pilgrimage, place, poetry, spirtuality, Uncategorized

To Bodhgaya and Beyond

The great story weaves closer and closer, millions of
touches, wide spaces lying out in the open,
huddles of brush and grass, all the little lives.

–William Stafford, from “Over in Montana”

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Buddha on the side of the temple at Bodhgaya

Bodhgaya, India, is the place where the Buddha attained enlightenment after forty-nine days of meditation under the ficus, otherwise known as the Bodhi tree, a tree related to the mulberry. Because Bodhgaya is a place of historical significance,  I wanted to visit it while living in India. Two weekends ago, I had that opportunity.

The Bodhi tree is a ficus religiosa . Its leaves, even without a breeze, are said to be continuously moving. “O Ashvatha, I honor you whose leaves are always moving…,” says a verse in the Bhagavad Gita about the tree. Gods are thought to live in the leaves causing them to move, and thus the official name, ficus religiosa–the religious fig. The name fits, in particular for the bodhi tree in Gaya. Though the tree standing in Bodhgaya now isn’t the actual tree the Buddha sat under, it’s a relative. Sanghamitta, the daughter of the 3rd century BC Indian emperor, Ashoka’s, brought a branch of the original tree the Buddha sat under to Sri Lanka and planted it in Anuradhapura. The original tree was destroyed, how is uncertain. There are various versions (see more here) of how this occurred, though most accounts state that the a shoot from the Sri Lanka tree was brought back to India and replanted at the original spot.

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Bodhi tree, Gaya, India, where the Buddha attained enlightenment

Bodhgaya is a holy site and a pilgrimage destination. One of the things that struck me the most while in Bodhgaya, was how many distinctive faces I saw as I sat near the tree, observing as people made their circumambulation around the shrine. Many visiting were monks and nuns performing ritual prayers, but others were like me, there to stand in a place considered holy, and to absorb what it had to share. For all the crowds, the place still manages to have a sense of calm, probably because so many there are intent on doing their prostrations and sending up prayers.

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It struck me how similar people are in the way they express devotion or carry out holy acts, though they are from different religions. Burning candles and incense, offering prayers, bowing down, ringing bells, bringing flowers,–these are commonly used in acts of worship in many religions. Bodhgaya attracts a wide spectrum of people from Buddhist countries, but people from many walks of life and countries in various parts of the world had come to stand in the spot where so many before have journeyed to send up their hearts’ longings–or possibly to set them down. Possibly, however, some pilgrims had come simply with an openness, willing to receive whatever understanding their minds brought to them while standing there, listening to their heart’s inner whisperings.

I’ve been learning about Buddhism, since arriving in India nine years ago, and somehow I expected to feel moved while standing in such a holy place. Instead, I found myself noticing people’s feet, and thought of the many journeys people had taken to arrive at this place where our lives briefly intersected with a smile or a short glimpse.

Once surrounded by forest, Bodhgaya it is now a city with apartments, shops, restaurants and hotels. To imagine the place as it was when the Buddha spent time there requires you to stretch your imagination. People continue to come to this place, because they wish to make a connection with the long chain of seekers, hoping to gain insight into how to live.

Pilgrimages are taken for many reasons, but one important reason is to the desire to expand beyond the boundaries one currently lives in– to break through the skin into something new, perhaps as the snake does when it sheds its old skin because it has grown bigger. Thoreau, purposefully set out to let his soul grow bigger when he spent a year living outside of Cambridge, Massachusetts on Walden Pond and wrote his famous meditations on living known as Walden. Thoreau speaks to the those of us who have felt the desire to step out of the hamster cage of events that keep us continuously rolling, and who long to live meaningfully. “Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour,” Thoreau asserts, and we are led to explore the idea that every life is worthy contemplation, of spending time reflecting on what our actions mean. This act isn’t meant to benefit just a few lucky ones who can take the time off to do so. We can do this daily as when we give our full attention to whatever it is we are doing, wherever we are walking or sitting. Listening deeply to those we are in relationship, listening to the world we walk through allows us to sense the holiness of life itself underneath the surface of all that is.

While wandering through the temple grounds at Bodhgaya, I read a quote on a plaque. The quote’s first portion eludes me, but the second portion read something like “Now I enter the forest of my old age,” and it struck me as a metaphor for transformation in general. We may have been walking through a plain before where things could be easily seen, but when we change, we enter a forest. Things aren’t necessarily easily found or understood. Perhaps we are even purposefully looking for a different path from the paths we once knew or walked. A whole new life can appear. As we age, though, I think of forests in the fall, flames arising from the myriad leaf faces, the sugar inside burning before the leaves let go to the earth.

Thoreau chose to go to the woods, and set aside a year to live in a small cabin on Walden Pond. Many of us can’t do that, or at least don’t feel it’s possible until reaching such an age where regular work ceases. Thoreau bravely took time out to consider to look for life before old age.  Thoreau chose to live simply during his year away, in order to find what it is that matters in life. He went to the woods, he said “because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan- like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.” This is a brave statement. It requires an openness to life, to what you might understand if you listen to the world around you, including listen to the physical world.

The Buddha, as well, encouraged people to let go of their attachments in order to find life. We may be born in one place, have a particular history or speak a certain language, but we need each other’s differences. The interconnected nature of our physical environment itself demonstrates this reality. Other people in other places with perspectives different from our own have experiences worth listening to, insights worth understanding. I notice fear is such a strong motivating force in the media but it creates so much suffering. The Buddha’s path began with a question, “How do I relieve suffering?” What if we were to live differently? What if everyday in recognition of life’s dearness we deliberately asked “How do I live so I learn what life has to teach me today? How do I live today so that I don’t discover when I come to die that I’ve never lived?”

James Wright, in his poem “The Blessing,” shows the reader what it is like to live attentive to the details before us as he describes his encounter with ponies off the side of highway in Rochester, Minnesota who “have come gladly out of the willows/ To welcome my friend and me.” The ponies greet he and his friend with “shy bows,” then begin munching the grass again, as they have been all day. As the speaker of the poem carefully observes them, he becomes aware of the wonder breathing beneath the experience, “…Suddenly I realize/ That if I stepped out of my body I would break/ Into blossom.” We become more than we are when we let ourselves experience that we are connected to all that is.

May we all break into blossom.

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Uncategorized

Finding Space–An Invitation

Over the past few weeks I’ve been doing further research about Italian immigrants in San Francisco, San Francisco in the early 1900’s, reading some of Billy Collins’ poetry, editing a couple of articles to send out for possible publication, barbecuing pizzas with my husband and friends, listening in Spanish to some cultural programs about food in various regions of Spain, along with various other things important for me to keep abreast of things at my work, which this year, again, includes totally new systems and ways of approaching things.

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Just One Thing—Simplify.

About three times a week I get to the swimming pool, the gym about twice, and I aim to go on walks, though recently these have been fairly short. While I’ve done a number of things I want to do, drawing, as I was doing during the summer months, has now diminished to less than one page of drawings a week in my sketchbook. Books I want to read wait on a table. The clarinet I finally got out of the carry case last year with the intention learning to play currently sits on the shelf. I want to feed the things I’m passionate about. The reality is that each of these things takes time. To sum it up, there are many more things I want to do than I have time to do. Whatever it is we want to do or be takes practice, and this includes reshaping our life to live in a way that enhances our own well-being and sense of wholeness. For decades, I have pondered Thoreau’s quote from Walden, “Simplify. Simplify.” This still isn’t easy to do.

This past week I viewed the program, “Killer Stress–A National Geographic Special with Robert Sapolsky.” Sapolsky, a neuroendocrinologist, biologist, and researcher at Stanford University, explores the effects of stress–how it ages us more quickly, reduces our health, and cuts into our well-being–and yet how multi-tasking and stress is actually valued and promoted in our culture. Stress is difficult to escape. We all live in a social system. How can we live as free people, rather than slaves to a system that positions competition, power and financial success as centrally important? Sopolsky’s research lead him to observe how a troop of baboons, animals that are known to be aggressive, combative and nonsocial, became peacefully cooperative and nonaggressive after the dominant males suddenly died off as a result of contracting tuberculosis. The encouraging news in this study is that even though aggressive and destructive habits had been the way the baboons had functioned for decades, when they entered a new social construct where the aggressive males died, the whole community was able to become peaceable, even when new baboons entered the community. (See more at “Warrior Baboons Give Peace a Chance.”) Maybe there is hope for us too.

In his essay, “Slavery in Massachusetts,” Thoreau says, “It is not enough to be industrious; so are the ants. What are you industrious about?” In his essay, Thoreau admonishes readers to place their humanity before money, before laws– “policy is not morality,” suggesting that if we want to live humanely, we must place the way we relate to each other at the center. We must consider what it means to live wholly, what we mean when we say we want to live not as slaves to industry, but more fully.

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What are we industrious about? What do we want to harvest?

So, how does this hopeful change where baboons learn how to live together peacefully apply to our own lives? Many of us continue to live in aggressive societies where community and connectedness are not held as central values, where diverse ways of seeing, being and unique contributions are not seen or held dear because the system is rolling down the track like a locomotive train, intent on getting on with whatever its own vision is. In her recent article on Brain Pickings, “The Shortness of life: Seneca on Busyness and The Art of Living Wide Rather Than Living Long,” writer Maria Popova quotes Roman philosopher, Seneca “It’s not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested…Life is long if you know how to use it.” This is a stunning, paradoxical thought. We have time! As Thoreau suggested, it’s not that we’re busy doing something–what is it we are busy about that eats the time that would allows to understand we are living fully? Are we nurturing our passions–the things that makes us feel connected to our heart’s deep need and fully alive? If life is long enough if we use the time we have to fully live, how do we reshape our lives to do that. If, like many of us, we find we need to be on the institution train for a period of time, how can we still make use of the station stops? How do we open the window and feel the breeze and make sure to look up and notice the dragon flies swarming above the nearby trees?

In the hopes of recovering more life and a sense of space inside myself, I’m aiming to practice the act of purposeful noticing–looking for one small thing each day to connect myself more to the heart of the days I’m living–to the physical world, and to the life of those around me. I want to release myself from the world of walls, at least briefly every day, and every day remind myself that I am alive in a physical world full of wonder. I reside in a body that is allowed to wander and walk here on this earth. Walking, Ferris Jabr tells us in his recent article in the , “Why Walking Helps Us Think,” not only improves our memory, attention, and staves off degenerating brain cells, it also, through its rhythmic quality, creates a mental state that nurtures creativity and innovative ideas. Now that’s wonderful news!

I’ve decided to take a small, probably slow walk each day, and will couple it with a practice Naomi Shihab Nye suggests people consider–the practice of writing down just a few lines a day, maybe three, for example, of things I notice and observe. A short walk and three lines are manageable. I plan to try this for 40 days, a length of time long enough to notice change but short enough to feel doable. My desire is to observe how this small act might shift my thinking, perceptions of time, and way of being and living to allow me more of a sense of freedom and connectedness to the physical world around me.

I began my first observation yesterday, with noticing the tree in the school yard that was suddenly cut down. The tree has been a focal point of observation I’ve returned to many a morning over the last seven years as I’ve watched birds gather in that tree–crows and kites mostly. Last year, the tree was struck by lightning and was in distress. Its center branches had dead. Then, yesterday morning, I heard the sudden crack from my apartment as the tree’s center trunk broke apart–the result of the school’s gardeners pulling it down. Only this past Tuesday I had been standing next to it, noticing the sap dripping down its sides at various points on its trunk, as if it were grieving over the recent difficulties it had experienced. All day, the gardeners were cutting up the trunk and branches. Now the tree is half its original size. Everything changes. What was once present, is suddenly gone.

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Observation: Lime tree with fruit and blossoms

The photo here shows today’s observation, our lime tree, one year old and putting out an abundance of leaves, blossoms and tiny fruit. It is a happy tree, ready for a larger pot. We hauled up several new plant containers four flights to place on our balcony with the hope of enhancing our garden there. The lime tree is thriving. We had orange groves the entire time I was growing up. When I smelled the one blossom that’s currently open, I was reminded of my mother who always sent me orange blossoms in the mail after leaving home. Citrus blossoms are always sweet.

I’ll post later the other things I observe in the coming week, and invite you to try this along with me and let me know what subtle things begin to shift in your own awareness over the course of time–what it is you discover through the practice? Do you feel an increased sense of health, awareness of nature, gratitude, wholeness, connectedness to life, your neighborhood, or the world? What is it that happens when we practice grounding ourselves in place, when we pay attention to the suchness of things? If forty days is too long for you, try 20 or four and see how that goes–whatever feels right for you in your desire to shift things in your life.

As E. E. Cummings writes,

being to timelessness as it’s to time,
love did no more begin than love will end;
where nothing is to breathe to stroll to swim
love is the air the ocean and the land…

Love is the voice under all silences.

I want to listen inside that silence and notice the miracle of love that holds me up day by day.

Everything is miracle Peter Meyer explains in his song, “Everything is Holy Now.”

 

Presence, spirtuality

Confronting the Essential

Washington TreesSome time back I remember listening to Naomi Shihab Nye talk about what it’s like writing a poem on Bill Moyer’s Language of Life series. Sometimes you set out to write your poem and you think you know where you’re going. “You think you’re going to church,” she explained, “but instead your poem takes you to the dog races.” When writing, you have your ideas, you practice writing, but you also don’t want to make a  habit of forcing the work. It’s also a good idea to follow where the muse leads, and  sometimes a more powerful piece of writing results. You want to pay attention to the inner voice that suggests, maybe this other thing is a better idea.

Recently, I’ve been noticing how many other kinds of situations in life arise that are similar Nye’s description of what happens when sit down to write. You go to work each day enjoying your job, for example–finding it interesting and productive, and then people come along with a different ideas–a whole new system, for instance, of how things should be done. Suddenly your plans, your way of seeing things, are altered. Or perhaps you are out exercising regularly, doing what you can to stay healthy, then you go to the doctors for your check up and discover you need a biopsy for what might be cancer. Another possibility is that you spent your life working at your job, being responsible and saving your money for your last years so that you can spend them enjoying your retirement, but then one of you has an accident and the other one spends his or her final years caring for the one who fell ill. The business you work at might unexpectedly be sold and  you might suddenly find yourself out of a job. A different possibility might be that the person you’ve been married to for 20 or 30 years, had children with, the person whose life history you know and whose foibles you love and accept comes home one day and tells you, “I don’t think this marriage is going to last.” All these stories and more like them have happened to people I know. You think you’re on track, you know what you’re doing, but then something else happens and you’re heading for the dog races. What then?

There is an old Zen story about a farmer whose horse runs away. All the neighbors tell him, “Oh, such bad luck! That’s terrible.”

The farmer’s reply is, “Maybe. We’ll see.”

Next thing you know, the horse returns to the farmer’s land, and not only that, he brings seven more horses with him.

“Wow, that’s wonderful,” his friends and neighbors tell him. “Look at what you have now! You’re so very lucky.”

The farmer hears their words, and simply replies, “Maybe. We’ll see.”

Because the new horses were wild, they needed to be tamed, so the farmer’s son went out to tame them. In the process, he was thrown from one of the horses and broke his leg. “Why, that’s terrible,” the farmer’s friends and neighbors said as they gathered together in the evening over tea. “What bad luck you have again,” they said. “How are you going to get on now?”

The farmer just looked at them and said, “Who knows? We’ll see.”

A short time afterwards military officers arrived in the village looking for able-bodied young men they could find to fight in a war the government was involved in. They looked throughout the village for all those young men who were fit and conscripted them into the army. When they came by the farmer’s house, they saw that his son had a broken leg and couldn’t fight, so they passed him by.

Yet again, the neighbors gathered round the farmer to tell him, “How lucky you are! Your son doesn’t have to fight in the war.”

Once again, the farmer replied, “Maybe.”

As you can see, this story could go on at some length, event after event looking first good, then alternatively terrible. I think there comes a time in all of our lives when we are confronted first with things that look absolutely terrible. Maybe we will lose our sight, or the use of our limbs some day. Maybe we will get Alzheimer’s. Maybe we lose our house. Maybe the country we are living in is suddenly moves toward a situation of unrest, or a natural disaster occurs that is devastating. We develop our plans for our lives. We have our dreams, and we want things to go a certain way. What can we do to prepare ourselves for loss, for enormous change, or even just inevitable change? How can we be open, however, to the possibility that when our future or even our day takes to the dog races instead of to church, we will know what we need to hold on to, and what let go of?

Maybe you have heard of Sue Austin, a woman in a wheelchair goes diving. To hear her speak is inspiring, and to see the photos of her swimming underwater is truly beautiful. You can watch her TEDTalk, and you will see for yourself. Ms. Austin’s goal is to change the way we see a person in a wheelchair, and to show how a wheelchair can also liberate and open up new possibilities in a person’s life. As the tale with the farmer illustrates, what looks so terrible might not necessarily be as bad as it seems when put into a different context. Maybe the thing that looks like the worst thing that ever happened to us could become the thing that saves us, similar to how the farmer’s son didn’t have to go to war because of his broken leg.

On the other hand, it could be that what happens to us might be worse than we could ever imagine. Nevertheless, again, as the story illustrates, things always change, even the terrible things can change. It’s true that we could lose our jobs. It’s true we could lose our health. These kinds of difficult changes make me wonder: what am I doing with my life? Am I living the way I want to be living in order to be accountable for the gift of life that God has given me? What motivates me? What is calling to my spirit to follow it? Am I bold enough to pursue it? What would happen if I did?

There is a wisdom of the heart, and there is practical wisdom. What is the wise thing to do? What do you want to get to the end of your life and say you lived for. Henry David Thoreau went to live at Walden pond as an experiment in living simply, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” I am thinking very seriously about his choice. How much of what I am doing is noise and clutter getting in the way of what life is really trying to tell me about? You hear or perhaps have seen or known people who have had what has been termed a mid-life crisis where they are asking themselves what they are really doing underneath all the actions and choices they have made thus far in their lives. What have they built with their lives, they wonder? Who am I? Maybe we need to be asking ourselves these question all along in our lives so that we can live more authentic lives throughout our lives and not have to come to the point of a crisis.

We want to live our lives from the center of who we are, and that means taking time all along to know who we are, to listen. This is why it’s valuable to take time each day to pause, to offer gratitude, to reflect. Richard Rohr in his CD Healing Our Violence Through the Journey of Centering Prayer says, “All great spirituality teaches about letting go of what you don’t need and who you are not. Then, when you can get little enough and naked enough and poor enough, you’ll find that the little place where you really are is ironically more than enough and is all that you need. At that place, you will have nothing to prove to anybody and nothing to protect.

That place is called freedom. It’s the freedom of the children of God. Such people can connect with everybody. They don’t feel the need to eliminate anybody . . .”  In some way, most of us are afraid to let go of the security of our jobs, our houses, our hometowns–the things that have formed our identity. Rohr, in Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer has an interesting insight, however, regarding those who leave the beaten path, those who begin their experiment in living to confront the essential facts of life in order to live intentionally. “The people who know God well—mystics, hermits, prayerful people, those who risk everything to find God—always meet a lover, not a dictator.” Is this true? Seamus Heaney’s final words to his wife were “Don’t be afraid,” and losing the one I most love is going to be the hardest, most fearful thing some day. ““The most common one-liner in the Bible is, “Do not be afraid.” Someone counted, and it occurs 365 times,” says Rohr in Falling Upward.

photo-20Things change. What we think we are standing on may move. At some point we are going to lose everything–we will lose our own life and the ones we love. But we don’t have to be afraid. How am I going to get to that space? I’m thinking hard these days about what I’ve held on to thinking that it will bring me happiness. But what is real? What are the essential facts of life, that if we learn them when we come to die, we will know we have lived? That is what I want to have the courage to live for.