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Tu Viên An Lac is a Vietnamese Buddhist Temple on the East side of Ventura California. It was established around 2002 on the site of a ninety-year-old Baptist church. The church grounds include a garden with a large Deodar Cedar as its center piece but as the years went by it became apparent that the old flagstone paths were a tripping hazard, the plantings in disarray, and the patio and parking lot in ruins. It was time to do something.

I lived about four blocks away and had been attending the twice weekly meditation sessions for English speakers. These sessions are still being led by a monk from Sri Lanka who lives at the temple with the Vietnamese clergy. His name is Sutadhara Tapovanaye but everyone knows him as Bhante.

meditators-under-BodhiAt some point before I started attending, a Theravada temple gave An Lac a Bodhi tree seedling which they planted near the properties east fence line. By the time of the garden renovation in 2012 the tree had been in the ground for several years and was about 5 feet tall. It’s east side having been too close to the fence was looking scraggly though the rest was nicely filled out. Although I had only been a Sangha member for a few months I was asked to help with the planning of the new garden. One of the requirements was to have a concrete path poured around the perimeter of the space suitable for wheelchairs and walking meditation. This meant the precious Bodhi tree would have to be moved and, on my advice, it was agreed to spin it 180° (to let western sun fill in the sparse side). Then – I was asked to oversee the tree moving operation.

It is said that the Buddha was enlightened while sheltering beneath a pipal tree. A type of fig the pipal or ficus religiosa has come to be called the Bo or Bodhi tree and is held sacred by many Buddhists. The most famous of these trees is in Bodh Gaya, India. Tradition has it that not so much as a leaf should be harmed; though if a leaf should fall one can keep it as a souvenir. At the time this Bodhi tree was one of two in Ventura County. The second one is on the grounds of the Krishnamurthi Foundation in Ojai.

Excavation or Execration

An Lac Garden SketchAnd so we began with the goal to have the major work completed by the May 2013 celebration of the Buddha’s birthday, Vesak or Lễ Phật Đản, depending on the country you choose. I sketched examples of the finished project for fundraising and even designed a t-shirt, that didn’t get made, and met with some of the contractors and volunteers. We skimmed off the broken flagstones, moved several large statues, laid out the forms to hold five cement trucks worth of concrete, and lastly, moved the Bodhi tree. Four feet west and spun 180 degrees. The tree was too heavy to move by hand so after hours of hard work – there it hung, debased and suspended by multiple webbed belts from the blade of a small bulldozer. To enhance the scene of desecration, a couple of branches were cracked and hanging at its sides. Awhile later it was planted in its new carefully excavated hole, sized and filled to provide better drainage in the dreadful Southern California adobe soil – its broken branches pruned and buried in the compost.

Over the next few days we finished the massive cement pour, installed a sprinkler system, and brought in one and a half truckloads of topsoil. Everything was going well. But then everything goes well until it doesn’t.

t-shirtsI expected the Bodhi tree to show some stress after the transplant. It seemed natural that after losing root and limb any tree would experience stress. Over the next few days the tree began dropping leaves at first it was just a few but as time went by more and more began to drop. We were keeping the soil moist. I had fertilized, mulched, and chanted but nothing was working. Bhante returned from having been away during the work and while he remained positive about the eventual outcome his attitude did not rub off on me – I saw only an increasingly bleak prognosis. Fearing the worst I took some cuttings and tried to get them to send out roots in a mixture of water, rooting hormone, and vermiculite. The tree was down to a few leafy survivors but mere weeks before Vesak the last leaves withered and dropped. The tree was naked.

The paths and large event patio were in, the sprinkler system was watering the newly laid sod, even some of the new plants were in place. Vesak came and went and the tree stayed naked. Bhante continued to be cheerful. He noted that all that the branches were still supple and was sure the tree would recover though he did ask about the cuttings on a couple of occasions.

In late May, we had a heat wave, the Santa Anna’s blew and in one evening and by morning the cuttings had dried up and died. I was devastated, I could not bring myself to admit to Bhante that the worst had happened. I had lost the tree and now the cuttings which though they had never rooted had at least kept their leaves. How could I ever bare my guilt and pain to him. The days went by.

I walk my dog every morning and in those days, it was my habit to sit in the garden and talk to my best friend Dave. It was now a week or more into June and the heatwave had not let up.  As we approached Dave noticed it first. There on the beleaguered gray brown tree we saw them, first a couple, then dozens, beautiful little green tipped dark brown bud spurs had appeared all over the tree. It seemed like a miracle. Moments later I found Bhante and Thầy Chuc Hien in the dining room talking excitedly about the tree’s sudden recovery. It was a beautiful moment.

closing-prayer-7

Several Vesak celebrations have come and gone since that fateful year and each year the Bodhi tree in the garden at An Lac Mission celebrates the birth of the Lord Buddha by losing most of its leaves.

I am sure the Buddha must have said, instant gratification is not part of the deal. Or as least he should have.

Postscript:
Bodhi trees are deciduous in much the same way that Laurel trees are. They lose leaves throughout the year but in the Northern Hemisphere they tend to drop them in far greater number in late winter-early spring.

Bodhi trees are almost impossible to grow from cuttings. To start a new tree, you should start a new cutting by a process called layering. See: http://buddhaspace.org/bodhitree/en/cultivation/layering.html

I have learned much from Bhante’s example and on this occasion he taught me the true value of accepting the cards that life deals me, to be patient, to not get dragged into a cloud of awfulizing and to stick to what I observe to be the truth.

The last photo shows Thầy Chuc Hien and Bhante on the right – the Bodhi tree in the background on the left.

There was once a famous Chinese master named Zhao Zhou. He was so famous that he had visitors all the time who would come seeking the meaning of enlightenment. One day two young seekers knocked on his door begging for words of wisdom. Zhao Zhou welcomed them into his small hut and told them to sit down at a table where an old monk was already sitting. “Please tell me the meaning of Buddha,” the first student asked. Zhao Zhou replied, “Drink some tea!” The second student then asked, “What is truth?” and Zhao Zhou excitedly replied, “Drink some tea!” The old monk sitting there was quite perplexed about this interaction and wondered to himself, “Why does he tell them to both drink tea instead of answering their questions?” Zhao Zhou, being a great Zen master, read the monk’s mind and said to him, “You drink tea too!”

Kaijō: those things we do habitually in our daily life.

Japanese Tea Garden by Dong Kingman painted in 1967Everything I know about and expect from a proper tea service was imprinted on me as a child going to the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Neat little round bowls were filled with slightly bitter, overly brewed jasmine green tea and presented on small wooden trays with a few rice crackers to be ceremoniously consumed with great solemnity while enjoying a quiet moment with family. Of course if you have been to the Tea Garden recently you know this kind of quiet interlude can only happen weekdays on a foggy afternoon in the middle of winter.

Years later my Tai Chi teacher always served Red Zinger® tea after the weekly class. Tea in her living room with my fellow students was an event I always looked forward to. Later when I was attending college I sat for a time at the Sonoma Mountain Zen Center. At SMZC there were regularly scheduled work practice days (samu) and in exchange for our labors the center served breakfast in traditional three bowl oryoki style. I believe, for I was never sure, the large bowl contained a porridge of corn meal and a few raisins, the middle size bowl contained green tea, and the small bowl held a salty pickle slice that, along with a splash of tea, was used to clean the bowls prior to being consumed with the tea and bits of porridge that remained after eating. It was all very formal, filled with tradition, practiced in silence, and satisfied my love of ritual perhaps born of a childhood informed by Catholicism.

So my early tea service experiences were generally formal affairs with lots of value as centering rituals in my life. But how does this tie into my experience of partaking of tea in the 21st century? For that answer, please, join me for tea.

Chaios (CHī•äs): Tea taken with a dollop of chaos

Over the last several years I have visited a number of meditation groups and these Sangha’s all handled their tea service in the same way as the group I attended regularly in Ventura California. There the custom was to set up the tea and cookies in a sort of buffet style and people would pick the kind of tea they wanted and a treat to go with it, then sit and listen to the dharma talk, and or take part in the open discussion.

Tea drinking at the Salem Zen Center seems to be inclusive of both styles. Here the tea ceremony has a formal side in that it is taken in silence at our individual seats and it also has an informal side. As Sensei writes in her teacher’s blog (fourth post down), “Each week we have tea. Each week different folks jump up to serve. At SZC we have no one formally assigned to serve the tea. It’s just dependent on someone standing up. I totally love this. It’s rather lively. Serving tea can be rather humbling. There’s no instruction on how to do it. We each learn by taking a risk and working cooperatively.”

Working cooperatively, in silence, with a rotating group of folks makes for a new experience every week. Typically, four people will serve tea to 25ish people as quickly as possible and the result is not just humbling but is often a tad chaotic. For those being served it is an opportunity to immerse themselves in an activity as mundane as eating a cookie with a cup of tea. For those serving it is an opportunity to maintain a non-abiding mind in the midst of all the weirdness that arises when you are trying to silently work with a group, leave no teacup unfilled, drop of tea spilled, or person completely missed (including the servers themselves). After tea the same people clear things up and we have our dharma talk and sharing time. It doesn’t always go smoothly but it strengthens the Sangha each time an individual stands up and avows their own sense of community by offering to serve tea. (More about tea at SZC found here.)

chinese-almond-biscuits-15286_lThich Nhat Hanh writes, “Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the earth revolves – slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future.” Serving or drinking tea,or coffee for that matter, alone or with friends are things we do every day. They are simple acts that can be performed without our slightest attention. But when I look back on a lifetime of ritual around the serving and drinking tea I see that the more I am observant of these ordinary activities the more it helps me to be mindful of what is going on both within and without. The simple act of having tea can help me regain that still point that might otherwise be lost in the background noise of daily life. A quiet cup of tea is not about finding a place of great stillness outside of one’s daily life, it is about finding the stillness already in one’s life. As Shunryu Suzuki once noted,”The practice of rituals is the practice of stillness.”

As always, thank you for taking the time to read this. Let me know what you think by leaving a comment or a like.

Now, “volunteers for tea?”

…Just as a solid rock remains unshaken by the wind, even so, neither forms, nor sounds, nor odors, nor tastes, nor contacts of any kind, neither the desired, nor undesired, can cause one whose heart dwells in peace to waver. Steadfast is their mind and gained is deliverance. The Buddha (somewhat paraphrased)

Buddha in front of a fanIt’s late summer in Oregon and the days are hot. I arrive at the UUC of Salem for the Wednesday evening Zazen and find the hall has been transformed into a proper Zendo. Except tonight and for most of the evenings between now and the first rains two large fans will roar from opposing corners and only to be silenced during Sensei’s talk.

It was much the same when I lived in Southern California. The nearby Pacific generally spared us summer’s heat but by early August the fans would be drowning out the traffic in the street, and the games in the neighboring park. Even the aging air conditioner whose condenser unit was the size of an old Volkswagen bug was no match for their roar.

I don’t know how the other members of these Sangha’s feel about the fans with all their noise but I am sure that they, like myself appreciate the cooling air they provide as they cast pleasant breezes upon the sitting fellowship.

It is my lot to be afflicted with tinnitus and while for others so vexed the white noise generated by fans offers respite, in my head they are just another noise to contend with. So I sit and like a drunk not trying to think of pink elephants. I listen to the sound of the fan, the ringing in my head and woosh, my free range mind wanders off to some perceived sanctuary far distant from my body. Eventually the droning of the fans takes over and within a few sessions becomes integrated into the act of sitting. (More on meditating with tinnitus found here.)

Then, one evening in September or October, the fans disappear, a forgotten quiet settles over the room, the practice becomes easier – the wind subsides and once again this rock wannabee experiences peace.

As always, thank you for taking the time to read this. Let me know what you think by leaving a comment or a like.

As noted in other posts, my brain is host to a bad case of tinnitus. Tinnitus is the result of neuroplasticity run amuck. In the United States it is estimated nearly 15% of the general public — over 50 million Americans — experience some form of tinnitus. Trauma, sickness, and age related hearing loss can bring it on. The brain senses that some essential part of the auditory spectrum is compromised so it tries to fill in for the missing bits by recreating the lost frequencies for itself. It turns out this adaptation is in no way positive but there is currently no way of calling the brain to a different course of action. So while I would prefer that it “give up and let go” this 4100 Hz banshee has been my constant waking companion for over 28 years.

fanPopular wisdom is that people with tinnitus can better cope with their tormentor if they have white noise around them and I am sure that many folks use white noise generators, like fans, to keep their tinnitus at bay. For me the only white noise that dampens the din in my brain is the noise my mind creates when it is thoroughly occupied. Work, study, play, movies, even the sound of birds and crickets are all good distractions and take my mind off the noteworthy scourge. The rest of the time I prefer things to be quiet because most “outside noise,” especially electrically generated white noise just seems to make things worse.

When it is quiet I can cocoon myself peacefully inside of, yet detached from, the noise that envelops my world. It is “within” this space that all my meditation and contemplation take place. It is from here that I have to be roused from when someone wishes to speak to me. It is from this deep well that I find solitude yet it is a principle source of the unconfined gushers of frustration and anger that can spring forth – for this place is both wellspring and geyser, sanctuary and prison. That said, fans, especially loud ones do not provide a respite from my tinnitus but are just another noise in an already noisy space.

The Fourth Ox Herding Picture

Print by Master Gyokusei Jikihara

Having tinnitus has made me more disciplined but far from being a good thing, my discipline is somehow austere, idiocentric. I don’t respond well to changes in my environment, especially where sound levels are concerned. I rarely turn on music or television just for the sake of hearing it in the background, and on bad days I can be irritable with others for a reason they can’t discern. Having tinnitus has not made me a better meditator. My waking/active mind long ago learned that distraction is the best way to escape the banshee’s grip but this defense mechanism fails miserably when I am concentrating, interacting with others, or trying to meditate. It’s a bit like the fourth image of the ten ox herding pictures. In my case a distracted wandering mind is like an ox that has never known a lead or halter. Like the herdsman in the picture l poses both items but every time I start to get them hitched the ox charges off in a new direction leaving me freshly distracted and the bell still ringing.

While I may not be a better meditator I have become a diligent one. It was a terrible shock when I finally realized that the ringing wasn’t going away and it impacted my meditation practice so completely that I stopped sitting for over two decades. Eventually I started meditating again and shortly after turned to Bhante Sutadhara Tapovanaye for help in meditating with tinnitus. He gave me some excellent advice and suggested I try employing mindfulness practice. He said I should ‘observe’ all my thoughts, including any worries about tinnitus and to use my mind to find out everything there was to know about the ringing in my ears. So I sat and observed every thought and listened to every tone. Often this effort was excruciating but I began to make discoveries. For instance, it wasn’t just one ringing there were several tones, a kind of Irish keening or wailing, five in my right ear and four in my left. Later I discovered Mandy Sutter’s excellent 2011 blog post, “Meditating with Tinnitus.” Here I found that I was not alone and people are still commenting on this article after all these years and she still responds to every one of them.

Several years have passed since I rebooted my daily meditation activities and as you have surmised I was not immediately cured by mindfulness practices. Most of the time I feel unaffected by the ringing but it seems a long path to accepting that tinnitus is part of who I am, that it doesn’t have to rule my life, and that I can just let it be. It hasn’t been easy. I still display plenty of idiocentric behavior. I still have bad days and find myself obsessing about it and in so doing, fearing and hating it rather than observing it for what it is, a bell ringing in an empty sky.

As always, thank you for taking the time to read this. Let me know what you think by leaving a comment or a like.

J. Krishnamurti

J. Krishnamurti

Some forty years ago a friend gave me a copy of  The Urgency of Change by J. Krishnamurti (here is a copy for you). This book profoundly changed my life. At the time I was suffering from a depression that had cast a fog of malaise over my entire life. Here I was barely 20 I had no idea who I was, where I wanted to go or what direction to take. It felt like I was in quicksand. Reading the book I came to understand that the only way out was to discover truth about this suffering business (at that point it was my suffering I was interested in), perform whatever steps were necessary to overcome the suffering and seek the advice and counsel of others that have been down the path and made profound changes in their lives. The source of this resolve was simple enough. In reading the book I realized that it is the space between realizing that something is amiss and undertaking to do something about it that one slips into depression, craving and loss and I was very much stuck in one of those

“As we have said, it is only in knowing oneself completely that sorrow ends. Do you know yourself at a glance, or hope to after a long analysis? Through analysis you cannot know yourself. You can only know yourself without accumulation, in relationship, from moment to moment. This means that one must be aware, without any choice, of what is actually taking place. It means to see oneself as one is, without the opposite, the ideal, without the knowledge of what one has been. If you look at yourself with the eyes of resentment or rancour then what you see is coloured by the past. The shedding of the past all the time when you see yourself is the freedom from the past. Sorrow ends only when there is the light of understanding, and this light is not lit by one experience or by one flash of understanding; this understanding is lighting itself all the time. Nobody can give it to you – no book, trick, teacher or saviour. The understanding of yourself is the ending of sorrow.” – Jiddu Krishnamurti, The Urgency of Change

Rimpoche Tarthang Tulku

Tarthang Tulku

A few months later I was walking near my apartment in Berkley and wandered onto the grounds of Padma Ling, home of the Tibetan Nyingma Institute and enrolled in a beginning meditation course. It was my incredible good fortune to be taught by Rimpoche Tarthang Tulku. From Rimpoche I learned the basics of mindfulness meditation but the thing I remember most were his few short words to me at my darshan at the end of the weekend. He said, words to the effect, don’t think you can find out who you are and what the meaning of your life is by immersing yourself in a tradition, teaching or monastery. Live your life, ask questions, find out who you are. You are young, take advantage of the life ahead of you to know yourself completely. He dismissed me and I left the grounds of Padma Ling and walked down from Highland Avenue and back into my life.

“At the moment when dharma is correctly transmitted, you are immediately your original [true] self.” – from Dogen’s Genjo Koan as translated by Robert Aitken

I have had 40 years to reflect on those few moments with Rimpoche and for a long time have known that at that moment the Dharma was correctly transmitted and the result left me devastated. There is a Zen story that goes like this, “The young monk approached Roshi and said, “Roshi, I have attained enlightenment. Ever since my life has gotten worse. Nothing is going as I had envisioned it would. Why am I so miserable?” Roshi replied, “Enlightenment, whoever said you would like it when you got it.” Roshi turned and walked away.”

Enlightenment is not the light at the end of the tunnel and it isn’t the final destination. It is the empty gate and what lies immediately beyond is ones true self, the essence of the the human condition, your face before you were born and if one is not prepared to bear witness, awakening to the truth won’t be pretty. I left the grounds of Padma Ling keenly aware that I was the source of my fears, my suffering and frailties. This would be the first of many, to use a Zen metaphor, descents of the mountain.

“Quiet your thoughts and behold your Original Face before you were born!” – Daito

So what do you do? Integrating these trans-formative flashes (satori) into ones life is where the work begins, it is what practice is all about. For me it starts with meditation, a very particular meditation. By sitting quietly on a square mat and round cushion the contents of my mind comes to the foreground. As this happens, I have an opportunity to reclaim bits and pieces of my self. I can reintegrate. This meditation is not about detachment it is about re-connecting.