RIDING AN ASS

Zen stories are full of curious anecdotes, contradictions and illogical statements.  They can even sound frankly irreligious although a Zen temple is full of Buddhist piety and ritual. How paradoxical!

It would be difficult to understand Zen without looking at the influence Taoism had in Chinese Zen.  Mahayana Buddhism was introduced in China in the 6th century AC.  It   revived the original insights of Lao-tzu and was transformed into Zen (Chan in China). As  J. Wu says in The Golden Age of Zen, ‘If Buddhism is the father, Taoism is the mother of this prodigious child.  But there can be no denying that the child looks more like the mother than the father.’  Zen or Tao rejects all systematic elaborations, complex religious and philosophical systems to get back to the pure experience.  Experience of what? To life itself, to the ‘I’ exist, to who is this ‘I’. What is the difference between authentic and illusory awareness? Zen does not seek to get involved in dialectical exchanges but tries to grasp the naked reality of existence. In this context Zennists mistrust words as Zen is fundamentally inexpressible found only by direct experience.  The words of the masters are only meant to provoke the awakening of the intuition.  Here are some Zen exchanges:

A monk asked, “Who is the Buddha” the Master fired back, “Who are you?”

A new arrival said apologetically to the master, “I have come here empty-handed”, “Lay it down then!” said the  master.  “Since I have brought nothing with me, what can I lay down? asked the visitor. “Then go on carrying it!” said the master.

We may persist in understanding Zen but in fact the only and wise thing we can do is to embrace it and realize it like the fish in the ocean who wanted to know what water was. In this sense Zen teaches nothing, it just points.

“You wish to know the spirit of Zen? Look at the lake in front of the gate. When the sun shines, it radiates light and brightness. When the wind comes, there arise ripples and waves.”

This pointing meant to stir and awaken our mind often uses very vivid, dramatic or even disrespectful language like in the following story. Master Fo-yen said, “There are two diseases in the practice of Zen. The first is to ride an ass in search of the ass. The second is to ride the ass and refuse to dismount.” It is easy to see the silliness of seeking the ass you are riding.  As your attention is turned outwards, you will never look inside.  So many troubles in the world have their origin in keeping this position! Ma-tsu said’ “You are the treasure of your own house”. The second disease is even more difficult to cure. You know you are riding your own ass.  You have tasted some degree of interior peace but the danger is that you become so attached to it that you are bound to lose it altogether.  Thomas Merton said, “The situation of the soul in contemplation is like the situation of Adam and Eve in Paradise. Everything is yours but on one important condition: that it is all given. There is nothing we can claim, demand or keep. As soon as we try to take something as if it were our own, we lose Eden. So Fo-en’s final counsel is “Do not ride at all. For you yourself are the ass, and the whole world is the ass. You have no way to ride it… If you don’t ride at all the whole universe will be your playground.”

If you wish to hear more poetic, puzzling and delightful Zen stories come to the meditation retreat at Dhyana-Ananda in the Laurentians, Quebec, on September 1-3.  Please check the web page at dhyana-ananda.ca

 

 

 

 

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THE SCIENCE OF CONCENTRATION

Raja Yoga, one of the main four paths of yoga, is an eight steps systematic path that prepares us for meditation and eventually samadhi. It is sometimes described as an eight-rung ladder. More and more people today want to meditate but they find it quite challenging in spite of the simple instructions which vary between following the breath or fixating on an image, word or sound.  To deal with the difficulties of establishing a stable meditation practice  Raja Yoga offers a series of preliminary practices.  The first steps start with moral restraints and observances which help create a pure and healthy lifestyle conducive to meditation.  Then come asanas and pranayama to clean and unblock the energetic channels in the astral body. At this point our body and mind have calmed down and we are able to withdraw our senses.  Now we are ready to concentrate although this is not meditation yet. What we call today meditation in many schools and traditions is in fact learning to concentrate the mind and keep the body still. Once this is attained we can enter effortlessly into the state of meditation. Concentration is therefore a necessary and fundamental preparation for the essential practice of meditation.

In the Bon* Dzogchen tradition of Tibet the practice of concentration is thoroughly examined and describes three stages. The first stage is “forced” concentration.  It involves the application of effort.  We persist in the practice  to improve concentration because we are not accustomed to it.  In the second stage we further develop this effortfull concentration until it transforms into an effortless and tranquil state. In the third stage we relax the concentration until it turns into a state of stable tranquility.

As we continue with our concentration practice different kinds of internal and external signs will appear indicating that we have gained a certain amount of control over our mind. This tradition says that although it is important to get those signs, it is also important not to seek to obtain them as there is the risk that we may willfully create them. If there are no signs the instructions recommend intensifying the practice using sound such an external or internal OM, practice in the company of the wise (satsang) or even going on a pilgrimage. There are eight internal signs:

The first sign is like a turtle that, when put in water, retracts its limbs into its shell. The practitioner feels almost like her mind cannot move.

The second sign is the image of a little bird in a cold wind that starts to tremble.  Our mind starts to tremble because it is becoming very subtle and clear.

The third sign is like a crab that moves its limbs in a disordered way.  This is a sign that the mind is not restrained or involved in making judgements but has effortlessly assumed its natural condition. After this experience we feel relaxed and loose without there being any imposed order in our thoughts.

The fourth stage is derived from ancient times where there were no matches and Tibetans still used to strike a flint to start a fire. Sometimes you get a spark, sometimes you don’t. This means that during the meditation session sometimes we are calm and sometimes we are not. By having both experiences we can comprehend what is true understanding and identify when we are in a calm state.

The fifth sign is like clear water flowing through a very narrow tap. This means that the state of the mind has become stable and even like a continuous fine flow.

The sixth sign is like a bee that does not  want to move far from a flower full of nectar. This means that we feel very good, we have attachment to that happiness and we do not want to stop. However, this is not a negative kind of attachment but a desire to continue to practice for a long time.

The seventh sign is like a fish swimming in the sea in any direction it likes, without being concerned about any obstacles or accidents. This is like a sudden sensation of freedom, a feeling that in whichever direction the mind moves, there is no disturbance or distraction.

The eighth sign is like the wind blowing through leaves without getting stuck to anything. This means that whatever thoughts arise the mind continues to flow without forming attachments.

There are also external signs like not wishing to move physically or wanting to laugh or to cry for no apparent reason. It may seem we are going a little crazy but it just means that we are harmonizing our internal energies as a result of having liberated our mind.

The thorough application of concentration and the experience of the subsequent signs allow us to enter and remain effortlessly and for longer periods of time in the state of meditation, a state of presence and clarity. We are finally able to observe how thoughts continue to arise and disappear without following or suppressing them. Remaining in this state where thoughts self-liberate, there is no attachment or aversion, inner or outer, there is just recognition that  all “outer” really is a projection of the “inner” state, and that is sufficient. At this point we have reached the top of the Raja Yoga ladder, a rung beyond high or low, first or last.

 

*Bon is the native religion of Tibet.  The teachings presented here are from the Dzogchen tradition published by Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche in Wonders of the Natural Mind (2000)

 

 

 

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TO AGE GRACEFULLY

the beauiful crone

To Age Gracefully is the subject of a course I offer at the Yoga Retreat in the Bahamas from March 9th to the 13th. In those five days we will explore the challenges and blessings of growing older at any age. The philosophical and spiritual inspiration comes from the wisdom of Vedanta and the practices that help us create a lifestyle in accord with our stage in life from Hatha Yoga and Ayurveda.

I look forward to these daily workshops where we will discuss appropriate diet, exercise, relaxation, positive thinking and meditation.  I will also be your teacher for the morning asana class adapting postures and accommodating for physical challenges.  You will also join the Ashram schedule for the morning and evening meditation and some karma yoga or selfless service. There will also be free time for swimming or going for walks on the beautiful beach. Those of you who have been to the Retreat know how healing a stay in the Ashram can be.  So join me for this event.  I look forward seeing you again.

As a short introduction to some of the themes I will talk about I am reprinting an article I posted last year titled “Young for ever”.

“Young for ever” is the new anthem of my generation.  As a baby boomer I have had it pretty easy so who would not like to keep the good times going? Every time someone remarks I don’t look my age I join my generation’s belief that I can defy the passage of time and keep it in mind when choosing clothes and hair style. Medicine and cosmetics also promise ever lasting youth through many pills, supplements and procedures. We are a generation intensely hyperactive, on a permanent quest to learn and better ourselves. Many of my friends in their seventies and eighties take new courses, learn foreign languages and travel to the “1000 places that must be seen in one’s lifetime”.  Of course it’s all wonderful but I question sometimes the motivation behind that flurry of projects, the urgency not to miss the next activity or product.  It is said that boredom is the worst enemy of old age after fear of sickness and death.  Boredom, that old demon hidden easily during our active years, sticks now its ugly head.

In our quest to remain forever young could we be missing a very important stage in our life?  The Greeks called it the “great age”.  So how do I embrace my great age? Letting go is  a start.  Nobody likes a fool old woman or man hanging on obsessively to old memories.  Letting go, that pending subject, becomes at this stage a necessity if I want to remain sane.  But once I let go of much of the running around that kept me busy in the past I find myself with… time.  Bertrand Russell said that idleness  is one of the privileges of old age. Indeed, it is a privilege to have time. I can play with time and stretch it in the pleasant company of good friends, for example, or I can transcend it watching in awe a beautiful landscape. When I was young I fought constantly with time and the rhythms of nature which I always found slower than my schedules but now because I have time I can slow down and finally enjoy being rather than doing. The result is that I am more present, it’s better for my health and I am more aesthetically graceful. Yes! more beautiful. Real idleness of course needs patience, another of those virtues that used to escape me. Through patience we get at the heart of compassion and love so, who said something was lost by aging?

Epicurus was convinced that the great age was the zenith of life, its best moment. This quote is attributed to him: “It is not the young man who is happy but rather the old man who has lived well.  The young man, full of vigor, makes many mistakes while the old man has safely reached the harbor and anchored his goods with the means of gratitude.”  Yes, indeed, I can look at my anchored ship in the harbor as I sit in a small café enjoying contently the Mediterranean sun, something I was not quite able to do till recently. Plato also was convinced that the great age is the ideal time to study philosophy.  Interestingly enough, a study from U. of California in San Diego* says that, neurologically, a slower brain is a wiser brain because those parts of the brain connected with abstract and philosophical thinking are free from the disturbing effects of the neurotransmitter dopamine, therefore someone older is less impulsive and subject to emotions. It’s good to know that I am not hooked on dopamine any longer. The truth is that now I think differently and, honestly, I don’t feel short-changed.  It’s all good.

the crone*Quote from Daniel Klein in Balade avec Epicure

 

 

 

 

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UNLOCKING THE GATE

 gate

 

When I go on hikes in the mountains of Mallorca I quite often come across gates that bar the path. All land in that small island always belongs to someone.  Then one has to go back or look for an alternative route. Sometimes the owner is generous and allows hikers to go through his property by leaving the gate unlocked.  I am always struck by how artificial these land divisions are when I see the same grass growing on both sides of the barrier.

When in meditation I have the courage to let go of my sense of “I” and “mine” it is like opening an unlocked gate. In Zen there is a collection of koans called the Mumonkan, the gateless barrier, and resolving each koan is like passing over and over an unlocked gate.  But when I hang to the idea of separation how insurmountable that barrier looks!

Realizing that there was never a barrier to begin with is most liberating and one cannot help smiling at how our false perceptions keep us from moving forward.  The grass grows indeed the same everywhere. The barrier is always mind-made and there are no sides or separation. When our perception changes, in a blink of an eye the barrier disappears, the heart stirs and the eyes become moist.   Love is not abstract any more. “Love is a concrete thing, an actual substance you can use with confidence”, says Swami Sivananda in Bliss Divine.  Love changes the vision of our eyes, the speed at which our blood runs through our veins, the make-up of our chemistry and our molecular structure. To keep a body “in love” is to keep it healthy, in accord with nature and alive.  Yes, Swami Sivananda, love is life, love is warmth, love is constructive and creative. “To live is to love. To love is to live”. This is the big secret that lays beyond the gateless barrier and that Swami Sivananda cried out in the ten directions. So, let us follow his advice and use that elixir to the point of becoming addicted to it. And if we ever run out of it, check your tendency to picking and choosing because that surely will make heaven and earth fall apart.

 

 

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YUDISHTHIRA’S FINAL ILLUSION

krishna

As most of you probably know the Bhagavat Gita is part of the Mahabharata, the oldest epic known to humanity, older than the Bible or the Greek myths and vaster than all of Shakespeare’s work. When I studied the Bhagavat Gita in TTC I wondered what happened to Arjuna and the Pandava brothers after the war.  At the end of the Bhagavat Gita  Arjuna, after taking to heart Krishna’s teachings, is able to get over his despondency and engage in right action (dharma) free of all attachment, knowing that victory and defeat are the same and that this kind of action is the way to escape the wheel of birth and death.

Back to the main story in the Mahabharata, Vyasa tells us that after the war everything was destroyed, foes and friends alike.  The Pandavas leave the scene of destruction and horror and head North, to Heaven.  But on their way they fall, one by one, into the abyss with the exception of Yudishthira. He is the oldest brother, the righteous one, and has been accompanied in his wanderings by an old dog.  At one point Yudishthira hears a voice that announces to him, ‘You have arrived at the gate to paradise. You can enter but you must leave the dog behind.  Paradise is not open to dogs’. Dogs even today in the East are considered dirty and the lowest of animals.  Yudishthira thinks about it but finally he says ‘I can’t.  This dog has been faithful to me and I cannot leave him behind’.  This was the right path to follow as the voice tells him that the dog is in fact his father and that he has passed this test.

Once in paradise Yudishthira meets the Kauravas, the cousins against whom he has fought the war together with Arjuna and his brothers. The Kauravas taunt him and tell him that his brothers are all in hell.  Yudishthira then decides to stay with his family and go to hell as well.  The voice again says, ‘This was the final illusion. You have known paradise and hell but here there is no paradise, no hell, no punishment, no enemies, no friends, no happiness, no suffering.  Rise in tranquility! Here words end.  Here thought end’.

And here ends the Mahabharata too.  The message of the Bhagavat Gita again is repeated.  Renunciation is not enough.  We must act but our action should be compassionate and yet free of attachment to gain or loss, victory or defeat.  This is the challenge presented in this great epic which is as relevant to mankind today as it was in Bharata thousands of years ago.

 

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THE HEALING SOUND OF OM

I am passing on to you this beautiful recording of Om not just as an aid to meditation but as a powerful vibration for healing.  At a time when we are surrounded by electromagnetic waves of all kinds (cell phones, wi-fi, etc…) whose effects on our health are yet unknown it is of utmost importance to heal, protect and enhance our energy field.  Scientists report that the electromagnetic “noise” that surrounds us is so loud that it drowns the earth’s resonance frequency of 7.83Hz which amazingly is the same as the Alpha wave frequency of our brains.  For more on this please check in Youtube a well-researched and most informative documentary Resonance Beings of Frequency.

Om is the sound of the universe and  everything resounds with Om. Om is the mantra at the heart of all other mantras. Swami Vishnu in Meditation and Mantras says that by repeating Om we transform every atom in our body.  The vibration of Om is the tool to restore our physical and mental sanity.  Chanting Om we remember our original music and can harmonize with the rest of the universe creating a beautiful symphony. Pythagoras could hear the sounds of the spheres but today anyone can hear in internet the sounds produced by the frequencies of the Sun, the Earth and all the planets in the solar system (NASA Sounds of Planets). Amazing technology and amazing universe!

I like to hear this recording at least 30 minutes which is the time it takes to do a “mala”, a rosary of 108 beads.  It is said that repeating a mantra 108 times a day amplifies its effect.   What  a  wonderful way to start the day!  Chant Om and allow your body and mind to resonate with the Earth and the entire creation.   Chant until the sound, the breath and the mind become entangled in one.   Let Om caress you.  Let Om envelop you.  Surrender to Om.  Become Om.

 

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MEDITATION D’AUTOMNE EN FORÊT

la-retraite-dhyana

Du 22 au 25 septembre je vous invite à célébrer avec moi l’équinoxe d’automne dans la contemplation et le silence chez mon ami Jean Christophe.

Le lieu c’est une belle maison rustique dans la forêt de Val Morin. Nous ferons du yoga, de la méditation Zen, des promenades en forêt et préparerons ensemble de délicieux repas végérariens, le tout dans le silence. Les périodes de méditation durent 20 minutes suivies de 10 minutes de marche consciente.

Si vous êtes intéressés visitez info@dhyana-ananda.ca.  L’espace étant limité (maximum 10 personnes), les réservations se font bien à l’avance.

Quelle belle occasion pour profiter de la paix et l’énergie d’introspection de l’automne! Au plaisir de se revoir!

 

 

 

 

 

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