Mindfulness Is the Key

Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Hanh (Born 1926)

When I was cut back to two days of work in May 2016, I felt as if my world were shattered. Just by happenstance, within a week or two, I found myself at the Los Angeles Central Library at 5th and Hope downtown on a Thursday. Every Thursday at 12:30 pm, the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) gives a guided 30-minute meditation in Conference Room A. I have come to depend on these Thursday sessions, plus my own efforts at meditation whenever and wherever, to give me a feeling of living in the present moment and enjoying glimpses of happiness.

I have also read several books by the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, most recently No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering and also The Art of Living. According to Thich mindfulness is the key to enjoying such happiness that we can experience in this life.

In answer to a question about the danger of dualism of the mind and body, Thich replied:

Maybe intellectually people know that they should live in the present moment, but the habit energy that has been there for a long time is always pushing them to rush around, so they have lost their capacity to be in the present moment in order to lead their life deeply. That is why the practice is important, and talking is not enough. You have to practice enough to really stop your running around so that you can establish yourself in the present moment. That is the very beginning of the practice: stopping. Stopping, looking deeply, and finding happiness and liberation—that is the Buddhist path.

On the existence of suffering, he writes:

Suffering and happiness inter-are. We can recognize happiness only against the background of suffering. It’s like when you recognize the white against the background of the black. Only if you have been hungry can you experience the joy of having something to eat. If you experience the suffering of war, you can recognize the value of peace. Otherwise, you don’t appreciate peace, and you want to make war. So your experience of the suffering of war serves as the background for your happiness about peace. Therefore, to have some suffering is very important. You learn from suffering, and against that background, you can recognize happiness.

There is a deep tendency in us to seek pleasure and avoid suffering. It is rooted in the store consciousness, called manas in Sanskrit. Manas is always seeking pleasure and trying to avoid pain and suffering. Manas isn’t aware of the danger of pleasure-seeking because there is ignorance in manas. It is like a fish who is about to bite the bait and does not know that inside of the bait there is a hook. Manas isn’t aware of the danger of pleasure and does not know that suffering has its own goodness. It is good to experience some suffering, because when you suffer you develop compassion and understanding.

If you are interested in the simple practices that have meant so much to me in my recent life, I suggest you check out the website of MARC at http://marc.ucla.edu/. And see if you can find any of Thich Nhat Hanh’s books.

 

 

Dancing to Welcome the Spirits of the Dead

West L.A. Obon Festival Eleven Years Ago

I have been attending the West Los Angeles Buddhist Temple’s Obon Festival for more than forty years now, and today was no exception. I chowed down on the Men’s Club udon soup—two bowls, no less!—and sat with Martine to watch the cheerful dances in which the spirits of the dead were welcomed. As usual, all he participants seemed to be having a great time. One nice thing about this festival is that all are welcome, regardless of race, color, or creed.

This time, I neglected to bring my camera, so I am sharing with you a picture I took in 2006. The same tall Japanese Obon dancer was there today, looking not much older than he did eleven years ago.

Poster for the Festival We Attended


Although I have not done it in over fifty years, some day I will attend one of the West L.A. Buddhist Temple’s services. I should, inasmuch as the Temple has played such a benign part in my life over so long a period of time.

The Past Recaptured?

Hungarian Stuffed Cabbage with Rye Bread and Sour Cream

I do not have anything to say about Proust in this posting. Maybe I should have called it “You Can’t Go Home Again” or some such title. My earliest memories are about being raised in a Hungarian household in Cleveland by loving parents. I could not, would not ever repudiate that part of me; and I keep going in search of experiences that, like Proust’s madeleine bring back the happy memories of my childhood.

There used to be some good Hungarian restaurants in Los Angeles; but, as big a city as this is, there do not appear to be any at this time. So Martine and I show up at the local Hungarian Reformed Churches for their festivals. I go to recover my memories, and Martine goes because (although she is French) she loves Hungarian food more than any other.

Despite a rare May rain shower, we went to the Majális festival at the Grace Hungarian Reformed Church in Reseda. We have been going here for almost ten years. Even within that short time, we have seen the parishioner base age as the old Hungarians die off and the younger ones spread out to the four winds. Still, the food is excellent. Their stuffed cabbage is superb, and their baked goods are world class.

The Grace Hungarian Reformed Church as It Looked Several Years Ago

Their pastor is still Zsolt Jakabffy, who keeps soldiering away at maintaining a parish amid the rapidly changing demographics of the San Fernando Valley.

Wait a minute! What’s a Catholic boy like me doing hanging out at a Protestant church? It all goes back to when my Catholic father and my Protestant Reformatus mother made before their children were born. Any boys would be brought up as Catholic; any girls, as Protestant. Just my mother’s luck that she gave birth to two sons.

So, yes, I have no compunction looking for God wherever He is invoked.

 

Serendipity: The Broken Prism

The Blessed Virgin Mary

You could be a million miles away when, quite suddenly, you can be confronted with what you believe—and what you don’t believe. Today, I was sitting in the Santa Monica Library reading Tim Cahill’s Hold the Enlightenment: More Travel, Less Bliss, ostensibly a book of adventure travel essays, when the following paragraph hit me smack between the eyes:

My own background is Catholic. I suppose my current status in that Church can best be described as long-lapsed. Even so, no one who has suffered a Catholic education is ever entirely free of the belief, or at least the discipline. Quaint notions, punitive and medieval, color my perception of the physical world. I tend to see the wilderness through the broken prism of my faith.

That holds true for me as much as it does for Tim Cahill, one of the founders of Outside magazine. The only change I would make is that I never “suffered” a Catholic education: I merely “experienced” it, and not unwillingly. My grade school, Saint Henry in Cleveland, Ohio, was staffed by Dominican sisters; and my high school, St. Peter Chanel in Bedford, Ohio, was taught by Marist priests. At Dartmouth College, I was an active participant in Catholic services at the Newman Club under Monsignor William Nolan.

When asked whether I believe in God, my answer is always, Yes. I quickly add that I have no idea what God is like or what He/She/It wants. I only know that the Godhead manifests itself in some very curious ways to the peoples of this planet. I cannot pretend to be an atheist with any degree of certitude, nor do I wish to. There is enough left of the shards of my faith to see me through the day.

What will I believe a year from now? I don’t know. It’s all subject to change.

Would You Spend Your Afterlife With This Guy?

Marshall Applewhite, Alias “Do”

We are coming up on one of those sad anniversaries with which our history as a nation is crowded. Twenty years ago, the Heaven’s Gate cult committed mass suicide in a Rancho Santa Fe, California mansion. The members of the cult believed that, in the wake of the comet Hale-Bopp was a spaceship that was going to taken them to heaven. They dressed in black track suits with patches that said “Heaven’s Gate Away Team.” They also wore identical Nike Decade sneakers and took enough amphetamines with vodka to send them into another world, though probably not heaven.

Their leader was one Marshall Applewhite, who went by the name “Do”—and, yes, he did himself in as well. Looking at his picture (above), would you give your life for this obvious flake? Apparently thirty-nine people did, most of them in their forties, at an age when presumably they should have known better.

Logo From the Heaven’s Gate Website

The website of the group is still in existence, maintained by a couple who used to be members, but transgressed by getting married. It has a very 90s look to it, but then the group didn’t survive the decade. According to an article in today’s Los Angeles Times:

Several hundred people joined the group over the years, although the vast majority left for a variety of reasons. Some who left came back. Those who remained to the end were largely longtime devotees. Twenty-one were women, 18 men. They ranged in age from 26 to 72, with more than half in their 40s.

Almost all of them were veteran seekers of spiritual truths, people who had tried other religions, tried tarot cards, tried hallucinogenic drugs.

So when comet Hale-Bopp began to arrive, it was time to check out.

 

North America’s Own Lourdes

The Church at Chimayo, New Mexico

The Church at Chimayó, New Mexico

France has Lourdes; Portugal has Fatima; Argentina has Luján; Mexico has Guadalupe; and the United States has the Santuario de Nuestro Señor de Esquipulas, commonly known as El Santuario de Chimayó near Santa Fe, New Mexico. The little church is only 60 feet (18 meters) long and 24 feet (7.3 meters) wide. Yet, especially during Holy Week, some 30,000 pilgrims are in attendance.

The dirt floor has been known to have miraculous properties. Visiting pilgrims take some of the dirt for themselves or friends and relatives who are unable to visit. The church replaces the dirt, to the tune of 20 or 30 tons a year, from neighboring hillsides. The Catholic Church makes no claim as to the miraculous properties of the so-called sacred dirt.

Martine and I plan to visit Chimayo during our upcoming trip to Mexico. Maybe the sacred dirt will cure my diabetes. Or not.

Latin American Churches

Altar of Quito’s La Compañía de Jesús Church

Altar of Quito’s La Compañía de Jesús Church

In my posting the other day on Why Did I Go to Ecuador?, I seem to have left out one of the main reasons. This applies equally to Peru and probably Colombia, but not so much to Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay.

I am referring to the Catholic cathedrals, basilicas, and other old churches of the Andes. Until age 17, I received a Catholic education at St. Henry School in Cleveland and Chanel High School in Bedford, Ohio. Then, while I was at Dartmouth, although a nominally Congregationalist school, I was very active with the Catholic Students’ Newman Club.

Coming to California has been disastrous to my faith—but yet something remains. It comes out when I visit the Andean churches, the most beautiful of which is La Compañía de Jesús church (shown above) near Quito’s Plaza de la Independencia.

In both Peru and Ecuador, I frequently stopped in at the local churches; and, not infrequently, I stayed for the services. In the Andes, I felt like a Catholic again. Even the smaller churches in places like Otávalo, Alausi, and Mindo drew me in.

The Small Church in the Village of Mindo

The Small Church in the Village of Mindo

In my life’s journey, I can see my returning to the Catholic Church. I continue to take exceptions to many points of dogma, such as the prohibitions on married priests, women in the priesthood, abortion, and divorce and some doctrines such as the relatively recent ones of the Immaculate Conception and what I call Papal Inflammability. On he other hand, there is much to admire. At this point, I am not sure which route I will take.