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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.

In the last post I looked at the ritual of tea both in my daily life (kaijō) and in my Buddhist practice. This time I am considering another ritual; one that I have always associated with medit atom practice and not my daily life; though this may change up for awhile as Sensei An has suggested that, as long as I am looking at bowing (as ritual and practice) I should practice bowing in my everyday activities. So, as she often signs “bowing warmly,” allow me to proceed.

Almost all the meditation communities I have attended include some sort of bowing rItaly as part of their practice. Some bow fully to the floor, some do small bows from the waist, and others bring their hands together and simply nod. You may see someone bow upon entering the temple/zendo, bow to the Buddha, bow to the monks and nuns, bow to their cushion, and bow to their fellow practitioners. A regular bowing bonanza! So what is the meaning of all this bowing and how is it appropriate?

Chihiro and No-name bowing to a lantern in Spirited Away

from Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki

In its truest sense bowing is a fundamental expression of Buddhism through motion. As Shunryu Suzuki says in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, “It is easy to have calmness in inactivity. It is hard to have calmness in activity, but calmness in activity is true calmness, so bowing is a practice of calmness.” Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “The one who bows and the one who is bowed to are not separate; therefore, the communication between them is inexpressibly perfect.” True bowing is a humble gesture but should not be seen as humiliating, as Venerable Dhammananda Bhikkhuni notes, “When we bow down before a Buddha image it means we are able to let go of the importance of the self. We bring our head below our heart. We bow with body, heart and mind and by so doing we gain merit.” So if bowing is a humble merit gaining, calming practice that is a source of perfect communication where is my hangup? Why are my bows self-conscious and often half-hearted?

The practice of bowing can be difficult for Westerners to appreciate. Some may see it as a violation of a personal injunction against idol worship, associate it with kow-towing, acceptance of undemocratic status differentials, submission to power, or self-abasement. These connotations may prevent one from experiencing the true meaning of bowing practice. I suggest that if you feel that bowing is inappropriate please note that in every Sangha I have attended bowing was strictly optional. That said, I believe it the proper courtesy  would be to speak to someone in charge and let them know your conviction that you prefer not to bow. As for myself, I am going to follow Sensei’s advice and take a long look at what is keeping me from crossing my 30° “tipping point.”

Bow and Ghassō

Bow and Ghassō

In the Zen tradition bowing down till one’s knees and forehead are on the floor is generally saved for formal ceremonies. More typically the “respect” bow (futsuu or saikei rei) with a gasshō (palms flat together, fingers straight, fingertips at nose level) is appropriate. Keeping your back straight, bend at the waist until your torso is bent to between a 30 and 40 degree angle.

Bows during meditation (or chanting) are often done in groups of three. Traditionally this has meant one bow for each of the aspects of the “Triple Gem” (triratna) – the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, To paraphrase an old Japanese verse, we bow with all beings to attain liberation, to manifest the unsurpassed mind and the return to the boundless truth. Even in or little Zen community here in Oregon we bow once as we enter the sitting space (Buddha), once to the cushion we will sit on (Dharma), and once to then rest of the community (Sangha).

Why Do I Bow

Several years ago I had a small insite into the nature dharma transmission as being very much like the act of bowing. This is what I wrote down at that time. I hope it is not too abstract.

As I begin my bow, that which I am passes its wisdom on to a newly created that which is now and in so doing becomes that which has passed. Rising from my bow the newly created receives the wisdom of the one that was and in so doing becomes the one that is reborn. Nothing is taken from or lost by the one that passes, nothing is acquired by the one that is, yet all is forever changed. This is the transmission of dharma, untroubled by the transience of existence, the essential reincarnation, I pause but a moment and begin another bow. First penned in September 2012 when at a temple whose practice it was to bow three times all the way to the floor.

 

Bowing for Peace

Called a three steps, one bow pilgrimage, Rev. Heng Sure and his companion Heng Chau (Dr. Martin Verhoeven), bowed from South Pasadena to Ukiah, California, a distance of 800 miles, seeking for world peace. (1977-1979)

Some additional quotations about bowing.

“We are individual waves on the water, but we are also the entirety of water. When we bow down we acknowledge our essential nature as water, surrendering to whatever form the water wants us to take. For me it is a way of touching that which is universal in me, and putting aside that which is individual.” – Shunryu Suzuki

“Bower and what is bowed to are empty by nature. The bodies of one’s self and others are not two. I bow with all beings to attain liberation, to manifest the unsurpassed mind and return to boundless truth.” – Japanese verse translated by Dainin Katagiri Roshi

“When a student bows before a teacher, it is the student who gains merit because she/he is able to let go of the self; the teacher gains nothing at all.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

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

…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.

Innate within each of us is the the ability to contribute something that is unique in the universe; we can resolve to take control of our inner self and our relationship to everything we experience. In so doing we contribute something that is so basic to the universe that it is its very raison d’être, its most basic no, original, ground of being.

This blog is about that inner world, a changing personal world that we seek to maintain some discipline over. This blog is about our increasingly urban world, this ever changing blue marble and our intimate relationship to it. This blog is about Buddhism, a twenty-five hundred year old philosophical system and the answers it provides in these modern times. And finally this blog is about rediscovering the innate (inner) skills (siddhi) that each of us can utilize to help us on the path to awakening.

How will we recognize the true path when we are on it? I propose we start by applying a simple test – does the path that presents itself make sense? Which is to say does it promote our development of wisdom (prajñā), ethical conduct (śīla), and increase our concentration (samādhi) thereby allowing us to nurture increased inner calm and collectedness.

Even in this modern world with its distractions and temptations at every moment we are offered an opportunity to, as Mahatma Gandhi said, “be the change we want to see in the world.” So where does one begin? What are the first few steps on the path?

It starts with a few realizations and perhaps you have had some of these or all of them and that is why you are on this path. The most primal of these realizations is the knowledge that there is suffering. This realization is strongest when you see beyond your personal suffering and see the truth that there is the presence of suffering and it goes hand in hand with existence. Suffering, in this sense extends far beyond our personal problems even if our suffering includes fear of loosing our most basic securities like shelter, income, health, excreta.

The Four Reminders

  1. This life you are experiencing is a precious opportunity.
  2. Impermanence is perpetual (it endures).
  3. Karma (just) happens.
  4. Samsara is futile.

So let’s start right here with this precious human life.