Father's Day, Redux
I am not much of a computer-game player - I have to admit that my short foray into video games ended with the Monkey Island franchise (a fact that will allow some of you to work out exactly how old I am).
This week, however, we have been completely engrossed in an online game called Geoguessr. The premise is quite simple - the game drops you into a random place in the world (in Google Street View), and your job is to guess on a world map exactly where you are. You can look, move and zoom around in Street View trying to get clues for where you might be - street names, the writing system, street furniture, web-addresses on store fronts and signs, types of trees - you name it, anything can be a clue. Rounds can be really easy - such as when we were dropped right by the sign for London Bridge - or quite tricky. When we were dropped in the middle of China Town in Manila in the Philippines there were many conflicting clues!
The story we tell ourselves, of course, is that this is an educational game. For instance, over the last week I have learned that:
It is truly amazing that I have arrived at the age I am without knowing any of these facts. Now armed with them my life going forward should be so much easier.
Despite all that, it is not unusual to be able to pinpoint the location to within five feet or so - which is a great feeling - and quite amazing really when you consider the starting point can be anywhere in the world.
One of the things that makes the game so interesting is the fact that you are using real images of the locations. The people you see are real people, living in the very locations you visit. The buildings, cars and garbage bins are all real and are exactly as they were when the Google Car drove past. What is strange is how places can appear both unfamiliar and familiar at the same time. The writing script, the climate and the trees in Indonesia might look very strange to us, but the people, the cats, the bus stops, the auto-repair stores and the direction signs seem much like those at home.
I wrote a couple of years ago about the practice of "Sending to the Ten Directions." This is the final part of the traditional Metta-Bhavana practice where we take the feelings of lovingkindness and goodwill that we have been generating for a small number of specific people and set our intentions to feel and act with lovingkindness to all the people in the world - wherever they are and whoever they are. In doing so we recall that despite any surface differences all beings wish to be happy and well, and we should wish the same for them and treat them in that way.
Playing Geoguessr may not be teaching me an awful lot of practical life skills, but it is wonderful to be able to see those who are living in the Ten Directions, and see where and how they live. And that is something that is valuable to me.
I have linked below a fully-guided meditation on Sending to the Ten Directions. Feel free to use it in whatever way helps you in your practice.
There is a recurring joke that goes around new-age and 'alternative' circles. You may well have seen it, as it is one of those things that gets posted and re-posted on social media, often with the poster claiming it happened to 'a friend of mine' - and who know, it may have. I can totally imagine it happening in real life. Anyway, there are various versions of it, so here is my attempt at a re-telling:
Yesterday I went to our local alternative store looking for a Crystal Ball. I searched among the many different ones they had until I found the perfect one. It was large, about eight inches in diameter and completely clear. I took it to the the older lady behind the desk. She wrapped it carefully and held it towards me. I took hold of it, and before she let go she looked me straight in the eyes.
"Be sure to cover it completely with a cloth when you aren't using it, dearie" she whispered, without letting go of the ball or my gaze.
I trembled. "To... to stop the spirits getting through?" I asked, weakly.
"No dearie - so that your house doesn't burn down if the sun hits it!"
I was thinking about this joke earlier this week as, once again, a version of the story had popped up on my news feed. It reminded me of an equally-apocryphal story that is often told in Buddhist circles. Often it is told as a Zen story, sometimes directly attributed to the Buddha (which is false). The story goes like this:
An elderly Zen master is sitting quietly in the zendo when a group of young monks burst in excitedly. "Roshi, Roshi, come quickly!"
"What is it?" he replies, "what has got you all so excited?"
"Roshi - come down to the river and see - Sensai Ko is walking on the water!"
"And tell me, young sirs, how much does the ferryman charge to take one across the river?"
"Two pennies Roshi, but..."
"Then two pennies is what Sensai Ko's trick is worth!"
I find both these stories funny, and there is something about each of them that makes me think more deeply. In both cases there is the juxtaposition of the magical with the mundane. And in both cases the mundane wins.
I suspect that many of us sometimes wish for something more magical in our experience, wish that we could get some superhuman capability or divine insight that will drive us forward in our path. And, don't get me wrong, sometimes that might happen. But for the most part we have what we have.
One of the most important lessons that I have learned is that I have, right now, everything I need to progress on the path. There is nothing outside of me that I need, and for as long as I spend dreaming or yearning for something else then I am wasting energy and missing the point. What I have right now is enough for right now. And that's what matters.
I have linked below a fully guided meditation on the concept that 'This is Enough.' Feel free to use it in whatever way you feel helps you in your practice.
I am a little bit late with my newsletter this week because of the long weekend here. It is Memorial Day in the US, which means that many of us get a three-day weekend with the holiday on the Monday. I often have to work over weekends, but fortunately this weekend for me was a genuine three days of relaxing and switching off, which was much appreciated.
Memorial Day is not a holiday I grew up with - the equivalent holiday where I was born is in November (in fact I was actually born on a Remembrance Day). Aside from the extra day off I haven't really connected much with the actual holiday behind Memorial Day - like many people I am somewhat conflicted about the holiday. I am not going to go into that in this message, as I don't feel it would be appropriate right now, beyond saying that I do recognize the sacrifices that have been made and the importance of remembrance. As George Santayana observed, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." It is important to remember.
It is this idea of memory and remembrance that I have been contemplating today. In doing so I was thinking a bit about the pali word sati. Sati is usually translated as 'mindfulness,' however that is a word that I feel has become a little watered-down and over-loaded in the west, especially in the last decade or so where 'mindfulness' has become a catch-all for so many things. I was asked at the last company I worked for if I would be interested in running some 'mindfulness' classes for the employees. I think they had bought the message that a mindful employee was a productive employee. I responded by asking how they would feel if some people resigned from the company after the class - I wasn't asked a second time.
Looking up sati in Buddhadatta Mahathera's Pali-English Dictionary he renders it first as 'memory,' and then as 'mindfulness.' I was taught to think of sati as 'recollection,' and I find this more helpful, as it is this action of remembering, of recalling what is going on that is so important.
The word used for meditation on the breath in the suttas is anapanasati - literally the recollection of in-breath and out-breath. Some people find the use of 'recollection' here a bit odd - do I really need to 'recall' the fact that I am breathing? The answer is of course yes - we go through our lives completely oblivious to the fact that we breathe, and often only 'remember' this fact when we exercise, play a musical instrument or have a cold. Simply remembering that you are breathing is anapanasati.
The Buddha hammers this home in a rather humorous analogy called 'The Beauty Queen,' part of the Sedaka Sutta. He sets the scene thus:
Suppose, monks, that a large crowd of people comes thronging together, saying, 'The beauty queen! The beauty queen!' And suppose that the beauty queen is highly accomplished at singing & dancing, so that an even greater crowd comes thronging, saying, 'The beauty queen is singing! The beauty queen is dancing!'
Now, he uses this set-up as a way to imagine a scenario where it would be easy for the (celibate) monks to become distracted. Even as he was doing this I can imagine some of them beginning to drift elsewhere! He then brings them back to earth by introducing an ordinary man who is strong-armed into performing a task:
They say to him, 'Now look here, mister. You must take this bowl filled to the brim with oil and carry it on your head in between the great crowd & the beauty queen. A man with a raised sword will follow right behind you, and wherever you spill even a drop of oil, right there will he cut off your head.'
Oof. The poor man's mind here mustn't get caught up in the crowd, or the beauty queen, but instead what does he have to do? He has to remember the pot of oil on his head and his task. This is mindfulness. The Buddha elaborates:
I have given you this parable to convey a meaning. The meaning is this: The bowl filled to the brim with oil stands for mindfulness immersed in the body. Thus you should train yourselves: 'We will develop mindfulness immersed in the body. We will pursue it, hand it the reins and take it as a basis, give it a grounding, steady it, consolidate it, and undertake it well.' That is how you should train yourselves.
Being mindful isn't being blissed-out and relaxed, it is paying full attention and remembering what is going on. If the hero in our story 'zenned-out' he would be dead. If he started lusting after the beauty queen he would be dead. Instead he needed to remember that he had a pot of oil on his head and a task to complete.
Memory is important. We shouldn't forget what has happened in the past, and we shouldn't forget what is actually happening right now. Starting with the breath we can be aware, recalling that this is my body and it is breathing. It's surprisingly hard, but a great start.
I have linked below a fully guided anapanasati - recollection of breathing in and out - meditation. Feel free to use it in whatever way helps your practice.
"Sedaka Sutta: At Sedaka" (SN 47.20), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn47/sn47.020.than.html .
The weather where we are has been a bit strange this spring. We had snow at the beginning of April (the latest we have had snow for 82 years apparently), and both April and May have been wetter than usual - even for a persistently damp place like the Pacific Northwest. Now I can't complain, especially as other, not too distant areas are experiencing droughts. Being in the soggy part of the country has its advantages.
And one of those advantages is of course how beautiful it is. The wet weather, combined with a few warm days and generally mild weather otherwise has meant that this whole area is wonderfully green at the moment.
And that goes for my front yard. At the moment it is full of glorious, luxurious thick plants, bursting with color and many shades of green.
I think it looks lovely.
But, of course, the minor downside to this is that ninety percent of the wonderful flora in my yard are weeds.
Now I needed to be told this. I must confess that if you asked me I wouldn't be able to tell you which plants were the weeds, and which were the 'good plants.' I'll be honest with you, they all look great to me.
This division of plants into 'weeds' and 'not-weeds' has always puzzled me. I have asked many people what the true definition of a weed is, but nobody seems to be able to give me a satisfactory answer. The most compelling answer I have heard is that "weeds are plants that are easy to grow." Which, now that I write it down, doesn't feel that satisfactory after all.
I find this arbitrary distinction between weeds and 'good plants' a strong metaphor for how we divide the world into people we like and those we don't. When we practice metta meditation one of the things we learn is that this distinction is every bit as arbitrary. Seven years ago I wrote a short essay on this dilemma. You can find the original here, or I have reproduced it below.
I hope that you find it useful, and that you can enjoy the weeds in your yard - and the metaphoric weeds in your life - over the coming week.
Teach me to love the unlovely O Lord
I don’t know how to do it
Teach me to love the impossible people
I really don’t like
I don’t naturally take to some folks
I can’t make out the way that they are
I just don’t understand other people who aren’t like me at all
Loving-kindness ought to be brought to the point where there are no longer any barriers set between persons, and for this the following example is given: Suppose a man is with a dear, a neutral and a hostile person, himself being the fourth; then bandits come to him and say "we need one of you for human sacrifice." Now if that man thinks "Let then take this one, or that one," he has not yet broken down the barriers, and also if he thinks "Let them take me but not these three," he has not broken down the barriers either. Why not? Because he seeks the harm of him who he wishes to be taken and the welfare of only the other three. It is only when he does not see a single one among the four to be chosen in preference to the other three, and directs his mind quite impartially towards himself and the other three, that he has broken down the barriers
You can read the whole teaching here.
The full audio, including a fully guided Metta meditation is below.
"The Practice of Loving-Kindness (Metta): As Taught by the Buddha in the
compiled and translated by Ñanamoli Thera. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013,