Sunday, November 27, 2011

How To Cook Your Life

Finally got round to watching this excellent movie, How To Cook Your Life, which is streaming on Netflix. The movie was mostly about Edward Espe Brown, who wrote a few books and teaches cooking and Zen in California. Seems he's started his own sangha. Supposedly he helped found Greens, the cool Zen restaurant in SF.

Watching him cook bread made me want to cook bread. It's a quirky documentary because they will interview people and it's not clear what the connection is with Edward Espe Brown is, or to Zen. They say interesting things. It's more of a loose free flowing documentary than a tight one.

I like it that they show Brown's human side--he gets irritated, he cries, he has a tantrum, and he's calmly sitting in front giving a Dharma talk.

There is footage of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, and Brown tells stories about him. I liked this one: A guy asks Suzuki what he thinks of the Zen students. He says, "I think they're enlightened, until they open their mouths."

And of course cooking is cool. You can apply mindfulness to everything and applying it to cooking is important. Bringing mindfulness to what we put into our bodies is very important.

I've heard the story about biscuits tasting right--he used to apply a different standard, expected them to taste like restaurant ones, but then he just accepted them as they were and he enjoyed them even more. I like that story. I think he originated that story, which somehow feels classic to me because I've heard it before.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Book Prize 2011

Book Prize

There are two books that win BOOK OF THE YEAR in 2011.

I need to come up with a name for my prize, book of the year. Please leave a comment to suggest a name: The Going For Refuge Blog Book Prize. And there’s no money attached to the prize; Just the honor of winning it. And this year, there were two books that stood out for me.

The Art of Reflection sneaks up on me. The first third seemed like I already knew it before. But as you go deeper and deeper into the book, it gets you. It’s actually cunningly written to gently guide you in to deeper and deeper spiritual reflections about the BuddhaDharma.

I read everything that comes out of Windhorse, sooner or later. I’m surprised when order members aren’t familiar with everything. That’s me trying to rank on them. Not too cool. I want to join the order, so any kind of proof I have of a greater commitment makes me feel I deserve to get in; You should have me in the order. But on reflection, that’s just insecurity, and reading isn’t the whole of the spiritual depth story.

I will join the order when I’m witnessed to be effectively going for refuge to the three jewels. Not being witness doesn’t mean I haven’t. Not being witness means probably means I’ve got more work to do. I do have more work to do. That’s uncontroversial.

My friend said, “I am who I am, ordain me.” My reply is, “Yes, but can you progress further?” The answer is, of course, yes. Let the order decide the one thing that the order decides.

There is no bureaucracy in the in the Triratna, no pope or Vatican. It’s only body, the preceptor’s college, just asks the question—who are we and what do we want it to look like to be an order member? What is essential to the order? That is not an easy answer, and we get fresh pronouncements of that every once in a while.

When you want to join the order it can be confusing if you check off all the boxes. What does it mean to be an order member? I’m inclined personally to think along the lines of what Sangharakshita supposedly said--“If they’re ready to be ordained in 6 months, why not ordain them now?” That is not how things are done now. But I digress.

That was all preface to why I find it weird when order members don’t talk more about books. On Reflection has been talked a lot about by the people I’m around. And that is not always the case with books, in my circles. This book has had a big influence on the order. It put to words something everyone sort of knows, and developed it further. Brilliant.

Plus is dovetails with “Re-imagining The Buddha”, an essay that Subhuti put out that is an account of some of the thoughts Sangharakshita and him have expressed in conversation. Some people say Subhuti’s essays aren’t the best way to propagate ideas in the Triratna community, but I think it’s just fine.

Supposedly the second draft of thoughts coming out soon about the five spiritual stages, from Sangharakshita’s seminar on the precious garland sutra. But instead of writing a paper, people are working-shopping it a little bit. I’d like a clear paper please. But I do think it’s a better writing process to get feedback on what’s useful, so take your time. But I am looking forward to the paper.

The Art of Reflection, is in many ways saying something we already know, and yet somehow shedding new light on it. And for that I give the book of the year prize for my blog.

The second co-winner is Vishvapani’s book Gautama Buddha. I’ve read Karen Armstrong’s book and others. Biographies of the Buddha are either popularizations or they’re too scholarly. This book is a well-written book with spiritual depth and an appreciation for a wide range of works. It sheds new light by quoting sutras I haven’t read yet. Lots of times I read Buddhist books and they’re quoting things I’ve read over and over again; Not so with this book. And there’s a kind of spiritual depth to the book. You can tell Vishvapani is a practitioner, has advanced along the path. And yet he’s aware of a wide range of scholarly material and primary texts, the cannon, and writes well. A triple threat.

On the one hand you might be tempted to be a historian, and get bogged down in what happened, and gloss over what enlightenment is. On the other hand, some people don’t want to make an outline of the historical Buddha, because what he did is so awesome, he really does step outside history. This book walks that line perfectly.

The Buddha’s advice to Bahia--this is a profound teaching and nobody really explains it. But if you circle back around and keep on taking a crack at it like Vishvapani, you feel like you’re getting a better handle on it. To put the quotes into a historical context that actually explains the quotes better. Amazing writing. This is the kind of book that I finish reading and then start all over again. And there’s a kind of existential appreciation, he quotes the Buddha seeing people like fish in a drying up pool. Casting the Buddha’s crisis in more modern terms is important.

So for this reason, I pick this book as another co-winner of the Going For Refuge Blog book of the year.

I have two questions for Vishvapani. Why isn’t the book available in the USA? I got one at the Aryaloka Book Store. But you can’t get it on Amazon in the USA.

The second question is about him having a child. He’s referenced it that he’s had a child while the book was coming out. The Buddha said to a monk who’s trying to impregnate his wife so she can have a child (out of kindness to his wife since he’s gone off to be a monk), that he’d do better to stick his penis into a snake’s mouth—how does Vishvapani reconcile this in his mind? I have never read or heard that quoted before. That’s a rather personal question, I know, but I’m curious about that, knowing that he’s a new father.

I have struggled with the same issue, though once the kids are around, it’s not a question. They are around and you love them, of course. I never heard that quote before I chose to have children. And I just wonder how he personally he got over that. Maybe some day I will meet him and ask him. I hope he does a book tour in the USA, because I think this is a wonderful book.

Books work on you, and these two books are the books that have worked on me over the past year.

A classic video that bears repeating.

Diksha Bhumi

Diksha Bhumi by Koshyk
Diksha Bhumi, a photo by Koshyk on Flickr.

At the center, a casket has the remains of the great Ambedkar (1891-1956), who was instrumental in bring about the revival of Buddhism in India among the ex-untouchables. I dearly want to visit here.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Personal Dharma versus The Dharma

Thanksgiving thoughts:

Here in the USA we celebrate Thanksgiving. Today I am thankful for the variety of Dharma teachings and practices. I am thankful for the many teachers and the different sects of Buddhism. I am thankful for those who preserved and recorded the teachings, no matter how imperfect. Indeed, I appreciate all the spiritual traditions now that I've found mine.

You hear about teachings: "Well, I see people in the distance in the fog, and I say to some, 'more left' and to others, 'more right'. It seems to contradict, but I see things from a different vantage point."

The Buddha was inclusive. He allowed householders to be part of the fold, when he could have just thought monks were the only way. There were some monks who wants the forest tradition to be The Tradition. The Buddha declined narrowing the path. The path is inclusive, wide.

I gave a talk on generosity at the last practice day. I articulated what was useful and interesting to me, and hoped that it was so for others. I honestly couldn't presume to know what the people in the group needed to know, even if I know some of them as well as I know anyone. Anyway, my short talk provoked a good discussion and thus it's a success on that level. I love the discussion.

I think sometimes people mistake their path for the path. There is an ocean of Dharma to choose from. OK, so yes, the path isn't just about reading books. But is it a problem if someone likes to read books? Yes, we need to take what we know and put it into practice. There can be a kind of indigestion, when you eat too much of a rich meal. Westerners are producing a new kind of Buddhism, that is well read. And if you go deeper into the path, you want to give back and not just accumulate your own deepening insight. Altruism is very important in the spiritual life, it counters spiritual individualism.

But in the end, I think there are many different personalities and kinds of people, and that the Buddha built a big tent, for them all to come in. There are many traditions. And when someone works to enforce their personality view, criticizing others path, well, I think that is a mistake. Whether you're a monk or a householder, whether you're a wisdom type or a faith follower. What ever type you, that is just right.

We are modifiable by our spiritual friends. People outside of us often see us better then we see ourselves.

And there's the danger of vagueness and lack of depth in inclusion. I'm not saying you shouldn't go as deep and as clearly into your path. I think that's the tension really. When we find out what really works for us, then we want everyone to have that. But what I'm saying is that pluralism, tolerance and respect for people's autonomy on the path is also something you can be clear about and feel deeply.

So on this Thanksgiving, no only am I thankful for all the spiritual traditions with their oceans of Dharma, but I'm also appreciative of all my friends who provide such a rich and stimulating life. All my relationships. Thank you.

Hot food blog gets a makeover

I've come under the influence of Under The Influence of Food. And they've had a makeover, so go on over and check out one of my favorite food blogs. Lots of vegetarian and vegan recipes.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Final thoughts on Philip Glass' Satyagraha

Thinking about it the production was amazing. It's cool to see Philip Glass getting his due.

A few of my friends haven't seen the movie Gandhi. When I was in high school, my parents were threatening to move from Madison Wisconsin, to Minneapolis Minnesota. I didn't want to leave my friends for senior year. So having seen Gandhi, I did a hunger strike. I only had to not eat for a day and they conceded.

I asked my stepfather if he'd regretted that, and he said no, it was about the same job and it probably wasn't a big deal not to take it.

I really want to go to India and connect with my Buddhist brethren. My heart goes out to the Dalits who converted with Ambedkar to Buddhism. Seeing all the singers in saris made me think that.

the sangha grows

Saddhu to the new mitra! (I protect people's identity, so I won't say his name, he knows who he is). That makes 11 mintras in NYC for the TBC, and 6 have asked for ordination, to my knowledge.

Saturday, November 19, 2011


Read the New York Times review. They even have a video about it with interviews and footage. I'm not an opera critic. I'm not a music critic like my friend Mark. I'm not even even very knowledgeable about Gandhi, Tolstoy or Martin Luther King. I'm not even that versed on the Bhagavad Gita. Though I have read it once.

I don't think there's any Buddhist opera, and googling "Buddhist Opera" doesn't turn up much information. But I did turn up this FWBO video, about an opera they put on! Amazing, I didn't know about this. Supposedly they did it in 2002

Anyway, the rube that I am, I could still appreciate the amazing production, that was broadcast live, which was probably why Glass himself came out on stage and took a bow. Quite amazing use of newspaper, projection, puppetry, acrobats and stilt walking.

As I've written before Satyagraha is a transcendent concept and they demonstrated that well by raising coats, people raising up, and the slow meditative way people walked. It was a lovely meditation.

Opera is such an amazing thing, the amount of effort that goes into a production must be amazing. The building is amazing. When the opera started, the chandeliers went up. I like it that there's people in jeans and people dressed up, it's truly a take it as you like kind of event.

So I highly recommend seeing this opera and going to the Met, which puts on an amazing show.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Subhuti Video

When Subhuti talks, it's worth listening to.

Retreat Account

From Going For Refuge

Dear spiritual friend,

I wanted to tell you about my retreat. First off, because it's a 5 hour drive from New York City to Newmarket New Hampshire, the retreat starts when my spiritual friend gets into the car.

From Going For Refuge

My journeying friend and I have a good history together in multiple contexts, one being spiritual. We catch up. One thing I like about car trips is that you’re kind of stuck with a person without media. Of course now with smart phones and an in the car DVD player, that’s not strictly true, but mostly that happens.

From Going For Refuge

The spiritual life is all about friendship, and if you could just force friendship onto people, I would. Friendship has to flow naturally, although you can always try harder to be with someone, spend more time, and devote more resources to the relationship, so in a way you can work hard. So in a way you can. I find that through meditation, I see more clearly how to work for things. I understand what I can do about conditions to make things more supportive towards my goals.

From Going For Refuge

For unknown (to me) reasons, the retreat was moved from starting Friday night to Saturday morning. So Friday we drove to Portsmith and checked out their new center and hung out with some spiritual friends who live there. Looks like an amazing center. Aryaloka is blooming, lots of people are coming and there's no reason not to think that will happen in Portsmith. It's an exciting thing to watch the spread and blossoming of the order.

From Going For Refuge

When I arrived at Aryaloka, after a night on the town in Portsmith, I was shocked into the retreat. My roommate, who was a night early to the retreat, like me, wanted to meditate in the room. I asked him to meditate in the shrine room, but it was probably cold, and he had the heater on in our room. So he just sat down and started meditating to this amazing rupa of the Buddha slouched over, head in hands, presumably crying for the suffering in the world. I harmonized, and meditated with him, then jumped into bed and slept.

From Going For Refuge

From Going For Refuge

There are a bunch of constants you always get from a retreat visit to Aryaloka. Aryaloka is outside Newmarket New Hampshire, and as the following photos show, the retreat center has a little land and a stream that flows near it. So since I live in NYC, it's nice to get into a rural residential setting.

From Going For Refuge

I like the silence on retreat. Saturday night through Sunday we had silence.

From Going For Refuge

Since everyone is on retreat, people are positive, helpful, sweet, kind. It seems genuine, not fake, though maybe you can tell people are on their best behavior, which isn't a bad thing. The vegetarian food is wonderful—simple and healthy. People always bring cookies and sweets if you need some support by something sweet. In a way a retreat can be very challenging and a few times I’ve laughed like a hyena on the drive home because I had lots of energy to discharge. You know it seems simple, but it’s really quite difficult to go on retreat in a way. People can be overwhelmed by it.

From Going For Refuge

Time spent meditating with others is a very important activity. I’ve meditated willfully for about 7 years, and then I was concerned it was too willful, and I backed off the disciple, and I struggle to keep it at times. I used to go flying into retreats with a full head of steam, but now I struggle to get back into those times. Meditation is very important to me, and I appreciate the support of meditating with others.

From Going For Refuge

I need support in meditation, and setting up positive conditions on retreat really help. Though the retreat didn't start till 9, I sat in the shrine room with the 2 early friends.

From Going For Refuge

Then when everyone gathers, we socialize, catch up and whatnot until we do a more formal checking in--we go around the circle and just say what's going on, how long they've been coming along and what inspires them. I always feel a little weird with all these people, but pretty quickly you get in tune with each other and we feed off each others positive energy.

From Going For Refuge

The topic was the 5 spiritual stages, gleaned from a seminar Urgen Sangharakshita taught on the Precious Garland. Supposedly these ideas are not from the Precious Garland Sutra, the leaders were not sure where they came from, perhaps from Sangharakshita.

From Going For Refuge

I had a revelation on retreat. The Buddha saw literalism as a impediment in the spiritual life, according to Vishvapani’s new biography of the Buddha. In the system of meditation, there's talk about how to develop in the spiritual life. First, with mindfulness of breathing we work on integration. Second, with metta bahavana you work on emotional positivity. Third, you can meditate on the 6 Elements and move towards a spiritual death, or deaths. The 6 Element practice is taught on ordination retreats in the Triratna Community, in the lead up to the next stage: Spiritual rebirth, when a sadana practice is given. As you die, you are reborn as an archetypal buddha, say Avalokita or Manjushri, and you're supposed to either embody or develop these qualities.

From Going For Refuge

I've done the 6 element practice, but I have not yet been invited to join the order. So I felt like doing the 5 element practice is like a quarter back trying to hand off the ball, but the running back (sadana) doesn't take the ball. I’ve always been kind of confused by this.

On this retreat I was quoting The Big Lebwoski. “My thinking was all uptight.” So what if there's no running back? It's looking at things literally. Literal mindedness is a foe of the spiritual life! Even if you have a sadana, that doesn't mean that what unfolds isn’t a kind of rebirth. People have chosen not to get a sadana practice upon ordination.

Take for instance the fact that I used to be a person who disliked the heat of summer. One you take off all your clothes, if you're hot, what do you do? At least in the winter, you can put more clothes on, put another layer on. I felt even in the coldest, you just go indoors and turn on the AC, limit you activity outside.

My parents turned the heat way down at night in the winter, and I could use an electric blanket if needed, but I didn't really even need that. When I meditate, I get hot. Sleeping partners say I'm hot, a warm oven. So I give off heat, and come from a cold midwest (USA).

Since I've taken up meditation, I've let go of the story that I can’t handle the heat. The heat is annoying, but I can tolerate my feelings. I became someone who no longer complained about the heat. Nor do I yearn for the fall the way I used to. Now if that's a small small small spiritual death and rebirth, well, there's no need for a archatypal buddha. It's just a death and rebirth. To imagine it connected to a sadana, an archatypal buddha is to just try and add on another layer.

My spiritual rebirth is really an open ended journey. In fact, what do I want my spiritual rebirth to be? That's a great question. As Rilke says, I'll just have to live the question.

My thinking was so uptight.

Another revelation was I uncovered a layer of perhaps negativity in my relations to others. More work to do. If you go on retreat and don’t come out of it with the thought, “there’s more work to do,” then you haven’t challenged yourself on retreat.

Being with others is great. I especially appreciated the male order member on the retreat, I always appreciate his wisdom and kindness. I also went for a walk with a younger fellow, and got to play the elder spiritual brother some, which is always a worthwhile project. I've read that being a sponsor in AA is very beneficial. When you teach and lead you have to learn more deeply that which you already know. So it's an honor to give some brotherly advice and listen. More listening because he's pretty impressive, but we don't always see things ourselves, and it helps for someone to give some input from outside. We need help in the spiritual life and spiritual friendship is very much recommended, and I appreciate it.

On Sunday the chairperson of Aryaloka gave a talk and led some meditations and that was fantastic! I connected with Ratnasambhava, a little, never really thought about that Boddhisattva. I often connect with a new one, which makes picking a sadana difficult. Maybe I'll throw it back to my preceptor and let him choose. I do respond to this kind of Buddhism, but I like our order's take on it, which doesn't make it necessarily the only path.

The dash home is bittersweet. I'm anxious to get back, as I see the retreat ending with reporting out, but I wish I could be on retreat more. I've gotten better at accepting what I get. I think it's good that I want more. Not all desire is bad. I hope to go on the far flung sangha retreat in January, when the centers on the east coast outside of Aryaloka come together for some spiritual community and retreat.

I report in and report out now to my internalized spiritual community quite often and having a real external reporting in and reporting out is pretty cool.

I hope this retreat account was useful to you. May you be happy, may you be well.



PS, more pictures:

Fall is lovely

From Going For Refuge

From Going For Refuge

From Going For Refuge

From Going For Refuge

From Going For Refuge

They prepare for winter with sand for when it snows:

From Going For Refuge

Looking over Kwan Yin's shoulder at Aryaloka:

From Going For Refuge

Philip Glass' Satyagraha

Philip Glass describes himself as a ""a Jewish-Taoist-Hindu-Toltec-Buddhist" (see the Wikipedia article).

I like it that he doesn't want to be pigeon holed. I didn't know what Toltec was, so I read the Wikipedia article. Maybe he sees himself as an artisan: ""Toltec" came to take on the meaning "artisan"" Toltec came before the Aztecs so it's hard to say what was really going on.

Satyagraha was an opera that, in it being commissioned, he didn't have to work any more at not composing jobs. I recognize some of the words in Sanskrit.

I'm very psyched to see the opera on Saturday.

Satyagraha is an interesting concept (see Wikipedia article): "The essence of Satyagraha is that it seeks to eliminate antagonisms without harming the antagonists themselves, as opposed to violent resistance, which is meant to cause harm to the antagonist. A Satyagrahi therefore does not seek to end or destroy the relationship with the antagonist, but instead seeks to transform or “purify” it to a higher level."