Monthly Archives: December 2008

Two Kinds of Silence

When I told people about my plan to spend time at a Buddhist monastery, most of them asked: “Will you have to be quiet?” As if being quiet were a punishment.

Silence scares people, somehow. Usually our lives are so loud that we can’t hear ourselves think. And actually, we don’t really want to hear ourselves think. Our minds tend to chatter on and on. Our thoughts seem to be out of our control – slamming us with accusations, questions, doubts, itchy desires that can’t be scratched. So when we’re in a place with no TV, no radio, no phone, and no traffic, we’re forced to listen to our own minds. It feels like being stuck in an elevator with someone who won’t shut up.

What’s really scary is not the silence, but the fact that our minds are like that obnoxious stranger in the elevator.

Staying at Deer Park Monastery, I noticed two kinds of silence. The first was the silence of nature. The monastery is a 400-acre desert sanctuary, mostly uncluttered by humans and our raucous toys. There’s no roaring traffic, no growling machinery, few beeping appliances. The inhabitants are monks and nuns who hold “noble silence” every evening after dinner, through breakfast the next day. Many meals are shared in silence (giving us a chance to eat mindfully and savor the food, which is hard to do when we’re lost in conversation). Of course the monastics make noise – they talk, sing, chant, and fill the valley with the sounds of meditation bells. But there is a shared respect of silence. What’s heard? Trees rustling, insects clicking and whistling, coyotes howling like hyenas. Any modern city-dweller would find the monastery quiet enough to hear their own breath.

The second kind of silence is a deeper silence, which is stillness. It’s there behind all the noises, below human voices and cricket songs, between breaths. It is spacious, vast, patient. At the monastery, and in Buddhist practice, there is a common understanding that all noise comes from silence and returns to it. It’s like waves coming from water and returning to water.

This kind of silence – stillness – is my favorite thing about meditation. It’s a refuge, a place of relaxing. Once in a while I slip into it, purely by accident. I disappear into it. It’s a stillness that is in all of us (or is all of us) and, inside it, we’re free of identity. It’s spacious and peaceful.

Silence doesn’t have to be scary. It’s hard to explain in words. But after you breathe out, before you breathe in, if you’re really quiet and still, you can feel it.

A Few Surviving Photographs

Most of my photos of Deer Park Monastery disappeared from the camera. So the few that remain are extra precious to me.

The Ocean of Peace Meditation Hall was designed by the abbott of the monastery, who was trained as an architect. The hall is spacious, bright, earthy and celestial all at once. For morning meditation, the sisters sit on the left, facing west, where they can see the full moon set. Brothers sit on the right, facing east, toward sunrise.

Ocean of Peace Meditation Hall

Ocean of Peace Meditation Hall

The stained glass window on the north end of the meditation hall shows a lotus flower and Sanskrit words “Smrti Samadhi Prajna” (“Mindfulness Concentration Insight”). Mindfulness leads to concentration, which flowers as insight.

Smrti Samadhi Prajna

Smrti Samadhi Prajna

The stained glass window at the opposite end of the hall shows the Buddha with his father, Suddodhana, and son, Rahula.

The Buddha with his father and son

The Buddha with his father and son

Outside the meditation hall is a stately wooden gazebo that houses the giant bell. Each morning, beginning at 5 a.m., the bell is rung repeatedly for 30 minutes, filling the whole valley with waves of sound and calling the monastic community to morning meditation. The bell is accompanied by the sound of a monk or nun chanting, and the songs of crickets, and sometimes the playful howling of coyotes! It is quite an experience to walk up the road from the sisters’ hamlet in the starlight with these wake-up calls.

The bell is engraved with these words:

“With body, speech and mind in perfect oneness, I send my heart along with the sound of the bell. May the hearers awaken from forgetfulness and transcend the path of anxiety and sorrow.

I listen, I listen. This wonderful sound brings me back to my true home.”

The Great Bell

The Great Bell

Overlooking the monastery is a plateau where a stunning Buddha statue resides.  Sister Dang Nghiem told us that this statue was chosen for its serenity, which can be seen and absorbed by people who look upon it. The face is truly a radiantly peaceful sight.

I was quite taken by this statue, and feel fortunate to be able to share these photos. If you can sense the peacefulness when you look at this countenance, it’s because you already have that peacefulness in yourself.

Buddha Statue I

Buddha Statue I

Buddha Statue II

Buddha Statue II

Buddha and Blue Sky

Buddha and Blue Sky

Moving River of Now

Picture this:  a group of young monks and nuns in brown robes, grinning wide, holding slices of watermelon as they sit in the shade outside the Ocean of Peace Meditation Hall. This was one of many beautiful photographs I took during a two-week stay Deer Park Monastery. It was one of the photographs that mysteriously disappeared from my camera, leaving me with only memories and a new understanding about loss and attachment.

During the first week at Deer Park, I took dozens of pictures. I photographed the unperturbed, radiant smile of the white marble Buddha statue on the plateau above the hamlets. The wavelike copper roof, elegant face, and richly colored stained glass windows of the meditation hall. Cream-white lotus blossoms in the pond. Honeybees nestled in flaring pink flowers. Thich Nhat Hanh’s curvy calligraphy on wooden signs nailed to oak trees (“Enjoy your steps, enjoy the Kingdom, try not to use your car”). Also stored on my camera were fun shots of my road trip to the monastery, a friend’s birthday dinner, and my twin nieces on their first day of preschool.

On a sunny Sunday morning, before the community gathered for our Day of Mindfulness, I walked around the monastery grounds taking photos. I visited a little pomegranate tree decorated with fruits. While we were walking past this tree a few days earlier, a sister had pointed at the red fruit, saying: “Look! They’re like lanterns.” My fellow visitor remarked, “They will be delicious.” The sister replied, “They are delicious right now.” After taking a few shots of the plump pomegranates, a gazebo, and a statue, I stopped, disturbed by an odd feeling that it was not a good time for photography. I joined the monastics and lay friends for walking meditation.

Later that day I turned on my camera to peruse the scores of photos. But most of them had disappeared. The striking images of Buddha, lotus flowers, my dear nieces – all erased. The only remaining pictures were those I’d snapped that morning. I searched through menu options, changed the batteries, turned the camera off and on. They were gone. I was disappointed, but couldn’t help feeling a little amused. What better way to learn nonattachment than to lose one’s mementoes from a Buddhist monastery?

The next day, I ambitiously retraced my steps to re-take the photos I’d lost. The light was different, shadows crossed the Buddha statue’s face, but I was determined. I thought I’d learned my lesson:  I should enjoy picture-taking for its own sake, instead of mindlessly collecting images only to look at them later with nostalgia. I tried to really see the subjects of my photos, and enjoy the act of squaring them in the frame and clicking the button.

After only 22 shots, the camera rebelled: “CARD FULL!” How could it be full? The card should hold 100 photos. The camera was obviously broken. Disgruntled, I thought about all the photos I’d hoped to post on a blog, share with friends, and provide to the monastery. All gone. And I couldn’t recapture them. It felt like a bitter loss. I sat on a bench beside the lotus pond and looked at the algae-green water and round lotus leaves. Across the pond, four turtles rested on a flat rock. Their shells were like raku bowls, webbed with cracks. There had been a photo of them on my camera before; I couldn’t take another one to look at later. I couldn’t take the turtles with me. I could only experience them here and now, never again.

It occurred to me that everything I owned, everyone I loved, would eventually disappear as my photos had. My mom, my dad, my brothers and nieces, every friend, and all my belongings – each of them would be irrevocably gone someday. I felt a deep sense of loss, as if my loved ones had already died. Even my own body would disappear. Then what would be left of me?

It was too much to think about. I tried to distract myself with the book in my backpack, Thay’s “Old Path White Clouds,” the life story of the Buddha. I read:

“The hermit Gautama focused all of his formidable powers of concentration to look deeply at his body. He saw that each cell of his body was like a drop of water in an endlessly flowing river of birth, existence, and death, and he could not find anything in the body that remained unchanged or that could be said to contain a separate self. Intermingled with the river of his body was the river of feelings in which every feeling was a drop of water. These drops also jostled with each other in a process of birth, existence, and death. Some feelings were pleasant, some unpleasant, and some neutral, but all of his feelings were impermanent: they appeared and disappeared just like the cells of his body.”

Feelings, cells, body, everything around the body – all a moving river, appearing and dissolving, impermanent. Everything arises and goes away, just like my photos. I’d wanted to hold on to my Deer Park experience by holding on to the images. But the experience was gone. I was forced to release the photos and my attachment to them, just as we need to let go of the past in order to be present now.

In front of me, a turtle climbed out of the water onto a rock. Its neck was striped yellow. Its diamond-shaped head pointed toward the sky. A black eyelid blinked sleepily. If the past hadn’t disappeared to make way for the present, I realized, I wouldn’t be here, marveling at this turtle. I wouldn’t see reflections of water wavering on the undersides of green leaves overhead. There would be no warm sun on my neck. All the moments of the past, all the feelings, all the pictures, had to give way in order for this moment to appear. And this moment is an amazing moment. If I’m thinking about the past, I’m missing it. If we are preoccupied with memories and made-up futures, we’re depriving ourselves of the rich sensory feast that is happening right now. But if we open up to the ever-changing kaleidoscope of the present moment, soak in its sounds and tastes, we don’t need the past or the future. When we’re aware of the real-time, 3-D, surround-sound moving picture of now, maybe we don’t need photographs.

Plunk! The turtle dove into the pond. And I lay down under the sunlit green leaves for a nap.

Deep Relaxation

Many of us walk around with a lifetime’s worth of tension in our bodies. We’ve been tense for so long that tension feels normal. We keep functioning in our daily lives even when our teeth are clenched or our muscles are locked. Although we’ve learned to live with stress, the tightness in our bodies can compromise our long-term health. It blocks the flow of blood and lymph fluids, prevents the free flow of oxygen and nutrients, and makes it hard for our bodies to flush out toxins, wastes, bacteria and viruses. If we live in a constant state of stress, this activates our sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system and shuts down the parasympathetic (rest and digest) pathways. So, when we are stressed, our body doesn’t digest or rest. (How’s that for a rhyme?)

When the body is relaxed and at ease, it can naturally maintain a state of health. Our breath comes easier, our sleep is deeper, and our smile comes sooner when the body is free from tension.

My Thai massage teacher, Supron Mukomla, noticed that my muscles were impenetrably tight when she gave me a massage. She knew I practiced meditation, so she suggested: “When you meditate, instead of concentrating on your breathing, concentrate on relaxing your muscles.” She felt this was so important that she had me sit down immediately after the massage, and practice this new meditation. She didn’t give any further instruction. Fortunately I had experienced Chavasana in yoga classes, and a Total Relaxation exercise given by Sister Chan Khong (a nun who belongs to the Order of Interbeing), so I was able to come up with my own version of these wonderfully calming practices. I’ve written my version here with the hope that it might help other people too.

This is a simple meditation technique that invites you to follow your breathing and focus on one area of your body at a time. You can spend 5 minutes, 10 minutes, or more, helping yourself to deeply relax. It feels wonderful.

The basic practice is this:

Breathing in, focus on one area of the body.
Breathing out, relax that area of the body.

It’s especially helpful to practice this exercise just before falling asleep at night, or if you wake up in the middle of the night. Even if you don’t fall asleep, you can still enter a state of deep relaxation that is restful and rejuvenating for the body and mind. You could also practice in a sitting position.

As Sister Chan Khong says when she leads Total Relaxation, “If you find yourself entering gently into a sleep, please don’t try to resist. Just sleep.”

You might like to read this out loud for a friend, partner, or family member, or ask them to read it aloud for you. Please read slowly.

Lie in a comfortable position on your back. Let your neck be supported. If you use a pillow, use one that allows your head, neck and shoulders to be on the same level. Extend your arms beside your body. Let your legs and feet rest in a relaxed position. Let all tension release from your head, release from the shoulders, release from the back. Let the whole body sink down toward the earth.

Bring your full awareness to your breathing. Breathing in, know that you are breathing in. Breathing out, know that you are breathing out. Feel your abdomen gently rising and falling.

Breathing in, bring your attention to your toes.
Breathing out, feel all of your toes relax.

Breathing in, bring the attention to both feet.
Breathing out, release the muscles of the feet.

Breathing in, be aware of your lower legs.
Breathing out, release the muscles of the lower legs.

Breathing in, be aware of your two knees.
Breathing out, feel the knee joints become spacious and open.

Breathing in, be aware of your thighs.
Breathing out, totally relax both of the thighs.

Breathing in, rest attention on your hips.
Breathing out, feel the hips grow heavy, and slowly drop toward the earth.

Notice your abdomen rising, and falling. Let the abdomen soften as it falls.

Breathing in, bring your awareness to the spine.
Breathing out, feel open spaces between the vertebrae.

Breathing in, rest your attention on your shoulders.
Breathing out, release the shoulders toward the floor. All tension melts out of the shoulders. They feel light and relaxed.

Breathing in, become aware of your throat.
Breathing out, feel that your throat is open and soft.

Breathing in, be aware of your jaw.
Breathing out, your jaw is open, teeth resting easily in the gums.

Breathing in, be aware of your whole face.
Breathing out, all the muscles of your face feel soft and light.

Breathing in, be aware of your eyes.
Breathing out, let the eyeballs rest in their sockets.

Breathing in, be aware of your ears.
Breathing out, let the ears relax toward the floor.

Breathing in, be aware of your brain.
Breathing out, let the brain be cradled gently in the skull.

Your in-breath is deep. Your out-breath is slow.
In, deep.
Out, slow.

Slowly bring your awareness back to your body. Feel all the cells of your body softly vibrating. Gently wiggle your fingers and toes. Move your hands and feet. Let your eyes move back and forth, then slowly open them. Let your body slowly move however it wants to, as you wake up.

Sitting Meditation

Sitting meditation can be like a mini-vacation. It’s not an escape from life, but it’s a way to rest in peacefulness, even in the midst of a busy life. Peacefulness is already in us. It’s like an island each of us has inside. We only need to rediscover it, give it our attention, and it can be a place where we let ourselves go to rest.

Anyone can practice sitting meditation. It’s nice to have a meditation cushion, and sit in a quiet place. But you can practice anywhere. I’ve practiced meditation while riding a city bus, waiting at the doctor’s office, on park benches, and on the beach. The waves and seagulls are great companions.

For a long time I avoided sitting meditation because I thought I had to sit for at least 20 minutes a day. I didn’t have that much time to spare! But meditation doesn’t have to be a major time commitment. I know an acupuncturist who asks all his patients to practice 5 minutes of meditation, 4 times a week. That’s only 20 minutes a week. Even the busiest among us can try that.

This description is a blend of instructions I’ve learned from different Buddhist traditions over the years. It’s meant for sitting on a cushion, but you can adapt it to sit anywhere. Let yourself just enjoy sitting, and enjoy your breathing.

Posture

Sit on a cushion with legs folded in full lotus or half lotus, or folded underneath you, knees on the floor. If the knees are on the floor, below the hips, your posture is stable and you will naturally sit upright. It’s easier to stay awake and focused when sitting upright.

Sway gently from side to side, forward and back, until you find a natural center. There’s no hurry to get into the position. Let the cushion support you. Feel the solidity of the earth beneath you. Keep your back strong, and your front soft. Your head is straight, as if someone is gently lifting up the back of your head. You might like to imagine a string connecting the crown of your head with the ceiling. Shoulders are relaxed. Hands rest on your knees or in your lap, whatever is comfortable. The eyes are open, resting about 45 degrees in front of you, but not focused on anything in particular. The gaze is soft.

Just This One Breath

Once you are resting in the posture, make contact with your breathing. You might like to focus on the space just below your nostrils where the breath comes in and goes out. You could also rest your attention on the belly as it gently rises and falls with each breath. This way, the mind is with the body in the present moment. It’s natural for the mind to go to the past or future, but with some effort, we can make it a positive habit to bring it back to the present.

We only take one breath at a time. Just stay with this one breath. Don’t try to change your breathing; just notice it as it is.

Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that we say to ourselves, “Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know that I am breathing out.”

Thoughts naturally come and go. When your thoughts come, you can watch them arise and go away, as if you are watching waves form and sink back down into the ocean. Like waves, thoughts will come and go. When you notice yourself thinking, gently bring your attention back to your in-breath and out-breath.

You might notice that there is a slight pause after the in-breath and before the out-breath, and also after the out-breath and before the in-breath. This is a space where you can rest.

For now, relax your grip on whatever you are holding on to. You don’t have to let it go; just loosen your grip.

Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in.

Breathing out, I know that I am breathing out.