Monday, June 29, 2009

Horse Whisperer Becomes a Monk

The past few days here have been a storm of activity. One of my best friends from New York, Mike, has been visiting the Abbey this week, and it so happened (without any planning on our part) that he was here when I received the temporary ordination as a monastic, this past weekend. So he got to witness and document my transformation into a baby monk.

On Saturday we hiked to Pollet's Cove and fed the horses and swam in the ocean (for a few seconds anyway -- the water is still quite cold). On Saturday night was the haircutting ceremony, when I and five other candidates for the temporary monastic vow had our heads shaved. And on Sunday morning was the ordination ceremony itself, when I became known here at the Abbey as Zopa (which means "Patience" in Tibetan).

From Gampo Abbey - My Photos
Horse Whisperer: Saturday at Pollet's Cove

From Gampo Abbey - My Photos
Take one last look at that head of hair....

From Gampo Abbey - My Photos
A fledgling monk in his new wardrobe...

From Gampo Abbey - My Photos
Monk on a mountain...

Monday, June 22, 2009

Wild, Wild Horses

Saturday was our Open Day here at the monastery, and I finally decided to hike all the way to the fabled Pollet's Cove -- an inlet and valley on the coastline that's a strenuous, three-hour hike (each way) through the mountains from where we are. When I set out on my hike, I wasn't even thinking of going that far, but somewhere along the way I decided I felt up for it; it was late in the day to be setting out on such a long hike, but I had two sandwiches and a couple of granola bars and some water in my backpack, so, well, carpe diem.

Pollet's Cove is near the very tip of Cape Breton Island, well above the Highlands, accessible only by trail. It was once a fishing community, but was abandoned long ago and is now a destination for day hikers, campers, and ranchers who bring their cows and horses and leave them there for the summer to graze.

I've tried to make it to Pollet's Cove twice before, and petered out both times before getting there. Mountain hiking is much more physically challenging than it sounds. But while I was on the trail I ran into two guys who were coming back from camping there, and they told me about the horses they'd encountered. That was enough to hook me. If there was a chance of meeting and interacting with semi-wild horses, I was determined to get there. I only hoped the horses would still be in the vicinity when I arrived -- it would have been terribly disappointing to hike all that way with the hope of meeting them and find that they weren't around.

When you arrive at Pollet's Cove you come out of a thick forest that you have to almost push your way through, and suddenly you step out into a wide valley with open meadows that slope gently down to a grassy plain and a large creek that empties into the ocean. As I came around the final bend of the slope and stepped into the clearing, I found the whole group of horses standing right there, as if they were waiting for me.

I don't have a lot of experience with horses, but I'm pretty good with reading animals' body language and communicating with them. I intuitively felt these horses were completely relaxed and welcoming, so I walked right into the group and began to pet one of them -- a gorgeous, cream-colored steed with a white mane who followed me around and hung out with me for a good 10 or 15 minutes. I petted her and scratched her back, and when I did that she would close her eyes and look very content. For a while I was standing on a log so I could be taller next to her, and I put my arm over her back to give her a hug (have you hugged a horse today?). I felt her leaning towards me, as if returning the hug (I admit I experienced a brief moment of fear with this 1,000-pound beast leaning into me; if she fell on me she would squash me like a bug). She was so peaceful and friendly and in tune with me that I felt, with total conviction, that at that moment I could have hopped onto her back to ride her and she would have happily agreed. But I dared not. Being so little experienced, and being without medical insurance in Canada, it didn't seem like a very good idea.

I eventually broke down and gave her one of my coveted granola bars, because I felt she had become such a good friend in those few minutes. She ate it from my hand (always feed a horse with an open palm, not with your fingers). That brought the attention of another horse, a dark chocolate-brown steed who was not going to let the cream-colored one get all the goodies; she trotted over with great interest and began sniffing and chewing at my backpack sitting on the ground. I had to shew her away from it to keep her from actually eating my backpack. I had only one granola bar left, and I wasn't willing to part with it since I needed the calories for the three-hour hike back home. But she had some stickers in her black mane that were matting the hair together over her face, and that didn't look very comfortable, so I picked them out for her and we bonded that way. She seemed to appreciate it.

Because I had set out so late in the day, I didn't get to spend as much time with the horses as I would have liked. I said farewell to them and went to soak my feet in the cold stream for a while before setting out for the return trip. When I passed the same spot on my way back to the trailhead, the horses had already moved on to another spot in the valley, looking for greener pastures. My meeting with them, although brief, was something I will not soon forget.

From Gampo Abbey - My Photos

From Gampo Abbey - My Photos

From Gampo Abbey - My Photos

From Gampo Abbey - My Photos

"Wild, wild horses
Couldn't drag me away..."

-- The Rolling Stones

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Bodies (Cont'd)

Among meditators, there is a common misconception that "meditation" means working with the mind, while there is something else called "mind-body practice" that involves working with both mind and body. The reality, whether we acknowledge it or not, is that all meditation practice is mind-body practice.

A couple of weeks ago in this blog, I wrote about Reggie Ray's book "Touching Enlightenment: Finding Realization in the Body," and how Ray's iconoclastic work on meditating with the body has been reshaping my own thinking and approach to meditation. I have to confess that I have only scratched the mere surface of Ray's training -- I've taken a couple of workshops with him and read parts of his book -- but even this limited exposure to his basic philosophy about the body and spiritual practice has resonated deeply with me. I find myself contemplating Ray's approach and bringing it into my meditations again and again.

Ray says that enlightenment and realization can only happen in and through the body, through a process of returning to complete "embodiment" -- and that it is, in fact, our profound "disembodiment" and alienation from the body's own self-arising truth and wisdom that has placed us in our current predicament.

The problem as Ray sees it is that most people "are born, live, and die entirely in their heads, believing that what they think is reality and that their own feeling of complete disconnection is what life is all about."

"Those of us who live in the modern world generally exist in a state of extreme disembodiment. Most of us spend our lives with very little actual awareness of our bodies. In some cases, we seem to feel and act as if we were divested of our bodies entirely. It is not that we don't *think* we have a body. In fact, many people spend a great deal of time *thinking* about their bodies, in a self-congratulatory, apprehensive, self-deprecating, or even self-destructive way. However, even when we are supposedly attending to our bodies, we are usually still in our heads. We are not in contact with our actual bodies. We have *thoughts about* our body, but very little direct experience of the body itself. In this way, in relation to the body, we modern people are narcissistic: we are so enamored of our ideas about the body, our concepts of it and designs on it, that we have little awareness of the body or relationship to the body as an actual reality in our lives, independent of what we think."

-- Reggie Ray, "Touching Enlightenment: Finding Realization in the Body"

This habit of living all the time "in our heads" is toxic to our well-being and a major stumbling block on the spiritual path. But it is enormously seductive. Of our six sense consciousnesses -- sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, and the mental consciousness that perceives thoughts -- at least four of them, and possibly five, seem to be concentrated in the head, where our eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and brain are all housed. This results in a strong felt sense that our "self" resides in the head, and we therefore spend most of our time living "from the neck up."

The image that occurs to me here is that of an iceberg, where you see only perhaps five percent of the mass of the iceberg above the surface. Similarly, with our bodies, there is a vast, unexplored region of experience unfolding, at every moment, below the neck, and all of that experience is a vital part of the total mystery that is a human embodiment.

"Does the body rule the mind?
Or does the mind rule the body?
I don't know...."

-- The Smiths, "Still Ill"

As meditators, we can labor for years (or for decades) under the misconception that meditation is something that takes place primarily or exclusively in the head, in the mind -- completely leaving aside and dismissing the wisdom of experience that arises spontaneously in and through the body. Ray says that such efforts are doomed to failure because we can only touch enlightenment with the body. As Ray points out, this is why Dogen, the founder of the Soto school of Japanese Zen, "spoke of the body as the gateway to ultimate realization." And it is why Saraha, the great Indian mahasiddha, said: "There is no place of pilgrimage as fabulous and open as this body of mine, no place more worth exploring."

The Hevajra Tantra (quoted in the Ninth Karmapa's "Ocean of Definitive Meaning") says:

"Great wisdom abides in the body.
It has perfectly relinquished all thoughts,
Is what pervades all things, and
Abides in the body, [but] does not arise from the body."

I think that at the core of our disembodiment is the dualistic notion that body and mind are fundamentally two different things, or that they have different natures. In the "Guru Rinpoche Prayer" that we sing in the Kagyu and Nyingma traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, it says:

"Grant your blessing that purifies appearance
Of objects perceived as being outside.
Grant your blessing that liberates perceiving mind,
The mental operation seeming inside."

In other words, it *seems* or appears to us that there is some kind of "mental operation" or mind going on "inside," and that this "mental operation" is distinct and separate from the body and the realm of form and objects of which the body is a part. It's as if we think there is some kind of homunculus of empty, formless mind hidden within our corporeal body (probably somewhere in our head, since that's where we spend most of our time).

But the Heart Sutra does not tell us that emptiness is somehow "hidden within" form. It tells us: "Form *is* emptiness, emptiness also *is* form. Emptiness is no other than form, form is no other than emptiness."

One possible way of interpreting this ever-puzzling line of the sutra would be: "Body is mind, mind also is body. Mind is no other than body, body is no other than mind."

To demonstrate this, we need only look at our emotions. Take an experience of anger or lust, for example. Is it in the body, or in the mind? The answer seems to be both, or neither (or somehow beyond both and neither). Something (a perception or a thought) triggers our karmic propensity towards that emotion, and then the experience arises. It manifests simultaneously as a mental event (with associated thoughts and concepts), and also as a physical event with a tangible bodily reaction (if it's anger, we get hot under the collar and want to dispel or push away the object of our anger; if it's lust, we also get hot under the collar and want to consume or merge with the object of our lust).

Over his several decades as a meditation teacher, Ray writes that he has frequently observed longtime meditators who seem to lose traction after a couple of years and fail to continue growing and progressing along the path. In most cases, says Ray, it is because "we are attempting to practice meditation in a disembodied state, and this is inevitably doomed to failure."

"To put it simply, the full benefits and fruition of meditation cannot be experienced or enjoyed when we are not grounded in our bodies. The phrase "touching enlightenment with the body," then, when understood fully, doesn't just imply that we are *able* to touch enlightenment with our bodies; beyond that, it suggests that -- except in an through our bodies -- there is actually no other way to do so."

-- Reggie Ray, "Touching Enlightenment: Finding Realization in the Body"

This must be why the Buddha taught Mindfulness of Body before all the others, and why he continued to practice it intensively, himself, even after attaining enlightenment.