Now is the time of the year when thousands of Buddhists across the world undertake the heroic New Years resolution to meditate every day. Time to get back to business. Nothing will stand in our way. This is where my father would say something like, “You’ve made a New Year’s resolution to sit on your ass and do nothing?” Exactly. So how hard could it really be?
There are a number of traditional bad habits that I trip over. The number one bad habit is staying out late. This stumbling block is naturally reinforced by friends. (“You’re no fun!”) Even if I’ve been really good about meditation, I’ll crawl back home late past midnight and tell myself, “I’ll just meditate tomorrow.” We all know what happens tomorrow. Or rather, what doesn’t happen.
But there’s one foe that I haven’t yet learned to conquer: sickness.
I found this blog post on Celestial Lands today via Buddhist Military Sangha and was captivated. UU Army Candidate Chaplain David Pyle shares some “observations of similarities and surface differences between Sesshin and Military Basic Training, in the hopes that it might inspire thought.”
Just this morning I talked with my youngest brother, who will soon be off to basic training in North Carolina. Usually I can give plenty of advice to my brother ranging from finding memory leaks to playing the guitar, but today I had nothing to say. I have never been through basic training.
I always loose my malas. I only ever accept these as gifts, so I can never replace them when I lose them. I think these are very useful devices, and so one of the techniques I’ve used in place of a mala is by counting on my fingers.
I count the segments of the fingers instead of the actual fingers. (I know these are often called phalanges, like the bones, but I prefer segments.) With three segments to a finger (sorry, I don’t count the thumb), there are twelve to a hand, and so you can count up to 12 on one hand or 24 on both hands. This is especially useful for counting seconds of minutes.*
I have an old habit of doing metta meditation in the kitchen. Whether over the stove, washing dishes or scrubbing the floor, I fall into the habit of reciting lines of metta (loving kindness) in my head. So it was late last night when I was washing dishes, as the soapy water poured over my hands and I began cycling through lines of metta, that my mind finally broke away from yesterday’s Angry Asian Buddhist post. I was stunned.
Until that moment, my thoughts were filled with a storm of past blog comments and potential replies. And I wasn’t even aware of it.
This little Dharma Folk blog is usually pretty low key when it comes to internet traffic, so the past couple of days have been unusual, to say the least. I got caught up very quickly in an inconsequential back-and-forth about the place of Asian Americans in the Buddhist community. All the attention toyed with my ego and I took the bait. There were a lot of great comments on the Angry Asian Buddhist post, and they all are worth talking about more in detail. But I thought I’d talk about something else: anger, frustration and stress.
Ven. Thích Thiện Sơn at Chùa Phật Huệ in Frankfurt AM
Several years ago, we had the tremendous honor of hosting Venerable Thích Thiện Sơn at UCLA. Ven Thiện Sơn is the abbot of Chùa Phật Huệ, the major Vietnamese temple in Frankfurt AM. He is an accomplished meditation master, also fluent in German, Mandarin Chinese and Vietnamese. (He spoke to us in Chinese through an interpreter.) Unfortunately, we did a horrible publicity job, and for such an eminent speaker, we were only able to attract about fifteen students.
On the bright side, even for the very unenlightened group of Buddhist youth that we were, he was able to pass along at least one meditation teaching that I will never forget.
Aloneness in meditation was something I immediately encountered in the beginning of my practice. There was a consistent habit of moving away from the breath and trying to visualize the fellow meditators around me. However, it was never successful. Read more
For the past few weeks, I’ve had a lot of difficulty keeping meditation at the top of my priorities. Even when I manage to sit every day, my mind has been more agitated than usual. Then the other day, I had a moment that brought me back to the stories of Lord Buddha that I learned when much younger — and this reminded me of an article I read in Buddhadharma.
(I also hope this shows that I really mean it when I say that I appreciate Buddhist magazines, no matter how much I criticize them!)
The Fall 2008 issue of Buddhadharma contained a forum with Glenn Wallis, Judy Lief and Ari Goldfield. The topic was: “Do You Believe in Miracles?” (with the subtitle, “Debating the Supernatural in Buddhism”). I picked up this article during a break at the office some weeks ago, and I remember feeling numb while reading. While deities and ghosts were all a part of my upbringing, I didn’t have any opinion about what these stories meant, or whether I should believe in the “supernatural.” For me the notions existed at one time and then went away, much in the way people let go of Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy come a certain age. So it was strangely both deeply interesting and a little boring to follow this epistemic debate about devas, spirits and monks walking through mountains.
As I find myself swimming from interview to interview, I figured others might be interested in this little piece of advice I got a couple weeks ago. My phone rang as I was driving over to a job interview across town, and it was my friend R on the line. He told me, “You’ve got to do metta.”
A previous survey of zafu prices found the average online price to hover around $47. This is a lot of money, so I wanted to find out how much it costs if you make your own zafu. Sadly I don’t have that kind of time. Fortunately I have a friend who wanted to make her own zafu. I sent her these zafu making instructions, and asked her to keep track of the cost and time spent making it. She went out and bought $11 of fabric from Joann, which was twice the necessary amount. I went out and bought three pounds of kapok ($20), enough for more than two zafus. My friend took out her sewing machine and while watching Star Wars, sewed together the cushion (about two and a half hours). She packed in the stuffing this past weekend. So I’d say a reasonable estimate is $16 for making this zafu from scratch. Compared with the $47 you’d pay for a meditation cushion online, that means these zafu sellers are making an outrageous profit! If you feel crafty enough, I’d say that you should go make your own meditation cushion. You save money and you walk away with a greater sense of accomplishment!
During my short retreat at Thich Ca Thien Vien, I learned something new about my meditation experience. I’ve only been on one other retreat, and it lasted just as long, however I did not run into quite the same roadblock. The meditation itself was as to be expected, periods of calm and quiet interspersed with thoughts, planning, fidgeting, and impatience.
The roadblock only emerged after some friends had left early in the morning. Prior to that, meditation had actually proceeded quite well, if we were to define “well” as silent, peaceful, and restful. The breathe would go in and out, and focus naturally built up without much effort. My chirpy little cricket friends sang their night song while I sat with my friends in the meditation hall. Thoughts would of course appear, but they subsided soon after, again drowned out by the silence and the chirping.
After my friends left to attend some business, I immediately felt a drop in encouragement. I had planned to stay the weekend with or without them, but after they left, my enthusiasm went as well. I tended to sitting and walking again, but without the same “success” as the previous sessions. Even after my fellow Dharmafolks came for visit later in the day, that same ease of meditation did not return. Instead, many thoughts had come, mostly about when the hour would pass.
While not a success in the previously mentioned sense, this period of sitting and walking did show me one thing. I know I’m lacking the energy and enthusiasm to continue finding stillness. My effort was not right because I did not want to stay in one position for such a long time. I would rather be there, not here! What was I thinking, going to meditation at the temple with that attitude? Of course I’m going to be impatient. My views and intentions were not in harmony with being still. It wanted to get up, move to ease the stiffness, think about what time it was, if the hour had passed….Sit? Fie!