Friends in the Early Buddhist Traditions

One of the joys of the Western Monastic Gathering  is getting to know fellow monastics in the varied traditions. As buddhism spread over the centuries the Dharma was influenced by cultures of each new country. The vinaya, or code of rules img_1068for monastic life, unite all monks and nuns. In some countries minor rules were set aside as they might cause the Sangha to be less respected. We could say that Theravadin or Early Buddhists have the most conservative views and Tibetan the most liberal regarding what might be adjusted for modern life. Therefore it is a joy to be in the company of those living closest to how the Buddha lived.

I was very moved to be invited to participate in a katina ceremony at the Karuna Buddhist Vihara. The katina ceremony comes after the rains retreat.  Buddha asked the monastics to stay in one place during the rainy season in India and study together for three months.  This is when the hot dry weather
changes to wet and fertile, with all forms of life emerging- especially insects covering the ground by the thousands. The retreat prevented the monastics from stepping on the insects.  After the retreat monks and nuns are offered requisites for life by the lay followers; food, medicines and cloth for robes in a beautiful ceremony called katina.

The ceremony at the Karuna Vihara or monastery began with an alms round for the assembly of nuns who completed the retreat and guest nuns. In some countries this is practiced daily, with long columns of monastics going into villages to receive sustanance. In this case, we filed from a small apartment timg_1053o the back yard that had been converted into a community center with tents and chairs. The lay sangha made a circle around long tables laden with pot luck offerings. They each held plates of rice in their hands. We nuns carried large begging bowls and each member placed some rice in our bowls. Then we all partook of the potluck. Although living by donation, rarely have I had the opportunity to do an alms round. I felt a very special personal connection to the generous hearts of each person offering my meal. It was quite joyful all around.

img_1060The katina ceremony is unique as the lay followers have to request to offer katina.  Three followers this year wished to offer cloth to the nuns for robes. A beautiful tray was arranged with the cloth and flowers.  Each lay sangha member touched the tray to be included in the offering. There is beautiful chanting in Pali to make the offering to the nuns for the nun who’s robe is now worn and threadbare.  Then all the nuns gave short Dharma talks. I was struck by the diversity of the followers; Indian, Filipino,  Vietnamese and European families were equally represented.  After the public ceremony the nuns gathered to make a robe which needed to be sewn before dawn the next day.  The cloth was washed ironed and placed flat to be measured into a pattern that is reminiscent of rice fields.  Sometimes the material even needs to be dyed. The nuns sewed together all night like the old quilting bees of my grandmother. It is very moving to witness these old traditions practiced with such joy and appreciation. It is particularly significant to see nuns leading the ceremonies and their monasteries with such grace and dignity!

Training Your Mind Is A Lot Like Training a Dog

white-tara0001Learning to Meditate is like Training Your Dog.

Meditation simply means becoming familiar with your mind. Traditional descriptions often compare our minds to a wild monkey jumping from branch to branch or an elephant that creates destruction as it rampages. Unfortunately, I don’t really have direct experience of monkeys or elephants. I do have experience trying to train my dog as do many of us.

I have a rascally dog who failed to learn how to “come” despitedsc_1055 at least three dog training courses. Her house training took so long I began to think perhaps she simply wasn’t bright. But it was in both our interests to succeed at training so we kept going. I am often told by students that they are “not good at meditation”.  This is a similar rush to judgment.  We all want peace of mind so it is in our self interest to persevere.

Meditation begins with training your mind to focus, which is a lot like dog training. Getting my dog to come on command seemed to be hopeless.  After much failure, I started a routine, treats and a long leash. My dog and I had training sessions at 4pm every day. We would go out in the yard and practice. If a squirrel passed she would be off in a flash chasing it, or if a scent was intriguing she would get lost in it.  I would say come and she would get a treat if she actually did. She would be on a leash so that if she did not come I could give her a gentle tug on the leash.

We don’t offer ourselves treats in this scenario but setting a routine is definitely helpful. The first instructions in meditation are to concentrate on an object, a pebble, candle your breath.  This is actually quite difficult as thoughts rush through our minds like Niagara Falls.  Memories, hopes and fears draw our attention like multiple squirrels.  We drown in anger and desire like the scents. The commitment to pay attention for a short period of time however, is our long leash. However far we drift, when we become aware of losing the object of attention we return.

Most important however,  is attitude.  I had to make it fun for my dog.  If I got frustrated, irritated or impatient, any training was futile.   She would give me a pained confused look and get resistant.  The tone of voice was crucial, it had to be always loving. This is true for meditation. Often we are not aware how harsh and judgmental we are towards ourselves. As the end result of meditation is as open refreshed relaxed, mind; harshness is counter productive.

Everyday the training session had to be a fresh start with no expectations other than we would “play“ for 20 minutes. My dog still expects a play period around 4pm every day. Although my dog does not come at every call, she responds well to communication and we keep working at it. After many years of meditation, I could say the same thing about my mind. Never giving up, I just keep using our daily play time!