As a buddhist practitioner, we are invited to take refuge in the three jewels: the buddha, the dharma, the sangha.
In my own practice, I find safety and comfort, my picture of a refuge, in the first two. There is effort and challenge and frustration along with the experiences of ease and understanding in finding refuge in the buddha and the dharma but there is a sense of containment within the “self”. It is readily apparent that the variables and obstacles are all self generated when I am sitting by myself on a river and the sangha is made up of trees and animals and rushing water and sky. These sangha members are teaching and pointing and engaging but I still have the experience of being in control of what enters or what I allow to participate in my practice. The practice is predominately within the abode of the buddha and the dharma. There is extraordinary value in this encaved practice with a focus on the first two jewels. It allows me to develop and strengthen the muscles of concentration and inquiry and to more readily see habitual thought streams and the debris of karma.
When the practice in these hermit-like settings opens up to an experience of clarity, a taste of true nature, and an understanding of the cause of suffering, there is always a deep impassioned call to move out into the world and share this understanding. There is a call to meet suffering and to offer ease. At the core of the call is not a desire to fix or “show the way”, but to be a clear reflection for folks to see their original, unique nature.
And then there is the reality of taking refuge in the sangha. When I think of refuge, I think of a safe haven, a place to curl up and be held, a place to be shielded from the storm. Coming out of the month-long retreat on the road, I find the sangha to be not that at all. I find that it is extraordinarily challenging to be the still reflection pool when everyone I meet is providing a crystalline reflection of my own obscurations and obstacles. Where I can see the shadows of harm that I have inflicted on others, by my actions and words, flitting across their expressions and echoing in their cautious speech. And when I encounter the courageous folks who are willing to speak their experience clearly, it initially feels like being slapped… hard. This is hardly the refuge I was expecting or hoping for. Yet, when I relax my hardened shield of self importance and allow the courageous words to enter, I experience a teaching, a reminder, a pointing. The practice shines out and I experience the sangha not as a refuge away from something, or a place where I can share the wealth of my hermiting practice but a refuge into the teaching. I experience a welling up of trust not only in the teaching but the manifestation of its truth in the sangha of other human beings. I experience refuge not as a protection or a shield but as an all encompassing and constantly opening door to glimpsing the true nature of reality as compassion, kindness, joy and equanimity.
So it seems that, when the time is appropriate, the practice calls me out of the cave of inner development and into the jewel of the sangha, not to teach what I have learned, but to broaden my awareness and understanding, to blow open the doors of self realization to expand and include universal realization.
Wherever there are lakes or rivers, there seems to be fisherpeople. Hundreds of different approaches: body positions, casting, trawling, trolling, fly, drag, float, boat, shore, wading, …
One of the many things that seems to be consistent, besides the line and the hook, are knots in the line. However, the approaches to those are as unique as approaches to god. My personal approach when I fished ( If one could call it that.) as a child with my father and brother, and created a knot in the line, was to cut the line above the knot and start again or throw the pole and all down and walk away. I have had little patience in this life and FISHING IS AN ART OF PATIENCE.
As I sat on the edge Rimrock Lake I observed an older boy who was trolling in the windy white-cap-saturated lake, with a sparkling lure. Over and over casting the line out and reeling it in, with no fish caught and for much of the time I sat absorbed in the rhythm. At one point his line hit the inevitable snag and he artfully dislodged it with some wand waving technique of the pole. Retrieving the line, it was apparent that there were several twisted knots in it . At this point I would have cut the line, freed the lure and hook and retied them or, wound the whole mess up and given up for the day.
Without missing a beat the boy wound the line in by hand and began to let the glistening, silver, spinner lure twirl like a knitting drop needle until he had untwisted some portion of it. Then deftly, not methodically or laboriously, he loosened the knots one by one by expanding the line with his broad hand like a puppeteer, while the lure danced like a marionette. Dropping, spinning, looping, without a skipped beat or pause as if he knew the exact path that the line had taken to become so knotted. No overflow of tension in his body or face, which had taken on a sublime repose like the Buddha observing the dance and release of compounded human suffering. And then, and then… Free. The line was free of knots and, without stopping to relish his success, he reeled the line in and cast out again, and again, and again.
I think of my own knots. How contracted I become around them; how I often tug at the ends in a desperate attempt to undo them, how I find blame for the knot somewhere other than here, how I impatiently cut the knot away and everything related to it, sever it from any connection to me and cast it aside to litter the charnel ground of my memories.
There’s a pile there, of discarded knots, of knots that are too tight to loosen, attached to threads leading to my soul, of knots buried deep in the carcasses of pain, loss, regret, knots connected to longing and unfulfilled desire, and newer knots of self doubt, and fear of judgment and faltering courage.
But now I have met a teacher, who has shown me, given me perspective and objectivity. He has reminded me how to make space, to open up, to ease the knot from the grip of fear, regret, and attachment. To dance with the knot and, like a puppeteer with their marionette, to let the knot tell its own story. He has shown me how to bathe the knot in the clarity of seeing things just as they are. To let the thoughts about the knots, and the fear of some imagined prosecutor of my failures, or the diminishment of the aggrandized self… free. He has taught me to let the knots dance their dance and to just attend to their swirling and undoing with deft and light hands; to see the beauty and the paths of the unwinding, and be awe-full of their undoing.
I am not the master puppeteer of the knots that my teacher is, but I can begin to see the space between the enfoldment of the strings. As I surround them with spaciousness and joy brought about by this precious opportunity to notice, reflect and join the dance, I begin to be able to see how the threads weave and how to attend to them without any expectation of when, or even if, they will unravel. I see the unending paths that dance to the songs of time, and regret, and hope, and doubt, and fear and courage. And for a moment I am free. For an infinite instant, I am a knot undone.
I dedicate this journey to all teachers seen and unseen, heard and unheard, known and unknown. May all of my dees, actions, words, thoughts and feelings bee in fulfillment of their teaching and the end of suffering.
A river flows through Bend Oregon, from Little Lava Lake to the Columbia, called the Deschutes translated from French as “the river of the falls”. The Nez Perce people of the area refer to the river as Towarnehiooks, translated as “enemies” in reference to the Paiutes who lived along its banks. Like it’s Native name, the Towarnehiooks, brings to mind how our pervasive thought stream can be an enemy and lead us to suffering, or when recognized as having no substance, to freedom.
In its traversing through this region, the Towarnehiooks is a relatively narrow and shallow river that has molded the lavascape into smooth and pointed curvaceous forms like concretized whipped cream, in the same way that my habitual thought patterns have concretized my ways of being. As the waters lessen through the summer, the flowing of the river over these forms creates rapids that fill the area with a constant sound barrage of water tumbling into itself over stone. Adding to that, the sounds of children voices as counterpoint and harmony, as well as the slight river-breeze effect in the summer sun- heated desert air, and the river and its surroundings manifest as meditation teacher.
When I begin a sit, thoughts are so omnipresent that I do not notice them. They deafen my awareness. It is like when I first approach the river rapids; visual and audio discernment seem unattainable . After being near the water for a while, I begin to discern variations of white in the tumbling and an under flow of grey green, and different levels and qualities of sound. As with the water, when I settle into a sit and attend to something, either my breath, an image or a sensory experience, I begin to be able to ferret out gross and subtle experiences, images or thoughts.
When I attempt to focus on one aspect of the white or underlying green of the water, my vision is carried downstream until I cannot follow it any further, no matter how much I attempt to keep it centered in one point, similar to the cascade of thoughts that are present in the beginning of the practice. When I attend to a thought, it inevitably leads to another about that thought, and then a story, and a why, or another question, or just random sequencing until I become aware that I have traveled downstream in a thought river.
Concentration and attending become accessible at the rapids, when I center my sight or hearing or sensation on a stable unwavering manifestation, like a rock in the middle of the cataract, the underlying softer sound of the river, the deep grey green beneath the tumbling, or the coolness of the breeze created by its movement. Then the other sounds, or senses and the raging water itself move by as they are, swift or slow, green or white, loud or rumbling quiet. I can experience all of these things and, the more I allow my awareness to expand and include them and all of the sensory experiences in the environment without following them downstream, the more I “see” the river as a whole, and the innate ease in its flow, even welcoming the loudness, the riotous white and the heat of the summer sun as part and parcel of the quiet flow, the stable grey green and the everpresent coolness.
So it is with the practice. In the beginning, centering attention and concentration on the breath or an image or a sound allows my constant thought stream to flow by; at first loudly echoing off canyons in my mind, and it is challenging not to follow one of them just to lower the input level. The more I am able to attend to something consistently and the focus softens and broadens, the more the thought and perception streams flow by in my awareness without me attaching or following the threads. I am sometimes able to expand to include any and all thought streams without judgment or grasping. In this experience there is no attempt to stop the river, change it, damn it up, divert it or let it tumble me downstream. Feelings, perceptions and thoughts are just as they are.
When the children throw a leaf or stick into the river to cheer its journey downward, over white, spinning by boulders, and dipping beneath the grey green, the newly introduced object is sometimes snagged by a gathering of stones but swims easily around the largest boulders. If the newly introduced object is large enough, it may get trapped under or around the largest obstacles. These stuck ones are battered by the ongoing flow of the river but remained lodged, perhaps until the next flood or until they are decimated by the repeated assault.
When a fresh thought or an awakening is experienced in the practice, it floats easily on the surface of the thought stream and seems to not only ride it expertly, but becomes one with, it so to speak. Then a collection of memories or thought habits snag and batter the experience and my attention becomes fixated on the why-s and wherefore-s of the the thought, getting lost in fixing, or solving, or grasping, desperate to return to the newness and the freshness of the realization. If the thought is large enough it easily swims by the smaller jumbled obstructions but might be is snagged in something much older and more fundamental, even karmic or ancient. This happens for me with strong emotions like anger or fear often triggered by unconscious memories of experiences. Often it is so intense that I can feel it in my body. A memory of what it was like to be one with the river arises and I feel like the snagged branch on the great boulder. I experience a psychic ache to set it free once again but no amount of attention or longing releases it. Then there is a an idea that the boulder is an obstacle and must be recognized and, only when it is either dissolved or freed from its mooring, will the awakening return to the thought stream and experience. So then I invest in its dissolution only to become even more swamped by all of the adjacent thought patterns and the fixation on what I think freedom feels like.
When I am able to relax my focus more and bring my attention downstream to attend to where the river is going, the focus and attention just go away and there is a sense of space. I have a concept of its destination; the deep ocean, but it may end in a flood plain and evaporate, or be diverted to water the orchards, or to city plumbing to be processed and recycled, honestly I do not know. Allowing that unknowingness to fill the experience leaves an empty spaciousness. When I look up river to the origin, I also do not know it, other than there are probably infinite origins that feed the the springs, the creeks the streams, the falls, that cause the river to be as it is in this place, between these banks, under the juniper, on wind sanded stones, with children laughing in its coolness and its power.
When I am sitting at this point trapped under a karmic boulder in the thought river, I might look to where the thought stream is going or will lead; the future. Similar to the tumbling torrent of the Towarnehiooks, I do not know. In fact, I begin to experience an understanding that this thought stream has no knowable future. It seems to dissolve into that expansive all inclusive mind and there is a sense of its emptiness. When I look to the origin, or rather allow my awareness to experience the causality of the thoughts, it echoes out over an infinite stream of causality and eventually expands to seemingly include all thoughts ever thought in all minds in the cosmos. And for an instant, sometimes, there is the knowable yet inconceivable experience of the Three Times being all the same and yet empty. The mind stops striving, the sense of a separate self shimmers like a hologram, and I have a taste, wavering on a threshold of absolute freedom from suffering.
Sitting on one of those ancient obstructions in the middle of the river I observe how the river flows effortlessly around and that only things of weight or form get caught by the boulders or collections of smaller river stones protruding from the water nearer the banks. I see the water merging with the obstructions, and bouncing off or sliding smoothly past. Eons of time and infinite gallons of flow; carving, smoothing, and sanding them to billions of sub-sand particles that disperse in the soil or eventually the seas. The larger obstructions empowering the river to dash itself on their surfaces, carving them away, by lifting the river out of the flow and then channeling the river to the path of least resistance.
In the practice my thought streams get swept away when I lose attention, and deposit my attachments and desires on karmic obscurations, life imprints and self-ness (the boulders), but when I allow the stream to flow without judgment or diversion, I experience a steady eroding of these habits. I also begin to see that the larger ever-present thought habits, or unsourceable obstructions are like the Buddhas in their infinite capacity to know and to guide. As if the Great Sage embodies my obscurations and obstructions in order that they not only are revealed but can be entrusted to channel this river of self to the ocean of no-self.
Perhaps, when I leave the banks of the Towarnehiooks and get up from my sit, thoughts will no longer be the enemy and I will experience obstacles and obscurations as guides, revealers, and Buddha Nature. I ask that this teaching will not just be a clever metaphor or a lasting memory, but that I may be of-this-way in my life off of the cushion and away from the river.
I dedicate this practice to the Towarnehiooks and all teachers, seen and unseen, heard and unheard, known and unknown. May my actions, deeds, speech, thoughts and feelings be in fulfillment of their teachings and the end of suffering for all beings.
Practicing in this Nature with an inconceivable numbers of teachers from the other-than-human world without almost no contact with the human world.
While sitting one morning on the banks of the Nehalem River in Central West Oregon, after a restless night and waking to doubt, the teaching of Dakpo Tasha Namgyal from “Clarifying the Natural State” cracked open a non-conceptual experience of mind unified with thoughts, perceptions and feelings. I experienced wholeness, an at-oneness, and ease and freedom, similar to states elucidated by psilocybin or ahyauasca, but this had happened in the natural meditative state.
I went into the post meditative daily doings and thinking and it remained constant and stable. “I have made it!” I thought to myself. “This state (something like non-duality) can be achieved without the medicine plants and sustained with my own attention and mindfulness.” I could hear the blaring horns of the Tibetan monks blowing and the chorus of all enlightening ones and Buddha’s, or as Gangaji likes to say “All the angels, gods and demons had gathered ‘round to witness and get a piece of the action.” I was in awe, surprise, deepest gratitude, and wanting to share the joy and luck with anyone who was still, unlike me, suffering from ignorance.
While sitting by the river studying and experiencing my “enlightenment”, a large and persistent, beautiful, turquoise-eyed, golden-bodied fly had decided that I looked like lunch. I was marinating in the experience of my oneness and reveling the reading of the “Flower Ornament Scriptures” and kindly asked the fly to find another counter to feast at. They would have nothing of it. Clearly I was the only thing on the menu and they proceeded to land on a hidden part of my leg and partake, resulting in a mere instant of sharp pain. After a yelp and an angry “Hey!”, I began discouraging the beast with my hat, flailing at it when it got near, like an artistic gymnastic ribbon performance. Their persistence stirred an anger in me that was from somewhere deep in the shadows of my “non-dual” state. I leapt up grabbed my chair and gear and book and scrambled away from the water and up the trail to the safety of my tent where, after settling down a bit, checked to see if the state of being was still present.
Something was there but it was more similar to a strong echo than the actual presencing experience from the morning.
It was time for the midday practice and so I sat. The torment of awakened anger wreaking havoc in my being was like being ripped to shreds from the inside out. Shantideva references this demon-devastation-from-the-hell-realms when teaching about the karma of the defilements, like pride, arrogance, fear and especially anger. Not only was I experiencing this fire, I could find no way out.
After the sit I was emotionally and physically drained. It was late afternoon so I began my ritual of setting up the shade awning and preparing the space for dinner. Well, guess who was there to greet me? While bending over to adjust a tent stake, I experienced a solid two seconds of needle-sharp, hot pain in my butt (Go ahead laugh. Please!!, I did.). I thought Well, they got what they wanted and now I can be left in peace.” I thanked them for the teaching about anger and asked them to please move on. Apparently it wasn’t enough and our dance began again. I started to feel like I was on the losing side of one of those Matrix fight scenes. Finally, they landed on my calf just as I swatted it and I knocked them to the ground, dead. “Dead as dead”, as the crow in Ka likes to say.
I checked in with my experience and I wasn’t really angry, in fact it had felt like a game of teasing and jousting that just got out of hand. I sincerely apologized to the golden turquoise-eyed, compassionate warrior and set his body aside to be interned with honor after I finished my work. That was when I checked in with my “enlightening” experience and it was nowhere in sight, sound, sense, feeling or thought. There was just this dull, thick density like a non-porous obsidian sponge stone.
I buried my teacher near a stand of Japanese’s knotweed (which is where they seemed to come from), overlooking the Nelahem river in sight of the Buddha’s head and guarded by the stalwart Douglas Fir
and went on about the evening ritual of dinner, tea, practice, study and sleep.
By the time I was nestling into bed, I was in a state of immutable despair. I had the Indestructible Gem of Truth in my grasp and I let it go. I had allowed unconscious pride, arrogance, and anger to rise up justifying it by thinking, “After all, I got it and I shouldn’t have to be bothered with the mundane, much less a fucking fly“. At the heart of it I felt that I failed the teachers and the practice. I had been here before: As a son of disappointed parents, an all-nighter evening on a Texas beach when everything seemed connected, a retreat in Taize’ France, on my knees in pre-seminary, with the aforementioned medicine teachers, with Gangaji, on a monthlong silent Dhatun in the mountains of Colorado. It was like an inoperable karmic knot of awakening to truth then just as I grasped it, falling back into this reality of uncontrolled emotions, and self important thinking.
Waking the next day in dullness, I continued my daily rhythm, hoping, looking over my shoulder, lifting the lid on the pot of my mental bubbling to see if “It” was there. It was gone, for good, dead, “dead as dead”. I kept the rhythm of the day, the cleaning, the practicing, the studying, the resting, the relishing of Nature. All the while thinking, It’ll come back. It wasn’t that big of a faux pas.” Then after hours of diminishing hope: “If I continue to do it right (the practice), maybe I can end this perpetual karmic cycle of pride and anger in this lifetime. Or at least engrain the experience into my bones so that I’ll have a better chance of seeing it before it takes me over the next time.”
There were several moments of ease and joy throughout the day. The sits were uneventful but honest and I began entertaining ideas that I just was not meant for this practice. By sleep time I felt like I had experienced a death. A deep death and I went into the little death at ease resigned to it.
The next morning, I woke with a little tickle of joy in my solar plexus. Like the feeling I had, as a child, waking up on Christmas morning, or the feeling I have had in new love; anticipating their phone call or arrival for a date. I began the rhythm of the day.
I always begin practice, reading from “Clarifying the Natural State” and this day I read from Straying:
“… the basic straying is to regard the emotion (that you wish) to be discarded and the training as separate and so to use the training as a remedy against the emotion. Whenever a thought moves or when encountering a difficult situation, the temporary straying is (to believe that) one can only be composed in meditation after the difficulty has been overcome.”
And my heart wept in joy and Buddha head laughed, and stalwart Fir rustled slightly and a bald eagle soared down the Nelahelam at eye level as an exclamation point.
A teaching from the Flower Ornament Scriptures is that every moment of the three Times, every pore of every being of existence, every atom of the billions of mind oceans are permeated with the teaching of Universal Goodness. Every aspect of the precious human lifetime is a revelation of the true nature of reality and not one being will be left untouched by the enlightening Ones’ gifts.
I have always thought and still get trapped in thinking that It has to look, feel and sound a particular way. My expectations for freedom are insurmountable and ultimately merely concepts. And in moments like these and more frequently, as the practice becomes life and life becomes the practice, the reality of the nature of reality is just as it is, whatever that is, without the promise or hope of some future better place. Everything contributes.
Thank you for this teaching, Oh Great and Compassionate Warrior Fly, adorned with the gold from the Lion’s Throne and eyes bedecked with the lapis lazuli from the mines of the infinite Oceans of Wisdom and stinger anointed with the Nectar of Reminder.
I dedicate this practice to all the teachers, seen and unseen, heard and unheard, known and unknown. May all my words, deeds, actions, thoughts and emotions be a fulfillment of their teachings.
A good friend and teacher gifted me the novel, Ka by John Crowley. They have the intuitive insight for what is needed to support someone on their way and so it is with this book and my journey. Enough to say that it is about a Crow in the Realm of KA and the fundamental wisdom teachings from a crow’s viewpoint as they observe People over an arch of several hundred years.
From the book:
“How Crows do things that astonish People — appear where they shouldn’t be, come into possession of things they can’t have got — isn’t really different from how Rats, Raccoons, or even Cats do similar things by persistence, constant investigation, endless trial and error.”
Ain’t it the truth… for all sentient beings.
I am finding this to be the engine of the Practice. Persistence. Constant investigation. Endless trial and error.
Persistent sitting. This has been the first and most challenging part of the practice for me and seems to be the primary teaching in most wisdom traditions; making a meditation practice part of everyday’s rhythm and then gradually increasing the length and the number of practice times during each day. Over the thirty plus years of pathing (Pathing: the act of going on a Path specifically one towards self realization or truth seeking. Similar to “tripping”, “walking”, “hiking”, “journeying”), and trying all sorts of ways to avoid this first step, I have come to realize, for this body/mind at least, that stability and consistent unfolding awareness comes with dedicated regular practice.
Constant investigation: In the practice and during the application of lessons from the practice in life, a constant, open ended inquiry without expectation, and the pure curiosity of a child, is what allows doors that open to deeper realizations to become observable. In the Buddhist practice, I associate this with vipashyana practice. This vigorous practice, that with persistence, frees the mind from attachment, desires and expectations or promises of completion.
Endless trial and error: Walk through every door and even if it appears the new room or land is a mistake, keep walking into the mistake with an investigative mind. And if it is a place of ease and beauty, relish and absorb and keep inquiring about it, not out of doubt but, out if curiosity. When doubt arises, inquire into the doubt. It’s origin? It’s quality? It’s dissolution? Where is the ground of its being? Whatever arises be curious.
Thank you JS and Jonathan Crowley for making these points so simply clear.