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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.

While the Buddha was at Jetvana, a drunk Brahman asked to become a bhikkhu. The Buddha asked Ananda to shave his head and give him the monks robes. When his intoxication had worn off, the Brahman was frightened, did not want to be a bhikkhu any longer and fled. The monks asked the Buddha: “Why did you allow this drunk Brahman to become a bhikkhu?” The Buddha replied: “For numberless eons, this Brahman did not even have the idea of becoming a monastic. Today, as a result of his drunkenness, he made a small resolution thanks to which, later, he will renounce the world (with its ignorance, attachment and aversion) and obtain the Path.” From the 13th chapter of the Mahaprajanaparamitasastra often attributed to Nagarjuna (150-250 CE), and again a thousand years later in Dogen’s Shobogenzo.

When I first started sitting at a local temple in Southern California there was a regular attendee named Richard. Richard struck me as both a troubled soul and an amazingly well read Buddhist intellectual. For several months he attended the weekly gatherings and was a regular contributor to the open discussion period. Then he stopped coming. I ran into him several weeks later and he looked terrible. Eventually I would learn that Richard had struggled with drug addiction for decades and that he regularly fell off the wagon and found himself back on the streets. So here he was, manic as all get out and telling my wife and I about how he had been kicked out of where he was living and that his old roommate had sold his collection of Buddhist books to pay rent and buy drugs. After our encounter it was almost a year before I saw him again. He showed up at the temple one evening looking very shaky. You could tell he needed some of the energy Buddhists get from exposure to the Dharma though he just sat quietly a few feet behind the rest of us.

meditators-under-Bodhi-lightened

Troubled beings are to be expected at spiritual centers and Buddhist temples are no exception. Many in the group have been or are going through “a rough spot,” divorce, illness, grieving following a death, drug and alcohol problems, the list is endless. No matter the reason, they arrive seeking solace or sanctuary or perhaps they are just looking for answers to the “everyday” matters weighing them down.

From the day we are born we begin collecting baggage. We become trapped in cycles of thinking and behavior that hold sway over our lives and, like the Brahman, we all experience times when we resolve to renounce aspects of or even all of the life we have been leading. And, as in the case of the Brahman the glimpse can prove to be overwhelming.

Unpacking a lifetime’s worth of baggage requires a commitment to be attentive to the ways we fabricate our world, suffer our fates, and deal with others. Letting go of aversions and attachments demands that we begin to examine the ways we have kept ourselves ignorant of the future we create with every action; this is a core concept of the Buddha’s teachings. To paraphrase what he once said, our good and bad deeds left done and undone become the legacy of our past and the cornerstone of our future resolution. That first glimpse of what is involved in letting go, what it will take to unpack our bags, can strengthen our resolve, cause us to hunker down, or turn tail and run. Our Brahman found his resolve while under the influence but in that one-night the Buddha saw great things to come as a result. As a group we see this ourselves many folks come for just a night or a few sessions and there are others that return week after week.

So why do I keep returning to this Dharma practice and this Sangha? Not to commune with the Buddha. The person of the Buddha has been obscured by time and buried under countless tales and myths. I return because what truly survives are the teachings he set in motion (Dharma) and the communities that keep them alive and nourished (Sangha). Those of us initially attracted to the teachings and the communities may believe that ending suffering means ending suffering or we may be attracted to the community’s collegial atmosphere and the safe space it creates. Whatever the reason we will, at some point, discover that the practice of the Dharma requires effort, and that a Sangha is something one is challenged to create, not something one chooses to join. For the Dharma is a (personal) healing path not a helping path and the Sangha can only provide support for an individual to realize his or her commitment to meditation and self-exploration.

Life damages each one of us to a greater or lesser extent. Before setting out from his home, Siddhārtha Gautama, realized that all beings are subject to pain and suffering, aging and death. And like Gautama who spent years with various teachers we all come to realize that guidance in repairing or overcoming the damage is preferable to going it alone. Some will come to Buddhism and some of those will stay. For those of us that do stay the “strength” of a Sangha lies in the inclusive space that it creates and holds open week after week for the curious, the regulars, and those just dipping their toes in the stream.


A postscript:

While the equanimous spirit of community a Sangha furnishes is the best and most immediate expression of its Dharma stewardship this does not mean that there can’t be behavioral expectations. To be effective a Sangha requires some organized structure when it gathers to meditate, and to hear and discuss the Dharma. This is particularly true of any open discussion periods. How do we allow for the growth of each individual and not have it come at the expense of the groups growth and cohesiveness? I believe that sharing from experience (both the joyful and the difficult), practicing deep listening (as opposed to reviewing our personal storylines), abstaining from cross talk and offering advice, and maintaining the confidentiality of discussion periods are the best contributions individuals can make to the group’s collective insight and understanding. As Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “Discussing the Dharma in the ultimate dimension, we look at each other and smile. You are me, don’t you see? Speaking and listening, we are one.”

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.