contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Month: June, 2017

POEM: I CAN WADE GRIEF

 

I can wade Grief –

Whole pools of it

I’m used to that –

But the least push of Joy

Breaks up my feet

And I tip –

drunken

 

Emily Dickinson

EMBRACING INTERBEING

“If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the trees to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. So we can see that the cloud and the paper inter-are. ‘Interbeing’ is a word that is not in the dictionary yet, but if we combine the prefix ‘inter‘ with the verb ‘to be’, we have a new verb ‘inter-be’” (1).

Thich Nath Hanh extends his proposition to include sunshine, the logger, the saw mill, the bread sustaining the logger (thus also wheat) and the logger’s parents. We are there too, because the paper is part of our perception. In fact, “you cannot point out one thing that is not here – time, space, the earth, the rain, the minerals in the soil, the sunshine, the cloud, the river, the heat. Everything co-exists with this sheet of paper. … You cannot just be by yourself alone. You have to inter-be with every other thing. This sheet of paper is, because everything else is. … As thin as this sheet of paper is, it contains everything in the universe in it.”

I have embraced ‘interbeing’. It is the most accessible and elegant way I know of talking about non-duality: clear, workable and sensitized to an ethics of empathy. It leans into the affirmation of embodiment, of loving relationship with the Earth, and a willingness to be socially engaged. I prefer this account to ones that tend in the direction of ‘I am the One’ or union with the Divine. We each seek the language with the most resonance and integrity for ourselves, whilst also knowing that any language is a finger pointing at the moon and not the moon itself.

For some time, I have been working towards a view like interbeing through my personal contemplative inquiry. My chapter in the compilation Pagan Planet is called Living presence in a field of living presence: practising contemplative Druidry (2). There I raise questions about paths that lack a felt sense of embodiment, inter-connectedness and inter-dependence even when they do valuably encourage agency, personal responsibility, self-cultivation and independence of mind.  I specifically note two apparently contrasting effects of meditation, beyond its being a “green anti-depressant”. The first is that it “makes me very aware of my fragility … and complete embeddedness in a web of interdependence, and the narrow limits of my usual consciousness and perception”. The second is to find myself almost melting “with love and gratitude for the miracle of being alive at all”, moved too “by the world’s seeming ability to be irrationally generous as well as unfairly hurtful (3)”.

I now have an outer court membership of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Community of Interbeing and have recently begun attending a weekly meditation session with the local sangha. It seems like a good place to be. It continues, in a new setting, an aspect of what I have already been doing in my contemplative inquiry.

(1) Thich Nhat Hanh The heart of understanding: commentaries on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2009 (20th anniversary ed. Editor Peter Levitt)

(2) James Nichol Living presence in a field of living presence: practicing contemplative Druidry in Nimue Brown (ed.) Pagan Planet: Being, believing and belonging in the 21st century Winchester, UK & Washington. USA: Moon Books, 2016

(3) http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2014/12/rowan-williams-why-we-need-fairy-tales-now-more-ever

HERE-AND-NOW STONE

I am carefully sitting in a balance of warmth and shade. In the palm of my right hand is a small sandy brown stone. My four fingers are gently folded over it, the thumb resting beside them, unobtrusively pointing out. The stone is a good fit and the texture relatively smooth, with just enough variation to offer tactile interest. This is a pleasing stone to hold, as it exchanges warmth with my friendly hand. I feel in relationship with this stone, most likely collected from a beach though I don’t know when and where.

I am doing this as part of a formal exercise – you might think, a Druid one. I can recall ones very like it. But in this case, it is linked to a Mindful Self Compassion programme, research based but with an explicitly Buddhist inspiration. I’m asked to enjoy the stone. After some time I open my hand and gaze at the subtle variations in colour, and a dusting of tiny white crystalline spots. I pick the stone up and rub it against my skin. There’s just enough roughness in the contact to generate a real aliveness.  The taste is slightly salty. I am thoroughly engaged with the stone.

The framers of the exercise link this combination of focus and appreciation with coming home to the present moment, a place with no room for regret or worry, past or future. Their recommendation, going forward, is to keep the stone in my pocket, or somewhere handy. Then, whenever I feel swept up in hurt feelings or distracted ones, I can take myself back home by rubbing the stone with my fingers. I am sure that this is true and I will begin using it this way. Overnight, it can be the first stone on my Guanyin altar.

I also believe that my Druid background adds value. If I treat this action purely as a psychological exercise, it might come to seem a little calculated and Pavlovian. In my universe, I am entering a relationship with an entity from the mineral kingdom, receiving a gift, and hopefully offering one too. I believe that this understanding will add power, beauty and magic to an apparently simple activity.

POEM: SILENT ILLUMINATION

 

Silently and serenely, one forgets all words,

Clearly and vividly, it appears before you.

When one realizes it, time has no limits.

When experienced, your surroundings come to life.

Singularly illuminating this bright awareness,

Full of wonder is the pure illumination.

The moon’s appearance, a river of stars,

Snow-clad pines, clouds hovering on mountain peaks.

In darkness, they glow with brightness.

In shadows, they shine with a splendid light.

Like the dreaming of a crane flying in empty space,

Like the clear, still water of an autumn pool,

Endless eons dissolve into nothingness,

Each indistinguishable from the other.

 

Chan Master Sheng-Yen The Poetry of Enlightenment: poems by ancient Chan Masters New York: Dharma Drum Publications, 1987

This is the first section of a longer piece by Hongzhi (in this text transliterated as Hung Chi), who lived in China from 1097-1157. He developed a version of what we now call mindfulness meditation called Silent Illumination.

 

MINDFULNESS MUST BE ENGAGED

Social action: what to do and how to do it. An issue for any spiritual community ….

“When I was in Vietnam, so many of our villages were being bombed. Along with my monastic brothers and sisters, I had to decide what to do. Should we continue to practice in our monasteries, or should we leave the meditation halls in order to help the people who were suffering under the bombs? After careful reflection, we decided to do both – to go out to help people, and to do so in mindfulness. We called it engaged Buddhism. Mindfulness must be engaged. Once there is seeing, there must be acting. Otherwise, what is the use of seeing?

“We must be aware of the real problems of the world. Then, with mindfulness, we will know what to do and what not to do to be of help. If we maintain awareness of our breathing and continue to practice smiling, even in difficult situations, then many people, animals, and plants will benefit from our way of doing things. Are you massaging our Mother Earth every time your foot touches her? Are you planting seeds of joy and peace? I try to do exactly that with every step, and I know that our Mother Earth is most appreciative. Peace is every step. Shall we continue our journey?”

Thich Nhat Hanh Peace is every step: the path of mindfulness in daily life London: Rider, 1995

BOOK REVIEW: THE CRANE BAG

The Craane BagThe Crane Bag, Joanna van der Hoeven’s forthcoming book*, offers an introduction to the ritual tools and practices found in the Druid tradition. It achieves this briefly, simply and with a light touch – as books in the Pagan Portals series are designed to do. Yet it much more than a tick box guide. It provides context and meaning, showing the modern evolution of the Druid tradition itself.

The author makes it clear that she wants readers “to develop their own path in their own time in their own fashion”. Re-enchantment is both path and goal. With proper use, the crane bag “can further the Druid in working with the tides of nature, finding his or her own place in the environment, living in balance, harmony and peace”. The movement overall is “toward reintegration with the natural world”.

At its simplest, the crane bag is the container for Druid ritual tools and as such enables the practices. Bag and tools provide the practitioner with “something tangible to express the spiritual”, acting as a portable “map of the soul”. Behind the crane bag lies an ancient Irish story beginning with the contention between two sisters and the transformation of one of them, Aoife, into a crane. The story is beautifully told and its relevance clearly explained in the first chapter of the book.

In ritual, a period of time and an area of space are set apart and dedicated. This is not to create a lasting duality of sacred and mundane, but a step on the way to experiencing everything as sacred. “Ritual helps us to step back from the busyness, into another way of being. It is a change of consciousness, where we can shift our perception away from a singular view to a more plural view, realising that we are part of an ecosystem”. There is a clear preference for working outdoors, where awareness can shift more readily, though this is not insisted on.

A Druid’s tools will vary with the Druid. The book identifies the following: a silver branch; a staff; cups/bowls/cauldrons; drums; a sickle or knife; robes; altars; fire/candles; incense. People may make or buy them. Ethical sourcing of tools and materials is discussed in some detail, in line with the values of The Crane Bag overall.

What goes into a ritual is explored under the headings of call for peace; preparing the nemeton; honouring spirits of place, three worlds, four directions, ancestors, deities; ritual action; prayers and magic; offerings; eisteddfod; sacrifice; feast; closing. There’s encouragement to practitioners to craft what is right for them from within this set of suggestions and beyond it. The author adds, “I have been in circles with Christian Druids and Buddhist monks, as well as other religions from all over the world”. What matters in ritual is being present and performing the ritual with mindfulness, so that “any words that you speak, any gesture or movement you make will flow more easily, be more graceful and filled with meaning”.

There’s a final chapter on ‘altered states’. I don’t use the term myself, because it makes an ‘altered’ vs ‘normal’ distinction that doesn’t really work for me in my own life. But I recognise it as a term that is widely and usefully employed. Here, it facilitates valuable discussions of meditation, drumming, chanting and song, sensory deprivation, sacred landscape and sitting out. Three kinds of meditation are distinguished: calming the mind and re-tuning the body, journeying and problem solving. Guidance is offered on each kind. Different suggestions are also explored within the other topics. For sensory deprivation, there are two. One is the Celtic version of the sweat lodge, called teach an alais. The other is total immersion in darkness for a considerable period before being brought out into the light. The author refers to early medieval accounts of this, where it was done in aid of Bardic inspiration and prophesy: imbhas forosna.

I found The Crane Bag a very useful contribution to its topic and highly recommend it.

 

Joanna van der Hoeven The Crane Bag: a Druid’s guide to ritual tools and practices Winchester UK & Washington USA: Moon Books, 2017

*According to the publisher, the book is due for release on 28 July, and can be pre-ordered through Amazon US & UK, Indiebound and Hive.

GUANYIN 1940

Childhood inspiration in a traditional Chinese Buddhist setting ….

“My early sense of spirituality was also derived from my mother. She was a member of the local Guanyin Society, twenty or thirty women who met three times a year to chant to Guanyin, the Bodhisattva of the Great Compassion, who hears and responds to the cries of all living beings. Most of the women, like my mother, could not read, so they just chanted simple prayers in a melodic drone.

“The women wanted me as part of the group because there was a common belief in China that children – pure of mind and unsullied by unwholesome thoughts such as greed – have a clearer connection to the life of the spirit than adults. But I also think that in subtle and unconscious ways my mother wanted me to chant because she was directing me toward a spiritual life.

I’d chant – a scrawny, sticklike kid among the sturdy peasant women in their padded jackets and pants, who laughed at my bumbling attempts to follow along. We met in different women’s living rooms by night, our activities lit by an oil lamp, sitting on wooden benches around a rough wood table. In the center of the table was a statue of Guanyin, in front of which we placed offerings of incense, fruit and candles.

“The women’s laughter was indulgent and spurred me on. I chanted with great energy. I grew to love chanting and would often chant on my own while doing chores or walking. I don’t think it is an accident that later in life, when I became a monk, a core part of my practice involved prostrations to the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion. I believe that it is because of good karma in previous lives that I started chanting Guanyin’s name as a child. The karmic connection with Guanyin continues to this day. It is the foundation of everything I do.”

Chan Master Shen Yeng Footprints in the Snow: The Autobiography of a Buddhist Monk New York: Doubleday, 2008

Shen Yeng was born in 1930 and grew up by the shores of the Yangzi River. He was the last of six children in a poor rural family, but got the chance to enter a Buddhist monastery in his early teens. It was a time of civil war and Japanese occupation in much of the country.

In 1949 he was a monk in Shanghai and. along with other young monks, pragmatically recruited into the fleeing Nationalist Army as a means of reaching the safety (for a Buddhist monk) of Taiwan. He was not to see any of his family again until 1988. By this time both his parents were dead but he met up with an older brother, who had news of them and other family members.

On his discharge from the military in 1960 he resumed his life as a monk, became a well-known figure in Taiwanese Chan Buddhism, studying also with Zen practitioners for a period in Japan. Invited to teach in the U.S. in the mid 1970’s, eventually establishing a base for the ‘Western Chan’ in New York. From this beginning the Friends of the Western Chan, where people don’t necessarily have to become Buddhist to benefit from Chan teaching, have become established in several English speaking countries.

MYSTERY

“We usually describe the world in terms of trees, mountains, rivers, clouds, cars, houses, people, and so on. But a chemist could say: ‘No, this is not how things truly are! The world is basically composed of molecules which are ceaselessly combining one with another at random’. However, a physicist would reply: ‘Not at all! Reality is actually made up of intermingling fields of energy/matter where the dance of waves/particles takes place ceaselessly’.

“Who is right? Who is wrong? All of them are clearly mere conceptual descriptions that can just supply a relative view of reality. We do not actually live in ‘reality’, but rather in a description of it, that is like a ‘bubble’ of concepts and words all around us, which in time builds up a fictitious view of ourselves and the world. Even non-dualism (as any other -ism without exception) is just a conceptual description of reality, that hopelessly tries to point to the unknowable ‘Whatever it is’: in so far as it becomes an ideology that relies on words and thoughts, it is unable to enjoy the taste of Being.

“So we live in concepts without realizing it. We blindly believe that reality is just as our thought represents it. Science gives us an ‘objective’ description of the material world that, to some extent, can be very useful for the improvement of humankind, however relative and incomplete it is. Non-duality – as far as it still relies on words and thoughts – is just another conceptual description of reality, though its understanding of non-separation can dispel a huge amount of suffering in one’s life. Neither of them is more or less right, and both are useful. But as long as we rely merely on them, we remain trapped in the net of concepts.

“Just as the fisherman’s net can catch only fishes, but not the water that passes through it and even supports it, so the thinking mind can grasp only concepts, but not the awareness that perceives it as an object: the ‘water of awareness’ can never be detected by the net of the thinking mind.

“Indeed, awareness is a paradoxical mystery: on the one hand its evidence is undeniable for the very fact that we are aware of objects, but on the other hand it is unknowable, just as the existence of the eye is undeniable for the very fact that we can see objects, though it always remains invisible, outside the picture. However, even ‘awareness’ is just a concept: through it, we are ultimately confronted with the unknown ‘bottom line’ of any human knowledge. No understanding whatsoever can touch the unknowable Source of everything.

“What if any idea about who I am, including even the idea of ‘consciousness’, totally collapses? What if any idea about reality, including even the idea of ‘non-duality’, totally collapses? What if even these very words you are reading now lose any meaning whatsoever and fall away? What remains when every attempt to understand or to know reality reveals its utter futility? Then, out of frustration, the thinking mind cannot help saying “I don’t know” and finally quits.

But when that “I don’t know” plunges off the head into the heart, the philosopher dies and the mystic is born. It is not a process in time. It is a singularity where all the known collapses and disappears. It is a timeless explosion of pure wonder and awe that blows away everything else. And what remains is a wild, free, spontaneous, and utterly unknowable aliveness, within the glowing darkness of the Mystery that we ultimately are.”

Mauro Bergonzi