The Body Within the Body
Prior to becoming known as the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama tried his best to completely transcend the limits of the body by fasting. It didn’t work. When he eventually began to teach, he spoke of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, in no particular order:
Awareness of feelings within feelings.
Awareness of mind within mind.
Awareness of the objects of mind within these objects.
Awareness of the body within the body.
“Within” as in not standing outside to analyze from a distance. Feeling our feelings as they pass. And perceiving the arising and falling away of mental objects.
Why, then, does the body seem to get such short shrift among Dharma practitioners? I believe that many of us arrive to practice wishing to be free of the wounds of trauma, a common response to which is dissociation from the body itself. Dharma practice promises relief, and without often realizing it, we want this to mean relief from this very body as perhaps the site of so much pain. I myself spent at least a decade trying to meditate my way into some sort of pure awareness outside of this body. We can maybe visit this place, but no one lives there. Emptiness is form, and the attempt to privilege one over the other makes practice incomplete and untenable, because fundamentally misguided.
The Dharma speaks of three fields of practice: body, speech, and mind. There it is again, this body, asking to be included.
Maybe a hundred years ago, the forest tradition of Buddhism was reawakened in Thailand with a few teachers and their students. One of the great masters to emerge was Ajahn Chah, and my memory is of hearing this from a student of his: After many years practicing, this monk was told to practice “awareness of the body within the body.” At first, he felt like a graduate student being sent back to kindergarten, but he respected his teacher enough to comply. He would soon come to value this practice as the most advanced of the ones he had tried.
I recently completed my first ultramarathon, a 31-mile footrace through mostly singletrack trail — which is to say, I ran in the woods for seven hours. I had done bike races as long, a number of years ago before the injuries, but what made this one special was a new joy I hadn’t known. This time, I brought my body with me and the celebration of it as well. How lucky to be in this life while it lasts.
The Buddha said “the body is a mirage.” It’s ephemeral; it doesn’t last. This is not to say that it’s not important, or worse, that it doesn’t matter.
On the Family Retreat in September, Do Myeong Kelly Henley taught yoga classes every day, as she has been doing since we started these retreats four years ago. Although she’s also been a Zen practitioner for many years now, it might be hubris to claim any role of the Dharma in the fact that she’s the gold standard of yoga teachers. We were doing some pose this year, and as always there was a sizeable gap between what she demonstrated and what I was able to pull off. It might have been something she said — more probably the whole tone of her teaching — added to my own prior attempts to inhabit this body with kindness, but maybe for the first time in similar situations, I didn’t find myself thinking this own body incomplete until some future time as I could replicate what she was doing. I twisted into my own limit and was there already complete. There truly is no other shore.
Kindness toward the body within the body.
Koho Vince Anila
Trauma experts speak of something called the OODA loop to describe the process of decision-making. First, we Observe a situation: What is this? We then Orient ourselves to it: What is my relationship to it? Next, we Decide on a course of action, and finally we Act. We do this all the time, often seamlessly, but where it gets really tricky are situations that are both stressful and novel, where we can get stuck in orientation. We wonder why this person is attacking me instead of defending ourselves or trying to flee. We freeze when gunfire erupts. To borrow a classic Buddhist metaphor, we wonder who shot us with the arrow; wonder why; who made the arrow; take pains to understand its construction, all while bleeding out.
In the interview room at our temple, I sometimes ask people “What color is this?” as I point to a meditation mat that’s clearly brown. Rarely do people say “it’s brown,” and if they do, rarely will they stick by it. They wonder what else I may be asking them, what Zen sleight of hand is happening. Analysis in our lives is useful, of course; even necessary. But we get stuck there; get stuck in the past and future and learn to trust neither the present moment nor our relationship to it. Sometimes, though, the cushion is just brown in no uncertain terms, and it doesn’t matter who says otherwise.
The First Noble Truth is “there is suffering.” Not “all life is suffering,” but life contains suffering. It’s really quite a radical first thing to say as a teacher. Many spiritual philosophies begin with the promise of suffering’s circumvention, but not only is the existence of suffering true, but beginning (and continuing) our journey with the complete acceptance of this truth can help prevent us from thinking, “if only X, then I wouldn’t suffer.” If only I had more money, or were more spiritually enlightened or . . . ad nauseum. If you stub your toe, though, it’s still gonna suck no matter who you are.
The word that Shakyamuni Buddha used for “suffering” is instructive — or at least the closest equivalent we have to whatever it was that he actually said, because his teachings weren’t written down until beginning a couple hundred years after his death, in a literary language called “Pali.” The Pali word “dukkha” is almost always translated into English as “suffering,” but more literally means “hard to face.” So “dissatisfaction” is a possible alternative.
The Second Noble Truth is often lazily translated as “suffering is caused by desire,” so that people immediately reach the conclusion that the whole project of Buddhism is to get rid of all desire. But I’ll save you some time: you can’t. And you shouldn’t try. If you had absolutely no desires, you wouldn’t eat or drink, and you would die. What fun is that? And who in their right mind would ever try to eradicate the desire that their child not get run over by a school bus? Yes, there is suffering in this for me as a father, worrying about my daughter. But so what? The First Noble Truth always abides alongside the others. We continue to accept a certain amount of suffering; indeed, to speak of compassion is to speak of “suffering with.” We are not bad if we experience suffering; we are human. And at any rate, the Buddha is not setting up here good vs bad, but dissecting what is true.
The closest we can come to whatever word he used that usually gets translated as “desire” is “tanha,” which literally means “thirst.” Obviously, some thirst is so useful that for us, the word itself is synonymous with our relationship to one of our most basic needs: water. But we develop thirst relationships to so many unnecessary things as well: gambling, drugs, winning arguments, and my personal favorite, new bicycle parts. It’s not difficult to see that as I lust after a new set of wheels, I cultivate dissatisfaction, and in that moment, eradicate any sort of gratitude and appreciation for the wheels that I already own. To the extent that our tanha is endless, so too is the sort of suffering that Buddhism speaks of.
The Third Noble Truth is simply that because “dukkha” has its root in “tanha,” it can be uprooted by the cultivation of its opposite, a radical appreciation of the fact that we’re always already home in the present moment; always already connected to everything else.
And the Fourth Noble Truth is the practice of this appreciation, often called the Noble Eightfold Path: “wholesome” or “upright” view, intention, speech, conduct, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration. No mere list of disparate things to memorize, we can simply see that the whole of our existence is included in Buddhist practice. The Eightfold Path is traditionally depicted as a wheel with eight spokes, and any cyclist who has ever broken a single spoke can tell you how important every single spoke is for the wheel to run true. Nothing gets left out. It has never from the beginning been the case that practice happens only on the meditation cushion, for example. And perhaps especially salient for today, as mindfulness is increasingly taught in isolation, we can see that mindfulness was traditionally never presented devoid of ethical practices as well.
–Koho Vince Anila
From Still Point member Hwa Ja Bill Secrest:
“Religion is supposed to be a path for full human development . . . If we human beings want to survive with any graciousness on this planet, we need to affirm and share each other’s religious practice rather than continue to use religion as a way to further divide us.” –Zoketsu Norman Fischer, Everyday Zen Foundation
In this spirit, the Still Point Interfaith Council is forming to share our Dharma and presence with the Southeast Michigan neighborhood. For several years, our Dharma Teachers have been making presentations and participating in the burgeoning Detroit Metro Interfaith movement. Our guiding teacher Koho was recently invited to offer the meal dedication at the Detroit Interfaith Leadership Council annual dinner before 400 attendees from all manner of spiritual walks.
All who are interested in taking our Dharma to the street are invited to sign on.
We aim to:
–Share our practice at events, conferences, schools, and religious institutions.
–Join in community-wide interfaith service projects
–Offer field trips and seminars to Still Pointers who wish to learn more about the spiritualities of our neighbors
–Open-mindedly bear witness and heal.
If interested, please write Hwa Ja Bill Secrest, c/o Still Point at stillpointabbey at gmail dot com
I sometimes get asked about different Buddhist temples and teachers, especially by people from Still Point who move elsewhere. Aside from this or that random teacher or temple, I’m usually pretty useless when it comes to recommending anything: Zen (and Buddhism, more generally) in America (as everywhere) is a wide field, and there are many of us doing many different things.
But I always tell people two things. The first was something that I was lucky enough to figure out as I went: trust yourself. A temple or teacher might be “perfect” in every way, but just not a good fit for you personally. No problem. Trust that. What does your intuition say about being there? How does it feel? Is your being corrected at times by the teacher (or in some places, by almost anyone) meant to serve you, or does it really just serve the person doing the correcting? I don’t mean that it should always feel comfortable — honest Dharma practice is sometimes deeply uncomfortable — but it should feel right, and your own wisdom is probably the only proper arbiter between those two things.
And the second thing is something my teacher once told me: if you really want to know what you need to know about a place, look at the senior students. It’s too easy for those of us in big robes to manage appearances if we want to by entering and exiting through special doors, maybe, and saying only what we want to say at predetermined hours. But the senior students: are they cold and manipulative? Warm and inviting? Do they seem to withhold, or do they seem to have nothing to hide? When they offer you tea, what, if anything, do they expect in return?
Do they show up to actually practice, and are they messy sometimes, and do they apologize? If you can answer yes to all three of these, good luck finding a better spiritual home anywhere.
An Invitation to Transcendence
by Still Point Dharma Student Jeong Gak Eric L. Wilkins
I am just now coming home from our temple’s half-day silent retreat. I look forward to these monthly retreats at my beloved Still Point Zen Buddhist Temple only a stone’s throw away from Wayne State University in mid-town Detroit. The atmosphere of us as a handful of dedicated spiritual practitioners is very akin to the reverence I experienced a week ago at the presentation of the International Buddhist Relics Tour in the Fountain Street Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I imagine that hundreds of people of various religious traditions attended.
How strange it is for me to think back to when I first experienced the Relics. I was in the middle of completing close to 3 years in a California prison. My previous addiction and consequent lifestyle led me to become the middleman in countless small time drug sales. It was near the beginning of the summer of 2008 that I began my time at Donovan State prison just outside the city of San Diego where I had been running amuck for almost 30 years. When I finally arrived at the prison yard where I was to do all my time, I came across the yard chapel & discovered a flyer in the window promoting Buddhist Services every other week. I could hardly believe my luck since I had just decided to not only read Dharma books but also practice twice daily meditation. It was about a year into my sentence when Lien, one of the Buddhist volunteers who came regularly to inspire & support our practice, went out of her way to have the Relics brought into the prison for us, the inmates. Imagining myself to be a no-nonsense Zen student, I felt this Relics ceremony to be far outside the realm of my spiritual needs. However, since having anything beneficial or positively productive happen within the prison compound is so rare, I decided to attend anyway. I was unexpectedly moved by being there, participating in the circumambulation of the Relics and receiving a blessing by the visiting monk in traditional robes. Once it was over and the routine of prison life came rushing in, I felt the air to remain spiritually electrified by simply having been in the presence of the Relics; but how?
Why do so many people of so many faiths flock to stand before the Relics? Perhaps it is due to the core need of most human beings to connect to that which transcends a mundane world stained by greed, hostility and delusion. Perhaps it is because we intuit this transcendence as being the fundamental substance within fabric of reality as we carry on with our daily lives through the stresses, joys and traumas. As one stands before the Relics with others also called to be there, that transcendence is literally palpable. It floods the air, fills the heart and lungs and comes to life in the vary faces of all in attendance. My words cannot capture the beauty and the mystery of how such a miracle is possible in these modern technological times in which we crave a solid definitive answer for everything we experience.
Having been in the presence of the Relics this last time has reaffirmed my commitment to maintaining diligence in my daily spiritual practice as a link to sanity and for the good of all living beings. At the late age of 55 I am currently a senior in Wayne State University’s Bachelor of Social Work program as I work my way towards becoming a clinical therapist specializing in substance abuse, anxiety & depression. My devotion to regular spiritual practice easily connects me to the core values of this helping profession. The Relics remind me, within the brilliant full force of their holiness, that transcendence does not lay outside my everyday human experience or anyone else’s. The Relics remind me that moment-to-moment the preciousness of life is a priceless gift, even when my emotions or appetites may scream otherwise. The Relics radiate the very depths of a sacred silence that continues to welcome me home and they sing an ineffable unified chorus throughout my blood, bone and tissues.
(My dream of volunteering during the Relics time in Grand Rapids was nearly thwarted only days before the planned departure. The kind intervention of the Volunteer Coordinator, Trisha Gosling, set the tone of this event as she supported the tireless efforts of Venerable Norbu and Amanda – the Relics Tour attendants and all the other selfless volunteers. I would also like to thank Victoria Coleman, the Maitreya Loving Kindness Relics Tour Director. It was her reply to an email I had sent back in 2011 that notified me of the Relics Tour coming to Michigan. She put me in touch with Theresa Pearce of the Fountain Street Church whom then connected me to Trisha Gosling overseeing the volunteers. I also need to thank Julie Schullo of the Dominican Sisters Retreat Center at Marywood for generously providing my wife and I with lodgings so I could volunteer for multiple days. Finally I would like to thank my darling wife Margrit whose support and encouragement has steadily been present as the movement of the Dharma has transformed my life from selfish addiction & apathy to insight, clarity, positive community involvement, and the attainment of many educational goals.)
May 2003 Dharma Talk by Still Point Founding Teacher P’arang Geri Larkin.
In The Flower Ornament Sutra, a good part of the ninth chapter is about Buddha helping us to wake up. He keeps throwing truths out into the crowd, right and left. So much energy is generated by his teachings that the bodhisattvas surrounding him can’t keep their mouths shut! So they also start shouting teachings right and left. It is hilarious. They are just too happy to sit still.
Then a wonderful sentence appears: “Always rejoicing, they go to all lands to explain such a teaching for all.”
When I first read it, it stopped me in my tracks. Always rejoicing. Not, “sometimes rejoicing”, or “occasionally rejoicing”. Always.
Rejoicing is about making glad or happy. When I was in China, years ago, I am embarrassed to admit how surprised I was by how happy people were. I don’t know exactly what I thought I would see, but having read novels and history books about the cruelties of the communist regime I didn’t expect to hear laughter but I did. Uproarious laughter. I didn’t expect to see smiles but grins were everywhere.
Finally, well into the trip, I asked a young tour guide about it. We were standing outside of a temple, at its front door. He pointed to a sign over the entrance. “It says, “Ten thousand joys, ten thousand sorrows.” While it was true that the Chinese people had their share of sorrows, they also had an equal amount of joy in their lives. After our conversation I saw the sign everywhere. Joys and sorrows. Many. Both.
In this society it feels like we have the sorrows part down. We are skilled at being sad, pissed, depressed, angry, despair filled. I see these on a daily basis. What I don’t see as much is laughter, belly chortles, grins, smiles. Somehow, even when the news is good, even when a situation has beauty in it, we seem to have forgotten about rejoicing.
Maybe we all need “rejoice teachers”, people and animals (and plants) who can remind us that life is about sorrow, yes, but also about joy. I think of my granddaughter, Patty. She is still little. Three weeks ago I was in Portland, Oregon, teaching a “Building a Business the Zen Way” class for Dharma Rain. Patty lives near Portland. About twenty minutes before the end of the class I saw a movement out of the corner of my eye. Suddenly this little kid came racing straight at me, leapt onto me and velcroed herself to my hip. She was so thrilled to see me (as I was to see her!) that she wouldn’t move, wouldn’t stop laughing and hugging. She was filled with joy and her joy made the rest of us laugh and fill up with wide-grin-energy. A rejoice teacher.
My friends Sansae and Sanho have a tiny dog that cannot believe his good luck when you walk into their house. Every time I visit he literally jumps a couple of feet straight up, runs around me like there was no tomorrow, and does back flips because he just can’t keep his happiness inside. We always laugh at him. He always makes us laugh. Another rejoice teacher.
Or last weekend, at Still Point’s first ordination, Kogam was so happy when he received his kasa that he literally picked me up off the ground in a bear hug! I am fairly confident that his action was a first for an ordination. The whole room laughed with him. We were, in that moment, together rejoicing.
The sign over the Chinese temple didn’t say ten thousand sorrows, six hundred joys. Or ten thousand sorrows, one thousand joys. We get both. We get to rejoice. Let’s get out there and practice. Before we forget what it is like to be genuinely happy, to find reasons to rejoice, even in the middle of tough times.
REFUGE RECOVERY DETROIT
Starting September 25
MEETINGS EVERY THURSDAY, 6:45-7:45 p.m.
Refuge Recovery is a program of recovery from all types of addiction and the suffering caused by addiction. It uses Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path as its main inspiration and guiding philosophy. These meetings are based on the book, “Refuge Recovery: A Buddhist Path to Addiction Recovery” by Noah Levine. Meetings last one hour and include readings from this and other books as well as meditation practice and group sharing, with an emphasis on providing a community of support for its members. A donation is requested but not required for attendance. For more info, email:
Our whole lives, we breathe oxygen made by trees, watch our children grow into their own suchness, and share meals with friends, and yet still somehow run around in search of some other enlightenment. –Koho
The following is an Dharma Talk from January 2001 by our Founding Teacher, P’arang Geri Larkin. A “tiled floor” is mentioned because this was back when we were still over at the First UU Church on Cass Ave.
At Still Point we take our shoes off before we enter the meditation hall. It’s a bit of an irritation, because the tiled floor is cold inside the hall, and sometimes even a little bit dirty. But we do it any way, to show our respect for the room and to put less wear and tear on the floor. It doesn’t seem like a big deal either way, shoes/no shoes, but it is. It matters because it is a reminder that everything is precious, even cold dirty floors.
When I was in the seminary I spent a lot of time at the Zen Buddhist Temple in Chicago. At the time, we were renovating the building, which meant that I would go in and out of the building dozens of times in a day. Taking my shoes off got to be a pain. One time, at the end of a long day, I had to run back into the temple to get some paperwork for a contractor. I walked in, and instead of taking my shoes off, tiptoed into the room where the papers were. As karma would have it, my teacher was right there. He looked at me, looked at my shoes, and said, “P’arang, take off your shoes. I want to show you something.” Cringing, I followed him, prepared for a real dressing down. Instead he showed me a razor in his bathroom. “I have been using this razor for over twenty years. It has lasted because I take care of it. If you keep walking on the carpet with your shoes on we will need to replace it prematurely.”
He was right. At the beginning of every year, when we make resolutions to do better in various aspects of our lives, we sometimes overlook small actions that can have a huge impact. One is better caring for what we have. Like picking up chairs instead of sliding them over the floor. Or wiping off countertops so water doesn’t seep into crevices. Or taking our shoes off when we come inside.
So many Zen masters have said, “Be quick to do good” that I don’t even know who to credit with the quote. Maybe Dogen. What I do know is that we can all do better at this. I can wipe more counters, return phone calls sooner, sort the recycling more skillfully — just to name a few obvious shifts.
Spiritual effort always plays out in our everydays. It is fed by our attention to the details of our lives, and our caretaking of all of it. It is fed by our being quick to do good. Best of luck in this Year of the Dragon.