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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.

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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.

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.