Monday, October 29, 2012

Staying clear, moment after moment after moment

I just finished meditating, my back separated from Hurricane Sandy by a mere three inches of wall. Talk about humbling. I sat while the storm lashed my house, my mind and fear trying its best to spin away in disaster scenarios.

The amazing thing about Buddhism and meditation is that it takes place in the midst of the storm, so to speak. We don't run, we don't pray--we just sit or work or wash or read or exercise through it all. Whatever the circumstances may be, we accept them. We don't run.

When fear arises, there's fear. When joy arises, there's joy. Whatever happens, we accept.

Good and bad come from mind, so if we can open ourselves to the moment--rather than separating from them, like we usually do--then we are free.

Right now, there's a storm outside. I can't do anything about that, but I can chose how I respond to it. That doesn't mean I have to like it or that it will stop raining.

Just be there with the rain and the storm. Don't run, don't send your emotions to bed without dinner. Don't hide; that's what we ordinarily do. Be clear like space. The air doesn't resist the wind, so why should we?

Zen isn't about being strong, for that can easily degenerate into a form of stoicism or resistance. It's about being open, not separating from our experience. Not making anything.

So that's where I am, right now.

Best wishes to everyone.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

There's a storm a-comin

Photo courtesy of NASA Goddard Photo and Video.
In New Jersey, we're bracing for Hurricane Sandy. All of the weather reports indicate that Sandy is the worst storm the East Coast has ever seen; and she's aimed right at New Jersey.

These past couple of days have been a challenging exercise in patience and accepting uncertainty. As luck would have it, I am scheduled for a Zen retreat this weekend. Am I going? Will flights be open? Will my basement be flooded? All of these thoughts keep entering my mind, demanding answers that I can't provide.

Uncertainty is the prime ingredient for fear, anxiety, and plain old worry. And it makes for an interesting bedfellow. These past several days I have been settling deeper and deeper into the unknown. As that familiar sensations of worry arise--muscular tension and tight breathing--I open myself to the resistance. Our impulse is to make everything happen at once, to get it all over with in one shot. However, storms don't work like that. You have to wait them out, one moment at a time.

It's amazing practice. Difficult times can be the most fertile ground for practice. But you already knew that; I'm not saying anything new.

What's so easy to lose sight of in a widespread potential crisis like a hurricane is your connection to everyone else. It's very easy to feel isolated, partly because you physically are. But the reality of the situation is that crises like this are great unifiers.

We're not in this alone. Difficult circumstances, and the accompanying dukkha that follows, connect us; they highlight the deep connections that define us and all beings. We couldn't isolate ourselves if we tried.

We are always connected. And it's in those stressful times that we need, rely upon, those connections the most.

The funny thing is that I feel a safe spaciousness, an inviolate center of calm, that can't be touched. It's small yet hallowed. Now granted, the storms haven't arrived yet--either Sandy's forceful gale or the emotional tempest that accompanies her--but this experience has taught me a valuable, visceral lesson:

Sometimes in life we can only prepare so much. After that, all we can do is wait. But I'm not alone; I wait, not only with much of the East Coast, but with all beings.

I wish everyone a safe next couple of days. Let's all make it through this together.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Our lives are our altars

Last week I wrote about how to assemble a Buddhist altar. I provided pictures of the altar I use for online meditation. Below are some photos of my bedroom altar. This is a brand new Korean Buddha statue I was fortunate enough to locate. Most of the altar items--candles and bases, offering bowl and cup, cloth, and vases--I found at the local thrift store. The tea candle holders are Tibetan butter lamps. In the front is a Korean jukbi (clapper) and on the right a moktak (small drum). The altar itself is simply a black cedar trunk.

Here's a close up of the Buddha. My wife doesn't like his goatee, but I do; it humanizes him. The fiery aureole behind him represents, at least in my mind, our Buddha nature.

And lastly, a shot of just the Buddha. It's hard to see because it's black, but the riser the Buddha sits on, I found at Salvation Army for $1.

So that's that. It's my Buddhist show-and-tell. I hope you enjoyed the pictures. As I wrote last week, altars are a way to make the inward visible. I don't think that they should be stagnant; maintaining an altar can be a valuable form of practice. Bowing, chanting, cleaning, how do we keep our minds during these moments? Altars can teach us to be meticulous, for as we practice paying more and more attention to the details of our lives, our lives themselves become altars or mandalas--sacred grounds for celebration and awakening.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Altars: a why and how-to guide

(My home altar) 
I love Buddha statues, and I especially love Buddhist altars. To me, an altar is an external expression of an internal state. It's a reflection of the Buddha Mind. Like a mandala, an altar's every precise detail can mirror the inherent wisdom and perfection of our true nature, our original minds.

When I first decided to assemble my first Buddhist altar several years ago, I was very surprised at the scarcity of information on the internet. If you run a quick web search, you will find very few articles or posts about Buddhist altars. A Google image search will yield plenty of pictures, but few (if any) that lead to purchasable altar sets. So if you're looking for altar ideas, then images are helpful; but when it comes to actually designing your altar, you'll need to be a little more creative.

Here are a few suggestions I have for making a unique Buddhist altar:

1. This is implied, but design your altar around your Buddha statue. The Buddha is the centerpiece, so for aesthetic purposes, all of your adornments should accent it. Choose a statue that resonates with you on a spiritual level. There are plenty statues to choose from, so don't settle. On the other hand, don't stress yourself out about finding on. You are, after all, choosing a statue, not a life mate.

2. Don't waste your time searching the internet or ebay to buy an altar set. TRUST ME, you can waste many hours searching and find nothing.

3. Instead, go to your local thrift store for incense and offering bowls, candle holders and candles. What could easily cost you well over $100 dollars, you can purchase for less than $20 at these places. Check out garage sales too; you can stumble upon really great treasures there.

4. Don't buy an "authentic" Buddhist altar cloth; they can be quite expensive, and arguably overpriced. Instead, use a satin or silk shawl, scarf, or wrap. You can find these practically anywhere for very cheap. Ebay sells them for less than $10.

5. Use dried flowers. I prefer to buy a bouquet, hang it upside down for two weeks, and presto, you have flowers that will last years. This saves on upkeep, and not to mention, plenty of $$$. If you prefer fresh ones, then by all means use them, but the price can add up over the years.

6. Have fun with it. Designing an altar can be great mindfulness practice. Slow, meticulous attention to detail is excellent Buddhist practice. Try to enjoy it. Just as the final product--the altar--is an expression of an inward state, so too can be the journey of assembling it. Gathering the items piecemeal, as opposed to one all-at-once purchase, can be challenging practice, especially for anxious people like me who don't like loose ends. Plus it's fun, kind of like a scavenger hunt.

I hope these altar-hunting tips help. If you think of any I've missed, please feel free to add them below.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Nirvana Sutra and the Self

I found this video of Dr. Tony Page speaking about Buddha nature and the Self. Pretty interesting. If you'd like to read more of his work, visit his webpage: Nirvana Sutra.