Saturday, October 24, 2009

Dispelling Despair

I often feel overwhelmed by the news, especially the dire news about global warming and climate change.

Today was a day of protests aimed at raising awareness on this issue. This International Day of Climate Action was sponsored by website is here:

Sebastopol friends held up somber signs downtown for passing motorists to know about how we've passed the threshold of 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the level beyond which civilization-threatening global warming is believed to be inevitable. Somehow, if I had joined them, my feelings of despair would have deepened.

On this day of 350 protests, I joined with my local Green Sangha this morning to transform a front yard into an edible landscape.

We dug out weeds, spread mulch, and planted edibles. We soon transformed what had once been an ordinary front yard into a bee-friendly organic garden that will soon yield an abundance locally grown food. We believe the yard will produce too much for the householders to eat, thus prompting sharing of the earth's bounty with neighbors.

An ancillary benefit was the fact that 25 people donated their labor without any expectation of ordinary compensation or trade. As I was weeding, it seemed strange that I was brought up to believe we should each own our own private property— "my home is my castle," as my dad's generation put it—and maintain our private domains ourselves or hire someone to do the maintenance. It's so much more fun to give away your labor with like-minded folks.

I had the pleasure of meeting Steve Bush (no relation; I asked) who is a male kindergarten teacher at Sonoma Day School. Men teaching kindergarten are an endangered species, and it's always exciting me meet a comrade. I enjoyed the companionship of old sangha friends, the pleasure of meeting new people, and the wholesome effects of light exercise in the service of communities both human and ecological.

Giving away my labor definitely brightened my day and dispelled the despair.

Sunday, October 18, 2009


My mother died on this day 13 years ago.  I woke up this morning before dawn—spontaneously—at the exact time she passed over. For an hour I lay awake thinking of her, her death, and the difficult weeks and months that followed. I thought of the many more people who have died in these thirteen years. My mom was the first of our parents to die. We didn't know it then, but within 7 years the remaining three of our parents would be buried. In that same interval I lost my first Buddhist teacher, Kobun Chino Otogawa, and my closest mentor in education, Don Ryckman. Lots of difficult loss. At breakfast I talked with Sarah about all this; she said I was sounding depressed, that I should do something to get out of my funk.

I went sailing today on my little sailboat on my favorite body of water, Tomales Bay. No activity I know...well no activity that can be discussed in polite company—and I'm still old-fashioned enough to prefer polite company—is so completely engrossing for me as is sailing a small boat on open water.

Here's a picture of my father and mother taken on their wedding day on August 24, 1948.

Just before he passed away, the Buddha said to his disciples, "Only my physical body will pass away. My Dharma body [Dharmakaya] will remain with you."

By dying, my mother taught me the meaning of this teaching very clearly. Her body's gone. But important parts of my mother's energy live on in me and in my brothers and sisters. She's still here with me in countless ways. She gave me the gift of music, a gift for which I am deeply grateful. Each time I hear Bach's Italian Sonata or "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" I think of my mom; she used to play both of these Bach compositions on her baby grand piano when I was a little boy.

Mom was by no means perfect; she transmitted much of the suffering she endured. That's been part of her teaching, too. When I first heard the Buddha's Noble Truths, the First Noble Truth, the truth of suffering, rang loudly throughout my mind and body with undeniable and convincing veracity. Thanks to my mother and father, I was receptive soil for the Buddha's seeds of wisdom.

As the years have passed I've grown more and more forgiving of Mom's shortcomings. I've grown more appreciative of the simple fact she brought us, my brothers and sisters and me, into this world and got us through childhood.

So here's to you mom!

May you be safe, happy, and loving wherever you are.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Appreciating Yourself

Have you ever met—in real life or online—someone who has very similar interests to your own?

Thanks to blogging, I've met someone like that, and I'm sure we'd like each other. His name is Alden Smith. We're the same age. Like me, he loves sailing, kayaking, and bicycling. He's invested his career educating young children. And he's interested in philosophy, psychology, and spirituality. When I found Alden's blog it felt like I'd found someone who's living almost the same life as mine, just in a different part of the world. Alden lives in New Zealand; I live in California.

Perhaps some day, Alden and I will have the opportunity to meet in real life. It would be quite a thrill.

But here's an odd thing to contemplate: I don't particularly appreciate in me the very same qualities I would so readily and naturally appreciate when I find them in someone else.

Isn't that odd?

I think it's a good exercise in self-appreciation to realize that you would really like yourself if you had the chance to make your acquaintance as a friend.

Take a minute and imagine that you could meet someone so very much like you.

Wouldn't you like them a whole lot? Yes, you would. So, give that gift to yourself: like yourself for being you.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Our Meeting Tonight

We had a great meeting tonight talking about the Dharma.

We talked about birth, death, suffering, the end of suffering. Sounds dour. But I almost hurt from laughing so much. What a meeting! the end of the meeting we were talking about health care and healthcare "reform" and I told folks about this video clip and they asked that I post it up here on MindfulHeart to share.

I take requests. So here you go!

Share it with your friends.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Cemetery Walk

Our local historical society puts on a Cemetery Walk every October. It's their main fund-raising event of the year and they sell out all the tickets for each of the eight performances they offer.

The evening begins with a simple, but satisfying meal in the community room of St. Stephen's Church, near the cemetery. We enjoyed soup, salad, bread, cheese, and sliced meats. After our meal, a costumed guide (our neighbor, Susan Nestor) led us on a short walk to the cemetery. We found our way in the failing twilight with the help of lumieres and flashlights.

As we walked through the cemetery we stopped to see a half dozen short vignettes about the people buried beneath our feet. Although we're less than a month from Halloween, there was nothing spooky or macabre about these vignettes. They were short historical dramas which brought to life the stories of people who lived in Sebastopol before our time.

After the alfresco six-act play, we repaired to Luther Burbank's restored Gold Ridge cottage for a dessert of warm apple cobbler and hot tea.

Sarah and I had a wonderful evening Friday.

Part Four: Wise Meditation and Wise Concentration

Here is the fourth and final post on the Buddha's Eight Fold Path encompassing the final two aspects of the Buddha's recommended path to reduce if not entirely escape suffering.

The oldest Buddhist texts, the Nikayas, contain other lists very similar to this list of eight. Other lists may include a different number of elements or sometimes the same elements will be arranged in a different order. The last two items are sometimes listed with concentration in the seventh place and meditation in the eighth.

I have found that concentration aids meditation. Without the ability to concentrate, my meditation can get pretty scattered. So lists that place concentration before meditation makes sense to me.

But I list them here as they're often seen with meditation in spot #7. The nice thing about ordering them with meditation before concentration is that you get a handy mnemonic device to help you remember the third through seventh parts of the 8FP.

The mnemonic device? SALEM.

S for Speech
A for Action
L for Livelihood
E for Effort, and
M for Meditation

When I was beginning on the path, it was very helpful for me to having a memory aid to help me bring to mind the various branches of the 8FP. So, with that in mind, I share it with you.

VII  Wise Meditation

What is Wise Meditation?

It is the release of all clinging.
It is awakening to the deathless and unborn.
This is Wise Meditation.

(Commentary: What is meant by the "deathless" and "unborn" could fill volumes. Perhaps a good place to begin would be to try to awaken fully to this eternally present, present moment, NOW.)

VIII   Wise Concentration

What is Wise Concentration?

It is the cultivation of onepointedness of mind.
It is the overcoming of the scattered mind.
This is Wise Concentration.

(Commentary: A highly concentrated mind is very peaceful. There can be an seductive/addictive quality to concentration and because of that possibility it is helpful to have a teacher guide you through deeper states of concentration.)

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Part Three: Wise Livelihood and Wise Effort

This post unpacks slightly what is meant by the fifth and sixth parts of the Noble Eight Fold Path.

V. Wise Livelihood

What is Wise Livelihood?

It is abstaining from earning one's living by harming others.
It is the earning of one's living in a way that brings no harm.
This is Wise Livelihood.

(Commentary: I ran across this idea when still in high school and it figured strongly in my choosing a career in education. I have always known that being a teacher would require leading a much more materially modest existence, but I had faith that a wise livelihood would have rewards that would compensate me immaterially. From my perspective now nearer to the end of my career, I feel glad to have heeded the Buddha's suggestion.)

VI Wise Effort

What is Wise Effort?

It is the effort to restrain defilements.
It is the effort to abandon defilements.
It is the effort to develop wholesome states.
It is the effort to maintain wholesome states.

This is Wise Effort.

(Commentary: Like Wise Speech, Wise Effort is one of the aspects of the 8FP that serves well as an entry point into Buddhist practice. Wise Effort is simple. Everyone gets it, even kindergartners. If more beginner Buddhists were to start down this aspect of the path here instead of on somewhere else—think meditation—the benefits of walking the path would appear reliably.)

Friday, October 2, 2009

Part 2 Wise Speech and Wise Action

III Wise Speech

What is Wise Speech?

It is abstaining from false speech.
It is abstaining from deceptive speech.
It is abstaining from harmful speech.
It is abstaining from slanderous speech.
It is abstaining from harsh speech.
It is abstaining from idle chatter.

It is the cultivation of truthful speech.
It is the cultivation of helpful speech.
It is the cultivation of speech on the Dharma.
This is Wise Speech.

(My commentary: Members of my group will be quite familiar with this list. We recite these lines as we move out of our meditation period and into our check-in confabulations. The practice of Wise Speech is the third step of eight, ahead of meditation and concentration. Now I am aware that this list is not heirarchical, but still, it's high on the list. Speech occupies an interesting place in our lives. It's a window into our thoughts and it's a form of action that feels somehow less consequential than physical action, even though, that's really debatable. Practicing Wise Speech as outlined above can be extremely challenging, especially when starting out. It's a great place to begin Buddhist practice, maybe even better than meditation, at first. Even after years of practice, I know that I occasionally violate the final prohibitions on idle chatter and harsh speech.)

IV Contemplation on Wise Action

And what is Wise Action?

It is abstaining from taking life.
It is abstaining from stealing.
It is abstaining from sexual misconduct.
It is supporting the Dharma.
This is Wise Action.

(My commentary: This is a very short list of the ethical precepts of Buddhism. Many lists for lay practitioners include prohibitions on using intoxicants and lying. The latter is already covered in Part III, Wise Speech. As to the former, intoxicants: here in the heart of California's wine country, the prohibition on intoxicants can be troublesome for many people interested in Buddhism. One interpretation is to allow consumption of alcohol, but not to the point of clouding one's mind. The problem is that once you've had even one small glass of Syrah it's hard to see the mind clouding. I go through periods of complete abstinence, but I'm not currently in one now.)

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Unpacking the Fourth Noble Truth, Part One: Wise View and Wise Intention

(Note: Members of the Society of Friends of the Buddha are the intended audience for the next four posts of Mindful Heart. MindfulHeart blogspot readers are, however, welcome to read and comment as always.)

The Fourth Noble Truth of the Buddha describes a way to increase happiness. To become happier, the Buddha would suggest you walk along the Eight Fold Path.

The Eight-Fold Path consists, logically enough, of Eight Steps:

  1. Wise View
  2. Wise Intention
  3. Wise Speech
  4. Wise Action
  5. Wise Livelihood
  6. Wise Effort
  7. Wise Mindfulness, and
  8. Wise Concentration
Countless books have been written about this subject. To thoroughly understand what is meant by the Eight-Fold Path could take ordinary people like me decades, nay, lifetimes of dedicated study.
We're going to just scratch the surface of these teachings at our next Society of Friends meeting at my house. So, to help prime the pump for this discussion next Tuesday, I would like to offer a series of four posts with just a little more information about the Eight Fold Path.

I.  Wise View:

And what is Wise View?

It is the understanding of suffering.
It is the understanding of the origin of suffering.
It is the understanding of the cessation of suffering.
It is the understanding of the path that leads to the cessation of all sorrow and the awakening to the deathless.
It is the understanding of Interdependent Transformation.
It is the understanding of the deathless and unborn.
This is Wise View.

II. Wise Intention

And what is Wise Intention?

It is the intention of renunciation.
It is the intention of good will.
It is the intention of harmlessness.
This is Wise Intention.