Saturday, August 27, 2011

What kind of butterfly is this?

I have an answer: I think it's the Great Spangled Fritillary. North Georgia is the southern limit of its territory, and while I've found lots of photos now that I have a name, and while the outside of the wings match, none of the photos I've found show the exact colors of the inside of the wings. There does seem to be quite a variety of colors possible, however, so until I'm corrected, I'm going with the outside markings.

Whatever this fella is, it's been at the echinecea literally all day. It's a good sized butterfly, -- that's a big blossom. Really beautiful when it flits around and you can see the wings.  Soft browns and yellows. I haven't been able to find anything like it on Google. It's times like this when I actually like this camera.  Full 24x zoom from my back porch about 20 feet away, and it managed an almost perfect focus.

Best shot I could get with the wings extended. And then the battery died on the camera. The brown and even the yellow are much lighter than they appear here, because it's in the shadows. Gorgeous bug, whatever it is!

Chapter Two -- The Retreat, and meet Cinta

I've been to a fair number of retreats, and there is no question in my mind that this one proved to be the most special, and the one at which I learned the most (possibly aside from the very first one, where I knew nothing and which was basically a ten-day mind/body survival test).  It was also the only one where I ended up feeling bonded with the co-retreatants, and I was not alone in that feeling.

There are several reasons for all this that come to mind. One is that it was a small group -- about 30 to begin with, and at least three women that I know of dropped out on the morning of the third day. Most other retreats I've been to had anywhere from 70 to 100 participants. Another may be that these were all experienced meditators.  The retreat was advertised as intermediate, so no beginners attended. Some were newer than I to the practice, many had far more experience. I was probably the oldest, but I don't think many were under 30 and a good many of us were over 50.

But, I'm thinking that much of the reason for the bonding and the overall feel of the retreat was our teacher, Sayalay Susila. She set the tone with her humility, her compassion, her concern, and her incredible knowledge. On the last day, a group of us discussed the bonding briefly, and most felt that it came from the daily group question and answer sessions in the sangha hall (as opposed to the meditation hall). Initially, the group was divided up into two sections, with half attending one day, half the next, in rotation. However, on the first day Sayalay told our group that she didn't mind if anyone who wanted to attended these daily groups, if they had questions. The sangha hall is fairly small, intimate, the questions were often somewhat personal and as we learned from her answers, we got to know one another and bonded even though during the retreat we were urged to remain silent and not speak to one another, to aide in concentration. Another  part of the bonding has to be credited to Fran, the retreat coordinator, who I felt was the rock of the retreat.  She was always available to us, always willing to help in any way possible, and always with a happy attitude and smiling face. She was our go-to person, and we certainly went to her.

Personally, I don't know that I have ever in my life been anywhere that I felt so at home with a group of people (strangers or otherwise). We treated one another like loved family, which is what good Buddhists should do.  For me, it was the first retreat where judging did not rear its ugly head (or if it did, mindfulness let it go), and the first where some negative mind-state didn't erupt and take over. This was huge.

Group photo, taken after closing ceremonies. With a couple of exceptions, most of the  people dressed in white  took the eight lifetime precepts.  More about that later.

Having said all that, I also have to say that while the retreat was happening I didn't think I was learning much because 1) I was so darned tired, and 2) because some of it simply went in one ear and out the other with no possibility of remembering. A couple of private conversations with Sayalay on the first day left me so excited that I could rarely settle my mind down enough to concentrate, and concentration was the focus of the retreat. Now that I'm back home, now that I've settled down, now that I've read over some of Sayalay's materials, I know that I really did learn a great deal.

We were all whining about being tired toward the end of the week, and Sayalay shortened the evening meditations to give us more rest.  Our days began at 4:50am, with early meditation in the quiet and dark hall until 6:50. Breakfast was at 7:00, and it lasted for well over 1/2 hour, with all the recitations. From 8 until 8:50 we had our work period, from 9 to 10:50 more meditation.  Eleven am lunch, which lasted for most of the hour, then two hours of personal time which I used either to sleep or to walk through the woods, depending on energy. The day went on in this vein until 9:30pm, with occasional breaks for group interviews, optional yoga, and tea. (Note that no solid food is eaten by Theravadan Buddhists after 12:00 noon.) And most of the time, most of us were there, in the hall. Almost always, Sayalay was in the hall before we arrived each morning at 4:50, and often she was there when we left at 9:30.

You already know that no photos of yours truly ever make the pages here, so you must recognize how special this one is that I will actually publish it for the world to see. Sayalay made a point of getting me in a photo alone with her, which was rather an honor as she hadn't allowed that with anyone else. She is the most remarkable woman I have ever met, and I could talk about her all day, but will leave her to her privacy beyond this except to say that I do believe she is a truly gifted teacher.

Bhante G's water-dousing equipment, after the closing ceremonies.

So, I mentioned the Eight Lifetime Precepts ceremony that eight of us participated in. This was a surprise opportunity, announced on the first day of the retreat for those who were interested. I wanted to take them 3 years ago when I first tried to attend this same retreat and the ceremony was offered in the retreat notes. As generally happens when things don't go as you planned, I think I'm much more ready to take, and keep, them now at this stage of my practice.  I've lived by the first five for over six years, since I first took them at my first retreat. The last three all pertain to speech.  Here's the list:

     I undertake the training  rule to abstain from taking life.
I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking what is not given.
I undertake the training rule to abstain from sexual misconduct.
I undertake the training rule to abstain from false speech (lying).
I undertake the training rule to abstain from malicious speech.
I undertake the training rule to abstain from harsh speech.
I undertake the training rule to abstain from useless speech (chatter).
I undertake the training rule to abstain from wrong livelihood and drinks and drugs causing heedlessness.

This last one is generally included in the five that retreatants are always required to take for the duration of their stay at any Buddhist center, and I include it in the first 5, although they are presented differently here. The last three -- malicious speech, harsh speech and useless speech -- are challenges for me. Most of my malicious speech regards my boss, and I began to be aware of that before I left and was already softening my words and thoughts where he's concerned. I've mostly let go of anger -- or at least the need/urge to lash out in anger. That's been tempered through mindfulness over the past few months as well. Useless speech? Well, isn't that what this blog is all about? Clearly, I have not mastered that one.

The ceremony itself was fascinating. Early in the week we all got a quick Pali lesson, since we had to recite a whole long list of stuff in Pali. We all met with the resident nun for a Q&A session (many of us asked about the alcohol restriction, whether it meant no alcohol at all, or that maybe one drink was OK as long as we didn't go further. She was noncommittal, but said if we had a drink then we should later reflect on what pleasure we got from that drink.) We were told what to expect at the ceremony, white clothes were dug out of the attic for those of us who didn't have complete white sets with us, we took our two-page ceremony instructions and Pali speech with us to study. I spoke a lot of Pali aloud on the porch of my little kuti during my afternoon breaks.

When we entered the meditation hall after breakfast on Saturday morning, all of our personal cushions and belongings had been moved to the first two rows (as it happened, there were four men and four women taking  the precepts). When prompted, we recited the Pali together, stopping to let Bhante G ask questions or recite lines that we had to repeat.  Then, in totally random order he called us to the front one by one, where he gave us our new Pali name (mine is Cinta, pronounced Cheen-TAH, which Bhante G said meant 'thoughtful one'), handed our certificate off to the appropriate monastic (a monk for the men, Sayalay for the women), then (in Fran's unforgettable words, 'threw water at us' several times). Then we moved on to the monastic, who tied a braided golden string around our wrists, hung a gold medallion around our necks, and handed us our quite beautiful certificates.

When this part was over, we were treated to advice from Bhante G about the precepts we had just taken and perhaps this was the most special part of all, in many ways, although it was all very special. Mostly, he told us not to worry if we broke one of these rules, but to simply begin again. Taking the precepts is a reminder of how we should act towards all others at all times, not some kind of religious vow. Remember what I wrote in Chapter One about the three facets of Morality, Concentration and Wisdom? This is the Morality wing, and these precepts are how we develop that morality. Concentration comes from meditation, and wisdom grows over the course of time. Hopefully.

And then....well, lots of useless chatter was heard as silence was lifted and we had the chance to speak to one another. Although the retreat was officially over at 12:30 after lunch, I didn't leave until 1:30 and many were still there even then.  I cannot wait to return in December.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Gluten Question

I've never been one to latch onto fads when it comes to food, diet, health (or much else, for that matter). It seems that over the years of my life there have been so many 'diseases du jour', and an equal number of 'magical cures du jour', all of which seem to fizzle out after awhile. How often have we seen the medical profession announce some major new discovery when it comes to diet, only to admit a few years later that they were mistaken, and that now they have an even newer discovery that's surely right this time? Too often. So, I read and study and try to take the middle road, not get caught up in extremes or fads.

The natural medicine doc I've been listening to for over a year now, and whose book I've read, pushes a gluten-free diet on everyone. For the most part, I've resisted this since I try not to eat a lot of grains anyway because they tend to put fat on this body.  However, in recent months I've opted to be more thoughtful about gluten, and have satisfied my summery need for pesto by using gluten-free pasta (made from rice), and avoiding grains otherwise.  Until last week.

The food at Bhavana offered lots of grains: oatmeal, breads, pasta, desserts, etc.  Now, nobody made me eat it -- there were always other options of healthy foods to fill my belly.  But hot oatmeal is such a delight, and who can resist a wonderful pasta accompanied by freshly-made garlic bread?  Not me! So I chose to eat these things and more and enjoyed every bite.

I knew that my digestive system was all out of whack while I was up there, and knew it had to be from some change in diet.  I even gave some mild thought to the gluten issue, but didn't really think too much about it until last night when I got my new issue of Bon Appetit magazine and read an article on gluten-free cooking.  According to them, devotees swear that eliminating gluten gives them "more energy, fewer aches and pains, less bloating and depression". Even physicians are "swearing that their own fatigue and brain-fog lifted".  Hello! Those are exactly the symptoms I had!

I'd noticed already that the bloating and other digestive issues had disappeared, and now that I've gone three gluten-free days I've awakened this morning for the first time with some actual energy, feeling more like what passes for normal for me. Certainly, the energy part could be coincidental, in that I've been resting so much, but all in all, considering all the symptoms, I'm beginning to think there may be something to this gluten thing. And I don't reach such conclusions lightly.

The funny/odd thing is that I hadn't really noticed a difference from not eating gluten for the previous couple of months, but I sure noticed a difference when I added large quantities of it back into my diet. I expect that's because even before I cut it out, I was eating very little of it to begin with and have been (or tried to be) grain-free for many years. I had lapses, but not large lapses that were concentrated over a period of a week.

Something to think about, and it certainly gives me more incentive to avoid gluten, see if the connection is real.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Chapter One

Driving 11 hours after a tiring week turns out not to be the best idea I ever had. Seemed fine at the time -- I was filled with adrenaline and made the drive with no problems. But let me tell you, I've suffered for it afterwards, wanting to do nothing more than sleep. I did make it to work yesterday, but even now my energy has not returned.  I'm really getting too old to act like I'm a kid!  

Because my experiences at Bhavana were so varied and so wonderful, I've opted to break the tale into two parts, beginning here with my experiences with the place itself.  I'll talk about the retreat a bit later on.

This sign greets you, assures you that you are not lost, after several miles of driving back country roads. I love this photo because it shows the beauty of the entire area -- lush greenery, nature at her best.

I arrived on Saturday around 2pm, a day before the actual retreat was to begin. A wonderful resident named Ann greeted me, showed me my kuti (the little hut that would be my home for the week) and gave me a great orientation tour of the property. As it turns out, I was just in time for a weekly Pali (the language of the Buddha) class, to be followed by a Sutta (the teachings of the Buddha) class.  I opted out of the Pali class, deciding to settle into my kuti instead. Ann introduced me to the resident monks, Bhante Seelananda (or, as he introduced himself, Bhante Seela), and Bhante Dhamma. I met the Abbot, Bhante Gunaratana (better known as Bhante G) rather by accident while standing in the entry looking at some items on a bulletin board. The door opened and a monk in full robes, a big floppy hat, wearing sneakers with a backpack water container over his shoulder walked in. I knew who it had to be, although he didn't introduce himself. He did greet me, asked me a question, then went on his way. He is, I believe, 83, and all of them had been up until 2am in the temple, celebrating the half full moon, so he was no doubt a bit tired.  He also had a Sutta lesson awaiting and needed to get his shower after his daily walk. Wisdom and kindness simply radiate from this man, and I soaked up every opportunity I had to be in his presence.

I attended the Sutta class, very small, held in the library with perhaps a dozen people, including the monks, the resident nun, resident lay people and some outsiders who are always welcome to these classes.  I was more than a little awed, I must admit, to have the opportunity to get a Sutta lesson from Bhante G himself. It was a rather magical hour.  I also had the opportunity to meet Sayalay Susila, the retreat teacher, who arrived during the afternoon.

This is my kuti, named Parami, which means 'perfection' in Pali. There are 10 parami's in Buddhism, virtues cultivated as a path to purification and leading an unobstructed life, so it was a good name to have. It has windows on three sides always open to light breezes and the sounds of nature.  Crickets and tree frogs serenaded me during the night. The kuti's have neither electricity nor plumbing, but neither presented a problem. The main building wasn't far away, for plumbing and electrical needs. Although I took several photos of the kuti during my stay, this one was taken and sent to me by Ann, the resident I got to know fairly well during my stay.

This sign adorns the office building in the main courtyard, and signifies what Bhavana and Theravadan Buddhism are about.  Sila is virtue, Samadhi is concentration, and Panna is wisdom. It's what we all strive to find in our practice.

Another photo of my kuti, from the path leading from the main building. My camera really does not do greens well!

I slept well that first night, tired from the drive, peaceful from the afternoon and evening spent with various activities and meeting people.  Early Sunday morning (as in 5am!) we were all in the meditation hall being led through the morning routine by Bhante G.  The sounds of children laughing and playing disturbed the peace of that early hour, which seemed strange, because while there are houses in the neighborhood, these children were nearby and what average American child is going to be wandering outside in groups away from home in the morning darkness? Once the morning routine was finished, I learned what was going on.  It is not unusual for families to bring food to the monastery as dana, or generosity in giving, and that's what was going on. They were expected, of course, but arrived earlier than expected.  This turned out to be a real treat!

This was a large Sri Lankan family, at least three generations, perhaps four.  Three children under 10 or so, and two infants.  Breakfast at the monastery happens at 7am, and they had brought a traditional Sri Lankan breakfast lovingly prepared by the family. We had beans, noodle cakes, rice cakes, oatmeal and cereals with nuts, a traditional breakfast soup -- very green and very vegetative but very good -- that was supposed to be very healthy.  The family stayed to also provide lunch, which was even more of an array than breakfast. Rice, other grains, potatoes, a mushroom dish, green beans, a minced parsley salad and a similar cooked minced parsley dish, a fruit that looked like a bite-sized chunk of pot roast, curried (or at least with tumeric) cooked cashews, red lentil soup, fresh fruit, two rice puddings and sweet rice bars.  And I'm sure I left some out!  This was really a treat, a wonderful opportunity not only to experience the traditional food, but also to observe the family and see the importance to them of this dana and the ceremony.  Bhante G read off a list of departed family members who were being sent merit by the living families through this act of dana.  In fact, every meal, every day at Bhavana is the result of dana from some persons or family, and the names are always noted at mealtime.

Mealtime at Bhavana is always a ceremony. The monastics sit on raised platforms in the background, the rest sit on the floor.  This was another photo Ann sent me, of our group at some meal or another. The yellow pages before us on the table contain various passages that are recited daily at each meal.  Some only by the monks, others by the monks as well as others -- most of them are in Pali.  Because of these recitations, mealtimes tend to take a fair amount of time. That would not be bad in and of itself, but this old  body did grow weary of the amount of getting up and down from the floor, between dining and meditation!  When I left, I felt as if I didn't want to sit down again for a very long time.  The food, incidentally, was absolutely delicious.  All vegetarian, of course, but with a wide variety of terrific food in great abundance.  Everyone visiting Bhavana has a daily work assignment, and I chose to work in the kitchen for an hour each day helping prepare lunch.  I really enjoyed that, and learned a lot in the process.

This is the meditation hall, photo taken on the last day once the retreat officially ended.  It's an extraordinarily beautiful room, with the bentwood arches and wood paneling. The windows are always open to breezes and the sounds of nature.

This peaceful spot is what I believe they call the columbarium, although I may be wrong about the term.  Whatever you call it, the area behind the wall is a place where one may choose to have one's ashes interred after death. This is something I've known about for years, and I can't think of a better place for my ashes to lie. No, I'm not in a hurry,  but at my age one never knows.

I spent time hiking various trails into the woods, sat outside on little benches in secluded spots, generally enjoyed weather that I can only call spectacular.  Days were balmy, in the mid-eighties, nights cool, mostly breezy, with a few showers here and there.  It's a beautiful place inhabited by beautiful people teaching a beautiful message.  Tired as I am, I'm glad I went.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

She lives!

This stained glass lotus window sits at the highest peak of the back wall of the meditation hall. Because we sit facing forward, I never noticed this until yesterday afternoon when we were taking photos in the hall. It's very beautiful.

For those of you who will worry otherwise, a quick note to let you know that I have arrived safely back home as of just after midnight today.  I opted to drive straight home, rather than stopping overnight enroute. Took just under 11 hours, but worth it because I was glad to be home.

You can expect more, no doubt ad nauseum, about my trip on another day, when my mind is not quite so tired. For now, let me say that it was all I expected and much, much more.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Adieu for now

This is it, folks. Tomorrow I head northeast for 10 days, and I'm looking forward to it for so many reasons. First and foremost is that I will finally accomplish a visit to the Bhavana Society, after two prior failed efforts from Oregon.

Beyond that, it'll be nice to get away from work for a week!

And then there is the magic that always comes from a retreat such as this. Peace, quiet, no electronics, no worries, food provided. There's a lot to be said for getting away from the world, particularly when the world is in such a mess as it is right now. It won't be perfect -- they never are -- but the imperfections always come from inside me as I react and watch my reactions to the inevitable inner reflections that arise when there are no distractions, nothing to do but sit and meditate. They can be uncomfortable because they force you to face yourself, whether or not you like what you see. But in the end you come out having learned much that is valuable. In the past, I've found it really interesting to observe what happens inside when you can't talk (totally silent retreat) and when there are no distractions. I'm sure this will be no different.

Wouldn't you know that now I'm leaving town, the weather is cooling off a bit? But, it's been even cooler in West Virginia, which will be quite welcome.

I leave from work tomorrow around noon, will drive about 4 hours to Kingsport, Tennessee, on to the monastery on Saturday. I'll talk to you when I return home.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

I must be on a roll....

You know the old saying about things coming in groups of three? Good things, bad things, whatever, they always do seem to come in threes.  I've now had my second one in less than a week, so naturally I have to wonder what the third will be (and in my more negative states, when that old pendulum will start dropping again).

I've wanted to go to the annual year-end retreats at the Bhavana Society, where I'm going next week.  But, to keep beginners out and leave this to serious meditators, they've had a requirement that a person must have attended one nine-day retreat at that location. But, they didn't offer any nine-day retreats this year, so I spent a little time in the early part of this year pleading for a temporary rule change. I finally gave it up, because months passed with no announcement of a change on the website.  Today, out of the blue, I received an email saying that I could attend if I was still interested. Yay! Patience pays off.

The end of the year is always depressive and horrible for me. I hate the Christmas hoopla, plus it always emphasizes just how alone I am in life when both my birthday and Christmas pass by unnoticed and I spend all that time alone. I hate it, and I dread it every year. I'd fly away to someplace warm and sunny for those two weeks if I could, but unfortunately I can't afford that.

The Bhavana year-end retreats come in two parts, and one may attend either one or both, beginning December 16 and going through January 1st. Our store is closed the week after Christmas anyway, so I just need to ask my boss for the previous week off (without pay, which will make two weeks without pay!). I don't think he'll mind, as it's a really slow season for us at best. Now, I just need to find a better way to get there other than driving, if possible, in case of snow. That may not be as easy as it sounds, since I'm not near either a Greyhound or Amtrak station, and since the monastery is also not near either. The best bet might be to fly into DC and meet up with others to share a rental car or taxi. I've looked into this before, and it's quite a hassle. I just don't want to be caught up in snow, either enroute or when it's time to drive back.

I spent another hour in the garden early this morning, using hand clippers to edge the garden area. Some of it hasn't been done in quite awhile, and the guy who does my grass doesn't always do a good job with this. I think he's just trying to be careful, not get any plants or the cedar mulch with his weedeater, but I hope that making the edge clear to him might encourage him to get it good.  I hope the garden survives 10 days without me here to water it. I'll soak it good Thursday, then hope for rain while I'm gone.  Really, there isn't much left out there to worry about, other than the limas that aren't ready to pick yet. The tomatoes are going strong, but I won't be heartbroken if they don't survive. It is what it is.