Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Pillow Altar

As mentioned previously I took this item as a 'show and tell' for the children on Sunday. It proved particularly helpful because the last scripture of the day, before going to bed, is called Peace Upon the Pillow. The chant, repeated three times is Makura Om. Makura means pillow, Om translates as Peace. So the altar provided a link for a singing break, although it was just me singing. We had a go at chanting Om Mani Padme Hum, just me singing again though.

At night pilgrims wrap the altar in clothing and use it as a pillow, thus it is called a Pillow Altar.

This small shrine may well be a representation of a cave shrine in China.


I received a box of high class chocolates by Fed Ex this morning. They were a delayed-in-the-mail gift in celebration of my 25th Ordination Anniversary. The chocolates even had cooler bags packed with them to stop them melting on their way from Santa Cruz. On top of the ribboned box was a card. "Perishable - Don't Wait! Your box contains handmade, preservative-free fine chocolates. Please open and enjoy within one week".

There isn't going to be much peace upon my pillow tonight, that's for sure!

Sitting Still in the Midst of Conditions

A line within one of our scriptures goes, "May we within the temple of our own hearts dwell, within the myriad mountains". I needed to be mindful of that interjection of faith and intent last Sunday afternoon. For sure.

I'd been invited to visit a family outside of Edmonton so the children could ask me questions about Buddhism. "To interrogate me", as I put it to the mother on the telephone! There they were five of them, two families worth, sprinkled across the living room carpet sitting crossed legged ready and eager.

Thankfully, just as I was leaving the priory, I'd plucked up a few bits and pieces as 'show and tell' items. A bell, some incense, lotus blossom stickers, a rosary and a triptych traditionally carried by people in the east when on pilgrimage to a holy site. (no time left to photograph that, perhaps tomorrow.)

Our conversation, come Dharma talk, come meditation period, come 'entertainment' ranged and rolled along in a way I rarely encounter with adults. With the children's attentiveness, which was not 100% of course, and their bright willingness to both listen and ask questions inspired words and insights to flow in a most satisfying way. This is the best of teaching when what needs to be said, and can be heard, arises without filtering through the brain so much. Wonderful.

What a gift these children were. There were the myriad mountains shifting and wriggling, twisting and turning, and in the midst of all that to be able to talk about Buddhism in a serious minded way. And for the flexible mountains, on some level, to absorb truths beyond words and religious traditions. Sitting still is not conditional on external appearances of 'stillness'.

I'm just so grateful for such opportunities, to visit outside of my usual circle. When 'the temple' can enter a living room, in a small homestead, beside a busy highway that ribbons East across the Alberta prairie. For me it is a rare opportunity to have a window on the lives of regular folks who in turn want to have a window on a different faith tradition, as seen through my eyes.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Practice in the Balkans

It is always good to hear from Tim, a Buddhist trainee, who I've know for quite a long time. He lives in Kosovo and has been rebuilding a house in the mountains. Hard work for both him and his wife.

Thought it would be good to take you off to explore life in the Balkans. A still beautiful, yet still war worn, part of the world attempting to get back on it's feet. In previous letters Tim talked about his work in a refuge camp making tough decisions about the water supply. Water to drink, water to wash in and ohmygosh, no water at all. That must have been perhaps two years ago now.

I'll keep checking on the house project and hope Tim branches out to include other aspects of his life on the blog.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

The Biggest Butterfly in the World

To-day I went on a trip with a charming family to visit the Devonian Gardens south west of Edmonton. As we were leaving the parking lot (car park) afterwards a wedding party was arriving. My memory is that the bride always has four specific 'somethings' on her for luck. Here are my somethings from to-days adventure:

Something blue: Oilers 'uniforms', flags, hats etc. etc. etc. Edmonton is awash with Oiler stuff, which is blue...and bronze and white and red. And blue maple leaves seen on a Girl Guide scarf.
Something borrowed: 'if you find a folded-over chip in your bag of potato chips you can make a wish on it'.
Something new: The BIGGEST butterfly I've ever seen.
Something old: The awesome and ancient wisdom behind the eyes of the children.

Thanks guys it was fun, and the Oilers won too!
Thanks also for my four 'somethings', I'm one lucky monk.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Great Ocean of Meditation.

Following a week of postings about death and dying here are some words from my Master on living. More specifically, where to live.

To sit still within the arising and vanishing, the appearance and disappearance, you and I, the constant coming and going: this is to be within the Great Ocean of Meditation within this human life. When we are dead (as we think of it), presumably we see It in a different way; I have no way of knowing. But I do know this: It is no different in life and in death. What matters is to be within the Great Ocean of Meditation.
Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett, Roar of the Tigress Vol. II, p 116

Hope you find this as uplifting as I do.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Real Life

My monastic companion is back in the monastery. She wrote in an e-mail: " We have a 'quiet night' so I have just finished a little stroll through your blog. Very nice to know what you are up to now, and to review our trip".

It is pretty quiet here in Edmonton too! Non of that hootin' and hollerin' up on Whyte Avenue. Why? Because Edmonton's hockey team, The Oilers, lost their game tonight. People said they wouldn't win and some said if they lost it would be a good thing. "Keep them humble". By the way, a quiet night in the monastery is when there is no formal meditation or community tea. We just have a quiet night, which is a much appreciated change of pace in an otherwise full schedule. It is kind of nice to have a quiet night here too!

Back in California the Reverend Scholastica must have some Canadian currency. She wrote, "Have you noticed the $5 and $10 dollar Canadian bills? They have poems and lovely sketches".

On the $10.00 bill:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
John McCrae 1872-1918

And on the $5.00 bill:
The winters of my childhood were
long, long seasons. We lived in
three places - the school, the church
and the skating-rink - but our real life
was on the skating-rink.
Roch Carrier

The Reverend goes on to say, "The five dollar bill is blue, with snowflakes, and sketches of children tobogganing, skating and playing ice hockey".

"(the poem on the $5.00 bill) poses an interesting question, does it not? Of all the places that we live, where do we live our real life"? Thanks for your thoughts dear sister in the Dharma.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Left Behind

When somebody dies others are invariably left behind. They often want to follow along into Eternal Meditation with the one they love. Perhaps this comes out of spiritual longing or simply because of the unbearable thought of being left alone. And so people close around a death are, for one reason or another, drawn into the dying process. Indeed, I've sat beside a person and felt drawn along with them as they fade away. And when, as a priest, I am involved with funerals or memorials the sense of being drawn in very evident.

My father, who seemed to know about such things, kindly warned me in advance that he might follow my mother quite quickly when she died. I said 'That was fine by me'! I also said I thought there was enough going on in his life that would hold him here; me perhaps! Not that I think people make a conscious choice concerning the timing of death. I could be wrong though....

Here's another thought. When close to death people often sleep, the deep breathing and sleeping noises seeming to confirm this. There is often a sense however that there is a profound turning within, and tranquility envelopes everything and everybody around them. Perhaps they are asleep perhaps they are meditating very deeply, who knows for sure. A person can 'sleep' through half a day a night and another half-day then open their eyes, looked out at those sitting close by and then up and leave. Just like that.

And sometimes people are paid a 'visit' just before they die. This is not uncommon either.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Too Close

Finally I have a moment to work with photos I took while away. Here is one taken just outside of Jasper. In my ignorance I crossed the road and stood about half a bus length away from this grand creature. Latter I learnt there should have been, at least, three bus lengths between us. We live and learn.

Bull Elk on the side of the road near Jasper.

Scroll down to 'Rocky Mountain Elk' if you follow that link.

Sunday, May 21, 2006


Last Wednesday a complete stranger turned up for the ceremony of giving and receiving the Precepts. He'd just happened to bump into a congregation member as he was walking to the ceremony. They had fallen into conversation, one thing led to another and both of them ended up walking in the door just as the ceremony was starting. Jim (not his actual name) appeared mentally disoriented during the ceremony yet participated wholeheartedly, saying "I will" to keeping the Precepts, and left happy. Jim's presence was a gift we all were able to accept and benefit from, the gift of innocence. (Incidentally, I'd normally not have a person come to such a ceremony with out being orientated to what they would be agreeing to before hand.)

Across town a family dog attacked an 8 month old child. The father was on his way home from the priory at the time. Hard to think of that situation being a gift, yet seen through the eyes of practice it was. I'll not go into details here, just to say the child was not seriously hurt physically, and the dog has been returned to the animal rescue organization with the assurance it will be re adopted into a childless family, not killed.

I bow to the mother, "this is just the start of the twanging of the maternal heart strings, and you have accepted that", "Well done"! "There are no bad mothers, just ones trying to do the best they can". I bow to the father, "The dog (Sue), came into your life briefly, she let you love and then let go". "Your heart strings have been stretched, not broken."

Life is constantly throwing up gifts of, what seems like, a door slamming. Received with compassion and they can be a door opening. That's opening to deeper acceptance and a more expansive understanding of ones place in the larger scheme of things. Such gifts are a challenge to faith. In the first case the challenge for me, as the guardian of spiritual safely, was to keep the door open when my instinct would have been to compassionately close it. In the second case the challenge to confidence in guardianship, for a child and for an animal.

And the challenge for all of us is to let go of self blame.

Taking Flight

When you come to the edge of all that you know,
you must believe in one of two things:
there will be earth upon which to stand,
or you will be given wings.
Author Unknown
Mark died 3.30 pm, GMT.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Dropping Away

At this very moment, as I write, a small group of friends are gathered around a bed near London. A man is dying; body and mind are dropping away.

The greatest gift anybody can offer the dying is simply to sit still. Not grasping after life nor wishing it's ending before time has ripened and marks it's moment. That's the very same sitting still we call meditation. Meditation is to sit like a dying person allowing body and mind to drop away, there is nothing to do. The difference between just sitting, and a dying person just sitting, is that when the bell rings we get up and step into life. And when the 'Golden Bell that rings but once' rings for the dying there is just stepping out into The Great Unknowing. That's Eternal, Unconditioned Love if we must have words, and sometimes words are helpful in order to give expression to silent faith.

How very easy it is to get caught up in doing life, and forget to live. Living does not mean to gather more experiences to retrieve latter when health, youth and vitality have drained away. Grasping at life, rather like gathering ripe cherry's into a basket to eat latter, regurgitating and eating them, again and again is to live in the past. Stepping into life, the cherries fall into our basket, they are eaten and digested and forgotten. Life nourishes in the living of it. That's to live with a pure and gentle heart when time and space loose their usual meaning. And life and death do not stand apart.

Many thanks to the group of trainees who have gathered around to sit still and who have kept me informed. A special thanks to John who reads this blog and who has remained a pillar of strength these last long weeks and months.

Kesa of the Buddha

Yesterday was the 25th Anniversary of my monastic ordination. A time of expressing gratitude for the opportunity to practice and for my Masters Great Compassion. It was also an auspicious day to administer the Precepts in the ceremony of lay ordination.

Giving the small kesa.

Congratulations to Mike on formally receiving the Precepts and becoming a lay Buddhist within our Order.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

With Rope and Binoculars

Alpacas in the early morning, Cornwall.

Here is a transcript of a talk broadcast on BBC Radio Cornwall yesterday.

During the next three months on our farm, some of our alpacas are due to have their babies. This is a time of great excitement and some nervousness. These creatures are so beautiful and sensitive that it is natural to want to help them and to protect them.

Because of this, one of the world’s leading alpaca experts recommends that all alpaca owners should have two key items of equipment ready for the birth. The first is a rope, the second is a pair of binoculars. The rope is to tie yourself to a post some distance away from the alpaca to stop yourself interfering with the birth; the binoculars are so you can see what is going on from a safe distance.

Maybe in this there is an important lesson for all of us. Sometimes the best thing we can do in life is just to resist the urge to leap into action and try to take control; sometimes it is better first to stay still and just watch. This can be uncomfortable – we want to be useful and helpful, we want to be part of the action, we want to avert disaster. And often we have to acknowledge that there is little good that we can really do, and our interference may well cause or at least add to the problems.

So in the words of a recent Zen Master:
‘Don’t just do something; sit there!’

Andrew Taylor-Browne, Lay Minister of the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives.

Good advice I'd say. There will be more talks on a Buddhist theme from Andrew all this week.

Monday, May 15, 2006

High Places

It was a long day of driving on Friday finally getting into Edmonton around the time when the Oilers (the local ice hockey team) won another game. There was much distant hooting and shouting going on.

First stop Jasper
By complete good fortune I arrived on the platform at Jasper to catch a photo of the observation car and one carriage being shunted out of the station accompanied by the engineer on his bike. "We'll be back in twenty minutes" he shouted as I ran along beside him, "We are just turning round". This was not the Canadian, the long train that runs between Vancouver and the East Coast, just the short stubby one hiking over the mountains to the west coast and back. Gazing in awe at the engine, a great powerful mass of thundering metal, I had a thought for our very own train driver. He survived a train derailment in the Rockies not so long ago, here's thinking of you good friend.

After Jasper we turned along the Columbia Icefields Parkway. One of the worlds 'must travel' highways which one is required to drive at a very sedate pace. Pulling off for lunch we found a raven waiting, mysteriously. Already it had a presence greater than simply being a big black bird. It advanced closer and closer then bundled itself onto the car and gazed through the windscreen while we ate.

Mountains and rivers, rivers and mountains. There were incredible views all the way.

Columbia Icefields
We entered another world up there above the tree line where glaciers flow, icefields nest and, when we were there, the snow flies horizontally! It was one of those times when one could be put off ones stride by the seeming blot of commerce.

As I reflect now on my visit it is the majesty and promise of these high places that remains with me. Much in the same way as I remember the great Buddhist halls in Japan, China and Taiwan I visited a year ago.

Friday, May 12, 2006

A Phantasm, a Dream

It is unusual for me to be looking up names of things I see on the side of the trail. However we have with us Ben Gadd's Handbook of the Canadian Rockies which puts a person into the botanics. With the help of Ben's light hand I've even been reading about geology. A subject that has, until now, left me cold.

Kinney Lake under Mt. Robson.
This lake is here because of a deposit of sand and gravel called an alluvial fan.
On the way to Kinney lake, Mt. Robson.

Faunus anglewing. There were tiny blue butterflies fluttering about too.

Conifer false morel (we think). Potentially lethal!
Did I wash my hands after taking this picture?

Maxi Birch bracket fungus, (unplatable).

Mini Birch Bracket fungus
Being in the Canadian Rockies, reading about how this all got to be here has given me a new appreciation of our small place in measured existence on planet earth. The message is, as always, to get on with life, here and now. And remember:
Thus should ye think of all this fleeting world,
a bubble in a stream
a childs laugh
a phantasm
a dream.
Tomorrow we drive along the Icefields Parkway from Jasper towards Banff, then East and North for Edmonton.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Reflecting Inspiration

Here is the view across the valley in the window of the cabin.

I have been receiving news of a lay trainee in our Order who is in hospital, reaching for breath and more than likely life itself. And he is bright, so the messages tell me. We sing scriptures, we sit, we do services, and he wants to listen to us singing the scriptures at the meditation group. We will bring him a recording next week. He is an inspiration to all who visit. Right in the middle of unmasked physical and mental struggles he is bright. That’s what they say. Inspiration comes from the depths and spreads unknowingly, far and wide. Not measurable and yet to be seen and known through everyday events. I guess that is what the visitor’s encounter, the source of inspiration being shown in every day ways, at the bedside.

People worry about making a good death. For most of us I think that means 'looking good' at the moment of death. From my observations, this hardly ever happens, death is bigger than that.

There is a story of a Zen master of old speaking his last words. His disciples were gathered around his bed, all ears. The last teaching of the Master, their death poem or just their last words are considered very important. The last words are, after all, the pithy culmination of a lifetime’s contemplation. The Masters expression of realized Truth. He spoke very softly and his disciples couldn’t hear him. Or perhaps they couldn’t believe their ears. Master, please say that again we didn’t quite hear you. (Actually it’s not done to ask a teacher to repeat him or herself.) Anyway, he spoke louder, loud enough for them to hear very clearly. I DON'T WANT TO DIE. Then he died. Leaving his disciples stood around, no doubt stunned by this revelation. He was not concerned about looking or sounding good, he spoke the truth of the moment.

No problem.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Reading and Walking

I left the visitors center in Jasper clutching a book and silently praying for high winds and rain! My annual adventure read is Seven Years in Tibet however I failed to organize a copy before we left for the hills. This book, Icefields by Thomas Wharton is a different kind of read, and is running neck and neck with the old favorite.

The last days leading up to leaving the priory were filled with talk preparation and packing, culminating in a long morning at Truc Lam Monastery on Saturday to celebrate Wesak. Afterwards some body asked How do you feel about the talk? The only thought that immediately came to mind was, It's over! Thankfully my pre public talk anxiety level is diminishing and has largely transformed into a happy anticipation mixed with mild excitement. Basically the talk went OK. The weeks before such an event are still a struggle however. Pining down the subject is like trying to nail jam to a wall. Uh! I've been waiting to use that simile ever since somebody, wrongly, attributed it to me.

We, Rev. Scholastica and I, are now happily ensconced in a warm and comfortable cabin overlooking snowy mountain peaks, viewed from across the wide Rocky Mountain Tough. We traveled on Sunday. Originally we had planned to spend a second morning at the Monastery to celebrate Wesak with the Vietnamese congregation. However, having some responsibility for ensuring the Reverends physical rest, and mine too, I suggested we use the whole day to make the five hour journey from Edmonton to Valemount. Which we did; arriving just in time to unpack before the skies opened. My prayers answered!

As for the book? I'm on page 107 and managing to maintain a reasonable balance between reading and the rest of the day. The story is written in a form that lends itself to being let go of, and picked up again with little or no grief. As a recovering reader I appreciate this, there were times in my younger life when a book would not let me leave until the last page was turned. If the weather holds I'll be turning that last page just before leaving on Friday having taken a few walks as well.

It is good to have a change of pace to rest, read and reflect. Many thanks to all who have made this possible.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Singapore Connection

The Temple of Thanksgiving was the first temple Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett went to on landing in Singapore in 1962. It is dedicated to Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva. On the web site you can read about reports of unexplainable occurrences connected to Ksitigarbha that were witnessed by a Ms. Pitt, who was a remarkable woman. There is a photo of the inside of the temple and some details about my stay there last June here.

Happy Buddhist New Year.
Tomorrow Buddhist in Edmonton will gather at the large Vietnamese Temple on the north side of town to celebrate Wesak. We will be there.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Wesak Altar in England

A fellow monk sent me these two pictures of the altar she and her disciple and the local congregation set up to celebrate Wesak. What a sense of abundance they convey.

And on Saturday we go over the river to the North Side. There all the Buddhists in Edmonton will be coming together at Truc Lam Monastery to celebrate Wesak. It should be quite an event. Then on Sunday a visiting female monk of our Order and I will drive west to Valemount in the Rockies for some mountain air. Posting may become erratic from here on in for a week or so.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Plagiarism or Originality

The following is an article Paul Taylor, a Lay Minister in England, wrote in connection with his work with the University Chaplaincy in Lancaster. Hope you get as much out of his writing as I do. The sub title of the article is ‘A View from the Chaplaincy’.

I recently attended a session on ‘Plagiarism and how to avoid it’. The speaker had commented to us that academic work is an extreme case, and we usually don’t reference all our opinions in our normal life, although nearly all our ideas and opinions have come from others - parents, family, friends, the media, reading etc.

This set me thinking about what originality as a person meant. On ‘The Hits’ TV channel a repeated advert encourages people to download the latest ring tones to ‘stand out! - be different!’. A survey discussed on the BBC News reported that British 10-17 year-olds enjoy the highest average annual income in Europe and are very keen on spending it on personal care products such as cosmetics and grooming. The survey surmised this was because ‘it helps them combine two seemingly contradictory emotional needs - the desire to fit in and the desire to express their individuality’.

As a Buddhist, I wondered what inspiration I might draw from my own religious tradition, particularly with its easily misunderstood teaching described as ‘no-self’. It occurred to me that ‘original’ has the same root as ‘origin’, and that one of the famous Zen Ox-herding pictures has the title ‘Returning to the Origin, Returning to the Source’. An image commonly used in Buddhism is that of each of us being a facet of the One Jewel, both unique and, at the same time, intimately interconnected. The parable of Indra’s Net in the Avatamsaka Sutra describes the universe as if a net, at every intersection of which is a jewel, with each unique jewel mutually reflecting every other jewel - a metaphor for the experience of deep meditation.

What does this connote to me concerning my reflection on originality as a person? If we try too hard to differentiate ourselves from others we lose our inner sense of origin, of interconnectedness; if we allow ourselves to be manipulated or try too hard to get lost in the crowd, our jewel seems to us to dim and fails fully to reflect the unique contribution that is us. Maybe sadly for some, Buddhism would say that better ringtones and grooming alone do not reach this; getting drunk merely anaesthetizes our feelings of isolation temporarily and will not allow us to know truly our deep-rooted connectedness with others. It recommends developing deep intuitive inner listening, embodied in its practices of meditation, to enable us to truly experience what is already here - our uniqueness and our innate interconnectedness. From such listening arises compassion, wisdom, empathy and loving action.

Thanks Paul for giving your permission to publish this article.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Mountain Woman

The image above is the white haired version of the Noh character called Mountain Crone in the play called Yamamba. Here's more about the background to this very interesting character.

"In the Kanze, Komparu and Kongo schools, the Mountain Crone may wear a white wig rather than a black one, in which case the play acquires greater dignity since the shite is then truly an ancient woman." (Japanese No Dramas, p. 314)

Walter of Evolving Space has published a photograph that looks like the carved wooden figure I posted about last week. Thanks for the lead Walter.

I appreciate the connection between age and dignity here.

Teachings from Under the Ocean

A humpback whale freed by divers from a tangle of crab trap lines near the Farallon Islands nudged its rescuers and flapped around in what marine experts said was a rare and remarkable encounter.

"It felt to me like it was thanking us, knowing that it was free and that we had helped it," James Moskito, one of the rescue divers, said Tuesday. "It stopped about a foot away from me, pushed me around a little bit and had some fun."

This story appeared on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle, December 14th 2005.

Habit Energy

Autobiography in Five Short Chapters
Taken from 'There’s a Hole In My Sidewalk' by Portia Nelson

I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost.... I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in this same place.
But, it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in…it’s a habit…but,
my eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

I walk down another street.

A friend pointed me to this poem. Since I see it speaking so clearly of how 'habit energy' (karma) works I thought it worth sharing here. Although this piece is pointing to lifetime steps they can be played out in a shorter time frame as well. For example there is the ever present 'hole' of thinking negatively about oneself which works on the mind, moment to moment. Trouble is, the hole can become so familiar and therefore comfortable, that the need for or the possibility of getting out, evaporates.