the work of practice

Standing at the han every morning of Rohatsu was a practice of noting the preferential mind.  This is a North-facing door and when one side was open the wind ripped through the little room.  Thankfully, I was protected by the door directly in front which kept the wind from blowing onto me.  I’m not sure I really noticed the cold anyway; I was so focused on the sequence and timing of the strikes that a troop of marauding yeti would have got pass me.  One morning, one of the teachers came by and gently closed the door  saying, “It doesn’t have to be open all the way in this cold.  It’s too cold for you.”  I bowed gratefully and stood there as the wind bounced off the door and funneled directly onto me.  Good intentions.  I did open the door fully when the teacher left and later we had a good laugh about helping hands.

Kornfield explains in Bringing Home the Dharma that we can get stuck on the pleasant aspects of our experience.  Freedom only comes when we fully experience and then release whatever is present, “no matter how beautiful or how painful.”

As we stay present with mindful and wise attention, we notice three things will happen to our experience: it will go away, it will stay the same for a while, or it will get more intense.  Which of these occurs is none (of) our business! Our job is to allow the experience of the phenomenal world to unfold in all its infinite richness — to see, hear, smell, taste, touch, and think, to rest in mindfulness and freedom at the center of it all.  (pp. 88-89)

This is really helpful, when I’m stuck in these awkward or painful experiences, to know that the shifting is not my job.  Or more correctly, preventing the shift is not in my job description.  Staying present to it is, and while you may wonder at the wisdom of standing in a North wind, being present allowed me to “think” calmly and act skillfully.  A rare moment, I’m sure will not shake up the universe too soon again.  But seriously, my other bag of tricks is to get angry or frustrated or to wish everyone could see how much I’m suffering and for them to launch a rescue effort.  It was just so much easier to note that the teacher was trying to help and that I could simply open the door again – close it fully.

Choices.  Just a quiet way of not giving away my power.

Kornfield brings home the dharma

Jack Kornfield has written the book I’ve been waiting for.  The self-centeredness of that sentence probably is a good clue that I need the wisdom in his new book, now more than ever.  Bringing Home the Dharma, available from Shambhala Publications is a jewel and – if you’re into expectations of ever-increasing levels of insight – a worthy follow-up to his previous in-depth exploration of Buddhist concepts, The Wise Heart.  

One of the first things that impressed me in Bringing Home the Dharma is that it is not a recap or re-configured version of all his previous writings.  Sometimes teachers tend to re-package – and sometimes shamelessly – their words and ideas which truly diminishes the trust we have in their own growth.  Kornfield however has taken the droplets of dharma rain, collected them in little cups, and flavoured them with his own spiritual maturity.   They are offered to the reader, chapter by chapter, and when sipped with mindful attention to the subtle flavour, these moments are refreshingly honest examinations of practice.

He starts with the practice of mindfulness “as fearless presence.”  This is important because too often I find myself feeling very much the embodiment of the Cowardly Lion(ness) or just a nincompoop on a zafu.  “(Mindfulness) lets experience be the teacher.”  In one sentence, Kornfield erases the self-denigration that arises about  the experience and restores our lived experience to its rightful place as guide and mentor.  He describes the diligence necessary (yes, there is effort required) and the cultivation of awareness as something that “sits on our shoulder” respectfully noting the passing sensations.  

More important, Kornfield does not shy away from the shadow side of awareness (or any of the other skills we cultivate in practice).  He names them with such emphasis that we can no longer fool ourselves about the authenticity of our meditative or any other practice experience.  In fact, my favourite chapter, and one which I will return to over and over again, is Perils, Promises, and Spiritual Emergency on the Path.  There are explanations and revelations in that chapter about the side effects of meditation, the traps for the ego, and what in Zen we call “Zen sickness.”  I could feel frustrated as I think back to all those I have asked about these experiences and from whom I got some vague reply or a sense that I was somehow lacking.  But now feeling validated that my gut instinct said these experiences were a detour from practice makes up for it.  

Unfortunately (or not), the next two chapters on the near enemies of awakening and the bodhisattva way are not as luminous.  The concepts are not as well articulated and the writing tends to wander a bit.  There is almost a sense of trying to do too much, trying to integrate too many approaches to the Dharma so we can each, in our varied “yanas’  identify with the book as a whole.  But somehow I didn’t feel negatively about it; likely proof that the earlier chapters transformed my usual tendency to throw the whole index out with the disappointing chapters.  Regardless, Kornfield picks up the tight writing and confident pace for the rest of the book.  

The over-arching style of the book is a willingness, a generosity in imparting what he calls a “mandala of skillful means” to wakening.  You can’t ask for more from a teacher who has met his own demons, shares that experience openly, and who – based on the last two chapters – appears to be embarking on a new journey of guiding the emerging Buddhayana in the West.  I’m not sure I’m ready for all this consolidation and integration of various streams into one massive river; it feels too risky.  But the confidence and enthusiasm that Kornfield exudes in the final chapters at least has me curious and watching with awareness on my shoulder noting it all respectfully.

Over this week, I’ll post a few snippets and reflections from Bringing Home the Dharma by Jack Kornfield.