A confluence of events that appear to cancel each other out has left me with a bit of a mash up post. Frank & I are in an Advent pattern awaiting the arrival of our first Grandchild, nominally referred to as The Gr’Kid, Child of The Kid. I suppose that makes us Gr’Pa & Gr’Ma and you psycho-analytic folks can tell me why I refrain from the prefix “Grand.” Likely “Grand” is quite the misleading handle because my Grandiosity in asking that this child not arrive at a time that disrupted my plans for Summer Practice Ango and Rohatsu were resolutely ignored.
It’s an interesting time, this blossoming of a branch in the ancestral tree. Becoming part of the Elders, adding to the Ancestral Lineage is not quite what I thought I’d be doing at this age and stage. Then again I have no idea what I thought I’d be doing other than continuing to make a delicious mess of my life. And that, my friends, is practice. When it can be done by the book, it’s luxurious. It’s a definite luxury to have a dedicated time to get away and hunker down with like-minded souls for this very special time of the year. I’ve always treasured it. But who knows, given all the special birthdays to come with the Gr-Kid, when I may return to that orbit of sitting with a large sangha, leaning into the rising of the morning star. Time to get creative!
As I write this, I’m sitting cross-legged on a double-bed in a hotel just outside a military base where I will spend this next week working. Across from me, between the TV and the fridge, is a small space in which I’ve placed my zafu on the strip of blanket hotels now use to decorate the beds. There is oatmeal and green tea on the counter. The fridge is filled with food for the week: lunches of couscous and orzo spiced with chorizo-flavoured ground soy. Dinner is set up: veggie biriyani and veggie vindaloo. Keep it simple. No one ever died from eating the same thing everyday for 6 days. (Though my dear friend Barry of Ox Herding had a different story involving lentils on his 100-day solitary retreat!) I’ll be offline from social media and as much as possible off emails. At work, speech and activities will be kept functional (pleasantly so). Meditations are scheduled three times a day or more.
And now, the teachings. The coming of the Gr’Kid opens up a need for stories and my story-telling skills. No, not the story-telling that gets me deluded about my path and practice. The other kind. The kind of story-telling that opens the heart and enlivens the senses. For that we go to Rafe Martin’s Endless Path: Awakening within the Buddhist imagination: Jataka tales, Zen practice, and daily life. How appropriate!
Endless Path is a collection of “original tellings” of the Jataka tales with this compilation reflecting the ten paramitas. This is particularly interesting for me (Gr’Kid notwithstanding) as I was simultaneously slogging through Gombrich’s What the Buddha Thought and his proposal that the Buddha ethicized practice (actually he ethicized karma but practice is karma and vice versa). Rafe Martin is an exquisite story-teller, not only for his transmission of the story itself but for his magical ability to turn us into the storyline. There is no getting away from the ethics that underpin each Jataka tale. And, the amazing artwork by Richard Wehrman is captivating and fires the imagination (also check out Richard’s poetry!).
The first tale is “The Hungry Tigress” and tells of the Buddha’s early incarnation in which he offers himself up to the starving tigress so that her cubs may live. An act of generosity, of selfless giving – dana paramita. Martin’s commentary follows each luscious telling of a Jataka tale. He reaches into a long history of Zen teachings, koans, relationships with his own teachers, and his own practice to draw out the juice of each story. His writing flows like a teisho (some are), it collects in eddies of insights from this experience and then breaks out over that experience. Each chapter, each paramita is a contemplation.
Of course, I have my favourites. The Gentle Heart Jataka taught me aspects of sila (ethics) and informed a talk I gave to our sangha. The Blue Bear Jataka came at just the right time when I needed reminding of forbearance. Prince Five-Weapons made me laugh out loud (in Starbucks) but I wasn’t too impressed with his stubbornness in defeating the Sticky Hair Monster; maybe I over-identified with him. The Black Hound taught me Upaya or skillful means but I wasn’t too sure how well I’d be greeted threatening to set the pups loose on a village if they didn’t shape up; somehow a bit of street cred would be missing. The Monkey King, Great Joy the Ox, and others gave me cause to re-perceive my practices. Martin’s commentaries offered ways in which that practice could happen anywhere, anytime.
But most of all, what Endless Path teaches is that all the paramitas are but one: dana paramita. We practice to embody dana, to give freely of our time, effort, energy, patience, and love.
So I ask you to take this week, this time that is a time for ripening our practice. Sit where and as you can. Sit even when it seems impossible – because that’s just a story of why we sit. And I’ll see you all on the other side of the rising morning star.