These last two months have seen a cascade of change. I write from a pause – a time of calm from my warm room looking out at the treetops. The clouds are low. It is raining today. From this vantage point, I share some of what has been going on.
The first week of October, Northern California had many fires. These fires burned 7000 structures in Santa Rosa alone including 5000 homes. Over 40,000 people had to evacuate. Along with the multitudes, Shanti, my special friend and the Awakening Truth Executive Director, Mom, Mom’s dog, Lacey and I evacuated. Mom and I headed to Milpitas, Shanti to Laguna Beach. This sudden dislocation was inconvenient and unsettling. However, each of us was eventually able to return home and the things we owned intact – a privilege that many thousand lost. One newly acquired ‘thing’ was my car that a freind sold me at a fraction of its value.
After getting Mom resituated, I left for the East coast to teach. When I returned, my health didn’t hold up. Air purifiers, masks, herbal remedies helped only a small amount. Trips to the beach were helpful, trips that wouldn’t have been possible without a car. Yet every time I got close to Santa Rosa, burning eyes, mouth, brain fog reappeared. Eventually when I wasn’t able to speak a few clear consecutive sentences, friends stepped in and said it was time to leave. Again.
With Shanti’s help, we evacuated. Once again we were on the road with unknown destination, the apartment left asunder – a tell tail sign of leaving in a hurry. I was advised to stay out of Santa Rosa until my symptoms were all gone.
After two weeks, my symptoms were still not gone. Mind was moving from one thing to the next, trying to find a solution that would enable me to respond to the community, support Mom and my own health needs. I had no answer.
Awareness and Love
From the whirlwind, I turned my attention to awareness and love. It was a faint glimmer, a distant memory. Putting my attention there, it grew. I felt it in my body. As I could feel it, I relaxed. As I relaxed more, the tangible expereince of awareness and love got stronger. The more it filled me up and suffused my body, heart and mind, the more I trusted it. Yet, I felt myself pulling back with all the things I had to do, who I was to different people, the expectations I had of myself and my hungers to fulfill them. As my identities, roles and expectations were keeping me bound up and anxious, I let them go. As I let them go, something shifted.
Maybe it is a little akin to what happens when you make butter. Initially you have cream where the fat is suspended in water. But after churning it inverts and water is suspended in fat. In the same way, awareness was no longer suspended in me; I was suspended in awareness. But this is where the metaphor falls apart. I wasn’t simply suspended in awareness, I became porous, a thin veil from which awareness and love poured in and out. I was peaceful and clear. All of the conundrums and complexity involved with health, home, Mom, and community, still were just as pressing as they had been yet somehow, everything was different.
Silver Lining in the Cloud
On the road, people were welcoming, offering accommodation and friendship. I had some scheduled teaching enagements. Between those and spontaneous ones, we had many discussions that were delicious and rich. It is a blesing that even when my life circumstances are unsettled and health isn’t optimal, the Dharma still pours through unhindered and clear.
Return to Santa Rosa
After 3.5 weeks staying with several friends in their homes in Ojai, San Clemente, Los Angeles, Redondo Beach, it was time to return to Santa Rosa even though I was still not symptom free. There had been several days of really heavy rain while I was away. Friends reported no smell of smoke in the air and were hopeful.
Re-entering the city, my eyes and mouth started to burn immediately. Along with the physical burning, my heart ached. The impending implications for my journey towards health, Mom and our community were all daunting.
I asked if I could sublet the apartment, but the owners did not agree. So I relinquished it. With the new tenent, they raised the rent. While some people see hardship as an opportunty to step up and help, other use it to profit.
Moving was only possible with a lot of community support.
Susan Hartz, an aquaintance from Julian Cell meditation group, had put her lovely Forestville home up for sale six weeks before the fires hoping to move into Santa Rosa. It didn’t sell. After the fires, price wars caused chaos in the housing market and homes were selling from 150K – 300K above asking prices. Susan would have been able to sell her house quickly but buying one was another story. She took it off the market, resigned but not happy to live another winter alone. She offered me a room, delighted to have a companion. Again without a car this wouldn’t have been possible. It is fortunate this worked out as there are many still homeless. Forestville is 25 minutes west of Santa Rosa. Ensconced in trees, the air here is better.
I oscillated back and forth between gratitude for my new housemate, her offering me a beautiful sunny room and sadness. The apartment where I lived held our community gatherings. Letting it go meant letting go of a place we could regularly meet. Sally Singingtree, Kris Hall and Susan Carney each offered to host one of our meditation gatherings and discussions. Their hospitality allows continuation and new opportunities.
I was settling. Health was improving and my living situation was going to be a good place stay for a while. All of a sudden Mom started behaving very differently and needed more support. It looks like she has been having mini strokes. Her doctors say she has dementia and keeping her safe at some point may require different housing.
There is nothing like the need to protect love ones to catapult action and activity. Day and night suddenly filled up with doctor visits, research, and discussions with my brother David Fein and Mom’s closest friends. There is a bitter-sweet gladness to this new phase of being a care partner with Mom. I’m deeply grateful I’m here to support. It is such a treasured time. I see myself moving through list of things to do against the emotinal reality of what this means. My activity dissipates anxiety and distracts me from the dull ache of loss. Dementia is devastating even if rampant. I feel my self pulling back, not wanting to commit to writing what I know to be true. As if by not mentioning it, naming it, I can better protect her.
One night I went to ancient redwood trees not far from me. Nestled at their roots, I gazed up at the canopy far above. I felt protected and safe, as if I were swaddled in a blanket. I gave my body over for the Earth to hold. In the cool moist air, one breath at a time, compression slowly relaxed. I felt calm. Awareness was present. It was not defined by any of my roles. It didn’t depend on me having answers. It didn’t need Mom to respond in familiar ways. It was embracing, allowed everything to be just as it was.
I came out of the woods, grounded, rested, bright, feeling the full length of my body reaching into the dark sky with my weight sinking into the spongy earth below my feet. As I came out from under the canopy, the moon was nearly full and surrounded by a great rainbow ring. I got in my car, turned on the ignition and the panel lit up. The odometer read 191919. I took it as a sign to pay close attention.
What I have been through and continue to go through has symmetry. These times speak of beginnings and endings, of yin and yang of staying balanced and resourced in the middle of upheaval.
We Are Not Alone
All around me others are also dealing with huge changes and upheavals. The fires have caused secondary and tertiary moves, work and health issues on a massive scale. It has also generated a huge outpouring of support.
Shanti first moved to Laguna Beach to work in her aunt’s gallery. But when Southern California fires began, their clientele weren’t buying fine art. Shanti has now moved to Salt Lake City, Utah. In Shanti’s moving out of Santa Rosa, Awakening Truth has lost a fine community member and excellent Executive Director. I miss my friend.
Laurie Hope was visting in Sonoma County and welcomed me to stay in her home in Ojai, CA., over 400 miles south of Santa Rosa when I evacuated the second time. It was a much needed refuge. Hardly had I returned to Sonoma County, when Southern California fires began. Laurie evacuated. I was in regular contact with her, watching the fire map daily as fire surrounded her neighborhood. Miraculously, a small bubble safely ensconced her home and some homes nearby. She still cannot return because the smoke damage to her home and toxicity of the area. From Northern and Southern California fires, many are still displaced.
Impermanence is a characterisitc of exisitence. We are reminded there is no certainty anywhere; nothing lasting to hold on to. But the magnitidue of what we are facing is hard to grasp, hard to make sense of and process. My ability to do this has been direclty connected to understanding and advocating for succesively complex needs.
During the first evacuation from the fire, Lacey, Mom’s dog, couldn’t relieve herself for two full days. When what is going on is too big to process, we need the same care and kindness we would naturally give our furried family member who is so stressed that she can’t pee or poo. We have to start where we are at. Meeting basic physiological and safetly needs support heart and mind opening to bigger perspectives and timeless truths.
I look at what is going on for me, Mom and for many of us. I see it as an opportunity to learn about love, learn what not having a fixed identity might mean in a completely new way. Ordinary mind focuses either on the good or bad, either the kindness and generosity or the losses and the devastation. When mind opens to awareness, a third option is revealed. Here it is possible to embrace the tender underbelly of being human, feel the importance and fragility of loved ones, our communities, the grief of personal and collective loss, and stay tuned to the mystery. Herein is the rich intersection of the human timebound journey and what is timeless.
The Call and the Catalyst
These are extraordinary times, seeking the center of a whirlwind in full catastrophe living. This isn’t all nicely tied up where calm abiding makes everything OK. Instead, this is an invitation into the messiness of being human in a world on fire. It is a tribute to the kindness and generosity of both friends and strangers, people who take time to extend a hand, help hold us and problem solve the struggle, give support where it is needed and witness what is. This is an expression of gratitude for smiles and encouragement in our small and large successes; for forgiveness and patience when we fail. This is a call to pay attention in a way that allows wholeness to emerge, love to grow stronger both in the ways we understand and advocate for ours and other’s needs and to know what doesn’t burn.
On this day and all the rest; yours in this shared human experience,
At a Precipice
We are at a precipice. A lot is changing extremely quickly. When I step back and look from a bigger perspective, take my focus out of the pounding details of everything coming at me, and all around, I see we are at an evolutionary crisis.
I have spoken to many people who are struggling with a way of responding to our current world situation. They hunger for themes of practice that are relevant and meaningful. I will share some of my personal experience and an outline of Integral Theory as way of offering concrete tools and frames of reference that can help orient and give us a clear focus at this time.
The first 20 years of my spiritual path was wholeheartedly dedicated to the traditional Theravada Buddhist path. I love its clear concise instructions, tools to stabilize qualities like compassion and joy, and work with fears and resistance. In addition to providing clear guidelines for a gradual path, this path shows anyone who realizes it what is timeless, pervasive and ever-present. The more we are connected to what is timeless, the better off everyone is. This truth is accentuated with suffering, change and turmoil.
Suffering Not Resolving
After 20 years I became increasingly aware that some of my suffering was not resolving. I sought parallel practices and philosophical views outside of my tradition to help me understand and resolve what was not being transformed by meditation and the 8-Fold Noble Path. Integral Theory helped me personally. It also helped me make sense of the incredible confusing and heartbreaking situation I was in. When I apply Integral Theory to our current geo-political situation, it clarifies many things. When I see the context of the problem, it helps me stay focused on solutions.
Framework of Integral Theory
Integral Theory has been evolving for a few hundred years. Ken Wilber has contributed most to its modern day iteration. Integral Theory is a developmental map that describes evolution of consciousness. It includes people and cultures. We start at the first level when we are born. In an optimum situation we mature through each stage, include each level’s needs and move past being fixated on them. In a less than ideal progression, attention stays fixated on earlier needs. The stages are as follows:
Level 1 – Is about our safety and managing physiological needs.
Level 2 – Is about satisfaction and managing self-protective needs.
Level 3 – Is about the way our will operates and managing power needs.
Level 4 – Is about connection and belonging and conformist needs.
Level 5 – Is about achievement and self-esteem and cognitive needs
Level 6 – Is about harmony and self-actualization needs
Level 7 – Is about unity and self-transcendence needs
If we look more at Level 6 we see that at this level there are many different but equally valid approaches to reality. At this stage there is a strong belief in egalitarianism and hierarchies are taboo. If there are a number of these values operating, the way to practice with it is to start noticing the tendency to judge someone who judges, or get down on schemes that rank.
The Good and the Bad
I’m part of a group of spiritual activists. In the last few weeks there have been many emails sharing information, reactions, action items as well as good news to balance the bad.
In sharing good news, a story was told about a Muslim woman who was with her daughter standing in line to order at a fast food restaurant. A man in line shouted that she had no place there and should leave. Frightened and agitated, clutching her daughter’s hand, she started walking towards the door. A very big burly man with tattoos got up from his table. He said that he was in the military and his job was to protect all American citizens including this woman and her beautiful child.
He offered to escort her through the line and walked up to stand next to her. With his protection she moved back into the line next to him. The woman telling the story referred to the man who shouted as a jerk and the man who stood up as the hero. The hero said to the jerk, “Are you sure you want to have dinner here tonight?” at which point the jerk left.
This woman telling the story said that her faith in humanity was rekindled.
We are being called to understand the way the values of this level contradict itself – how the thing it values most it doesn’t do. The performance contradiction of these values takes us into a post truth world. This is a cultural evolutionary crisis that Trump and his cabinet are a symptom of and not the cause for. Knowing this we can see that the solution out of the crisis is to evolve both individually and collectively through this stage into the next level. Can we find the place where we value everyone having enough safety to eat dinner in peace without having to leave, even if they have values and act in ways we do not respect?
Opening to Love
Understanding the map and opening our heart to a love that is inclusive even of the things that we deem unacceptable are the two most critical components to evolving. We are being asked to accept into awareness without judgment the judgments we have of others who are judging.
No matter what level we are at we have an opportunity to evolve, to grow personally and to anchor more deeply in facets of awakening that are reliable. As we do this, the more we are able to grow up, wake up and show up for others and our fragile tender world, the more a revolution based on love is possible.
Our world is in descent.
This summary of steps of a personal journey may help navigate the bigger picture.
Many life-changing events happened. I wasn’t willing. I was cornered – There was no way I could think or maneuver myself out of the situation and I didn’t see other options. With every ounce of fur, fang and resistance I could muster, I battled every inch as I stepped into the trenches to do the work. My resistance softened out of sheer exhaustion. Slowly I turned toward what I feared. I was confused and agitated. I unraveled. Descent into darkness was dismantling, disorienting, and dangerous. I didn’t know who I was, or what to plan more than a few days ahead. What was disallowed, repressed and unacceptable was unleashed. As my mind body processes were held in a frame of moral integrity and observing witness, until what is pervasive emerges. Guides support me in the process, I averted danger. Eventually, light emerges.
What is, is. It won’t go away.
I feel how unacceptable, shocking, infuriating, terrifying and defeating this is.
At some point, I get worn out. When I get curious about the way that I experience my resistance, it begins to change.
Turning towards fears-
Underneath my resistance are my fears. I turn toward them, see them and name them. As courage builds, I feel them.
When I start to let go, assumptions, frame-works and belief systems fall away. In this place where I can’t locate myself, what opens up?
When I feel a large space without characteristics of identity, and there isn’t anything holding the fall, descent is frightening. I need to regularly soothe my anxiety to keep from meltdown.
In this big space, what happens to “me”? What is asking for acceptance?
There is so much that is at risk, the magnitude is overwhelming. Where do I engage to bring more safety? I prioritize needs and make sure that self-care is on the list. I do what is most compelling. Direct action helps dispel anxiety.
Unleashing what is disallowed-
I look at my contribution. Where am I interested in my own comfort at the expense of others or the Earth? When am I unable to fathom another’s perspective and go into judgment or dismissal? When do I condone racism, misogyny or religious profiling? What support do I need to make different choices? Where have I internalized these things in myself? What supports me releasing these patterns?
Regularly affirming the intention to do no harm, and to support what is beneficial to all beings gives me a rudder when everything familiar is falling apart.
All Pervasive Love and Awareness-
I balance keeping my body healthy with letting go completely. I let go of thoughts, feelings, sensations and relax attention into what is groundless. I let go of trying. I rest. Body and mind drop away. What remains is vast, luminous and pervasive. The mind extends beyond all reaches, limitations. Love, awareness, energy pervade everything and everyone. Who and what I am becomes a thin veil, conecting what is pouring in, to what is pouring out. There is no separation.
These are my mentors, therapists, friends, rocks, animals, trees, practices and qualities of mind that remind me to stop resisting, to be present and meet what is arising. They hold me as I let go. They help me get up in the morning when I feel bruised to the bone and devestated and do what needs to be done. They support me to access seamless reality and remove obstacles that occlude it.
Emergent Light –
Death has been a gateway, an opportunity for new life. When I meet my own darkness, dare the world to end in me, I live with less fear. I’m motivated to return to what is vast, timeless, and ever present. In the middle of THAT accumulations release and clarity emerges. There is reciprocity between people, culture, the physical world and “me.” Darkness is within the light and light emerges from the descent into darkness. My heart is full. I’m ready to do what is needed include meet my own human fraility in the journey of bringing relative and pervasive kindness and truths into the world.
The devil whispered in my ear, “You will not be able to survive the storm.”
I whispered back, “I am the storm.”
Photo curtesy of Aura Glaser, Ph.D. www.auraglaser.com
By Amma Thanasanti
With the world events, I have been looking for ways to respond. This morning was our Ovada, a time when Bhikkhuni’s from around the country gather on a conference call to listen to an elder monk’s reflections. Venerable Punnadhammo’s talk was based on Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation and commentary, Transcendental Dependent Arising: A Translation and Exposition of the Upanisa Sutta. When I listened to his talk and felt coolness and clarity emerge, it gave me ideas of what to share with you.
One of the characteristics of existence is dukkha. Dukkha refers to the unsatisfactory nature of things which are imperfect, change and do not give us lasting happiness. The first response to dukkha is to deny its existence. Eventually, reality starts pearing through the cracks. We feel more pain in our body, get distracted, seek sense pleasures, get preoccupied with work, planning or facebook to keep our focus away from unpleasant reality. When that no longer works, we sink into despair. The problems can seem insurmountable.
Understanding dukkha and the cause of dukkha takes clear thinking – an assessment of where we are at and how we got there. The teachings tells us that suffering is cyclical- the more we suffer, the more we tend to grasp for solutions. I see that my grasping for frameworks and solutions is increasing my anxiety. However, suffering can also catalyze another movement, the longing to move out of suffering. This first step out of suffering is supported by faith, the faith that there is a way out. What, in the world can we have faith in, when is so much is unreliable, when our grasping for solutions is tied up with suffering? There are many different words for this from many different traditions. Buddha used the unborn, unbecome and uncreated to point to what is beyond suffering. I have been calling this pervasive awareness and pervasive love.
The first movement out of suffering requires that we engage with a quality that can not be conceptualized, cannot be supported by reason or the intellect. Reason has to be balanced with faith – something other than reason – to get out of suffering.
When our mind is supported by faith, when we have an inkling that there is something other than the suffering of our conditioned existence, we experience joy. This is why chanting, devotional practices, contact with wise beings or places that support access to pervasive love and awareness can be helpful. Most times when I’m in nature, I experience joy.
With joy as a supporting condition, we experience rapture. The body and mind feel deeply well. The body tingles and feels a lot of pleasure. When we experience rapture, we then can feel the deep well being of happiness.
If we were walking through a desert and we met someone who said that over the ridge was an oasis – that first inkling of relief would be joy. When we get to the oasis, plunge into the cool water, drink our fill and satiate our hunger with fresh fruit, that is the experience of happiness – an abiding sense of contentment that comes from our needs being met.
When we feel happy, our minds become still. We stop looking for happiness, because we are resting in happiness. This supports the mind getting more focused and able to see things as they actually are. Seeing things as they actually are is a critical part of awakening. Weary from suffering, the arahant seeks complete liberation. Seeing clearly uproots greed, anger and confusion that are the sources of suffering. This is a sublime achievement.
The Bodhisattva path, however, feels the pull of suffering in the world and seeks to engage, not out of ignorance but out of compassion. Awareness is pervasive. It permeates everyone and everything, without exception. Who I am is not fundamentally separate from you, your suffering, or the world around me. Pervasive awareness and pervasive love are not two separate things but different aspects of the same thing. From this perspective, it doesn’t make sense to sit quietly in bliss, when the world and people I care about are burning around me. But from the wellspring of pervasive love and awareness, there is great resource from which to respond. It sustains this endless journey, because in its embrace, the weight of problems lighten.
Here is another place balance is needed. My access to pervasive love and awareness is interspersed with feelings of confusion, overwhelm, concern, and anxiety. Human warmth – my connection to relative love and compassion are also needed. Peers, the wisdom that emerges from community also support me finding ways to meet what is arising with care and compassion without contributing further to the overarching problems of grasping, aversion, or ignorance. These also help me respond to what is arising in the present moment without superimposing some idea of how I should be or what I should be experiencing. Sometimes here too, the balance of pervasive love and relative love are not found through withdrawal into silent contemplation but through engagement.
Tribute to Papa and Children of the Universe- his poem
August 1 Papa, Charles Saul Fein, died. He had been sick for 22 years and courageously fought a battle with cancer. Finally he was done. He died at home living with my brother David Fein and his large family comprising four generations; Michelle, Carolyn, Rose and McKenzie.
Dad was a passionate man about three primary things; his children, the University of Chicago and cosmology. He was a deliberate parent and thought carefully about ways to instill in us values and capacity to forge our own way in the world. From the time David and I were tiny he taught us how to think for ourselves, shared his vast knowledge of biology, physiology, physics, cosmology, strategy, and business, as well as his love for animals, beauty, elegance and his remarkable humor.
I share some stories with you so that you have an impression of this remarkable man and the way that he shaped me.
As a little girl I remember he would blow on my belly and make a loud noise. I would squeal in giggles. Recently shortly before he died, he brought it up. He did this not only just for the fun of it but he wanted me, his daughter to grow up knowing what ecstasy was.
Dad’s memorial, David, my brother told us stories of playing with marbles. They weren’t just marbles; they were atoms and electrons – building blocks to make a world. When David realized that we could create the world, his mind fashioned things entirely differently.
Dad wanted us to think for ourselves and be able to discern what was true even in the face of an authority who may think differently. He would deliberately say things that weren’t true and delight when we would say, “Daddy, that’s ridiculous.”
When we were little, one of our favorite ways of spending time together was to pick one the “Life” series books and crawl into Papa’s lap. I have fond memories of spending hours looking through the pages. He never tired of telling us what the pictures meant in language appropriate to our age.
After Mom and Dad divorced, we were often eating in restaurants and driving back and forth between parents’ homes. It was rare that the paper dinner mats weren’t transformed into drawing boards, paper napkins into lessons. While waiting for dinner to arrive, the plates, saucers and glasses would be turned into planets to show their relationship with each other and the influence they had in our world. Driving home, Dad would often get so excited about a subject that he would pull over to the side of the road and continue talking- sometimes for hours before we could get back on track and get home. Sometimes we would get caught up in Dad’s excitement and sometime we were tired, restless and bored and just wanted to get home. With Dad I learned about the many edges that are involved in training.
When David was 16, Dad was instrumental in developing a plan to make him the second youngest person ever to reach the South Pole as a Sea Cadet on a Coast Guard cutter going to Antarctica. Having an unreasonable idea and making it happen changed David’s life. Not only was his outlook on what was possible in this world transformed, so too his place within it radically shifted.
Dad supported us, believed in us and loved us. We felt the impact.
Since moving to Colorado Springs in 2009, we have had a lot of time together. After living abroad for over 20 years I felt caught up and current. We laughed, we cried and we shared in topics that were enlivening.
Dad’s was passionate about medical management. We were taught to fully understand our own medical problems, think through the treatment protocols that the doctor prescribed and only agree to what made complete sense. When I was in India in 1987, before joining the monastery, this had significant ramifications. After my encounter with the bear, I had rabies injections. About 6 weeks later I developed a 105 degree fever and needed more medical care. Traveling alone, I went to a clinic and saw a doctor who diagnosed me with typhoid and prescribed some medicine. I bought the medicine and then thought about what had happened. Even with such a high fever that I was going in and out of delirium, I tracked what the doctors had done and concluded that they couldn’t have been accurate in their diagnosis. This motivated me to get to a medical center that had tests and treatments that made sense. The tests came back that I had hepatitis. Further, I discovered the medicine that had been prescribed earlier for typhoid were extremely liver toxic. In this instance my capacity for medical management even under duress made a difference. Taking the typhoid medicine could have killed me.
When I told Dad about my monumental decision to become a nun, he was quiet and sad for a while and then shifted. He tuned into the fact that I had come very close to death while in India. He would have preferred that I became a professor of Buddhism and thereby did something that was “in the catalog” rather than the utterly alien vocation of being a nun. He said he would miss me being close by and having children of my own that he could love and be part of their growing up. Yet he was grateful that I wasn’t a pile of bones in a bear cave. He also recognized how rare it is to have a measure of peace in one’s life and to live one’s calling. He sent me off to the monastery giving me his highest blessing.
Dad was truly brilliant. After getting a degree from the University of Connecticut, Dad Entered PhD program at University of Chicago in Medical Physiology. The University of Chicago was unique in its approach to education. In one class, there were no exams and no curriculum, just an open laboratory to “do stuff”. The disorientation was quickly replaced with exhilaration that he could do whatever he wanted – for someone of his creativity and intellectual capacity it was a dream come true. He set about making a type of microscope. When Professor Patrick Wall came over to see it, Dad was devastated that it didn’t work and frightened that he was going to fail but nevertheless explained to him what it was and how it was supposed to work. Professor Wall was nonplussed that it didn’t function as planned because he said that his thinking was correct and it would have worked if it had been machined from metal. He continued by saying that that original thinking was rare and singularly important in research. The next day Professor Wall asked Dad to come his own lab and specifically invited him to evaluate the experiment he was in the middle of. Dad took one look at it, took a deep breath and said, “There is nothing in all of physics, chemistry or biology that suggests there is any way this experiment is going to work.” Frightened that his truth telling had just insulted the head of the department and expecting to be thrown out of the university, he was shaking when Professor Wall called him to his office the next day. Prepared for the worst, he was not at all ready for what followed. Professor Wall said to him, “I want you to be a full partner in developing research on the mechanism of nerve impulse. And when we publish, we are publishing side by side.” Dad was just a freshman in graduate school at that time. He went home and thought about it. Shortly thereafter, the nature of the sodium pump as the basis for the mechanism of the nerve impulse came in a series of insights all in a matter of seconds. He left school as a result of mononucleosis and never was able to publish. The string of insights that came as a thought experiment were later proven by Jens Christian Skou, who was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1997.
In 1991, Dad came to Amaravati to offer me my alms bowl in the ceremony of my nun’s ordination. The somber occasion didn’t dissuade him from the humorous opportunities that presented themselves. Before coming he noticed that the flight he booked said that they could accommodate special diets. So he called up the airlines. He told the customer service rep that he had a special diet that required equal parts dinosaur, sheep and camel meat roasted over an open fire. The customer service representative replied without missing a beat, “No problem sir. We will be able to accommodate that but it may delay your preferred departure date as we are going to have to build a new type of plane that is equipped to handle open flames.”
Ajahn Sumedho was my preceptor for my first ‘going forth’ and until October 2011, the spiritual director of Amaravati Buddhist Monastery. He is a similar age to my father. The first time they met, the very first thing Dad said was, “I trained my children to be independent, but my daughter has out done my wildest expectations!” As I listened to the two of them roar with laughter, I smiled. I felt seen and celebrated for what often got me into a lot of trouble.
While at the monastery he wrote the “Children of the Universe”as tribute to his baby brother Teddy who died on his own 6thbirthday. In finding some completion with something that was deeply disturbing to him he made a tribute to all who have lost loved ones.
My relationship with Dad has evolved since I was child. I have had many occasions when I have had to stand up to him. If he micro managed me as I was washing dishes, I turned to look at him and said, “Exactly who do you think you are talking to?” He said, Oh, I’m sorry, I forgot who I was talking to.
It was sobering when Dad needed help and couldn’t ask for it. I remember once changing plans and going to back to Colorado to help him find suitable housing, clear that I would be doing this without asking permission. Doing things for Dad without his permission was a significant reversal of roles.
The last years of his life, Dad lived with David, Michelle and Rose, his great granddaughter and later Carolyn and McKenzie, his second great granddaughter. Michelle was the one not only who invited but insisted that he live with them. Dad told me many times the impact it had on him that he lived with them and that Michelle was the one who instigated it.
I also heard about the times Rose would come down the stairs by her own volition before bedtime and say, “I love you Zeidi,” a Hebrew endearment for great grandfather. Sometimes Rose would bring her teddies and tigers to Dad when he wasn’t feeling well. Dad told me that once when he was in a lot of discomfort, Rose climbed into bed with him and played ‘piggy’s with him- a four year old’s remedy for all that ails. I heard repeatedly of Dad’s delight of the special dinners that David would make for him. Dad repeatedly used the word “magnificent” describing David and the way that he felt cared for by him. I continue to be profoundly grateful that Dad was so well cared for and rejoiced watching him relax into their love.
I learned from Dad not only in the ways that he was brilliant but also in the things he didn’t do well. When he negotiated his needs at other’s expense, it motivated me to find ways to tune into the situation around me and communicate so that everyone’s needs are met.
Over these last few years when Dad would dig into something and wouldn’t budge, I would shout, “I am going to put on your tomb stone, “I did it my way!” He’d say, “Oye Vey!”
In February, David organized for Professor Michael S. Turner from University of Chicago to come to their house and talk with Dad. Prof. Turner is world renown in the field of cosmology and physics and coined the term “Dark Matter”. He is a rock star in his own world. They spent an hour talking about cosmology and Dad shared his own theory of black holes. He was so excited, so delighted and so honored by the visit; he talked about it until his last days. At the time of the visit I said, “Dad, now you can die in peace.” He said to me, “Yes.”
The time before the last I saw him he showed me a picture of “the Self Made Man” a statue of a man chiseling himself out of stone and excitedly said, “This is me, this is my life this is who I am! I have been doing this all my life! If I were a wealthy man I would offer every university a statue so students can see that what they think and do shapes who they become; shapes their destiny.”
Dad deliberately trained us to stand on our own two feet, fight for what was right, think and take care of ourselves and those we love and to understand how we frame things. Grateful for his tremendous love, support, and all that he taught me, I feel proud that he has been my Dad and will miss him. Grateful that David and I can go through this together and that the family comes closer as we navigate the full range of our feelings around his death.
I am left with the visceral experience of an extraordinary man who is part of who I am and how I experience the world.
Yet grief is a river, it flows, changes. Some days I feel deeply tired and achy. Some days I feel grounded and clear. My sadness ebbs and flows in a rhythm with my gratitude. I turn a corner and find myself in an entirely new internal landscape; each day is new. Attending to loss, my attention sharpens on what is important in life. My ongoing commitment to awaken is energized from all that he has given as well as his death. When I attune to wanting to be close and wanting to connect, I recognize that my wanting is there because I have learned how to love. It is a gift. And yet, this longing for connection and closeness pulls me to touch a Divine love, touch my true nature and original mind- a love that all at the same time includes, transcends and embraces everything, even death. When I ask, “What is left when everything falls away?” I feel peace.
CHILDREN OF THE UNIVERSE
LET US LIGHT A CANDLE TONIGHT in loving memory of all our beloved family and dear friends who have left this brief life too soon. We shall always hold you in our hearts with love and devotion and treasure that precious time we had together. It is our deepest hope and desire that your body and soul and spirit and life force return to the universe ever so gently, always nurtured and sustained by the love and affection we send with you. May all dearly departed ease your journey towards infinity, guide you to eternal peace and surround you with love and beauty forever.
AND THERE IS MORE TO BEHOLD:
Let us surely honor and respect those generations that preceded us for 5,500 years in the Hebrew faith and tradition of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the unimaginable suffering our people endured.
AND THERE IS MORE TO BEHOLD:
Let us honor and respect those countless multitudes struggling since the dawn of civilization 12,000 years ago in the crucible of nature that shaped cultures and nations.
AND THERE IS MORE TO BEHOLD:
Let us honor and respect the family of man, emerging from the forest primeval eight million years ago, fighting fiercely to survive, launching human destiny.
AND THERE IS MORE TO BEHOLD:
Let us honor and respect all of our biological ancestors as well, evolving miraculously from that fateful moment when life began on our planet from dust four billion years ago.
AND THERE IS MORE TO BEHOLD:
Let us honor and respect the Sun and Mother Earth formed five billion years ago in cosmic fire and fury, then nurtured and sustained in an unbroken chain the fragile life we treasure today.
AND THERE IS MORE TO BEHOLD:
And surely we must honor and respect the universe itself with all its mysteries, created fourteen billion years ago out of the void, at the beginning of time and space and still unfolding.
AND THERE IS MORE TO BEHOLD:
And at last, we will honor and respect our present family and friends and those yet to be born, whose destiny will carry our hopes and dreams and aspirations along with their own through future generations on their inexorable march to eternity.
AND THERE IS MORE TO BEHOLD:
For truly we are Children of the Universe, minds yearning for wisdom and spirits striving for enlightenment, made of elements forged in the very stars; heirs to the sustaining teachings and traditions of family, faith and civilization, blessed with freedom and eternally grateful for the love and devotion so generously bestowed upon us with the gift of life itself.
DEDICATED THIS DAY
FOR ALL THAT HAS PAST
AND THAT WHICH IS YET TO COME.
Written by Charles S. Fein, September 1st, 1991
at Amaravati Buddhist Monastery
Charles Saul Fein
September 20th, 1927 – August 1st, 2012
Dipa Ma, The Story of a Great Master
March 25, 1911 – September 1, 1989
I first heard about Dipa Ma in 1979 while I was a student at the University of California at Santa Cruz. I was taking a course with Jack Engler and the stories he told about Dipa Ma’s depth of suffering and level of transformation after she began meditating left a deep impression in me. I had a deep and strong aspiration to meet her and I did. In honor of the anniversary of her death and in celebration of her life, may I recount some of what I have learned about this remarkable woman and how she touched my life.
Dipa Ma was born in Bangladesh on March 25, 1911 with the given name Nani Bala Barua. According to the customs of the time Dipa was married at the age of twelve to Ranjani Ranjan. One week after she was married Ranjani went to Rangoon where he worked as an engineer, leaving Dipa alone to live with his family. At the age of fourteen she joined her husband in Burma. Dipa was unable to have children, which naturally is a source of deep sorrow for any married woman, but for a married woman in the Far East it was a family catastrophe.
As a result Ranjani’s family summoned him home under false pretenses and tried to convince him to abandon his wife for another who could bear him a child. Ranjani refused stating he had not married Dipa for her ability to have children. As life is often stranger than fiction, a child was born to Dipa and Ranjani many years later and her status shifted from person-non-grata to being a mother. Then, tragically, the child died. The combined grief of the death of her child and loss of status caused Dipa to collapse. She survived and some years later another child was born who was named Dipa – Dipa Ma literally means Dipa’s mother. A third child was born but died as well. Ranjani was a kind, attentive and loving man but the increased need to care for Dipa and Dipa Ma took its toll on his health and he collapsed and died suddenly in 1957. Within a ten year period Dipa Ma had experienced the death of two children, the death of her husband, and a severe decline in her own health.
Dipa Ma had grown up with an unusual and intense interest in the rituals and care of the monks. She had joined her grandmother’s regular trips to the monastery offering food to the monks and felt a keen interest in meditation. When married she would ask for permission to go to the monastery to learn meditation and was told no, it was not the right time. After her husband died, with poor health and a broken spirit she found her way to the meditation center in Rangoon. So much loss in her life and now told by doctors there was nothing more they could do to help her physical being get well, she literally crawled up the steps on her hands and knees to the front doors of the meditation center and began her journey.
Her meditation practice progressed very rapidly, leading to profound realization – a realization that knows the end of suffering, where the traces of ill will and unwholesome desire are uprooted from the mind. In a very short time she emerged from being a sickly, broken, dependent woman to one who was radiant, peaceful, calm, independent, deeply loving and available to others.
These are the stories Jack told as I sat in his class so many years ago. Being deeply moved I went to India in 1987 to the Maha Bodhi society in Calcutta where I thought I might find Dipa Ma. I walked into the meditation hall where monks where sitting on a platform chanting and there was this tiny woman with her back emanating a remarkable energy – it felt as if I was being embraced by the power of love. I thought: “Who on earth is that?” I had met Dipa Ma.
In the afternoons a few of us who had become friends and were all staying in the Maha Bodhi Society walked across the town to her tiny apartment. After a time of meditation she would get Dipa to translate questions for her and we would sit quietly listening. When we left, she would give each of us a hug, blow over our heads and say something. I never knew what she was saying but the feeling was of a deep blessing.
The stories I had heard from Jack spoke of remarkable things. Dipa Ma could be in two places at once and walk through walls. She could remember past lives and go back to the time of the Buddha and listen to what he was saying. She could travel into the future and hear what was being said and visit the different realms of existence. And more, these abilities were scientifically verified. I had grown up perceiving a woman’s power in one who would be jumping into a pick up truck with a chain saw. But the quality of power that was Dipa Ma was love. It felt as if I was in a vast ocean, still, timeless, penetrating – as if she could see me clearly and nothing was excluded or judged. Every part of me felt embraced and accepted. Nothing I had experienced had touched me like that before.
I went to Amaravati Buddhist Monastery in England and later became a nun – Dipa Ma died in September 1989. In memorial I planted an oak tree in the Buddha Grove at Amaravati in 1990. A simple tree with no reference to the person it was planted for nor did I tell anyone. As a young nun I would put Dip Ma’s picture in the tree and chant, and do walking meditation towards it and around it. In the early rough years of being a nun I found solace in being close to that tree.
I was away from Amaravati from 2000 – 2005 and when I returned I could not remember exactly which tree was Dip Ma’s – so many trees had been planted there. I recalled after the first few years of planting her tree, it took on a very loving energy. When I returned to Amaravati looking for her tree, I walk from tree to tree putting my back against the bark of each until I came to that loving energy. It felt like I was standing under a waterfall of cascading love. But what flabbergasted me was while talking with a friend who had been coming to Amaravati for nearly twenty years, she was telling me about the “Mother Tree” in the Buddha Grove. When I asked where, she described Dipa Ma’s tree. It had been my friend’s own discovery. Now the tree is marked and there are pictures of the tree, a bridge later built in Dipa Ma’s honor at Chithurst with its sign: “To honor Dipa Ma is to walk the path of peace”.
Have you met someone who has touched your core with love and changed your life?
Has suffering been a gateway for you? In what way?
If suffering hasn’t been a gateway, what have been your gateways?
Dipa Ma: Web site: http://www.dipama.com
Facebook group: http://alurl.com/kwwg
Books: Dipa Ma: the Life and Legacy of a Buddhist Master, Amy Schmidt
Knee Deep in Grace, Amy Schmidt
Visits our photo gallery to see photos of Dipa Ma.
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