Michael Greenleaf is an Acharya, or senior teacher, in the Shambhala Buddhist tradition. He also volunteers his time at the non profit Samadhi Cushions, working on marketing and internet issues. Michael is a member of the core faculty for Mukpo Institute, a residential program of meditation practice and study at the retreat center Karme Choling in Northern Vermont. Michael writes to share and loves to hear from his readers, appreciating every comment that is posted in response to his blog.
You might search for information about Earth Day. But before you do, may I ask: is our planet earth “a thing” we can celebrate? If “our” earth got lost and we had to track it down in another galaxy, how would we know we had found it?
Perhaps you would need to visit your old neighborhood to see if your house or apartment was still there. But your neighborhood is something that sits on the earth, right?
“Even by meeting someone’s eyes, we let go of where we are holding back.”
— Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche
Metta (or Maitri)
Metta, from the Pali language of ancient India, is associated with a short Sutra in which the Buddha extols the virtues of kindness. Typically, the word Metta (Maitri in Sanskrit) translates as “Loving-Kindness” or “Friendliness”.
The Buddha’s message of kindness does not point to a moral obligation or address a fundamental fault—quite the opposite. Rather it is a question of what is natural on the journey to enlightenment. In the Buddhist tradition, it is by practicing kindness that we create the conditions for waking up to our inherent goodness and compassion.
“Here is the moon of great bliss and skillful means. And here is the sun of wisdom and shunyata.”
Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche from The Sadhana of Mahamudra
For millennia, Asian countries and cultures have celebrated the Lunar New Year. Depending upon the country, this new moon holiday will fall within two months after the Winter Solstice. In the Shambhala community (we follow the Tibetan tradition of Losar or “New Year”) the first day of the new Fire Bird year is Monday, February 27th. Shambhala Centers worldwide will celebrate this day. Everyone is welcome.
Greek civilization used a lunar calendar. Thanks to the Roman Emperor Julius Caesar, since 46 B.C.E. we’ve been using a calendar aligned with the earth’s orbit around the sun. This calendar was refined in the Middle Ages by Pope Gregory, which is why our current calendar is called Gregorian.
How to start meditating? Different traditions answer that question differently. In Buddhist mindfulness, you start by focusing your attention on the breath. The Buddha himself gave instruction on this breath meditation in the Anapanasatti Sutra.
According to this Sutra, or discourse by the Buddha, there are steps along the path of mindfulness. The way to begin, however, is to be aware of the breath−or more precisely−the sensation of the body breathing. Meditation Practice could start in many ways, but we are already in the habit of relating to our body (and happily, we are breathing). So the breath is a natural and familiar focus for gathering the mind.
In the sutra, even before the Buddha gives instructions on how to meditate, he gives advice on preparing to practice. In other words, even when we’re doing meditation at home, there is a way to begin.
These days, everyone’s talking about the reasons to practice mindfulness. What about the reasons that make meditating a bad idea? Below, from my own experience, are 10 reasons NOT to practice sitting meditation:
The $600/hour litigator is wearing a custom suit. A smart dresser, and if it helps to paint a picture, yes, he’s from Brooklyn. Nothing much gets by this savvy fellow. He’s talking to me. But right now, he’s not making a lot of sense.
“So Michael, how’s the meditation retreat up there in Vermont? You know, I could use a little R&R. Why don’t you and I head up to one of those retreats of yours and kick back? I think we’ve earned it, don’t you?”
“Oh, I know, Uncle Seward, there is one other thing…”
We were finishing a late breakfast in the Gallery, the small, upholstered room at the Hotel Carlyle, on Manhattan’s upper east side. We were the only ones there. A successful artist and heir of a wealthy family, Uncle Seward calls the hotel home when he’s in the city, which he was this weekend. Ordering his eggs, he also ordered a rye whiskey on the rocks.
Continued from Part I: The next day our van and driver met us at our hotel in Old Havana to take us to the south side. On the way there was the usual stream of vintage American cars from the 1950’s. (Their original motors long gone, these cars were now powered by engines from Hyundai and Mercedes.) The traffic included noisy diesel trucks, and along the shoulder of the busy boulevard, the occasional donkey pulling a wooden wagon full of people and goods. Near our (relatively) posh hotel in Old Havana, animal powered carriages ferried only tourists.
After a 20-minute ride, we turned down a dusty neighborhood street with chunks of pavement missing. Ernesto asked a neighbor and then a passerby for directions. After a couple more turns, the van pulled up in front of small iron gate in the middle of a nondescript cement wall. Our driver, impassive until now, looked concerned. He let Ernesto know that he would stay with the van.
Stepping Through a Gate
Led by Jeanine, we piled out and walked through the narrow opening, the gate creaking behind us. To our astonishment, beyond the wall was a small leafy Zen style garden and pool. Various bonsai were on display. There was a feeling of calm and tranquility. Ernesto surveyed the scene in disbelief.
The Sensei, smiling, was standing in the garden in front of the entrance to the dojo. Serene, with a modest air about him, he was average height, but broad, dressed casually in an open shirt and jeans. “Sensei’s chest is a brick wall,” I thought, reflecting on a sense of immovability. A couple of his students in their late teens or early twenties looked on with curiosity.
We were led inside the dojo, a simple concrete room with a big mat secured by wire hooks into a cement floor. On the walls hung Japanese calligraphy, pictures of Japanese lineage figures, and wooden practice swords. High, unprotected openings in the cement let the light in.
The Story of a Dojo
“This house used to be abandoned,” the Sensei began explaining in Spanish. Ernesto, useless as a guide, slipped into the role of translator. “We asked for permission from the city to make it a dojo. I wanted to offer the kids in the neighborhood something. In this dojo we don’t teach sports martial arts, we teach mind martial arts — the way of Bushido. We want the young people to learn humility, honesty, courage, and decency. From the perspective of our tradition, the true Way has nothing to do with arrogance or egotism.”
As he spoke, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. Jeanine was beaming. This distinction between “sport training” and “mind training” was familiar to us from the late Shibata Sensei, who taught Kyudo, or Japanese Archery, to the Shambhala community.
In response, Jeanine shared our appreciation for Shibata Sensei and the love and respect Shambhala’s founder, Chogyam Trungpa had for him as well as the Zen Master Suzuki Roshi. Chiming in, I added that our own teacher, Sakyong Mipham, was a student of Shibata Sensei himself, and that in Shambhala we practiced not only Kyudo, but also Ikebana or the Way of Flowers, and Cha-Do or the Way of Tea. At the center of our discipline, I added, was Zazen, or sitting meditation. You could feel Sensei listening as our words were translated.
In his hands, the Sensei was holding a book. In response, he held it up. “Cuban scholars have made connections between the philosophy of the Cuban poet/revolutionary Jose Marti [the ‘apostle’ of an independent Cuba–ed.] and the code of Bushido,” he explained earnestly. “Marti’s dedication to others is what I want to teach the young people here.” It was clear that the Sensei traced his lineage both to Jose Marti, as well as to the Japanese immigrants who had brought martial arts to Cuba.
Time for an Offering
As it came time to leave, I overhead my wife asking herself, “what can we offer?” Suddenly, “I know! I know!” From her purse Jeanine pulled out a small red booklet entitled The Six Ways of Ruling. “Michael, you should give him this.”
Cueing Ernesto that a presentation was coming, I held up the booklet toward Sensei in a gesture of offering. “In the Shambhala tradition,” I began, “the practitioner is understood to possess inherent dignity, like a king or queen. There is a Way of uncovering this dignity which we call the Path of Warriorship.”
“Warriorship in this case is not about waging war, but about rulership, riding the energy of life. The practitioner of this path embraces rulership out of dedication to others. The six ways of ruling are: benevolent, true, genuine, fearless, artful and rejoicing.” I named each quality, pausing to give Ernesto a chance to find the correct word in Spanish, adding as I went, a short explanation for each one.
Hearing the 6 Ways of Ruling, the Sensei was smiling broadly. In this moment we realized our kinship. As I presented the booklet, Jeanine apologized for its worn corners.
“The fact that it’s worn means it has your soul in it—making it an even more significant gift,” the Sensei replied with feeling. As we were leaving, Jeanine asked if there was something the dojo could use from Samadhi Store, pointing out that we carry temple gongs and other products from Japan.
“The thing we could use the most is for you to return and visit us again,” said the Sensei with warmth and sincerity. We said our goodbyes, pledging a return visit. On our way out, Jeanine made an offering of pesos to the upkeep of the dojo, bowing as she placed an envelope on the alter. The iron gate clanking behind us, we were greeted by our van and driver, who looked both happy to see us and ready to be moving on.
In Havana we never had a kosher meal or visited a synagogue. The Buddhist Meditation center did indeed appear not to exist. But by following instincts, at the end of a broken and dusty street on the south side of town, we discovered a Sensei practicing and teaching the path of warriorship. This chance encounter was also one of the ways we met the requirements of our license to visit Cuba.
“So, today you will enjoy a kosher lunch, followed by a trip to the synagogue…” our guide looked at us blankly, waiting for a reaction.
Jeanine Greenleaf, the President of Samadhi Cushions and I, her husband, were in Cuba, traveling under the auspices of Shambhala. Our granddaughter Camille, a high school senior with four years of Spanish, would serve as a translator.
Jeanine’s daughter Isabelle and our younger granddaughter Sophie would join us from France. As French citizens, they didn’t need a special purpose to visit Cuba, but they were open to the requirements of our fact-finding journey to the communist country.
“A kosher meal and a trip to the synagogue?” Jeanine asked quizzically. Our van had just pulled up to the restaurant; presumably the kosher meal preparations were already underway.
“Yes, that’s what’s on the itinerary.” Said Ernesto, again without expression.
The day before, at the charter desk in Miami, our boarding passes for the hour-long flight to Havana had been stamped “Documents in Order”. Our General License—the one that allowed us to travel to Cuba legally—identified our purpose for the trip. The letter from the secretary of our organization stated that we would be exploring how Buddhism could impact the historically Catholic population.
Evidently, the tour company providing the van and guide had misread our letter. It turns out there is a small Jewish community in Havana. Jeanine smiled. “No, not Jewish—Buddhist. We are Buddhists in the Shambhala Tradition. So we don’t require a kosher meal or a trip to the synagogue. While that might be interesting, isn’t the goal of our trip. Rather than a synagogue, we need to visit a meditation center—a Buddhist meditation center.”
“Ah,” said Ernesto dispassionately. He looked up to think while scratching a day old growth of a beard. “That could be hard, I don’t think there is one.” Ernesto was a smart, urbane, educated, well-read and articulate young man of 30, with excellent English, French and Italian. As an employee of the tour company, he was also a government worker. The government owns all of the tour companies in Cuba.
“Let me make some phone calls, I will find out,“ he offered hopefully. We enjoyed a lunch of fresh fish at the restaurant, which was half-independent and half government-owned, not an atypical arrangement in the communist country. After lunch, Ernesto informed us that there was a group practicing “Vi-Vi-pa…” I finished the word for him, “Vipashyana?”
“Yes, that’s it. They meet every other Sunday in Havana. But they are not meeting this Sunday.” (In the intervening Sunday, the one upcoming, the venue hosted a yoga group.) Vipashyana would have to wait.
After lunch we stopped by a community arts center in the neighborhood. Once inside, Jeanine struck up a conversation with one of the artists whose work was on display. Camille assisted in translation. Jeanine explained our quest to visit the apparently non-existent Buddhist Meditation center in Cuba.
“Well, I’m a member of a Dojo. My son goes too. You should visit and meet the Sensei. Come tomorrow.” The painter, a lively gentleman with bright blue eyes, wrote out his cell number and handed it with some explanation to Ernesto.
Back in the van, Ernesto looked anxious. The “Dojo” (pronounced “doyo”) was on the south side of Havana in a poor neighborhood. “The Sen-sei?” He asked, pronouncing the word for the first time. “I’m not sure if we can go there.” (Later we found out that our guide was required to report and explain all tour changes to his supervisor.)
“We are going there,” Jeanine declared, ignoring Ernesto’s hesitation. Jeanine had a good feeling about the painter, who was warm and open. “The Sensei saved my life,” he had shared, hinting at story that would go untold.