Thanks for rain and snow, a lovely and supportive partner, beautiful and kind children, food to eat, good health, books, good friends, a solid job, meditation and an ethical mindfulness practice, compassion and empathy, freedom, quiet, sobriety, Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddha, a safe home, awareness of suffering, shoes, music, good doctors, trees, shared transportation. The list can go on.
“For over 4 billion years the earth has been here, holding and feeding single-celled organisms, dinosaurs, plants and flowers, and humans. We acknowledge and embrace the many generations of Vietnamese who carried Buddhism to us through our Teacher, Thay, and helped build the sangha in new lands.”
Thus begins a guided meditation offered at the Vista Buddhist Temple on Saturday, November 9, 2019. This is part one of a dharma talk I offered with the theme Buddhism in Everyday Life.
Earlier this year I was invited to contribute to the November issue of Lions Roar magazine as part of their Buddhism’s Next 40 Years: A Time of Reformation series. In this article, I offer three ways we can rethink community and fulfill Thich Nhat Hanh’s aspiration for the Buddhist community.
Buddha, dharma, and sangha are three precious jewels in Buddhism. According to Thich Nhat Hanh, “The most important of these is sangha.”
For many years, the Zen master has taught that “it is probable that the next buddha will not take the form of an individual. The next buddha may take the form of a community, a community practicing understanding and loving-kindness, a community practicing mindful living.”
The words begin “May I Be…”, and they have been a practice for the past six months. When we reach those places in our meditation practice when nothing seems to work, we can turn toward those actions that are more simple. More basic. This is a place I’ve found myself this year. Sitting meditation went to the wayside. Chanting went to the wayside. Same with Touching the Earth. Asking for help was about all that could be mustered in these moments of difficulty.
When speaking with my mentors and teachers, each one shared how important it can be to turn toward the body. Body awareness is tactile, real, and evident in virtually everything I do. When I walk, I can walk with awareness. This is a deep meditation. My body is often in motion and so these moments can be an opportunity to know there is a body present. Legs are there to provide locomotion. Feet are there to touch the earth in each moment.
And yet, even this most basic practice of being aware of the body and its locomotion can be a challenge in these deserts of practice. When my frustration or distraction arises, as it often does, then if I can bring mindfulness to the moment. This moment is an opportunity to be free. Seeing and touching the movement without judgment. And not to push away the mind with force, but to offer an acknowledgement. Drawing attention to my mind as it screams at me about all my suffering and then learning to calm it with bringing my attention to my body.
It might only last a minute or five minutes, but that is enough in my relearning to tune the mind and the body. These moments of nuance are guiding me in the practice of mindfulness. A long journey unfolds on this path toward ease and happiness.
The other practice suggested by my mentors is the Love Meditation. It has been a daily reading practice with my focus on myself throughout this year. The words appear on the page as I read and though I don’t believe they will help, I read them anyway. Slowly and with intention.
The first stanza ends with anxiety, a place I know all too well, and it’s easy to get caught by the word as I read it into my mind. As I feel the anxiety present, I turn back to the the word happy earlier in the verse. There is anxiety and there is also happiness. It is possible.
This verse has been really difficult. My criticism and unhappiness for myself has been strong. There is understanding, so the verse says, but I can’t see it. I’ve felt love for myself, but it has been missing. Can it be cultivated by into my consciousness? Sometimes it feels impossible. And yet I read it into my mind each day, hoping and trusting that it may arise again.
Here we have advanced practice! For me, I have to embody and hold the first two verses as true and experienced before I can move into this lasting experience. Knowing how to nourish the seeds of joy can be identified. For example, stopping to smile at the ocean before arriving at work. This can be done each workday. But how can it be sustained at other moments in the day? That is the challenge and the practice.
During this year while practicing with the Love Meditation, I’ve had to let myself trust that it will work. For many days, I didn’t have faith that reciting these verses would actually help me. But I read them anyway. Allowing the dharma rain to penetrate into me even if I’m always wearing a raincoat. In some form, the words can seep in through the sleeves or around the neck. And if I let them touch me every day, then at some point I’ll be saturated.
It’s been a good practice. A foundational practice. One that I know is working. Moving me from despair and criticism to gentleness and love.
In this time of difficulty and challenge, there are not many places to turn. When I can discover what brings me peace and joy, then I should take the opportunity to embrace it. There is one thing in particular that brings me joy, and that is music. It’s been a long-standing salve for my suffering. And there’s always plenty of music to discover.
What’s on my playlist today? In no particular order.
Kali Malone, The Sacrifical Code. Peaceful organ music from this American-living-in-Sweden composer. Discovered through the recent Thom York zine.
Elbow, Giants of All Sizes. I’ve always been an Elbow fan and this new release has just landed in my queue. Comfortable and happy pop music.
Tambour, Constellations. Modern classical discovered through one of my favorite music podcasts – Hypnagogue. Lands between classical and ambient.
Ben Vince and Jacob Samuel, I’ll Stick Around. Experimental jazz. Horns and piano.
Mario Diaz de Leon, Cycle and Reveal. Another classical release with Latin flavors. Flute and xylophone.
The Comet is Coming, The Afterlife. Following the first track, which is a mix of jazz and hip-hop, the album moves into a more experimental jazz release. By the time I get to the second half, and near the end, I want it to keep goin.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Ghosteen. Nick can’t go wrong in my book. This melancholy and peaceful release from the Bad Seeds has beautifully crafted lyrics with common Nick Cave themes.
Laurie Anderson and Tenzin Choegyal, Songs from the Bardo. A meditation on death. Chants and gongs. Violin. Soft and touching voice. The Heart Sutra track is great!
Jenny Hval, The Practice of Love. A new favorite. Reminds me a bit of Kate Bush. Sweet melodies. Deep lyrics exploring the earth, being childless, and relationships. Favorite track so far is “High Alice”.
Barker, Utility. Electronica.
Patrick Watson, Wave. Waiting for the full release, but four songs out now on Apple Music. Lyrical and melodic.
Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Bryce Dessner,When We Were Human. A typical low-key release of songs. Sparse.
Tool, Fear Inoculum. Nothing quite like a 15-minute prog-rock song. Check out “Invincible”.
Bedouin, Bird Songs of a Killjoy. Reminiscent of early 70s folk music of the greats.
Jonsi, Lost and Found. From the Sigor Ros musician, this release is ambient and electronic. No voice.
Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan. But if you have to start with one, put down Blood on the Tracks. You won’t be disappointed.
Black Pumas, Black Pumas. Plain and simple blues with a modern flair. It doesn’t disappoint. Seeing these guys at the Lodge Room on October 24.
Bon Iver, i,i. Experimental pop music with deep and dark lyrics and wacky sounds. Be surprised and happy.
The National, I am Easy to Find. Love and relationships. Sophisticated and fulfilling.
Thom Yorke, Anima. From the frontman of Radiohead we get a mix of pop and electronica. Maybe even dance a little
Oh, I also have Ryuichi Sakamoto, serpentwithfeet, and Zola Jesus playing as I prepare for a live show on October 18 at the Ace Theatre in Los Angeles.
That’s probably enough of a list for now. So pick up your player, cleanup the turntable, head to the record store.
I hope you find something here you like. Or at least be inspired to play some music of your own.
The living creatures of the Earth – trees, shrubs, flowers, water, rock, soil, insects, and bugs – they came before us and will likely be here long after we have departed. Today as I practiced walking meditation in my yard, there was an abundance of Butterflies. The lifecycle of these beautiful creatures is wonderful to observe. As the Caterpillar’s crawl around the yard and on the fence, they find a place to cocoon before allowing the Butterfly to spring forth. They then nurture the plants and bushes. They bring joy to those who observe. Their playful flight, to-and-fro, without seemingly needing anywhere to go or anything to do. Such a delight! And for 56 million years they have been practicing this dance.
As a young teen, I delivered the local newspaper in the early mornings. I lived in a place with dense fog on many winter mornings. This being caused by a relationship between the earth and the sky. They touch each other and interact together. These early mornings brought dew to the Sycamore trees lining the streets. The density of the quiet. Each drop could be heard as it moved from the fog, to the tree, and then to the dry leaves upon the ground. This sound. This feeling. It still penetrates into my consciousness 40-years later. There is a sadness for me that the current generation of young people have not experienced this fog. The newspaper is now delivered by adults in cars. The land has heated and dried up so there is not so much winter rain to soak the ground that brings forth the fog. I do hope for its return. Fortunately, the Sycamore remains standing today. But it disappeared from Europe; will it suffer the same fate in North America?
Today I saw an Oak tree with one limb torn from its trunk. It was a 20-foot tear from this lovely creature. These majestic trees can live over 100 years and few saplings are produced. The California landscape is still blessed with these trees despite harsh summers and dry winters. The shifting climate will cause these trees to suffer as new trees are slow to take root and old trees fall or lose limbs. They are a part of the shifting landscape that isn’t only about the Oak, but also the bugs, insects, soil, and Chaparral that rely on the Oak for protection and food.
In the last month, I read The Overstory, by Richard Powers and Braiding Sweetgrassby Robin Wall Kimmerer. The first being a novel and the latter exploring indigenous wisdom alongside scientific inquiry. Both books look toward nature and plants as a source of wisdom, a source of inquiry, and a source for us to take a bold step forward. Kimmerer writes,
If we use a plant respectfully it will stay with us and flourish. If we ignore it, it will go away. If you don’t give it respect it will leave us.
It is from these books I draw inspiration for writing and shifting my attitude and actions.
Thanksgiving. That is where we can begin our healing with the Earth. To see, to recognize, to give thanks for the offering. The trees that bring us life. Air to breathe. The Bees that pollinate so that we might eat the fruit. Like the tree is connected to the soil, we are connected to the tree and subsequently the Bee. As we begin each day and arrive in each moment, look to your surroundings and cultivate a sense of gratitude. That floor you walk upon was once a tree, cut by a person and delivered to your community by a vehicle. Can you see the tree within the floor? Within the walls? Were these created with respect and thanksgiving? What respect for nature can you bring forth today? Just saying thank you and offering to do better may be enough in the moment.
Then gaze from your window. Do you see something alive in the world? Wonder about it. The rocks are no less important than the soil, or the insect, or the tree. We may all have the opportunity to see the sky, that which keeps us grounded to the earth and is part of the lifecycle of water, wind, and air. Each of us can do this!
If you are one whom capitalist economics have destroyed your environment, your home, and your community then you too can begin with this practice of gratitude. Let your awareness of the damage be a catalyst to rise up in voice and action. We all need to hear your voice. I hear your voice. I see your suffering. It calls for justice!
To be an environmentalist is to allow yourself this exercise of gratitude. To see and love nature, even when it has been destroyed. It is a place from which we can advocate for those creatures without voices – trees, shrubs, flowers, water, rock, soil, insects, and bugs. Then coming from a place of love and compassion, we can extend this love and compassion to our advocacy for environmental justice.
One Bowl and One Spoon
The “One Bowl and One Spoon” metaphor, written about in Braiding Sweetgrass, speaks to my heart. If we can see all the Earth provides is contained within one bowl and is served with only one spoon, then perhaps we can take the step toward greater ecological compassion. Stewardship. Reciprocity. Reparations. We can take care of her and learn to share all the wealth the Earth offers, for she remains abundant. In doing so she can begin to heal. And from this healing we can live better in relationship to her and all the creatures of the land. To recover the inequities brought forth over the centuries so we can embody the Earth’s life-giving offerings more equally.
On July 20, 2019, I participated with dozens of Buddhist priests and three other Order of Interbeing members in a protest against the detention of migrant children at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. The event was organized by Tsuru for Solidarity. The Fort Sill site, which was used as a concentration camp to incarcerate Japanese Americans, and was slated to become a holding facility for migrant children.