The Middle Way Sangha will be hosting an extended meditation retreat at the Shambhala Meditation Centre (1-2033 Belmont Ave, Belmont/Pembroke corner), beginning Friday evening (September 8) and continuing all day Saturday, the 9th. The hours are: Friday, 7:30-10 pm and Saturday, 8 am – 10 pm. Here are the bullet points:

  • This retreat is for beginners and experienced meditators. For anyone who ever thought they might like to give it a try, this will be perfect. There will be instruction available for those who need it.
  • There is no charge for this retreat. There will be a donation box in the room and all donations are anonymous and discretionary.
  • There will be very little Buddhist ceremony involved. These retreats are all about the meditation. Except for a slight stench of Zen there should be nothing to offend any religious sensibility.
  • Meals will not be served, so participants should bring a bag lunch or find meals outside the retreat confines. There will be long breaks in the schedule around meal times, so lots of time to go and return.
  • The retreat is silent, with very little social interaction. There will be opportunity to speak privately with the leader of the meditation and the retreat does incorporate the usual two hour public meditation that is always offered at Shambhala on Saturday mornings (9-11); these might involve talking, but other wise we just stay contained in our own mind.
  • Weather permitting, we will alternate seated meditation and walking meditation.

Questions can be directed to my email: waynewc@madhyama.ca. It is basically a drop-in retreat but I would appreciate having some idea of how many people will attend so that we can set up enough places for everyone.  Plus, there will be a more exact schedule for the retreat sent to those who request one via email.

 

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Posted by: madhyama | March 22, 2012

Some Thoughts about “Right Livelihood”

Much of our lifetime is spent earning a living. Our economy depends upon the productivity of the workforce. Today I want to introduce the Buddhist concept of “right livelihood” and suggest that including meditation as part of the workplace would represent an overall improvement for all concerned. Modern studies show that excelling in a variety of emotional competencies, not just a few, is a strong indicator of leadership success. The nine qualities shown to be most important are: Initiative, achievement drive, adaptability, influence, team leadership, political awareness, empathy, self-confidence and developing others.  First, here’s a basic primer on the Buddhist approach to livelihood.

Buddhist practice follows a template called the “8-fold path”. Altogether, the 8-fold path is called the “middle way” and satisfies the three conditions for a good life; wisdom, morality and meditation. “Right Livelihood” is one of the 8; (the others are; right view, right thought, right speech, right behaviour, right effort, right mindfulness, right contemplation). Livelihood is part of our moral life, according to classical Buddhism. What this means is that ‘right livelihood’ is tethered to “ahimsa”, a Sanskrit word meaning ‘harmlessness’. Buddhist morality can be summed up as ‘it is more important to be kind than to be right’.

This little essay is not intended to suggest that business owners convert to Buddhism. But it is undeniable that a good part of the social problems we experience today derive from a much weakened sense of morality associated with how we earn our living. Because there were few qualms about bankrupting and defrauding millions of homeowners and investors, a few made millions and our economy almost collapsed; and still might. A financial sector with a culture that discouraged doing harm would not have been so vulnerable. Zen meditation would be the heart of such a corporate culture.

It can be a complex undertaking. A company wishing to include ‘spiritual well being’ or ‘personal meaning’ or ‘emotional intelligence’ within its purview would need to consider carefully how to structure the new ideas so that they could be replicated, for example. It would also have to be sensitive to diversity and avoid offense or exclusion. However, approached with the appropriate respect, research and experience show that meditation can do all this and will reliably bring the following benefits:

  • reduction in rates of absenteeism and sick leave
  • increases in measures of production
  • significant reductions in stress related anxieties
  • significant improvements in recruiting and retaining superior employees

So, for this alone, meditation is worth considering. But, more generally, our society needs to develop a better working vocabulary of right livelihood. This means not only the nature of the work itself, but also the skills and qualities each worker brings. Daniel Goleman in his book “Working With Emotional Intelligence” says, “Analysis done by dozens of different experts in close to five hundred corporations, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations worldwide have arrived independently at remarkably similar conclusions. Their conclusions all point to the paramount place of emotional intelligence in excellence on the job – virtually any job”. This is why meditation is so valuable; it is the way to cultivate and develop a workforce with high levels of emotional intelligence.

Jesus was fairly clear that moral judgements should be based on the fruit rather than the tree or the seed. This is intriguing advice, somewhat counterintuitive and means that one cannot tell, with confidence, the good tree from the bad tree or the good seed from the bad seed. The metaphor is a powerful one and points to a wisdom teaching regarding the connections, the relationships, between the three elements.
And, the perspective can be applied to spiritual life. Naturally, if life offered only good fruit, that question might not arise, but if one’s life contains bitterness or prejudice, gloom, turmoil, anger, worry or prideful arrogance, these are disruptive factors to live with. Each of these unpleasant effects is difficult or impossible to address directly; but all have causal links to ‘seeds’ of personal, cultural, spiritual or ancestral verities and habits.
Spiritual life, as Zen master Dogen points out, begins with a study of the self. It makes a difference how we approach self examination: as a harm reduction effort (dealing directly with the bad fruit) or as a comparative effort with some ideal. Part of who we are is always some kind of balance between these two approaches. Some cultural ideals (such as foot binding or honour killing) merit redaction because the harm exceeds the benefit. But in general we are the inheritors, so to speak, of an orchard already formed. The ‘trees’ in our orchard ought to be tended carefully and scrupulously.
We bring a vast weight of habits of mind and body to each day, each moment. Jesus’s teaching reminds us that our attention should be directed to what actually happens, what is actually present in our everyday experience. This presence is both the fruit of certain seeds and the seeds for a future effect. The present can be viewed either way. Daily meditation can cultivate the vast stillness in which these initial conditions become familiar.
Those who look to the fruits of their behaviours in the stillness of meditation will perceive the subtle connections between their own thoughts and the nature and quality of their life. Just this perception is usually enough to uncouple the thoughts from the embodiments of habit.
My experience is that Christians who respond to Jesus’s teaching; “You will know them by their fruits”, benefit from Zen meditation. The connection between seed and fruit is the whole point. All spiritual beings aspire to a life that bears good fruit. Meditation is the efficient way to cultivate as much good seed as possible and to remove the really bad trees.
Zennists, who do a lot of meditation, should find much wisdom in Jesus’s advice. A meditative scrutiny which prioritizes harm rather than, for example, enlightenment, will very quickly bring benefits to daily life. Putting harmlessness at the centre of spiritual life replaces bitterness, gloom, anger or arrogance with positive effects such as love, peace, gentleness and patience.
Study the self. It’s simple and powerful, just like this teaching from Jesus.

Posted by: madhyama | January 27, 2012

Leaving Home

The Buddhist poet Norman Fischer wrote, “To go forward you must leave everything behind”.   Buddhism calls this “leaving home”;  indeed Buddhists define themselves, ordain themselves, as “home leavers”.   But the idea is not confined to Buddhism.   Jesus, Abraham and Mohammad all had their trials of fear and vulnerability;   First Nations’ legends often speak of those who leave the comfort of home to seek visions in the wilderness.   The idea of leaving home as a signal spiritual event is a very deeply rooted theme in human life.

The man called Siddhartha, who became the Buddha, grew up in a highly artificial world, a completely staged world.   His encounter with the unstaged world, with its “inescapable indignities” (disease, old age, death), was so disturbing that he could not remain at home; so he left behind his family and wealth.   The Prodigal Son, on the other hand, left home in rebellion and did not encounter the unstaged world until all his father’s money was gone.   Here are two quite different ‘takes’ on leaving home but each entails being alone and in spiritual jeopardy.

The legend of the Buddha and the parable of the prodigal son are comparable templates for our own, individual encounters with the unstaged world.   Meditation, though tightly scripted, nevertheless presents us with our primordial mind.   Each time we take the meditation posture we let all the staging of consciousness go; our opinions, judgements and attitudes, just float away.  The meditator untethers herself from security, authority, familiarity and predictability; a very small scale but completely genuine leaving of home.   Meditation is rather like a virtual home leaving that can be rehearsed each day.

Few ordinary people replicate their religion’s home-leaving paradigm.   But Jews who meditate can hope to better penetrate the meaning of Abraham’s story;  Christians might appreciate better the 40 days that Jesus spent in the desert;  and Moslems might draw inspiration from the legends of Mohammad’s exile from Medina.   Buddhists, who are heir to a sophisticated meditation culture, will learn to assemble their lives as “grounded in practical kindness, in the ethics of non-harming, flexibility, and listening, and in the thoughtful consideration of what will really work in this world as it is, not as it should be, to benefit others.”  Similarly Baha’is, Christian Scientists and yes, even Atheists, would each find spiritual value from leaving home in this way.

There is a Zen saying, “arrival hinders arrival”.  This is another way of saying what the manifold spiritual paradigms of the home leaver teach us: leaving facilitates arrival.  This is the intrinsic irony, the “impossible predicament” which life presents to us all.   The path to the heart of one’s spiritual being portends an unparalleled completeness which itself interferes with our path.  The Christian mystic Simone Weil spoke of this predicament: “God can only be present in creation under the form of absence,…nothing which exists is absolutely worthy of love.   We must therefore love that which does not exist.”

Zen meditation, on behalf of all beings, creates the form of absence.

 

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Posted by: madhyama | January 5, 2012

The Buddhist Practice of Dāna [Giving]

The traditional religious life in ancient China, Korea and other Buddhist countries includes an emphasis on the mutually dependent relationship between lay people and their spiritual teachers.  This relationship is characterized as being  “spiritual friend[ship]” (Sanskrit: maitri).  This spiritual relationship is embodied in the tradition called dāna, a sanskrit word which means ‘generosity’ or ‘giving’.  In addition to having a religious value (the “perfection of giving” [dāna pāramitā]) it also embodies a social value of keen interest in this modern age; it leaves the control of the role of spiritual teaching in the hands of those who are the purported beneficiaries of said teaching.  In other, more free market oriented, words;  the consumer sets the value of the service, not the ‘vendor’.  Were this idea to catch on in society, many professions could be affected.

Typically,  a Zen monk’s sojourn in a monastery is a temporary thing. Historically, the vast majority of Zen monks leave their monastic community and lifestyle and return to lay life. Most simply return to regular livelihoods such as farming or manufacturing but some find a special place within the spiritual life of their communities as a teacher; and those who value the role make donations to sustain a teacher.  These donations are generally anonymous, completely voluntary and intended as a direct expression of gratitude.  Zen monks are not entitled to charity.  Monks who have little to offer of an intrinsic and widely acknowledged  value will not receive any donations because there’s no special value; at least in theory.  I know ssomething called dāna is often routinized and practiced automatically, but in my opinion any formalized remuneration, such as  titheing, ought not to be called dāna.  I’m not saying it’s wrong, I just say it’s not that subtle religious idea; Buddhist dāna.  True, everyone’s free to take it or leave it, but that is not a spacious enough sentiment to contain the depth of the spiritual friend relationship.  Plus, it leaves out anyone who wants to hear the Dharma but cannot afford the price.

As a Zen monk living in the world I want very much to teach meditation in a way that ordinary, intelligent people are able to see a real value for themselves in their real, everyday life.  I believe that people will recognize that value and reflect it by giving what their means allow toward retaining that value.  Alternatively, the teacher will become unavailable through the need to work a regular job.  My coaches in the business world disagree with me on this, by the way.  They consider me hopelessly naive.  They say that people will just take the value and pay nothing even if they can afford it and even if they would cheerfully pay other counselors’ large fees.  My experience so far proves this common but cynical analysis to be only sometimes true.  This is encouraging, and one cannot help but wonder how professional relationships with lawyers and accountants would be affected if consumer-determined value became the ethical norm.

This is a classical Zen response to those who find that life is hectic and complicated. What does it mean; and, how does this apply to a modern life? I start with a basic and trivial observation; sometimes we’re alone and sometimes we’re with others. Question: are you the same person when alone as when in public?

Life is complex and calls for us to play many roles. In public, for example, we are very likely to think and behave one way at our three year old’s birthday party and quite differently when at our work. Our skill at compartmentalizing our life is an important ally, we feel; not the least for the psychological benefits that accrue from not mixing work and family. But for some people, their private Self becomes quite distinct from their public Self. The stress of dealing with this distinction can be the root source of quite a lot of life’s trouble. Our public Self might know how to project equanimity, confidence, competence, determination and strength of character. Private Self invests a far more emotional element into our true judgements and opinions. Successfully compartmentalizing the various “selves” which comprise our life is, indeed, a key life skill.

Public and private Selves always have some sort of relationship. They can be very close to identical or they can be drastically different, even estranged. When private Self and public Self are different, asymmetries of all sorts are able to creep into our general life. One fairly common example of what I am talking about concerns those who feel as fragile as a wounded bird in their heart of hearts and yet each day the public Self continues to work, shop and raise children. At some point, and more often than we think, such a disparity in views can end up being problematic because it takes so much energy to suppress the doubts that flow from our private Selves that we may become vulnerable to adventitious and disruptive impulses such as anger, greed or despair.

Meditation cultivates integration. When we are able to be pretty much the same person whether alone or in public, then no problems arise. But where, in response to fear and doubt, we skew our lifestyle and our spirituality heavily toward the public Self, we sometimes suppress the private Self. Modern, increasingly urban, life demands this of us more and more. In many ways our cultural present demands that we be ambivalent within ourselves; which is to say we often end up cultivating a comparative and even adversarial relationship between the two Selves.

If you are someone who struggles to maintain a public face, this is where meditation can really help. The relationship between private and public Selves can serve as a template for all other relationships in life. In all relationships, the ideal foundational condition is that of symmetry and/or equivalence. (Equivalence, please note, is not the same as equality). Just like in a marriage or a friendship, perfect equivalence makes any relationship effortless, pleasant and wholesome. From the meditators’ point of view, marital happiness, satisfying friendship or personal integrity all equally flow from restoration of symmetry. The restoration of symmetry between the private Self and the public Self is the basic work of meditation as a personal practice. As this restorative process develops, life loses much of its essentially self-generated stresses. In Zen meditation, symmetry is restored by composing thought and form as close to ‘zero’ as possible. With the restoration of equivalence between private and public personas as a basis, all other relationships also reorient, as necessary, toward symmetry and equivalence.

When private Self and public Self are equivalent, that is the “one who is not busy”.

Posted by: madhyama | February 7, 2011

Meditation and the first two Noble Truths

 

Posted by: madhyama | January 4, 2011

Queenswood’s final event

For almost 8 years the local facility known as Queenswood Centre has been the home base for our meditation group.  This facility, created by the Sisters of St. Ann, has allowed our group to grow slowly and to establish ourselves in our community (Victoria, BC).  Queenswood has now been sold off, but the final big event that was held here was a weekend retreat by our group.  This entry will consist of the final meditation talk which I gave at this retreat plus some photos that form part of the record of this final event.

The talk is almost 55 minutes long; it’s not one of my better ones, but there are some good questions and our sense of something valuable coming to an end might be perceivable.  As usual the sound is not great but I hope passable.

The first photo is our general set up in the chapel at Queenswood.  The next one over is what I call the skandha-labra, an iron-wire sculpture with 5 candles which symbolizes the 5 skandhas of the Self.   Next over shows the kinhin (walking meditation) line as it leaves the chapel.  Traditionally we do our walking meditation outside.

This photo is me, sitting on the platform made by one of the regular meditators.

The last photo is our doan hitting the han (also crafted by the same person who created the platform), a call to come to meditation.

Posted by: madhyama | January 4, 2011

Karma is a Beach

A friend of mine volunteers to walk certain west coast beaches, gathering data about  dead birds.  It turns out that some beaches routinely accumulate many dead birds while other beaches rarely produce a dead bird to count.  The volunteer cohort  call the beaches with large dead bird counts an “accumulation zone”; that is, a complex configuration of many factors having to do with fluid dynamics, interaction with the beach and bird behaviour which deposit bird carcasses on some beaches and eschew others.

In Zen we often talk about the habits of body, speech and mind.  We have multitudes of mind/body habits; at least as many as there are birds in the sky.  Each habit is really a relatively stable ‘cloud’ of more basic reflexes.  Jealousy, for example, is a habitual response to a cluster of other, interacting, primal factors such as fear, need, refuge, ill will, delight etcetera.  This brings to mind my friend’s ‘accumulation zone’ for bird carcasses.  The interplay of causes and conditions will always involve certain causal clusters and each dysfunctional habit of mind and body is like a beach with many dead birds.  Ancient fear is a dead bird.  Ancient hatred is a dead bird.  Even joy and delight can be a dead bird.

The wise walk mindfully the beaches of their jealousy, their antipathy or their deep craving and, like my friend does on behalf of the government, identify the birds and describe the carcass.

Here’s a common and practical example; relationships often resemble a beach strewn with the avian choir invisible.  Some of those spiritual dead birds are  large and compelling presences, others not so much.  But past a certain point the beach becomes unpleasant.  In any life, major traumatic events or familial abuse can literally perfume every aspect of relationship, very often in ways that block happiness and cause harm.

All stressful situations would improve if we were more accustomed to walking the beaches of our relationships.  We would find some beaches almost pristine and others quite littered, not only with dead birds but also all the other detritus from the sea.  We would carefully note and examine each washed up artifact, starting with the dead birds and later cataloging the driftwood and the beach glass.  Finally, one would become quite familiar with the types of flotsam (habits of mind and body) that accumulate.  Armed with this deep knowledge one could then begin to mitigate harm and maybe even enjoy the wonder of the land / sea interface.

Posted by: madhyama | November 9, 2010

Many Changes around here

I am just about to leave my home for a few days in order to attend a portion of a 7-day sesshin led by my older dharma brother, Norman Fischer.  For some reason this imminent relocation has prompted me to think about all of the changes that have happened to our little meditation group since the last time I was moved to post on this blog.

Our original host, Queenswood Centre, has now closed its doors for good and left us bereft of a venue, temporarily.  We did find another place to meditate in the Victoria West Community Centre, though.  Our new space is very different in neighbourhood feel, in soundscape and in standard of living of residents.  Where QW is situated in an established, rather affluent area of the city, the VWCC is in an old, rather more funky part of the city with many transient people.  It makes for more distractions in our meditation sessions, I think; but also it offers a challenge to our concentration that our group has matured enough to be able to handle.  Queenswood was the perfect place to found and develop a meditation group but taking the meditation into the ‘real’ world requires a more robust deployment of meditation skills.  With a soundscape full of children playing, people talking and arguing, busses going by and young men playing basketball this new venue will help us develop this aspect.  We are not especially religious, but even so I admire and venerate the Bodhisattva Vow, which venerates all Being not just the quiet, refined and polite ones.  I knew a Geshe once who often hung out downtown with the rif-raf because this is where the suffering was greatest.  Being forced from our womb-like, beautiful home has put us closer to the suffering of real life and is going to be good for our practice.

Even though I strive to teach meditation and think it has the power to save us all, I confess to not enjoying long sittings.  I am looking forward to seeing Norman again though, and several of the students who sit with me will be there, and that will be nice.  But I have not left the island for many years and it’s a long trip just to endure a few days of discomfort.

Here’s a talk I gave at our May meditation retreat.  It’s rather long and I do not recall what I was on about, but maybe someone will enjoy it:

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