Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Finding a spiritual teacher- Is it a must?

If you take a look at my 43 Things profile, you’ll see that one of my goals is to find a spiritual teacher. I think this is a good goal, and have been also told many times how helpful this is to developing one’s Buddhist practice- or any practice for that matter.

However, I have also foreseen how difficult this will be, given my location and current state of flux between grad school and becoming a professional (could that actually be happening?!). I was not really frustrated about this, because it is just part of my present state of being. But I will admit that I have felt a little forlorn.

This is especially true since almost every book that discusses some personal experience with Buddhism refers to some important teacher figure. This constant reminder has, frankly, made me feel a bit lonely. When reading books by Thich Nhat Hahn, Thubten Chodron, and others, I have felt very close to their teachings. For a while, I really wanted someone I could go to directly for advice and encouragement.

Then it hit me. I actually enjoy thinking deeply about things and trying to figure them out for myself. Nobody told me that Buddhism was the best spiritual path for me. I alone made that decision- and have benefited greatly from it.

So to answer my original question, yes, I do believe that at some point, direct spiritual guidance from a trusted teacher is extremely beneficial. This is especially true for developing one’s meditation practice, since only a person who has experienced stages of spiritual growth can truly guide. Just don’t underestimate the importance of your own questions, discoveries and experiences.

Buddhist temple retreat: Simple etiquette and guidelines

That’s right, I have gone on a day retreat only once, and now I am the expert. But since I am reasonably sure that a lot of what I have written below is pretty standard, please bear with me. Also, don’t be afraid to add to what I have listed, or correct me if I am mistaken. Enjoy!

(The following information is also available on my 43Things profile)

Take off your shoes when you enter the temple. Cubbies, hangers, and shoe-racks are generally available to place your foot and outerwear.

Turn your cell phone OFF.

NEVER face your feet towards the altar at the front of the room, as it is a sign of disrespect.

In the Tibetan temple where I was, I was advised that when the monk came into the room to begin the teaching, everyone was to stand and adopt a bowed posture with hands in a 'namaste' gesture. Some people did prostrations towards the altar. Just do what feels best to you. (It was funny, this particular monk had a good sense of humor, and exclaimed- "C'mon everybody, don't be so formal- I just came to plug in my laptop!!" :)

If you will be sitting on a cushion during meditation, place a small cushion in front of you (if available). Dharma books, notes you take about the Dharma, mala beads, and Buddha statues should never be placed on the floor. This guideline also applies to Dharma materials at home.

You do not have to sit on a cushion during meditation. In the temple where I was, many comfortable chairs were available for seating. There is no 'wrong' seating for meditating- just be comfortable.

Make sure you have a wrap or sweater of some kind to put over your shoulders in case you get cold. I noticed that a lady sitting near me even used her folded pashmina shawl to support one of her legs as she sat in half-lotus position.

Wear comfortable, modest clothing (i.e. for ladies, loose yoga pants with a crew-neck shirt). Although many Western monks are more laid back than their Eastern counterparts, avoiding revealing clothing is a sign of respect to the monk who will be teaching you, your fellow attendees, and the practice itself.

Do not wear perfumes, colognes, or strong deodorants. I think this has something to do with the tradition of being considerate towards those who are celibate, as scents are often used to attract the opposite sex.

Keep in mind that there are different Buddhist traditions. I liked and felt at ease at the Tibetan temple, but judging from what I heard about some of the practices, this tradition may be a little too ritualistic for me (but perfect for someone else). As long as you adhere to the core precepts, there is no right or wrong way to practice, and in the US and other countries, we have the benefit of having many options, and therefore being able to choose what works best. If a community is far away, you can perhaps still participate since many Buddhist groups do podcasts (see Zencast on the web and iTunes), and still others use skype! Don't give up on the many possibilities that are out there.

Finally, have fun! If you live in an area with few Buddhists, it will make you happy to share in a day (or a weekend, or a week) of mindfulness and meditation with others. So relax, be happy, and be ready to learn and slow down to appreciate life!

Have you been to a Buddhist/Spiritual retreat? How long was it? What did you learn and how did it benefit you?

May all beings be happy!

What does it mean to live in the present moment?

As ‘budding Buddhas’, we may have heard fellow practitioners stress ‘Living in the present moment’. This advice echoes a statement made by the Buddha himself, “The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, worry about the future, or anticipate troubles, but to live in the present moment wisely and earnestly". Renowned Zen monk Thich Nhat Hahn further qualifies the present moment with his oft said “Present moment, wonderful moment.” 

Although particular moments may not seem so wonderful, by being aware of the present moment we can still step back into our lives and truly experience life the way it was meant to be lived. We are no longer stuck in a nebulous past or catapulted into an uncertain future, but we are exactly where we are supposed to be, right here, right now.

That being said, what about the ‘pop-culture’ context in which we have heard others declare we were living ‘in the moment’? This could include something as innocent as eating a delicious dessert or buying an item that we probably shouldn’t, to consuming many intoxicating drinks or having an illicit affair.

Seeing these examples and ‘present moment, wonderful moment’ side by side, we can notice a clear difference. In the ‘pop culture’ version, the ‘live in the moment’ focus is exclusively on the self. In contrast, living in the present moment as the Buddha taught is doing so with a balance of wisdom and compassion for all beings, including ourselves. In truth, we are only human, and may therefore sometimes slip up. But we can prevent (and remedy) such errors by being ever-mindful of the joy that comes from slowing down and living life breath by breath, from one moment to the next. 

Was this post helpful? What does the present moment mean to you?

May all beings be happy!

The Middle Way and being Buddhist without becoming a sap

I really love learning and writing about Buddhism, but for a while there I was feeling like an imposter. I consider myself a sensitive, emotional person, but on the other hand I am also pragmatic, assertive, and critical. This duality has brought me some level of conflict in how I conduct my daily life. If I tap too much into my ‘compassionate’ side, I end up feeling silly and sentimental, but also think that some of my reactions to things might be a little harsh.

I carefully considered what makes me feel so torn. Looking deeply, I think it is sometimes too easy to try too hard. Here is how it goes: Inspired by practitioners I admire, I bring on the compassion, and genuinely feel a lot of joy while doing so. The beauties, the joys, even the difficulties in life- everything seems like a wonderful opportunity. I can even see my adversaries in a new light, as fellow human beings who also just want to be happy.

However, inevitably something happens that makes me feel “stupid" nice.  Being cheated at the store, someone misusing donations, actually believing a politician on TV when normally I would know they are lying through their teeth, eventually brings me to my cynical ‘piss off’ stage. Ugly, I know, but let’s be real, the world can really wear you down if you let it. 

So what am I doing wrong? In the beginning my heart is in the right place, my intentions are good, and I don’t expect any personal benefit from my actions. All good things. But in the face of injustice, I know the difference between right and wrong, and I get pretty outraged. I can still see the good things, but not as clearly.

The answer is balance. My problem is that while I am concentrating on being understanding, but don’t keep a firm grip on my street smarts. It is the age-old problem of the good-hearted fool and the cruel genius. In short, compassion needs to be balanced with wisdom. Only then can someone speak, act, and think with confidence, because they know that while they are letting love, not hatred, rule their judgment, their mind is still keen and analytical, ready to ask questions and seek the truth to benefit all.

As we know, perfect balance is very difficult to achieve, and may not occur within this lifetime. However, there is no pressure, since it is certainly not a contest!  Balancing wisdom and compassion is key to avoiding extremes and practicing the Buddhist concept of the Middle Way. This is a great thing to strive for, not only to benefit others, but for the benefit of oneself. And anyone who achieves this will be anything but a sap. 

May all beings be happy!           


An end to a long hiatus

A lot has happened since I last posted, which I guess is good, since life is always such an interesting progression. Over the past few months I have thought about a lot, finally gone on a retreat, attended a second talk by the 14th Dalai Lama, read lots of books, and lost ten pounds (not to mention just been hella busy). I don’t know who even reads this blog, but I suppose I do owe some explanation to whoever is out there.

So with that, sorry for the long hiatus; I hope you enjoy reading about my experiences in my upcoming posts, and look forward to hearing what you have to say.