Shusho Itto

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything and thought it would be a good idea to begin by re-introducing myself.

Two years ago, transitioning back to the United States from India, the town I grew up in provided gentlest path home I could have dreamed. Nourishing my being and cultivating my voice in a different way, writing took a back seat to developing as a Yoga teacher. Six months ago, transition complete, the doors of the Yoga studio closed and I moved into residency at a Zen monastery further downstate.

For those who know me, this shift in direction poses very little in terms of shock value. However, the decision has brought with it a mixture of sincere curiosity and skeptical speculation, depending on who’s doing the inquiring. On either side the question is the same.

What are you doing?

In order to understand what one would be doing at a Buddhist monastery, first requires an understanding as to why. To better explain, allow me to introduce Japanese Zen Master, Dōgen. Among his many gifts, 13th century Buddhist monk, Master Dōgen left us with the phrase, shūshō ittō (修証一等). It’s an expression that translates as: all that we are to become, we already are.

Far from implying a pre-ordained destiny, this also differs from the mere possession of a seed or trait that we are attempting to cultivate. This idea instead indicates full possession of our pure, natural essence, in all its brilliance. The challenge of the human experience however, is that we often lose sight of this radiance because of all the important stuff that commands our immediate attention. 

This is both the why and what of spiritual practice and is true regardless of what century we live in. It’s at the core of the dissatisfaction the Buddha himself realized and is just as applicable, if not more so, today. Simply moving within the fullness of the present moment with nothing to be added or removed, is the practice. Over twenty-five hundred years, and it hasn’t changed.

As I’ve stated elsewhere in this body of work, the realization of this path is referred to as many things and although the practices vary within each tradition, at its heart, it’s none other than complete awareness. Although my understanding has changed throughout the years, the term that has resonated deepest for me is, enlightenment. The practice is simple and it doesn’t require monasteries, India, a Buddha or yoga mat and is not a lofty objective reserved solely for the pious.

What it does require is a human body, a human mind and a question. It also calls for faith; faith that there is an answer to this question — the question of life and death. Some are born with this faith. For others, myself included, trust must be developed. Like much of this path, this leads to a paradox: at least a little faith is required to begin practicing, but it is the practice itself that is paramount in developing faith. Fortunately, bridging this gap doesn’t require a blind leap. It’s simply good sense; where else would we find the answers to life’s questions, but within?   

This unfolding of wisdom is what arises as we place one foot in front of the other, simultaneously taking a step and arriving, further deepening our faith and understanding. It’s a road with no end and as one may imagine, it often requires a touch of patience and one hell of a sense of humor.

Joining other year-long residents as well as a group of monastics, there are about twenty-five of us living full-time at the monastery. The numbers fluctuate as monthly residents come to immerse themselves in the experience and with weekend and week-long retreatants that are here for support, guidance or a bit of head space. Swelling close to one hundred is where current capacities max out, usually during the six-day meditation, sesshins. This doesn’t include the hundred or so day guests that come for the Sunday morning service and lunch which is open to the public.

And so we practice. Since my arrival, there is no getting away from the fact that this is no longer a game of me; it is indeed a game of we. We work together —  a lot , we eat together, we meditate together and we offer thanks together. As one body we move, with as much awareness as we are individually and collectively able to offer at any given moment. 

Authenticity however, comes at a price and the only way to plumb greater depths of compassion, equanimity, patience and joy is through penetrating the layers covering it up. These layers are possible to observe as they arise when we are practicing awareness. They show up as anger, jealousy and greed. As we practice compassion with ourselves in working with these emotions, we develop compassion. As we practice equanimity when working with others, we develop equanimity. Patience arises from practicing patience. And joy arises when these hindrances begin fading away.

Supported by clear reminders, we are holding this space not only for each other, but for every individual who comes through the door. The lessons run deep and everyone is a teacher. With every breath and in every moment, surrounded by all that which has been placed along our way. It is because of these circumstances, not despite them, that we are moving together on this path of enlightenment.

It doesn’t require chanting, although we do. It doesn’t necessitate the burning of incense, although there is. Getting to the bottom of who we are does however, require awareness – awareness of body, awareness of breath, awareness of being. When the mind wanders, bringing it back to the present moment. When the mind wanders again, bringing it back. This is the practice.

It can be awkward, clumsy and ridiculously frustrating as the obstructions to clarity are intimately personal and involve lifetimes of habit patterns, repeated. Understanding that another person’s suffering is our own suffering, in the most literal sense imaginable, and amidst this cloud, developing the softness to be with all of it. Inviting others to show up exactly as they are.

We are not impure and the path is not leading anywhere. All we need to do is open our eyes and choose to see. And when we forget, making that choice again. And again.

Each time we do this, practicing that which we already are. Shūshō ittō

This is what I am doing here. For the first time in my practice, I’m doing it surrounded by the support of others doing the same thing. And for this, I am grateful beyond words.

 

~ by Christine Fowle (Mt. Tremper, NY)

Peace, Love & Om

 If the mind is pure in nature, does it not follow that, as is the mind, as are we? After all, what are we, if not the mind?

Indeed. Yogis, philosophers, scientists and scholars have, for centuries, been investigating the implications of this epic question — Who am I?

There are countless ideas surrounding this enigma. In almost all Eastern philosophical circles however, the answers point back to the mind, and therefore back at us. Ah, but this wasn’t established — what are we, if not the mind? This is the question.

The keys unlocking these answers reside inside us and we alone are capable of unhinging these unmarked doors. However, the societal relevance placed on such endeavors often takes a back seat to more lucrative pursuits, with our sense of self-worth often a direct correlation. But once this gateway is opened, even just a crack, something magical happens...

Invitations to discover inner harmony are not messages designed for an elite few. The increasingly fast pace at which the world is moving is impacting all of us, converting our mental and physical balance into little more than pleasant buzzwords for many. Learning to direct our attention, whether in pursuit of philosophical insight, business rationale or personal wellness, is likely the only thing that will save us — from ourselves.

Committing to be mindful prompts us to look at both the physical and non-physical aspects of our behaviors (i.e. thoughts and feelings). Using these observations to develop an alert sense of reality, with this silent eye, we become both observer and the observed, grounding our focus and centering our balance.

Patanjali, in his brilliantly expounded Yoga Sutra’s, explains enlightenment as the ceasing of the mental modifications. This includes understanding the colored lens, or veil, which is obscuring our perception of what is real. Immersed in this giant cosmic soup, our societal, educational, cultural and familial past provides each of us with a uniquely singular view of the world. It’s this view that often spurns the judgment that results in emotional fluctuations. As peace, acceptance and freedom are developed, these reelings of a wily mind are gradually released.

This is important. These modifications are often mistaken as the barriers to mindfulness and therefore considered objects of elimination. If instead, thoughts, feelings and emotions are engaged as the objects of mindfulness, this deepening awareness of self provides the method of expanding our personal introspection.

Cultivating this objective awareness is the art and science of Yoga.

Not only do we have the ability to connect with ourselves beyond what we currently comprehend, we also have the ability to live the life of our dreams. But in order to do this we’ve got to agree to do the heavy lifting.

Signing over a check for the goodies is not an option and Patanjali, Jesus and the Buddha cannot accomplish the work for us. Symbols and guides for what is possible, these individuals are pointing at the moon and although I may get in trouble in the afore mentioned circles for this, these men are also dead. If you want to taste the moon you have to reach out and take a bite.

These spiritual icons have said their peace and are not going to bestow a single, additional thread of brilliance. We can read their wisdom in sutras, scriptures, psalms and quotations; their words will never change. Our perception is the only thing that we are capable of changing. This means learning to understand your veil.

Getting to know our veil is something like adjusting the eyes to see an image within a 3D picture. We’re not attempting to remove our colorful background, but relax our vision to more readily observe what’s right in front of us — thus gradually perceiving through a lens of increasing clarity.

Self-mastery begins with intention and life provides a beeeeaauuutiful opportunity to experience the fullest expression of our emotions. Carefully watching feelings, actions and thoughts, our role is simply to notice without judging.

No one can claim responsibility for understanding who you are and no one individual’s word for reality is sacred. Saints, prophets, seekers and finders — each of us must walk the path for ourselves. The questions and illusions of who we are and who we are not were never designed to be answered for us.

Highly realized Yogis of the past, carried with them, a message. Richly hued strings of clues, instructions and wisdom, spread before us, woven into the vibrant tapestry upon which we now sit. The answers are discovered, not by looking down, but within — for it is you who possesses the whole of the moon.

May this blessed life be filled with peace, love & Om.

~ Christine ~ Varanasi, December 2014

Buddha Steps

Oppressive. It’s the single word the guidebook chose to describe Bodh Gaya’s heat in June.  A more apt selection need not be desired. It is here the Buddha finally attained enlightenment.

The cycle rickshaw stops at the Mahabodhi temple entrance. I pay the driver, step down and begin my walk between two long, colorful rows of vendors setting up for the day. Sandwiching the walkway, seemingly random displays of fashion and religion are piled upon blankets and tables.

“Which country?”

The question is posed by a twenty-something year old Indian man that began walking alongside me some time ago; I chose to ignore him. “Where are you from?” I respond in kind.

His expression turns quizzical. “Bodh Gaya,” he says. “You?”

I tell him.

It has been one year since I’ve last danced with Mother India and I’m a bit rusty. The navigation of her people are the single most important steps to master; it is here much of my attention will be spent. The young man next to me has posed a question I will hear hundreds of times over in the next three months. It can be grossly repetitive.

I stop, place my sandals on a rack and continue toward the temple. The man appears again next to me on the red carpet leading in; he wears an orange mark on his forehead; it’s indicative of having received a Hindu blessing.

“How old is the temple?” I ask.

“I don’t know,” he responds. ”Old.”

If he is a temple guide there are some key facts that require memorization. This is one of them. After paying tribute to the statue inside it is back outside and underneath the hot sun. After a brief look forward I instead follow the man, who’s waited for me, to the path on the right. In answer to a question about faith he responds indicating a belief in one God although raised Hindu. I respond in kind with a Catholic upbringing.

We pass through a small handful of people milling about and within two steps I am engulfed by the shadow braches of a massive Bodhi tree. It’s said to be an offshoot of the original under which Buddha’s enlightenment was attained. It is very alive and very big.

Six years Guatama Buddha’s energy mingled with the essence of this tree. But achieving liberation is not the reason he is venerated. The Buddha is revered because he dissected the truth so that man may attain liberation for himself.

We approach a wall and Karsen, this is his name, turns and points out a relief and explains the depiction of Buddha’s journey. “Twenty rupees for a photo.” Two boys shout as we walk by. It’s an occasional occurrence, temples charging for photos. If this is the case a pass is typically purchased for a nominal charge; fifteen-year-old boys are not generally sent on missions to scour the crowds for flashbulbs.

Karsen waves a hand at them. “I hate that.”

Also worth noting, in the city of Bodh Gaya, is an 80-foot Buddha statue. With no plans but to play tourist and Karsen appearing harmless enough I accept his invitation to play the role of guide.

As one would assume, an 80-foot tall Buddha is friggin’ huge.

“Those are his friends,” Karsen says, pointing toward the sky at the carved monks lined up along the perimeter, hovering conspicuously. Their hands closed tight in prayer.

“It’s good to be friends of the Buddha.” I look back at the smooth stone behemoth and imagine the hefty construct rising from the ground as an offering to the gods of enlightenment. They should be pleased. He is very big.

As one would assume, an 80-foot tall Buddha is friggin’ huge.

“Those are his friends,” Karsen says, pointing toward the sky at the carved monks lined up along the perimeter, hovering conspicuously. Their hands closed tight in prayer.

“It’s good to be friends of the Buddha.” I look back at the smooth stone behemoth and imagine the hefty construct rising from the ground as an offering to the gods of enlightenment. They should be pleased. He is very big.

tri-tree
tri-tree

Karsen picks me up the next day. The cave depicted in the Mahabodhi wall carving is a little ways out of town, down a road, through a field, by a towering tri-trunked tree and across a dry riverbed. Before reaching the mountain base our path meanders through a village. Women tend to babies under the quiet shade of quivering leaves. Men sit on doorsteps talking. Children flee from mud-packed homes, waving madly, “helllooo.” My orange and gray scarf flaps behind, gesturing in kind with the wind.

Incense, candles, and prayer flags complete the Buddha-party-pak I purchase. Ascending the cement steps and onto a landing, a group of men and women sit in silence, staring at our approach.  Two stone-carved stairs and into a black crevice within the rock wall I crawl. Head first. Breathing is an effort, as is acclimating my vision and lowering my body into a cross-legged position.

I now fully understand the Buddha’s decision to move his meditative journey to the Bodhi tree. The cave is bloody hot. I sweat maniacally. Inside is a sculpture; it’s a stone Guatama, ribs exposed, in acetic state, seated in meditation. There is a young man also seated inside the cave. He is alive. The candles are lit and secured to the low stone platforms. Incense is next, every strained inhalation swells with thick fragrant vapor.

Pushing my head out of the crevice is akin to a rebirth. The first gasp of breath fills my lungs with life; my body emerges and is immediately enveloped by the rushing air. The seated group outside begin a melodious chant. Monkeys crawl over the surrounding constructs. I descend the stone steps.