National Gratitude 

Waiting for our flight from Ubon back to Bangkok from this airport built by the US military as a bombing base during the Vietnam Nam war. I wanted to capture this image. There’s a monk sitting under the sign, so I took the picture from across the way. I’m continually struck by the relationship between the Thai people and Buddhism. Every location has a shrine to the Buddha with incense lit daily to honor their ancestors. It’s about gratitude rather than worship. Our guide was “so proud” of our familiarity with Buddhism.

I’m continually struck by how the Buddhist precepts infuse this culture. Adjacent to our hotel in a sort of suburb of Ubon is the regional prison with its hydroponic gardens and palm groves just outside the inmate area with its barbed wire and guard towers. How unlike the typical US prison, off in some isolated no-man’s land far from families and difficult to reach without a car.

For all our religious righteousness, we often fall short of compassion. We could take a page from the Buddha’s teachings and be better for it.

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Pilgrimage 

So here we are in Ubon Ratchatani in a hotel on one of the main streets. Karaoke and linen tablecloths in the restaurant. Another day of travel.

Ubon is the location of Wat Nong Pa Phong, the monastery founded by the Venerable Ajahn Chah in 1954 that put the Buddhist Thai Forest tradition on the map for Western seekers for many decades.

When I told one of the hotel employees on Koh Samet this morning that we were traveling to Ubon to visit this Wat, his face lit up. “Are you a Buddhist?” he asked me. How to answer clearly through cultural and linguistic differences?

No. I am not a practicing Buddhist today. But almost a decade ago in the depths of my seeking, I was led to Theravada through first Vipassana, then Insight meditation practice and ultimately through teachers who had trained with him, to Ajahn Chah. His writings were the metaphorical raft of the Buddha’s teaching that carried me across a difficult stretch of water. I spent a summer reading one of his books on the stoop of my house. It was, He was, my “balm in Gilead.”

I had studied with two of his students, Thanissara and Kittisaro, at the Insight Meditation Center in Massachusetts and heard their stories about their time at the monastery. So when the opportunity came to travel to Thailand this year, it was an easy decision to add Ubon and Wat Nong Pa Phong to my itinerary.

Tomorrow our driver will take us there, to the place where Luang Por founded a sanctuary and passed his remarkable life. My days as a Dedicated Dharma Practitioner in the Theravada tradition are behind me, but the wisdom of Luang Por, with whom I share a birthday, and the hours of darkness lit by those who followed in his path, reside in my spiritual DNA. It will be a pilgrimage in the truest sense of the word. Decades later, I will sit with him in spirit, in reverence, in the place that he carved out of the wilderness for all who came seeking the light.

Homelife

This morning is bright and breezy. The shades slap in against the screens. It’s cold, 30 degrees below the forecast high. It’s summer. Fire season. Dry and windy.

Yesterday I picked and froze another few gallons of raspberries. There should be a word for them this time of year like pride of lions, or murder of crows. They are an army of jewels, gumdrop sized, purple shading to red, fragrant and sweet, and hot with juice. They are a monstrosity of joy. Relentlessly ripening.

In the afternoon I worked on continuing to fire-proof our yard, cutting the dead and dying grasses, raking pine needles and cones, instant tinder, and hauling it by handcart halfway down our driveway far enough away from the house to be less of a hazard. It was hot and dry and dusty. But the yard is an oasis of green: grass, garden, aspen trees, tall stately pines, all ringed by golden grass hills.

That’s where the fire was three years ago. It swept across the hills behind our house and ran downhill to a few feet from our garden, stopped by a trench hand dug by firefighters. It melted the irrigation hoses into black, geometric tattoos. We spent a day dousing brush fires around the yard, watching the groves of aspen and cottonwood along the irrigation line burn and smolder. It was heartbreaking.

But. We were spared the great loss of home. And now we tend it like our bodies. Like our selves. How can I explain how dear this is? The privilege to live here in this precious nook above the Valley floor. To hear by seasons the river, the aspen leaves’ inimitable breath, the birdsong of early morning and in winter a silence so brilliant it sings.

It is perhaps a cliche to say “chop wood and carry water,” but if it is a cliche, it is also true. We live on, in, and through this landscape. We feed it, and it feeds us. There is always work to do, the work of living so close to nature. Our best efforts are fragile and flimsy and need constant attention. We are here but a short while and by the grace of God. So another day begins.

Equinox

A light snow falls
through the mist.
Across the river,
trees come and go
in fog that drops
and lifts like smoke.
I missed the first day
of spring in the ebb
and flow of human
busyness, crossing
and recrossing
the mountain pass
in forgetfulness.
This morning’s full
of burning things:
winter wood smolders
in the stove, the candle
wick, charcoal that holds
fragrant resin, late the tears
of forgotten trees. It’s cold
in the way of northern
Springs. Deep, clean,
a slow arc breaking
out of the dark.

Leaning into the Small, Still Place

My recent transition from a Trillium Awakening Mentor to an Interning Teacher has represented a sort of spiritual blossoming for me, a coming to fruition of years of seeking and practice. And yet, I’m aware that, like a blossom, this time of transition will continue to unfold until it rots, dies, and falls away to be replaced by a new bud that will have its long or short turn in the sunlight of realization.

For me, the transition to Interning Teacher is both a culmination and a beginning. It’s both a stage in a process and a culmination. The process is maturation. My journey into second life brought me into a place of newness like an infant, seeing things through recently opened eyes, a world magical, non-separate, and rarefied. Over time, Being led me beyond this infancy to toddling and stumbling on the uneven surface of newly awakened consciousness; a childhood of learning by doing; the adolescence of boundary pushing and rebellion; and finally an unfolding adulthood of deepening realization.

Adulthood saw the emergence of a more stable awakened Being. Greater clarity about my conditioned patterns; dressing, redressing, and nascent healing of the wounds of relationship. Awakening of intuition and a deeper awareness of the paradox of trust in Being. These shifts were facilitated through IAM courses, Deepening in Second Life and Advanced Mutuality Skills, and the peer work associated with those courses and teachers. They helped me to shed the baby-fat of adolescence and young adulthood, hone my discriminating awareness, integrate emerging elements of healthy masculine and feminine, and lean into a developing self-confidence and authority. The paradox of knowing how little we can really know beyond our Self, and precious glimpses of that!

Mentoring showed me how conditioned I was to distrust silence in relating, to “know and show” instead of listening and reflecting. To watch as mentees shared and shed their own stories and patterns or looped around and revisited themes and behaviors or projected their shadows like puppets on the wall of my listening. The awakening teacher in me gained greater awareness of these ways of being in mentees and myself. The deeper my listening and holding, the more evolved my intuition until the light of clarity shone through my heart in a way that said: this can be spoken.

Transitioning to Interning Teacher was made possible by the many hands of my teachers, peers, and mentees. By the infinite patience of Being that gently guides us along our way with occasional pushes, shoves and surprising expulsions and explosions. It’s like watching a tree bud, the slow emergence of new life from the tender skin of branch. How can such beauty not hurt? And yet it is a necessary hurt, like birth itself, the stretching and accommodating of new life.

To be an Interning Teacher is to be a dedicated student of our living dharma; we teach what we need to learn, and we learn by listening into the small, still room of our heart’s loving wisdom. As the American poet Theodore Roethke says in his poem “The Waking,”

“What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.”
I’m ready to go where Being leads me. Will you join me?

On a Morning like This

The frozen silence seems to sing
in this bowl of white that sweeps
up and out toward sky. Not the wind
scouring down from snow, carrying
the northern light, scent of ice.
The ice itself is a music faintly glinting.
Trees, those lone sentinels, exclaim
along the ridge the song of wood
circling itself around a still heart
drinking deep from earth. And the river.
Moving its ever changing self
over rocks, flickering under frozen
eddies like a flame.  Like the fire
popping in the grate, last summer’s
rain in the cut grain of pine.

Poem

Sounding 

August first and the crickets sing

in the late night breeze that slaps

shades against sills. I’m naked

in the dark, hands slipping over

oiled skin, brushing away cracks

and lines white with dryness.

A mosquito bite on my buttock

burns and itches with persistence

of death. My mother lay so long

abed that her skin wore thin

as hospital sheets, ate and ate

so hungrily at itself. “It won’t heal,”

her papery voice said, helpless

and toothless as a child. Lying here

in my sixty year old hide

the hurt is like a hole of its own,

full of wailing grief, black

as the night sky, unfathomable.