Posted in Zen Buddhism

Taking Refuge

Yesterday, my cousin killed himself.

I wanted a bag of Oreo cookies and a quart of ice cream. Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough.

But I’ve learned that there are healthier things to seek solace in than food: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.

When we speak of “taking refuge” in Buddhism, we mean turning to those things which bring us comfort. Inappropriate refuge items are those that mask our emotions. They can include just about anything:

  • Drugs and alcohol
  • Sex
  • Food – there’s a reason some things are called “comfort food,” after all
  • TV and books
  • Shopping – retail therapy, anyone?

When we seek refuge in these things, we are seeking a way to “numb out” to the pains of life. We’re trying to hide from the reality of our situation instead of facing it, fully aware. It takes courage to live mindfully, and sometimes, we want to close our eyes, just for a little while.

I did this for a while last night. I hid in a work of fiction. At least these days, I know I’m doing it. I remember making the conscious choice to numb out for a few minutes, because I didn’t want to cry.

After a couple of chapters, I came to my senses. What’s wrong with crying? I miss Scott. I feel sad that he was in so much pain he opted to end it with suicide. I feel guilty that I hadn’t spoken to him since my Aunt’s funeral in 2010.

And do you know what? None of those feelings went away while I was hiding in my book. I had to come out and face the truth of my grief in order to assimilate it.

So I thought of Scott and cried. And then I stopped thinking and watched myself cry. I used my tears, rather than my breath, as the focus of my meditation. I felt them, really experienced them, as they ran across my skin. I tasted the salt. I became fully present for my mourning, without reliving old memories.

Like a fire with no fuel, my crying ended fairly quickly. It’s hard to sustain that level of internal pain when you’re not dwelling on it. Pema Chodron calls this process “letting the storyline go.” Just sit with the naked emotion, and see what comes up.

By meditating on my tears, I was taking refuge in the Dharma: the teachings of the Buddha. I used a process I’d been taught to find comfort. In the moment, it wasn’t about finding comfort, it was just about being in the moment. Yet I was comforted. My tears dried. My sobbing slowed and then stopped.

Then various teachings on the great work of life and death arose in my clear mind. How we are like clouds in the blue sky, appearing and disappearing – without any appearing and disappearing. More refuge in the Dharma.

I could have taken refuge in the Buddha, the man himself, the teacher. I do this when I consult my living teachers, which is usually weekly. Or when I think of stories from the life of the Buddha and see how he handled himself in various situations.

I did take refuge in my Sangha. Since I’m away from home, I posted a note about my cousin’s death on Facebook. The outpouring of love and compassion was overwhelming and instantaneous. My online community of Dharma brothers and sisters, some of whom I know in person and others only virtually, gave me refuge.

That’s what we mean by taking refuge: learn from the teacher, practice the teachings, reach out to the community on the path and let it enfold you in grace.

After my tears dried naturally, I chanted Jijong Bosal. I asked the Bodhisattva of Travelers and the Departed to guide Scott through the Bardo. I asked Jijong to help Scott have a good rebirth, gain enlightenment, and save all beings from suffering.

I no longer wanted the cookies and ice cream.

~ Rev. Jăbō


Posted in Tibetan Buddhism

Medicine Buddha

My friend is having surgery tomorrow.  Last night my husband and I stopped by to see her and drop off some DVDs for her to watch during her recovery.

I also gave her a CD with the Medicine Buddha mantra on it and a candle I made.  I bought a blue candle at the grocery store, the type in a clear glass cylinder.  Then I created a template in Word that would cover it.  I inserted pictures and text, then print, glue, and voila:

Medicine Buddha Candle

My friend really liked it, her Catholic upbringing notwithstanding.  I don’t know whether it will provide any metaphysical healing.  But I’m pretty sure it will bring her comfort, knowing it was made for her with love.

“My religion is kindness,” said the Dalai Lama.


Posted in Tibetan Buddhism, Zen Buddhism

Spirit Rock Retreat 2008, Day 5

8:35 AM

I’ve had a realization: my arthritis in my spine is too painful for me to sit still in the pre-dawn cold. I will not be able to do the outdoor sunrise Prajna Paramita practice. I choose to avoid the pain, accepting that it is my choice to do so.

Last night while we were meditating on the hillside, some deer walked past us on the road. Talk about meditation causing a reversal in the universe!

9:40 AM
Notes from Lama Tsultrim‘s talk and Q&A

Lineages of Buddhism: 3 yanas
Hinayana does not equal Theravadan
(Check out “Journey to India” by a French woman.)
In India, Buddha is still considered an incarnation of Vishnu.

Tripitika –
Sutra: teachings
[An illegible word, because I can’t read my own writing]: Code of ethic for monastics
Abby dharma: philosophy

Early on, meetings of Buddhist leaders took place about every 100 years. By the 3rd meeting or so, Mahayana and Theravada spilt off. Theravadan was considered the “true” Buddhism. Others saw a priest caste developing & questioned the authority of the arhats. Theravadan moved into Southeast Asia (Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Thailand, and Burma). The rest started as forest monks in SE India, but later moved into Northwest and central India, & into monasteries. The became Mahayana & moved into China, Korea, Japan, Tibet, Pakistan, & Afghanistan.

Prajna Paramita started as a feminine presence in Mahayana, but wasn’t embodied. In the tantric period, female teachers appeared. Mandalas started to be used. Yab yum figures represent sacred sexuality. Working with the body, speech mind. It’s about the stuff of this world. During this period, Buddhism went to Tibet.

“Caste” actually means color. Darker skinned people were in India, perhaps from Africa, and had been matri-focal. They got pushed into lower classes during the Aryan invasion. The women of that caste continued to teach tantra, especially during the “tantric period.”

The “M” sound is associated with the feminine in many cultures, including India; hence “mum” (pronounced “moan”) for Prajna Paramita.

There is a channel between your eyes and heart. Light coming through the eyes activates something in the heart. If you experience eye strain [during meditation], relax the muscles behind the eyes, or imagine seeing all around, 360 degrees.

“Only a Buddhist could get tied up in grasping at emptiness!” – Debra

The purpose of working with deities: imitation through identification, like a child imitates its mother. How does it feel to have four arms, be golden yellow, be made of light, and be emanating wisdom?

Female mantras turn to the left, or counterclockwise. Male mantras turn to the right.

12:00 PM
Notes from Lama Tsultrim’s Q&A, continued.

Purpose of the perineum muscle hold in Prajna Paramita meditation: closes a gate to prevent energy leakage. (Personally, I find it helps me focus on the fact that I’m female – a fact I rarely consciously think about outside sex and flirting.) It keeps the presence in the body. It can create a feeling of bliss, which is our true nature. Bliss is our birthright, circulating in our subtle body. It’s not something we have to get from outside or someone else.

Keep your gaze stable in Prajna Paramita practice, it helps to avoid thinking. Ideally, don’t blink – but don’t try not to blink! Remove glasses.

Keep your mouth open during Prajna Paramita practice – just to a relaxed, natural degree. Very important!

[Prajna Paramita’s matra: Om gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha.]
Om – actually aom or aum. The syllable that contains everything.
Gate – gone
Paragate – gone beyond
Parasamgate – gone completely beyond
Bodhi – awakening
Svaha – so be it

A flower – a bee wouldn’t call it a flower, nor would a dog. Every being has a different experience of that flower, so there is no absolute flower. At what point does its flowerness manifest such that we call it a flower? Emptiness! Yet it takes the form of flower at some point. Both form & emptiness are contained within it.

Not clinging is not the same as not connected. Real relaxation is very connecting. We don’t have the tension & holding in between, or the feeling of what we’re not getting.

Sophia is a wisdom goddess, like Prajna Paramita. Mother Mary is more like Tara – embodiment of compassion. Sophia & Prajna Paramita deal with inner knowing; unmediated knowing that doesn’t go through the priest or lama. Her teachings were active at the time of Christ, & later suppressed. She was never a real person, but an archetype.

3:10 PM
After lunch today, I hiked up to the forest altar. I found a walking stick near the base of the trail, perhaps left by another yogi, & took it with me in case of rattlesnakes or bears. (Like it would help!) It was good for balance.

The altar clearing was lovely, with several statues scattered about as if they had grown there organically. Many people had left items there over the years – faded photographs of people and dogs, shells, painted rocks, natural rocks, malas, feathers, bits of paper, and more. A woman was laying down along the low retaining wall, so I took a seat at the far end from her.

Being with all these mementos of grief made me think of my father. The first anniversary of his death is coming up in less than two weeks, and I’ve been missing him very strongly lately. I began to think I had made a mistake in going there and was about to leave.

Then I had a thought: There are no mistakes; there is only karma. (I don’t know if I believe this, but it’s what I thought at the time.) So I stayed and let my tears fall silently.

I thought about how I feel when I hear a joke my dad would like, and then get that sickening lurch in my gut when I remember I’ll never get to tell him. I thought how I’d never get to ask his fatherly advice again, or hold his hand.

All this while, I was looking at a statue of Kwan Yin, because she was closet to me. Like Tara, she is a goddess of compassion. I spontaneously began to pray silently to her. I asked her to watch over my father and give him the motherly love he was lacking in his life. I don’t know why that prayer came to me. I had always known that Daddy and Grandma were never close, and I knew that it pained him. He worked very had her whole life to be a good son to her, and she always doted on one of his brothers. Perhaps my subconscious – or my Buddha nature – put it all together. All I know is that I felt better after I prayed that prayer. I felt that some cosmic unfinished business was at last complete.

I was sniffling quite a bit by then, and so, I suddenly realized, was the other woman in the altar clearing. She moved from lying down to sitting up, and I hurriedly wiped my eyes in embarrassment. I stood up to go, and wouldn’t you know it, she got up at the same time!

She came rushing the entire two paces over to me and put her hands on my upper arms. We each saw the tears in each other’s eyes and immediately moved to embrace. We shared a long hug, tight and warm, both of us sniffling. Finally, it relaxed naturally and we pulled back, still touching. The tears were still there, but now there were smiles, too. In those moments, she became Kwan Yin to me. She was the very goddess of compassion, the personification of sympathetic love. Then we released each other, turning opposite directions to begin our separate journeys down the hillside.

As I reached the trailhead, I placed the walking stick alongside the path. It’s to the right as you head up, “handle” end placed so it’s easy to grasp. May it be of as much benefit to the next woman.

6:15 PM

I’m reading “Machig’s Last Testament,” which Tsultrim read to us the other day, and I got to this part:

Once discursive thoughts are totally abandoned,
Dharmakaya is not other than that.

And I got it! I went “Ah…!” which is the one-syllable reduction of Prajna Paramita. And Prajna Paramita is a (1 of 3) dharmakaya. Ah, indeed. Isn’t that interesting…?

9:08 PM
I had another encounter with Kwan Yin/Tara this afternoon. After my run (same course, 3 minutes off Tuesday’s time – Yea!) I had a feeling I had forgotten something. I had thought about leaving an “offering,” but I didn’t have anything I felt was appropriate. I had a lot of strange thoughts around this issue, but ultimately I decided to go back to the forest altar and wait for further instructions.

This journey turned into a pilgrimage. I was coming from a different point on the land & took a different path. It was steeper, rougher, and turned into what I realized was nothing more than a game trail. Shortly after that realization, the trail ended. At least I found a pretty green rock, which I pocketed.

I found my way back to the meditation hall. [Which is pretty remarkable when you understand that I’ve gotten lost in my own city while using a GPS.] Then I did what we always do when our meditation is thrown off: I began again.

And somehow, leaving from the exact same point I had left from scarcely three house before, I took yet another trail. What the hell, I thought, I don’t know why I’m doing this anyway; let’s see where this leads.

Luckily, it led to the forest altar. Nobody was there this time, and I felt comfortable looking at the objects people had left there. Then I sat in front of Kwan Yin and meditated for a while.

I got up to go because I wanted to be back in time for Prajna Paramita practice. I said to Kwan Yin, “I don’t know why you brought me up here.” And then I remembered the rock in my pocket and set it in front of her. “But here. You can have this. It’s isn’t much, but it’s a pretty green.”

I felt an immediate sense of peace and realized I had done what I came to do. Buddhism isn’t what I’d consider a quid pro quo religion, but I felt I was making a stronger connection with the universe, as manifested by this goddess.

“I don’t know where this relationship is going,” I said to Kwan Yin. “you tell me.” Then I bowed to her – which is really my own Buddha nature – and headed back down.

After sunset Prajna Paramita practice, which was rich and deep, I went to do my work meditation in the kitchen. I really enjoy working with those 3 women. We’ve gone from being 4 individuals to being a team. We can usually anticipate each other now, and we’ve cut our work time by about 1/3 as a result.

I really miss Michael. And not just because of the erotic dreams I’ve been having about him, either! I look forward to showing him all I’ve learned here. I can’t really explain it, it’s beyond words. So I’ll show him Zen-style: by being the best wife I can as I deepen my practice. I had joking asked him what he was going to bring me back from Japan, & he asked what I was going to bring him from Spirit Rock. I told him, “a better wife.”

This time in retreat has strengthened my commitment to a regular meditation practice. I already have in mind where I can fit it in my daily routine. Everything’s in flux right now, anyway, as I transition from fixed hours to freelancing, so this is a good time for schedule changes.

The practice of feeding my demons has completely banished the depression I’d been battling since April, and that had nearly killed me in July. Funny what happens when you shift your paradigm from fighting to feeding. Of course, as Somerset Maugham said, “It’s easy to be a holy man on a mountaintop.” (I’ll forgive him the masculine reference since the character who spoke that line was a man referring to himself.)

Posted in Tibetan Buddhism

Spirit Rock Retreat 2008, Day 3

9:45 AM

Notes from Lama Tsultrim’s talk [Tsultrim Allione]

Jna – ancient Indian goddess of inner knowing. Same root at gnosis. Old Testament Sophia – mentioned in proverbs. Her influence was felt in Europe at the time of Christ, when Prajna Paramita appeared in India. Eruption from the collective unconscious? (Note to self: Look up Sophia; who was this chick?) [Female embodiment of wisdom in Hellenistic philosophy and religion, Gnosticism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholic mysticism, and Protestant mysticism.]

Prajna Paramita is the mother, or source, of all Buddhas. She is the wisdom that we all pass through en route to Buddhahood.

She represents non-dual truth. Her sutra grew to 100,000 lines. People realized it was out of control, and by 500, it was reduced to one sound: Ah…! Later it become the Heart Sutra.

Buddhist deities are symbolic embodiments of enlightened qualities.

We practiced assuming the body positions the goddess is represented in, visualizing the different things she holds.

Notes, Con’t.

The Gnostic gospels state that Christ’s teachings were the transmission of gnosis: inner wisdom, no clergy required.

Vajra: masculine symbol, frequently held by Prajna Paramita. Upper 5 points are the 5 skandas [form, feeling, perceptions, impulses, consciousness]. Lower 5 points are 5 wisdoms (or 5 male Buddhas). Ball in the center is emptiness, where the transformation occurs. The vajra represents masculine skillful means and compassion.

In her other hand, Prajna Paramita holds the Prajna Paramita Sutra, representing the feminine. Her other hands are in the mudra of teaching: relative truth & absolute truth, both hands around the wheel of dharma.

She sits on a lion throne – like Buddha, & Neolithic images of the earth mother goddess.

Dharmakaya – a class of deities who are formless, even though Prajna Paramita is shown as embodied. She is an abstract principle, the feminine matrix.

Other “deities,” like Tara, are not archetypes. They are energy fields we can attune to. They exist whether we believe in them or not, because they made a commitment to be.

Prajna Paramita is golden; south; earth; transformation of pride to wisdom and equanimity.

Namo: Sanskrit for homage.

2:15 PM
Backing up a bit – I got in a run today, right after breakfast. Nearly 2 miles of hills. I walked past the turkeys, just like I do dogs, so they wouldn’t chase me! Also, I passed 3 gorgeous horses several times as I ran out & back twice.

I went back to the bookstore. Nothing speaks to me for Michael. But I did get myself a pendant with White Tara on one side and Green Tara on the other. It was affordable, & the nice lady gave me a cord for it. It turns out I didn’t need her assistance: purchases are on the honor system. Put your credit card info on the form & slip it in the slot! Amazing.

5:07 PM
I took a nap this afternoon! I kept dozing off during the 2:30 sit, I had a headache, & my legs hurt even though I moved from the floor to a chair earlier today. (Too late on the chair, apparently.) So I let my body & mind rest.

6:30 PM
I’m looking at the handout from Lama Tsultrim, and her center – Tara Mandala – is in Pagosa Springs, CO. I spend a week in Pagosa Springs once. What are the odds? The wheel of karma, perhaps?

6:50 PM
Notes from Lama Tsultrim’s talk

Prajna Paramita is no thing in herself, but has the potential to “give birth” to everything.

“Womb of totality” – awareness of the vastness of space.

Meditation: turns the universe around – by stopping our habitual, destructive, grasping behaviors, & turning them around.

Instinct is karmic patterning. The body we end up with is important. Cats want to kill. “As soon as you get a cat body, you’re going to want to kill things.”

The bodhisattva vow can never be accomplished. The work never ends. “It’s like working in the Post Office.”

9:11 PM
Tsultrim finished giving us transmission of the Prajna Paramita practice. It has the potential to be very powerful in my life.

I’m wearing my new Tara talisman to bed tonight. I want to infuse it with the energy of the sacred feminine, like charging a battery. When I got here, I was wearing a wonderful pendant Ron & Julie gave me, covered in symbols of many faiths. I was drawing energy from it, as it came charged with their love, when I got to this new place. But I’m home, here, now, and comfortable. For a while this afternoon, I was wearing both. Now it’s just Tara.

It is a widespread Buddhist custom to stand when senior teachers come in & out of the room. In Zen, we do it for Zen Masters. Tibetans do so for Lamas. I had stood for both Zen Masters and Lamas before – all of them male. It occurred to me today that Tsultrim is the first woman teacher I’ve stood for. I have very confusing emotions around this [that it’s never happened before], so I’m not going to make anything by thinking about it. I have noted it & will move on.

I feel a strong kinship with the different teachers in training here. They keep time during meditation, serve their teachers water, record the talks, & follow their teachers into group interviews. Some of the duties are similar to what I do at my Zen Center. These women will be my contemporaries in teaching the dharma, if we all stay the path.

I had a snack after work meditation in the kitchen today. (How did they get purple cauliflower, anyway?) I had a thin corn cake with organic peanut butter and 1/2 cup soymilk. I’m hungry constantly here, & I’m hoping this will keep me from waking up hungry. I don’t think the food is very well nutritionally balanced. They are trying to accommodate people’s allergies, and with only about 100 people to feed including staff and teachers, they can’t offer a lot of options. If I work on getting some protein snacks during the day, I think I’ll be okay.

Posted in Tibetan Buddhism

Spirit Rock Retreat 2008, Day 1

9-21-08 Spirit Rock
4:15 PM

Christine picked me up. We stopped & had hot tea on the way to the airport. I look forward to seeing her next week when she picks me up.

The flight was fine. Had an entire HS [high school] football team aboard. As a fellow passenger said, “Way too much testosterone on this flight.”

Met Babs & caught the shuttle. She’s a “back to the land” rancher who raises Percherons. I enjoyed her company. We got to SR early so we went hiking. Beautiful vistas in the rolling hills! Saw a fawn & several hawks.

My roommate, Kate, seems nice. Very mindful.

My work meditation is to wash vegetables. How appropriate! I did this at Deer Park [Monastery] & hated it. I volunteered for it here from the available jobs so I can practice detachment – or non-attachment. Now, I’m off to get trained. I wonder how much training I’ll need in washing vegetables…

7:30 PM
Dinner was good, though light. Lunch is the big meal here.

I managed to avoid washing any of the 40 lbs. of bok choy! I did help wash 13 lbs. of roma tomatoes, 8 lbs. of bell peppers, & 1/2 flat of cherry tomatoes. The other members of my veggie washing team are Regina, Barbara, & Micha (who just got married to her girlfriend of 21 years!)

Kate & I have set up our home & basic ground rules. We have established that she is the window expert & I do the blinds. We managed to “fix” both.

I hope Michael did well in his [motorcycle] race. I think of him often. The only reason I regret not brining a camera is that I would have liked to share images of this place with him.

9:30 PM
The opening session was great. Chanting the prajna paramita [mantra] – 80 to 90 women – chanting at a pitch I can reach rather than too low. Lots (too much?) estrogen in the room. 🙂

It’s so quiet here, I can hear my tinnitus constantly. I could even hear my heart beat during meditation, though, curiously, only on the inhalations.

The talk opened with a quote from Ammachi about how feminine energy is needed to save the world. Something certainly is needed. I hope I can help.

Now it’s off to sleep. I look at my wedding ring tattoo, remembering the night Michael & I got them – & then went dancing at Miss Kitty’s! I think I just found the one sacred thing that only I share with him…

1st interview
Anna 4:00 Rm 1 9/22/08


6:00 Wake Up

6:30 Morning Sitting Meditation/Sky gazing

7:15 Breakfast Meditation

8:00 Walking Meditation

9:00 Sitting Meditation

9:30 Teachings

10:30 Walking Meditation

11:00 Sitting Meditation

11:30 Teachings

12:30 Lunch Meditation

2:30 Sitting Meditation

3:00 Movement or Walking Meditation

4:00 Sitting Meditation or Small Group Interviews

4:45 Walking Meditation

5:15 Dinner Meditation

6:45 Sitting Meditation/Sky gazing

7:20 Stretch Break

7:30 Teachings

8:30 Working Meditation (Washing Vegetables)

9:00 Sitting Meditation

9:30 Sleep

Posted in Zen Buddhism

What is Zen?

On the phone tonight, my mom asked, “What does the word ‘Zen’ mean, anyway?” And I realized I didn’t know. It’s a school of Buddhism, but as for translating the literal word, I was at a loss.

So I took the question to my teachers at the Zen Center. Our head teacher said that the word originated in China, “Zen” was the Japanese, and there was no English equivalent. He offered the analogy of Zen being the connection between Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire when they dance. It’s the point when you can’t tell where one stops and the next begins. It’s the fluid, ever-changing energy in each moment of the dance.

I think my mom will like that.