Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Every Path Has Some Puddles

Recently it struck me that I've been spending a lot of time splashing around in them, which tends to make them deeper – and sloppier. Struggle too much and one can become stuck! I've been stuck for some time now. How is it possible to get stuck? They're only puddles. Well, my mind can transform a simple puddle into a raging river or quicksand or a bottomless pit.

Note to self: It's never a good idea to let Mara lead the way. You'll find yourself stuck in the mud every time!

Things I've Learned About Puddles

  • They're only puddles. Don't make it personal.

  • It is possible to drown, even in a shallow puddle, without mindfulness.

  • It is in the perception, not the puddle, that danger is found.

  • If you slip and fall, get up carefully.

  • If there are no puddles, you're on the wrong path.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Election Results

The recent political extravaganza here in the US was something to behold, no doubt about it. And when it came to peoples hot buttons, might say it was a target rich environment. We are human, after all. Views and opinions abound. Some that we may not even be aware of tend to emerge at times like these. It was like a huge kamma generating machine, with Mara at the controls. There's a visual, huh?

Saturday, November 8, 2008


There was a very popular video game in the early 80's called Frogger. The object of the game was to get frogs to their homes one by one. The frogs had to cross a busy road and then navigate a river filled with an assortment of hazards.

Life, it seems, can be much like an arcade game. I recently managed to get caught up in what might be described as a mental Frogger marathon! Ajahn Pasanno calls this being trapped in the moving mind. Just like the game of Frogger, no matter how good you think you are, eventually...Splat!!

A couple of weeks ago I was awakened in the middle of the night with chest pain and eventually wound up in the hospital. After a dizzying array of tests, it was determined that the pain I had experienced was the result of stress. Stress? What stress?? I'm not stressed! As the doctor was telling me that my diet sucked, I drink too much coffee, I am, after all, not 25 anymore, I had just gone through a hectic summer ending with the loss of my mind was busy ticking off a long list of all the things I should be doing instead of lying in a hospital bed feeling foolish.

We are taught as young children not to run out into traffic. The danger is pretty easy to explain and to understand. The traffic found in the mind is another story! Without mindfulness we suddenly dart out, blind to the danger. It's really quite amazing. Even as we study and practice the teachings of the Buddha, there are those times when it's as if we've not learned a thing. Trapped in the moving mind. How easy it is to step right back into it.

I'm Lost, But I'm Really Movin'
a Dhamma Teaching by Ajahn Pasanno

Friday, September 19, 2008

It's Been Awhile...

This summer has been a time of many challenges for me. Each day, it seems, brought me face to face with yet another example of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and not-self - the three characteristics of existence. Rather than feeling depressed or sad, I have been nourished by a deepening faith in the Dhamma and invigorated by a strengthened commitment to this practice.

I hope to be posting here a bit more frequently in the near future. That's the plan anyway. But we all know what can happen to plans. I would also like to catch up on some of the wonderful posts of good friends on their sites. I've only had time to take a glance until now.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Back Home Temporarily

I wanted to check in while I have a chance. I spent most of July between my home and my mother's, which is a 1200 mile round trip. She is critically ill with renal failure and will likely enter hospice soon. I will be going back to care for her as soon as I can wrap things up at home. Until then she is in very good hands with a wonderful medical team and my dear brother.

Thanks to everyone for your concern and kind words. I have been catching up with your blogs and, as always, find inspiration and encouragement in this practice from your posts.

September 8 - Shortly after this post I returned, for the last time, to my mother's bedside. She died a week later.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Seeing Things As They Are

Meeting The Divine Messengers

by Bhikkhu Bodhi

The traditional legend of the Buddha's quest for enlightenment tells us that throughout his youth and early manhood Prince Siddhattha, the Bodhisatta, lived in complete ignorance of the most elementary facts of human life. His father, anxious to protect his sensitive son from exposure to suffering, kept him an unwitting captive of nescience. Incarcerated in the splendor of his palace, amply supplied with sensual pleasures and surrounded by merry friends, the prince did not entertain even the faintest suspicion that life could offer anything other than an endless succession of amusements and festivities. It was only on that fateful day in his twenty-ninth year, when curiosity led him out beyond the palace walls, that he encountered the four "divine messengers" that were to change his destiny. The first three were the old man, the sick man, and the corpse, which taught him the shocking truths of old age, illness, and death; the fourth was a wandering ascetic, who revealed to him the existence of a path whereby all suffering can be fully transcended.

This charming story, which has nurtured the faith of Buddhists through the centuries, enshrines at its heart a profound psychological truth. In the language of myth it speaks to us, not merely of events that may have taken place centuries ago, but of a process of awakening through which each of us must pass if the Dhamma is to come to life within ourselves. Beneath the symbolic veneer of the ancient legend we can see that Prince Siddhattha's youthful sojourn in the palace was not so different from the way in which most of us today pass our entire lives — often, sadly, until it is too late to strike out in a new direction. Our homes may not be royal palaces, and the wealth at our disposal may not approach anywhere near that of a North Indian rajah, but we share with the young Prince Siddhattha a blissful (and often willful) oblivion to stark realities that are constantly thrusting themselves on our attention. If the Dhamma is to be more than the bland, humdrum background of a comfortable life, if it is to become the inspiring, sometimes grating voice that steers us on to the great path of awakening, we ourselves must emulate the Bodhisatta in his process of maturation. We must join him on that journey outside the palace walls — the walls of our own self-assuring preconceptions — and see for ourselves the divine messengers we so often miss because our eyes are fixed on "more important things," i.e., on our mundane preoccupations and goals.

The Buddha says that there are few who are stirred by things that are truly stirring, compared to those people, far more numerous, who are not so stirred. The spurs to awakening press in on us from all sides, yet too often, instead of acknowledging them, we respond simply by putting on another layer of clothes to protect ourselves from their sting. This statement is not disproved even by the recent deluge of discussion and literature on aging, life-threatening illnesses, and alternative approaches to death and dying. For open and honest awareness is still not sufficient for the divine messengers to get their message across. In order for them to convey their message, the message that can goad us on to the path to liberation, something more is needed. We must confront aging, illness, and death, not simply as inescapable realities with which we must somehow cope at the practical level, but as envoys from the beyond, from the far shore, disclosing new dimensions of meaning.

This disclosure takes place at two levels. First, to become divine messengers, the facts of aging, illness, and death must jolt us into an awareness of the fragile, precarious nature of our normal day-to-day lives. They must impress upon our minds the radical deficiency that runs through all our worldly concerns, extending to conditioned existence in its totality. Thereby they become windows opening upon the first noble truth, the noble truth of suffering, which the Buddha says comprises not only birth, aging, illness, and death, not only sorrow, grief, pain, and misery, but all the "five aggregates of clinging" that make up our being-in-the-world.

When we meet the divine messengers at this level, they become catalysts that can induce in us a profound internal transformation. We realize that because we are frail and inescapably mortal we must make drastic changes in our existential priorities and personal values. Instead of letting our lives be consumed by transient trivia, by things that are here today and gone tomorrow, we must give weight to "what really counts," to aims and actions that will exert a lasting influence upon our long-range destinies — upon our final destiny in this life, and upon our ultimate direction in the cycle of repeated birth and death.

Before such a revaluation takes place, we generally live in a condition that the Buddha describes by the term pamada, negligence or heedlessness. Imagining ourselves immortal, and the world our personal playground, we devote our energies to the accumulation of wealth, the enjoyment of sensual pleasures, the achievement of status, the quest for fame and renown. The remedy for heedlessness is the very same quality that was aroused in the Bodhisatta when he met the divine messengers in the streets of Kapilavatthu. This quality, called in Pali samvega, is a sense of urgency, an inner commotion or shock which does not allow us to rest content with our habitual adjustment to the world. Instead it drives us on, out of our cozy palaces and into unfamiliar jungles, to work out with diligence an authentic solution to our existential plight.

It is at this point that the second function of the divine messengers comes to prominence. For aging, sickness, and death are not only emblems of the unsatisfactory nature of mundane existence but pointers to a deeper reality that lies beyond. In the traditional legend the old man, the sick man, and the corpse are gods in disguise; they have been sent down to earth from the highest heaven to awaken the Bodhisatta to his momentous mission, and once they have delivered their message they resume their celestial forms. The final word of the Dhamma is not surrender, not an injunction to resign ourselves stoically to old age, sickness, and death. This is the preliminary message, the announcement that our house is ablaze. The final message is other: an ebullient cry that there is a place of safety, an open field beyond the flames, and a clear exit sign pointing the way of escape.

If in this process of awakening we must meet old age, sickness, and death face to face, that is because the place of safety can be reached only by honest confrontation with the stark truths about human existence. We cannot reach safety by pretending that the flames that engulf our home are nothing but bouquets of flowers: we must see them as they are, as real flames. When, however, we do look at the divine messengers squarely, without embarrassment or fear, we will find that their faces undergo an unexpected metamorphosis. Before our eyes, by subtle degrees, they change into another face — the face of the Buddha, with its serene smile of triumph over the army of Mara, over the demons of Desire and Death. The divine messengers point to what lies beyond the transient, to a dimension of reality where there is no more aging, no more sickness, and no more death. This is the goal and final destination of the Buddhist path — Nibbana, the Unaging, the Unailing, the Deathless. It is to direct us there that the divine messengers have appeared in our midst, and the good news of deliverance is their message.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Stormy Sunset

My mother is 85 years old and, until very recently, had been in pretty good health. Especially for one at such an advanced age. On May 28 she was still driving (yikes!) and happily pursuing her favorite pastime – shopping. She has lived alone since my father died about 25 years ago, and has thoroughly enjoyed being in control of her life. “Calling the shots” is extremely important to her. All of them! It is this absolute need to be in control, to have it her way, that is now her greatest source of suffering.

On May 29 she went into the hospital for a planned pacemaker replacement. All went well and she was to return home in about a week. But, as Ajahn Chah frequently taught, “it's all unsure”. With all discharge planning complete, she became ill, spiked a high fever and began to hallucinate. My brother phoned me with this news and I arrived the next day. She had developed an infection and was now in very serious condition. She was transferred to a larger hospital a short distance away. While in the ICU there, a superb team of doctors and nurses managed to successfully fight the infection. Once again it appeared that she would soon be able to return home.

As she made steady and even dramatic improvement medically, her mental and emotional state took an equally dramatic decline as she grew impatient, angry, demanding and even abusive to those caring for her. She is angry and fearful, not really at the prospect of death, but at the very idea of not being in control. I have seen her react to not getting her way numerous time over the years. It is never pleasant. In this case, in an effort to retain that all important control, she is refusing to participate in her own care. It is a challenging situation for all concerned. Not unlike the challenges faced by countless people and their loved ones the world over.

I have tried to see this through the lens of Dhamma. The aging, sickness and death which we all face sooner or later is serious business. It is a subject that I reflect on frequently. There is nothing I can do to alter the course that my mother has chosen to follow. She is competent and mentally intact, at least by traditionally accepted standards, and free to make these choices that are harming her both physically and mentally in this life and beyond. She has unknowingly given me a most valuable and unforgettable lesson on the urgent importance of a deep and committed practice.