In this week’s post, in the Something that Happened in a Small Moment series, Karen Richards shares an experience of sitting in her garden, this past summer. This is followed by a reflection, in a similar vein, by SiafuAntony.
What a privilege it is to sit amongst the flowers and watch the workings of the garden.
All morning, I have tussled with bed linen, managed the washing, prepared vegetables and cooked. Now, as my energy slackens – I used to be able to do this stuff all day long; not so much, now – I retreat to a quiet corner, while the sun lasts, and listen to the insects quietly hum.
I watch a bee dancing on the head of a clover. He makes the blossom shake. A small fly rests upon the page as I write until the vibration of my pen, against the paper, makes him fearful of the human who has just invaded his space and he flies away in fright. This quiet place, in the undergrowth, is their domain after all, not mine.
I hear a lorry rattle along the road and voices in adjoining gardens, where neighbours talk and children play. Somewhere, in the distance, a lawn is being mowed and, through open windows, kitchen sounds of saucepans, cutlery and plates clattering in preparation for the midday break.
And as I reflect, my mind turns to thoughts of other souls in less idyllic surroundings than mine. Those being born and those dying; those in places where war is rife or personal liberty is curtailed. To those whose suffering seems to know no bounds, I offer the merit of this small moment and then, rising from my seat, I bid my leave and go and wash the dishes.
A daily ‘small moment’ that has regular healing potential for me, follows immediately after the two bell chimes on completion of morning zazen.
I am fortunate indeed to live in an area which is generally almost continuously silent and peaceful. Usually, I find myself in a state of ‘calm abiding’ following meditation; these two chimes quietly ‘roar’ into the ‘ether’.
I visualise the sound they produce simultaneously echoing right across the entire universe, all universes, travelling at inexpressible speed, moving and yet not moving. So their effect is immediately felt by all sentient beings both on our tiny planet and also each and every planet in the universe.
It brings me a ‘small moment’ of harmony, joy and connection with everything.
As part of our Something Done in Small Moment series, Anna Aysea writes about a very poignant experience and her response to it.
As I turned left, into the long aisle with the detergent, I walked in on the heated brawl between mother and son. The boy could not have been more than five or six. Standing a few feet away from his mother, his little body was shaking with heaved sobs. Tiny fists clenched, and in between sobs he was yelling “No” to his mother at the top of his voice. She stood half turned away from him, without looking at the boy, she spoke to him in an undertone, without expression. Her words were like soft dripping poison, she was taunting and humiliating him. She told him that everything was his fault, that he should be ashamed of himself, that everyone in the store was now looking at him thinking he was a bad, foolish boy, that I was looking at him, thinking he was a stupid fool.
The mother spoke in a foreign language and was clearly under the impression that I could not understand her words, not realizing I happened to speak that language.
It was a battle of wills. She told him she needed apples and if he wanted to make himself useful, instead of making a fool of himself, he should stop making such a fuss and go and get some apples. Fists clenched, still shaking with sobs, the boy stormed off through the aisles.
Witnessing the drama up close, I had been pretending to be immersed in the various detergent choices. My mind on the tormented child, I made my way to the produce section of the large supermarket. Still sobbing, the boy had found the fruit on the low display and started putting apples in a plastic bag.
“Hi there sweetheart, can I help you with something?”
Not looking up, continuing to shake with heaved sobs, there came a vigorous “No” shake with the head. I followed him as he walked to the self-service scales with the bag of apples. He tried to put the bag on the scales but the counter was way too high for him.
“Would you like me to help you weigh your apples sweetheart?” Again a vigorous “No” shake.
“You like to do it yourself, don’t you?” A vigorous “Yes” shake. Such determination.
“Shall I maybe lift you a little so you can reach the scales and weigh the apples yourself? Would that be okay?” A curt nod.
I lifted him, apples and all, and hold him high enough so he could reach the scales. Shaking and determined, he put the bag on the scales, found and pushed the image of apples and then the price sticker button. I carefully lowered him again.
“Well done, sweetheart! Yeah, I get you, I also like to do things by myself” A wan smile. The interaction seemed to to be calming him somewhat.
“Can you remember something for me, sweetie?” A nod.
“You are very brave, and a good boy. Never forget that. Always remember that, okay?” A nod.
I watch his tiny back as he walked away, returning to the battlefield. I felt powerless, wondering about the kind of adult he would become after the long war of childhood.
Continuing our Something Done in a Small Moment series, Mo Henderson describes her experience of singing in a choir and how one small moment changed her understanding of what it is to “‘sing’ together “
Many years ago while attending a long retreat at Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey in Northumberland, I had the opportunity to practice with the choir. My only previous experience was at school when I was chosen to be in a choir by the music teacher. At that time I was rather reluctant and thought I may not be too good at singing. The experience of practising with my school friends was actually very enjoyable, we even won a competition at the City Hall in Newcastle. I will never forget the sense of being together and the mutual support and happiness I felt. In hindsight I believe this must have brought confidence to many of us, it certainly helped me.
I had never put myself forward to join a choir again, until years later having the opportunity to practice with the monks’ choir at Throssel. I was asked to intone a few notes to find out what kind of voice I had, then I was allotted a place to stand in the choir. As I was there for a few months, I was able to share choir practice on a number of occasions and just as at school, I enjoyed the experience immensely. I gradually came to realise the gifts of being part of a choir.
I think the main one was simply playing a part with others, hearing all their different voices including my own voice to create a whole harmonious sound. I found the concentration on listening and following the music, although not easy at first, eventually became effortless. Then, during one practice, something happened, time seemed to stand still and the joy of it all seemed like one endless moment. There was a deep appreciation for the mutual support of everyone, while at the same time the synergy of sound was as one voice.
I have not had the experience of singing with a choir since that time at Throssel. However, in my daily life, I like to take time to reflect and to recognise how others, things and nature around me are showing helpful support and how I can appreciate and mutually help too. In the past I know I have not always looked in this way and know there must have been much support I have not noticed. This does not involve needing to sing, but I believe there are many ways we can ‘sing’ together if we take a moment to listen.
Continuing our theme of “Something Done in a Small Moment”, our second post is a very moving piece by Chris Yeomans.
In June 2014 I drove over to Ely from my home in Norwich to collect my new puppy. Unsure how keen he would be on travelling, I decided that he could be contained in a large plastic garden tub, out of which he would not be able to climb. The puppy did not share my views. I settled him in it on the passenger seat, secured the seat belt around the tub and got into the driver’s seat. Immediately he decided to try to climb out.
He was eight weeks old and still had those piercing, puppy blue eyes, which later turned the usual adult dog brown. I put my hand into the tub to try to settle him. He looked up at me and met my gaze directly. Our eyes locked and I think in that moment of intensity, he bonded with me. He settled down on the blanket, keeping one eye on me, and has been reluctant to be very far away from me ever since.
Some twenty years earlier, I went to Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey for the Jukai (lay ordination) ceremonies. I hadn’t really got any idea what I was letting myself in for. I was a relatively new member of the Norwich group and a rare opportunity arose of having some childcare, which allowed me to take the week away. So I booked in. The ceremonies were memorable and often spectacular. It was a great week to be at Throssel and I had, of course, decided to commit to the practice and to the Order. But on the whole, I was underwhelmed.
I did what I was told to do, walked where I was required to walk, and meditated when scheduled to do so. And then came the part of the ceremony where the new ordinee is presented with his or her bloodline certificate, the Kechimyaku. I went up to the altar where Reverend Master Daishin was seated. He handed me the beautifully folded envelope. For a brief moment, I looked up at him and he looked straight back at me. It felt as if some kind of intuitive understanding passed between us. And that feeling has never left me.
It suddenly felt like such a huge thing. Here it was, a certificate with my name on it and a red line going directly to this Master and beyond, through the whole lineage. Connecting me, someone totally unknown and pretty insignificant, me, with this mighty inheritance. And there was and is no going back. That was a commitment which is unbreakable. And there have been times during the journey when I have seriously thought about trying to break it. But I can’t. I can have barren periods where I seem to do very little except just be, I can have more active times, I can just live an ordinary daily life, but I can never not be a part of that line.
Just one small moment of direct eye contact and my world was altered in perpetuity. I had neither sought it nor expected it. It just happened. And it still takes my breath away.
Over the next few weeks, Dew on the Grass is featuring writings, photography and artwork around the theme of “Something that happened in a small moment”. Our first offering is a lovely piece by SiafuAntony, with accompanying images.
I learned a lesson last evening. Having my eldest grandson on a visit, 18 years young, on the threshold of adulthood age, I really do not know him well; extremely taciturn, he does not readily convey his inner thoughts, although I do get the impression he is quite a “deep thinker”.
I took this time as an opportunity to get to know him, to discover what motivates him, moves him, and so on. I thought to take him on a gentle amble at sunset, to a spot I prize over a bridge at the local railway line, facing west, where the sun sets perfectly over the hills, about 8 miles distant.
It is one of my favoured places that I love to visit, especially at the moment of dusk, as the rapidly changing light presents (to me, at any rate) a feeling of “time standing still” and a glimpse of the “eternal here and now “.
As we sat by the pavement’s edge, I noticed that he looked tired, bored and intensely irritated by the hovering flies, glancing at his watch and then at me; it became obvious that ‘the moment’ entirely escaped him!
It forced me to reflect on a passage somewhere in the Dharma literature, which states that one should never impose one’s beliefs willy-nilly onto another!!
The third and final part in the series by Anna Ayse.
Having listed in part one the various referents of “I” and defined reality as that which is and which cannot cease to be, having established in part two that, based on experience, awareness does not depend on the body-mind and is not subject to birth and death, in this final part we continue the investigation into the reality of the self and the disappearance of birth and death.
Taking our stance as the space of awareness and simply observing mind activity as we do in meditation, is a good step in disentangling “I awareness” from identification with its body-mind activity. However, taking our stance as the space of awareness is not enough to fully uproot the identification with the body-mind and to debunk the ingrained belief: “I was born and I am going to die”. And while this belief still persists, the innate peace of the self is only experienced intermittently through the prism of the finite self as the devotee longing for her/his spiritual home. The innate peace of the self is not experience undisturbed as a result of realizing one’s true nature. Most of us are familiar with the position of the one longing for her/his true home. It is however the realization that “I” is not subject to birth and death, that is, the end of the belief in a finite, separate self, the teaching is pointing to as the subject matter of the spiritual path.
To believe that ”I am finite, I am subject to birth and death” and then, from that position, try to accept death is an oxymoron. The only way birth and death can disappear is when the inherited belief in the finite self is challenged, investigated, uprooted and debunked. That’ll effectively finish the psychological fear of death. Overcoming the fear of death and reflecting back to loved ones the unchanging reality of their true self is the greatest gift we can give them. It is not necessary to arrive at full realization of the self. Doubting the belief in the finite self enough to arrive at the open position of “I don’t know” is already a heavy blow to a groundless belief and a solid basis for further investigation.
Beside awareness remaining steady over time and being without a beginning or an end, a further question may be asked: Is it localized, limited in space to this body-mind? In other words, do all 7 billion of us have each our own pocket of awareness separately generated by 7 billion body-minds? Or is there only one, indivisible awareness or Buddha Nature which is the same – not similar – but exactly the same reality of all body-minds, like water is the reality of all waves? Observation of direct experience reveals that awareness cannot be divided up like that, that all body-minds share the same, indivisible awareness, it is the shared being we experience. This means that the self, “I awareness” is not personal, it is universal.
After sufficient investigation, if we are willing to take on board that the self, our true nature, is not “I the body-mind” but is “I awareness”, and if we are willing to take on board the idea that, based on experience, the body-mind is in fact within the space of awareness, that awareness is the reality of the body-mind and not the other way round, that opens up the possibility to end duality in sensory experience of a self on the inside and a world of discrete objects on the outside. The investigative steps for uprooting and debunking the self-world duality in sensory experience is beyond the scope of this writing.
After the belief in the finite self has been debunked by tracing back “I” to its source and realizing that the self is not subject to birth and death, reactive patterns in the body-mind formed by a lifetime belief in the separate self, may still continue to arise. For example, primary fear as a result of trauma at infancy can take long to dissolve. An example of primary fear is terror first thing at waking up, prior to any thought, or terror without clear and present danger. Since these conditionings have been laid down very early, prior to conceptual thinking, they are hard wired into the system and take longer to dissolve completely then thought generated fear. However even deep conditionings will have ceased to obscure the reality of “I” for long, once the underlying belief in the finite self has been investigated and uprooted.
Part two of Anna Aysea’s exploration of the nature of reality. Her final post will appear on Friday evening.
Having listed in part one the various referents of “I” and defined reality as that which is and which cannot cease to be, we can continue the investigation into the reality of the self. Based on experience, what is the unchanging aspect and what is changeable manifestation? According to the mainstream view, awareness, being, is generated by the body and depends on it. In other words, body-mind is the reality that remains constant and awareness is what intermittently appears and disappears, the assumption is that awareness was born and will die with the demise of the body.
But is there any evidence supporting this belief in experience? For instance, the body-mind changes over time, the infant, the 10-year-old, the 20-year-old, and the 60-year-old self, all had different bodies, thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and experiences. The space of awareness within which the subsequent body-minds were known though, has that changed over time? Also, was “I awareness” born together with the body or was it prior to it? Can you imagine for instance a time in the past when the space of awareness, the unchanging background to mind activity, was not, or a time in the future when it will cease to be? We cannot fathom it.
Screwed minds may say its beginning or end being unfathomable is not a hundred per cent proof that awareness has indeed no beginning or end, which is true. But if you have searched both in experience and in imagination and you cannot find any evidence supporting the belief that “I awareness” was born and will die, isn’t it more logical to conclude, at least as a working hypothesis, that awareness, is not subject to birth and death, than to continue a completely unsupported belief that it is?
Every night, in deep sleep, the body-mind – that is the activity of thinking, feeling, sensing, perceiving – falls away altogether. And yet, there is continuity of being, we do not experience that falling away as the death of self. When we say for instance: “I slept well” we are not guessing, we know. Meaning “I”, was present during sleep. Since the body-mind is absent in deep sleep, “I” in this statement can only refer to the faculty which knows experience, which is unchanging and ever-present, that is, awareness.
In terms of the metaphor in part one, the body-mind is the ring or the current, i.e. phenomenal experience, as we know for sure that the body-mind is changeable The space of awareness, Being, is the gold or the water, as it is the unchanging background of phenomenal experience. The space of awareness was not born, it is prior to the birth of the body, and will continue after the disappearance of the body, and because it is unlimited it does not know lack or desire. In other words, based on direct experience, awareness, our true nature, does not share the limitation of the body-mind, it is not subject to impermanence.
The mind is habitually overlooking awareness, because the space of awareness is not an object, – a thought, a feeling, a bodily sensation, a sense perception – so it cannot be known conceptually through the mind or perceptually through the senses. The gap between two thoughts or two perceptions is not a mind object, that gap is not in the same category as mind-objects. Someone living in a country where it perpetually rains and the sky is always overcast may mistake a patch of blue sky that appears one day, for a blue cloud. But the patch of blue sky is not in the same category as the clouds. The blue sky is the limitless unchanging space within which clouds intermittently arise and disappear. Similarly, the space of awareness is not in the same category as thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and sense perceptions, it does not depend in any way on these phenomenal activities. Awareness is and knows itself by itself, this is our experience every night in deep sleep.
The investigation will be continued in the final part, part three.
The artworks in this article are by Gabriel Dawe, an artist fascinated by clouds and the sky. His sewing thread installations explore the way how light blends in the sky.
Our next offering, in the Ebb Tide series, is a feature in three parts by Anna Aysea. In these articles, Anna asks these questions: What is the reality of life and death in direct experience? What is the self? And how can they be made to disappear? She illustrates this very personal interpretation of the teachings of the Heart Sutra, through the use of artworks made from gold. Look out for Part 2 on Wednesday and Part 3 on Friday.
After dinner, as we were sitting at the table having tea, R. seemed to be in a philosophical mood. He looked up at the ceiling, a furrowed brow, head slightly tilted to one side.
“So… when you are.. 130 years old… how old will I then be?”
“Er.. lemme see… you are now 13, that would be 13 plus… 73, then you would be… a grown man. But I am not sure I am going to be able to make it till 130, sweetheart.”
For R. the concept of time doesn’t mean much, as of yet, so an age of 130 years did not strike him as extraordinary.
“Okay, when you are… 90… how old will I then be…”
“Then you would be… also a grown man.”
“Hm.. it would be nice if you could see me grow up…”
“Well, you never know how life is going to turn out but I am very much planning on seeing you grow up sweetie. And since I am in excellent health there is no reason to believe that that cannot happen.”
“Hm” R. nodded.
Fear of death does not depend on age. The movement of the tides, birth and death, according to the Buddhist teaching, disappear when we study them, the scripture states that when we study the self, we forget the self.
So, what is the reality of life and death in direct experience? What is the self? And how can they be made to disappear? For most of us, we grew up with the belief that “I was born and I am going to die”. And for most of us, this inherited belief was taken at face value. The Buddhist teaching invites us to challenge this long-held belief. What is the supporting evidence for the belief that the self, “I” was born and that it is going to die? To answer this question, first, we need to examine what we mean by the self.
The common term used to refer to the self is the first person, the pronoun “I”. We say “I” all day, every day. What exactly is it we refer to when we say “I”? There are several referents in fact. Consider the following.
“I need new tyres ” Here, “I” refers to my car. An accepted use where there is no confusion involved: I know I am not my car.
“I have an infected leg.” Here “I” refers to the body.
“I am 36 years old.” Here “I” refers to a thought, a concept, that is, “I” refers to the mind.
“I understand. I see. I hear. I feel”. Here “I” refers to that which perceives, which knows experience, that is, “I” refers to awareness, to Being, the true self as the knowing faculty of experience.
While the first instance is fairly clear, most of us do know we are not our car, what may not be so apparent are the two following referents of “I”: the body and the mind. The dominant belief is: I am this body-mind, this collection of thoughts, feelings, sensations and perceptions. In fact, many people will not recognize the last reference, awareness – the space within which mind objects of thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and sense perceptions arise and are known – as something that is independent of the body-mind and so believe that body-mind and awareness are one and the same. Not only that, the common materialistic belief is that awareness, Buddha Nature in Buddhist terms, depends on the body, is generated by the body, resides in the body, and therefore shares the limitations of the body. Most, unfortunately, it is supposed that ”I awareness” will cease to be at the demise of the body. Hence the belief: I am finite and limited; I am subject to impermanence.
To investigate the reality of the body mind and awareness in direct experience, we need to establish what we mean by reality. A straightforward definition of reality can be as follows. The reality of something is that which it is made of, it is the unchanging aspect of something which cannot be removed from it, in other words, it’s the true nature of something. For instance, the reality of a golden ring is the gold it is made from. The ring can be melted, so the form can be removed, but its essence, the gold, cannot. When the temporary form “ring” disappears, its reality, the gold, can take the shape of another form, like a necklace, a bracelet, etc.
Similarly, the reality of a wave or a current in the ocean is the water. The current can cease to be, its reality, the water, remains and can exist without any activity. The same water that formed the current, can, after the dissipation of the current, take the form of ice, snow, steam, or one of the many other manifestations of water.
In short, reality is that which is, in and by itself, not dependent on anything, it is that which cannot cease to be. You could say that reality is that which is unchanging and ever-present, and manifestation is the temporary name and form reality intermittently takes.
The Heart Sutra, also known as The Scripture of Great Wisdom describes reality as “increasing not decreasing not”, meaning it is unchanging. The Buddha describes reality as unborn, unoriginated, uncreated, and unformed, meaning it has no cause, it is not subject to birth and death, it simply is by and of itself and is the true source of all phenomena that arise and disappear within it.
The investigation of the reality of the self will be continued in part two.
The third piece in our Ebb Tide series is written by Mo Henderson. It is a pertinent and welcomed reflection on how “not giving up in times of low ebb” in training, helps us to understand ourselves better.
Things change in daily life, nothing stays the same. Just as the sea drains away from the shore in its outgoing phase and then rises again as the water returns inward, meditation practice can reveal a natural cyclic flow.
I have at times been motivated and determined in my practice, with a real sense of learning and growth, during these times things are experienced as ‘flowing’ and all is feeling well. At other times I’ve felt a loss of momentum and motivation, those are the episodes I’ve found particularly challenging. I was inclined to push away what is actually happening, acting as if I could control or pretend it didn’t exist, as opposed to being with the way things actually were. At other times wallowing in the loss of things not going ‘my way’ and reverting back to old habits, which I now believe was due to needing to know something familiar, like a security blanket.
For me, not giving up in times of low ebb is important and realising it is part of a natural cycle. Indeed this realisation is encouraging because it means there will be a sense of movement and flow to rise again. Acceptance of how things are, keeping meditation practice alive by continuing with daily sitting and not relying on hoping motivation will return, is what I’ve found most helpful. Just keeping up the basics no matter what.
Like King Canut, who proved to his men he did not have the power to control the waves, I believe daily practice can help us learn to move with the natural cyclic rhythm of life. That, together with a vigilance and willingness to train, can be the bridge to ease the way.
As part of the Ebb TIde feature that we are currently running, Karen Richards writes about an event that changed her perception of the ideal of training.
I came to Buddhism in my mid-twenties. Initially cautious, perhaps even a little sceptical, once I had learned the basic principles and heeded the advice given by monks on how to establish a practice, I applied myself with a certain vigour. Along with my husband, we soon developed a daily routine which involved sitting soon after rising in the morning, and a period of reflection at the end of the day, after our three small children had gone to bed.
We went on regular retreats, taking turns to visit Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey, whilst the other stayed behind to look after the children. We helped the monks with out of monastery events and eventually became part of a small group of lay people who founded a priory in Telford, in the centre of England. We encountered the usual difficulties of course – fatigue, juggling the responsibilities of daily life and all of the other little tensions that arise in training but, all in all, practice had a sort of buoyancy that moved us forward and kept us afloat.
Then came a series of events that seemed to scupper everything. My husband, David, became seriously ill and nearly died. After many months in hospital, he returned home, but he remained an invalid. Only months before the illness struck, I had been promoted at work and now found myself trying to juggle being a carer in the evenings and weekends (my eldest daughter covered the weekday shifts) and working a responsible job, full-time. Inevitably, after several months of trying to manage, I was a physical wreck. I began to make mistakes at work and eventually got managed out of my job.
I remember that time as being one of exhaustion. I wasn’t unhappy, but I became almost robotic in my actions. Sometimes, I would just stop, feel my skin, watch my breath, and remind myself that I was still alive. The Buddhist practice, that we had established over a period of some thirty years, seemed to ebb away and we simply existed, side by side. We still meditated, in our own way. There were long periods of simply sitting in our armchairs, occasionally chatting, but mostly just sitting, interspersed with me helping David to simply stay alive.
But tides turn, and slowly but surely, a sort of equilibrium returned and, with renewed motivation, we found ways of adapting our practice to accommodate our physical limitations. In some ways, it seemed like nothing occurred during that period of slack water but, looking back and reflecting, it was a time when ambitions and ideals about what Buddhist practice looked like ebbed away and we found a deeper sense of ‘being’. We never doubted the practice itself, merely our ability to do it. Doing it, it turns out, isn’t always what we think it is. What we learned, is that the little rituals of daily life, which can be very helpful to us, are not ‘it’. “It”, is something that runs deeper than that. It is taking refuge in the Buddha, even when we are looking into the abyss.
And when the sea seems to have receded, so far out we can barely see it, there is life still playing out on the shoreline. I think this poem, written by E Nesbitt, author of The Railway Children and Five Children and It, is a lovely illustration of that.
Ebb Tide by E Nesbitt
NOW the vexed clouds, wind-driven, spread wings of white,
Long leaning wings across the sea and land.
The waves creep back bequeathing to our sight
The treasure-house of their deserted sand,
And where the nearer waves curl white and low,
Knee-deep in swirling brine the slow-foot shrimpers go.
Pale breadth of sand, where clamorous gulls confer,
Marked with broad arrows by their planted feet;
White rippled pools, where late deep waters were
And ever the white waves marshalled in retreat
And the grey wind in sole supremacy
O’er opal and amber cold of darkening sky and sea.