Siddha Samadhi Yoga. This Vedic tradition  was ecumenical in character, a wisdom tradition totally relevant to the modern day. By November of 1996 I had become seriously ill in India. As I observed my bodily systems crashing one by one I knew there was a distinct possibility of death. To this day I am still amazed by my calmness and lack of fear. While in India I was privileged to have many treasures of wisdom made available to me.  There were two circumstances that opened so many doors. One rested on Thich Nhat Hanh’s book of meditations, The Blooming of a Lotus. Before leaving for India in 1996, at the last moment I picked up this book and placed it in my backpack. As I observed in November and December of 1996  my body’s systems crashing one by one I knew this was serious. My companion for this passage with death was Master Hanh’s book of meditations. I was astonished by my calmness and hope to find a similar equanimity for death’s next visit.

In my family and culture there is very little discussion or clarity about death and dying, though as a child I had an intuitive understanding. I remember when my grandfather died when I was a small boy. I felt him as a tangible presence even when he was in his coffin and quietly whispered to this gracious, gentle being: “Go to Heaven now grandpa.” I also remember at his wake how upset I became by my relatives drinking, arguing and being disrespectful to one another. In tears I sought out my grandmother and complained that everyone was making it hard for my grandpa to go to Heaven. She wiped my tears away with her handkerchief and listened carefully to me before walking into the living room of her house. With quiet authority she asked everyone to be quiet and to go home. It was much later in life, once I was exposed to Buddhist teachings on death and dying, that I realized I was not such a crazy kid after all. I had cared for my grandfather’s consciousness after his physical death. From that turning point I knew clearly that preparation for death was also training for life, though I did not always pay close attention to this insight.

The opportunity for liberation at the time of death was an intriguing notion. I could see that my obstacles of ego and habitual patterns of behavior were in the way of a sound preparation. I did want to merge my consciousness at the time of death with what the Sufis call “The Great Magnificence.”  Or if I got confused or fearful, to be able to receive guidance to do so. From my understanding of the Tibetan bardos I felt that if my death was an aware one, then in the bardo of “becoming” my consciousness would take a form that would serve all sentient beings. That struck a recycling chord, which appealed to the ecologist in me! The retraining of my mind was done fitfully, not in a consistent manner, until just before I left for India to take up the life of a yogi. There the preparation became a daily practice of being aware of universal consciousness totally prepared to merge with my pitifully weak and not-so-awakened mind. My leap of faith was that understandings about death and dying were all in the mind. This meant that in everyday living I could use my mind to take steps to prepare for that final moment of merging with the wisdom mind of the universe and just perhaps be able to do this while I was alive. Perhaps the “alive” piece of the puzzle is the whole point!

Still, I was surprised by my lack of panic in the face of death. As December drew towards its close I totally surrendered. I will always remember Saturday, December 21, 1996. On that day I let go of all attachments to my body and surrendered to a sense of freedom never before experienced. Throughout the day and evening I read The Blooming of a Lotus from cover to cover, practicing meditations that spoke to me. I felt at one with all my spiritual ancestors. I felt Thich Nhat Hanh’s wisdom, love and gentleness as a tangible presence watching over me. The meditations in The Blooming of a Lotus carried me over many thresholds, some of which I was aware of at the time, most, however, I did not discern their significance until much later. The meditations took me deeply into my roots of being and I felt very calm about the impermanence of bodily existence. My heart opened very wide and I thought about my many mistakes and chose not to deny them or brush aside the bodily pain. I knew that the experiences of joy and freedom flooding through me were dissolving both. During this whole period of time I felt very simple, that I was living properly. I was without panic, present with whatever was happening or arising. I did not fear death. It just did not compute. This lack of fear gave me a sense of freedom and strength. It opened a huge door to send love and joy to all. I felt truly like me, very peaceful, not pulled in any direction. Despite all that was going on I was solidly with each second of time in a totally timeless way. Whatever gifts, skills and energies I could contribute to bring joy and love to others was there to freely share. That is the only manner in which I can describe what was happening. I finally understood the significance of the Buddha’s Five Remembrances Meditation:

  1. Knowing I will get old, I breathe in. Getting old

Knowing I cannot escape old age,

I breathe out.                                               No escape

  1. Knowing I will get sick, I breathe in. Getting sick

Knowing I cannot escape sickness,

I breathe out.                                               No escape

  1. Knowing I will die, I breathe in. Dying

Knowing I cannot escape death,

I breathe out.                                               No escape

  1. Knowing that one day I will lose

all I hold dear today,  I breathe in,              Losing what I hold dear

Knowing I cannot escape losing

all I hold dear today,  I breathe out. No escape

  1. Knowing that my actions are my

only belongings, I breathe in.                      Actions true belongings

Knowing that I cannot escape the

consequences of my actions, I breathe out. No escape from consequences

  1. Determined to live my days mindfully

in the present moment, I breathe in. Living mindfully

Experiencing the joy and the benefit of

living mindfully, I breathe out.                    Experiencing benefits and joy

  1. Offering joy and love each day to my

loved ones, I breathe in.                              Offering love

    Easing the pain and suffering of my
    loved ones, I breathe out.                            Easing suffering

 

By looking into these major fears I personally experienced all of them. It made exquisite sense and carried me into a state of non-fear. There was nothing overlooked or pushed to one side. My mind was very clear. The Five Remembrances were not located in the depths of my consciousness. They were my existential reality. I neither welcomed them in nor rejected them. They were just there, my own personal gang of five. There was no internal battleground or struggle. To be with myself at this time, happy and content with the existing moment, was all that I had. And it was enough.

I smiled quietly at the first five stanzas guiding me to let go and was totally refreshed by the last two stanzas about living my days deeply in mindfulness and offering love and joy to loved ones to alleviate their suffering. I felt the universal nature of this wonderful benediction for both living and dying. The Five Remembrances brought my attention to impermanence; on growing old, getting sick, dying, losing loved ones, and realizing that my only possessions are the consequences of my actions. The final two stanzas of the meditation show the way; to live mindfully in each moment and offer joy to loved ones. As I practiced this meditation I felt that each moment of life was absolutely precious. Somehow I was communicating this to all that I connected with. Before I slept that night I felt my teachers and guides throughout lifetimes gathering together inside and around me, without boundaries. They stayed there while I slept. I was content and happy.

The next morning, to my surprise and joy I woke up. Over the next six months I slowly recovered my health.   Friends in North America who tune in to me very closely had in December booked airline tickets to take me out of India to recover in their home. I was touched by their love, but gently said “No” after thanking my friends for their loving concern. Whatever the outcome of this particular journey, it was to be in India. I had written countless Christmas cards to friends and loved ones all over the world and signed them: “Blessings and Love from Ian”. That is what I wanted to send out before my death. Then I lived, and was happy that the cards were sent.

The second circumstance that opened so many doors had to do with the shattering of my concepts on an almost daily basis. I would have perceptions and judgments about a situation, person or event and would rapidly discover that my perceptions were without foundation. I allowed my concepts to shatter. They were replaced by further perceptions and judgments. But I allowed them to also shatter. I felt a depth not previously known. This is something I call upon when perceptions and judgments crowd into my consciousness. This willingness not to hold on to concepts or to even hold on to being with my body put me into a different orbit. In this orbit, doors opened wide that otherwise would not have opened. I felt unseen hands guiding me through a stupendous year of initiations, mind training and transformations. I felt very privileged to receive the wisdom traditions of India.

Yet how difficult I made it for myself, with self-doubt, struggles of purification and stringent endeavors to get it right. It was actually so much simpler than that. It is to just be present with what is there. My happiness and delight came through Being with humanity, the planet and the universe, and Serving the same with joy. Yet I did get caught at times in the process of struggle and purification. Then for no apparent reason the veils of illusion dropped away. A natural, overflowing delight in Being and Serving arose spontaneously. I know I can never be as I was, nor do I wish to. I am simply grateful for all the gifts of transformation received. I also wonder about sharing these deeply personal experiences. I do not hold on to them and simply observe their effects on particular steps I took to tame my wild mind. The sharing is to illustrate that my approach to life comes about through experience, crises, difficulties and joys that may have common ground with many readers. That if I can take steps along the spiritual path then surely anyone can.

To the best of my ability I endeavor to follow Gandhi’s principles of ahimsa and the teachings on mindfulness. These are the guidelines and foundations for my peace and environmental activism. I am vegetarian, well mostly, and live very simply as a planetary  activist. So are there seeds of anger in my consciousness after all of this process? Are they still there? Of course they are. It is simply incumbent upon me to take care of them when they arise, to surround them with mindfulness and transform their potential to cause harm. It is my job to ensure that I am not overwhelmed by their energy, that I embrace the seeds of anger with the tools and practices I have received from my teachers. I observe how seeds of anger manifest in my thoughts and know that my thoughts are capable of doing damage to myself and to others.  But my practice has changed somewhat over the past three decades. It is not so much a focus on anger and violence but an observation of the tricks of ego.

My daily practice now is to observe how my ego attaches to specific mental formations in order to take my consciousness into separation and illusion. That is the job of the ego. It cannot do anything else except attach to negative mental formations and drive them to distort and manipulate in order to separate me from my true nature. When I catch this happening in a train of thought and I do not always catch it, but when I do I say:

Hello my dear ego. Are you here again? Are you not tired of attaching to these old mental formations that you have used so often before? Why don’t you come and have a rest? Why not rest in the consciousness of my heart?

The ego really has no answer to this. That is what I do when I catch a train of thought filtered through anger and ego. I am not always successful in catching it, but when I do I feel happy, really good, as the excesses of my wild mind are not translating into actions that can cause harm.

While in India I also undertook two twenty eight day retreats, six months apart. They were the high points that the rest of my training built up to. My cultural and religious background was not the same as my two cohorts, yet the experiences we shared were remarkably similar. I would observe my mental states, compare them with reports from my peers, and then discuss them with the Swami overseeing the training. Prior to the training retreats I had months of preparation with attention to specific meditations, dietary regime and sexual abstinence. I learned how to chant the Gayatri Mantra and co-ordinate it with the four components of breath: inhalation, holding the air inside, exhalation, holding the emptiness. There was a mathematical precision in tone, pitch and resonance of the mantra, as it was exactly co-ordinated with the different components of breath and hand movements over the body. It was complex and overwhelming. I frequently wondered if I would ever get it right but benefited enormously from the encouragement of my cohorts who were determined that I not be left behind. I also had skilled and patient teachers who made the effort to transmit this oral tradition, thousands of years old, to a westerner not used to this form of education.

The second training period in a different part of India, Karnataka as opposed to Andra Pradesh, was with a new cohort made up of experienced meditation teachers and exceptional gurus. With this powerful group of beings the sunset ceremony was conducted by running water to deepen the silence, stillness and penetration of the mantra. The chanting of the Gayatri took place with all of us standing up to our waists in the water. When it came to the point of suspending thought and allowing the Gayatri to arise spontaneously, to my total astonishment it did just that. At the same time I could feel and identify the particles of mud between my toes, see minute electrons in the air and look down on my wisdom buddies from a great height. I felt encompassed by the evening sky and at the same time I encompassed the sunset, the evening sky and everything beyond it. This experience was repeated with varying intensity during every sunset rendition of the Gayatri Mantra. I never felt it necessary to communicate this to the Swami or to members of my second cohort. I went into total silence and do not recall talking to anyone, as everyone very carefully left me there.

In my diaries I recorded my experiences in poetry and art, a totally inadequate exposition for something that cannot be fully expressed in either. I persist with this inadequacy, through words, to convey some semblance of the experience. Before I took my leave from the ashram the Swami asked to speak to me. He described my experiences in complete, precise detail and arranged a parting ceremony, an initiation to acknowledge the grace of a guru now recognized with the name bestowed upon me: Prem Chaytania. My wisdom buddies were delighted by this. Training with Gayatri had major life changing effects, not the least being that I became a better and more skillful teacher, both to meditation and university students.

What I can say from personal experience is that once my wild mind was reined in, clarity and compassion were suddenly there in greater compass. This provided a different basis for how to be with the planet and others in a new way. This partial account of my journey in India is to demonstrate that my activism for peace, planetary care and social justice now come from a different place as a result of the internal work. Steadiness, clarity and compassion are there rather than ego posturing from the lunatic fringe. Though there was a “rush” from the latter, I prefer the still-point, uncolored by the excess of ego and desire for kudos-seeking. Such a still-point permits me to be free in my own sovereignty, no matter what I am doing. It also propels me to serve the planet and humanity in a way of creating bridges and pathways of harmony that make sense. As for the rest of my life, that it is still a work in progress!

 

The Merchant and the Diamond

This piece is the Epilogue for the essays on “Our World is Burning” – a book I am preparing for next year.

EPILOGUE

Essay Sixteen: The Merchant and the Diamond

 

There was a merchant who lived in a far-away land. He was very wealthy and built a trading empire that brought him great riches. He was respected throughout the land for his fairness and astuteness, yet in the midst of all his wealth and fame he felt a lack, that there was something he did not have. He did not know what it was.

One night he had a dream and remembered it very clearly. He dreamed there was a monk sitting under a tree at the forest’s edge, and that this monk had something special to give to him. He was not accustomed to dreaming, so he felt this dream held a special portent. At sunrise the next day he left his house and walked to the edge of the town where he lived. He saw the monk, just as in his dream, wearing a saffron robe, sitting quietly under the shade of a tree at the edge of the forest. He looked so peaceful. As the merchant approached, the monk opened his eyes and smiled gently to him. The merchant stopped, bowing respectfully, and said:

“Dear monk, I had a dream about you last night, that you would be sitting here on the edge of the forest and that you had something for me. What is it that you have for me?”

The monk paused for a moment then slowly reached into his canvas bag. He brought out a huge diamond as big as a man’s fist. It sparkled and shone in the sunlight, dazzling the eyes and senses of the merchant. It was the most beautiful and valuable diamond the merchant had ever seen. The monk said, “Have you come for this?”

The merchant without hesitating replied, “Oh yes, thank you so much, this is wonderful. I have always wanted to possess such a magnificent diamond.” He thanked the monk profusely for this unexpected and magnificent gift, wrapped the diamond inside his jacket and returned home. Once there he placed the diamond in his front room. He closed the shutters and locked the doors to his house and stayed with the diamond, totally mesmerized and entranced by its beauty and purity. He did not go to work that day, nor did he eat or drink. He thought that this gift was the missing piece of his life and he wanted to bask in the glory of it. When he went to sleep that night, he placed the diamond on a small pedestal by his bedside, so that he could have it close by. Yet he could not sleep. He felt a strange disturbance within himself that he did not understand. He tossed and turned, not knowing what to do about the growing restlessness. Just before sunrise he rose, got dressed and carefully wrapped the diamond in a cloth, before setting off once more for the edge of the forest.

The monk was sitting in the same place, deep in meditation. The peace that emanated from him calmed the restlessness that so disturbed the merchant. On hearing the merchant’s footsteps come closer and then stop before him, the monk opened his eyes and once more smiled very gently to the merchant. “Good morning my friend,” he said. “Are you not happy with the diamond?”

The merchant bowed and placed the diamond at the feet of the monk and said, “Good monk, it is not the diamond that I want. I would like to have the heart that can give away such a diamond.”

The monk very quietly stood up and bowed to the merchant, “Good sir, as that is your wish, I will teach you to meditate.”

Taking Refuge in Grandchildren

Essay Eight: Taking Refuge in Grandchildren                                                                   

 

Taking refuge can provide delightful surprises. It is not always a Zen teacher, wise sister or high monk who is there to provide guidance and insight. My grandson Callun has provided quite a few for me. His home is the town Nanaimo on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. One summer holiday Carolyn and I spent a sea kayaking adventure with Callun and his father Iain, exploring the fascinating coastline of Vancouver Island. On one occasion when Iain and Carolyn went shopping, I stayed at the house to meditate. Callun was playing outside. He came in crying after a while and tapped me on the shoulder. “Grand Pooh Bear,” that is what he called me when he was a little boy. “Grand Pooh Bear, sorry to disturb your practice but I’ve been stung by a bee on my neck and it hurts.” I opened my eyes and took Callun into my arms and said, “My dear Callun, you are my practice.” I gently took the stinger out of his neck, put some ice on it and cuddled him for a while before he happily went outside again to play. He had brought home to me that all of life is my practice. To my grandson Callun I bow in gratitude for being such a mindfulness bell for me.

When I take refuge in this manner, I am aware of Buddha nature being graciously presented to me. Another grandchild, Millie, sent me some drawings for my birthday quite a few years ago. With her five year old determination she endeavored to draw a picture of me with no feet, only one arm, with a fuzzy beard, jug handle ears and much slimmer than in reality! Over my head she had drawn a yellow halo, which is totally undeserving, yet I learned that this is how Millie thinks of me. She was revealing her Buddha nature to her grandfather and I joyfully took refuge in her love and kindness.

Several years ago, after leading a meditation retreat on the British Columbia mainland I arranged to take a ferry across to Nanaimo on Vancouver Island to visit with my son and grandson Callun. It was a beautiful calm sea voyage with the sunset dancing in the wake of the ferry. Although I was tired from the retreat, this was a delightful respite. Both Iain and Callun were there as the boat docked in Nanaimo. As it was almost Callun’s bedtime, he asked if I would read him a story once we got to their home. I was happy to do this. Callun quickly changed into his pyjamas and chose a story for me to read. I lay down on his bed beside him and started to read. In only a few minutes I was fast asleep! My son, Iain, on hearing the silence, came into the bedroom and saw that Callun had pulled the bedcovers up over me and was sitting up in bed with one hand resting lightly on my shoulder, a beautiful smile on his face as he took care of his grandfather. My son was moved to tears by this. He drew a chair into the bedroom and sat there with us all night. He did not want to miss the magic. Three generations taking refuge in one another. Totally present, hearts wide open. Only one snoring, but gently!

 

 

The Buddha At The Gate

Essay Eleven: The Buddha at the Gate. 

Let me tell you a story. There was a young monk who was sent by his Abbot to beg for food in a nearby town.  The town had a wall around it, with a main gate placed at each cardinal direction.  The young monk was a little nervous during his first alms round but the townspeople were very generous and quickly filled his bowl.  Late that morning he decided to leave by the North Gate.  Sitting to one side of the gate was a bedraggled, dirty old beggar who stirred himself at the sight of the young monk and started to spit and curse at him.  The monk jumped to one side in alarm and quickly passed through the gate as fast as he could.  As he walked away he could still hear the beggar’s curses ringing in his ears.

On the next day once his bowl was full he decided to leave by the West Gate to avoid the dreadful old beggar.  But the beggar was there, spitting and cursing at him once again.  The young monk was angry this time and shouted at the old beggar “Don’t you know who I am?  I am a student of the Buddha!”  At which point the beggar picked up some dirt and threw it into the bowl, spoiling the monk’s collection of food.  Angrily the young monk walked back to the monastery, knowing he would have to endure an enforced fast, wondering why he should be treated in this way.  So he made up his mind to breathe and calm himself and to totally ignore the beggar if they should meet again.

As he left by the South Gate next day he met the old beggar, still cursing and spitting at him.  He protected his food with part of his robe and kept his head down as he endured the abuse from the old beggar once more.  His heart was in turmoil, his mind in so much distress that he could eat nothing from his bowl once he reached the monastery.  Next day he left by the East Gate and to his dismay the same old beggar was waiting for him.  As he heard the curses and endured the spitting, the young monk raised his walking staff to strike the old beggar, who just cackled in glee at the young monk’s discomfort.  With a moment’s pause the monk stayed his hand and walked quickly through the East Gate.

He was deeply ashamed at how close he had come to violence.  He felt he was a wretched student of the Buddha and totally confused as to why all this abuse was happening to him.  He suffered so much from the anger and violence inside himself that he knew he needed his Master’s guidance.  He sought out the Abbot and asked for forgiveness and guidance after he told the story of his past four days.  The Abbot listened deeply to the young monk then smiled very gently with understanding.

“My child, you have met the Buddha at the Gate.  He is asking you to look deeply into the depths of your reactions and anger.  He is asking you to listen instead to the deep source of Love and Compassion in your heart.  He is asking you not to lose your Joy and Equanimity.  He encourages you to develop your Equanimity so it is solid and strong, not easily moved.  These are the Buddha’s teachings on Love and you must meditate deeply on these teachings.”

The Abbot instructed him on the Buddha’s Teachings on Love, Compassion, Joy and Equanimity; the Four Immeasurable Minds.  Also known as the Four Brahmaviharas, these teachings were first given by the Buddha to a Hindu gentleman who wished to find the way to be with Brahma, the Universal God.  The young monk was instructed to deepen his practice, to listen deeply to his heart and always to stop and look deeply into the causes and conditions of his reactions, anger and violence.  The young monk bowed in gratitude to his Abbot and diligently practiced meditating on the Buddha’s teachings, immediately putting them into daily practice.  This enabled him to pass by the beggar without reaction, until one day no beggar was to be found at any of the four gates.

This simple teaching is something we can all put into practice and not activate the demons in our own mind. A better world is the end result.