Barnet, Vermont We remember here Acharya Michael Greenleaf, a senior teacher in Shambhala and a co-founder of the wildly successful Mukpo Institute.
The Acharya’s road to revered ‘would-be Master’ was not easy or anticipated. As a boy, he mercilessly harassed his one sibling, a younger brother. Both smarter and more sensitive than Michael, Tony suffered this abuse with dignity. Later, Michael would take credit for “introducing my brother to the Buddhist path of patience and loving kindness.”
The class had been preparing diligently since September. After 9 months of reading works from the AP Lit canon, annotating Chaucer and Ovid, debating Morrison and Ellison, writing analyses on everyone from Orwell to David Foster Wallace, practicing answering multiple choice questions on excerpts of Junot Diaz and Sharon Olds — even venturing out to late night Manhattan readings given by Ms. Olds and Mr. Diaz in the flesh — the class still felt anxious.
The Times article suggested that meditation can help anyone quiet down their racing thoughts and anxieties, and provide a tool to keep focused on one activity for longer periods. As a result, this improved quality of concentration could lead to higher test scores. And with the exam looming just around the corner, the class thought, why not give it a try?
So on the morning April 29th 2013, the 21 students each grabbed their own meditation cushion, which had been provided by Samadhi Cushions (samadhicushions.com) and hopped on a school bus to The Empty Hand Zen Center (emptyhandzen.org) in New Rochelle, NY to learn to meditate. Guided by Susan Ji-On-Postal, teacher and founder of the Empty Hand Zen Center, they sat comfortably on their meditation cushions, focused on their breathing and monitored their wandering minds.
Most of the class has been asking to return ever since; some even ventured out of the Bronx back to New Rochelle to meditate again and others have taken their meditation cushions home to practice zazen on their own.
Although their scores will be released in mid-July, most of the AP Lit students appreciated the experience and stated that they’d continue meditation practice on into college to just “relax” and “focus the mind.”
This year, the Christian tradition of Lent falls during the weeks before and after the first day of spring. Lent is a time associated with purification and renunciation. While Buddhism is no stranger to these practices, one of the words for renunciation in Tibetan can also be translated as “contentment”. (The word is chok-she, which literally means “to know enough, to know what is enough”.) Rather than self-sacrifice or a lowering of expectation, contentment refers to waking up from the confusion of continuous want; appreciating the richness of experience in each moment.
To say what might be obvious, this moment, in this life, is the only one we have. Nevertheless, many of us find ourselves planning in vain for another moment, another now. Not only an expression of our wish to grow and learn, sitting on our meditation cushion is also taking the time to find, or more accurately express, contentment in our own experience as it is now. (Notably: the word contentment includes “content”, which when the accent is on the first syllable, refers to the ability to hold).
Contentment is curious. Take The Contentment Test below to discover more.
1. When you have screwed up again, you should:
A: Buck up and try harder.
B: Confront the jerks who let you down.
C: Take a long hard look at your own failings.
2. When others have failed, it makes sense to:
A: Show how they set their sights too high.
B: Explore the details of the screwed-up.
C: Look for ways to help them move forward.
D: Remind them they’ve done this before.
3. Someone who questions the virtue of continuous entertainment:
A: Hasn’t seen ‘Dancing with the Stars’
B: Sees life as a chain of small but meaningful decisions.
C: Is afraid of the rituals that make us a society.
D: Has questionable social skills.
4. When you’ve realized who you are, you should:
A: Try to find yourself.
B. Share colorful stories highlighting your outstanding qualities.
C. Be patient until others reach your level.
D: Share your insights with those who need them most.
5. The best way to get things done is to:
A: Slow down.
B: Waste less time (with questions like these).
C: Champion productivity.
D: Fake it ’till you make it.
6. Complete the refrain: “Somewhere, over the rainbow…”
A: Sh*t Happens.
B: Is a wonderful view.
C: Lunch is ready.
D: Credit cards have lower rates.
7. Complete the following: “Life has meaning when…”
A: I’m doing what I want.
B: I’m not stuck with someone else’s job.
C: Stupid questions are avoided.
D: I know what I’m doing and why.
8. Finish the statement: “Success is…”
A: Having more (not less).
B: Being willing to win.
C: Nothing to worry about.
D: One million hits on YouTube.
9. It’s important to tell the truth because:
A: There’s nothing to hide.
B. It might just work.
B: Unable to recall at this time.
C: No one’s really listening.
10. When you meet another person, best to:
A: Judge them fairly.
B: Keep a safe distance.
C: Baffle (if you can’t dazzle).
This test was inspired by the teachings on the Dignity of the Tiger, from the books Shambhala, The Sacred Path of the Warrior and Ruling Your World. I answered my test like this: D, C, B, A, A, B, D, C, A, D—a result I was satisfied with. Since I wrote the test, it wasn’t so hard. How did you do? How would you compose your own test? This spring, wishing you contentment in the ever-changing nature of the moment.
I’m Gina Caruso and belong to the Shambhala Meditation Center of Chicago, which is housed in a vintage estate along Sheridan Road not too far from Lake Michigan. Chicago is known as “the City in the Garden,” or Urbs in Horto. Gardening, it turns out, cultivates more than the plants around our building; it’s a magnetizing force that attracts people to the Shambhala Center.
Most summers I would garden in the front of the building and several people would stop and ask me about meditation. Inevitably they would ask what we do, or mention how they walk past the Center and always wanted to stop in. People have a natural curiosity and motivation to find ways to work with what arises in their lives. Sometimes it just takes that simple human connection to help them explore the Shambhala Center. It becomes less a building on the corner and more of a place to explore their humanness. I’d be surprised and heartened by people’s immediate candor once they knew what we do: I’d hear stories of stress at work, challenges caring for aging parents, and the general release of what’s on their mind.
Along the Shambhala Buddhist path, there have been many teachers who plowed the hard ground before us and allowed Shambhala teachings about Basic Goodness and kindness to grow. I can’t help but be reminded of this as I turn over the ground to Black-eyed Susans, sharing with passers-by how meditation can help them in their daily lives.
When I welcome newcomers to the Center, I offer them different ways of doing sitting practice, such as the traditional cushions – zafu, zabuton and gomden – but also using a stool or just a chair. It’s helpful to let people know they have options for meditating so they can stay engaged with the practice.
The Chicago Shambhala Center – like many other Shambhala centers – has a great balance of fluidity and structure. Fluidity in that someone can come and go as they please without expectations, and structure in that if someone wants to relate more deeply to building community and to their practice, we have forms and structure to support that. It’s inspiring to know people from the first day they come in for meditation instruction, to coordinating events, taking Buddhist refuge vows, and becoming an integral part of the community.
Chicago is a city of neighborhoods and we’re branching out into satellite centers south and west in the City. Not only can people take meditation classes convenient to where they live, but they will have the main center on the north side for larger programs. Also, we are pretty close to Madison and Milwaukee, Wisconsin so our sense of a “center” is really more regional.
I remember my first time going to the Shambhala Center and how instantly I felt at home. Looking back, I think it had to do with the people there feeling at home at the Center, and I wanted to know and experience what it felt like to be a part of that community.
Twelve years later, as Chair of the Governing Council at the Center at a time when the world has so many challenges and as people have a real desire to feel a sense of belonging, that sense of community is even more needed.
It’s helpful to ask ourselves “What will support awake mind and benefit society in this moment?” And asking others what they do to support awake mind, especially in the container of a Shambhala Center, makes the journey that much more workable and inspired, much like how amazing it is when those Black-Eyed Susans come up every year.
Scientists in Germany reported Thursday that the often-described sense of lost-hiker déjà vu, of having inadvertently backtracked while wandering in the woods — is real. “People really do walk in circles,” said Jan L. Souman of the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tubingen. – The New York Times, August 2009
The path of meditation shines a light on habitual patterns that keep us lost, both to ourselves and the world we inhabit. For meditation to move forward, however, orientation is essential. As the article from the Times on lost hikers aptly demonstrates, orientation isn’t optional. We always have one. The question is: where is it taking us? Summarized notes and quotes from the Times’ article in italics:
As long as the sun or moon was out, volunteers were able to walk (more or less) in a straight line. But on cloudy days or dark nights, they would loop back on themselves, often several times.
Find a meditation teacher. Read a book that speaks to you. Find friends who are interested in meditation. Teachers and companions on the path are the sun and moon that meditators use to orient themselves. They can help you find and adjust your direction. Like any discipline, meditation practice needs view or vision. Teachers and companions on the path of meditation can provide essential guidance.
Information sources in the brain are relative — “they don’t tell you when you are moving in the same direction as an hour ago.” When it comes to being lost — “you cannot trust your own senses at all.” What sets experienced hikers apart? They are “more aware” of what has happened.
The desire to be somewhere else makes it very hard to see where you are and where you’ve been. Looking back on difficult periods in our life, we find that in many ways, our sense of being lost was partly self-imposed and self-perpetuating.
Of course, inasmuch as none of us really know where we are going, being lost is part of the creative process of living. Meditation supports an honest assessment of our situation as human beings. It is practicing acceptance — a first step toward understanding where we are now. Understanding where we are — and have been — is key to changing direction.
“One way to walk straight is to set your sights on a nearby tree, walk to it, find another tree in the same direction, and move to that”. In other words, proceed in steps or stages.
Don’t look for great and immediate staggering results from sitting on your meditation cushion. Set reasonable and thoughtful goals for yourself – and meet them. Authentic meditative traditions have a culture that embody this skillful means. As per Tibet’s greatest yogi/saint Milarepa — “Hasten slowly, and you will soon arrive.”
Without orientation, “little errors will compound themselves” and “when the errors start to build in one direction, the hiker often ends up going around in circles.”
We get frustrated or hurt by life, and then we get upset about being upset. Compounding habits seem to address our pain, but they only perpetuate it. At some point we have to relax and give ourselves a break. Be firm with yourself when you have to be, but there is never a good reason to be harsh or dogmatic. Be your own friend.
There is one sure way to avoid going around in circles:
“Your job as the lost person is to sit down.”
There are unexpected twists and turns to life, and long paths that seem to stretch out in front of us forever. Even so, it is a beautiful journey. When we meet it fully, we discover what it means to be human. Losing our way is an expression of losing a connection with our own heart. Often, even if it doesn’t feel right, we find reasons why we have to keep moving.
Sitting down, paying attention to the sensation of breathing, we can appreciate ourselves, relaxing the habitual patterns that cover our heart and obscure our vision. Looking back on our restlessness, we realize there was a level of frustration, fear or even anger, behind our agitation. When you don’t really know why you’re moving or where you’re heading, find a meditation seat (and space for meditation) where you can be comfortable and sit down!
Editor’s Note: In Tibetan, the word for life as we know it is korwa – which means wheel. A traditional analogy for a live lived without understanding: a bee buzzing around in a jar. At the same time, movement is natural and necessary. And after all, it is possible to hide in stillness as well as activity. In either case, as Michael points out, the question is where are we trying go? For students of meditation, studying a meditation primer for even a few minutes a day can be enormously helpful on the journey.
Last Saturday morning was busy with a long list of errands. First stop was the Farmer’s Market to visit a booth selling compost supplies. We needed a new filter for the compost bucket that sits on the kitchen counter.
As I drove to St. Johnsbury along the empty interstate, I remembered something my friend Mary Anne had mentioned to me recently. “It seems like the farmer’s market has really grown,” she was saying, “there are more booths, new sights and smells, fresh coffee, food cooking…”
The simplicity of Mary Anne’s comment must have stayed with me. Pulling into the parking lot, I had to reflect that with my list of “to do’s” and the focus on my errand, there was a good chance that once I made it to the market, I wouldn’t notice any of the new booths or smell the coffee brewing.
To be honest, a visit to the farmer’s market makes me anxious. Samadhi Cushions is in a neighborhood of small towns. The likelihood of seeing someone you know at the market is high. In these situations, unless it is a good friend, I’m generally at a loss for words. How will I gracefully initiate, develop and wind-up one of these encounters, I always wonder? On top of that, my errand lists never includes unscheduled conversation with acquaintances, adding time pressure to the anxiety of chance encounters.
The Point of Practice
“Isn’t this is what your meditation practice is supposed to help you with – smelling the coffee at the farmer’s market?” Had my (on again off again, it must be said) sitting meditation practice somehow disconnected itself from the day to day? Having embarked on the journey of meditation, had I concluded that meditation was somehow more meaningful than the mundane details of life? It’s ironic of course. The point of mindfulness meditation is to be mindful of what’s happening. As a general rule, the senses (smell and the other four) are what’s happening, along with our mental commentary and subconscious gossip, of course. Getting out of the car, I resolved to smell the coffee Mary Anne had talked about.
If from time to time, your meditation practice encourages a retreat from the world of the senses, then you may, like me, find yourself rushing through the slices of life that occur between meditation sessions. The pretext — maybe these details are insignificant to the grand scheme of things. Of course, half of life is only the sum total of many sensory details. Ignoring them is a likely indication that we are alienated from our own ordinary experience. Since the philosophy of meditation teaches us about the primacy of mind, we find ourselves wary of the senses and their messages for us.
In traditional Buddhist literature, sense experience is referred to as a “realm.” In effect, fully explored, each sense (seeing, smelling, tasting, hearing, touching, feeling) is understood as its own world. In today’s speed driven culture, we seem to have lost much of our connection with the depth and magic of our basic sense experience.
Traditionally, it was the role of culture to teach how to engage and appreciate sense experience. In France, my wife’s country of origin, teenagers are encouraged to have opinions about the quality of wine and character of cheese. In a simple stroll through our nearby forests, old-time Vermonters can tell you so much about its history, flora and fauna. These are refinements to the senses taught to us by our parents and grandparents. The sense experience is refined by paying attention to the details of what we experience.
A Matter of Relationship
To pay attention, you need to hear from someone that sense experience is trust-worthy, meaningful and merits appreciation. This doesn’t seem to be a big spiritual question; it is simply a matter of connecting with one’s experience of life. Wisdom comes later. It is insight or penetration into the depth of that experience. Without the experience, however, the question of wisdom is moot.
I appreciated Mary Anne’s remark because it reminded me that there is merit in meeting one’s experience directly. Our basic experience is good –smells can be appreciated, we can marvel at sights and sounds. When you really experience senses directly, it is always new and surprising. This is a subtle point. The experience of the senses can’t be explained mechanistically. How we relate (with appreciation or distrust, for example) changes our experience of the senses. Also, there is no viable argument that puts sense objects as somehow there for us. The smell of coffee may be enjoyed, that of compost less so. It seems more accurate to say that our sense experiences and us are there for each other. It is a matter of relationship. Also, how we “see” things, experience them, seems to be largely a matter of habit.
The Ground of Meditation
As for meditation practice, it is paying attention to the details of experience, before judgment. For another thing, you have to do it. Talking alone doesn’t help. Since we are in the habit of overlooking the details, consistent meditation is needed to develop the strength of habit to pay attention.
Beyond that, when you sit down on your Zafu (or Meditation Bench) and Zabuton Mat, the first step is just to relax. Feel the weight of your body on the meditation cushion. Acknowledge your meditation room by noticing it. Is it cluttered? Clean? What are the colors and textures? Hear the sounds, both near and distant. Feel the sensation of the body as it breaths. The ground of taming the mind in meditation is a willingness, courage really, to be with our experience as it is — now. This experience includes the five senses. Initially, it is by making friends with the basic constituents of experience that the practice of meditation begins to develop and deepen.
In slowing down, the meditator begins to appreciate that everything — senses, thoughts, feelings, are continually shifting. They are all fluid and fleeting. In a way, there really is no such thing as a “farmer’s market” – just a wave of smells, sounds, sensations, at a time and place. All of which we label with the thought “market” – which is associated with other thoughts, like the memories of chance encounters. Captured by these thoughts, we find ourselves anticipating life – instead of living it. Unable to relax with ourselves, we are unclear about the details, unsure about life and its messages.
At the same time, from the perspective of meditation, it is because things don’t really hold together that they can appear to our senses in infinite detail, color and variety. Meditation does bring some distance from the “idea” of a farmer’s market, but this distance is based on appreciation of the details of the market, rather than anxious or happy preoccupations that result from our momentary capture by thoughts.
Once I got there, as Mary Anne predicted, the market was buzzing. The morning sun was out after many days of rain. There was warm breeze. There did seem to be a few more stalls than before. I ran in to a couple of acquaintances. It wasn’t so hard really. Some smiles, handshakes and shared appreciation for the day. We all seemed perfectly happy to see each other.
Driving home (without a filter for the compost bucket – “try online”), I felt grateful to Mary Anne and her simple observation. Then I remembered. Had I smelled coffee? I wasn’t sure.
Editor’s Note: Mr. Greenleaf has mentioned a Zafu and Zabuton as well as a bench for meditation. Our most popular meditation bench is the kneeling bench. Of course, you can also practice meditation in a chair (see the article on meditation posture). Burning incense and sounding gongs bring basic sense experience into the practice of meditation, leaving us ready to wake up and smell the coffee.
The last meditation program I did was a year and a half ago when I staffed a dathun. But this time I got to be a participant, which hasn’t happened since…2001? Somebody correct me if I’m wrong.
Theree were other programs I might have done that weekend. In fact I was quite torn since Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche was teaching at his center in Vershire just 45 minutes away. But I ended up doing the program here at Karme Choling, over Labor Day weekend (and into the Tuesday): His Eminence Namkha Drimed Rinpoche gave the empowerment and taught and led us in the practice of a Yeshe Tsogyal sadhana.
A tiny amount of background for those unfamiliar: His Eminence is the father of Khandro Tseyang, the wife of our teacher Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, and while in Tibet prior to 1959, was close to the founder of Shambhala, Chogyam Trunpga Rinpoche, from whom he received important empowerments, including the Rinchen Terdzo. So there are strong family and dharma ties among the teachers.
Among us students, however, we seem to be used to quite different practice styles. Chogyam Trunpga Rinpoche had a brilliant command of the English language (to the point of giving his American students elocution lessons), taught nearly exclusively in English, and liturgies used by his students are beautifully translated and printed by the Nalanda Translation Committee, and recited in English. So we always know what we’re saying (whether we understand the full meaning is of course another question). Now, given a Tibetan original which is often in verse and so has particular rhythms and melodies to it, and an English translation which is quite elegant but generally has an emphasis on meaning rather than on meter, the chanting style developed in the Shambhala community is a one-note unison, a monotone. Which can have quite an energy and drive and rousing quality to it in a group situation.
Pretty much any time you see a documentary on Tibet or on Tibetan Buddhism, or come across one of those old Nonesuch recordings of Tibetan monks, you hear melodious chanting, you hear cymbals and drums and various blaring wind instruments. If you come to a Shambhala Center, you hear some monotone chanting, sometimes with a drum. So it can be hard not to wonder sometimes, what are we missing?
Well, here I was part of that full treatment. Most of the practice was chanted melodically in Tibetan, with the occasional bursts of cacophony on drum, cymbal and conch-shells. Salient sections were repeated in English, and for the most part there was interlinear translation in the text so with a little back-and-forth glancing we could know what we were saying (at the risk of losing one’s place in the text). And, doing four sessions a day, it wasn’t long before there was a general familiarity with what was going on anyhow. Certainly a good deal of the immediacy of the meaning was lost, but a whole other dimension was added, an added emotional quality, a further sense of immersion, clarity, and heartfeltness to the practice. Often when we switched back to the English text there would be a sense of, “Oh, so that’s what I’ve been saying,” but it would also suddenly sound very flat.
At the end of the day, Rinpoche’s daughter, Semo Sonam Palzom, would sing the Yeshe Tsogyal mantra with a haunting, spine-tingling melody.
With the before-breakfast sessions starting at 6:30, and the after-breakfast and after-lunch sessions running usually around three hours with no break, after four days of this I was pretty wiped out but also amazingly energized.
And then I had to go back to work. The next day I was talking on the phone to someone who asked, “Are you sick? You sound different.” And I said, “Oh, no, I’m fine, I’ve just been chanting in Tibetan for four days.”