Sunday, December 31, 2006

The Power of the Universe

Lakota Instructions for Living

Friend do it this way - that is,
whatever you do in life,
do the very best you can
with both your heart and mind.

And if you do it that way,
the Power Of The Universe
will come to your assistance,
if your heart and mind are in Unity.

When one sits in the Hoop Of The People,
one must be responsible because
All of Creation is related.
And the hurt of one is the hurt of all.
And the honor of one is the honor of all.
And whatever we do affects everything in the universe.

If you do it that way - that is,
if you truly join your heart and mind
as One - whatever you ask for,
that's the Way It's Going To Be.
Passed down from White Buffalo Calf Woman
Copied from here with gratitude.

Let's travel with this wisdom into the new year to come. May our practice sustain us, may we rest in that which is Unborn and Undying, Eternal.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Who Knows?

I’ve learnt my lesson; I’ll not do it again. Just how many times have I said that? How many times have you said that? Last night, late, I struggled to type a posting. It was to be the absolutely last one on death, for awhile anyway. I pressed the publish button and what I had written left the screen, for ever. Sometimes Blogger ‘goes down for repair’, last night was such a time. From now on, without fail, I’ll make a copy of postings before publishing.

Sometimes when something bad happens the response of frustration/anger is skipped over to a calm acceptance, effortlessly. I believe this to be training merit coming into its own. That’s what happened last night, I got whisked past habit. It happens. More often than not though, the practice of deliberately refraining from fanning the flames of frustration is what’s needed. In this way practice grows training merit, which helps both oneself and others. So, at the moment of death, which must be a huge shock to the system, and having practiced refraining, you and I will be well equipped to face the next step confidently. Perhaps training merit will kick in too, who knows.

We are preparing for the New Years Eve Meditation Vigil and ceremony which will happen tomorrow night and for the festive meal the following day. How I love to cook in quantity.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

More to Dying than Death

I came across the teachings of Lama Shenpen Hookham and spent a good part of yesterday reading what she had to say. She has recently published a book called There's More to Dying than Death, a Buddhist Perspective. I find her writing very accessible and truly wise. There is a chapter on Bereavement which I could not equal, as well as practical and spiritual instructions for people close to death and for the people around them.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Planning a Buddhist Funeral

Following a request to talk about Buddhist Funerals I took a look around and found this article partly written by Rev. Saido Kennaway of Telford Buddhist Priory. He is a senior priest of our Order. It's a gem in terms of resources and ideas for planning a funeral.
That's it for to-day.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Leaves Fest

Rarely do I pause and get up close to observe patterns, shapes and textures. Now these frost covered leaves, isolated and framed, show their delicate beauty. In each frame dead leaves, with green life there also.

It's been a good day. A walk up to the 'trig' point high up on the moor above the monastery. Mist covered the Tyne Valley floor and by afternoon we were enveloped in freezing fog. That too has its beauty.

Whether it is cold or blazing hot where you are, if you are alone or in company I hope you have had a good day. To be followed by many more good days.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Photo One - Dry stone wall.

This is how the walls are built in this part of England, no mortar to hold the stones together.

Photo Two - Post Box and Bin

The post box was set in this wall during the time of King George, thus the GR cast into the box. The recycling bin is well, modern!

Photo Three - Beehives

These bee hives have been a great talking point recently.
They have added colour to our walks along the road.

Photo Four - Frosty Grass

Too bad I was not able to catch the jewel like sparkle on this frosty grass,
nature does sparkle so much more naturally than we can!

Photo Five - Sunup

Twas a cold and frosty morning walking out along the road.
Hope you enjoy this place as much as I do.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Ode to Brian

Brian is our postman; he works for the Royal Mail and wears a snappy uniform. We see him driving his little red van all over the valley and he always waves when he passes one of us out for a walk. He probably waves to everybody he sees, it might be part of the job. This time of year he arrives later than usual, perhaps two hours later. There’s obviously more post to deliver around Christmas and New Year. He has been our postman for as long as I can remember, he is almost part of the family now. I noticed that there was a greetings card marked ‘Brian’ set out with the mail; I guess somebody will post it to him in person.

This is the way of things in rural England. The postman (or woman) is a life-line especially for people living in out of the way places like our valley. For many people the postman is the only person they will see in a day. I knew a woman in South Wales who baked every morning for the postman and entertained him daily with tea and jam tarts, amazing! So this is not just a person who delivers a fist full of letters and the odd parcel and leaves, oh no. Postage stamps can be ordered, paid for and delivered next day, medical prescriptions can be delivered and frequently are. On some rural routes there is a Post Bus which delivers mail and ferries people to the local town. What a service! For years we even had two delivers each day, mid-day and evening.

Hand written letters and cards with personal greetings are a treat to receive. So I’d better get stuck into writing some more before it’s time to turn in. Reaching out doesn’t take a lot however it can carry meaning far beyond what one might imagine, for example the card from America from my dear niece. I walked down the yard casually reading the return address on the back of the envelope. Karen? Who’s this from? I don’t know a Karen in America do I? Oh Karen, my niece. Yes, this time of year reminds me that I do still have relatives and however distant they may be; they still have a place in my life.

The Royal Mail has been around for ever. At the bottom of our lane we have a mail box set into a stone wall. The opening is just too small to accept a CD case, so no joy there. However the last pick up is 5.15 pm which is really handy as that mail could be delivered in London next morning. It’s an antique judging from the inscription. Modern boxes have ER (for Elizabeth Regina) molded into the cast iron, this one has GR. George I’d guess, George Rex. Too bad we didn’t have a King called Brian!

Friday, December 22, 2006

Empty House

Packing up, sorting out, throwing away, the ghosts of the past now caught in a moment of time. I did it for my parents after my dad died, packed up their life together. Sold it, burnt it, put out for the bin men, gave away, sent to auction. and finally their home was sold.

Iain, who I traveled with in Japan last year, is back in England sorting out his parents home. He has interesting insights on things left behind.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

The First Post

Here is an extract from an email I received. It is published with permission.

I read with much interest and appreciation your recent diary entries, "Contemplations 1 - 4". I have watched two people close to me die - a good friend who died young from Cystic Fibrosis and my Mother, who died 12 and a half years ago, from various lung diseases. She died at home in her own bed with her family around her. I sat with her as her world closed in until taking the next breath was all and everything, until finally even that was given up. On that afternoon in early May, some hours before she died, she was extremely weak but she found the enough energy to haul herself out of bed and pull herself upright at the window sill and look out over the blossom trees that bordered the fields behind the house and call out Â’I want to see the spring againÂ…I donÂ’t want this to be the last springÂ’. These were more or less her last words. She died relatively peacefully about eight hours later. Almost a year to the day after her death I found myself in Canada sitting in a beautiful park close to Niagara Falls (my one and only Canadian visit). I was alone and sitting on a park bench doing nothing really except contemplating two large splendid cherry trees in full blossom.

Without thinking I just knew I was looking at those trees with their radiant white blossom through my MotherÂ’s eyes (at least there seemed to be no me in the seeing) - she loved cherry blossom. It lasted the fleetest of moments.

So she did see another spring; and I feel she always will see and be part of each and ever spring.
Thanks Tim.

And I am delighted to see a new blog, with the first posting published just moments ago. From The Edge of Europe A diary of Life in Kosova. It comes hot off the press and definatley faster than it took to post a handful of cards at the local post office.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006


I managed to get out for a longish walk this afternoon however by 3.00 pm the sun was nearly behind the hill, sinking fast towards Alston in the next valley.

In practice we talk about climbing up the trunk of the tree and being careful not to stray off along a side branch. As you can see from this tree, once on a branch it is just so easy to get lost in the maze of little branches leading in every direction.

So how does one go directly. Climb the tree, so to speak, and not waste time exploring this that and the other thing? During an introductory talk recently I found myself constantly bringing the focus of the talk to 'returning'. Simply returning. One could say it is to the trunk, the fundamental, that one returns having noticed oneself dangling dangerously from a twiggy branch, waving in the wind.

Side branches have their place in practice, helping to reestablish where the trunk is, however I'd advise against lots of side trips if you can avoid them.

In one of our scriptures are the following words, which relate to the above.

The absolute upright holds within itself,
Many phenomena within it's own delicate balance,
Both function rest reside within.
Lo! Hear! Set up not your own standards.
Tomorrow is mid-Winters day, the shortest day of the year in terms of day light. Have a good one. It will be summer before we know it!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Beckoning Cats

Around about this time of year back in 2002 the late head of our Order came to Cornwall where I was living at the time. He, along with another monk I work closely with, stayed in a cottage and talked business. We talked business every morning for a week. In the afternoons the late head of our Order wrote and polished his book, Buddhism from Within, sat at a table in my trailer. He worked incredibly hard. Little did he know he would be dead within three months, of lymphoma.

During that week we had wonderful lunches cooked by our host and, with him, set the wheels in motion to establish a charity for the OBC in England, the OBC Activities Trust. (On Monday I missed the AGM of the charity held near Manchester due to more pressing matters here in the monastery. ) Towards the end of our week together we visited a village, it could have been Newlyn, and these cats caught my eye.

Today, a beautiful crisp sunny day, I'd intended to treat you all to some photographs of the monastery clothed in a white coat of frost. However more pressing matters had me driving out of the valley, and when I got back the clouds had already covered the sun. They say we are in for more 'weather' in the next few days. Before I left I did manage to catch a quick shot of our cat, Smudge, in the window of the Novices Common Room.

Smudge and tree, with reflection of a Buddha
There is the cult of the Beckoning Cat which you may know about. It's has an interesting monastic cat origin.
Written in loving memory of Rev. Master Daizui and our day out in Cornwall, one cold and frosty morning in 2002. And in gratitude for those meals, and so much more too.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Contemplation (four)

The ripening of practice has it's own time table and that is where patience and taking the long view really helps the practitioner. There is no fast track and nobody who can do the practice for you. We have a saying, Buddha's do but point the way, you must go alone. That's alone in the sense of doing ones own practice, doing something about oneself. This takes a considerable level of sustained effort, it's the same for everybody what ever form life is taking.

Each morning, in our particular tradition, we re state our resolve to continue by reciting a verse aloud before the kesa is put on. It is a statement that brings one out of the mists of past and future to a vow to practice within the already enlightened Universe, today. For just this one day.

How great and wondrous are the clothes of Enlightenment,
Formless and embracing every treasure.
I wish to unfold the Buddha's teaching,
That I may help all living things.

To be resolute and to wake up and remain awake carries spiritual merit, however that is not enough. It is the rising up and walking on, and keeping on walking on, that counts. For all of us, practice and enlightenment which are not two, are given expression in being the best person one can be. This is real gratitude.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Contemplations (three)

Retreats have a particular place in the life of a Buddhist practitioner. If one is fortunate enough to be able to join others to do that, all well and good. They are not essential and not to be clung to either. It is rare to have the opportunity to devote oneself to simply just sitting still without the usual daily life distractions. (Even so, life circumstances have a way of throwing up opportunities to sit, right in the midst of distractions. See comment from yesterday.) Having found the time, and settled down, the mind can spew forth, in all the weird and wonderful ways imaginable, each of us according to our own particular inheritance. Memories, thought patterns, emotions, sensations all march through body/mind. Nothing permanent, just passing though. However, when you are dying of thirst a lake in the desert can become all too real, and ultimately disappointing of course. A mirage certainly can appear real.

At the time of the Buddha's enlightenment the hordes of mara came to call shooting arrows, that fell around him as flowers. The Buddha unmoved, knew enough about the workings of the mind not to take False Evidence Appearing Real, as real. And that is what one learns, and re-confirms over and over again during a retreat. That is, to recognize fear for what it is, and refrain from being afraid of it. That fearful images and thoughts arise, or their equally alluring opposites, are not a problem. If not clung to as me and mine. As real. And yet moving on and out into everyday life, there may be good reason to be afraid, and to take note and to act accordingly.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Contemplations (two)

Do beings want to be alone to pass away? Our family dog did, he took off one day when he was sick and never returned, and was never found. My mother would call to him. Simon! But each time she realized it was not him, but another dog like him. Eventually we gave Simon up for dead. We mourned him, my mother particularly did, however in time he faded from memory. Although the sight of a liver and white Springer Spaniel can still catch me with my heart thumping. Creatures die but are not gone, is that an expression of clinging? Not necessarily I feel.

My mother died alone, in hospital with no nurse beside her bed. My dad and I had left an hour before. As my mother died, we were at home cooking Christmas cake. For the most part religious practice is like this, one just gets on with life. When life comes, step out into life. When death comes, step out into death. There can be no calling back of the past or calling for the future. Sitting a meditation retreat, you just sit, you're willing to die to your entire world of experience. Which is the world of, arising and passing, appearances.

My mother appeared ordinary, bent over and white. She was however a woman of great dignity, born out of a natural pride. For too many years I judged her by appearances. I appreciate her more fully now, and understand a little of the source from which she drew her vitality. While sitting a sesshin, with less sleep than usual, sitting multiple periods of meditation each day, the question of vital energy comes to the fore. Just what is right effort, when formal meditation is deliberately deciding to do nothing? Put plainly, how do you keep your eyes open when everything in you wants them closed? At one point during the retreat I thought the lights had gone out. No, just my eyes snapping firmly closed! Somehow the where-with-all to open them is there reflexively. I'd not call that energy so much as merit. The collective merit flowing from meditation in groups, is greater than the sum of individual efforts. Everybody helps each other, in an unseen way, to keep going.

More tomorrow.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Contemplations (one)

I've been around a few people while they are dying. In each case I remember their world shrank to what they could literally reach out for. A cup of water, their bedding, maybe reach for friends hand. But more often than not even the family around them recede in importance. The world slows down too. A finger raised ever-so-sloowwwly to attempt to adjust an oxygen line or scratch an itch, just the eyes track around the room, and talking, if at all, comes in halting gasps. The basics of bowel movements, liquid and food intake, medication for pain relief are what matter. Medical staff matter, even if it is to reject or fight them. People continue on in this way for days, even weeks. My mother, who died 12 years ago on the 11th December, went quite quickly. Bless her. Bless all mothers.

Sitting a meditation retreat, as we have just done, has its parallels with dying. Ones world contracts, movement is slower and more considered, concerns become basic and immediate. For example getting settled for the next meditation period, taking care with that. And there is fine attention to sensations too and of moving inwards while at the same time being finely aware of rain and wind crash about outside, the drip drip of water inside the hall, the birds striking up their song in the early morning. We sit with eyes neither closed nor fully open, we sit facing towards a plain wall. There is looking out from behind ones eyes. Who is it that sits? For 35 mins there is sitting still, if there is movement it is done ever-so-sloowwwly. Strictly speaking there is no physical moving at all, just the rise and fall of the breath. There is an awareness of that.

And what of the mind of a dying person? Or of the meditator for that matter. I've seen people go back and forth over their lives, remembering yesterdays far gone, as if they were right now. Images from childhood, happy times on holiday, and past regrets, streaming into the present. I have seen dying people in distress both physically and mentally and it is clear we die as we have lived. No judgment, no right or wrong death nor right or wrong thoughts-emotions-sensations. Nothing to add or remove. And if in the living there has lain hidden, in some dark recess a secret, now is when it may come to light. Or not. So it is sitting a sesshin, one enters the private recesses of ones being, seemingly utterly alone and yet infinitely not alone.

More contemplations tomorrow. It's good to be back.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

On Retreat

I'll not be writing anything for the next week however I will be back with something to say on the 14th December.

If you are visiting for the first time, welcome! There is much material in the archive which you might like to browse through. You will find a combination of travelogue, Buddhist teaching and reflections on daily life as lived by a Buddhist priest.

To help you navigate through the archives here's roughly where I have been since starting to write this blog.

April through June 10th 2005 - Traveling in East Asia.
June through mid September 2005 - In England.
Mid September through June 2006 - Prior of Edmonton Buddhist Priory, Canada.
June to mid September 2006 - Traveling in Canada and California.
Mid September onwards - Resident at the monastery in Northern England.

Thank you to all those who so faithfully come and visit here.

Monday, December 04, 2006

When Shakyamuni Died

The Buddha sitting under a tree. This is part of the main altar set-up for the Buddha's Enlightenment Day Festival at Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey. Nice job Reverend Sacristan.

Photo by Billy Barnett, very many thinks for letting me use this.

At the end of the ceremony we had the customary offering of merit, called the offertory, which was sung most beautifully by one of the female monks. Here is part of it:

When Shakyamuni died, He told His followers to make His teaching the light of their lives and to make their own lives shine as brilliantly as the sun; the light of Shakyamuni and His followers has shone through many centuries and has been transmitted to countless people. We must follow in the footsteps of those who have gone before us so that our own light shall shine in the same way, and we must transmit it, even as they did, so that it may shine brightly in countless worlds and for thousands of lives to come.

Somebody wrote me today asking, When should one consider oneself a Buddhist? When one formally accepts the precepts? To truly take refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha is to consider oneself a Buddhist. This is a private promise that one makes daily, with the intention to make the Three Refuges, and the ten Precepts, the light of your life. To appreciate what that actually means in practice is not a simple matter. Accepting the Precepts formally goes some way towards appreciating what the light of ones life actually is.

Anybody can make their own lives shine as brilliantly as the sun, in a religious sense. A spiritual path can be invaluable.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Remembering The Past

Remember the Advent calendar? Remember opening up the little doors and windows and it being a bit of a ho hum kind of a thing? Now you can go on line each day as a grown up person and revisit the concept of Christmas, all over again. Today's story, 3rd December, is worth reading.

Cute Cows in Cornwall

CowI was talking to a Sangha friend last evening and was wondering aloud how to fit in this photograph he took in South West Cornwall, which I like very much. Both because of the personality plus cows and because of the wonderful views over Cornwall to the sea. 'Well, mention that they are on a diet' he suggested. Yeeess, I guess I could say that...

Here they are, cows on a diet.

These beauties have been herded, by my friend, onto higher pasture where they have to walk further and work harder to find their food.

After our celebratory lunch today following the Ceremony of the Buddha's Enlightenment I'd liked to have walked further and worked harder. However the rain, and now high winds, have me sitting writing this. With contentment, and gratitude.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

An Innocent Abroad

You can tell they are not real by the small bird hanging on a string slightly right of center.

While in Hexham this morning I popped into the shop mentioned yesterday. I felt I owed it to those snakes and the shop to cross the threshold to take a closer look at the walls. It was a reptilian wonder world and no mistake. There were a couple of good looking Buddha statues from Indonesia in the shop too. Well worth the visit.

And just up the road is Cogito Books, an independent book shop. One can order by telephone, e-mail and via their web site. Their flyer says, we will deliver free to you in Hexham, Faster than the internet, Easier than Newcastle, KEEP HEXHAM ALIVE. This enterprise is certainly going a long way towards keeping people shopping in the centre of town. Mind, there isn't much outside of town, at the moment.

These days I rarely have a chance to loiter in book shops let alone buy one of those new, sleek, beauties. Here's somebody, in London, who does support his local book shop.

Beware the Logogryph, a mythical creature that lives in books. It reached out and got me in Edmonton, and hasn't let go. Spend more than a few brief moments reading this blog and you will be become a captive! Sorry Tom, that's not an anti add just a friendly warning to the innocent abroad.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Empty Fear

Snakes! Hisssss. Watch out for the snakes lurking in the dark. Slithering unseen, getting ready to 'get yer' when you are least expecting. They hide in plain view wearing a disguise, step out unmindfully and a snake will have you roped tied and branded before you know it. That deadly sting is a breath away, and after that there is the coiling around and the deathly squeezzzzzze, which will finish you off.

Sound like anything you have ever thought? I know of at least two readers who are, TERRIFIED, of snakes. They live on opposites sides of the world and both live in snake infested places. Come on, not really BIG ones are they? Hisssss. The closest I came to the big ones was while traveling in Northern Queensland, Australia in 1970. I came as close as the long-tall stories I was told, of how they slide into your sleeping bag at night to get warm, hang languishing from trees by day and are the size of a mans arm, at least! In the flesh I might have seen just one tiddler in the outback, that's all.

I passed by a gift shope in Hexham yesterday and out of the corner of my eye I saw them, slithering up the walls of the shop. Lots and lots of them, slithering multicoloured snakes. Who is going to buy them? Who in this wide world, in their right mind, would even cross the threshold of that shop? Bad for business I thought, don't they know about snakes and how they scare people?

In Buddhist teachings, specifically in the Wheel of Life, you can see a pig representing greed, a cock representing anger and a snake. The snake represents illusion/delusion/ignorance. These three poisons, as they are termed, chase each other around in a circle thus perpetuating suffering, endlessly. That's until they, which are all qualities chasing around in the lives of the average person, take stock of the situation and see into the unsatisfactoryness of living like that. Of poisoning oneself from the inside, and drinking in more poison daily. This is when people can, and do, turn their lives around. It really is possible to do that. Interestingly the more poison you have poured into your body/mind, or have had others pour into your body/mind which is particularly nasty, the more potent and complete the turning around can be. Why? Because the poisoning is that much more obvious. Take a tour of the Wheel of Life why not.

To-day I'm celebrating the snake, terrifying as they are for some, and probably for good (karmic) reasons too. Because the three poisons, snake being one of them, are the great liberators when their true nature is seen into. We have a verse:

Thus shall ye think of all this fleeting world,
a phantasm a dream, a bubble in a stream.

This posting is dedicated to all those who have been forced to drink poison at an early age and have lived in fear ever since, until now.