19 Apr
Posted in: Poems
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How to Stand

So OK, now I’m back from the 2-month retreat, getting ready to go off again to graduate from the CDL program, and meanwhile part of my front porch needs rebuilding because it got knocked over when the new steps were being put in (the cost of which will be almost half the cost of the new steps) and my 90-year-old father (who has always had a very hard time taking in what was being said to him, even back when he didn’t need a hearing aid) is insisting that I not go with him to the doctor (even though the last time he didn’t understand what she’d said to him about getting a CAT scan) and beyond that, the new administration is dropping giant bombs on Syria and pretending to send warships to the Korean Peninsula, plus I’m still having trouble getting in and out of my car because my left knee absolutely will not bend the way it used to. Etc. Etc.

So what is there to do, but to learn how to stand in the middle of it.

by Mark Nepo

The Mystery needs
authentic souls to bear
witness to it, the way
matter needs atoms to
hold it together, the way
blood needs cells to keep
it alive. So I no longer ask
why but how. Not the
mechanical how. But how
to stand on nothing like
an atom in the center
that is everywhere.

18 Apr
Posted in: CDL
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Graduation Celebration

I leave on Saturday to go back to Spirit Rock for the final Community Dharma Leader (CDL) training retreat, which I have recently discovered will include some kind of formal-sounding Graduation Ceremony (“formal” as in they’ve encouraged us to invite guests!)

I wasn’t expecting this. When I “graduated” from the Dedicated Practitioner Program (DPP) in 2013, we’d had a little ceremony at the final retreat — where each of our names were called and we each walked up to where the teachers sat and were given a certificate and a blessing chord and a little silver Buddha “charm” as the big bell was being rung. There was a group photo too, as I recall, and a general spirit of accomplishment and celebration. But there had been no announcement about any of this prior to the event, and guests were definitely not part of the deal.

So it seems like the teachers have something a little more officially ceremonial planned to mark this occasion. When I first got wind of this, I felt a little embarrassed. Like: Really? Aren’t We Kind of Past That Sort of Thing?

But now I have to admit, I’m looking forward to it. This program has made me grow in ways that I hadn’t expected, hadn’t intended, and certainly hadn’t been all that thrilled about (in the beginning), because it meant facing my own complicity with systemic racism, my own blindness to the sense of entitlement that I took for granted, and my cozy attachment to “the way things have always been done.”

But now that I’ve actually pushed through (been pushed through?) some of the barriers that had kept me separated from people (and situations) I felt not-entirely-comfortable-with, I see how limiting that was. How constricting. And how impoverishing — for ME! As well as for everyone else. Now that I’ve relaxed a bit about feeling less-than-entirely comfortable — I’ve discovered that I feel a whole lot more free! Free to say no. To say yes! To lead. To follow. To fail. To succeed!!!


So I’m ready to celebrate. And this is only the beginning. Stay tuned.

17 Apr
Posted in: Retreats, Talks
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We Know How to Steer

Another one of my favorite talks from the 2-month retreat is this one, by Guy Armstrong (especially the last 20 minutes or so), in which he talks about how we are bound to our past actions by the way we are shaped by them; we are conditioned by the patterns of thought, speech and action that we have invested in over and over again.

“These patterns are strong, but the beautiful thing is: they’re not fixed. Nothing in our being is fixed. Not the patterns. Not craving. Not even ignorance…. These are all still just arising and changing. Anything that has arisen can also pass away. Any patterning that has been established can be undone. This is the karmic principle that makes dharma practice transformative

“The path itself is a karmic unfolding. We start with the conditioned habits of mind that we bring into practice from perhaps lifetimes of craving, ignorance, and so forth. But as we encounter the dharma we start to bring in wholesome mind states — mindfulness, lovingkindness, renunciation, tranquility, concentration, equanimity — and all these start to change us, little by little by little… All these new karmic effects start to steer the stream [of our mind] in a different directionfrom suffering (samsara) to the end of suffering (nibbana). That is the only place this leads.

“And it’s important to know this because, as Yogi Berra says: ‘If you don’t know where you’re going, you could end up somewhere else.’ So we want to know where we’re going: We want to end up in nibbana. If there were anything fixed in us, then these streams of dharma practice couldn’t change us; they couldn’t turn us in that other direction.

“So that’s why the teaching on not-self — meaning there is nothing fixed at the center — is the avenue by which karma can unfold in us and we can change the patterning of our actions…

“Our situation is — all of us — we are afloat on a sea of changing conditions. Most of them are outside our control. External things — the weather, to some extent our body, the interactions we have with people, the successes or disappointments we have in life — a lot of these are really beyond our control.

“But we have one really important thing: We have a rudder and we know how to steer. And the rudder for our journey on this unpredictable, uncontrollable ocean — is karma.

We steer through the force of our wholesome intentions. And the Buddha said that those intentions, repeated over and over again, are what take us to a safe harbor. Of peace. Of safety. Of security. Of release. And of liberation.”

14 Apr
Posted in: Activism, Social Justice, Teachers
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Peacefulness Does Not Mean Passiveness

I want to make sure no one misses this article in the May issue of Lion’s Roar magazine titled,
Stand Against Suffering: An Unprecedented Call to Action by Buddhist Teachers.

Here’s an excerpt:
Buddhism does not align itself with any party or ideology. But when great suffering is at stake, Buddhist must take a stand against it, with lovingkindness, wisdom, calm minds, and courage….

Buddhism in the United States brings together people of many different backgrounds, interests, and views. Some Buddhists emphasize mediation practice, while others focus on study, community, or faith. Some are politically liberal and others conservative. Some prefer to keep their Buddhist practices separate from political and social issues, while others are deeply engaged.

Yet one thing binds us all tougher: our commitment to ease the suffering of all beings. The dharma is not an excuse to turn away from the suffering of the world, nor is it a sedative to get us comfortably through painful times. It is a powerful teaching that frees and strengthens us to work diligently for the liberation of beings from suffering.

What is happening now strikes at the heart of this, our central commitment as Buddhist. It transcends our differences and calls us to action. If the policies of the new administration prevail, millions of people in vulnerable and less privileged communities will suffer. Hopes will be dashed. Undoubtable, lives will be lost. International conflict will intensify and environmental destruction will worsen.

Facing the reality of this suffering, we remember that peacefulness does not mean passiveness and non-attachment does not mean non-engagement

Whatever our political perspective, now is the season to stand up for what matters. To stand against hate. To stand for respect. To stand for protection of the vulnerable. To care for the earth.

We can see clearly the work ahead of us. It is the work of love and wisdom in the face of racism, gender- and sexual orientation-based violence, xenophobia, economic injustice, war, and environmental degradation…

As Buddhists, we know that real change begins with ourselves. We must explore and expose our own privilege and ares of ignorance, and address racism, misogyny, class prejudice, and more in our communities. We can set an example for the broader society by creating safe, respectful, and inclusive sanghas….

For now, we prepare to face challenging and stressful times. To prevail, we must hold fast to our timeless ideals of wisdom, love, compassion, and justice. We must maintain our faith that, while ignorance and hatred may at times be dominant, through concerted action patiently pursued we can create a society based on justice, love, and human unity.”

(To read the full article, click here.)

13 Apr
Posted in: Books
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As a “welcome back from retreat” gift, one of my dharma friends gave me a copy of Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, which I have just finished reading, and all I can say is: WOW. (And: thank you, Christy!)

This is a novel, so of course it’s not meant to be read as an instructional text in Buddhist “doctrine” — and I have no idea whether George Saunders identifies as Buddhist or not — but it is a FABULOUS read, and clearly informed by insightful reflection on the nature of impermanence (anicca), suffering (dukkah), and not-self (anatta).

The term “bardo,” by the way, is not found in the Theravada tradition. It’s a Tibetan concept that refers to an intermediate state between death and rebirth.

“But more generally,” according to this article in Lion’s Roar, “the word bardo refers to the gap or space we experience between any two states. The lesser-known bardos described in the traditional [Tibetan] texts include the bardo of dreaming, the bardo of meditation, and even the bardo of this life–which is, after all, the intermediate state between birth and death.

“We actually experience bardos throughout our day. When you finish reading this article [blog post] and look up, there will be a tiny gap following the end of one activity and preceding the start of another. If you notice them, these brados of everyday life are places of potential transformation.

“As it says in the London subway, ‘Mind the Gap.’ In meditation practice, you can notice the simple, non-conceptual awareness in the gap between thoughts. The bardo between death and rebirth is considered [in the Tibetan tradition] a particularly good opportunity for enlightenment.

“Bardos are spaces of potential creativity and innovation, because they create breaks in our familiar routines and patterns. In that momentary space of freedom, the fresh perception of something new and awake may suddenly arise.”


The next time you find yourself in an everyday “bardo” — pick up this book!

12 Apr
Posted in: Poems, Retreats, Talks
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Live in the Layers

Another one of the talks from the retreat that I’ve been re-listening to (and will probably listen to again and again) is this one by Phillip Moffitt, mostly dealing with the topic of “not-self” (anatta), which as Phillip says, is one of those understandings that are non-conceptual, that have to come to us through direct experience, that for a long time just don’t make any sense because it’s something “we just don’t know — until we do.”

So it’s one of the teachings that we have to talk about by talking around. Which is where poetry comes in. Here’s the poem Phillip quotes, by Poet Laureate Stantley Kunitz, who wrote it when he was 89:

The Layers
by Stanley Kunitz

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angles
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to it’s feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In the darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes. 

11 Apr
Posted in: Activism, Books
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Carry What’s Beautiful into the Troubled World

[Sorry for not posting yesterday. I had to spend more time than expected with plumbers. Oh, the 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows of a nearly 100-year-old house!]

Now for today:
The May-August issue of Spirit Rock News just arrived and it includes a great article by Jack Kornfield, adapted from his new book, No Time Like the Present: Finding Freedom and Joy Right Where You Are.

Here’s a sample:
To find freedom amid challenging times, we have to start where we are. How do we manage our own bodies? If our limbic system is activated into fight, flight, or freeze mode, we lose ourselves in survival consciousness. The reptilian brain takes charge, and the neocortex is limited to rehashing the past. Tidal waves of worries swamp our thoughts about what lies ahead. In difficult times, these tides of angst and fear can flow back and forth. We wonder, are things getting worse or are they simply getting uncovered? And how can we respond?

“Just start there. Tune into your heart. That is where love, wisdom, grace, and compassion reside. With loving attention, feel into what matters most to you. Yes, there are anxious thoughts, and there is grief and trauma, but don’t let your heart be colonized by fear. Take time to quiet the mind and tend to the heart. Go out and look at the sky. Breathe in and open yourself to the vastness of space. Sense the seasons turning, the rise and fall of dynasties and eras. Breathe out and dwell in loving awareness. Practice equanimity and steadiness. Learn from the trees. Become the still point in the center of it all…

We are in the midst of something vaster than any of our social and political dynamics. We are in the midst of the evolution of humanity. And we each have a role to play in this….

“Like the Tao, let yourself be still until the moment for right action. Be strategic. Make yourself a zone of peace. With the courage to be true to your heart, you can act…

Remember, change always starts with a small number of people. In 1787, Thomas Carlson and eleven other men started a thirty-year campaign to finally force the English parliament to outlaw slavery. In 1848, Elizabeth Lady Stanton and four other women met in upstate New York to begin the seventy-year suffrage movement that led to women’s right to vote. When you are strong in yourself, you can act with courage, dedication, and directness. When you become strategic, you join with others, choose the most important problems, and bring the most creative solution. You know what is needed. The most powerful nation on Earth must foster a vision of peace and cooperation, not spread weapons of war. The richest nation on Earth must provide health care for its children, its families. The most productive nation on Earth must combine trade with justice, sustainable development, and protection for the environment.

You can contribute. You have your heart, your voice, and your spirit. Be strategic and strong. Remember how Barbara Widener started Grandmothers for Peace. Sometimes it takes only a little loving awareness at the right moment. You can do it….

“You know the right direction….

Do not just shake your head and frown when you read the news. Do not be fooled into believing that you cannot change things. As Thomas Jefferson says, ‘One person with courage is a majority.’ You can make a difference.

“And remember, a person with courage never needs weapons, but they may need bail…

“Your family is all of humanity, all the animals, all beings on Earth. Your family includes Greens, Libertarians, Democrats, Republicans, and all the in-betweens. Include them all in your heart.

Live with gratitude. The times ask for a change of consciousness — a shift from the fearful, separate consciousness, the consciousness of us versus them, to the consciousness of connection and interdependence. You are already part of this shift. Now each of you, in your own way, is invited to find a freedom of spirit no matter what happens and to carry what’s beautiful into the troubled world.

(click here to read the article in full)

7 Apr
Posted in: Retreats, Talks
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Safe, Secluded, Sheltered

I’ve been listening again to some of the talks from the retreat. One of my favorites was this one, by Gil Fronsdal, in which he describes the healing quality of the sate of samadhi as similar to the way he felt when he was a kid and used to put a white bed sheet over the dining room table, then crawl inside where he felt: safe, secluded, sheltered from the hectic activity that was going on around him, peaceful, quiet, and bathed in beautiful, soft light.

It’s mesmerizing. Listen to it here.

6 Apr
Posted in: Practice, Retreats
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How Wonderful!

What else did I learn on retreat? I learned to practice Mudita (delighting in the joy and happiness of others) using this great phrase from Sri Lanka in the 18th century:

How wonderful you are in your being!

I’d say it (in silence, of course) every time I’d see someone in the hall snuggled up in their shawl or blanket. Or I’d look around the dining hall, or on the walking paths, and see how kind we were all being to each other, how patient and how considerate, and I thought how good it was to be dong what we were doing, how beautiful, and how extraordinary.

It made me so happy!

5 Apr
Posted in: Poems, Retreats
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What I Learned on Retreat

People want to know what I learned on retreat. I want to tell them, but it’s hard. How do I say it — that I learned there is love in the world….that the world IS love….without sounding sappy? Or sentimental? Or just plain stupid?

I can’t.

So I turn to the poets.

Aimless Love
by Billy Collins

This morning as I walked along the lakeshore,
I fell in love with a wren
and later in the day with a mouse
the cat had dropped under the dining room table.

In the shadows of an autumn evening,
I fell for a seamstress
still at her machine in the tailor’s window,
and later for a bowl of broth,
steam rising like smoke from a naval  battle.

This is the best kind of love, I thought,
without recompense, without gifts,
or unkind words, without suspicion,
or silence on the telephone.

The love of the chestnut,
the jazz cap and one hand on the wheel.

No lust, no slam of the door–
the love of the miniature orange tree,
the clean white shirt, the hot evening shower,
the highway that cuts across Florida.

No waiting, no huffiness, or rancor–
just a twinge every now and then

for the wren who had built her nest
on a low branch overhanging the water
and for the dead mouse,
still dressed in its light brown suit.

But the heart is always propped up
in a field on its tripod,
ready for the next arrow.

After I carried the mouse by the tail
to a pile of leaves in the woods,
I found myself standing at the bathroom sink
gazing down affectionately at the soap,

so patient and soluble,
so at home in its pale green soap dish.
I could feel myself falling again
as I felt its turning in my wet hands
and caught the scent of lavender and stone.