Category Archives: Awakening

A Manifesto for the Future

“A Manifesto for the Future” is the final essay in my forthcoming book, “Our World is Burning: Essays in Mindful Engagement.” As the planet’s life support systems erode due to Climate Change, do we seek guidance from spiritual ethics or are we trying to transcend an unsatisfactory world? The Mindfulness Trainings are there yet social, political and ecological engagements are devalued. Walk the Bodhisattva path not as a separate self but as an engaged self.

 

A Manifesto for the Future

 

As a Zen teacher I make a commitment not to cause harm. I am guided by spiritual ethics yet am aware that the current disastrous state of the planet will not bring forth strategic plans of how to fix things. I could go on and on about the terrible things taking place in society and to the planet – and will divert to that in a moment. Yet the bottom line for me is to remember and refine a system of ethical conduct. I go deeper into meditation and mainly fix myself to be steady and insightful. I register with Mindfulness Trainings, as it brings out all that I would like to see in people around the planet.

The bottom line for me is that awakening and mindfulness are active. Activism, on its own, does not have the inner resources to maintain effective social and planetary transformation. I know from personal experience that re-training the wild mind is a necessary ingredient to precede activism. Becoming environmental or political is only one part and cannot be fully effective until the internal side is in place.

We have no alternative but to concentrate on sustainable living, rather than exploiting the spoils of perpetual economic growth. Profit cannot be the sole reason for commerce. There must be responsibility tied into the equation. At present, we are totally out of sync with the earth’s resources. The fragile threads of ecosystems around the globe are severely compromised. We are in the position of either going down the collective sewer or changing our values in the direction of awakening.

Jane Goodall issued a dire warning in 2016 that ‘life is hanging by a thread,’ as all living things will be negatively impacted by rapid climate change. In particular, she advocates the necessity of creating programs that stop tropical deforestation by making rural communities custodians of the forests.

This is difficult when President Trump, an influential leader, has begun to dismantle environmental regulations, setting in motion irreversible consequences around the world. The United States is ignoring climate change, obstructing clean energy and many forms of conservation. Noam Chomsky in 2016 refers to Trump’s priorities as “…racing as rapidly as possible to the destruction of organized human life.”

Stephen Hawking’s thoughtful piece in the Guardian (December 1, 2016) places a focus on elite behavior creating further inequality as he examines Brexit and the Trump presidency. His question is how will the elites change? “We are living in a world of widening, not diminishing, financial inequality and people see only a slim chance at earning a living at all.” Hawking acknowledges this dangerous moment in humanity’s evolution.

Earth is like a giant living cell, all parts are linked symbiotically. Biologist Thomas Lewis created this metaphor with humanity just as one part of a vast system. This is not something that powerful and corporate people have paid much attention to. The reality is that the life support systems of the planet are severely threatened by climate change, aided by accelerating global consumerism. Our ignorance and neglect are destroying Earth, because we do not know how to respect ourselves, others, and the planet. Unless we radically change, there is no possibility of balance, environmentally or socially.

This became clear in my filmed distance course “Ecology and Culture” at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. I wanted to connect the many levels of violence and fear we engage with to the environment, and to the everyday use of harmful speech and mindless consumption. With ethical guidelines rooted in spiritual practice, we do not generate the energy that enables terror and violence to grow. Comparing an everyday situation to an overall climate of fear, hatred and vengeance, I suggest that it is all the same. We just need to learn how to behave differently.

These issues were examined with great clarity by the awakened mind of the Buddha, 2600 years ago. His teachings are timeless, as relevant to the modern world as when first spoken. The Buddha taught the Five Mindfulness Trainings as a design for living. Thich Nhat Hanh reworked them to relate to modern realities. They are non-sectarian and all spiritual traditions have their equivalent. The first training is to protect life, to decrease violence in oneself, family and society. The second training is to practice social justice, generosity and not exploit other beings. The third is responsible sexual behavior for all people, to protect couples, families and children. The fourth is the practice of deep listening and loving speech to restore communication and reconciliation. The fifth is about mindful consumption, which helps us not to bring toxins and poisons into our body or mind.

I asked the students in my Ecology and Culture class if anyone would care to read them out to their classmates during my lecture on environmental ethics. There were many volunteers. I did wonder if this borrowing from Buddhism would go over well with students and the viewing audience. Much to my surprise, students and the public viewers wrote in to tell me that this was a wake-up call, the first time they had been presented with specific environmental ethics. Let me be clear, the trainings are not there to judge others. They are an internal guide so that, as individuals, we wake up to love and compassion and take heed of the directions the mindfulness trainings take us in. The trainings are not a coercive design for conformity. They simply assist us to be more aware of what is going on, around and within us. They enable us to distinguish what is good for ourselves, our minds and the world and what is not. It is not necessary to complete the practice perfectly, as that is not possible. It is, however, possible to move in the direction of responsible and ethical living and make a difference to our society and environment. Do we bring to violence, indifference and terror a renewed application of the same or do we step back and consider these teachings?

There is a solution to our present situation. Our leaders have often become trapped by corporate and electoral agendas, following a similar script, seeking justification and in some cases, avocation for the use of violence. Large scale change is difficult to find within this system but the Buddha offers a path. The implications of his Five Mindfulness Trainings apply to the dangerous times we live in. Our world needs guidelines like these.

A flip side to global violence is the growing concern over the absence of love, decency and compassion in daily public life. This preoccupies and worries many citizens and scholars.  If there was ever a time to learn anew from these teachings, it is now. When we touch base with the Five Mindfulness Trainings, we are being reminded to wake up. Neglect, terror and fear are states of mind. Therefore, we need tools that reconnect us to a mind state driven by love, decency and positivity.

The Five Mindfulness Trainings are presented as an antidote to the contemporary crises. The ethics of the Five Mindfulness Trainings provide a necessary balance to find our true nature, while caring for all we connect with. In addition to addressing social and environmental crises, the building of inner spiritual strength through meditation and mindfulness is crucial.

However, I must point out that it is critical in the 21st century that necessary re-education also find a place in the Five Mindfulness Trainings. They are indeed a guidance system to encourage us to no longer participate in a non-sustainable economic system driven by greed and distraction. This global ethic is our protector as it helps us to stop, look deeply and throw away our harmful patterns of behavior. Crises such as Climate Change prompt us to refresh and refine the trainings but as we will see there were some awkward disconnects in their creation. This begs the question of how to relate to the trainings without a disconnect to their intentions?

The Buddha was clear about impermanence and new challenges. He created the Five Mindfulness Trainings for the lay community and told Ananda, his faithful attendant, that the minor precepts should be revised according to the culture and the time. But Ananda and the Buddhist elders were confused about which precepts were the minor ones and misunderstood what the Buddha was talking about. And so nothing changed for 2,600 years. There was no preparation or anticipation for modern realities, as monastic precepts have not changed very much and were not equipped to handle issues ranging from internet, terrorism, a world full of refugees, to Climate Change.

The seeds of disconnect are not just with the trainings but with dharma in general. The disconnect reveals itself in terminology. Minor precepts refer to the Five Mindfulness Trainings for lay people while major precepts define monastic ethics. This language creates a divide between lay and monastic with the latter considered as superior, which is certainly not the case. In the modern era it is the lay dharma teachers who are in society, working in the trenches of everyday life, creating transformation in alliance with many other groups of lay people. Whereas the monastic community is secluded, cut off from everyday reality and are not in a position to create transformation in the wider society.

This disconnect is a marker of modern Buddhism in the west and was noted by David Loy in his excellent article in Buddhadharma (Winter 2015.)  Loy addresses the current ecological crisis and questions the deep rooted ambivalence within Buddhism towards it. He asks “Does the ecological crisis have nothing to do with Buddhism?” I add a further enquiry, “Where are the Buddhist politicians, CEO’s, entrepreneurs in political, ecological and economic spheres?” There is a wide disconnect in Western Buddhism between playing the capitalist game, yet only being concerned with the so-called peace of the inner self. The latter is the refuge we so readily withdraw to. This can never be satisfactory. Loy points out that the issue is structural as well as personal, making the challenge that of changing the economic and political systems rather than remaining in blissful denial. He identifies the two main obstacles as:

  1. Changing the mind is where it’s at – self-absorption in the separate self – the deal we fall into.
  2. Beliefs of Buddhist practitioners that we do not waste time trying to reform the unsatisfactory world, just concentrate on transcending it.

Both obstacles are major dharma mistakes, traps about higher spiritual reality that reflect disconnect in modern times, preventing us from engaging fully with the trainings and the world. Social, political and ecological engagements are devalued as we place our backsides on the cushion, chant, drink tea and avoid the reality around us. Modern Buddhism in the West definitely needs a wake-up call. The basic premise of the Bodhisattva Path is to walk it, not as a separate self, but as an engaged self. Then an authentic sense of awakening naturally extends into political, economic and ecological spheres of potential action. I agree with David Loy that the reconstruction of our mind necessarily involves the reconstruction of our world – economic, political and spiritual.

I like his comment that “Bodhisattvas have a double practice – as they deconstruct and reconstruct, they also work for social and ecological change…….Such concerns are not distractions from our personal practice but deeper manifestations of it.”

Thich Nhat Hanh was able to overcome this awkward divide when he created the Order of Interbeing during the Vietnam War. Socially Engaged Buddhism was renewed in Vietnam by him and then extended to the West. Thich Nhat Hanh ordained the first six members of the Order of Interbeing in February 1966 during the Vietnam War. The Order’s foundation ethics for engaging with the wider society are the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings created by Thich Nhat Hanh. They contain the Five Mindfulness Trainings, the Noble Eightfold Path and are a renewal of the earlier Bodhisattva Precepts. Thich Nhat Hanh was up to date and in tune with our times. He ensured that the Fourteen Trainings of the Order are in step with modern historical, cultural and socio-economic developments yet rest on the foundation provided by the Buddha and 4th century expressions of socially engaged Buddhism.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s book Lotus in a Sea of Fire and the fourteen ethical statements that he carefully sculpted, presented a revolutionary statement of Engaged Buddhism. Since 1966, the revolutionary part has been diluted, particularly in the West where the disconnect noted by Loy is in full swing. The Order of Interbeing established by Thich Nhat Hanh seems in the twenty first century to have morphed into an ineffective bureaucracy.

To emphasize that it is not just me who is way out on a limb here, I refer to a senior Theravada monk and scholar – Bhikkhu Bodhi (Buddhadharma Spring 2017). This respected monk looked at Donald Trump’s “cabinet of bigotry” and at the same time noticed the absence of Buddhists on a petition of objection to it, which was signed by 2,500 religious leaders in America. He asked the obvious question; “why are Buddhists not visible as advocates for peace, sanity and social justice?’ Where are they indeed, given that Buddhism is the pre-eminent religion of peace and compassion? He stated forcibly that not to participate in active engagement with politics, environmental and worldly events runs counter to the Buddha path of enlightenment. He points out that Buddhists fail to realize that the battleground over power and position are ethical contests. Trump’s ascendancy to power shakes every Buddhist Mindfulness Training and this requires a strong push back from Buddhist leaders. So where is our agenda of collective resistance?

Bhikkhu Bodhi urges Buddhist advocacy in alliance with progressive leaders – religious and lay – to defend America’s embattled democracy and leads the charge of relating to the trainings in a way that has no disconnect with present global concerns. That is the point of this essay – for there is nothing wrong with the trainings, apart from some essential rewording. The disconnect lies with contemporary Buddhists in the West who do not engage with the intent of the Trainings laid out by the Buddha and Thich Nhat Hanh. The Trainings are right here! Do we engage with them from the vantage points of self-seeking and separate-self OR engage with them from an open and engaged heart?

Bhikkhu Bhodi struck a chord with Buddhist leaders in the United States. I quote from an article in the May 2017 edition of the Lion’s Roar magazine.

“ Thirteen leading Buddhist teachers, joined by over 200 additional signatories, called on Buddhists and all peoples of faith to take a stand against policies of the new United States administration that will create suffering for the most vulnerable in society……Feeling the reality of this suffering, we remember that peacefulness does not mean passiveness and non-attachment does not mean non-engagement…..The dharma is not an excuse to turn away from the suffering of the world, nor is it a sedative to get us comfortably through painful times. It (the dharma) is a powerful teaching that frees and strengthens us to work diligently for the liberation of beings from suffering…..While Buddhism has traditionally emphasized the personal cause of suffering, today we also discern how the three poisons of greed, aggression, and indifference operate through political, economic and social systems to cause suffering on a vast scale…….

As we resist the heightened threat of many of the new administration’s policies, we also recognize that under-represented and oppressed communities in the United States have long suffered from systemic greed, aggression, aversion and indifference…….While some argue that the principle of non-duality suggests that Buddhists should not engage in or take sides on political or social issues, we believe the opposite is true. It is because we and others are not separate that we must act……..It is true that our numbers are small, yet we can join with others who share our convictions and values. For those who are new to this, please remember that there are many people who have dedicated their lives to the work of social change. They have the useful skills of compassionate organizing and building sustainable movements. Find them, get involved and learn from them.”

This May 2017 Manifesto is a major step in relieving the disconnect problem in Buddhism. This brings me to the tricky role of Impermanence.

Impermanence

To change structures of elitism, greed and corporate dominance requires a mass change in consciousness. Mindfulness supports that outcome. The Buddha’s teachings on impermanence also spur such a radical change. Can we grasp the insight of extinction – of ourselves, our civilization – even of the planet? Without the insight of impermanence, we will not be able to change our mindsets. We have to find a way to adjust to our changed political and environmental circumstances. We can no longer hold on to a view of how it once was. Once we can accept that we have created the present global situation, then and only then can we find a respite, discovering insights that bring radical change to our values, habits and mindset.

It is very difficult in our western culture to accept death. The usual response is fear and denial. We have to re-educate our minds to get past these two obstacles. When we can recognize that our present form of civilization is dying, we will recognize that despair and denial will do us no good. We need only find the courage to surrender and rely on our practice of mindfulness to provide a measure of safety. Instead of denial, a space opens in our mind for lucidity and steadiness to enter, which could propel our species to live differently. Such a future on Earth requires a mass awakening of attributes that run counter to the ecology of greed. It requires a candid acceptance that our global civilization in its present form is coming to an end. Such an acceptance of our true reality on the planet can alleviate the course of environmental collapse. The energy and power to avert the disaster facing us rests in our minds and in a new collective choice to live very differently.

Thich Nhat Hanh brings this home to us in a direct and challenging way, making it very clear that any view not based on impermanence is wrong. He shows how the Buddha provided meditations on impermanence for his followers so they could recognize that the only thing that follows death is the fruit of our action and thinking, of our speech and of our acts during our lifetime. Specifically, on climate change he is very blunt:

“If we continue to consume unwisely, if we don’t care about protecting this wonderful planet….the ecosystem will be destroyed to a large extent and we will need millions of years to start a new civilization. Everything is impermanent…. We are our environment, which is in a process of self-destruction.”

 

This brings a certain peace and clarity to our minds and perhaps we can implement ethics, structures and technology to ensure a niche on this planet. We have a job to do in terms of cultivating a transformation in our consciousness, bringing about a new way of living in harmony with one another and on Earth.

We must deliberately cultivate positive ethical attributes in our minds. We have to shine the light of recognition and mindfulness on our suffering, so that we can become steady and full of resolve to live differently. We have to shift the tide of negativity, change our mindset and not squander our life. The Five and Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings provide us with templates to do that, as we consciously choose to nurture patterns of behavior and habits that are wholesome and generous. In other words, we make mindfulness practice our new habit. It is an internal transformation of consciousness at the core of our being.

I shape all of this into a simple personal mantra – “I refrain from causing harm.” I know that by refraining from one thing that causes harm, I then prevent other harmful things from happening. I arrive at my own insight, which is not imposed by any outside authority. It takes mindfulness to do this and the Five Mindfulness Trainings provide the starting point, a guidance system and a deep well of internal ethics to live by. My commitment is to actualize these trainings in my life, and in the lives of others, to the best of my ability.

I issue a Call to Action and bring Bhikkhu Bodhi back. In Buddhadharma, spring 2017 he urges Buddhist advocacy in alliance with progressive leaders to defend the United States’ embattled democracy from President Trump’s “cabinet of bigotry.”

He states; “We can call in unison for a policy of global generosity in place of rash militarism, for programs that protect the poor and vulnerable, for the advancement of social and racial justice, and for the rapid transition to a clean-energy economy …….and bring the moral weight of the dharma to bear on matters that affect the lives of people anywhere – now and long into the future.”  His statement was followed by the stance taken by Buddhist leaders in the May 2017 issue of Lion’s Roar magazine

I also call out the Hopi Elders’ Prophecy in 2000:

“Create your community. Be good to one another. And do not look outside yourself for your leader… See who is there with you and celebrate…. All that we do now must be done in a sacred manner and in celebration. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

For our part we can work with municipalities, conservationists and River Keepers to clean up our waterways and environment. Ensure that children in schools go with you and prepare them to handle cyberbullying and neglect. We hold politicians and corporations to account. Create coalitions with progressive organizations who share our love of kindness and decency.

Walk upon the Earth – Lightly. Be fully Here and Present – Lightly.

 

Foreword Clarion Review of Redemption

Foreword Clarion Review of Redemption               

“An admirable command of language brings to every scene a striking visual clarity.”

A lost manuscript from 1975 reveals the depths of a sensitive man’s soul in this pondering look at life nearing a crossroads. Not until 2011 did Ian Prattis pick up his heartfelt novel again, a book he titled Redemption. Set in the Hebrides off the northwest coast of Scotland, an unpretentious locale steeped in regional culture, this story focuses on an eccentric yet down-to-earth protagonist named Callum Mor. Subject to individual understanding and loaded with the symbolism often found in parables, the book alludes to more than what is openly stated in the narrative. Like all interpretive fiction, Prattis’s writing will communicate a different meaning to anyone who attempts to analyze his carefully crafted words. Short but powerful, Redemption may leave a person wondering whether pieces of this tale were intentionally obscured, for the plot covers an extensive period of time from Callum Mor’s childhood to maturity.

An admirable command of language brings to every scene a striking visual clarity. In this descriptive passage, the devastated mood surrounding Callum Mor’s father can be seen and felt in contrast to the harsh elements of nature: “In the wake of the gale, the day had produced a hazy sunlight that made the reeds in the marsh glimmer, but the unexpected heat in the day could do nothing to warm the cold, vacant, deadness that now enveloped Andrew.”

As Callum Mor ages, he slips into abject loneliness and succumbs to alcoholism before he goes through a positive reawakening. Gentle, with a poignant affection for animals, this cosmically aware lover of God’s creatures seems to collapse under the brutality of man’s instinct to inflict pain. To a certain degree, this somewhat typical view of morality confronting immorality causes the novel to fall into a vague realm of timeless storytelling for any indefinable, poetic piece without a specific purpose. This does not detract from the literary quality, but anyone seeking an indisputable message will not find it here. In this scene, winter emerges as a villainous character: “The wind from the north soughed softly along the shore but froze any man it gripped. The cold stole into every door and numbed the hands and minds of those unprepared for it.”

Ian Prattis is a professor of anthropology and religion. A peace and environmental activist, he was born in the UK. Prattis has spent much of his life living and teaching in Canada. This moving and eye-opening book will be a memorable experience for anyone who enjoys reading about primordial tendencies. Beneath a polished urban facade remains a part of human nature that few want to acknowledge, either due to fear or simply because it is easier to deny the basic instincts that have kept us alive on an unforgiving earth.

Julia Ann Charpentier

Available at www.Amazon.com  and www.BarnesandNoble.com   Autographed Book – Order Through: http://www.ianprattis.com/Redemption.html

 

Redemption: The Movie

Redemption: The Movie

My book – Redemption – has caught the interest of an American filmmaker. The screenplay script has been commissioned to bring the epic character of Callum Mor to the widescreen. http://www.ianprattis.com/Redemption.html  This is the first book in a trilogy – Chronicles of Awakening. Book Two is Trailing Sky Six Feathers, Book Three is New Planet, New World. All available through my website www.ianprattis.com

Here is a brief overview.

About Book One: Redemption

Redemption was a lost manuscript first written in 1975.  It was soon forgotten, as back then, I did not know how to get published. This heartfelt novel was rediscovered by accident in 2011. I found it in an old filing cabinet where it was gathering dust. I went through it and could scarcely believe it was such a good read. I requested my wife and friends with critical eyes to read it, just in case I was dreaming. One friend cried all the way through, the other mused about the film to be made. Modern technology enabled the yellowing typed manuscript to be transformed into a computer-ready document. The narrative was vivified from my writer’s eye some forty years later, yet still stands pristine as when first written. The story is an allegory for the life difficulties I experienced at that time, forty years ago. The surprise for me was how could I have written such a book about Awakening while in a desperate state of mind? I was a total mess with a failing marriage in the Hebrides, Scotland, and trying to create a career at Carleton University in Canada. I was not doing a good job with either.

Redemption is set in The Hebrides, islands off the northwest coast of Scotland, with startling cycles of maturing and downfall of the epic character, Callum Mor. He was a gifted child, master mariner and derelict drunk, who eventually gains wisdom from a hard life’s journey. He enters the dark zone of alcoholism and withdraws from society. With only his animals keeping him this side of sanity, he survives in a bleak solitude. Laced with grim humor, the novel has nature’s harsh and beautiful rhapsody as the background for tragic human failings; violence, power, murder, rape and madness. The failings are ultimately topped by the triumph of the human spirit. A family with a young girl seeks refuge from a storm at his house and slowly Callum Mor steps away from self-destruction to an astonishing awareness that triumphs over his tragedies. He saves the girl’s life in a blizzard and the glimmer of awakening dawns in him to set the stage for the final drama that illustrates the resilience of the human spirit.

Redemption is a deeply moving tale of desolation, love, loss, transformation and hope. It reads like an extended prose poem reflecting the primal forces of nature and of human nature. Its starkly gorgeous and remote island setting creates and reinforces the central themes of struggle, family, community and wonder at the beauty of the world. The rich cast of characters offers numerous gripping interludes that brim with interpersonal drama. The story centers on and is always connected to Callum Mor, but he is surrounded and influenced by a fantastic cast of family and fellow islanders. They provide a deep well of material as their conflicts and intrigues move the plot forward and offer a vast array of powerfully emotional moments. The story arcs of other characters in the novel offer intriguing counterpoints to one another and to Callum Mor. Their hopes, desires and difficulties intermingle in a tumultuous tapestry of human existence.

The narrative tone is generally quiet and introspective, but it is frequently punctuated by storms both literal and metaphorical. Loaded with the symbolism often found in parables, Redemption alludes to more than what is openly stated. Every scene provides a striking visual clarity that mystically slips into the realm of timeless storytelling. All of this provokes the tapestry for deeper, more subtle messages of compassion and faith to carefully unfold. From the rhapsody of an idyllic childhood through traumatic tragedies to the derelict zone of alcoholism and then a state of awakening, I depict the stations of a personal Calvary that ultimately leads to Redemption.

Dr. Tom Hagen, his wife Sian and daughter Catriona comprise the family taking refuge at Callum Mor’s house. They are writ large in the final book. I place them in New Planet, New World in the near future of 2080. Dr. Hagen becomes the chef-de-mission of the International Space Agency mission to settle on a planet in a nearby galaxy. Tom, Sian and Catriona move from a minor key in Book One to a massive symphony in Book Three, as their characters fill New Planet, New World to the brim.

 

 

 

Through The Eyes of a Terrified Boy

My grand-nephew James was recently celebrating his birthday, yet he felt awful and very sad about being nine, wishing he could stay five years old forever. When asked why, he replied that if he could stay five then the Earth would not explode. His lips quivered and the tears welled up in his large brown eyes. He said, “I don’t want to grow up and live in a world that is burning.” In the silence that stretched between us I could not say that my generation will fix things. He was much too intelligent for such placebos. So I spoke to him about the mindfulness community I created and the deliberate steps taken for planetary care. We simplify, make do with less, share and adapt. Our intent is to create environmental leaders and that includes him. “Why not become a leader for your generation?” I asked him. He thought about that intensely and asked what else did the community do?

            I pointed out that we encourage Voluntary Simplicity and Community Ethics as a way of life. We start with the Earth. Our big organic garden produces an abundance of vegetables, apples and flowers that are shared with neighbors and community members. It is a solace for me to spend time with the Earth, observing bumblebees and butterflies while gardening with assistance from neighborhood children. At the back of the garden is a beautiful fountain that murmurs ‘midst the flowers, which are picked and sent to the elderly folk living on our crescent. A solar panel on the roof fuels the hot water system. Everything else is as eco-friendly as we can make it for our fifty year old bungalow with a meditation hall in the basement. Our focus is on mindfulness in schools, city environment and teens at risk. I admitted to James that I am blown away by the results, for at the local level there were great women who helped make things happen.

“You mean girl power?” asked James incredulously.

“Exactly that,” I replied and told him that I have written elsewhere that the present millennium  is the century of the daughters, not so much as a gender separate thing, but as attributes of a holistic, nurturing presence of mind.

The idea is to foster a strong cadre of people in Ottawa to make a difference for the betterment of society and the Earth Mother. Women are in the forefront of this endeavor. They are the heart that holds the living waters and that heart is the dynamic epicentre that leads to effective action. James was taking it all in. He knew instinctively that major changes were needed. I intimated that when enough of us change, then we will be in charge. I told him about a speech I gave about violent and pathological consumption. His sharp mind held on to every word as I pointed out that festive occasions like Christmas provide opportunities for the best and the worst within us to come out and play. Yet kindness is quickly overshadowed by selfishness and consumer madness. We need to re-assess, as it is time to move on from being self-absorbed and distracted.

“How?” he asked again, as he really wanted to know. So I gave him a list.

Locate in something bigger than oneself; a humanitarian cause, respecting the earth, making our thinking better, being kinder and more generous. How about examining our habits about gift giving and learn to give gifts that make a difference?  I pointed out to James that I no longer buy Christmas gifts, instead present gift certificates that provide items like education for a girl in Afghanistan, micro-loans for female led families, rebuild forests in Haiti, literacy packages and mosquito nets where needed, support for Habitat for Humanity and so on.

One boy on the crescent where I live has received such gifts from me for several years. For his most recent birthday he asked all his friends not to give presents, but to bring a donation for the Ottawa Humane Society that looks after hurt animals. All of his friends brought donations, a splendid sum of one hundred and eighty dollars. They all went together to the Humane Society and happily handed their bag of cash to the surprised staff. This resonated with James.

“James, the greatest gift we can give to ourselves and others at this time of global crises is Sharing and Caring. It involves stepping onto what the Buddhists call the Bodhisattva Path.” I explained that a Bodhisattva was a person who stayed in the global mess and did their best to awaken the minds and hearts of people. I firmly stated that it is time for the Bodhisattva-within-us to enter the 21st century as the example for action. It takes training, practice, smartness and creative vision.

“You mean like Jedi training?” he enquired. I nodded with a smile. I referred briefly to my years of training in ashrams and monasteries in India and France. I confided that the real kicker for me was the time spent alone in the Canadian wilderness. I promised to talk to him about this at some future time.

Then he asked, “So what is the big deal about violent consumption?” I replied that it totally dominates our planet, mind and body. “How do we change this mad destruction of the planet?” James exclaimed. I wondered how best to explain matters to him, yet trusted his intelligence.

I said, “We must come to a stop, locate ourselves in stillness and make different choices by examining our minds, consumption patterns and then see how we actually participate in creating these terrible disasters.”

“Just how?” was his one line mantra.

“You can start by making friends with your breath,” I said. James looked up at me quizzically. “You just bring your focus to your in-breath, then on your out-breath. Really concentrate and do this ten times. This kind of focus peels away anxiety, frustration and anger so that you become calm and clear. Try it with me and notice the difference for yourself.”

He did so, nodded and grinned with agreement. I told James that we do know how to reduce our ecological footprint. We also know that taking care of the earth and the oceans takes care of ourselves. We must begin it now for the future is shaped by the actions we take at this moment. I looked at James and indicated that was plenty for him to digest, but he yelled, “No, I want to hear more.”

I could not turn away from his eagerness. I mentioned that if rampant consumption remains our deepest desire we will have a degraded planet that will certainly blow up. His fears were correct. Valentine’s Day, Easter, Christmas, Mother’s Day and so on are targeted by the captains of industry for optimal retail returns, and pathological consumerism is fuelled to the max. At Christmas we are far removed from remembering the significance of this spiritual celebration. Endless economic growth, the mantra of modern civilization, provides a promise of expectations being met without any awareness of consequences for our own health or the health of the planet.  If we do not simplify, make do with less and change, then the vicious downward spiral to a burning world would definitely occur.

“Is this your Buddhism?” James then asked.

I smiled, “The Buddha was very smart. He taught that the world is always burning, but burning with the fires of greed, anger and foolishness. His advice was simple; drop such dangers as soon as possible. What the Buddha taught was that it was the unskillful speech, selfish feelings, negative mental formations, wrong perceptions and badass consciousness that burned the world.

James laughed, “Did the Buddha really use the term badass?”

I grinned and said that was my embellishment.

“Is climate change our basic problem then?” he asked.

I paused for a moment before replying. “The basic issue is whether we can adapt to climate change. You know about the 2015 Paris Accord on Climate Change as we have discussed it before.” James nodded. “It was an exceptional step by the international community, dedicating their intent to prevent global temperatures from rising a further 1.5 degrees. What was missing from all the deliberations and press releases was a candid recognition of the “Cascade Effect,” a notion from ecological science. Tipping points in sea level rise and temperature connect to tipping points in air pollution, which connect to tipping points in polar ice melt, boreal forest wildfires and triggers further tipping points that create deforestation, desertification and so on in a relentless cascade that cannot be stopped. The reality in front of us is not the reversal of Climate Change. The question is about learning how to adapt to the consequences of Climate Change.”

I emphasized to James that the disasters all over the world reinforce each potency to explode. Whether it is wildfires, floods, landslides, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, tsunamis, millions of aquatic creatures dead on beaches, it goes on relentlessly. The media and news reporters cast science to the wind when they report the drama and hype of terrible things happening world-wide but rarely tell the truth that, “Here is another manifestation of Climate Change.” News programs are often showbiz and full of fake news, so the general public are not educated by the media about the terrible realities happening on our planet.

I continued speaking on a personal note, “So James, the challenge for me is to be in society, but as a still island of mindfulness. Take small steps at first, then larger ones. We just need to make essential changes in energy use, diet, language, media and outreach. Voluntary Simplicity is a good starting place. It means making deliberate choices about how we spend time and money rather than living on the automatic pilot of busyness. Enjoy being simple and living modestly by shifting our perceptions just a little bit.  Just look deeply into what we do with time, money, clutter and our choices, and change.  The world will follow.”

I assured James that we are equal to the task and chose not to hold back anything from him. He is an unusually bright boy and asked questions and demanded clarification. Yet I knew he had grasped what I had said. He came up to me as I was leaving and whispered in my ear that my chat with him was his best birthday present ever.

 

Invitation to my book for 2017

Our World is Burning: Essays on Mindful Engagement

As an idealistic teenager I wanted to save the world. I still do. Over the years though, I discovered I first had to save myself, because I was every bit as screwed up as the world. Indeed, saving myself and saving the world seems to be the same struggle, because we are all connected, one to another, and the forces that warped me are the same that warp the world. These essays come out of my long struggle. Please accept them as a gift; my thoughts on how to save ourselves and our world. The fifteen essays are not candidates for intellectual sophistry or a pawn in the intellectual constructions of clever talk. The reader’s experience, however, is the warp and weft of the universal tapestry.

When a breeze caresses a falling leaf, that leaf is transformed in its descent from tree limb to earth. Sunlight catches one side then glances off the other as the leaf gently spirals down. This gift of nature is not permanent. Yet notions of permanence reflect our fear of the unknown, immense dimensions within ourselves and foster the limitations we impose on reality with minds that are not free. Impermanence connotes our true nature of interconnectedness with a constantly changing web of life. We are fully alive because we are not alone. Everything connects to us. The theme of these essays is about change, cycles of transformation and discovering how we contain everything within ourselves. They rest on the ever-changing cycles that mark our journey in these tumultuous and dangerous times.

Introduction to Essay 15: Guidelines to Reconstruct our World

As a Zen teacher I make a commitment not to cause harm. I am guided by spiritual ethics yet am aware that the current disastrous state of the planet will not bring forth strategic plans of how to fix things. I could go on and on about the terrible things taking place in society and to the planet – and will divert to that in a moment. Yet the bottom line for me is to remember and refine a system of ethical conduct. So I go deeper and mainly fix myself to be steady and insightful. In the final essay of this collection I register with mindfulness trainings, as they bring to the surface all that I would like to see in people around the planet. It may sound simple minded but it is more useful than the tedious rants about what is drastically wrong and dangerous to our future.

The bottom line for me is that awakening and mindfulness are active. Activism on its own does not have the inner resources to bring about effective social and planetary transformation. I know from personal experience that retraining the wild mind is the necessary ingredient to precede activism. Stepping out on the environmental or political stage is only one part of the dance. It cannot be fully effective until the internal choreography is in place, the wild mind tamed. It will take smart discernment in order to step lightly on the planet. We have no alternative but to concentrate on sustainable living rather than greedily exploiting the spoils of perpetual economic growth. Profit cannot be the sole reason for commerce, there must be responsibility tied into the equation. At present, we are totally out of sync with the earth’s resources. The fragile threads of ecosystems around the globe are severely compromised. We are in the position of either going down the collective sewer or changing our values in the direction of awakening.

Jane Goodall issued a dire warning that “Life is Hanging by a Thread,” as all living things will be negatively impacted by rapid climate change. In particular she advocates the necessity of creating programs that stop tropical deforestation by placing rural communities as custodians of the forests. This is a tall order, as Donald Trump’s presidency has pulled the plug on a livable climate, dismantling environmental regulations and setting in motion irreversible consequences around the globe. The United States is now set on a course of ignoring climate change by obstructing clean energy and any form of conservation. The fox is already in the hen house and the 2015 Paris Climate Change Accord may be the first bird to die. Noam Chomsky refers to Trump’s priorities as “…racing as rapidly as possible to the destruction of organized human life.”

Stephen Hawking’s thoughtful piece in the Guardian (December 1, 2016) places a focus on elite behavior creating further inequality as he examines Brexit and the Trump presidency. His question is how will the elites change? He states, “We are living in a world of widening, not diminishing, financial inequality and people see only a slim chance at earning a living at all.” Hawking acknowledges this dangerous moment in humanity’s evolution. I note very little impetus of our species working together, whereas it is essential that elites learn the lessons of Brexit and Trump and retrain for a new world and not hang on grimly to their ill-gotten gains.

Our Planet Earth is like a giant living cell, whose parts are all linked in symbiosis. Biologist Thomas Lewis creates a metaphor of the Earth as a giant cell with humans just as one part of a vast system. This is not something that the elites and corporate moguls would pay much attention to.

 

Chronicles of Awakening

Prologue for New Planet, New World                                                         

My latest book, New Planet, New World, published by Manor House Publishing in Canada is now available. This work is the bookend of a trilogy and the publisher asked me to write a Prologue. A great suggestion as that provides continuity as well as shining light on three books rather than one. I offer it at $25 with an additional bonus for readers. If you buy a copy of New Planet, New World from me directly then I will give you the two prior books for free. Order through my website for this bonus http://ianprattis.com/NewPlanet.html

PROLOGUE: Chronicles of Awakening

Book One: Redemption

Book Two: Trailing Sky Six Feathers

Book Three: New Planet, New World

 

New Planet, New World is the final book of a trilogy. The first book Redemption was a lost manuscript, first written in 1975. I rediscovered this heartfelt book in 2011. The narrative was vivified with hindsight from my writer’s eye forty years later. The story is an allegory for life difficulties I experienced at that time. I was a real mess, yet despite my desperate state of mind this novel about Awakening emerged.

Redemption is set in The Hebrides, islands off the northwest coast of Scotland, with startling cycles of maturing and downfall of the epic character, Callum Mor. He was a gifted child, master mariner and derelict drunk, who eventually gains wisdom from a hard life’s journey. He enters the dark zone of alcoholism and withdraws from society. With only his animals keeping him this side of sanity, he survives in a bleak solitude. Laced with grim humor, the novel has nature’s harsh and beautiful rhapsody as the background for tragic human failings; violence, power, murder, rape and madness. The failings are ultimately topped by the triumph of the human spirit. A family with a young girl seeks refuge from a storm at his house and slowly Callum Mor steps away from self-destruction to an astonishing awareness that triumphs over his tragedies. He saves the girl’s life in a blizzard and the glimmer of awakening dawns in him to set the stage for the final drama that illustrates the resilience of the human spirit.

Redemption is a deeply moving tale of desolation, love, loss, transformation and hope. It reads like an extended prose poem reflecting the primal forces of nature and of human nature. Its starkly gorgeous and remote island setting creates and reinforces the central themes of struggle, family, community and wonder at the beauty of the world. The rich cast of characters offers numerous gripping interludes that brim with interpersonal drama. The story centers on and is always connected to Callum Mor, but he is surrounded and influenced by a fantastic cast of family and fellow islanders. They provide a deep well of material as their conflicts and intrigues move the plot forward and offer a vast array of powerfully emotional moments. The story arcs of other characters in the novel offer intriguing counterpoints to one another and to Callum Mor. Their hopes, desires and difficulties intermingle in a tumultuous tapestry of human existence.

The narrative tone is generally quiet and introspective, but it is frequently punctuated by storms both literal and metaphorical. Loaded with the symbolism often found in parables, Redemption alludes to more than what is openly stated. Every scene provides a striking visual clarity that mystically slips into the realm of timeless storytelling. All of this provokes the tapestry for deeper, more subtle messages of compassion and faith to carefully unfold. From the rhapsody of an idyllic childhood through traumatic tragedies to the derelict zone of alcoholism and then a state of awakening, I depict the stations of a personal Calvary that ultimately leads to Redemption.

            Dr. Tom Hagen, his wife Sian and daughter Catriona comprise the family taking refuge at Callum Mor’s house. They are writ large in the final book. I place them in New Planet, New World in the near future of 2080. Dr. Hagen becomes the chef-de-mission of the International Space Agency mission to settle on a planet in a nearby galaxy. Tom, Sian and Catriona move from a minor key in Book One to a massive symphony in Book Three, as their characters fill New Planet, New World to the brim.

Book Two of the trilogy, Trailing Sky Six Feathers, is a Hero’s Journey as if Indiana Jones meets the Buddha with a dash of Celestine Prophecy. Shamanic healing of childhood sexual abuse, guru training and near death experience in an Indian ashram has this author stumbling through the first part of life, then standing strong in his own sovereignty in the latter part. Past life memories collide head on with the present, all thanks to the persistence of Trailing Sky, the Muse who refused to give up on me. Karma is reversed, the internal battles are over as the author begins to live life as a Meditation for Gaia. The relentless shadowing by this engaging Muse brings understanding not only to me, but to anyone engaged in overcoming the darkness of their past.

With a voice steeped in authentic experience, I navigate past and present lives over four centuries; from brutal raids on Indian settlements in 18th century Arizona, insane sea voyages off the Scottish Hebrides in the 20th century, to a decisive life moment of surrender to the Muse in the 21st century. These screenplay-worthy epic tales weave seamlessly to create inspiration for a wide range of fellow spiritual seekers. The genre is legend mixed with autobiography. Trailing Sky initiates a dream vision in 2008 that caps my slow process of remembering a clear mosaic of experiences stretching back in time over four centuries. Over a period of thirty years (1980 – 2010) four extraordinary mentors enhance this process of remembering for me, while Trailing Sky waits patiently from the distant past. I learn how to reconfigure my understanding of time, place, consciousness and Carl Jung’s psychology.

When I talk to folk about Book Two, the first question is usually, “Why did you write this book?” I reply, “Global Citizens are staring into the abyss yet instead of being eaten up by it all I say to you ‘Awaken Spiritually.’ That changes everything. We have made our world an unpredictable beast because we fail to work with it intelligently. Rumi’s wise words are cogent, ‘Sit down and be quiet. You are drunk and standing on the edge of the roof.’ We have to take back control of ourselves and this is a spiritual matter. Turning on the switch of awakening seems to be a good idea right now. We just need to touch the sacred in ordinary experiences of life to find the courage, skill and determination to transform. I wrote Trailing Sky Six Feathers to shed light on issues that will affect our world for generations to come. The example of my own challenging journey and personal transformation illuminates one path to inspire others to choose their way to expand consciousness and chart the course for a future beyond the abyss. The human race does not need to be stuck with maladaptive options and patterns. We can and must transform. The key to change this deep freeze is Awakening, a spiritual relationship with self and Mother Earth.”

Our industrial growth civilization is a system devouring itself, dislocating the organic structures of Mother Earth to the point that all species, not just our own, are at risk. It has taken us to a dangerous precipice. From there we stare into the abyss of climate change, ecosystem and financial collapse, ISIL, resource wars, cyberbullying, terrorism and anarchy.

The two main characters that open the book in 18th century Arizona are Trailing Sky Six Feathers and Eagle Speaker. When the reader encounters Trailing Sky Six Feathers, my Muse from the past, they encounter a powerful, relentless woman who transforms my life in reality in the 21st century, not in historical fiction. She has been described as one of the most powerful woman in modern Canadian literature. Eagle Speaker is her husband and also my transformation vehicle. He dies cradled in her arms in a medicine wheel in the year 1777. As he takes his last breath Trailing Sky whispers to him, “I will find you. I will find you.” She assures her daughter, Rising Moon, that she too will find him. Rising Moon has a minor role in Book Two, yet by transferring her to the new planet in the final book, New Planet, New World, I bring the 18th century to collide with the 21st century. Time, culture, space and consciousness are fused across centuries to create the final book of the trilogy.

New Planet, New World provides a counterpoint to the demise of modern civilization. I chart a Beginning Anew for humanity, a communal Hero’s Journey to reconstruct society based on ecology, caring and sharing, as power elites ignore their complicity in the destruction of life on Planet Earth. This adventure is not without risk or cost. The clash of centuries opens Chapter One with a lyrical and dangerous meeting on a distant planet later this century. The protagonists are from different centuries and cultures. From the 18th century Rising Moon is hurled by shamanic means to Planet Horizon in a nearby galaxy. From the 21st century Catriona gets there from a failing spaceship in an escape craft. Catriona is taken prisoner but fights back screaming, “I am not your enemy.” Instead of killing one another the two young women choose to be blood sisters and embrace survival, accepting nature as their Matriarch. This fragile thread is challenged by the brutal abduction and rape of a main character, Sian the Celtic seer. Her inner strength, of being more than a violated body, inspires the community of pioneers who escape safely from the damaged spaceship. They create a communal structure of living and carve out a home and presence on the new planet.

Four Hopi Sacred Keepers offer their lives in a ceremony to enable renewal on a distant planet that none of them will experience. Mysticism combines with hi-tech to enable a Transfer Particle to seed the new planet and establish settlements. The expansion of communities is interrupted by a jihadist attempt to take over. A terrorist cell on Earth hijacks a spaceship and imperils the lives of the pioneers, who respond with tactical violence to kill them. The stark violence of survival prepares a backcloth for three distinct love stories to emerge. Ethical settlements grow as a mirror for Tolstoy’s vision of “people of the twenty fifth century” – ahead of their time. The dark episodes and lyrical passages move the story along with action, fear, resolution, death, execution, rape, bravery and exile in a futuristic opportunity for humanity.

This action packed book of intertwining plotlines arc into the epiphany of the final chapter (Thirteen), which muses about human survival anywhere. This end game is a philosophy for the future. The inclusiveness of science combines with Tolstoy’s vision, Pope Francis’ Climate Change Encyclical and not repeating the mistakes of the carbon cabal. The underlying message is from Tolstoy, the ‘Conscience of Humanity.’ He described humanity’s bottom line as the cultivation of love, the mainspring for authentic and responsible living. I do not present this as idealism, rather as down to earth wisdom. That is why I wrote this futuristic novel that takes place in the near future. It is the final book of “Chronicles of Awakening.”

The reader now begins to anticipate and harken to the rip tides of this futuristic novel.

 

Waves Into Water

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.

Thich Nhat Hanh uses a wonderful analogy of waves and water to understand how the Ultimate and Historical 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. Many other notions within time/space constraints situate the wave clearly within the historical dimension of viewing reality, which provides a metaphor for our daily existential cycle of life – our 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.  With the interconnected nature of waves and water, 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 for me 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 a teacher 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 and therefore a kinship with elementary particles such as the photon and electron. 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. I listen deeply in the silence to the communications from the wholesome attributes of feminine wisdom within me to address issues and questions. For a long time now this has been, and still is, my fieldwork of life – observation and understanding the field of consciousness within me through the eyes of the internal feminine. 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 Sangha, 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.

Silence had given me a better understanding and experience of the Ultimate and Historical Dimensions. 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 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 wife Carolyn would come home from work, take one look at me and say: “You’ve been reading the Lotus Sutra again, haven’t you?” She was right!

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 different experience from my study of the Lotus Sutra – a superficial reading 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. This is the Action Dimension – shaped for us through the Six Paramitas – plus one – Upaya! 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. Thus 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, with joy and happiness, and a full heart to share with everyone. I also experience a distinct cycle of 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 offering a dharma talk. I became available to the Three Gems in a manner I was not before. My waves carry more voltage and my Seven Paramitas are filling up rather than being half empty as my skillfulness grows. 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.

Lotus Sutra sings.

Fresh dharma rains penetrate

My heart – wide open.

 

Buddha Mind and Silence

Buddha Mind

2,600 years ago Gautama Shakyamuni awakened under the Bodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya in India.

  • Before that he practiced many deflections and trained in limited spiritual paths.
  • His penultimate ascetic practice almost killed him when he tried to subdue his mind and his body.
  • Buffalo herder Sujata saved his life – fed him – he focused on the Middle Way so his mind could settle. He sought out the bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya and sat in an imperturbable manner at the foot of the tree.

Two considerations:

  • The man Gautama Shakyamuni
  • The Buddha Mind – a universal, mystical level of consciousness. Christian mystics talk about this as “Christos.”

At Bodh Gaya we have #1 stepping into #2 and never being the same again. Gautama became the Buddha on his awakening.

The Avatamsaka Sutra establishes how to enter the Buddha’s world and mind, the reality witnessed by enlightened beings whose vision and mind are no longer clouded by egocentric addictions. What can be communicated from the Buddha Mind to our mind is the vision the Buddha first obtained under the Bodhi tree. The Avatamaska Sutra – known as the Flower Ornament Scripture – was translated from Chinese texts by Thomas Cleary in 1993. It has a surreal, mystical aspect. The Chinese scribes describe how it was delivered in full by the Buddha soon after his awakening – to all the heavens and galaxies.

The Avatamsaka Sutra requires more than an intellectual understanding. It needs a visceral response to grasp it. It is a universal phenomenon – a Buddha-verse of enlightened beings no less, bringing awakening and empowerment in their wake. It comprises thirty nine books, each one a sutra in itself – everything in Buddhism is derived from this. The template of Avatamsaka is very significant as it lays out the Bodhisattva path in all its intricacies. A visionary, mystical text – it is written that millions of enlightened beings from all the galaxies listen to the Buddha’s revelations and encounter a multi-dimensional reality that transcends time/space/past/future – or so the Chinese scribes tell us!

Shantideva and Thich Nhat Hanh

A prior stage of emphasis on this Bodhisattva paradigm was supplied by Shantideva in 8th century India at Nalanda University. This is an example of Buddha Mind at work – Shantideva  provides an example of multi-dimensional reality, as did Milarepa in Tibet during the 11th century.

  • “Eats, Sleeps and Shits” was the observation of Shantideva’s attributes, described by his teachers and fellow students. He was set up by the students to give the Graduating Speech so that he would likely be disgraced. Shantideva, however, delivered his classic poem, “The Way of the Bodhisattva” and took the entire audience into a trance – then disappeared from the throne built for him. He was never seen again. He had devoured all the sutras and books in the great library at Nalanda and stepped into Buddha Mind. Distinct parallels with the Avatamsaka Sutra in terms of mystical reach.
  • Pema Chodron – “No Time To Lose” – titles her foreword “People Like Us Can Make a Difference” in her book about Shantideva. She brings awakening down to the everyday level Shantideva prescribed – changing our minds and living in a particular kind of way by following the Way of the Bodhisattva.
  • Shantideva’s greatest gift: “Verse 14 – Great Sins are utterly consumed by Bodhichitta” – damaging patterns/habits burned up by refraining from causing harm. We also refrain from firing the 2nd arrow of fear and anger into our consciousness.
  • Bodhichitta – Awakening of the Heart and Mind
  1. Boddhisattva – an Awakened Being, who chooses to stay in the mess and turmoil and takes steps to transform it. Changing minds by following the Way of the Bodhisattva

Relative Level – Yearning to transform ourselves with bodhichitta and then transform others

Absolute Level – Buddha Mind and non-dual wisdom

  • Shantideva shows us how to work with emotional reactivity, develop bodhichitta so it becomes a way of life. His “Way of the Bodhisattva” is a guidebook for compassionate action. Think Bigger. He provides unwavering encouragement to deal with suffering, fear, habits, collapse, depression, anxiety and so on.

In the modern era Thich Nhat Hanh’s Lotus in a Sea of Fire continues “The Way of the Bodhisattva.” In 1966 in the middle of the Vietnam War Thich Nhat Hanh creates the Tiep Hien (Order of Interbeing), based on the 14 Mindfulness Trainings. He took an incredible revolutionary step – taking Buddhism out of the monastery and into society. The emphasis was on Engaged Buddhism, though Buddhism was always engaged from the get-go! Buddhist monastics had conveniently forgotten the significance of the “Engaged” part of the Buddha’s dharma talk to the five ascetics about The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path (they had also forgotten Engaged Buddhism!) They by and large busied themselves in creating a monastic semi-feudal structure that fed off the hinterland of monasteries.

  • In 1966 Thich Nhat Hanh touched the Buddha Mind to lay down a radically different template – 50 years ago. Since that time there are three major crises not anticipated:
  1. Internet explosion – distraction technologies leading to blatant addiction with social media devices and cellphones.
  2. Climate Change – denial, lack of understanding, ignoring science – in particular The Cascade Effect that compromises a safe niche for humanity on Planet Earth.
  3. Global Terrorism.

In the mentoring process for the Order of Interbeing at Pine Gate the task is to update, refine and relocate the 14 MT within current circumstances. Of the seven requirements for aspirant investigation – I will concentrate on item 4 – Silence.

  1. Intelligence
  2. Personal Experience and Suffering
  3. Focus and Investigation
  4. Silence
  5. Deepening of Practice
  6. Allow Buddha Mind to enter – flash of insight, the pen writes something you did not intend, be open
  7. End result (hopefully) – being totally authentic. Just you at your best!!

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 the Heavy Metal band –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 limited experience for good measure.

The Buddha and Yasoja

I take a more intense tangent on silence with the Buddha and Yasoja. Ten days before the rainy season retreat Yosaja 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 silent 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 Yasoja’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.

Ramana Maharsi

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 recognized 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 audience 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 trust in the arising consciousness and to be patient 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, ungrounded 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. This brief reference to Buddha, Yasoja and Ramana Maharsi describes universal consciousness.

Waves into Water

When Thich Nhat Hanh ordained me as a dharma teacher he transmitted the Lamp of Wisdom in a ceremony at Plum Village in France. This was in 2003. I was required to present a dharma talk to the monastics present on this occasion. I talked about Waves and Water to come 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. Thich Nhat Hanh’s 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 is a transcendent reality, a dimension outside of time and space, distinct from the time and space constraints of our daily existence. We often can call this Nirvana or the Kingdom of God.

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 so 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. 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 and skillful deep looking.  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, 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.

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 skillful 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 as we presently know it – 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 full. 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, much like a swift river running through it all.

Conclusion

I would like to read something I wrote twenty years ago:

“Our engagement with society and the environment rests on our quality of being. When that quality is rooted in stillness and silence there is a different ground for subsequent actions and so events take a different course. We simply go home to our true nature. We are very active in this way and bring harmony to those we interact with. The most significant interaction is the silence with our true nature. To connect to its boundless quality in daily life, and then to connect to others and the world in the same way is surely the ticket to ride!”

For a long time now I have been contemplating a different form for Pine Gate and my teaching. The evolving form I am thinking about rests in Silence. Our Thursday evening sessions will be the practice of total silence, drawn from the imperturbable silence of the Buddha and also from my training in India in the tradition of Ramana Maharsi. I will then deliver monthly dharma talks that reflect how we can draw on the Great Masters to adapt to the dangerous conditions on the planet we as a species have created.

So the bottom line at Pine Gate is the practice of Silent Meditation, Zen style, every Thursday evening with tea afterwards. The First Saturday of each month provides a Day of Mindfulness. It is an opportunity for socialization, dharma and pot luck vegetarian supper. Dharma talks, discussion, mindfulness trainings recitations, sutra study, deep relaxation, Q & A, sangha council, ceremonies and other practices will follow on further Days of Mindfulness. On occasions our supper will be a formal meal. The voice of the sangha can be heard through our our online Buddhist Journal.

The Buddha brilliantly created the initial form of sangha but I think he would not have wanted it to stay the same as it was when first established 2,600 years ago! The change of form in sangha practice at Pine Gate emphasizes the power of deep silence for bodhisattvas to emerge. I believe that from my yogi training in India that once one can be truly silent all aspects of mindfulness fall into place. We can bring the quality of silence to our speech, work, community and to the desperate situations around the world. You do not have to fight your difficulties. Silence allows it to leave you. Alone with silence and all that is generated by the imperturbable silence of the Buddha and masters like Ramana Maharsi the way is paved for bodhisattvas to emerge. This evolving form, resting on silence, brings to us the transmissions that the Buddha and Ramana Maharsi made available.

Sound of Silence

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 the Heavy Metal band –Disturbed – rams it right into our current societal and planetary collapse.

 

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!