Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Fifth Thought

We accept this food so that we may become enlightened.

We are taught in Zen not to waste food, not to throw it away, not to let it spoil or go bad.

In the Dhammapada there is this verse from the Old Age section:

Those who while still young
neither choose a life of renunciation
nor earn a good living,
will end up bemoaning the past,
falling like spent arrows
that have missed their mark.

Verse 156

At the turning of the year, walk on in faith. Eat your life wholeheartedly and above all do not waste it.

Friday, December 28, 2007

The Fourth Thought

Just bumped into a chap in the cloister and we had a chat. He was leaving the New Year retreat early. Some might say he had failed because he didn't make it through to the end. Not so, definitely not so.

I've just eaten three chocolates, he said holding up three fingers in front of his face. Three chocolates, I just saw them on offer in the common room and took three. He was triumphant. Err? You'll have to fill me in a bit more on that one. He did. Apparently last time here he could hardly eat anything, it was a real struggle to sit and eat a meal. To actually put food in his mouth. Why's that then? I asked. Oh, you know. Guilt and all of that stuff.

We parted. OK if I email you? Sure. Go to my Jade Mountains web site and you can email me from there. Same goes for anybody who wants to write me.

The fourth of the Five Thoughts is: we will eat lest we become lean and die. Few of us are eating to keep flesh on our bodies so obviously this has levels of meaning just like the preceding three. Our friend above, like so many people, go head to head with life and their troubles when faced with a plate of food. To eat or not. To eat life, or not.

Eating ones life, actively connecting with what's there and eating without picking and choosing is practice. People dying inside for lack of nourishment is a very very sad sight. And so when people come here who struggle with life and who then connect with the practice and eat, well that is cause for joy.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Third Thought

Continuing on with the Five Thoughts, the third goes thus: We must protect ourselves from error by excluding greed from our minds.

While it is obvious that one eats primarily for need not indulgence in greed and to be woofing down ones grub mindlessly is a mistake, however there is a primary mistake. The word exclude is the pointer here. To exclude greed, to exclude anything is to set something apart and separate. In the relative sense exercising greed keeps up the illusion of separation and at the same time ultimately it's not possible to prise apart the Universe

During the retreat a few weeks ago I suggested to one of the guests that he might have a question to ask during one of our public question and answer 'teas'. Sure enough he did and it gave me an opportunity to make a point which relates very much to the matter of excluding.

What Question?
An honoured monk suggests I
Might have an interesting
Question or two
But really what else
Is there to ask
Besides how to solve
The Great Matter
And this bothersome “I”?

What Reply?
In this unfractured universe
where can this
be found?
Why expend so much
energy looking for fractures
in this unfractured

Many thanks to Puerhan, come and visit us again. Not sure about the 'honoured monk' though. Uh! There I go trying to fracture the universe again...

BTW The Great Matter refers to the question of life and death.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Second Thought

Along with the life saving ColdFX capsules from Edmonton (thanks Mike) were a couple of clippings from Canadian Geographic. I'd heard Mike tell of the ice roads in the Northwest Territories, and beyond into Nunavut which reaches into the Arctic Circle. Each spring in late January or early February Mike dispatches truck loads of supplies to the diamond and gold mines in the far north. It is a big eye opener to see what is going on in an area of the world we could be forgiven for thinking is uninhabited and uninhabitable.

The Tibbitt to Contwoyto Winter Road runs for 360 miles. Driving speed is 22 mph or less, trucks go out in convoys of three at a time, the ice has to be 40 ft thick to take the weight of the largest trucks. There always has to be two up in a truck and apparently drivers wave the seat belt rule to give themselves needed seconds to jump clear of their vehicle if the ice breaks. If I were up in Lac de Gras at -31c I'd have second thoughts about the wisdom of being there.

At the start of our feast today we recited the customary meal time verse, the Five Thoughts. The second thought is 'we must consider our merit when accepting it'. One can understand this in a number of ways, for me it is a right now consideration. Eating a meal is not a life threatening activity however in terms of practice there is ultimately no room for past or future. I guess that must be the same for those truckers out on the ice.

Be careful out there!

Monday, December 24, 2007

The First Thought

A cocoa pod

Ripples of shock have been passing through the ranks today. Apparently, according to the Food Programme on BBC Radio 4, there are only a handful of companies, possibly just three, in the world that process the raw cocoa bean. Pause a moment for the full impact of this news to sink in. It means that chocolate is being shipped, trucked and generally transported around the world, in bulk. I'm not sure why this is so stunning but it is.

It is kind of interesting to think about and study the ways and means by which chocolate comes to us. Cocoa cultivation for example is fascinating.

When we start a meal we say the 'Five Thoughts'. The first one is 'we must think deeply of the ways and means by which this food has come'. No doubt many of us will be eating well during the festive season and generally eat well during the rest of the year too. I see this verse as helping one to pause and appreciate the bigger picture and to help bring forth gratitude.

Eat well.
Stay well.
All is well.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Nothing Gained, Nothing Lost

Our retreat finished a couple of days ago. The week was cold, still and bright. I had a cold and at the same time managed to remain still and bright, thankfully. Now I'm resting and regaining strength to meet the coming year and all it will bring. I predict air miles.

I hope the photos inspired you to pause and reflect and to perhaps touch the mystery that is within the just sitting looking at a wall. It is a remarkable practice. Here, republished, is the road outside the monastery covered in golden light.

May our 'going on' be illuminated so.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Seats and Walls - nine

[This isn't one of Rev. Mugo's pictures but I couldn't resist adding him onto to the end of this series. He lives on the wall of a factory on a Japanese industrial estate. Actually he's just starting to draw another picture but it always feels to me like he's doing his daily meditation. - Iain]

Seats and Walls - Eight

Puddle on the road

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Seats and Walls (Introduction)

For the next week or so the monastic community will be spending a lot of time meditating formally in the meditation hall. Postings here will continue with photographs, which were mostly taken within the monastery grounds.

It was a joy to revisit the hidden-in-plain-view sights. Have a good week and perhaps you can find a seat at home and join us as we all just sit, looking at a wall.

Many thanks once again to Iain at Little House in the Paddy for making the postings to Moving Mountains while I'm off-line for Sesshin.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Moving Right Along

My mother died on this day, 11th December, 1995.
I learnt a new word this morning, Segue. It seemed unlikely I'd manage to accomplish the task of getting an order of stamps picked up in Hexham at such short notice. However the sequence of events leading to eventually getting them moved smoothly, sooo smoothly, one following upon another in a near miraculous way. Applauding the day aloud somebody said, Oh that's segue, one thing following another smoothly.

In the process of looking up the word I discovered Websters On-Line Dictionary. Should I ever need to spell out this word in Semaphore, or British Sign Language, I'll know where to look. What a gem!

I'd say the timing around mothers death was segue, if that is the correct way to use this word. Much about our relationship was segue.

This post is for Johnny, his brother, their aunt and their late mum. My mum too.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Reflecting on Darkness

I visited a female monk this evening, she is recovering from a cold. Recovering slowly. This cold has gone the rounds of the monastery. It's tapped on my door a few times, entered briefly, but not stayed. This time of year, leading up to the winter solstice, with ever shortening days can be hard on the whole system. Add to that sickness and the best of us can feel low, depleted and miserable with it.

Each year my father would write to me around this date to announce that we were going into the 'black hole'. That's the days before and after the solstice when the length of day varies by only a small amount. The expression was my dads invention. It was black because I think he found this time hard to get through. There is less light and with that a tendency to turn within. It's a low energy time with little inclination to do much. That's how it is for me. Just last night it dawned on me, low energy and lack of get-up-and-go need not become depressing of the spirits. December's black hole can be positive because it can lead us inwards, there to reflect.

It also has to be said there are very many people who suffer terribly from lack of bright light. This time of year can be particularly difficult. There is however something practical that can be done to help this condition.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Amongst White Clouds

American director Edward A. Burger takes us on his unforgettable journey into the hidden lives of China's forgotten Zen Buddhist hermit tradition. "Amongst White Clouds is a look at the lives of zealot students, gaunt ascetics and wise masters living in isolated hermitages dotting the peaks and valleys of China's Zhongnan Mountain range." The Zhongnan Mountains have been home to recluses since the time of the Yellow Emperor, some five thousand years ago. Many of China's most realized Buddhist masters attained enlightenment in this very range! And now? It is widely thought that this tradition was all but wiped out by the twists and turns of history. "Amongst White Clouds" shows us this is not the case. One of only a few foreigners to have lived and studied with these hidden sages, Burger reveals to us their tradition, their wisdom, and the hardship and joy of their everyday lives. With both humor and compassion, these inspiring and warm-hearted characters challenge us to join them in an exploration of our own suffering and enlightenment in this modern world.

If I understand correctly this film, a documentary, was inspired by the book Road to Heaven, Encounters with Chinese Hermits by Bill Porter, AKA Red Pine. I remember drinking in this book some years ago but never had a copy on my book shelf. Then, just the other day, I found a copy in our Monastic Alms Box and have it beside me now. I love the photo of the ancient nun Yuan-chao on the front cover. While visiting this nun Bill Porter asked her to to write down the essence of Buddhism on a sheet of calligraphy paper. She ignored his request however two months later the paper arrived in the mail in Taiwan. It bore the words; goodwill, compassion, joy, detachment.

Bill Porter: "Certainly there are hermits who stay in seclusion all their lives, never rejoining society. Some of them are very powerful people. The old nun on the cover of my book is such a person. She was 88 when she died; they cremated her but her heart remained intact. That was a pretty powerful hermit".

Dharmaflix has Amongst White Clouds listed but there are no reviews, as yet.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Animals (and Toads) Crossing Roads

A reader in Edmonton sent me this picture today. Too good not to share I thought. Thanks, and thanks to the photographer who ever she or he was.

This is the actual turnoff from Banff, Alberta, Canada to the #1 highway to Calgary.

They had to build the animals (especially the elk) their own crossing because that’s where the natural migration crossing is and after the highway was built there were far too many accidents. It didn't take the animals long to learn that this was their "road."

Meanwhile back in the U.K. the toads need to cross the roads.

The 'Toads on Roads' campaign is one of Froglife's most established projects, promoting the plight of toads during migration, recruiting volunteers to help monitor toad crossing sites and working with other organisations to ensure pressure is put on planners and developers to consider local populations of amphibians.
"I wouldn’t say it was the most pleasant of jobs. Standing on busy roads on winter nights holding a bucketful of toads." Life as a Toad Warden.

This is compassion for animals, and amphibians. Bless 'em all.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Heart Broken Anybody?

If you have had one or know somebody who is in line for one it's worth educating yourself.

A woman of my acquaintance has recently been diagnosed with this condition and while it is not good news she seems amuzed by the name, Takotsubo or Octopus Trap Syndrome. Tako-tsubo" is the japanese name for octopus traps that fishermen still use to catch octopus. In this syndrome, the heart (left ventricle) takes the shape of an octopus trap (tako-tsubo). How about that!

About 70-80% of cases of Tako-tsubo Syndrome (TTS) occur in post-menopausal women under some form of extreme, exceptional and prolonged mental stress,... with no good way out, no relief and often feeling deep resentment (such as the loss of a dear one...)

Well I must have been in my mid twenties when I took my first broken heart to the doctor. I bet you think you are having a heart attack, he said lightly. Here, take some of these. The pills worked. I doubt if I was suffering from Takotsubo, just a broken heart which mended rather quickly. Thankfully the more serious condition is rarely fatal and rights itself reasonably quickly too.

Thoughts for the woman who is in her mid 80's and for her son, who took his own life. And also thoughts for an elderly woman with kidney failure. Winter is here, wrap up warm.

The takotsubo website is both informative and funny with great graphics.

Monday, December 03, 2007

With Frills Please

Brr, it was cold and windy out on the moors today, however their subtle beauty was not diminished. I'd not been up to the Hexhamshire Common above Allendale, village of the year, before and can anticipate another walk in the not too distant future. Maybe when the snow comes. Back in our valley with grey clouds receding from the high moors to reveal a sprinkling of white I realize Brr, it really is getting colder. But not half as cold as in Edmonton at the moment.

On our way back to Throssel my walking companion and I stopped for a hot chocolate, with frills, at Pebbles Art Cafe in Allendale. Ah, civilisation at last we cryed. Aoww! I can feel the cold coming off you two! What will you have? Pebbles is a haven and no mistake. Each time I visit, which is not often, I'm reminded anew of the great refreshments, tasteful arts and crafts and the ever changing gallery treats upstairs. But perhaps the best thing about a visit is the level of familiarity and friendliness of the people there. They have it just right, just perfect. Thanks Pebbles people, you are artists.

Note on photographs. Sorry to say the quality of these pictures have suffered because of slow uploading speed. The hot chocolate picture suffered from camera shake!

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Illuminate, Shine Light On

The main altar this morning.

Shakyamuni Buddha in earth witness mudra.

When Shakyamuni was enlightened, He said, "I was, am and will be enlightened instantaneously with the universe" and now, as we hear these words, we are assured anew of our own Buddha Nature and our ability to enter the path of Truth. 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.
This text from the offertory sung at the very end of the Festival of the Buddha's Enlightenment at Throssel.

Apparently last evening, as a parting comment at the end of a conversation about training, I encouraged somebody to write down some of the insights which had come during the week-end retreat. It was clear that the light of insight had illuminated segments of her life and others would benefit from what she had come to understand. We'll see what she produces.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

On Seeing the Morning Star

Rohatsu - the eighth day of the twelfth lunar month, is a time when Zen Buddhists mark the date of Buddha's enlightenment. It starts on the 1st of December and ends on Bodhi Day - the 8th of December. In the seven days leading up to the day of rohatsu, monks will spend their time in silent and intensive meditation. This period of intensive meditation is known as 'sesshin'. This practice is the culmination of all the work that has been done previously in that year. (The last sentence is not quite how I would express the meaning of sesshin.)

Tomorrow here at Throssel we will be celebrating the Festival of the Buddha's Enlightenment and over 50 guests are expected. The weather has been blustery with warnings of snow on high ground. We've certainly had our share of wind and heavy rain fall to-day, no signs of snow. Hopefully there will be some photographs of the festival altar published here tomorrow.

Ceremonies celebrating events in the Buddha's life mark our year and give it shape. As do the monastic sesshins. The winter sesshin of Rohatsu started at Shasta Abbey today, ours starts on the 13th and ends seven days later on the 19th. The other sesshin is in the spring and traditionally ends with the Buddha's Birth Festival, Wesak.

Please join us tomorrow by lighting some incense and offering it at your altar, if you have one. If you don't, light some anyway and let the perfume permeate your home and know the Buddha's Enlightenment permeates all time and space.

Fun Facts about Bodhi Day for children. Wikipedia on Bodhi Day.