The beloved Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh originated the idea of “mindfulness bells,” things that crop up naturally in our lives that we can set as reminders to bring ourselves back to the present moment, such as the ringing of a phone. In my three-year retreat, I wrote about a potentially deadly mindfulness bell that was hard to avoid within the retreat compound, and thus really got our attention.
Mindfulness is how we develop equanimity, but today we are going straight to equanimity itself, and how we can use specific situations that are not only inevitable but also tend to trigger emotional reactions that disturb our peace of mind. I’m sure you can identify others, but today we’ll just start with two: the weather, and stoplights.
In verse 7 of the 37 practices of a bodhisattva, Togme Zangpo reminds himself (and now us, since his writings have survived 7 centuries) to give up worldly refuges and look instead to refuges that are authentic and reliable and can actually protect us from the perils of samsara: the Buddha, dharma, and sangha.
This is not an instruction in the sense of an order or the threat of hell if we don’t follow it, but in the sense of lovingly pointing out to us that if we put this advice into practice rather than just think of it as a nice idea, the entire path of awakening will unfold before us. That is the promise of verse 3.
As you may know, we had a visit last week at PTC from Dr. Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of The Distraction Addiction and teacher of contemplative computing. He talked to us about some ways to tame the hold digital technology exerts on our attention, which can be an issue for us at the monastery just as it might be for anyone who relies on technology in their work and daily life. Among the many topics he touched upon, one of the most immediately useful was “email apnea.” It seems that we users of digital devices have a tendency to hold our breath as we wait for our email to update. Though it may take just a few seconds each time, if we check frequently or have poor reception these intervals can add up to 15 minutes or more during the course of a day, or four 24-hour days over the span of a year.
What excellent news!
This is the final month of our first year of three-year retreat. On January 5, 2009, year two begins.
Lama Norlha Rinpoche used to say that during the first year of retreat, everyone always thinks they made a big mistake, but for the last two years, they never want to leave. He also says the first year can seem a little slow, but the second year is really fast, and the third year speeds by before you know it. I imagine that third year will be a bit like an Amtrak through train whizzing by the Metro-North platform in New Hamburg. I’ve seen six previous retreats begin and end, and I know that no matter what you’re doing, three years are gone in a flash, like a dream. One is gone already!
Three-year retreat, year one, month 12
Our mindfulness of impermanence at Nigu Ling is heightened at this time of year by two venerable black walnut trees overlooking our tiny fenced yard. From midsummer through early fall, there is a continual rain of walnuts onto the gravel walking path that encircles the house. Each walnut, fully encased, is about the size, weight and color of a tennis ball but without the bounce, and they pick up quite a bit of speed in their plunge from the tiptop branches of these lofty trees.