Thich Nhat Hanh – in gratitude for a life well spent.

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The internet is currently flooded with tributes and reminiscences of his life, so I will not try to recreate them here. Suffice to say, I feel drawn to reread some of his books and, having lost six people from my life, during these past pandemic years, this quotation, posted by a Buddhist friend to Facebook, this morning, lifted me out of a fog of melancholy and raised my eyes to the sky. Thank you!

“One day as I was about to step on a dry leaf, I saw the leaf in the ultimate dimension. I saw that it was not really dead, but that it was merging with the moist soil in order to appear on the tree, the following spring, in another form. I smiled to the leaf and said, ‘You are pretending’. Everything is pretending to be born and pretending to die, including the leaf.

The Buddha said, “When conditions are sufficient, the body reveals itself, and we say the body exists. When conditions are not sufficient, the body cannot be perceived by us, and we say the body does not exist.” The day of our death is the day of our continuation in many other forms. If you know how to touch your ancestors in the ultimate dimension, they will always be there in you, smiling. This is a deep practice.

The ultimate dimension is a place of coolness, peace and joy. It is not a state to be attained after you “die”. You can touch the ultimate dimension right now by breathing, walking and drinking your tea in mindfulness.

Everything and everyone is dwelling in Nirvana, in the Kingdom of God,”

Professor Thich Nhat Hanh – Living Buddha, Living Christ (1995)

Thich Nhat Hanh

Saturday Sleeves – or responding to changes

Saturday SleevesSaturday sleeves are long knitted cuffs, so-called because they are meant for slipping on when you need to do outside chores, on a chilly Saturday morning. They have also proved useful as a way of providing warmth to my husband’s hands, which are wracked with arthritis and unable to take regular gloves and mittens.

Adapting the simple pattern to accommodate the different size and shape of the hands, one glove was knitted on circular needles 4.5mm (32cm length), with 43 stitches and was worked (knitting every row) until it measured  25cm long, and the other on 5mm needles, with 50 stitches, until it measured 15.5cm long. I kept the tension loose so that the finished cuff didn’t drag over his painful joints. The hands and knitting both have flaws. Yet both are perfect just as they are.

I’m pleased to say, he reports that they keep him ‘toastie!’

 

The Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future

Chrismas stars and ballsEach year, when I take down the Christmas decorations and pack them away, I write a motivational note to my future self encouraging me to look up, chill out and enjoy the festive season. That might sound a bit crazy, but the truth is I have an anxiety about Christmas that borders on a phobia. The note is usually brief – ‘Relax and enjoy!’ Or ‘You can do this!’ – instructions meant to cut through the tension. Then I seal it in the box with the baubles and store it away, only to be read when I unpack it again the following December.

I have been in Buddhist training for most of my adult life. Practice helps me to understand why I am the way I am, accept the way I am, and illumines the path to necessary change. Like many of us, I have weathered some very human storms. Through Buddhism, I have come to understand that whilst our suffering is caused by our conditioning and attachments, it is also the path to liberation. I know this to be true. I know how to be still. I know how to direct myself. But then there’s Christmas!

While others happily and excitedly prepare for this seasonal event, I become increasingly aware of my building anxiety. I pledge to pace myself, take things steady. There are presents to buy and wrap, cards to write and send, decorations to put up, Christmas food to order and prepare. Sounds fun, doesn’t it? Yet, as I go through the motions, a sadness descends like a grey mist and even though I make lists and organise myself so that I can get through the preparations in small, manageable chunks, I seem to be ruled by the limbic brain and struggle not to spin into utter panic.

Knowing this, I write the notes in acknowledgement of this unconverted state of suffering. Christmas Past, speaks to Christmas Future and tries to reassure this fearful being that it is not a big deal, yet for me, karmically, it really is!

Christmas 2020 was different. In a state of lockdown, due to Covid-19, the Government allowed us Christmas Day to be with our families but only three households could mix. I have three grown-up children, who usually pile back into the old family home, with their partners and children, so to choose just two households to join us for Christmas, leaving one of them out, was not something that I would countenance, even though one of my daughters volunteered to stay away. So everyone stayed at home. Things were quiet and low key and, without the usual hustle and bustle, I had time to ask more deeply just exactly what my difficulty with Christmas is.

As a result of doing this, I read a very different note to myself this Christmas. It did not chide me to be happy. It spoke not so much of a dislike of Christmas but the ambivalent feelings that it invokes. The idealism of all our hopes and dreams being pinned onto one day in the calendar year and the uncomfortable, unsatisfactoriness of that. It spoke of the love of sharing with others, set against the concern that I have for the homeless and those spending Christmas alone and how the homeless and the lonely are homeless and lonely all year round but somehow, on this day, it feels so much worse.

It spoke of how I found myself tearful and fearful for turkeys and pigs in their blankets, whilst also thumbing through the BBC Good Food Magazine and planning lunch. It spoke of the tension between the wish to be generous to others and a tendency towards excess that does not represent ‘The Middle Way’. Christmas has a quality to it that can seem to promise eternity, whilst slyly leading us away from it if we are not careful.

But the note also pointed out that, in my reflections, I had ‘touched that tender, soft spot of being’ and understood that the basis of my sadness and suffering is love. Christmas has a way of drawing up wistful melancholia that is still present but easy to miss at other times of the year. It is good to acknowledge that, to investigate it.

There is no note in the bauble box for me to read, next year. I thought about it but the need was gone. These missives have served their purpose. Christmas will continue to press my buttons, I have no doubt but I can see some of the causes, if not all and I will continue to do my Christmas training, with open-hearted curiosity, however long it takes.

Facing Life and Death

Joop Valstar by Erwin Olaf
Joop Valstar by Erwin Olaf

A dying man asked photographer Erwin Olaf to make a farewell portrait. He died a couple of hours after this final picture was taken, photographed at home as he was already too ill to come to the studio.

What strikes me is the powerful presence and the unflinching peace that is emanating from the face, shining brightly through the frail body that is about to give way. The artist managed to capture both the impermanent and the transcendental.

 

Memory

EngineeringTemporality byTuomas Markunpoika
EngineeringTemporality byTuomas Markunpoika

I was interested to catch, on BBC Sounds recently, a programme made by William Miller about his father Jonathan.  (Radio 4, Archive on 4: Lost Memories).  Jonathan Miller was fascinated by the human brain and in particular the workings of memory.  It was a cruel irony that in the end his own brain was destroyed by Alzheimer’s.  Making the programme was clearly cathartic for his son, who was trying to come to a better understanding of his father’s life work.  And it was, of course, of particular interest to me as I watch my partner struggle with the same disease.

While listening to a talk on the Throssel website, I wrote down the following quote by Reverend Jishin. (These may not be her precise words). “We are inextricable from all that’s gone before. Our sense of being as an individual is based on that.  (…) There is no separated off and permanent me.”

And in the programme, William Miller says that ‘Memory is what makes us who we are.  Our memory of our lives is what ties us together.’  (I think he meant into a coherent personality.)

I think, until watching someone else struggle, I had not fully understood the enormity of this; that ‘There is then nothing more than this.’  Hearing quotes from a string of academics, I learned that memories do not in fact exist per se; that memory is a suite of different systems which our brain organises into recognisable recollections.  Memories themselves are processes or actions and have no separate existence in the brain.  The brain is constantly editing memory and this edited version becomes the story of our lives. And, of course, we have all experienced instances when even shared events will be remembered differently by different individuals, leaving us to ponder whether there can be such a thing as verifiable ‘reality.’

And so, with the loss of the sense of our own past, what is left?  The answer of course must be ‘nothing.’  The body will persist, maybe for quite a while, but that which made the recognisable person is no more.  What I think we do is to project onto that body our own memories of how the person used to be.  It is so hard really to comprehend and to accept that the person has ‘checked out’.

William Miller asked his mother, in an interview before his father died, whether she felt that she still had a relationship with him.  Her answer was that they did have a relationship. ‘He is able still to recognise me as someone who is different (from the carers).  But it is not a proper relationship.  It is not a meeting of minds in any way.’

That’s a good description.  Slowly the person, this unique collection of memories, recedes.  My partner remembers almost nothing of anything we have done over the five years that we have been together.  He still remembers a lot about life well before that and is therefore able to establish some sort of conversation with his family that he cannot do with me.  But what he does say, and this fits with what William Miller’s mother said, is that he remembers love and happiness, in the abstract, even if he can’t remember anything about the things we have done, places we have been, trips we have had.

And so I often remind myself of the famous Larkin poem “An Arundel Tomb’ whose much quoted last line ‘What will survive of us is love,’ offers some modicum of comfort.  Perhaps that awareness of love, however it is formed, is one of the last parts of the brain to disappear.

Reflections of Braiding Sweetgrass Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants-by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Braiding Sweetgrass
Braiding Sweetgrass

I loved this book and would like to share with you some thoughts and points which jumped out of the pages and inspired me greatly. Robin Wall Kimmerer is a Teaching Professor of Environmental Biology and also the founder of the Centre for Native Peoples and the Environment in Syracuse, New York. It is a beautiful book that illustrates a synergy of survival, a reciprocal relationship between the earth and its peoples. Kimmerer offers a unique blend of her factual scientific training and her knowledge and experience of indigenous people.

I felt a sense of reverence and humility after reading this book and it sparked a heartfelt wish to understand more about the natural relationships between plants, animals, people, and the earth. Scientific evidence and the events happening on our planet today are at a ‘tipping point’ towards climate change. With fossil fuels diminishing, it is the beginning of resource depletion, this book points to ways of living more harmoniously with nature.

The author illustrates a number of ways learned from native people about reciprocal relationships between plants, animals, and people. I will start with the ‘three sisters’ a way of reciprocity between growing plants. This was a result of their observations and respect towards plants and what they can teach us. The ‘three sisters’ are corn, beans, and pumpkin or squash, the corn is planted first and grows to knee-high becoming strong and stiff. The second sister, climbing beans, are planted to grow and entwine with the corn and spiral upwards. The third sister, pumpkin or squash, steadily grows at the base of the corn and beans, sheltering the soil, keeping moisture in and other plants out, each giving and receiving in mutual support.

Another example from this book of how plants teach is the bitter taste of sour wild strawberries sampled before they ripen (often by impatient children), a lesson of patience and a capacity for self-restraint, an important lesson for us all in these days of short resources.

Research by settlers into traditional harvesting methods revealed natives had guidelines and protocols aimed at maintaining the health and vigour of plants and other species. The long-term observations of native people harvesting wild rice shows they spend 4 days filling their canoes with rice, then they stopped gathering long before all the rice was harvested. At first, the settlers thought this was due to laziness or lack of industrial machinery. Later they understood this was a land-care practice, the natives knew they weren’t the only ones who ate rice, what they left behind was not wasted. Ducks and other birds would not have stopped there if there was no rice left and seeds were spread by the birds to other areas. Similarly, berries spread their fruits on the earth for birds, animals, and humans and the seeds were spread by all to flourish in other areas. This reciprocal life sows richness for all, today, this kind of mutual support is rare with our modern farming methods.

Ceremonies of gratitude after harvesting were a part of life in indigenous communities. In a culture of gratitude, there is a deeper meaning for this gratitude, it is knowing that gifts follow a circle of reciprocity and flow back to you again. The act of generous giving and the humility of receiving are necessary halves of the equation. During the thanksgiving ceremony, the natives always dance in a circle in gratitude for this way of reciprocity, as I understand this, the circle gives us a metaphor for everyone and everything. After the dance one big wooden bowl of berries is passed around with one big spoon, so everyone can taste the sweetness, remember the gifts and say thank you. The author explains how the natives ‘know’ everyone is fed from the same bowl Mother Earth has filled for us and it’s not just about the berries, but about the bowl. How do we refill the empty bowl? Robin Wall Kimmerer offers this lovely poem in her book, it embraces ways of life towards enriching and sustaining our planet.

Know the ways of the ones who take care of you, so that you may take care of them.
Introduce yourself. Be accountable as the one who comes asking for life.
Ask permission before taking. Abide by the answer.
Never take the first. Never take the last.
Take only what you need.
Take only that which is given.
Never take more than half. Leave some for others.
Harvest in a way that minimises harm.
Use it respectfully. Never waste what you have taken.
Share.
Give thanks for what you have been given.
Give a gift, in reciprocity for what you have taken.
Sustain the ones who sustain you and the earth will last forever.

– Robin Wall Kimmerer.

As I read Braiding Sweetgrass familiar quotes and verses from Soto Zen training came to mind, especially these two:

The Five Thoughts
We must think deeply of the ways and means by which this food has come.
We must consider our merit when accepting it.
We must protect ourselves from error by excluding greed from our minds.
We will eat lest we become lean and die.
We accept this food so that we may become enlightened.

– The Mealtime Ceremony in Scriptures and Ceremonies at Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey

And

When we try to teach and enlighten all things by ourselves, we are deluded. When all things teach and enlighten us, we are enlightened.
– Kendo Chisan Koho Zenji

Braiding Sweetgrass is sacred, full of enriching and inspiring wisdom, I feel blessed a friend recommended it to me and to pass this on to you.

Mo Henderson

Dewdrops and Dragonflies

Dew on the Grass has been a presence, on the internet, for over two years now. The purpose of the blog has always been to provide a creative meeting space, not only for the four Buddhist friends who founded it but for a wider community of people, not necessarily Buddhists, who wish to capture the essence of the lives they live in photographs, artworks, and words that express the path that leads to the Heart. Whilst we never intended to post every day or even every week, we must admit it’s been a little quiet around here, lately. That could be because we simply don’t have anything to say, right now, and that, of course, is just fine but blogs, like any other area of life, can sometimes suffer inertia that needs further investigation.

For my own part, I have asked the question of myself,’ Why am I not writing?’, without any particular expectation of a reply. I am aware that days get ‘eaten’ by distraction: some necessary, like the practicalities of putting meals on tables (or lap trays, if truth be told), of cleaning, taking care of business, and the like, and some that arise from within myself, like the voice of a chattering child, bringing disruption to ‘flow’; shaking the calm stillness of mind.

I am not alone in this, apparently. A recent edition of Maria Popova’s, Brain Pickings, draws attention to Mary Oliver’s essay, from her book ‘Upstreaming’, entitled “Of Power and Time”. In this essay, which explores the need to give space for the creative, Oliver observes that whilst there are practical interruptions to creativity, ‘ …. just as often, if not more often, the interruption comes not from another but from the self itself, or some other self within the self, that whistles and pounds upon the door panels and tosses itself, splashing, into the pond of meditation. And what does it have to say? That you must phone the dentist, that you are out of mustard, that your uncle Stanley’s birthday is two weeks hence. You react, of course. Then you return to your work, only to find that the imps of idea have fled back into the mist.’

Popova comments that: ‘Oliver terms this the “intimate interrupter” and cautions that it is far more perilous to creative work than any external distraction, adding: ‘There is no other way work of artistic worth can be done. And the occasional success, to the striver, is worth everything. The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.’ Of course, the Buddhist reader will recognize this ‘interrupter’ or ‘distracter’ as ‘monkey mind’; the mind that swings and jumps and causes mischief, rather than ‘settle’. It has been experienced by meditators and creatives alike since the dawn of time and recognizing the ‘mischief maker’, looking it in the eye, significantly reduces its power and energy.

At the same time, there is, I think, a difference between what can be identified as the ‘intimate interrupter’ and the ‘inner daydreamer’. The interrupter is a saboteur of peace, clarity, and creativity, whilst daydreaming, in my experience, is a much more helpful, creative, and meditative state, whereby thoughts and sensations are allowed to drift in and out of consciousness, like dragonflies resting and drinking on the surface of a pond, drawing from it and then departing.

We called this blog site, ‘Dew on the Grass’, partly because of its association with Dogen’s ‘Rules for Meditation’, which is dear to our hearts but, as our ‘About’ page describes: ‘The nature of dew is that it appears in the morning, glistens for an instant and then disappears. Yet it always raises the spirits when you catch sight of it and it will always appear again’. Dew, dragonflies, the analogies are endless but all need the right conditions to develop, delight, and inform us. All are born of a state of natural solitude and harmony, which requires a certain personal effort to protect it.

Without judgment, without harshness, I keep these images in mind, and whilst there may be many practical interruptions that keep me from posting as regularly as I would wish – and are, to a large extent, out of my control – I think I very much owe it to myself, as well as to our loyal readership, to practice a little more diligently, the silencing of the ‘intimate interrupter’ and the development of the ‘inner daydreamer’. Recognition is always the first step, application is the second – on this last rainy Saturday of July, perhaps I have made a start.

If you have something that you would like to post – artwork, photography, or writing- simply contact us, using the ‘ Contact’ button.

If you would like to read more of Maria Popova’s blog, here is the link:

The Third Self: Mary Oliver on Time, Concentration, the Artist’s Task, and the Central Commitment of the Creative Life

At The Twilight

At the twilight, a moon appeared in the sky;
Then it landed on earth to look at me.
Like a hawk stealing a bird at the time of prey;
That moon stole me and rushed back into the sky.
I looked at myself, I did not see me anymore;
For in that moon, my body turned as fine as soul.
The nine spheres disappeared in that moon;
The ship of my existence drowned in that sea.

Rumi

Divan, 649:1-3,5

A Favourite Book: Kinship With All Life by J. Allen Boone


Had this book just been published today I would highly recommend you buy it. But it wasn’t, written in 1954, it tells the story of ‘Strongheart’ a famous actor-dog and his relationship with the person looking after him. It tells of a bond of friendship which formed between them, an extraordinary ménage of curiosity, observation and study by the carer which was quickly mutually reciprocated by Strongheart. An attitude of curiosity, openness, patience and humility became a catalyst to forming a connective bridge between the human and the animal, a universal ability many ‘modern humans’ have lost.

The author describes receiving a lesson on how humans connect with dogs by an American Indian Mojave Dan:

‘There’s facts about dogs and there’s opinions about them. The dogs have the facts and the humans have the opinions. Get the facts straight from the dog, opinions from the humans’. 1.

This information was invaluable to him and led to the ability to detect motives and intentions, a sense of ‘mind reading’ between Strongheart and himself, a synergy, bridging silent questions towards an intuitive ‘knowing’. This Indian philosophy of recognising mental and physical communication as universal and natural between humans and animals is expressed in the book with this quote:

Ask the very beasts, and they will teach you;

ask the wild birds-they will tell you;

crawling creatures will instruct you,

fish in the sea will inform you:

for which of them all knows not that this is

the Eternal’s way,

in whose control lies every living soul,

and the whole life of man. 2.

Job 12:7-10

From his friendship with Strongheart he goes on to describe his relationship with other sentient beings, including ants, earthworms and his fascinating relationship with ‘Freddie the fly’. The latter by changing his attitude, from finding flies irritable and wanting to swat them, to ‘right see’ with an ‘all good heart’.  His practice of a loving attitude towards even a small fly resulted in a sense of friendship. Freddie the fly used to sit on his typewriter as he worked, follow him from room to room, until eventually he sat on on the palm of his hand getting his wings stroked. Freddie was transformed from a ‘worthless little bum’, a nuisance who deserved swatting, into an intelligent lively companion. All this happened with the offering of a loving attitude.

For anyone who has the opportunity to live or work with animals this book is a must for understanding the principles a loving connection with others. It illustrates how fellow members of nature’s own family communicate with others who understand them, whether a person, dog, earthworm, ant or fly. 

‘To behold all beings with the eye of compassion, and to speak kindly to them, is the meaning of tenderness. One must speak to others whilst thinking that one loves all living things as if they were one’s own children.’ 3.

Mo Henderson

  1. Kinship With All Life (page 47)
  2. Kinship With All Life (page 108)
  3. Shobogenzo: Shushogi-What is truly meant by training and enlightenment, from Zen is Eternal Life by Rev Master Jiyu Kennett (page 160)

Note: 

For those who wish to read this book it is still possible to buy on Amazon or Waterstones.

 

It Ain’t What you Do, It’s What it Does to You

Karen Richards

At 65 years old, I have travelled far less than the average Westerner, of a similar age. It’s not that I have an aversion to travelling, far from it, but both the cost and the lack of opportunity have prohibited me from going very far and certainly not often. And yet, I do not feel that I have missed out on the richness of human experience.

Travel may broaden the mind but everyday experience surely deepens it. Or, more accurately, opens us up to that which is Universal, if we approach each day, openheartedly. I count myself fortunate to have experienced the many joys of living an ordinary life, right here, on my doorstep.

I first came across this poem by Simon Armitage, now our Poet Laureate, around twenty years ago, when I was teaching GCSE English in a local secondary school. I heard him recite it live, at The Grand Theatre Wolverhampton, when I accompanied my class to a special poetry reading, based on the anthology for the course. The truth of it struck me, immediately.

It Ain’t What You Do, It’s What It Does To You
Simon Armitage

I have not bummed across America
with only a dollar to spare, one pair
of busted Levi’s and a bowie knife.
I have lived with thieves in Manchester.*

I have not padded through the Taj Mahal,
barefoot, listening to the space between
each footfall picking up and putting down
its print against the marble floor. But I

skimmed flat stones across Black Moss on a day
so still I could hear each set of ripples
as they crossed. I felt each stone’s inertia
spend itself against the water; then sink.

I have not toyed with a parachute cord
while perched on the lip of a light-aircraft;
but I held the wobbly head of a boy
at the day centre, and stroked his fat hands.

And I guess that the tightness in the throat
and the tiny cascading sensation
somewhere inside us are both part of that
sense of something else. That feeling, I mean.

*Armitage was formerly a probation officer, in Manchester.

After I had written this blog piece, I happened upon a quote from Virginia Woolf’s, The Common Reader. In essence, they are saying the same thing, if differently. I love both. What do you think?

“Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness. Let us not take it for granted that life exists more fully in what is commonly thought big than in what is commonly thought small.”