“Simple Ain’t Easy”*

* [Famous quote by Thelonius Monk.]

No, I’m not talking about the profound religion of Jazz.

I’m talking about the Thai Forest Buddhist Tradition, exemplified during the past 50 years by the Venerable Ajahn Chah.

My teacher, while acknowledging the apparent attainment of meditation masters like Ajahn Chah, has a problem with their teachings, in that they do not come right out to affirm the Buddha’s actual instructions on meditative absorption. They persist in mystifying the subject, sometimes demonizing it (though Ajahn Chah has not gone that direction), almost always diluting it to conform with a made-up meditation technique called “vipassana.”

Nevertheless, Ajahn Chah is an example of how the Buddha’s monastic ideal has been preserved over the centuries, and his teachings are very much worthy of our consideration. I feel that his was a skillful and rigorous meditation practice that produced great spiritual fruit. Perhaps he taught his closest followers from that place of gnosis, thereby “protecting” the rest of us from the “dangers” of meditative absorption.

The cat, however, is out of the bag.

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Nice Gig If You Can Land It

Some monks are socially engaged in all the right ways.

From David Rosenfeld’s journal:

Buddhist monk offers teachings with tea

Special to The Oregonian

Almost every weekday, Adhisila sits under a tent at Northeast Tillamook and North Williams, carving tiny Buddhas from soapstone and offering tea and snacks to bicyclists on their afternoon commute.

Adhisila — Adhi for short — may conjure images of the sadhus of India, holy men who sometimes sat at crossroads awaiting spiritual debates with passers-by.

But he’s different. “There’s no challenge here,” he says with a laugh, his voice soft and welcoming. “Just have a cup of tea.”

Adhi — whose only name means “high morality” in the ancient Pali language — is a Buddhist monk, a rarity in Portland. Rarer still, he’s among a handful to carry on a tradition that dates back thousands of years: asking for alms. Adhi feeds himself, one meal a day, through donations, mostly from 30 to 40 Thai restaurants in the city.

“I help the monk with food because he’s a good teacher,” says Sirilak Promprasert, a Thailand native and owner of downtown’s Bangkok Palace. “He does his job to heal people and to make peace.”

By relying only on offerings, a monk learns to temper desires, a key Buddhist doctrine.

“I don’t need very much,” says Adhi, who’s fed himself through alms for 10 years. “I may give them a blessing and maybe a small teaching about how to relieve their overwhelming suffering.”

Dressed in red Nike high-tops and red Adidas exercise pants under his robe, Adhi is approachable and unpretentious. To stay warm, he wears a 26-year-old wool Marine Corps overcoat, issued during a four-year stint in the early 1980s. He joined so he could play in the marching band. Sometimes he wears a button in support of Army 1st Lt. Ehren Watada, who refused to fight in Iraq.

Adhi is as surprised as anyone to find himself in Portland. Born Owen Evans in Ashland in the 1960s, he discovered Buddhism at age 8 when his dad studied Zen. He became an ordained monk about 10 years ago at the Dhammapala Monastery in Fremont, Calif.

Three years ago, Adhi, a self-proclaimed forest monk, was living in solitude and meditating in the Siskiyou Mountains when friends persuaded him to move to the city.

Now he draws support from a network of Portlanders who appreciate his teachings. They might give him money, donate clothes or provide shelter. When he’s not living at the Young Sahn International Zen Center in Beaverton, Adhi house-sits. He also teaches at various places, including the Chinese Miao Fa Chan Temple at Southeast 17th Avenue and Madison Street.

Ian Timm and his wife, Sally, host one of Adhi’s meditation classes every Friday night at their home in Northeast.

“Adhi’s teaching is not encumbered by a lot of ritualism,” Ian Timm says. “It’s more practical suggestion. He teaches as the Buddha did that people are responsible for their own causes and effects in their lives.”

Adhi also makes Buddhist teaching videos at a warehouse and community kitchen next to his tea tent that he shares with Sky High Productions, a video production company. He helps pay rent on the 3,000-square-foot space with donations and income from teaching. He hopes to make more videos and to rent out the space for community events.

Back at his tea tent, Adhi sits on a folding camp chair. Wisdom flows from him like water from a mountain spring.

“People work maybe too hard and think they need too much,” he says. “If you get down to the bare essence, maybe what we need is more love, more compassion and more peacefulness. Those are invaluable resources, and we don’t tap into them enough.”

Good job on this story, David. I’ve stolen the whole thing here, but I’m not getting paid for it!  It’s for educational purposes only, should any of my four visitors read it all the way through….

Makes me want to move to Oregon immediately.

Then again, I’ve always wanted to move to Oregon at the first opportunity. Knowing that it’s a monk-friendly place just adds to my desire.

True Prayer

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I’ve not been real big on prayer during this lifetime.

It always felt either like: 1) talking to myself in my head while pretending an invisible God or Person was listening to me, a minuscule human being amongst 5 billion others on this tiny third stone from this tiny star on the far edge of a small galaxy in a universe filled with countless super-galaxies; or 2) talking out loud in a roomful of people, reciting memorized formulas that, no matter how hard I try, never feel like they’re coming from the heart — mine or theirs.

On the other hand, I’ve always thought that there’s something to prayer, if by “prayer” we mean “communion” with the Infinite. In this sense, meditation can be prayer. Singing can be prayer. Nature walks, art, poetry, love-making, dish-washing — it can all be thought of as prayer.

The Orthodox tradition, with its Jesus Prayer as an all-day meditation or mindfulness exercise, has always intrigued me. So, I was not surprised to stumble upon an exposition on prayer from the Orthodox perspective — a perspective that resonates in me, a lowly ecstatic contemplative whose hunger for God diminishes not:

There is a story told in the Gerontikon, the sayings of the desert Fathers, about a visitor who goes to see three monks. And they talked all the afternoon. Suddenly the visitor realizes that the sun has set. “It is time for vespers;” says the visitor, “it is time for us to pray together.” And the monks answered, “But we have been praying together all the last four hours.” Prayer, in their experience, was not just occasional but continual; not just one activity among others, but the activity of their entire lives. It was a dimension present in everything else that they did. St. Gregory of Nazianzos says, “Remember God more often than you breathe.” Prayer, ideally, should be as much part of us as our breathing.

Sometimes people talk about having a “prayer life,” but is that not an odd phrase? We do not have a distinct and separate breathing life; we breathe as we live. But how are we to attain prayer of this kind: all-embracing, ever-present, prayer of the total self?

That brings me to another question: What is prayer? Evagrios of Pontos says in a famous definition, “Prayer is communion of the intellect with God.” So Evagrios sees prayer as an activity of the intellect (nous). Nous, like pathos, is a word that is hard to translate into English.

Another writer of the fourth century, contemporary with Evagrios (in Syria rather than in Egypt), the author of the Spiritual Homilies attributed to Macarios, has a slightly different approach to prayer. “It may be,” he says, “that the saints sit in the theater and watch the delusion of this world, while with the inner self, all the time, they are speaking to God.” There we see, as in the story I told from the desert Fathers, that prayer aims to be continual; not so much something we do from time to time, but something that we are all the time.

Also, we see from the Spiritual Homilies of Macarios that prayer is something that goes on in the inner self (o eso anthropos). This is a biblical phrase, used for example, in Ephesians: “May God according to the riches of His glory, grant that you are strengthened with the power of the Holy Spirit in the inner self so that Christ dwells in your heart by faith” (3:16-17).

There we see that the inner self is associated with the indwelling of Christ and the Holy Spirit. And also we see in Ephesians that the inner self is identified with the heart. So for Macarios, prayer is something that we offer with the inner self, that is, with the heart. Where Evagrios emphasizes the intellect, the Macarian Homilies emphasize the heart (cardia).

These two approaches are combined in a definition of prayer given by the nineteenth-century Russian writer St. Theophan the Recluse. “To pray,” he says, “is to stand before God with the intellect, in the heart, and to go on standing before Him day and night until the end of life.” So, prayer is something that goes on with the intellect in the heart, and it is continuous. St. Isaac the Syrian even says that the saints are praying while they are asleep. Sometimes when I am lecturing, I notice that members of my audience close their eyes. But then I think that perhaps they are saints, and though they are sleeping, they are also listening.

[…]

C. G. Jung, in his book Memories, Dreams, Reflections, recalls a conversation he had with an American Indian, one Ochwiay Biano. [Mr. Biano is also known by the English name “Mountain Lake.”] Ochwiay Biano said,

“How cruel the whites are: their lips are thin, their noses sharp, their faces furrowed and distorted by holes. Their eyes have a staring expression. They are always seeking something. What are they seeking? The whites always want something, they are always uneasy and restless. We do not know what they want, we do not understand them, we think that they are mad.” I asked him why he thought the whites were all mad. “They say they think with their heads,” he replied.

“Why, of course. What do you think with?” I asked him in surprise.

“We think here,” he said, indicating his heart.

Now, Ochwiay Biano is coming very much closer to what Scripture and much of the Patristic tradition meant by the heart.

[…]

Mark the Monk of the late fourth or early fifth century (also known as Mark the Hermit or Mark the Ascetic) gives a particular explication to this theology of the heart – a sacramental application. He says that through baptism, Christ and the Holy Spirit enter the innermost secret and uncontaminated chamber of the heart. By virtue of our baptism there is an inner chamber, a central shrine within us where grace dwells and where evil cannot reach. Mark believes that from our baptism there is a point or spark within us that belongs entirely to God, that is the pure glorious God in us. “By the good treasure of the heart,” says Mark, “Scripture means the Holy Spirit who is hidden in the heart of the faithful” – hidden through baptism.

So the aim of the spiritual life, according to Mark, is that we should become consciously aware of this secret presence of the baptismal Christ Who is already in our hearts, mystically. The Christian journey, for him, is a journey from baptismal grace, present secretly in the heart, to baptismal grace, experienced in the heart with full conscious awareness.

[…]

Where have I heard this before?

Oh, yes… in just about every contemplative tradition known to humanity, that’s where.

I know that, from the Traditionalist perspective, it is important to choose a Path and stick to it, so as to benefit from the religious Mystery embedded in that particular Path. I understand the wisdom in this perspective and want nothing other than to honor it.

At the same time, when I read the concluding paragraph in the collection of snips above, I am reminded that there really are many, many Paths leading to the same place.

We should celebrate this fact, rather than always seeking to convert everyone else to our particular perspective.

Something to Shoot For

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Inside Sinaia Monastery….

These folks have put a lot of thought, experience and wisdom into their concept of monasticism, and it makes me want to run back into the “contemplative cave” immediately:

The 12 Marks of a New Monasticism

Moved by God’s Spirit in this time called America to assemble at St. Johns Baptist Church in Durham, NC, we wish to acknowledge a movement of radical rebirth, grounded in God’s love and drawing on the rich tradition of Christian practices that have long formed disciples in the simple Way of Christ. This contemporary school for conversion which we have called a “new monasticism,” is producing a grassroots ecumenism and a prophetic witness within the North American church which is diverse in form, but characterized by the following marks:

1. Relocation to the abandoned places of Empire.

2. Sharing economic resources with fellow community members and the needy among us.

3. Hospitality to the stranger

4. Lament for racial divisions within the church and our communities
combined with the active pursuit of a just reconciliation.

5. Humble submission to Christ’s body, the church.

6. Intentional formation in the way of Christ and the rule of the
community along the lines of the old novitiate.

7. Nurturing common life among members of intentional community.

8. Support for celibate singles alongside monogamous married couples and their children.

9. Geographical proximity to community members who share a common rule of life.

10. Care for the plot of God’s earth given to us along with support of our local economies.

11. Peacemaking in the midst of violence and conflict resolution within communities along the lines of Matthew 18.

12. Commitment to a disciplined contemplative life.

May God give us grace by the power of the Holy Spirit to discern rules for living that will help us embody these marks in our local contexts as signs of Christ’s kingdom for the sake of God’s world.

Lots of good stuff in there — and these are Baptists! I’m pinching myself….

My major beef growing up a preacher’s son was the fact that my church life did not include a systematic practice for the direct realization of “God.” For me, it was all about memorizing scripture, enduring Sunday services, pretending I was someone who I really wasn’t, and a continuing alienation from those who would banish me to the fires of hell for not conforming enough to their fear-based, sexually-stultified, mindless attempt to keep God in their little box. No meditation, not even so-called “contemplative prayer” — just the occasional “Rocky Mountain High” at church camp, soon to be deflated when “real life” commenced back home.

Now, after many years studying and practicing Eastern forms of spirituality, I find that I’m not the only one hungry for access to the original “mustard seed” of Christ’s teachings — much of which must be understood in its esoteric or “inner,” symbolic meaning, if it’s to be understood at all. This inner teaching is, in fact, very “Eastern” in terms of its contemplative component — and now we see all sorts of efforts, such as The 12 Marks of a New Monasticism, offering a path for contemplatives who’ve broken out of their religious straitjackets and found themselves in need of the direct experience of… THAT….