Resolve to Begin: Training in the Preliminaries

For those of you who were unable to attend the first two weeks of Appamada Alpine, I wanted to give you a summary of what went down (besides butts on cushions) and where we’re going from here.

Each Thursday will feature two periods of zazen: one at 6:15am and one at 6:15pm. The morning sit is designed for those of us on the go. Come in, sit for 30 minutes, chant a bit, bow a little, leave. The evening session features two, 30-minute sits with 10 minutes of walking meditation in between. During the first sit, I will offer practice focus and lead a brief guided meditation; the second evening sit will just feature sitting (no words from me). The weekly practice focus will rotate each month as follows:

1st Thursday: Compassion Practice

2nd Thursday: Concentration Practice

3rd Thursday: Gaia Meditation for the Earth and its inhabitants

4th Thursday: Small Group Koan work

5th Thursday: Body and Posture focus

So, if you missed week one—compassion practice—I kicked us off by introducing the Tibetan practice of Lojong. This powerful set of meditation slogans has worked its way into American Zen practice, largely through the efforts of Norman Fischer.

Fischer emphasizes that the place to begin expanding our ability to act compassionately is to consider the Buddha’s Remembrances, which Fischer groups into a list of four:

  1. Human life is rare and precious. Even within your own body, you’d be hard pressed to find a system that is exclusively you. Microscopic organisms play vital roles in immune and digestive systems, and whole swaths of our DNA are dedicated to interacting with them (a single human body is home to more organisms than there are humans on Earth). And from a big picture view, if an alien civilization were to scan Earth to determine our biological makeup, microscopic organisms and insects would far outnumber us. So here we are. You and I. Amidst all these beings, large needles in a massive haystack. It’s pretty miraculous, really. And in all of history, there has only been and will only ever be one you (or me, or the cashier who bagged your groceries, or anybody; only one, once). Can we appreciate that rarity in each other? In all living beings?
  2. Death is absolutely inevitable, and we have no idea when it might happen—to us, to our loved ones, to our neighbors, to our adversaries. Every single one of us—all living beings—to paraphrase the Buddha, are headed for the slaughterhouse. It doesn’t sound very cheery, but knowing the fragility of our lives helps us find room for each other in our hearts, and that is sorely needed.
  3. Our actions are powerful and indelible. In Buddhism we call this karma, “which is not mystical or fatalistic. Karma simply means that each of our actions produces a result.” All of our thoughts, words, and deeds have consequences. We may move through our lives thinking that we’re not very important, but in fact everything we’ve done up to this point has had, in varying degrees of subtlety, an effect on the lives and world around us. There truly are no throwaway moments or inconsequential actions. And the indelibility of our actions means that in reality, they are our only true possessions.
  4. Affliction is inescapable. No matter who we are—regardless of our wealth, religions, political beliefs, sexual orientations, or races—our lives will be visited by affliction, and the suffering that arises from the realities of our lives is unavoidable. It is up to each of us to use the sufferings of our lives as fuel to develop wisdom, compassion, and resilience. When you view suffering in this way, you can see why the Buddha called it the First Noble Truth.

So, as a short list, the four points of Training In The Preliminaries are:

The rarity and preciousness of human life.

The inevitability of death.

The awesome and indelible power of our actions.

The inescapability of suffering.

As Fischer concludes in Chapter 1 of Training In Compassion:

With this reflection, we’ll realize that the only adequate response to the sober realities of our lives is some form of spiritual practice. I am not necessarily speaking of religion or spirituality in the traditional sense but, rather, that these reflections will cause us to appreciate the seriousness of our human condition and to recognize that we have to live as seriously as we possibly can in response to the gift and the problem that is our life.

So, with that in mind, we explored a brief guided meditation, silently repeating this phrase:

This human life is precious and rare.

This human life will end soon.

This human life will be visited by affliction.

My actions are my only true belongings.

After meditation, we read aloud The Metta Sutta.

It’s hard to believe that January is already half over. I hope you’ll spend a little time sitting with these phrases.

During our second week—concentration practice—we worked on awareness of our breath as we sit and making that the gentle focal point of our meditation. When we sit, our minds will wander. It’s what they do, and that’s okay. We don’t sit to eliminate thought or to engender some kind of special mental state of mind. We’re just sitting. When we notice that we’re getting swept up in thinking, though, we need to come home to the breath. By interrupting our habitual patterns of attaching to our thoughts, beliefs, and feelings for a few minutes each day, we start to develop a mind that is much more capable of containing the sufferings of our lives and converting it into the fuel—the passion—that can drive our contributions to making a better life for all beings. And we don’t need anything aside from a place to sit, a vow to help, an intention to train the mind, and our own breath to start to grow our own capacities to fully live this one chance at life we’ve been given.

After concentration meditation on January 12th, we should have read aloud Hsin Hsin Ming, but I forgot to print out copies. For those of you who were here, please give it a read at home after you sit.

So, this month has been an exercise in Training in the Preliminaries, and that has meant making the arrangements to move forward with actions that are wholesome and helpful. It can be as simple as setting up space at home for you to meditate for a bit every day or committing to sit with others once or twice a week.

This world needs awake people, and we need to support each other as we take up the difficult work of healing this beautiful, broken world. Resolve to begin by training in the preliminaries of your life.

I look forward to sitting with you.


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