Wednesday, February 21, 2007

the fourth immeasurable

The creek is still too high to cross with ease, so we take our daily walks on this side; wading through a thick bed of decaying sycamore leaves, clambering over the grey of fallen trees, by-passing chaotic bundles of sticks and limbs, residues of past flood. Yesterday Gypsy sniffed at the ground and her tail went erect, she began her "I am Queen of this Territory" bark; upon investigation, I found in the mud the clear print of a cat - a large one: the paw was as big as my fist. Evidently the mountain lion is still our neighbour.
Coming back, Nyima and Milo began to play chase, tearing along the wire- fence line, ducking and weaving underneath, one then the next, from side to side. Circling around trees, growling and teasing. I laughed; I love to watch them play - there is a lightness, an effervescence, a display of joy and play that is infectious. This is one of the great gifts they bring to my life.
I can tend to be serious, to weigh each moment for its impact or purpose, to contemplate rather than just be, and in so doing, hindering the presence of spontaneity. Not always, of course - i can laugh and tell jokes and float with the swell of simple joy. But I am a Capricorn, and it is true to say that my habits fall on the serious side. I can be worried and rigid and disciplined to the point where the world is so solid i will trip on it.
This has its ups and downs as a practitioner. When i first met this Path with my heart, I was driven by a deep passion to engage. The beginning of our foundational practice, Ngondro, involves 100,000 full length prostrations, through which your mind can soften (and body become healthy!). It is an arduous, yet so precious experience, and i was determined to do it. Most every day I came home from my part-time job and went to my practice room, with small altar, and, despite the heat of a central Australian summer, would do prostration after prostration into the hundreds, until the sweat poured. I truly had a single-pointed focus to get through, to move on: because I knew this was a foundation I needed in order to even begin the journey i was embarking on. Diligence and discipline were my stave; nothing was going to interfere. And for this I am grateful.
Yet, a few years ago, while living out here, I began to understand that too much can become a cumbersome weight, preventing movement. Discipline can become fixed rigidity, and that is something this path is not. It is fluid, flexible - which is not the same as sloppy or lame. But each moment contains the potential for anything, everything: is bursting with energy and awareness. Is alive. You can't box it in or nail it down, you have to surrender and allow it to awaken.
I was reminded of this by Tia - whom I have never met, and yet our lives have intersected, creating the space for the exchange of friendship. She wrote of the need for more whimsy in her life, and described herself as "She who yearns to dance", with joy and light. This prompted me to turn to one of my favorite books "Magic Dance, The Display of the Self-nature of the five Wisdom Dakinis" by the loved and revered teacher, Thinley Norbu Rinpoche. Rinpoche's writing is exquisite, arising from Wisdom Mind; it is poetry beyond words, as he describes the indescribable, in ways that tease your mind. Evocative and elusive, like rainbow-hued drops of a waterfall, I have read and re-read this book line by line, and still its true meaning evades me, although I know it is there on every page, in every syllable. Whether the book is open, or closed.
There is a chapter titled "Playmind" in which Rinpoche explains to us, "So whatever our practice is, we need playmind, which is always unexpecting and vast. Playmind has no fear because it has no object. Because it is completely natural and open, it always gives bliss and blessing." He also says, "Many teachers and texts say that we must be serious and diligent in our practice. But serious diligence does not mean only strict and narrow discipline. If we separate diligence from open space, it is the course of ignorance. Real diligence is always the continuous energy of open playmind."
Its a fine line to walk, for me - to learn diligence is not the same as rigidity, yet to honour the sacredness of the commitments I have made. To allow the breath of joy to infuse my prayers, my days, my intention, and not stay fixed on "am i doing it well enough, or right, or because i have to" or whatever else drags me away from the essence that is the true nourishment.
We are taught of the four immeasurable qualities that are always within our hearts. Loving-kindness, compassion, equanimity. And joy. Qualities that reach beyond the ends of space, and yet are contained within the very cells of our bodies. We have all tasted them in our lives, they are familiar to us in an intimate way. Yet sometimes, for me, it is easier to focus on the first three: to try and be kinder, to evoke compassion for others, to work at embracing that all beings are equal. And to neglect joy, the deep and quiet stream that the first three arise from, and also create.
Of course there is no first and last - they are, after all, immeasurable and vast: different colours reflecting from the very same source. Yet for me, with my sackful of habits I drag through each day, it seems as though joy is the fabric on which the others are woven. It is the blush of sunrise from which the mountains are etched. It is always there, present, but I get stiff and worried, and so easily forget. To taste it, breathe it, be it. Let it erupt and spill out,
The photo for the post was sent to me recently by my dear friend Mary; when I saw it I laughed! Who knows what my scrunched up face is saying to her as she takes this photo of me and her patient husband, Tom. But there I stand for eternity, clothes crooked, arm on hips, like the country-girl i guess i now am. And in the background the spacious majesty of the mountains and sky that cradle this, my blessed home. It is always like this, in a way - we appear in different guises, different emotions, different weathers, some of which we label good, others bad. But there we are, in that moment. Yet if we look around, and within, we can recognise something more - the beauty and vastness and simplicity from which we arise. It is the background, and it is our hearts - inseparable. And if we allow ourselves to look deeply, we will know that well-spring of joy, from which we can always drink.

Friday, February 16, 2007

a sweet note

hungry juncos in the snow (photo by Mary)

As many of you know, I have been fortunate enough to live at Dakini Valley for 6 years. It was an unexpected outcome of my journey to the States; Jetsunma had suggested her small Sangha in Alice Springs move to Sedona in AZ, to receive teachings and learn. I was the first of those able to leave, and arrived wide-eyed, yet exhausted, on a Thursday in April. That Saturday I travelled to Dakini Valley with another nun, for what I thought would be a would be a weekend visit; I never left.

That first summer was an eruption of activity. Everything - everyone - was new to me, so sometimes it was raw and challenging. Renovations we being made to Jetsunma's retreat home by a group of monks, and I was thrown into a world far removed from where I had come. There was a sense of community and commitment, and sometimes tension, as the days could be long and hot, and the living situation quite rustic. But just as the electric storms and rain sliced across the sky to clear the heavy air, we ultimately worked together, as a team.

By the end of July numbers had dwindled; the task complete, people peeled away back to jobs and other actvities. Finally only one monk and I remained. I had nowhere in particular to go to, and was concerned about who would care for Jetsunma's garden when everyone had left. To my utter suprise, Jetsunma suggested I remain living here, on my own.

This had never even occured to me as a possibility, it was like a door to an unknown world had been flung open. I grew up in the suburbs of Australia's largest city, i have always lived in regular houses on regular streets of regular cities and towns, where there are people and shops and activity and conversations and electricity and so on. At that time Dakini Valley had no phone, let alone internet access. It is 5 miles on a rugged dirt road from the nearest habitation of weekenders and a sprinkling of permanent residents; 45 minutes on dirt to a town of 800 with one general store; 1.5 hours mostly on dirt to a town with traffic lights. And surrounded by 3 million acres of magnificent untamed wilderness.

Supported by Jetsunma's assurance I would be safe, and certain she would never place any being in harm's way, I stayed, with only my precious canine friend Gyspy as daily company. The early months were hard, almost beyond description, as I met and embraced the fears and uncertainties dormant in my mind, each and every day and night. The hugeness of the landscape and sense of isolation both swallowed me up and expanded my breath. I was not lonely, but aware of alone-ness; until i finally began to recognise that in the depths of my heart i was never alone. That took a very very long time to begin to comprehend, and i am still learning.

One of the tasks Jetsunma asked me to do, written in her very own hand, was feed the wild birds of the Valley. Arizona has been in a severe drought for over a decade, the land can be barren and dry. Besides, Jetsunma has a heart so big, there is space for everyone. She asked me to keep the bird feeders full, always. While this may sound simple, it has been a joyful, arduous and challenging practice to try and fulfill. Over the years i have wept, despaired, rejoiced, resisted as I have tried to come to terms with that one simple sentence.

There have at times been over a hundred feeders hanging from the trees; there are countless birds who have come to live here. Generations have been born. Every day from first light till shadows lengthen, the air is softened by chirping and chatter and song, and the raucous calls of the ravens. Our birder monk, Konchog, who was here that first summer, recorded 25 species, all fairly ordinary. At times in summer I have used hundred of pounds of feed, thousands of dollars in value. Who knows how many 50lb bags I have lugged, buckets I have carried. I became a familiar sight in Payson Walmart, several shopping carts in tow, laden with seed.

Feeding the birds has been hard, not because i don't love them, they have truly become my babies. But because of the constant enormity of it, physically, financially. I have been stretched beyong my limit, not knowing how I can raise the funds, how to accomplish abundance. Especially at this time of year, when they are so hungry and devour the food so quickly. Or when the elk move in, and everything vanishes overnight. It has seemed - still seems - an impossible task, and yet it is mine to embrace.

I have lived with this practice for years know, swilled it around in my mind, savoured the different aromas. I have seen the contraction and tension, the tightening up of my heart, and also known the expansion and relaxation, the simple joy of watching them feed. Layer upon layer of reaction and understanding have been there for me to peel back, to try and recognise that place where empty and full are one and the same. This is a journey of generosity, of letting go, of breaking through my limitations, of becoming, from inside out, the source of abundance that is our true nature. All this with a bucket of feed.

Like anything, feeding the birds is about just that - feeding the hungry, caring for those in need. But also like everything else, it contains the potential to be a method of change. Of changing my mind, my heart, my view of the world. When I look out the window at the stunted apple tree, its only fruit a bounty of thistle-filled feeders laden with finches, I am deeply joyful. When, a day later the feeders are emptied, and the small birds fly about urgently, looking for food, I am saddened. And, almost immediately, worried that I don't have enough, and how will I get more. Again and again this scenario plays out. But I urge myself to feed them, and in so doing also myself, because the source of true nourishment is the willingness to change and the confidence to let go of old habits.

This month is National Wild Bird Feeding month, and so I have favour to ask. Feed some birds, it won't cost much, and watching them feed will bring great pleasure. And as you do, make a prayer or a wish that not only these birds, but every bird, and not only every bird, but every being shall never again know hunger. That instead of poverty there will be abundance, where bowls are empty they will be filled. I promise you from the depths of my heart that this will sow seeds of great joy, for you, for all of us, which eventually will bear the sweet fruit of fulfillment.

Monday, February 12, 2007

it's raining (in L.A.)

Beginning about 24-hours ago, on yesterday's morning walk, we have been moistened with rain. Sometimes mere sprinkles, followed by deluges that make the tin roofs rattle. One such deluge kept me welcome company in the hours of the night, as I did my shift on our monthly prayer vigil. The dogs wondered what the new adventure was, that i left home at 12.40 am and did not return till after 5, pouring myself into bed. Of course, by 8 am it didn't matter any more, to them, it was TIME!! So here I sit a little discombobulated by lack of - and broken - sleep. I return for the next 4 hours in a little over an hour, and then all three of us living here will join together in a Tsok offering, a joyful celebration of the chance to share in prayer for the benefit of the world. I am honoured at the opportunity - how many people never even know to pray - although I undoubtedly complain, and my eyes get droopy in those wee dark hours, when mantra and visualisation can swirl in my brain. Of course, we are lucky here, because our lives are flexible, and we support each other in working with the rescue dogs today : we are all in the same boat.
The earth was softened chocolate on today's walk, the air scented with a tangy, citrus promise. The creek has risen several inches, the water no longer clear. Gypsy picked her way tentatively across the sometimes submerged rocks. Nyima and Milo? Well, guess! I had the wellingtons on and, like Gypsy, chose my path carefully. We are two old ladies, who like routine and sleep.
We expected rain, because it had been raining in LA. We are just a scissor snip across the land from that city of lost dreams, and its weather becomes ours within a space of of about a day.
It doesn't take that long for other LA patterns to reach us. Gossip travels much faster than clouds; my computer screen has been inundated with news of Anna-Nicole Smith, since probably the very moment her death became public. Photo after photo, story after story, as the world dissects and feasts on the tragedy of her life, and now the repercussions of her death.
I know very few actual details of her life - saw a smattering of her story once on CNN - knew, of course (via computer), of the birth of her baby, the death of her son. Her presence has been unavoidable, and continues to be so, as fights erupt over her home, her child, no doubt her wealth. People step forward to speak, to argue, to pontificate, to challenge, to define the life of this woman who is considered public property.
In my radical feminist youth, I was angry at the dichotomy of the world view about women - so often to be reviled or revered; damned whores or god's police, in the words of an Australian feminist author. Somehow Ann-Nicole's death reminds me of that, she having reached the pinnacle - Playmate of the whatever - of that which some may consider to be on the side of the fallen woman. I don't feel angry now, but saddened, both for the tragedy and suffering she seems to have endured, and for the society I live in which equally condones and critiques the quest for happiness our society lays out, which she was trying to follow.
We live in degenerate times; this is what the Buddha spoke of. I don't mean degenerate in a holier- than- thou way, of sinner and saint, of evil-doers dancing with satan. We live in a time of great confusion, where we reward desire : for beauty, fame, wealth, to have our pictures on the cover of magazines, and these become the perceived mileposts on the journey for happiness and fulfillment . We measure success by these things, and are taught to yearn for them, so much so that, I read recently, it is not unheard of for people to die because of lipo-suction surgery. To die for beauty, like the anorexic models.
And we feast on the highs and lows of people who make it : their weight loss and gain, their addictions and flare-ups, their betrothals and divorces, the grainy pictures barely discernible, and yet of such great value. Angelina is adored because she adopts a baby; Madonna is criticised for doing the same. In a way, the actions don't really matter, it is the value we place on them that counts, which can rise and fall like the stock market. As long as there is something to print and hang at the checkout.
Some years ago Jetsunma referred to our culture's obsession with the Hollywood sagas; she suggested instead that we study the lives of saints and enlightened beings, who were dedicated not to feeding desire, but to ending the suffering it causes. People who valued the resilient qualities of kindness and equanimity and generosity and humility. People who we know of now, not because they searched for fame, but because they lived humble lives committed to goodness. How much deeper and longer will the enduring qualities they brought into the world be present, than the fleeting image of who has made it on the covers today.
I feel sorrow for Anna-Nicole Smith, because she is not so different than me; i too, have placed beauty and fame, the yearning for a child, high on my list of priorities. It is just that my karma provided me with a chance to make different choices, know different outcomes. All she was trying to do was find happiness in the way she thought best, much like you and me. Instead, her life seems to have been sprinkled with great suffering. And now she has met her death.
That is the great leveller of which she reminds us: whatever actions we choose or pursue, we will all die, leaving behind us those things we placed so much value upon. Her mansion, her child her litigations - hollow victories, or losses - now. All that she has taken with her is the habit of confusion, of not being able to discern what will truly bring happiness. That is all any of us carry past our last breath.
She is in my prayers, as is her baby born into turmoil, the men now jostling to claim what she has left behind, her family - everyone affected by this saga, which accounts for probably the entire media- aware population in this nation, if not the world. I wish peace for her, clarity - that in her future she may have the chance for different choices and outcomes, which bring true happiness, not its tawdry imitation.
What if, instead of tearing her life and death apart to feast on, we all - every single one of us - said a prayer for her, for everyone trapped in the cycle of desire and despair. What a blessing - not just for her, but also for us, for the world. A moment in which our hearts collectively soften and open, not to judge her life or her choices or those now rushing forward in rivalry, but to weep for the tragedy we all somehow share in, and to pray for a world where suffering has ceased. In that moment of quiet and contemplation, the axis of the world would shift. May this be Anna-Nicole's final - and most precious - gift to each of us.

Friday, February 09, 2007


summer time bird feeding

Tonight, while de-cluttering the kitchen, moving this over there and removing that altogether, I thought about renunciation; not an easy idea for us in the west to be with. Implications of loss, reduction, contraction. Shaving back with a blunt razor, a process likely to create painful wounds that we fear may never heal.
The decision for me to take robes, become a nun, was neither painless nor simple. Although the idea rose quickly in my mind after my life intersected with my teacher, just as it had floated in my mind in my youth, it was not a straightforward choice. My life appeared happy: I was in a long-term relationship that had weathered some difficult times, yet was in a place of unity and joy. I owned a house I had bought spontaneously because it felt like home: open, spacious, safe, and in which we both lived. I had 3 cats and a dog who had been with me for many years, and were my children. My ambition to be a writer seemed almost to be within reach, with some awards and publications. I was in the place I thought I had wanted to be for a very long time.
But the ground began to creak, a subtle tremor of uncertainty, of another possibility rippled across my heart. Nothing huge like a billboard announcing a change, just a quivering that something most fundamental had shifted. It was both welcome and not; there was a sense of knowing I was moving to where I had always yearned to be, though I did not know where that was, and yet there was a deep abiding reluctance to let go of that which I cherished. There was panic and tears, waves of anguish, moments of joy. Certainty that I would stay in my life as it was, jarred by the realization that that was no longer even a possibility. It was a long painful minuet, of coming together and separation and coming together again. We talked, I prayed, I searched for an answer. I clung tearfully to everything I had known, trying to stay afloat, while at the very same time watching my life as it had been recede like the tide. It was a long 18 months of coming to terms with that which, from the very beginning, was ultimately inevitable. In a sense, although I made the choice, I knew I had no option.
During this time, as the decision grew nearer, I contemplated renunciation. I knew that in taking the vows there was a list of things I would renounce – activities, my hair, my clothes. My earrings! But somehow this was not really what my heart was telling me about the essence of renunciation. As I moved into the place of letting go of what had been important, there was never a sense of reduction, but one of expansion. As if shedding an old ragged coat and discovering a jeweled mantle, long hidden beneath. I knew I was stepping into the vast unknown of unlimited potential: not giving anything up, but rather embracing so much more.
In a sense we are continually letting go: acquisition, then loss, it is a habit of our lives. Buddhist or not, we live through the coming together and separation, the picking up and laying down, the moving towards and then away – even until the moment when we will renounce the very act of inhalation. This is the form and texture of our roller-coaster lives. Whether we like it or not, it is our daily experience.
Becoming a nun was the method for me to make sense of the world and how to move through it; it was a catalyst to propel me to a place where I can know from the inside out the true nature of what is. But it is not the only way forward; renunciation has many hues and tones. It is a view of the world, of digging deeper in yourself and, yes, perhaps of shaving back to a sometimes aching wound. Yet knowing with certainty it will heal. It is a life-long process of being willing to look, review, change. To promise in one’s heart to make a difference for the better, and then having the courage to take those steps. It is a commitment to being whom you truly are – kind, generous, wise, open-minded. It is neither static nor contrived: it is movement, growth, unfolding.
There is a line in one of our prayers that resonates with me: The Bodhicitta is without expectation or disappointment. The Bodhicitta, that great and wise compassion always present in every heart. In a way, renunciation is simply the means to realize this, to understand that there is nothing to yearn for or to let go of. Renunciation is about discovering the wealth in our hearts and our lives, and rejoicing. There is nothing small or tight or diminished by renunciation. It is the tilt of your head towards the sunshine, the prickling of your skin by the breeze, it is the sound of the ocean in a shell. Renunciation is abandoning everything that will cause suffering, and embracing instead the very cause of joy. It is not just about being a nun; it is about being true to your heart, for the sake of the world and all creatures.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Live Action!

A brief interlude from words today ( although posts are piling up in my mind: I must have pushed the 'write' button!)
Here are 2 videos that were passed on to me; i am sure many of you have seen one or both, but I have watched each several times.
Seemingly different in mode, and yet....? actually the message is identical. And the contrast of lifestyles betwen the first and the second only sharpens the message. Seen side-by-side, their impact is somehow even greater.
Most powerfully touching for me are the words spoken by the Mongolian man at the very end of the first video. He epitomises what Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, a revered teacher and holder of the Shambhala Buddhist lineage, skillfully reminds us in the second video.
May you - and everyone - find happiness!

Sunday, February 04, 2007


I am not very good at history, at least remembering the details. It was always a favourite subject at school; the sense of exploring the past, uncovering what had been, how people thought, what they wore and ate. Like probably many other children, I dreamed of time machines (I don't know if the Tardus means much to anyone who grew up in the US: did Dr Who make it here?).
So I am ignorant of much of Australia's history, with any detailed accuracy. Yet some years ago I took a journey into a corner of my own family's past, a journey of remembering lives that lead to mine, and a journey of reconciliation.
Like the USA, Australia, as a white person's land, is relatively new, although it had been inhabited for thousands of years by its indigenous people. Members of my family were early explorers and settlers, some of whom had direct first contact with Aboriginal people. I read stories, journals of my not-so-distant forbears, including passages written by my mother's mother, herself a writer. My grandmother, who had held my hand as we walked in the park, collecting pine cones in the wintery morning of our nation's capital city. And my grandfather, who had delighted me by wiggling his ears, and whose coat always seemed to fit us both in.
It was a complex form of time travel, remembering things that somehow seemed so intimate, as these people and I are connected so closely and directly. How do i draw the line between them and me, when i can name them each and every one, and their relationship with me?
I uncovered stories both good and horrific; of an abandoned baby raised by my family, who grew up i am sure within a confusion of culture. Of ideas which to me seem so horrendously prejudiced, and yet which reflect the social milieu of the time. Of Aboriginal people shot and killed through fear. Of words which somehow describe the Aboriginal people as less than human. A coming together of worlds so different that it is in a way not suprising that so much suffering ensued. On every side.
This journey took me inside the mirror, not only of my family, but of my society, my country. It was a peeling back of the skin to try and understand and embrace the place in which I grew up. For many people in Australia, the recent decades have been a journey of reconciliation, for our history, although so short, is littered with bodies and cruelty and children torn from their families, even during my lifetime. Perhaps, sometimes, the motivation was to be of benefit, yet it caused so much pain and hardship and suffering for a whole country of people, invaded.
My salve was writing, exposing this journey on paper, in much the same way as I discovered it. Trying to make sense of the senseless; to reconcile the deep love I felt for my grandparents with the way they had viewed the world. To open my heart and try not to judge. To weep for the dead, and those that had killed them. To not perpetuate the divide, as best as I can, by again sowing the seeds of hatred and blame. To find forgiveness for that which seems unforgiveable.
And to discover the compassion in my own heart. For it must be there, of that I am sure.
Although I did not know it as a researched, read and wrote, those pages paved the beginning of my connection to this Path. As i struggled to come to terms with the enormity and intimacy of my family's and my country's actions, i was beginning to truly learn to be with kindness. To shift my angle of view, to try and let judgement fall, to know that they acted, as I do, from bewildering ignorance of the effects of our choices and actions. That this past is my own, and I cannot deny it, but i have the potential to create a new future.
During the process of writing, I took refuge with my teacher and began Ngondro, a foundational practice. I then won a fellowship to work on the book, and the writing and my path wove together, like my heartbeat and breath. Each day for three weeks i did practice and wrote. And contemplated. It was a watershed juncture in my life, which step after step has lead me to here, although of course at that time such a journey was beyond my thoughts.
I was reminded of this when I received an email from Australia about an event, not from our distant past, but from now. An Aboriginal man, Mulrunji, was in 2004 beaten so severely while in police custody that, according to the coroner, his liver was cleaved. He died on the floor of his cell. An independent enquiry has found enough evidence to charge Senior Sgt Hurley with manslaughter, but there is opposition from the police force to taking such action.
Aboriginal deaths in custody have been so common in Australia that a federal enquiry was instigated from 1987-1990, to investigate the situation. It found "There are few people in the Aboriginal community who have not been touched by a death in custody". It also uncovered the complexity and suffering of a people invaded, taken prisoner, humiliated, made subject to government ruling, and so on. A people who lived from and within a country, with intricate laws and beliefs that we did not, do not, understand, and because they seemed so foreign, alien, we did not know to respect and honour them. And so in a very short a space of time a tragedy unfolded. And continues today.
Australia is not unique, the world is checkered with history such as this. We are human, fallible and caught in a web of confusion, of them and us. It played out then, and sadly still does; our planet totters from one inhumanity to another, each and every day.
The wounds we inflict are our own, for we cannot unravel the threads that link our actions to their results, or others from us. There is no them and us, not really. I found this as i journeyed through my family's history, trying to find a place of respite, of reconciliation. There is only one such place: within my heart, or yours. That is where we can meet the perceived enemies and know their hearts beat in rhythm with ours, that their exhalation becomes our next breath. 'They' are not different from us in their essence, we only see it that way. Family, country, world. Me. You. It's all we have, it's what we share. May we all reach the common ground of open-minded kindness and equality that is the foundation of change.