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. We asked Mrs. Greenleaf, who is in France at the moment visiting her family, to share something of her life in France when she was younger.
Then: The Way of the White Clouds
The time was the 1970’s. I was in New York City working for the welfare department. I ran across The Way of the White Clouds by Lama Govinda. I had begun to wonder about reincarnation. Lama Govinda covered reincarnation in a direct, plain-spoken way that, for the first time, made the idea real to me.
Since a child, mountain people and things Asian had fascinated me. The lives of the Native Americans also captivated me. “Peau Rouge” — literally “red skin” — could be seen on American movies about the Wild West, which played in the one theater of my little French Village. My father, who worked as a stable hand since he was a boy, would be less interested in the plot of the movie than the beautiful horses and horsemanship he saw on the screen.
If I think about my village, I can’t help but remember my grandmother. She lived alone (her husband died early) like a hermit in a little stone house in the woods. When I was seven or eight years old, my favorite thing to do with her was mushroom hunting, which we would do very early in the morning in the town forest. I had to have trusted my grandmother a lot, since the forest was home to wild boar which loomed in my consciousness as something that could put a quick end to little girl’s life.
“MéMé” (pronounced MAY-MAY) was renowned for her ability to find and identify mushrooms. Individuals and chefs would come from many towns away to get her opinion on the edibility of a mushroom. All in all, life as a child in a small, rural French village was very earthy. Maybe for this reason, Lama Govinda’s descriptions of Tibetan nomadic life were not so foreign. They awakened in me the inquisitiveness and curiosity for life that I had experienced as a child.
Anyhow, at the time of White Clouds, I was doing hatha yoga pretty consistently. This included a little meditation and chanting (Om Shanti/Shanti Om, if you must know). Since these sessions were short, I didn’t think about a meditation cushion. Later, I learned mindfulness meditation from Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. To sit up straight a bit longer, I grabbed a cushion off of the couch. At a group sitting, I saw a cushion called a Zafu. A friend had one of these (they were hard to find back then). I borrowed it, figured out how it was made and made my own. Now I help make them for a lot of people. In the beginning we didn’t sit on Zabuton mats, so our legs just rested on the floor. As sitting periods got longer and we started to do retreats, this was uncomfortable, and I started to make Zabutons as well.
Now: Ruling Your World
Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche’s amazing book is realistic about the challenge of practicing meditation in this age, and at the same time poetic and inspiring. The book is also empowering: first pointing out how we let the circumstances of our world “rule” us, and then clearly laying out the path of meditation, which leads to reclaiming our inherent nobility. The descriptions are vivid and seemingly simple. In “Shambhala Fashion”, no aspect of life is exempt from the requirement to wake up and transcend the “me plan”. Even after many years of meditation practice, this book was a fresh reminder to me that every aspect of life requires intention and mindfulness.
The book includes “Six Ways of Ruling” which I understand as a teaching on how to “rule” your own mind first, before attempting to work with others. Because it is so accessible and applicable, this is a great book for beginning students of meditation who would like to lead a full and joyful life. I have been fortunate to be able to work with and serve Sakyong Mipham a lot over the years. He is an earthy person like me, who really embodies the principles that he teaches about.
These days I don’t sit on a Zafu cushion. I practice meditation on the Low Cloud Bench with a 2” Gomden. All on a Zabuton mat. A few years ago, I broke my left leg pretty badly. By giving me some extra height, the Low Cloud Bench allows me still to keep a cross-legged posture. I also like that there’s room to bring one of my heels in under me, which supports an upright posture and makes it easier on my back.