Posts tagged ‘meditation’

My Journals in The 7th Python

I quote extensively from my journals in The 7th Python. I started a journal in 2001 after writing The Spiritual Teachings of Marcus Aurelius. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations were basically his journal entries, and Professor Pierre Hadot had written in Philosophy As A Way of Life about how the ancients used journals to support their philosophy. Jules Evans in Philosophy For Life explains that daily journals were called hupomnemata in ancient Greece, and that keeping one brought a kind of Socratic dialogue into your intimate daily life. So inspired by Marcus I started to write about the events that happened to me and what I felt about them. I also considered my health, my meditation practice, and other items of personal interest.

When the dispute with the Pythons began, I started to write about those events, and kept going until the resolution of the case in 2013. In the book I decided to use quotes from the journals to show how the legal events were impinging on my inner life. I documented the stress I was undergoing, the financial struggles caused by the dispute, and my changing feelings towards the Pythons. I was also able to track my relation to the Pythons, which is a history of 40 years, from 1973-2013. In the journals I was able to acknowledge how we related to each other during the making of the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail in 1973-75, and what it was like during the dispute from 2005-2013. I was able, through the keeping of the journal, to recognise and alter my view of myself in relation to our break-up, which was traumatic for me at the time, and which was a constant psychological scar for many years. This ability, to look at the past through the prism of the present, was really helpful to me. I managed to lose a sense of blame and guilt that I had dragged with me for many years. It was in a sense an act of liberation, brought about by having to confront nakedly the painful events of the past through a new perspective of the present.
Here is an early journal entry:

October 29 2005

Today I read an article about I Ching and Synchronicity, which talked about how synchronicity was a resonance between the physical world – external events and happenings – and the psychic world-internal events and especially the meaning that one takes from the things that happen to you or appear to you.

This got me thinking about my Python problem, an external event dealing with money owed me, and which is providing me with some meaning – ie a lesson or advice about how to deal with life now and in the future. Jung’s archetypes and the I Ching hexagrams both provide symbolic images and ideas that reflect on the inner-outer resonance that is occurring between the mind and the world and provides a depth of spiritual meaning for interpreting the situation that exists. Tonight I will consult the I Ching about this situation and see what it says, but perhaps I need to reflect on the meaning of this problem and why it has happened now. What does it mean for me and what lesson does it hold?

It involves money, and would provide security of income for at least 5 years which will give me confidence to pursue my activities- either film or otherwise. It represents a pot of gold – worldly wealth that can provide benefits- security, confidence, reduction of debt etc. If I do not get this money, then what – am I insecure, lacking confidence? Or will I manage to get along, to keep going, find a way. Is my internal self or essence able to carry on as per normal (natural being) even if this money does not get paid to me. What is more important- your money or your life? When I consider the physical and mental state of my being, the quality of my relationships with others, and my relationship with the external environment, then surely this money is not really the important thing. Your life is good and solid, and means so much more than this cash.

Perhaps the lesson to be learned here is about values. What is more valuable and what is it important to maintain or to seek? Is it money or is it something else, something more valuable than money, something which has no cash value. If this problem makes you understand about what is truly valuable in your life, and to really appreciate these things in your life, and to give the value and importance far above the cash that you are owed, then you really would learn a valuable lesson, one that too is priceless.

Money has long been a kind of God for you, even a kind of nemesis, because money was very important to your mother and was the ultimate value system when you grew up. Dealing with money, having the right attitude to it has taken you years of inward therapy and it’s no surprise that it is a hefty money problem that you are forced to now face and to deal with in ways that leave you unhurt, still balanced and stable, not angry, not bitter, not full of regrets.

You have to learn the right perspective, how to live without getting what you are owed and not letting it damage your mind and heart. This is the lesson you must learn now and keep for all time.

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November 26, 2015 at 10:32 am Leave a comment

The Mystery Of Buddhism

I am an admirer of Master Nan Huai-Chin, whose books Working Toward Enlightenment and To Realize Enlightenment I have always found difficult but helpful. They are not easy-going, but Master Nan is so knowledgeable and his experience so vast and  wide-ranging that he is always insightful. According to Master Nan I cannot realise enlightenment because I am not celibate, but in many other respects I try to live by the Buddhist precepts he advocates. I will have to leave enlightenment for another lifetime.

The first volume Working Toward Enlightenment starts with an interesting conversation and question, leading to one of his characteristic insights. He writes,

There is a story behind this book. An old friend, Mr. Xiao, came to see me. As he was about to leave. he asked me a question: “Shakyamuni Buddha left home when he was 18, and finally – much later, after years of effort- lifted his head, saw a bright star, and was enlightened. What was it that he was enlightened to? “

Master Nan explains that he answered his friend by saying that the Buddha was enlightened to interdependent causation and inherent emptiness. Mr. Xiao said ” Oh… right”, pushed the door open , and left. This exit left Master Nan disturbed. Mr Xiao was a serious student of Buddhism. “If someone else asked this question, it wouldn’t matter much, but since he was asking this question, it was very serious. In other words, when he asked this question, it had extraordinary depth.”

So what was it that the Buddha was enlightened to? Master Nan confirms that he awakened to inherently empty interdependent origination. But the point is that the Buddha awakened to it after 12 years of practicing all sorts of techniques and studying with a number of teachers. It took him years of effort to bring himself to the point where just stopping his meditation for a moment and looking up into the night sky to see a bright star brought him to enlightenment. It was a matter of an experience, a truth discovered through practice,  whereas Master Nan points out that you and I can open up any book on Buddhism and we can read about these principles and truths that we have not experienced, except through reading them.

Master Nan says that we are “inverting cause and effect”, taking the truths and principles that the Buddha discovered and adding them intellectually to our lives, without going through the experience that would really make them truths for ourselves, real lived experience. I have an idea of what the Buddha was enlightened to when he looked at that star, but it’s still more intellectual speculation- words. I won’t bother putting it down here, since this question – What was it the Buddha was enlightened to? – is a kind of Koan, a question to mull over and penetrate, until finally the answer (if there is one) comes out of your practice.



April 19, 2014 at 5:43 pm Leave a comment

In Praise of Hardship

This weekend I attended an excellent and inspiring retreat organised by the British Taoist Association and led by Meng Zhiling, a Taoist Monk from Beijing. Among other things, Meng talked (via translators) about his time as a hermit in the mountains. As I understand it, he spent a total of 13 years there, the first five trying to locate a true practitioner of the Tao and the last eight living with the old Master that he found. His Master was the true practitioner that he was looking for.

Once he found his Master, and was accepted by him, Master Meng set about digging a cave for himself to live in. He dug it out, made furniture for himself, and started to raise vegetables to survive. The only things he bought were cooking oil and salt (his master did without either of those two items). Meng explained that in going to the mountains, he set himself hardships and difficulties. Living there was hard enough, especially in the winter, but Meng kept seeking harder and harder tasks to set himself. For example, as a monk he begged daily for food. But he limited himself to asking only 7 households for assistance. Whatever he got (if anything) from the 7 households was what he lived on for the day. If he got nothing then he went hungry. The area he lived in was remote and poor, so the people were not able to be generous in their help. His aim was to use these hardships as part of his self-cultivation – overcoming these hardships was his means of reclaiming his original nature. His aim was to follow the Tao, to achieve oneness with the Tao, and he used his hardships as a tool to accomplish this.

He was sometimes in situations where the remoteness of his travels, the harshness of the environment and the lack of food meant that he might have died, and no one would have known. Our saying, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” applies I think to what Meng was trying to achieve. Having overcome all the hardships he set himself, he knew that there were few situations that he would find himself in, in which he could not cope.

We all have hardships in our life. Most of us don’t choose these hardships as Meng did; we feel that hardships are imposed on us by life or karma. But Meng’s attitude of transforming the hardships into self-cultivation is open to anyone to accomplish. Instead of being defeated by hardships or suffering from them as an evil that cannot be avoided, we could change our attitude towards them, and use them (as he did) as tools to transform ourselves (in the Taoist sense of finding our original nature). To the Taoists the person who can transform harsh events like this is a cultivated person and one who is beaten down and defeated by hardships and is unable to overcome them is an ordinary person. Most of us are of course ordinary people, but it is still open to us to view hardships not as suffering imposed from outside (like fate) but as tools for transformation. I suppose Meng would agree with the saying that all experience is our teacher. Everything can be turned into a learning experience.

The problem is that hardships, suffering, financial problems are all stress inducing, and the effect of stress is to drain us of energy, weaken our immune system and make it harder to come back from defeats and disappointments. This is why practice is so important to Taoist cultivation. Practice means that we use other methods (also tools) to keep our body, mind and spirit in a state where we can withstand the damage of stress. Meditation, Tai Chi, Qi Kung, self-massage, acupuncture and all the other arts of self cultivation can help us keep bodily strength and energy that can fight off the depression and tiredness that afflicts the spirit.

It is not enough to have the right attitude to hardship. Attitude is philosophy or view, it is how our mind conceives of the hardships. This is important, is key, but it is not enough. We are also body, and if we do not train the body to fight off stressful damage, then our attitude can be overwhelmed by depression and illness. Taoism has tools for fighting off these difficulties on all fronts-where right attitude of mind and good energy of the body help to create a strong spirit. If all these are in place, the will is powerful, and all hardships can be overcome through transformation.

October 22, 2013 at 3:37 pm 1 comment

There is Nothing In The World That Is Hidden

Studying ancient writings means to study our lives.
Thomas Wright

I’ve just been reading a wonderful book called How to Cook Your Life. It’s not a cook book, although it does deal with the job of a cook in Zen temples, a job called the Tenzo. The book is made up of a short essay called Instructions For The Zen Cook by the great Japanese Zen master Eihei Dogen Zenji (1200- 1253) and a commentary on that work by a contemporary Zen master Kosho Uchiyama Roshi (1912-1998). Uchiyama wrote an excellent book about zazen (zen meditation) called Opening The Hand Of Thought.

What is so great about this book? What’s great about it is how it deals with the levels of life and practice, and manages to show how the obvious and the subtle are both existing and interpenetrating each other at the same time. So on the surface the book may describe how the Tenzo manages his task of feeding the Zen Community, while at the same time the book explains how by viewing these tasks in the right way they become the essence of the Tenzo’s practice of Buddhism. He feeds and nourishes the bodies of others while he spiritually feeds himself.

When he was a young monk, Dogen went to China to study Ch’an (Japanese: Zen) Buddhism. He arrived in China in April 1223, but couldn’t disembark immediately so had to stay on the ship. One day in May an elderly monk came on board to buy mushrooms from Japanese merchants on board. Dogen invited him to tea, and the two talked.

The monk explained that he was 61 years old, and had been a monk for 40 years. He had recently been made Tenzo at his monastery, and wanted to make a noodle soup to celebrate May 5th, a festival day. However, he had no mushrooms for the soup and so had walked the 14 miles to the port to buy them. Dogen asked him to stay and continue talking, but the Tenzo insisted that he had to go back that night to prepare the soup for tomorrow. A 28 mile walk to buy mushrooms.

Dogen asked, “Why, when you are so old, do you do the hard work of a Tenzo? Why don’t you spend your time practicing zazen (meditation) or studying koans? Is there something special to be gained from working particularly as a Tenzo?”

The old man laughed and remarked, “My good friend from abroad! You do not yet understand what practise is all about, nor do you know the meaning of characters (Chinese writing).”

When Dogen heard these words he was taken aback and felt greatly ashamed. So he asked, “What are characters and what is practice? “

The monk replied, “ If you do not deceive yourself about this problem, you will be a man of the Way. “ Dogen admits that he had no idea what the monk was talking about.

In July Dogen was at Mt. Ayuwang, and the Tenzo came to visit him. Dogen asked him about their earlier discussion. The Tenzo said,
“A person who studies characters must know just what characters are, and one intending to practice the Way must understand what practice is.”

Dogen asked, “What are characters?”
The monk said, “one, two, three, four, five.”
“And what is practice?”
“There is nothing in the world that is hidden.”

Kosho Uchiyama in his commentary on this story, gives us a version in contemporary dialogue:

What are characters?
This, that and the other; in other words- everything!
What is practice?
Everything you encounter in your life is practice.

He then explains what the old monk was conveying to young Dogen:

In living this life day by day, we encounter innumerable things and situations, and when we try to search for some fixed truth about them, we always fail. This is because the truth of life is found in each and every activity. Life is not a thing which is substantial or fixed; rather, it is our everyday activity. There is no way to see life outside of the vivid functioning of our every activity.

Meaning does not lie in any particular thing or in any particular practice, but in everything we do and everything that happens to us. This is our life. It is what we do and what happens to us. This was how the Tenzo looked on his life and how he fulfilled his job.

Kosho Uchiyama adds that the spirit running through Dogen’s text is that we must function with a clear mind and true sincerity in the actual situation in which we find ourselves, and not in one we have fabricated in our minds.

June 12, 2009 at 1:17 pm Leave a comment

The Blog That Fell From The Sky

Reflections on an age of anxiety.