Monday, May 23, 2011

Book Club: "The Body of Truth" by Ajahn Amaro Bhikkhu

It’s with the sequencing of this essay, following mine and Jill Satterfield’s, that I believe Michael Stone’s editorial expertise shines. With Jill, we read a personal account of mindfulness practice directed to the body. With my chapter, there’s the explicit tying in of the Buddha’s teachings to the larger Yoga Tradition and the explication of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. Here, in Chapter 12, Ajahn Amaro emphasizes the body as the path of truth – Dharma itself.

First, the Ajahn emphasizes how the body and mind in the Buddha’s teachings are not seen as two radically different phenomena. While they are not generally seen as “identical,” they are seen as completely interdependent (for the most part; traditional Buddhism posits a form of consciousness that can indeed exist independently of the body, and which links one life to another).

In the section “Dimensions of Nature,” Ajahn Amaor explains the concept of namarupa, and its five component khandhas (also known in Sanskrit at skandhas). He then goes on to introduce the other “patterns” or “models” that are used in the Buddhist tradition to describe the human condition: the six senses (ayatana) and the elements (dhatu).

His second section, “Mindfulness of the Body” for the most part, reiterates some of the salient points I make in my essay. What I especially appreciate in Ajahn Amaro’s section is his distinction of the Buddhist emphasis on the body and the ‘mundane’ aspects of life for liberation, in contradistinction to the typically ‘transcendent’ and ‘withdrawal’ understandings of ‘enlightenment.’

In “The Present – Full of Useful Possibilities,” Ajahn Amaro points out how the body is always experienced as ‘present’ while the mind can appear to be caught up in the past and future. It is this very ‘present-oriented’ nature of the body that Buddhist meditation takes as it’s opening to limitless potential for freedom. As he writes, “…since the body is always in the present, the simple recollection of its presence is a surefire method to key the attention into the reality of the way things actually are.” And it is too often forgotten by students seeking some ‘other-worldly’ experience that seeing things as they really are is the door to the wisdom of liberation!

His section on “Walking Meditation,” though short, explains the importance of this practice for the cultivation of mindfulness. By extension, other forms of conscious movement – such as hatha-yoga, Tai Chi and various forms of martial arts and even weight-lifting -- can be developed as forms of mindfulness meditation. This is still something I find many students not fully grasping! They seem to fixate on sitting meditation as the be-all and end-all of meditation practice! Apparently, as the Buddha himself aged, and suffered from various physical ailments, walking meditation became his preferred method of practice.

Finally, for this post, I’ll end with a few words about sila, the ethical teachings of the Buddhist tradition. Ajahn Amaro says about sila that it is the “basis of practice.” I would go as far as saying that sila is the whole of the Dharma. Currently, a group of students I am working with are going through intensive sila study and practice with the ‘goal’ of taking refuge. They are beginning to see sila as real, on-the-ground mindfulness training. They are also seeing sila as more guidelines to freedom than restrictions or prohibitions. As one student said, “When I practice sila, I find myself free of many anxieties, concerns and sufferings I thought were simply part and parcel of life!” Ajahn Amaro refers to the precepts as “rules,” but I think that term misses the living spirit of sila.

I’ll post a concluding post on this chapter later this week, but for now, I’d be happy to hear any comments from those of you who have been reading along. OR, even from those of you who have not read the book, but have been following this blog ‘book club.’

Sunday, May 1, 2011

May Daily Practice: Walking Meditation

Walking Meditation is not simply preparation for sitting, and not merely something to do between the "important" work of sitting meditation while on retreat. No, walking meditation is a full-on mindfulness practice in its own right; one that the Buddha seemed to favor as he grew older and apparently experienced the pain of rheumatism. It is also one of Thich Nhat Hanh's favorite forms of practice; one he emphasizes often, even offering up a book and dvd on the practice.

When ordaining into the Tien Hiep Order (Order of Interbeing), established by Thich Nhat Hanh, one even vows to make all of one's walking, 'walking meditation.' One image Thay uses when presenting this practice is to recall the legend of the Buddha's first steps after being born: under each footfall, a lotus blossomed. Thay points out that often while walking, we are lost in thought, anxieties about the future, thoughts of the past, 'imprinting' our worries into the earth. With walking meditation, we can feel at home where we are, each step a kind of embrace or kiss of the earth.

There is the practice of formal walking meditation, where we walk slowly, sometimes as slowly as a full cycle of inhalation and exhalation with each half-step. OR, you can take a half-step as you inhale, and another half-step as you exhale for a more 'moderate' pace. If you wish to take up this formal practice, mark off a path (best to be at least 25 feet or so) that you will walk back and forth on at this slow pace.

However, it would be inappropriate to walk this slowly throughout most of your daily activities, but that doesn't mean you can't do walking meditation! I've even done it on Fifth Ave off 42nd street in Manhattan at lunch hour and no one would have known from just watching! Simply bring your attention to your feet, lifting, moving and being placed back on the ground while feeling your breath. Avoid manipulating the breath. You may find that you take 5 half-steps on an inhalation and 8 half-steps on your exhalation. That's fine. Some folk even count: "In-in-in-in-in; out-out-out-out-out-out" as they walk. If you find such noting or labeling is helpful, then by all means try it. If you find it gets in your way, let it go!

One way to work this into you life is to choose to do this as you walk to your train or bus. If you work in an office, you can do it every time you walk from and to your desk (on the way to the restroom for instance). When I walk to the cafe with my daughter in the sling, I often practice this way -- especially once she's fallen asleep as she often does almost immediately when carried in the sling. 

I'd really love to hear from any of you who choose to take up this month's practice. Where are you doing walking meditation? How are you finding it? You can begin at any time and comment here whenever you'd like. 

And remember, as Lin Chi, the Chinese Zen Master, is reported to have said: "To walk on water is not the miracle; to walk upon the earth is a miracle."

Walking Meditation Gatha:

The mind can go in a thousand directions.
But, on this beautiful path, I walk in peace.
With each step, a gentle wind blows.
With each step, a flower blooms.

poep sa frank jude