This Is A Place Of Practice

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“C’était bien passé?”

People ask this question all the time: it went well? Most of the time I say yes. Sometimes I say definitively no. And periodically, I take the time to truly reflect and express the infinite shades of possibility between the one and the other. Having just returned from a week of retreat and facing this query frequently, I can safely say the experience engenders the latter.

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It went like this.

Bowled over by beauty and the strength of this place of practice. Equally bowled over by the strength of my own mind, both to accept its own nature and to flee in a frenzy from said nature. I’m no expert on the nature of mind, but the Buddha and his disciples said a few things about it, and the ones that stick out to me lately are these:

“The nature of the mind is clarity.”

“The nature of the mind is creativity.”

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At times my mind feels spacious, and I rejoice in the tranquility. At times my mind feels spacious, and I recoil from the openness, unsure what to do with all the empty space. At times my mind is active, and I revel in its dynamism without holding tight to what insights arise. At times my mind is active, and I flutter frantically through my thoughts, trying to gather them all before they pass, as a mouse gathers straw for warmth before the winter. At times I am wonderstruck by where I am in this journey, and at times I am desolate with my own limitations.

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To me, being well means being conscious, neither holding on when what we see is hopeful, nor minding overmuch when it is less than comfortable. I have experienced meditation retreats utterly replete with marvel and exhilaration. This trip was steadier, in some ways harder, but more clear. And not entirely lacking for marvel, either (ahem, the pictures…). It went well.

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And whatever wisdom arises, be it blissful or blindsiding, there’s always beauty to carry the day. The power of this place and the devotion of those who have wrought it, whose dedication permeates every stroke of paint in the nearly-finished temple, every stick of bamboo by the koi pond, which rolls in waves over the gate from the cloisters of long-term retreat—this wells confidence in what we can uncover through practice: our own untarnished wisdom, for the benefit of all beings.

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Falling into Words

Parks are for reading. I'm pretty sure that's what the sign says.

Parks are for reading. I’m pretty sure that’s what the sign says.

I fell off the radar for a minute here. I couldn’t help myself. I could say I fell headfirst into life, and was so busy being busy that I couldn’t spare a thought for this fine corner of the world. But that would be quite untrue. I didn’t fall into the activities of the wide world. No. I fell into books.

First, it was The Razor’s Edge, by Somerset Maugham. Then I found Wuthering Heights, the sole narrative opus of Emily Brontë. Lately, I’ve just begun A Tale of Two Cities, of the Dickensian canon. What am I doing reading books by dead British people while I am in India, you may ask. Being subconsciously colonial? Perish the thought. I certainly hope not.

It’s just. It’s just…there’s a kind of inspiration that only the well-wrought word can offer. The world of literature is a better lens for life than life itself often is. In the nature of a character and the drama of a story, we can see the riches and foibles we fail to notice in ourselves. A meditation treatise is not the same thing as a novel. These just happen to be the novels I can download for free on iTunes and read on my phone.

Class is still a source of great richness, but sometimes a person needs new inspiration, from unexpected corners. Today we were going over the remedies to distraction during meditation. One of the primary antidotes to a wandering mind is to focus on the cost of being distracted. The unaware mind engages in unaware action. When we are distracted, we can be thoughtless, short-tempered, and unkind. When we lose our grasp on what’s happening here and now, we can become neurotic or morose or hyperactive. Ouch all around. But even as I list this, it’s a tally in my head. Remember to stay focused, otherwise you will do unfortunate things that will lead to suffering and it will be a bummer. Makes sense. It’s not terribly potent though.

But then. Then you read Wuthering Heights. And you meet Heathcliff. Ah, Heathcliff! A demon of a man. Driven almost mad and definitely robbed of his humanity by what he would have us believe is love. But you could only call the source of such cruelty love if you had forgotten entirely what love is meant to be. Clearly, Heathcliff had never met the dharma.

Our hearts as red as poppies, as rife with life.

Our hearts as red as poppies, as rife with life.

Ah, so what is needed does come around. In the roiling, raging hearts of three generations of imaginary English people, I rediscover the reason why I meditate. And in the meantime, the mind is lush with prose and sadness. And though I am reading by myself in the park, I am reminded that I am not alone, that every human has a heart that rages. For all our aspirations of equanimity, we are karmic beings yet, imprinted with the untamed ramblings of our countless, forgotten lifetimes. What can we but do than hold court together in our given world and seek to see instead of judge what is?

The Right Place

What a day to be me. It is Saturday in India; breakfast was brown bread with salted butter and homemade jam, not to mention fresh papaya and sweet milk tea. The air is cold and misty, and I have been in my room interneting away over my tea and toast until the sun comes out.

I failed to take a picture of actual breakfast, but isn't the dishware picturesque?

I failed to take a picture of actual breakfast, but isn’t the dishware picturesque?

I have discovered an infinitude of beautiful people writing, making, and sharing beautiful things (see *note below) on the internet to keep me company between practice, study, and a tad bit of homesickness. Yeah, that’s right, you got me. I’m homesick. I’ve been here one month and it’s not vacation, but it wasn’t meant to be and it is good shit. I am learning deep parts of the Buddhist tradition that I come from, reevaluating my own views and habits, and ironing them out on the cushion and in life.

But this is no easy thing. I get hit over the head with my own shortcomings and ignorance every day. My lack of patience, my expectations, my deep resentment of uncertainty and impermanence, which are both, erm, totally unavoidable truths of life. Like I said, I’ve been seeking solace a bit, in the in-between times. Which I don’t think is a bad thing. I haven’t neglected practice or study, and we all have to figure out the balance between work and play that keeps us inspired and moving forward, right?

So I’ve been reading lots of food blogs and writing recipes in my head, and missing having an oven. I draw once a week and have been making loads of origami paper and cranes, but I do periodically wonder if I am going to wake up one day and be totally slaughtered by the absence of canvas in my life.

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Slaughtered is maybe an exaggeration, but anyway, here’s what happened: Today I got a lovely comment on this here blog, encouraging the work I do as an artist and reminding me to keep faith in the process and have fun. Then I got an e-mail from some one I had a nice conversation with at a holiday party in December saying he wants to buy one of my paintings, or maybe three. Then I got an e-mail from one of the members of my art critique group back home telling me about new developments in their work that I am not around to see. It’s like my life is missing me too!

And so, now it comes. The missing of canvas. Not that the missing of California mountains and the emulsification of butter and flour has given up the ghost. They just have company now.

Life and space and time are a strange business though. I wouldn’t leave KIBI for anything right now, with the small exception of dengue fever, which would be out of my control and which I make daily prayers will not enter my life in any way, shape, or form other than the absence of our Tibetan language teacher, who is himself recovering in Germany. Anyway, my point is that, despite this pulsating missing of things in distant places, and despite the fact that the city of Delhi holds very little romance for me, I am good here.

Studying Buddhism means sitting cross-legged even when you're not meditating. Chairs are not a thing.

Studying Buddhism means sitting cross-legged even when you’re not meditating. Chairs are not a thing.

I don’t always like that fact. There are times I wish I hadn’t happened upon this journey. I was happy at home with my baking, my painting, my big outdoors, my yoga and friend-and-family life. But I wanted to study dharma. Needed to, really, because as much as I love all the other parts of my life, none of them make sense without the teachings to put them in context.

This is your mind; this is how you find joy; this is how you create suffering. And this–this is how you learn to be happy.

That’s what Buddhism means to me. So even though I never had a yen to visit India, and now that I’m here I would rather spend my Saturday reading food blogs and saying mantras on the temple steps than sightseeing, I know that this is the right place to be. I am doing my best to let it be, until the time is once more ripe for canvas and cooking and all the rest, and maybe, just maybe, for all of these things to come together (my teachers say, “abandon hope; embrace this moment,” but I am still learning).

*Note: I have (finally) started a blogroll to share the beautiful places where I spend time and find inspiration. You’ll find it as a tab on the menu bar.

On a Mountain Top

This is where I am right now. Though it’s hard to tell through the haze, that lower swathe of dark blue is the ocean, and the little streak of grey at the upper left of it is one of the Channel Islands. I’m house-sitting for friends right now, and this is the view from the road by their home.

Their house is one of a couple dozen nestled together on a shared property up in the mountains. Coming up here feels a little like stumbling into a fairytale. The people who live here share an appreciation for the natural world and an affinity for creation. Everywhere I turn, I see something being brought into being. They are raising animals, raising vegetables, raising houses. And doing so with pleasure, with humor, with pragmatism, with beauty, with community.

I’m breathing in all the inspiration and letting exhalations flow into abstraction as best I can. I’ve spent most of the last week working on paintings to submit to a juried show put on by Sylvia White, a gallerist in Ventura well-known for her work helping artists develop their careers. I put together a temporary studio on my friend’s porch, and I’m making pictures up on a mountain top.