On Tonglen

My former teacher, Ken McLeod, is a western teacher in the Tibetan Kagyu tradition and has a particular interest in the lojong (mind training) teachings of which tonglen is a part. During one of his two traditional three year retreats he became ill and spent weeks in bed just doing tonglen while the other students were practicing in the dharma hall. As a result this practice became very dear to his heart and he went on to translate several important texts on the subject. It has similarly become dear to me also as I have practiced with illness.

Lojong teachings work on taking the difficult parts of life as the path and using them to transform us.  Tonglen is mentioned is several of the traditional lojong texts including Seven Points of Mind Training by Geshe Chekawa. Continue reading


One Great Word

Master Setsuo told his students that the Buddha did not utter a single word during 49 years of teaching dharma.  But old buddha Daikaku (Tao Long) declared that one single word contained all of the sutras.  What is that one great word?

I am not great with koans.  As with Master Dogen’s words, they often confuse and obfuscate more than they enlighten for me.  However, the above case seemed to me to have an obvious answer (although I would certainly never declare it to be the correct one!).
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In Zen Buddhism there is not much use of mantras.  We do have chanting, that includes some dharanis (a verse of supposed spiritual power) but they are generally confined to times of ceremony.

Om Mani RockTibetan Buddhism is different.  There, mantras are used on a daily basis for all kinds of reasons such as connecting with a particular bodhisattva or Buddha, healing from illness and sending kindness and compassion into the world.  Some people chant them near constantly, especially the universally popular Avalokiteshvara mantra ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’.  Mantras are carved and painted into stone and left on the side of mountains, drawn on prayer flags and etched into large and small prayer wheels which are rotated to mechanically recite the mantra. Continue reading

My Grass Roof Hermitage

“I’ve built a grass hut where there’s nothing of value.
After eating, I relax and enjoy a nap…
Though the hut is small, it includes the entire world.
In ten square feet, an old man illumines forms and their nature.”
Shitou Xiqian

“I have a hut in the wood, none knows it but my Lord; an ash tree this side, a hazel on the other, a great tree on a mound encloses it… The size of my hut, small yet not small, a place of familiar paths; the she-bird in its dress of blackbird colour sings a melodious strain from its gable.”
Irish, 10th Century, author unknown

When I first heard Shitou Xiqian’s poem Song of the Grass Roof Hermitage I immediately identified with its message. Although I do not live in an eighth century hut in China, but rather a ground floor flat in rural England in the third millennium AD, my life is limited to a small space similar to Shitou and the unknown Irish author. For both of them, their hermitage is out of choice. My own confinement is less voluntary. Continue reading

Light and Dark

“Winter moon, the creator is in everything”
– Traditional Seneca chant

It is morning here. The sun is streaming through the windows as the sun is wont to do and the birch tree outside bends gently in the wind. The sky is blue and my washing machine rumbles in the kitchen, full of last week’s dirty clothes.

As well as all those things there is pain. Pain around my stomach, in my arms, hands, back, legs and eye sockets. My limbs shake as I use them. Focussing on that pain, I become alone and lost in thoughts of despair and isolation. However, from a different perspective I am not and have never been alone. The wind that blows the birch tree is also giving me the air that I continue to breathe and each of the trees outside and birds singing from their branches are carried forward with me on ten thousand grass tips. All of creation is contained within us and will carry on moving forward even when the birch tree and I have ceased being in our present form.

This feeling of connection is not always there. Often I am just a solitary human being struggling with pain and the fear of annihilation. Sometimes the moon is full, sometimes it is dark. Sun-faced Buddha, Moon-faced Buddha. Continue reading

Who am I? Illness and the loss of identity

This piece was written in December 2010 but most of it still rings true for me.

If there is one thing illness is good at it is stripping away layers of your identity.  Many people identify with their job and, when you are too ill to engage in the workplace, this aspect of your life is something only to be thought of in the past.  Similarly, relationships form a large part of how we see our self,  and these too are often a casualty of becoming severely or chronically ill.  For a romantic partner, the transformation of their lover from confident, able, co-creator of a bright future to worn down patient can be hard to take.  Even close friends often find illness hard to deal with, especially if your common ground is found through shared activity or late night drinking sessions. Continue reading

Grit in the Lotus, or when Zen is not so pretty

I am currently reading Peter Matthiessen’s collection of his Zen Journals ‘Nine-Headed Dragon River’ and was struck by the description of his wife dying of cancer:

“Under the covers, Ho Ko was already an old woman, her hips and beautiful legs collapsed, black and blue from needles, but she was still lovely when propped up in bed, and she wore her rakusu like a proud child. I watch our friends’ faces admiring the brave, calm, smiling woman in bed. I admired her, too, putting out of my mind those other days when her dying was neither calm nor lovely, those days that no one knew about but the nurses and me.” 1

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Don’t Expect Applause

I have been a member of Treeleaf online sangha for around 18 months now. The first year was tremendously exciting, with much to learn about Sōtō Zen, the novelty of online zazenkai and the flurry of Ango, Rohatsu and then Jukai. Now practice has become more mundane, settling into a routine, much the same as anything else does. Part of me yearns for that excitement of newness but, as a sangha member said recently, tides change and we need to learn to shift with them. One thing I have been noticing in myself recently is a tendency to look for encouragement on my sangha forum, especially from the two teachers, and, conversely, become disheartened if the opposite happens. Is a sign of mature practice? I don’t think so. Continue reading

Apprenticed to Silence

“Listen closely… the eternal hush of silence goes on and on throughout all this, and has been going on, and will go on and on. This is because the world is nothing but a dream and is just thought of and the everlasting eternity pays no attention to it.”   — Jack Kerouac

 “In Silence there is eloquence. Stop weaving and see how the pattern improves.” – Rumi

When I was younger, a good friend of mine spent a week walking in northern Finland.  After a few days he noticed that his mind quietened and thoughts and questions just seemed to stop.  There was nothing special he had done, although the physical exertion of walking might have been in some way responsible.  Rather, it was what was not happening.  His mind was no longer receiving so many new stimuli.  Sure, the scenery was constantly changing as he walked but the snowy hills and birch trees were sufficiently similar to not be jolting. Continue reading