Musings of the InsightLA teachers
Decades ago in the 70’s, before the Dalai Lama became famous, his smiling face was on the cover of a newspaper called The Snow Lion. The quote under his photo struck me so powerfully that I cut out the cover page and stuck it on a kitchen cupboard where it yellowed and tattered over the years. That piece of paper is long gone, but I always remember what he said: “Maybe I am the last Dalai Lama. It’s all right. There’s nothing wrong.”
His words shook me, a young practitioner. How can it be all right for his legacy and tradition to disappear in the slow genocide unfolding in Tibet? How to understand what the Dalai Lama said, given how much his people rely on his compassionate and courageous leadership?
Uttered in the context of Tibet’s tragedy, those words - “It’s all right. There’s nothing wrong.” - inspired me through many sad, hard times in my life. I remember sitting quietly in the meditation hall, tears of grief streaming down my face, simultaneously knowing that deep down, it’s still OK. Mysteriously, it is all right. Not the breezy ‘all right’ of “it’s all good”, which can be a dismissal or denial, but the “all right” of humbly embracing our broken-heartedness with loving awareness. Then we can discover the “all right” of compassionate presence and grace.
Next time you feel that all is lost, try sitting down right in the midst of your grief or despair. Sitting and walking mindfully in meditation, it’s easier to be with ourselves more lovingly. Through the courage to meet life as it is and drink it in - straight up! - we embody the compassion of our clear, radiant true nature. Deeply knowing: yes, this heart is aching. And it’s all right. There’s nothing wrong.
Not one more. We cannot allow one more child to be shot at school. We cannot allow one more teacher to make a choice to jump in front of an assault rifle to save the lives of students. We cannot allow one more family to wait for a call or text that never comes. Our children and teachers are dying…
This is not just schools, though. This is churches, nightclubs, concerts, movie theaters, airports, and more. A child should not fear a bullet on their walk home. We may be children, but we are not fighting for just children. All lives are precious, and our country must make the safety of its citizens a number one priority. (From the mission statement of March For Our Lives)
“All lives are precious.” This is not just about us, say the teenagers. Seeing their friends die has cracked them wide open. Compassion pours in to their angry, broken hearts. Suddenly these kids know how vulnerable our human lives are -- precious, fragile, and intertwined. Reaching out to include people of all ages, ethnicities, religions, sexualities, they are determined to do what the grown-ups have been unable to do: stop gun massacres. They understand our interdependence. As Jaclyn Corin, a seventeen-year-old Parkland survivor declared at the march in Washington, DC, “We share the stage today and forever.”
All 7.6 billion of us human beings share the stage in our one world; we don’t have a choice. Inspired by the teenagers’ fierce resolve and wild courage, we each have to ask ourselves: how can I contribute to making this 21st century what the Dalai Lama calls for, “a century of dialogue”? What words or actions can I take? For our long-term future, how can we find ways to live more lovingly attuned to our shared humanity? Together, you and I can make a difference.
Frank Ostaseski is an internationally respected Buddhist teacher and visionary cofounder of Zen Hospice Project, and founder of the Metta Institute.
The Five Invitations: What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully
Life and death are a package deal. You cannot pull them apart.
In Japanese Zen, the term shoji translates as "birth-death." There is no separation between life and death other than a small hyphen, a thin line that connects the two.
We cannot be truly be alive without maintaining an awareness of death.
Death is not waiting for us at the end of a long road. Death is always with us, in the marrow of every passing moment. She is the secret teacher hiding in plain sight. She helps us to discover what matters most. And the good news is we don't have to wait until the end of our lives to realize the wisdom that death has to offer.
Without a reminder of death, we tend to take life for granted, often becoming lost in endless pursuits of self-gratification. When we keep death at our fingertips, it reminds us not to hold on to life too tightly. Maybe we take ourselves and our ideas a little less seriously. We let go a little more easily. When we recognize that death comes to everyone, we appreciate that we are all in the same boat, together. This helps us to become a bit kinder and gentler with one another.
In Buddhism, the reflection on death is an essential spiritual practice. It is not seen as ideology to be adopted as a protection against death. Rather, it is an opportunity to become more intimate with death as an inevitable part of life. While such reflections may seem morbid to some, I have found the practice of cultivating a wise openness to death to be life affirming. The value of these reflections is that we see how our ideas and beliefs about death are affecting us right here, right now.
This Sunday, Frank Ostaseski joins InsightLA's founding teacher Trudy Goodman at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Hollywood Forever, the home of our Eastside Monday Night Sitting Group, is the perfect setting for the exploration of what death can teach us about living fully. The program is open to all and will include mindfulness meditation, talks by the teachers, experiential exercises and discussion.
Each morning this week, His Holiness the Dalai Lama walks from his residence in Dharamsala, India, across a courtyard to the temple where participants in the 33rd Mind & Life meetings stand with palms together awaiting his arrival. Two men walk in front of the entourage; a maroon-robed monk swings a big censer of smoking incense on a chain, wrapping the entourage in a cloud of fragrance. Next to the monk walks an Indian soldier wearing a beret, sweeping a machine gun back and forth between the people lined up on either side to catch a glimpse or a greeting from HHDL.
Once seated, the Dalai Lama makes an impassioned plea to us, the gathered scientists and educators, and to all 7 billion human beings to make the 21st century “a century of dialogue,” wisely acting on behalf of the long-term future of humanity and the earth. He reminds us that we have to live together side by side with wisdom and compassion, for “how our life goes depends on the love of others”. How can we overcome the isolating, narrow-minded focus on ‘me, me, me’ as more special than all the other human beings? He said, “I never think, ‘I'm the Dalai Lama.’ Wherever I go, I’m a simple monk among my sisters and brothers. I’m always laughing, teasing, and joyful to counteract the pressure of my role.”
While the ultimate solution for self-centeredness is the infinite altruism of understanding the nature of reality, we need simple warm-hearted recognition of our interdependence before we can demilitarize our world. All week we learned about education of the heart. We listened to research about the effectiveness of training the mind in compassion and emotional intelligence while guarded by soldiers wielding rifles. The most respected monk in the world said, “We need action! If prayers and blessings were enough, we’d have achieved peace and disarmament a thousand years ago!”
What action is right for you? Like the high school students who bravely protested gun violence this week, choose something that matters to you -- and do it! We can inspire each other to show up for team humanity, and live in loving awareness of our shared responsibility for human flourishing.
The Buddha’s original instructions for meditation, or dhyana, ask us to go into a secluded forest and sit under a tree, a quiet place to allow deep concentration. If you’ve ever meditated outside in nature, you can feel the support of plants, landscape, the earth, just as you are buoyed by different energy when you sit in a group from when you sit alone.
Jack and I are in Kyoto, Japan, for the first time! We spent our first day visiting majestic monasteries and Zen gardens. Everyone takes off their shoes at the entrance to a temple and puts on worn slippers. We pad silently around the soft wood floors, respecting the quiet rhythm of Zen temple life. Around each corner, gardens display subtle patterns of rock and gravel, moss and water, curved stone bridges carrying us from the preoccupations of our human world into the beauty and harmony of the vast cosmos.
When I gaze at the ineffable elegance and grace of one simple garden, I think of you and me. We, like Zen gardens, are exquisitely designed to express the sweep and power of nature in a small space - in this body. With quiet, mindful presence, we don’t have to go off to visit faraway Zen temples or ancient Japanese gardens to realize how this very body -- this personal life of you and me -- reveals infinite dimensions of universal life.
It’s very early Spring and the branches are bare. A few daring plum blossoms have burst open and little red camellias brave the cold. Stopping to savor a garden, we tune into the eternal stillness and flow of this life we share. A thirteenth-century Chinese master, Wumen Huikai, rakes the gravel of our flowing thoughts and feelings into one of my favorite Zen poems:
春有百花秋有月 The spring flowers, the autumn moon;
夏有涼風冬有雪 Summer breezes, winter snow.
若無閑事挂心頭 If useless things do not clutter your mind,
更是人間好時節 You have the best days of your life.
I'm in San Francisco at the Wisdom 2.0 conference asking how to bring wisdom and compassion to our use of technology. There are many competing views on this. It is like the ancient story about six people who are blind touching different parts of an elephant and describing what they discover. Touching the side, one says it is like a wall, the trunk is like a snake, a tusk is like a spear, leg, a tree, ear, a fan or tail, a rope. They get into a fight about the truth each has seen. A wise woman witnessing this calmly explained to them, "All of your are right. The whole elephant has all those features each of you named."
Each of us carries part of the truth through our unique perspectives, but we need each other to see the whole picture, the whole elephant. Mindfulness offers us a way to do this, like a Super power. It suffuses what we see with clarity and compassion, revealing the panoramic nature of interrelatedness and interconnectedness, of consciousness itself. When we learn to open our consciousness, we can step beyond our fixations on what's often a limited, partial and particular view.
Here at the conference, we see technology, too, as a Super power - social media and the digital world have the potential to hugely enhance our ability to communicate and understand different points of view. But without mindfulness and technology being wed, in the way the current online world is designed, we are at the mercy of algorithms constantly filtering what we see, restricting and narrowing our view. These 'filter bubbles' polarize and silo us, making it increasingly difficult to look at people and current events in all their rich, nuanced diversity - with a wider lens of unfiltered awareness.
With mindfulness we can step back and see with a broader perspective. Whether in our use of technology or in our personal and collective problems, seeing the whole elephant is wisdom, and wisdom brings compassion. Wherever you are, step back. Let yourself see the whole picture, and with an open heart and mind see the miracle, diversity, and kinship of all life.
Retreats are powerful. They give you a chance to reset, refresh, and de-clutter your mind. They offer time to resolve unfinished things in your heart, to learn to see yourself and the world with eyes of compassion and forgiveness.
Retreats help to attune to your inner rhythms and to the immense current of universal life flowing through you as you. On retreat you can let your guard down, let your heart open and your body-mind unwind. In the safety and refugeof community, you learn to relax and rest in the richness of life as it is. And at the end of the retreat the benefit is visible: whether it's a day or a week or longer, everyone looks younger, more open, clear-eyed, and radiant.
As practitioners at InsightLA, you benefit from the practice and presence of those around you in your classes and sitting groups. There is a nourishing energy and support in sitting together. This is further strengthened in retreat. Take a moment now and ask yourself: is it time for a retreat? Can a retreat serve you? What might be stopping you from taking time to support your being in this healthy way?
If you can, take the opportunity - and plan to include a silent retreat in your life this year! Retreats can be healing, transfomative and profound, so I encourage you to dip your toes in and explore. You'll be glad you did!
P.S. there is a daylong retreat with me happening next Saturday February 17th. Or better yet, mark your calendar for our 6 night residential Insight Meditation retreat in April.
Even after decades of teaching about the dead-end of hatred, I confess: I hate moving. Even when I'm moving to a more spacious and suitable situation, there is a hazy aura of loss, a premature nostalgia for the place I'm choosing to leave.
Our Los Feliz sitting group is moving to a new home on Monday, February 12th, after years of meeting in a classroom at the Philosophical Research Society. Our new space is not far away; we'll be meeting in a beautiful room nestled in the soft green lawns of Hollywood Forever Cemetery. There's ample room for us to grow, to warmly welcome newcomers to our community in a protected environment - and also plenty of free parking! A sacred historic site, the cemetery is called a "Library of Lives".
The move is thrumming with new possibilities. This is our life, vibrating with unending movement, ceaseless change, impermanence. The fleeting moments we call our days unfold in all of eternity. Teaching at the cemetery last year, all of us who meditated there felt the powerful presence of our ephemeral humanity against a backdrop of eternal peace. We sit among those who have walked this way before on our journey from the unknown to the unknown. We sit together - and we move together, as a community - just like each star moves in a constellation.
And yet, change can be hard. We are sticky creatures, quick to bond with familiarity. Letting go is our practice, but we don't have to like it! How is it for you when life changes? Do you resent and resist? Or do you seize an opportunity to wake up to a deep and profound truth of our life?