Samadhi Cushions: Our Staff Reads!

Editor’s Note: To look at the breadth of what we might have read to support our meditation practice, we asked staff members to talk about books that inspired them at the beginning of their sitting meditation career, as well as books that freshly inspire them today. These selections reflect our Buddhist heritage, but can be enjoyed by anyone exploring the practice of meditation.

While the support provided to the path of meditation the books here is timeless, we have grouped the responses under the general headings of “Then” and “Now”. We asked Michael G. to launch this effort.

Then: Meditation in Action

“And here you can see quite clearly that meditation is not trying to escape from life, it is not trying to reach a utopian state of mind, nor is it a question of mental gymnastics. Meditation is just trying to see what is, and there is nothing mysterious about it.”
—Chögyam Trungpa, Meditation in Action

Meditation In Action by Chogyam TrungpaA gift from a family friend, my Dad got this book when I was a sophomore in High School. I don’t remember if he recommended it or I just borrowed it from his desk. I was getting high and reading Ram Dass’s “Be Here Now.” Highs turned into lows and I started to wonder how spirituality and I would get along, exactly. In the book, Chögyam Trungpa’s voice is somehow both authoritative and soft. The evocative descriptions of India at the time of the Buddha transported me. I didn’t yet have a meditation practice, but Trungpa’s descriptions of meditation, as a discipline that happened in spite of ambitions for “higher states,” spoke to my own struggles and disappointments at the time and forever marked my understanding of what it might mean to be “spiritual”.

Dad was a member of an Ashram that practiced Kundalini. Maybe because it was all about unblocking energy and I was a mass of energy, or because my Dad was into it and that made it suspect — whatever the reason, I wasn’t attracted. Then (because he owned a house) my Dad hosted Sherab Chödzen, then Michael Kohn, one of Chögyam Trungpa‘s senior students, on a teaching tour.

As he arrived for his visit, I saw Sherab get out of Dad’s car in our driveway. From 50 feet away I had to know who he was and what he was about. On the spot, I decided to take the weekend he offered and began a practice of sitting meditation for the first time.  During the weekend, we met in a meditation interview. He was warm and open and seemed to find things amusing. At the same time, he treated me like a real person. I never felt that he was talking down to me, a lowly teenager.

All in all I would say he was very kind to me. Really, it was a revelation — an introduction to the notion of  “teacher” as a real live person. Things didn’t have to remain a mystery. There were people out there who could help you deal. Who actually knew something. Meditation in Action was inspiring, but here was a living example of what meditation means – that made it real. Many years later, I remain grateful for his encouragement.

At the weekend there was emphasis on a daily meditation practice, which I began to try to keep up after that weekend (a happy struggle that continues today). At the time I had no clue about a zafu and zabuton or really much insight into the importance of posture in meditation. I just sat on the floor of my room, experimenting with throw cushions. It was pretty precarious.

Later, I discovered Chögyam Trungpa at Naropa University‘s summer session. (Again tagging along with my Dad). From reading Meditation in Action it was clear that Chögyam Trungpa had real insights into the path of meditation. Just what he had to offer would manifest in the years following the publication of this slight book. It is a complete portrait of the path, with chapters on the Buddha, Meditation, Transmission and the transcendent actions of the Bodhisattva.

Amazingly, in the chapter on Wisdom or Prajna, there is a thorough discussion of the need to become a “warrior” who “has great confidence” – themes that would become central in the teachings of Shambhala, The Sacred Path of the Warrior, many years later.

Now: The Adornment of the Middle Way

“Therefore, this reasoning brings knowledge to those who do not understand and refreshes the memory of those who have done so. This argument has the power to dispel all misconceptions contrary to the fact that things have no inherent existence.” — Jamgön Mipham, in his commentary

The Adornment of The Middle WayMipham’s commentary on Shantarakshita’s (the 8th century Indian adept) synthesis of the two main Buddhist schools of Madyamaka and Yogacara is definitely not for everyone. I’m reading this for the Mipham Academy course taught by Khenpo Gawang at Karmê Chöling. When we study in this class, we sit on our meditation cushions with a puja or study table in front. In this way, there is a kind of mixing of study and meditation.

In no way a scholar (I’m a CPA, so do the math); the only reason I can read this book is because I have a community of people that I get to share it with. Many times, I don’t follow the reasonings. But the 19th century Tibetan Master Jamgön Mipham has a completely cheerful, engaging and distinctive voice that captivates, looking with incisive humor at the way we humans’ misconceive the act of perception.

For instance — how do we know the details of things? If a butterfly lands on a flower in front of us, do we perceive the wings, colors, body, movement and flower “all at once” or “successively?” Suffice to say that investigation into this question by the meditative mind yields remarkable insights. Mipham’s encouragement to look closely at the nature of experience keeps it real for me.

The language of the Padmakara translation often borders on easy to follow. Some prefer the translation by Thomas H. Doctor, which includes the original Tibetan text on facing pages.

A Time for Healing (Meditation)

Things have been weighing on my mind.

I sit on a few nonprofit boards. The continuing decline in stock markets has left these institutions possibly imperiled.  At the beginning of the week, on Monday, I had a mole removed.  An hour drive through blowing snow to a visit with the dermatologist scheduled two months earlier.  During the drive, a cell phone call from a patron to invite me to assume temporary Board Chair responsibilities for a struggling arts organization.  More time will be needed.  Outcomes uncertain. The phone call makes me remember long-scheduled commitments to teach meditation looming ahead on my schedule.  I had yet to prepare for these.

In the examination room, stripped down to my underwear and socks.  The doctor asked me if I thought meditation could be “healing.”

Here it is, my big chance to influence Western Medicine.  “Yes,”  I answered, intoning with talk of body, mind, and breath.  Key, I added, was intellectual understanding or “view” for successful meditation practice.  All of this while the doctor scanned my exposed skin with what looked like a fancy magnifying glass. Somewhere in the middle of my pitch, I lost him.  Running behind schedule with his patients.  Limited time for chitchat, I guess.

He stopped his scanning at a mole on my back.

“Whoa.  OK, this one’s gotta go.”

“Oh, really.  When should we do this?”  I asked, imagining a time down the road when the thought of this procedure would fit in comfortably with all of the worries pressing in on my schedule.

“If it’s OK with you – Now.”

I sputtered something about my immediate plans for the day and then came up with the real question – “Will it hurt?”

“Just a pinch.”

Some more reassurances and a needle prick later there was casual talk about the doctor’s upcoming trip to San Francisco, future emails and phone calls with “results”.  Eavesdropping, I thought he was speaking to the nurse until it dawned on me that he was talking to me — referring to the erstwhile piece of me that needed to be tested for cancer.  Six days later and a few fitful nights and anxious dreams, the still sore, quarter-sized crater in my back is looking like it just might heal and I haven’t heard anything from the good doctor.

Abandoned Paper Bag
Abandoned Paper Bag

“You are so lazy!” my wife, Jeanine exclaims in exasperation on Saturday – referring to a paper shopping bag emptied of its contents but left to languish for an hour on the floor of the kitchen. I couldn’t disagree. Heightened anxiety distracts me. If left to fester, immobilization is the result.  OK, so call this existential crisis “laziness”.  I didn’t have the energy to split hairs.  In any event, to be sure, more than my usual share of household ineffectiveness had characterized the past week.

During this week my customary morning meditation practice has also faltered.  Sure, meditation practice is healing.  But probably not if you don’t do it.  Last night having exhausted all distractions, I finally talked myself onto the Zafu and Zabuton in our meditation room.  While sitting and paying attention to my breath, I faced my anxiety.  A jumble of thoughts and emotions pressed on my mind and future.  Behind all of them lingered a heightened sense of mortality. My practice was pinching.

Slowly, coming back to mindfulness of my breath, I stopped fighting.  The anxiety relaxed into a sense of sadness and loneliness. Was my suffering brave, a profound and timely confrontation with impermanence?  Or was it the worry-prone machinations of a comfort-obsessed coward?  No way to know.  Sitting on my meditation cushion, late on Saturday night, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.  The sad lonely feeling was a relief.  My mind was settling.  A week of dithering about, trying to postpone this meeting with myself, was over.

Saturday night I slept well. Sunday morning, for the first time all week, my physician-mind woke me up with a prescription for “healing” meditation.

“Oh really,” my anxious-mind replied. “When would you like to do this?”

“If it’s OK with you”, my physician-mind replied, “Now.”

Editor’s Note: In diagnosing suffering, its cause and remedy, the person known as the Buddha is sometimes called “The Great Physician.”  For inspired and thoughtful texts on healing meditation see Tulku Thondup’s Healing Power of Mind and Boundless Healing.  For the tradition’s take on what the “physician-mind”  might look like, see the Medicine or Healing Buddha.

Impermanence, or College Students Are Getting Younger

I assumed the group of students visiting our store here in Barnet were from a high school, but it turned out they were from Indiana Pennsylvania University.  This is one way I’ve noticed the passage of time lately: college students are much younger now than when I was in college.    However, photos recently posted to Facebook  show that I and my classmates were just as young then as today’s college students are now.   Curiously, when I see these photos there’s a lack of recognition: people look younger than I remember them.  I haven’t seen them for twenty years, but often their current (“after”) photos look more like my memory of them than the 20-years-ago (“before”) photos do.  (Except for those like myself with significant hair loss and weight gain.)

Before
Before

After
After

There was never a sense that I would age, and in fact I think I still don’t believe it.  Life would continue for sure, but I would – will – continue always to be as pretty and as energetic as 20-year-old me.  And since I don’t age, and death only happens to old people, that’s something else which never crossed/crosses my mind.  But a surprising number of my friends from college are no longer living.  People who were younger than me.  A dear old friend of mine died of a heart attack a few months ago; she was 41.   Can you see where I’m going with this?

Of course,  whenever I really start to contemplate my own impermanence,  thoughts begin flickering about things which I need to do before I die, and so I’d better get practicing to become a famous middle-aged bald rock musician, or getting in shape so I can experience the smells of Everest Base Camp first hand, or go bungee jumping in the Grand Canyon.  But the thing is, these thoughts don’t stay with me for long.  People usually apply the old saw “you can’t take it with you” to the accumulation of wealth or material objects, but it seems to apply equally well to the accumulation of thrilling, or entertaining, or mind-numbing, time-consuming,  experiences.  I can’t take them with me either.  Not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with bungee jumping, or with owning a nice house, or watching Star Trek reruns on my laptop, or whatever.   Certainly if one is engaged in what seems necessary,  is doing what truly brings them joy, that joy will generally spread infectiously.  If I can apply another old saw, it’s not what you do but how you do it.

So the question  (besides “What is this thing called life and how do you do it?”) becomes, What is it that truly brings me joy?  Which some days is easy enough to answer and some days is not.  But the best way I’ve found of asking, or addressing, that question – both of those questions – is to sit down on my meditation cushion and simply look at this human life in this moment.  Sitting here between heaven and earth, at, as I think Thoreau put it, “the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment.”

Now all I need to do is take my own advice and sit my butt down on my zafu