Tag Archives: Buddhist

Thoughts on Western Renunciation

Clouds heavy with rain and an eerie mist have given today an introspective energy and I wanted to share some new thoughts and musings.

As I mentioned in the last blog, I’ve been reading Living with the Himalayan Masters, a collection of Swami Rama’s adventures compiled by his disciple Swami Ajaya.

The book is almost like a collection of biblical parables. The chapters are short, and center upon one or another extremely interesting story from Swamiji’s life. (How one person could experience so many interesting things is beyond me.) He does not bother with hyperbole or poetic language — it is not uncommon for him to reduce a period of two years into one sentence. At the end of these concise yet revealing stories, he tends to finish by expressing the wisdom and lessons learned from that particular scenario. The reader gets the fun and exciting stories of the highlights of a Himalayan renunciate’s life in tandem with profound knowledge transmissions gained from his direct experience. So it’s quite addicting.

…But also slightly poisonous.

“Why poisonous?”, you might ask. Surely a little bit of light-hearted spiritual literature can do nothing but good, bringing a deeper knowledge of yogic tradition and a glimpse into the romantic side of the renunciate lifestyle. But that latter part is a bit of a problem for me. The quasi-escapist notions of wandering the Himalayas, dreaming of spending years in disciplined practice, and sacrificing all physical and emotional attachments for spiritual awakening all seem like a pretty damn good idea. The poison – this beautiful poison – lies in the fact that things are alright at this moment and leaving it all behind would be so very, very hard.

This is not the first time I’ve considered the renunciate lifestyle. When I was 18, I left home quite abruptly and drove to Oregon without a plan. I ended up discovering a hybrid sort of community that is best described as a “spiritual development center”, and spent the better part of a year practicing meditation and studying Yogic philosophy. I took to the practices so well and with such zeal that I felt I might make a good sannyasi (Yogic monk/renunciate). However, life circumstances brought me back in university, where I vowed to complete my degree once and for all before moving onwards. Now I am once again feeling the pull of some sort of devoutly spiritual lifestyle.

It is extremely easy to “forget” about spiritual aspirations when engulfed in the world of youthful university lifestyle. Parties happen, substances happen, music festivals happen, and slowly but surely practices become chipped away. Now that I am able to spend my days in a karma yoga flow, and spending more time per day in meditation, I am being reminded of that which I love so deeply. I am deeply grateful to the amazing people at Sea to Sky Retreat Center for holding such a sacred space. The influence of community is not to be underestimated. No man is an island. Just like water eroding enormous mountains to the ground imperceptibly over time, so is the influence of those we surround ourselves with. I will be the first to admit that my friends are amazing people, and I am grateful for the opportunity to have such beautiful beings in my life. To all of my friends, I love you. I am in no way implying that my life has been negatively influenced by those whom I choose to interact with; rather, a long-brewing realization is starting to crystallize within me: I truly desire to devote my lifestyle to one of single-pointedness, fixation upon a single direction. It is becoming clearer and clearer that this direction will be spirituality. After experiencing and learning for myself the importance of sangha (community), should I be striving to live a lifestyle in which I am interacting with others who share this goal? Swami Rama says:

I have a firm conviction that no one can be enlightened by anyone else, but sages inspire and give inner strength without which self-enlightenment is impossible. In today’s world, human beings do not have any examples to follow. There is no one to inspire them, and that is why enlightenment seems to be so difficult. Great sages are the source of inspiration and enlightenment.

I don’t live in a world where I can walk to a straw hut outside of the city to have audience with a wise old hermit. Quite honestly, I don’t even know if these sages are to be found anywhere in Eastern Asia anymore! I mean, this book was written in 1978 — India has been westernizing, modernizing and capitalism-ing for over forty years since Swami Rama wandered the Himalayas. But his advice in the above quote need not be interpreted so literally. Taken more generally, Swami Rama is advocating here to spend time with spiritual role models and those who are travelling the same path as you so as to stay inspired and challenged.

Is renunciation possible in the west?

As I mentioned, I am not living in India. Canada and the United States are not known for a rich history of wandering sadhus and hermits. Homeless beggars do not get their bowls filled by citizens here. Renunciation is (or was, at least) honoured in India as a noble path. Here, our society is motivated by free-market economics, and if you are without material possessions and reliant on others’ goodwill to survive, you are an abject failure and deserve nothing. I don’t see any way to clearly discern purposeful renunciation with a “failure to thrive”, and thus do not expect that a hypothetical western renunciate would receive special treatment for any reason.

Even if one was to renounce all worldly goods, grab a bowl and a walking stick and begin trekking, things would be more difficult than in the East. We are young. Spiritual civilization basically began in ancient India — there are thousands of years of wisdom teachings and spiritual paths to be handed down in dozens of languages. In other words, there are more teachers, the sages which Swami Rama speaks about. Renouncing in the West is truly blazing one’s own path. In the Rocky Mountains, there will not be that guru in a cave which you seek. Perhaps a bear. This land has a rich history of Native American spirituality, but a systematic genocide by our predecessors has all but erased that. Now we have nothing ancient.

It would seem that running to the East is the only way to renounce in the traditional sense. But wait — that’s not traditional at all! I am not from Bhutan. I do not speak Nepali. The Himalayas are not my backyard. To travel across the world to chase the stories of a different generation is a romantic idea, but I should not be deluded into thinking there is tradition in this decision. On the other hand, the notion of a westerner travelling to the East for a “spiritual journey” is so common as to be cliched these days, meaning that a hypothetical caucasian renunciate would not be so out of place wandering around. More familiarity and friendliness from the locals would go a long way. And language? Well, English is (was?) India’s official language (thanks to British Colonialism), which seems nice in theory. The small villages, especially those surrounding the Himalayas, are full of many local dialects. Learning the language would be an essential task.

Shedding the big attachments

Renouncing, by definition, involves leaving behind all material possessions. The car, the tent, the drum, etc. All things. Meh – no problem! What are things, anyways? The physical aspect is the easy part, though. What about the emotional attachments?

Yogic sannyasi renunciates take a vow to forget their past lives, and are told not to talk about the past life before their renunciation. They even get a new name — they have been born again into a new section of life. Could you leave your significant other behind? How about your mom and dad? Your brothers and sisters? All your friends? Could you do this forever? I don’t know if I could. There’s not much to write on this, but a lot to think about.

The romantic notion of renunciation is also the most superficial aspect. Although wandering between secluded mountain caves and developing esoteric powers from deep meditation is all well and good, there is much hardship. Much. It is truly a difficult path. The lowest rung of Mazlow’s hierarchy — our most basic needs — are dependent upon the flow of the cosmos. With even the slightest doubt in the earnestness of one’s path, it could quickly become dangerous. Unflinching determination and clarity on the goal — tuning fully in to one’s dharma — results in all vital needs being fulfilled. Or so I am told.

Alternatives

Many people have reached enlightenment without needing to subscribe to the lifestyle of the renunciate. (Adyashanti, Gabriel Cousens and Eckhart Tolle come to mind.) For that matter, renouncing is not a pre-requisite for any spiritual attainments. This is vitally important to keep in mind when considering such a drastic path. As always, there is a spectrum of options. One rung down the ladder of austerity is a monk in a monastery. In such a situation, there is minimal material attachment, but food and shelter are not a daily concern. On the other hand, the environment is geographically constricted, and usually goes in tandem with quasi-religious ceremony and ritual, and the daily schedule must be followed (as opposed to created by you). It obviously makes more sense to stay within society while striving to deepen one’s practices, although this task is no easier than any other route to awakening. There is also the route of householder — working in the world while striving to stay unattached to it. The idea of working a job and having a family while successfully practicing non-attachment and selflessness in one’s actions seems incredibly daunting. To me, it almost seems harder than the sannyasi lifestyle!

Hmm. Lots to ponder.

This kind of stuff has been ruminating in my head lately, but I don’t think I’ll be dropping out of school or selling Luna the wondervan anytime soon. (i.e; Don’t worry, mom.) Despite the urgency I am feeling about doing things right now, I am fairly certain I will survive if I wait one more year before doing anything drastic. Hopefully. But I will be moving forward throughout the summer and paying attention to how I could see myself pursuing spirituality in a major way.

– The Silly Sadhaka

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Karma Yoga at Sea to Sky Retreat Center

It was awfully hard to leave the wonders of the hotsprings, but we somehow managed to peel our relaxed bodies out of pools and back into Luna for the continuation of our journey. Then we had a unexpected one-day stopover in Revelstoke when Luna decided to reject her alternator. Finally, after a mildly stressful drive through the epic mountain passes of Highway 99 — which Luna actually did quite commendably — we arrived at the Sea to Sky Retreat Center in Garibaldi Provincial Park, British Columbia.

Wow -- The view from the lakeside at SSRC. Cloudburst Mountain + Daisy Lake + Tibetan flag.

Wow — The view from the lakeside dock at SSRC. Cloudburst Mountain + Daisy Lake + Tibetan flag.

The way of life here is one of Karma Yoga.

Here, our work becomes a spiritual practice of selfless service. We are challenged to remain mindful of the task at hand and to stay in the present moment. Mundane tasks — take, for example, the quintessential ashramic event of chopping wood — become unexpected opportunities to tune into the Self. In the distracted wood chopper, the ego swings this way and that, thoughts roil and churn through the mind. The task is a chore, laborious and uninspiring. The axe swings through the air as the wood chopper thinks of what he wants to eat for dinner. In this manner, thoughts unsynchronized with the task at hand, neither the chopping nor the thinking is done to the fullest potential. Both are unsatisfying and the wood chopper is discontented.

The mindful wood chopper is chopping wood with body and mind. The mind is focused intently on the physical act of aiming the blow and moving the axe in a smooth arc. Chopping wood becomes the object of meditation — just as the breath is during seated practice. The mindful wood chopper trains himself in selflessness, thinking, “I am chopping wood so that the people who dwell here are able to warm and comfort their bodies during winter’s cold. I hope that all beings who suffer coldness of body or spirit find contentedness.” In this way the act of chopping wood transcends “chore” and turns into a beautiful opportunity for awareness of Self and selfless service.

(Ideally.)

The big staircase leading up to our lodging. Note that the steps are set upon one huge tree trunk!

The big staircase leading up to our lodging. Note that the steps are set upon one huge tree trunk!

In real life (outside of the wisdom texts), mindfulness is a constant challenge. It is a great assurance to know that all of the staff here at SSRC are vigilantly striving for mindfulness with limited success. This is not an easy task and nobody will ever say it is! But the location is ripe for encouraging spiritual reflection. The intimate connection with Canada’s thriving rainforest ecosystems acts as community within itself. I feel peaceful here, surrounded by seemingly infinite lifeforms, and it all acts as a continual reminder to keep present in the moment.

The main house of the center, with a kitchen, lounge and bedrooms.

The main house of the center, with a big kitchen, living room and bedrooms.

Nature is our friend. Nature is humanity. And to combine a human spiritual community with the sentient depth of the forest is a potent combination. The pictures on this post capture a few of the facilities on the property at Sea to Sky Retreat Center as well as the natural features of this land. Daisy Lake is totally astounding with Cloudburst mountain behind it. To the south is the Tantalus mountain range, looking rugged and aloof.

Heavy afternoon rainclouds crowd in upon the majesty of Cloudburst Mtn.

Heavy afternoon rainclouds crowd in upon the majesty of Cloudburst Mtn.

So far this place is really great.

There is an ideal work ethic here; it seems to be a blend of personal initiative and responsibility with structure and form. Every day, I know what I have to do and how to do it, but am given the ability to accomplish tasks with a bit of creativity. The staff here are totally open to suggestion and comments about how to build, clean and maintain the facilities and every opinion is considered — this builds confidence and trust within the center.

I was surprised that there are no scheduled meditations here at the center. It truly is karma yoga and the entirety of the spiritual practices here are work-based. One must do their meditation practices independently. Personally, I find immense value in group meditation. There is a saying that my acharya once passed on to me: To truly grow together as a functional community, the members must eat together, work together and meditate together. I don’t think a busy schedule is a valid excuse for not sitting every day. Perhaps I have been biased by my previous experience within community — but I think it’s a good bias!

The center's secondary house, fully equipped for quite a few people. Tucked away gently amidst the forest.

The center’s secondary house, fully equipped for quite a few people. Tucked away gently amidst the forest.

Sustainability and Spirituality

The Sea to Sky Retreat Center is a very low-impact center environmentally. A microhydro system from a strong mountain stream powers the electricity for the whole center. All water consumed here comes from up the hillside from a spring. The buildings are small and efficient, without wasted space. Buddhists from across Canada have volunteered and even donated money into the center, meaning that there is very little expenditures needed to cover labour and work costs. There is even a extensive library of spiritual literature, donated entirely by members of the sangha over time.

A lack of reliance on industrial and metropolitan influences has preserved a delicate and simple energy on this land. The creation of electricity on-site and the local water source provides a deep grounding trust in the giving nature of the land, bringing all people here closer to the source of creation. It is a humbling experience to be surrounded by the rainforest, drinking water from up the hill, warming up by a fire made from an local tree, reading by a lamp powered by water.

The pathway to our lodging crosses this beautiful mountain stream. This same stream is also, via a micro-hydro system, the source of the center's electrical power.

The pathway to our lodging crosses this beautiful mountain stream. This same stream is also, via a micro-hydro system, the source of the center’s electrical power.

Speaking of reading, I have begun reading Living with the Himalayan Masters, a compilation of Swami Rama’s writings and lectures regarding his time as a sage wandering the sacred mountains of northern Asia. THIS IS A MUST-READ! (Do not read if a spontaneous journey to the other side of the world for a few years might do irreparable damage to your life.) To read about the majestic Himalayas is even better when I can look across the lake at our very own mountain range and dream of wandering the hillsides with a staff and a robe…

I may have had a previous life of a renunciate. Or maybe it’ll be this life. Who knows 🙂

We have about 25 people coming in today for an 8-day long Yoga Teacher Training, so the next week will be full-on retreat engagement mode. I like the daily flow during retreats – there are very specific roles we all must do, and it keeps me busy. But not too busy. I will continue to find time for morning sadhana, hopefully evening as well. I keep on thinking of inspiring thoughts I’d like to share on this blog, but when I sit down to write they flutter away.

I have a question: Have any of you experienced mindful labour like the ideal karma yoga I described above?

 

 

Spiritual Urgency: Have you felt the burn?

I’ve been reading “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness in Plain English”, a great book by Bhante Gunaratana. (He has also written “Mindfulness in Plain English”, a classic and essential book for those looking to initiate or energize an existing meditation regime, and the foundational book for the Four Foundations.)

This short book takes the concepts of mindfulness meditation (also known as insight or Vipassana meditation within Buddhist circles) and expands them – via the Buddha’s four foundations – into tools and techniques to develop mindfulness “off the cushion”. It’s worth a read. Anyhow, the author defines a unique feeling he calls “spiritual urgency”:

As we meditate, certain special feelings may arise. One of these is called “spiritual urgency”. We see clearly that pain arises and pain disappears; pleasure arises and pleasure disappears. As we watch this repeating pattern, an insight arises that as long as we take birth in any form, we will continue to suffer. This insight inspires us to accelerate our spiritual practice and find a way to end this vicious cycle of birth and death right now, once and for all.

Ever since I began my journey into spiritual practice, I have been followed by a sensation of immediacy – anything from a gentle inner challenge to an earth shattering, un-ignorable, apocalyptic urgency .When I was previously involved within spiritual community, dedicating much time to meditation and mindfulness, I felt a comfortable level of spiritual urgency. This might manifest as a desire to maintain a sharper mind through my sadhana, or an urge to wake up earlier to meditate longer. I felt a gentle inner challenge to move towards mindfulness.

BUT – all this changed when I came back from my initial stay at the ashram and re-enrolled in university. I was in a different world, with old friends to catch up with, new people to meet, love interests to pursue, clubs and sports, and a plethora of other attractive options. Within half a year, my practice was faltering and inconsistent. [Note: This is not an excuse. Meditation needs no special consideration – it can be done in anyone’s life, no matter how busy/exciting. I dropped the ball.]

This is when I began to learn a profound insight: Once our spiritual urgency has been deeply felt and sincerely followed, we must not turn back.

It’s too late. You are down the rabbit hole. You have realized that the only Truth, and the only permanence, lies within union to the universe. To try and make any attempts towards satisfaction in any other realm – no matter how initially appealing and productive – will never quell the fire of spiritual urgency. They may, perhaps, cover the flames and even reduce the fire to smoldering embers, but eventually whatever distraction placed over top of the True Desire will be converted into fuel for a raging inferno churning upwards into the Infinite.

The thing is, this spiritual urgency is not something suddenly awakened through deep meditation. It is present – and has been present – in every human on this planet. We are all trying to fill this void, whether we know it or not. We’re all on the same path, whether we know it or not. As the old Japanese saying goes, “There are many paths to the top of the mountain, but the view of the moon from the top is the same.” The main point separating our universal desire for liberation from “spiritual urgency” is that of awareness. If we happen to be at a point in our journeys where we can recognize spiritual urgency for what it is, then take action now, because rest assured we are destined to keep feeling the inner inferno burn until we take action and deeply integrate spiritual practice into our lives. You now know this path you are on is going to be summiting that mountain over there. May as well get prepared for the hike.